Monday, November 2, 2009

We All Scream for Ice Cream

I can still remember, quite clearly, my first encounter with an ice cream truck. Growing up in the rural outskirts of suburbs surrounding metropolitan DC, I suppose the houses were spread a bit too far from each other for the average hard-working ice cream vendor to make his profit worthwhile. So for some time, the entire institution of mobile ice cream distribution was a completely alien concept to me.

One day in the midst of my eighth or ninth year, I was over at a friend’s house; she lived in a typical townhouse complex, clustered around a typical community pool. We were playing outside when I started to hear this strange lilting sound far off in the distance; it was verging on resembling a melody, and it’s compressed, twinkly notes were growing closer. Confused but intrigued, I froze, cocking an ear in a vain attempt to better decipher the sound waves. I turned to my classmate, inquiring what that crazy noise could possibly be, and she just stared back at me as if I had just told her my limbs were made of ice cream. “Um… That’s the ice cream truck…” she responded slowly, as if it couldn’t be more painstakingly obvious. Ice cream truck? You mean, they bring the ice cream to you?” Thus far in my young life, my experiences with ice cream acquisition were limited to parlor-served cones or store-bought cartons. I contemplated the information for a moment, mouth agape, but this brief musing was quickly dissipated; I excavated a few coins from my grubby, grade school backpack and eagerly stampeded towards the musical promise of a sweet, cold reward.

During the first year I spent living in Baltimore, I found myself residing in the infamous Pigtown of the southwest section of the city. I was sharing a rowhouse with a formerly significant other, as well as sharing in the overwhelmingly limitless task of renovating and rehabilitating that rundown piece of property. Living in Pigtown, there was not a night that went by, whose air remained untainted with playful music box jingles, for probably at least nine months out of the year. Perhaps there are considerably fewer children living in the Bolton Hill neighborhood, to which I later migrated and currently reside, but I can only recall ever hearing the distinctive presence of an ice cream truck on one solitary occasion. In Pigtown, there were also at least three or maybe even four different trucks out there making the rounds; I could tell them apart from the slightly different songs they played, each one an almost painfully familiar tune from the realm of public domain. I was particularly appreciative of these frequently attendant dairy merchants during the hottest summer peaks, as our un-insulated kitchen and functionally inferior freezer unit made it impossible to keep store-bought ice cream from dissolving into a liquid mess. Especially within that oppressively hot heart of the summer, the fleet would cycle those streets sometimes until well past three in the morning. Naturally, I do harbor the suspicion that these particular entrepreneurs are also peddling something a bit stronger than ice cream. And although most would probably consider this an immoral detriment to the community, on an ethical level perhaps that’s true, but as far as the community dynamic was concerned, this additional fact only drew people closer together, as adults and children alike could be easily coaxed out into the street by the siren’s wail of ice cream melodies. And unlike most commercial establishments we are accustomed to these days, it is still a one-man job, leaving the waiting customers to stand idly around and to hopefully perhaps even engage in an otherwise unprovoked communication with their associates by proximity.

Say what you will about Pigtown, but I couldn’t help but sense a spirit of community there, as rather unconventional as it might be. There were always people planted on stoops, whether they belonged to someone else or not, the schoolchildren would gather together, flocking to school en masse, and nameless, unknown neighbors would often acknowledge me with a nod or a greeting, simply because of the repetition of visual recognition. Most inhabitants of our immediate area seemed to know each other, as many had lived in this neighborhood for numerous years, if not generations. (We even knew some of our local crackheads by name as well.) Now, I’m not saying that community atmosphere has anything to do with the frequent patrol of ice cream trucks in the area, but I do believe the persistent existence of them is made possible because the community is knit in such a way, that persists an atmosphere receptive to such interactions.

The eagerly anticipated arrival of an ice cream truck drags people from the isolation of indoors, not only coaxing them into the street, but also uniting individuals with a common, albeit inconsequential, goal. The key to the ice cream truck’s effectiveness in gathering neighbors together is the very limited time frame containing their visit. It is not something anyone but the truck driver himself can plot or schedule, and so it forces people to drop what they are doing more immediately than any other urban function I can think of. Neighbors might on the off chance cross each other’s paths in their day-to-day comings and goings, but the likelihood that timing could be coincidentally synchronized is usually quite slim. The inviting wail of an ice cream truck sets forth a solid, concrete reason for neighbors to converge in the same place at the same time. I’m sure it also doesn’t hurt that the overall cultural perception of ice cream is as a treat, an indulgence, or a reward. Isn’t everyone a good deal more sociable when there are tasty desserts involved? There is something so satisfyingly casual about the endeavor; it is an activity virtually free of the traditional pressures of the outside world. So the ice cream man beckons his surrounding citizens out of their domestic fortresses of solitude, and into the street, irresistibly plunging neighbors together, bound by common sweet teeth. Even if these neighbors are already on friendly terms, every little piece of interaction weaves another tiny thread of community tighter. Because even if gathering around the dull glow of a buzzing ice cream truck window only elicits idle chitchat between neighbors, it still fosters a social and visual recognition among the population, encouraging opportunities for deeper levels of community interaction. I believe the key community-driving success behind the ice cream truck industry lies in its own triviality. Overly deliberate intentions of rousing community spirit and involvement often prove to be awkwardly labored in their execution, like somebody is trying too hard to bind community members together under legitimate, albeit artificially contrived circumstances. As productive community socialization performs best when functioning as the unintended result of seemingly happenstance encounters, I think the most beneficial neighborly interactions manifest when we least expect it.

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