Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Dominic's Bells

May, 2009

By Peter Rodman

“The Ice Cream Man! The Ice Cream Man! Oh, Mom….please?”

He was not just any ice cream man... 
He knew every kid by name, and no matter what street game or baseball card ‘flip’ he interrupted when driving by, he seemed perfectly attuned to his pint-sized customers. Despite the fact that we were just kids, he treated us all like old friends, each with a story all our own.
The bells were as real as police sirens were, back then--five or six *actual* silver bells, which hung above the front windshield, operated by a simple dirty pull-string, from the driver’s seat of the small, white ‘Frosty Bar’ truck.
‘Dominic’ was his name, and he’d knowingly coast through our Long Island suburb (appropriately called ‘Plainview’) not once, but twice a day, at his peak.

He spoke our language, and could calculate for you instantly your maximum affordable treat that day.
His waxy green cups of ‘Italian ice’ came in every flavor imaginable, and he never went a day without fully re-stocking even the most obscure delights.
Root Beer Italian Ice?
“I got it,” he’d proudly say, bustling around the side window of the refrigerated truck.
Coconut Crunch Bar?
“Of course! Don’t you know me, by now?”
How about that new Cake bar?
“Come on!!" he’d say, “Who’s got everything!”
He did, that's who!

The ice cream was never stale; the choices were never few.
Most folks today will be offered whatever the guy happens to have, no matter how long it’s been there.

Dominic was different; very different.
He prided himself on knowing everyone’s favorite, and almost before the truck came to a stop, he’d have each group of kids' array of pops handy, flailed like a frozen deck of cards, in a single olive-skinned hand, richly bronzed by the sun, shining down on his truck.

In the days before central air conditioning, we’d sometimes run straight up to the small white truck, just to feel the glorious fog of refrigeration coming full-boar at us, out the window.
Dom’s fancier items were thirty five cents, back then. (That’d be your ‘Sundae on a Stick,’ for example.)
After a hard day of stoop-ball in the blazing sun, somewhere between 2:25 and 2:35, you’d hear those (real) bells, chiming ‘just so,’ in the distance.

Like Dominic himself, they were slow and steady.
But the truth is, he was always checking his watch, and racing to get the transactions done, because his signature trait was arriving in each and every neighborhood at precisely the same time every day.

Sometimes, in a mad desire for the ultimate sugar rush, you'd try to pry the entire Italian Ice loose from its cup, and flip it upside down--so you could get to the intense, half-inch sweet-flakes (which we called "The Crisp") at the bottom. More than once, Dom agreed to replace my ice for free, after I'd clumsily flipped the whole thing to the ground, diggin' for that sugar at the bottom of a 'cherry ice.' But he made no bones about being in business for business, and his generosity had its limits.
Again...lessons learned.

Our summer days were filled with far more sophisticated dealings than our parents could ever fathom. We’d ‘flip’ (read: gamble) our baseball card collections in elaborately devised schemes, sometimes way beyond the basics of matching colors or teams, and into positions, averages, triples hit, or a combination thereof--so complicated that the ‘pot’ could grow to sixty or seventy cards at times, before the winner took all.
So let’s not romanticize those days as somehow “innocent.”
Fact is, we were ruthless little gamblers, willing to devise the most complicated set of rules possible, in order to take home that winner’s pile by mid-day, before the actual playing of street-ball began.
I can now sadly reveal that I sometimes made foolish wagers on purpose, just to make my friends happy--so glad was I to be included at all, in the proceedings. I'm still that way.
With the Yankees down by two runs in the bottom of the eighth, I’d suddenly say, “I’ll bet they win!”
Then would come the knowing glances, in the downstairs den of whomever's house it was.
A long pause, and then...
“Really, Rodman?” (We always called each other by last name. It seemed to confer a toughness, upon our scrawny little seven and eight year old personas.)
“Yup! In fact, I’ll bet you Hector Lopez homers,” I’d say.
At this point, the bet would have to be made official. The sealing of the deal was always done by hooking your pinky fingers together. If this was not accomplished, you had no contract. More than a few times, I was able to invoke this clause, in order to save my ice cream money. And more than a few times, Dominic’s bells would absolve me of the need to go through with another obviously masochistic wager.

