Breaking the Ice

It happens now with such clockwork regularity it can’t be coincidence. I’m driving through an Orlando neighborhood on a beautiful day, wending my way down streets lined with nice homes, neat lawns, cars in the driveways—and not a soul in sight.

“Where is everyone?” I wonder.

I don’t know the reasons for the self-sequestering of suburbanites in the new millennium—too many electronic toys indoors? Neighbors who don’t stay long enough to become friends? But it’s real. The streets were never empty like this when I was growing up in Indiana.

The only time in recent memory I haven’t encountered this Twilight Zone-ish tableau is on a sparkling Sunday afternoon in early May. As the vehicle I’m riding in passes through the gates of the River Oaks community in east Orlando, an amazing thing happens.

As if on cue, people begin streaming out of their homes into the street. Actually, it is on cue. I am in JR’s Ice Cream Truck, which is loudly broadcasting a giddy, chiming tune with a hypnotic beat—the ancient siren song of ice cream trucks everywhere.

“There’s something about the songs, the jingle, that draws people in,” says Jerry Irwin. “They always walk toward the truck, even though I’m going toward their houses.”

They march like smiling zombies toward the beckoning jingle-jangle, ravenous not for brains but for soft-serve cones, sundaes, Big Dippers, Jolly Rancher Rainbow Snow Cones, ice cream sandwiches, Toasted Almond Crunch bars, and popsicles with names like Hello Kitty, Batman and Bratz.

“I saw the Mister Softee and I thought, ‘I got to have it!’” says a 38-year-old named Jeremy, who grew up with Mister Softee (a soft-serve distributor) in Puerto Rico.

A boy of Tom Sawyer age heading for the truck suddenly wheels around and sprints across several front yards toward home. Probably forgot his money, says Irwin, 46, who remembers the drill from childhood when the ice cream truck came through his Orlando neighborhood.

“Oh yeah, it was a big thing,” he says. “We’d hear that jingle and run inside to get Mom and Dad’s change jar and dump it on the floor.”

Irwin never imagined that someday he would be driving the truck and playing the jingle. Nor could he imagine ever losing his job as an elementary school P.E. teacher. When it happened two years ago, Irwin remembered the ice cream truck supplier he passed on the way to school.

“I would drive by every day and think, ‘Hey, I should do that in the summers.’ I had always been an entrepreneur and decided to give it a try.”

Irwin used all his savings, about $20,000, to buy a used ice cream truck on eBay. With licensing and other start-up costs, the first year was lean.

“I paid myself a thousand a month last year,” he says. “I’m already at $10,000 (in gross sales) this year.”

Irwin has plenty of competition. There are 80 to 100 ice cream trucks on the road in Orange, Seminole and Osceola counties, down from about 125 before the recession, says Sean Sullivan of I Wanna Distributors, which sells ice cream to trucks.

Before River Oaks, Irwin visits a nearby townhouse/apartment complex. He is instantly besieged by a gaggle of middle school-age boys in motley weekend gear.

“These are repeat customers,” says Irwin. “I know these guys.”

Married and the father of a 2-year-old son, Irwin is a teaser and friendly trash-talker. “Ice cream sandwich—you want that hot or cold? With ketchup?”

A kid in red shorts and black knit shirt, gripping a football, hangs around after the others have left with their treats. Irwin calls the boy over and gives him a soft-serve cone.

“All his friends got one—maybe his mother didn’t give him any money. What did I make here, $40? I can do this.”

Irwin’s final customers in River Oaks that Dreamsicle Sunday are Nicole Velez, 21, and her three younger siblings. Coordinator of an elementary after-school program, Velez arranged for JR’s truck to visit the school. It was such a hit she invited Irwin to River Oaks and makes sure he gets in the gate. No one has complained.

The Velez quartet orders two soft-serve vanilla cones, a Big Dipper and a Cookies ’n Cream Bar. The order would be bigger, Nicole says, but her parents aren’t home.

“We could go to McDonald’s and get it cheaper, but that misses the sense of community,” she says. “This is a real ice cream truck. My parents say this is how it used to be.”

The way we were. The way we can be again—for a few delicious moments when Jerry Irwin’s truck arrives and pierces the sounds of silence.

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