About a month into my new job, that same ice cream jingle everyone knows and loves started sounding to me like some sweaty Christmas song stuck on the wrong side of the year. Which made me feel, I guess, like summer Santa Claus.
Six weeks earlier, I had called the number on the side of the neighborhood ice cream truck. I asked if they were hiring. As it happened, they were. They always are. And after watching a 10-minute training video, I got the job.
The trucks all sat in a barbed-wire lot in the industrial wasteland north of Denver called Commerce City, beneath a haze of trash stink from the dump across the highway. It’s the dark side of the joy.
Seeing the trucks there for kids must be like stumbling upon the mall Santa smoking a cigarette on the loading dock after putting that “BACK IN 20 MINUTES” sign on the red velvet chair.
My mornings would start like this: I saw the yard manager to get my assignment. He always wore the same black gym shorts, black tank top, black tennis shoes, and black pony tail with four black rubber bands. I never really got his name, but I do know he was from New Jersey and he hated his wife.
“There she is bustin my fuggin bawls for a vacation,” he said once. “What the hellam I supposta do? It’s the heart of summer. I told ’er I’ll take her someplace for the holidays.” He shook his head. “Maybe divo’ce court.”
Then he handed me the keys and said, “Take 18 today, kid.”
I'd then have to check my freezer to ensure I was flush on Choco Tacos, Rocket Pops, Giant Ice Cream Sandwiches. Then we all would wait in line to fill up on gas, because there weren't fuel gauges. We refilled every morning. Some drivers washed their trucks while they waited — but the grime never came off, so I never did.
I'd test the speaker to make sure the ice cream jingle rings out clear. The other drivers tested theirs, too. We were like a herd of dairy cattle calling out to each other in the field. It’s a regular goddamn chorus of happiness.
Finally, I'd sling the door open and putter off to my designated area. Guys that drive for 20 years get the good neighborhoods — I was a rookie — so they'd give me the suburban sprawl where kids don’t play in the streets anymore because they’re down in the basement playing video games.
When it was quiet I drive around looking at mansions, imagining housewives desperate for creamsicles. I also hoped for sports games. Peewee baseball games. Shit, those are the money-makers. I dream on them.
Eventually, I had business cards made up. I could do private parties, I thought. Someone calls at 2:00 a.m. asking if I have rocky road with cherries on top and/or cocaine? … that really was the only business I got from the cards.
One day, I was robbed. I was taking a nap in the park because there aren’t any sports games around. I heard a rustling in my truck. I sat up and saw a pair of chubby legs sticking out of my freezer. I yelled some kind of profanity, and a kid popped out with an ice cream sandwich in each hand. He fell over his sneakers trying to get to his bike, dropping one of the sandwiches. Little bastard got away with the other. The episode cost me $3.25.
All drivers had to return to the lot by sunset to hand New Jersey his wholesale cut. On my best day I made $132. On my worst, $31. Which is good for about four whiskey sodas at the Commerce City Holiday Inn.
So one time, I was sitting at the Commerce City Holiday Inn trying to forget about my crap payday. I couldn't get the damn ice cream jingle out of my head.
Maybe it’s the whiskey, but I kept seeing Santa Clauses walking around the lobby. They loitered in red suspenders, pouring complimentary coffee, checking the news on their phones. It was still hot and the plump old men are sweaty.
I asked the bartender about it and he said it was some kind of convention. Preparation for the holidays six months away. These Santas were on the wrong side of the year, for sure. I gave one a business card. I wrote on the back: FOR SANTA, ONE FREE CHOCO TACO.