I was living in a house off campus the summer of 2007 and needed a job to keep enough beer and food in my fridge to last til September. I took a number of jobs that summer — liquor store stocker, bowling alley attendant, sandwich maker, theatre technician — but by far, the worst job I had was the two weeks I spent as an ice cream man in Carteret, NJ.
“Ice cream man? How could that be a bad job?,” you probably didn’t ask aloud just now. But I did, when I first saw the job posted on Craigslist. All I saw ahead of me was a summer full of sun, frozen dairy confections, and smiling children, with a fat wallet stuffed with cash and long, warm nights full of cold beer. How could that be a bad job?
The red flags started springing up as soon as I walked out my door. I was without a car that summer, and couldn’t bring the ice cream truck home with me, so my commute was entirely done on public transit. It was two hours each way, and involved two buses, a train, a two-mile walk, and a cab. Needless to say, I had a lot to learn about making my way in the world at that point in my life, but nevertheless, I made that trek every day.
After two hours spent in every greasy hole on wheels NJ Transit could think to stick me in, I finally arrived at the truck depot in New Brunswick, where my truck awaited with a whole new set of red flags proudly flapping. I had to pick it up there and drive it another 45 minutes north to Carteret. The truck was recently bought off someone the manager found on Craigslist, and I quickly came to understand why he got it so cheap. The engine required a jump start to turn on, which meant once I left the lot, it couldn’t be turned off until I got back at the end of the day. My lunches those two weeks were all brought from home or purchased at a drive thru window.
I couldn’t leave the truck either, as the locks didn’t work, but staying inside the truck turned out to be an exercise in footwork worthy of an NFL running back. A massive hole had opened up in the floor of the front footwells, making every time I moved from the driver’s seat to the selling window a nimble dance. I lost buckets of change and ice cream products to that hole, and to the oil-stained streets of New Jersey.
But even that severe OSHA violation was a welcome distraction from the endless repeat of “Do Your Ears Hang Low?” I listened to for fourteen days. My truck’s horn had two settings: “Do Your Ears Hang Low?” and some other song I couldn’t place. The second setting was malfunctioning, and played about half a step flat from its intended pitch, turning what should have been a cheery summer standard into a funereal death march for some ancient, eldritch daemon lord. Children seem to flee from the horns of their impending doom, so “Do Your Ears Hang Low?” it was.
All that was quickly forgotten, however, once I got to Carteret and my adoring throngs of fat, sweaty children. It doesn’t matter if you grew up a skinny nerd or the school’s prize jock, you’re never as popular as you are when you’re operating an ice cream truck. Children shot out of their front doors like bullets, shoving each over onto lawns and sidewalks to get to me. Multiple times they almost got hit by traffic as they bolted across the street, heeding naught else but my bright colors and the promise of frozen sugar in their immediate futures.
I discovered a few tips to the ice cream man game, all of which make me ashamed:
1) Children are addicts. Once a kid gets his first taste, he’ll be back day after day. It helps to lay out a pre-planned route and schedule and stick to it every day, to give their dependencies a sense of regularity.
2) Once a mother breaks, she is yours forever. Kids don’t have their own money, so they rely on whichever parent is at home to lend them a few bucks. Mothers usually fight it at first: “Ok, just this once.” “It’s just a treat!” “You haven’t even eaten dinner yet!” But eventually, if you stick to the schedule and show up at the same time every day, the kid will wear on her enough to break her. The only sight sweeter to an ice cream man than the smiling faces of children is the defeated look of a mother buying her kid an ice cream sandwich for the third day in a row.
3) Fathers don’t need any convincing. If you see a dad, you’ve got a guaranteed sale over ten dollars.
4) Poor neighborhoods buy way more ice cream than rich neighborhoods. Carteret had two very distinct sides of town, a poor side and a rich side. One had driveways, lawns, and houses; the other had run down apartments and some boarded up buildings. I made a pass through the lawn side of town once a day, every day, for two weeks. That entire time, I made one sale. It was to a father and his daughter. He bought each of them a bar, and then enough ice cream to fill his freezer for a week. The apartment side of town, however, is where the kids ran screaming through their front windows at the first sight of me and tripped each other to be first in line. In sales, consistency is always better than quantity.
All these tricks led me to one apartment complex in particular every day. I would show up around 2:30 PM, and by the third day, the kids were out there waiting for me, Mom’s cash in hand. I killed it there, raking in half my profits for the day. I couldn’t get the ice cream out the window fast enough, and multiple times had to deal with kids opening my unlockable doors to come inside and grab the ice cream themselves. I shudder to think what would have happened if they discovered the hole in the floor. In this apartment complex, I was king.
One day, at the beginning of the second week, I was about an hour late to my little gold mine. I rolled in, anxious to get my sales, worried that the kids might have forgotten about me in the hour long wait. Yet there they were, with looks on their faces that suggested the delay had devolved their minds to a rabid, canine-like state. For once, the mothers were angry at me for not showing up sooner to sate their addicted little monsters. I was shoved fistfuls of cash, children were happy to just have any cold dairy product in their hands. My mind was so caught up in processing the sales that I didn’t notice the shadow spreading out across the line of kids, approaching from my right. It was only when the mothers snatched up their children and ran in fear that I was aware something was amiss.
I looked right just in time to duck my upper body back into my truck to avoid another ice cream truck slowly rolling in not two inches in front of my window, making it impossible for anyone to approach me. The truck came to a stop, a smiling ice cream cone painted on the side filling up my window. Furious, I exited through the driver’s side door, narrowly missing the hole in the floor in my rage. I came around to the truck’s window to find the kids and mothers had already set me aside for this new seller who had tried to run them down not seconds ago.
