Monday, May 21, 2012

The Ice Cream Guy

It is a cold and damp day here.

And I am looking out the window at a sky that has been slate-gray since last evening. Spitting rain. Raw. A breeze that belies the May designation on the calendar. Not very spring-like at all.

And a moment or two ago, my ears caught a the sound of a slightly off-key calypso tune. A bouncy marimba. And the tinny melody of a steel drum.

From around the bend in front of our property came a brightly colored truck emblazoned with pictures of frozen delights and sugary goodness.

The Ice Cream Guy.

What an anachronism. It is, at present, 68 degrees and cloudy with an unfriendly wind coming in from the east, according to And I don't think the thermometer has budged from its clammy position all day.

And yet, the Ice Cream Guy, being the eternal optimist, is wending his way through our neighborhood.

The Caribbean soundtrack to which he is selling his wares has now shifted; it is now "Jesus Loves the Little Children," played with a swinging beat more appropriate to something accompanying a Spongebob cartoon.

Many delivery services from my childhood have faded away. I do remember my parents having milk delivered by a milkman. The company was Sealtest, which is now owned by the multinational firm Parmalat. But back then, it was embodied by a guy in a white coat and hat who brought glass bottles to our back door on a regular basis, right out of a black and white episode of Hazel on TV.

I also remember what scotched our participation in this service: One morning, my mother found a rock that had accidentally sunk to the bottom of one of the bottles and, citing sanitary concerns, she started buying all our milk from the supermarket.

I'm fairly sure we weren't the sole cause, but it does seem that soon after that incident, the Sealtest delivery service as a whole faded into the history books.

And of course, in the realm of home deliveries there were also paperboys.

I was a paperboy, for the now-defunct Philadelphia Evening Bulletin (RIP). It actually wasn't my route per se. It belonged to my best friend Joe, but when he vacated our neighborhood each summer for the Jersey Shore, I took it over. In September when he returned, we then split the route and shared the profits.

I had a large canvass bag that had the Bulletin logo stamped on it, and that bag was iron-tough. It withstood summers hot and winters cold and even the anvil weight of each of the Thanksgiving Day editions of the paper, traditionally the year's largest (stuffed with Christmas ads).

I rode my trusty Schwinn on these deliveries and can only dream now of the rock-solid muscles I had back then. Thighs that were drum tight from the miles of pedaling. And forearms like Popeye's from heaving those papers to each front porch, sometimes in rapid-fire succession. The end of my route was a series of row homes and they required laser precision to hit each stoop: Bam! Bam! Bam! Bam! To have to stop and retrieve a misplaced paper was the mark of a rank amateur, and I made sure to learn my craft with skill and agility to prevent having to u-turn my way in total humiliation and rescue a paper from a bush or hedge.

In trying to keep profits at a maximum, we would try to keep expenses at a minimum, meaning that if the weather were dry and the breeze was gentle, a paperboy could get by just tucking one end of the paper into the other (the "open" end into the "finished" end) and skip using a rubber band, thereby saving a few pennies on each paper. But multiplied by the dozens of papers on each route, over the course of a week, it could put some serious cash into the pocket of a 14 year-old.

But the tuck-in technique was fraught with peril, as a paper that shimmied loose in mid-flight meant a veritable explosion of newsprint, as the sections scattered onto a front lawn like an unfortunate ticker-tape parade.

Always the gamble: Tuck or bands?

Rain meant plastic bags. Which not only meant more expenses but also more time, as each paper had to be folded and then nestled inside its protective cover.

I learned some fundamental business concepts through that route. Mostly by osmosis. The weekly charge for The Evening Bulletin was a whopping $1.40. And that meant rapping on doors to collect the fee. But it also meant tips, and a $2 payment on a $1.40 bill represented good earnings back then.

Part of the route involved a nearby apartment building, and on collection day, it was extremely common to find an elderly resident at home--alone--answering the door with a game show or talk program blaring in the living room. It didn't take much insight to realize that quite often, I was the only human being this person had interacted with 1:1 that entire day.

And so I'd be invited in for idle chit-chat (when I think of the safety issues now, I shudder; but as I've said here before, it was a different time and place than we currently reside). And the reward for just providing a few moments of an open ear to hear about a grandchild or a recent trip to the grocery store was often a big, fat tip. So I learned to smile a lot, be polite, and listen.

But back to our Ice Cream Guy. 

I suppose there's something to be said for his optimism, even on such a dismal day.

In rounding his last bend through our neighborhood, he was stopped by a group of kids with dollar bills clenched in their fists, ready for a pre-summer treat, even if the calendar and the thermometer declared them premature.

Hope does indeed spring eternal!

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