Life Imitates Art Imitates Ice Cream

In 1994 and 1995, I was one of two schoolteachers on the set of the Nickelodeon show The Adventures of Pete and Pete. One of the recurring characters on the show was Mr. Tastee, the mysterious, masked ice cream man whose comings and goings were as unpredictable and inscrutable as…

…well, as a real ice cream man, it turns out. For the couple of months, I’ve been trying to track down West Chester’s elusive ice cream truck. And it’s been maddening. Everyone knows about the truck in West Chester, but nobody knows, you know, where to find it. Or when. I even enlisted the help of the police, but with no luck. You’ll be out in front of your house, pulling weeds, and you’ll hear the chimes in the distance: “deedle-dee-deedle, dee dee, dee dee…” and you’ll run (no kidding RUN) around the corner, and you’ll see the square white tail end of the truck disappearing down the alley five blocks north, never to return. That happened to me two weeks in a row — the second time, Kate and I jumped in the sidecar rig and zoomed all around, but the earth had swallowed the truck up. Or it had cleverly gone through a Cannonball Run carwash and turned into a vegetable truck. Or something.

Today, the third time was the charm — we heard the chimes, and Lydia and I jumped into the car, zoomed around the corner, and picked up the truck. We followed it for three blocks, watching people coming out of their houses with money in their hands, only to be left in the dust as the truck zoomed around each corner. Lydia was delighted: “Catch it, daddy! CATCH THE TRUCK!”

I considered flashing my lights and honking my horn to ask the guy to, you know, pull over, but while I’ve been Googling on the subject of ice cream trucks, I came across this store selling supplies to ice cream truck drivers. Click on the “bumper stickers” link on that page, and you’ll see defensive, hard-bitten evidence that (apparently) everyone gives the ice-cream truck a hard time: “PLAYING THE CHIME” reads one “…IS NOT A CRIME.” “DON’T BE A WHIPPY-DIP-A-LICKY!” Sheesh, I had no idea that ice cream trucks were one of those intersections between civilized and uncivilized, between the forces of light and chaos, etc.

The truck stopped in front of two kids on the sidewalk (why them? Why these two kids?), and we parked behind it and got out. The chimes through the speaker, plus the roar of the refrigeration unit, were so loud that a man MOWING HIS LAWN stopped his gas-powered lawnmower and grimaced. Okay, I understand some of the bumper stickers now.

The ice cream truck FOUND AT LAST

Approaching the dark, mysterious window, shouting over the chimes and the roaring, diesel-powered freezer unit, I explained all about the Guerilla Drive-In, about our need for a mobile concession stand, and asked the driver for his business card. He didn’t have one, but he tore a corner from one of his posters and wrote his phone number on it. Reaching out from the shadowy interior, he smiled and handed it to me.

The driver’s name? Zeno.

Yes, Zeno, just like the Pre-Socratic Greek Philosopher that believed that all motion is an illusion, and that an arrow in flight will never reach its target. Are you FREAKING KIDDING ME? Let’s just quickly recap here:

    Zeeno's Paradox

  • The “mysterious ice cream man” is already a little bit of a cliche, but for perfectly good reasons — in an age where any nugget of information is just a Google search away, the ice cream truck is a rolling parable of asynchronous elusiveness. The ice cream truck is the exact opposite of the Internet.
  • It’s not enough just to hear the truck, or see the truck — your intention must be pure; your faith must by perfect. Or maybe you just need to be exactly at the right place at exactly the right time. This is the exact opposite of a demand-driven retail environment. With the ice-cream truck, the customer is often wrong — just a chump standing on the corner with an unspent five-dollar bill and a whiff of diesel dying in the breeze.
  • Add to that the evidence that the ice-cream man is something of an outlaw, as evidenced by the grimaces of the stolid suburban lawnmowers and the plentiful defensive bumper stickers sold to ice-cream truck drivers. Revered by some, reviled by others — hell, it’s the story of Jesse James all over again.
  • Okay, we’ve already got enough cheap irony and facile parallels here for a DOZEN blog posts, but then our ice-cream truck driver’s namesake turns out to be the AUTHOR OF THE PARADOX OF THE ARROW, which leads a part of me to actually suspect that, by cranking his truck up to thirty and zooming through town, careening around corners, he’s trying to teach us something about the unreliable evidence of our senses. I’m not even kidding, here — four times in the past two months, I’ve GLIMPSED the ice-cream truck, sometimes halving the distance between me and it — BUT NEVER QUITE REACHING IT. If there had been ice cream trucks in ancient Greece, I’m pretty sure that the “Paradox of the Arrow” would involve a soft-serve cone and the sound of chimes carried over that wine-dark sea.

A better writer than I could tie this up into a neat package both on the grand and the micro scale. E.B. White could have done it with a third the ingredients and a hundred times the impact, teaching the reader something about themself in the process, and maybe throwing in an anecdote about dogs. What do I have? The uneasy impression that — no, seriously — OUR ICE CREAM MAN IS REALLY A WARLOCK. Or a renegade philosophy professor, trying a praxis-based approach to wean us from habitual Platonic faith in the effectiveness of rational, deductive constructs.

Well, to bring things back to earth here, Zeno was a very affable bearded young man, and I have no doubt that he works DAMN hard at his job. He seemed interested in the project of mounting a GPS unit on his truck, so we can play around with an internet-enabled locator beacon. But if I do that, I’m pretty sure that I’ll just have ended up roping down a piece of mystery and making the world a little bit more mundane.

But maybe Zeno’s magic is stronger than a hundred bucks’ worth of satellite patch antenna and a Google Maps mashup. Maybe the transmitted GPS signal will show the truck as being simultaneously in every place and no place. That’s what I’d like to think will happen.

One response to “Life Imitates Art Imitates Ice Cream”

  1. john, desperate to locate photographer julie gottesman. freelancing for the nytimes and need her permission to run a photo of hers in wednesday’s paper! thanks very much for any help, or have her call me direct at
    917 557 0595. you might mention it’s for a story on Florent


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