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My SoCal Life: The ice cream man

Illustration by Alexia Lozano

The summer before I started at UCLA, my father told me I had a problem: I spent too much time alone. He thought a job would be good for me. I’d make money. I’d see life differently. I’d explore the wider world. His solution? I should drive an ice cream truck.

We lived in Banning, in the San Gorgonio Pass. I drove about 30 miles past fallow agricultural fields and an aging steel mill to Riverside to pick up the truck. Because I was a “kid,” the company owner said, I’d start with a less-profitable route in Commerce, a city I’d never even heard of. 

The truck had chipped paint and a seat cushion so worn through, I had to stop at a lumber yard for a piece of wood so the springs wouldn’t poke me in the butt. I began my shift by loading the truck with dry ice and ice creams, gassing up, and then driving west over an hour to Commerce.

Even if State Route 60 had been built, it would have been of little use to me. With a top speed of 45 mph, my truck was not freeway-safe. I was confined to a 2-lane highway and surface streets that led me past truck stops, abandoned railroad lines, and vineyards with smog-dusted vines.

My route was outlined in dull-red ink on a page of the Thomas Guide. Grinding the gears as I stick-shifted, the sun beating down on my open cab, I drove street after street as the rooftop speakers played maddeningly cheerful music. Since this was my first job, I wondered if the point of work was to be miserable. I saw no advantages to being out in the world. 

And yet, after lunch on hot days, when the sun hung high in the sky and I drove past small, neat houses with tall, spindly palm trees and patches of grass out front, kids shouted, “Hey, mister, stop!” They’d rush to the truck, their mothers watching from porches. The kids would study pictures of ice creams on the side of the truck. Mostly, they wanted Popsicles and Push-Ups they could share.

After making selections, they’d show me the coins they had. Sometimes the kids didn’t have enough, so I’d make up the difference. That wasn’t good business, I knew, but I couldn’t deny them cold, sweet ice cream on a hot day. I’d pull back the metal box’s chrome handle, open the small side door, and an icy cloud would float into the air. The kids would always look inside, as though there was magic in that box. Maybe there was.

At some point that summer, something strange happened. I began to enjoy the work. I drove beyond my assigned streets. I explored neighborhoods where people had vegetable gardens instead of lawns, and where mercados sold chicharrónes and Mexican ice creams that I thought were tastier than mine.

Suddenly, my summer of work ended. The ice cream truck broke down, unrepairable, finished, kaput. From the side of the road, I watched as it was towed away. But the lesson of the summer was clear: Go out into the world. Take a new route. Become part of a larger community. And, by all means, treat yourself to an occasional ice cream.

David Latt is an Emmy-winning TV producer, screenwriter, and travel writer.

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