I cut my way to the front of the line to confront this new driver. The inside of his truck was dark, lit only by a small, amber bulb. A dark, hulking mass rose up inside at the sight of me, lit from behind so I couldn’t make out his features.
“HEY! What’s your problem, man, you almost hit these kids!”
He moved to his passenger side door, so I went to confront him there.
“I was selling here first, get out of– ” Then the door opened directly into my nose. I jerked my head back just enough that it was only a bump, yet still disorienting enough. He ducked out of his vehicle and rose, and rose, and rose. I’m a big man – 6 feet, 2 inches – but this guy towered over me. His black, greasy hair tumbled down to his shoulders, a mass of curls hidden under a blue baseball cap emblazoned with the faded out name of some 1990's fundraiser. His torso resembled a rotten pear that had begun to sag with gravity, two soft man breasts swinging lightly with every footstep under his orange shirt that stretched out across his slumping belly. His cargo shorts looked like they were a camouflage pattern, but that might have just been the mosaic of old stains across the front. Over his face was a patchwork of neglected stubble that covered quivering jowls and a mouth that never stopped twitching. His beady eyes peered out at me from within dark, deep sockets, two points of light in an abyss of pitch.
He stepped from the truck and towards me, sticking his lower lip directly into my face ... and just stood there, staring at me with an expression that was equal parts confusion, rage, and shock.
After a moment, I spoke up again. “...I was here first, man, you’ve got to get out of here–”
The troll spoke. “I have been here, at this apartment complex, at 3:30 every day for the past eighteen years. You’ve been cutting into my sales the past week. Don’t come back.”
I looked behind him, to the gathering crowd of parents and children, for some kind of backup or support. I saw nothing but blank faces. The pack was waiting for the alphas to have it out.
“Alright, well, that’s great, but I'm here now, and it’s a free country, and you can’t just claim this spot– ”
“–If I ever see you again, I’ll drag you out of your truck, kick the shit out of you, take all your money, and slash your tires.”
I was taken a bit aback at that. Was my physical well-being just threatened by an ice cream man? Did that really happen? I recovered myself and came back at him.
“Yeah, well, you’re welcome to try!” He immediately turned back inside his truck, closed the door, and resumed selling, completely ignoring my protests. “Hey! You can’t do this, it’s a free country! Get out of here!” I was promptly drowned out by the resumed screams of the kids for ice cream. I appealed to their parents, “This guy nearly ran over your children and threatened me in front of them! He’s probably got razor blades in his ice cream!” but was met with silence. They had turned on me, these little mongrels and their wretched, broken mothers. As it became increasingly clear that I had been replaced and cast aside, I resigned myself to defeat, and moved to another section of town. I did alright the remainder of the day, but the earlier shaming cast a dark light on the rest of my sales.
The next day, I thought I’d one up my competitor and show up an hour earlier, as I had been the week before. Yet the pack remembered, and not a single eager child rushed up to me, not even the fat ones. The mothers glared at me from their windows and front doors, holding their children back. I made another round in the complex’s parking lot to no effect. Finally, near the exit, I spied three girls playing on the sidewalk with dolls. I stopped next to them.
“Hey, kids! Anyone want some ice cream?”
“Come on, guys, I’ve got an ice cream sandwich with your name on it!”
They completely ignored me.
“Seriously, what do I have to do here? 2-for-1?”
“We saw you yesterday.” A response! Great, I could work with this.
“Oh, that guy? Don’t worry about that, we were just having a talk. It was grown up stuff. He won’t mind if you–”
“–You’re not supposed to be here.” The little girl doing the talking stood up and looked at me.
“No, it’s fine, trust me–”
“–He told us not to buy from you.”
“Girls, I’ve got a bunch of ice-cold ice cream here, first one’s on the house!”
One of the girls stood up and started to approach me at the offer of free treats, but the first girl stopped her, staring her down. The girl sat and stared at her doll.
“You’d better go.”
I kept trying, but was met with only more silence and the cold stare of a stubborn child. I had lost these kids, heart, mind, and mom's purse. I switched off my siren and drove away in defeat. I heard a thud as I reached the street. I looked into the rear view mirror, looking for a child’s body on the pavement, but saw only a Barbie doll rolling on the pavement behind me, and the little girls warming up their other dolls for another pitch. There is no refusal more inarguable than little girls throwing their dolls at you until you go away.
I ran into my competitor one more time, outside of a Little League game, where he pulled the same trick on me. That was my last day. When I got home that night, I took a hard look at the time and money I was putting into simply commuting to this job, plus the costs of all my supplies (I had to pay for my own gas and ice cream), versus my profits, and realized I had made a net gain of $20 over the past two weeks. Wolf pack pride quickly lost to real world financial solvency, and I got a temp job the next week. At that job, I worked in an air-conditioned office with lovely middle-aged real estate appraisers who were only eager to show the one person in their office below the age of 35 that they were cool, too. The only time I had to resort to alpha male dominance was in contests for the last donut on Friday mornings.
One of Stupidity’s greatest allies is stupid, stupid Pride. It’s the emotion that will tell you that trying to face down a greasy shut-in who has been an ice cream man for eighteen years is a good idea, that little girls throwing Barbie dolls at your truck are a group of people worth fighting for. Sometimes, though, giving up is the only way to move forward, to a better situation. It’s a lesson that goes against everything you’ve been taught by Hollywood, fairy tales, and Saturday morning cartoons since you were old enough to comprehend media, but it’s an important lesson to learn nonetheless. Since then, I’ve held a number of other jobs, but none quite as stupid as mobile ice cream dealer. I’ve learned that stepping back can oftentimes allow you to step forward, that some brick walls are just not worth breaking through.
And I’ve never once heard “Do Your Ears Hang Low?” since my two weeks in Carteret, NJ. Either I'm lucky or my ears tuned it out so well that I’m permanently deaf to it.