“Dom,” as we came to call him, also taught us a lot about personal responsibility. He knew full well that some of us were slightly poorer than others, on the block. (In retrospect, my pennies must have been a dead giveaway…or maybe it was the long delay, as I occasionally ran inside the house at lightning speed, snuck upstairs to my parents' bedroom closet, and filched my final few coins from my father’s inside, right pants pocket.)
Either way, Dom knew us all, and knew us well.

Although he never showed favoritism, he’d cut you some slack on occasion, if you were short. (Money, that is.)
In fact, Dominic actually gave most of us--now dentists, dee jays, brokers, and lawyers--our very first experience with actual credit! He began to keep ‘accounts’ on each and every kid, and if yours got up towards three or four dollars, he give you a ‘warning.’ But there were a couple of heartbreaking occasions, when Dom simply had to put his foot down, and he did so compassionately.
“Sorry, Pete,” he’d say, shaking his head the way a quiz show host does, when you’ve almost won.
“I wish I could do it for ya. But I’m gonna have to cut you off, until you pay a little. Next time, okay?”
And the bells began to jingle, as he pulled the string, and drove away--slowly at first, out of respect and in sympathy with his penniless customer--and then proudly again, jingling 'just so,' for the next group of kids, on the next block.
It never occurred to us, quite frankly, that Dominic knew any other group of kids better than those of us on Burton Avenue. That would seem impossible. Even if you asked me today, I’d have to guess that the 15 or 20 kids on our block were his favorites--but from the vantage point of a man now much older than Dom was then, it seems pretty clear that could never have been the case...could it?

Fact is, he was an expert at what he did. I’ll bet he made a pretty good living at it, too. Back then, there were lots more kids around, and everybody knew who their neighbors were, which must have helped business immensely, in the way of what is now known as ‘peer pressure.’
Eventually, Dominic saved up enough for a very large truck, the kind that had heretofore only been used by the faceless corporate drivers for “Mister Softee.” Even way back then, we were able to discern the difference between a corporate truck (like “Good Humor”) and our
very own local, independent Ice Cream Man.
With his own growth came inevitable change. Now, he had a virtual candy store inside, and you could actually step up into the truck. In fact, he no longer had to go outside and around to the window at all, to serve you. He could simply get up out of the driver’s seat, and take a few steps back into the ‘store.’
But somehow, it wasn’t quite the same.
He still carried the vast array of our early childhood favorites, but in this fancy new setting, they seemed somehow small, and pedestrian--almost as if he should have had ‘soft’ ice cream dispensers...kinda like…like the “Mister Softee” guys.
It still feels like heresy, to say that.

In truth, by that time, we were beginning to outgrow it all.
Voices started to lower. Your trip out to the street to see the Ice Cream Man was (strangely) beginning to seem almost…embarrassing. I can actually remember at some point looking up and down the block, to make sure nobody saw me, before running out to my old friend, Dom.
I had become a paper boy by then, so here I was, finally able to afford his wares, and yet…suddenly mortified, to even be seen, getting them. It seems like that little ‘life lesson’ has repeated itself, a few times over--but like so many others, it all started beside Dom’s truck. It was the stock market, the grocery store, the country club, and the bank, all at the same time.
I am reminded by some fellow former patrons that Dominic actually had a "loyalty" incentive program.
(Not that he needed one.) He distributed "charms" with each purchase, which were like tiny, colored 'pieces-of-eight' to us. If you collected ten charms, you got a free ice cream. This was, without any doubt, the first "frequent buyer" program any of us kids ever experienced.

Dom’s own business began to falter slightly, at around the time he invested in the new truck. It wasn’t his fault, really--the demographic bulge of we ‘baby boomers’ had simply passed on through that part of the snake, that‘s all.
He hung on for a few more years, even though most of us were in junior high school, by then. Heck, there was always gonna be a ‘youngest’ child, in some family, who knew Dom’s schedule as well as any commuter on the Long Island Railroad ever knew theirs.

Now, I live in Nashville.
We still have Ice Cream Men, yes--but I must tell you, there’s something slightly...surly, about them.
There are no jingling bells anymore, for one thing. Just this immensely irritating, pre-recorded jack-in-the-box music, with a decibel level to rival any F-15 Fighter Jets that might be flying overhead. If you took the most annoying possible ditty, say, “Pop Goes the Weasel” (which happens to be one they use), and canned the ‘Pan Flute’ guy playing it over and over through Eddie Van Halen’s Marshall Amp at around “10,” you’d understand ‘Ice Cream Man, 2009.’
“Gut mah galfriend wit’ me tuuh-day,” he’ll say, and you get the feeling this job might just be keeping somebody out of jail.
Oh well, God bless him anyway.

Speaking of which, today was Easter.
Dominic would never come on Sundays, let alone Easter! It was a matter of mutual respect.
But it’s Easter 2009--not 1959--and today, the guy came lumbering through the neighborhood, blaring “Silent Night,” of all things.
That’s nothing new, either.
From “Happy Birthday” to “Beethoven’s Ninth,” my new Ice Cream Man has ruined more songs each summer than I can recall. His company seems to choose the pre-recorded tapes based upon one criterium:
“Will this be annoying enough, if you play it over and over, and over again?”
I never knew “Silent Night” could fit in that category…but I do now, and we can look forward to hearing it all year long--except on Christmas day itself, when he’ll probably be blasting “(Roll Out) Those Lazy, Hazy, Crazy Days of Summer.”

And sure enough, what few little kids reside in this neighborhood are still alerted by that ‘music,’ from deep inside their solid brick houses and even deeper within their tiny hearts, almost as if they’d just received the Bat Signal.
It would not surprise me in the least, to find out that there is, in fact, some sort of Darwinian DNA connection between children and the sound of an approaching ice cream truck--then, or now.
Who knows? In future times, we may evolve to where actual antennae emerge from their ears, when the truck is within range!

Once he arrives near your house, a nearly century-old seduction reveals its newest innovations:
The driver will knowingly slow his pace to a crawl, and increase his volume just enough to make ANY adult cave into any childhood demand, if only to stop the music.
His wheels will barely move now...as he allows for the time-tested persuasion ritual (read: begging and whining) to run its full course.
At the end, the score will always be “Ice Cream Man 1, Parents 0,” whether they acquiesce, or not. (Think about that one.)

Something about all of this seems intrusive and obnoxious to me, at 57.
Am I wrong, or were Dominic’s bells a little more friendly, and a lot more real?
They seemed to speak to us, like an old friend coming to visit every day, at the exact same time.
Am I wrong, or are these new guys just careless intruders, out for a buck?
They come after dark sometimes--and many times, not at all.
Nobody knows their names, either.

Surprise, surprise:
I am wrong!

It turns out not to matter at all.
To a kid, it all means the same thing--even if they have no name, nor any real face that they’ll be able to attach to it, or remember as fondly as I do Dom’s, over 50 years later.
Call me a grumpy old man, but I’m going to ‘date’ myself anyway, and say it just ain’t the same as it once was.

Still, there is something…something almost holy…in the timeless connection between a kid, and the Ice Cream Man.“And the children solemnly wait
For the ice cream vendor
Out into the cool of the evening
Strolls the pretender
He knows that all his hopes and dreams
Begin and end there”

--Jackson Browne, ’The Pretender’

I don’t honestly know what ever happened to Dominic.
A tiny part of me wants to find--and restore--his original, little ‘Frosty Bar’ truck.
In fact, I wouldn’t even mind driving it around the neighborhood each day, secretly extending ‘credit’ to the kids while waving to the parents, and learning everybody’s favorite flavor by heart--but I’d only do it, if you let me ring those silver bells by hand, just like he did.
That would be nice.

Meanwhile, I’ll just have a ‘lemon ice,’ please…

Copyright 2009 by Peter Rodman. All Rights Reserved.

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