I live in a neighborhood that is usually described as eclectic, which basically means any resident of our little grid community can be as weird as they choose, as haphazard as they choose, and as nutty as they choose provided we assign them terms like eclectic and eccentric in order to keep the property values stable. Nobody wants to live next to the crazy person or the scatterbrain but if they live next to the eccentric that chooses from a diverse set of design influences then it is somehow justified, condoned, looked upon with a mysterious fascination, like a million dollar modern art piece made from the feces of a bonobo monkey.
So it is not uncommon to see things like hula hoops hanging from tree limbs, a collection of ornate weather vanes on a roof, the skeleton of a large pig mounted on its hind legs dressed in a three-piece suit in the middle of a meticulously manicured lawn, Gort the robot from The Day the Earth Stood Still, or, most recently, an ice cream truck. I’m so used to bizarre decor while on my morning walks that I thought the ice cream truck was just another piece of strange expression until I ran into my neighbor who told me that he had gotten a summer job as an ice cream man. He said it was great. The benefits were endless. He was doing his part to fight global warming, which I thought was a bit misguided, and he was worshipped by children, which I thought was a bit creepy. There were downsides though, he said. The first was the plague of the pre-recorded jingle the truck blared over and over again while my neighbor drove his route. It had infected his head. He heard it everywhere, day and night. On the television. On the radio. In the walls. In his dreams. I could imagine him stalking his house at all hours, like some deranged Edgar Allan Poe character, ripping up the floorboards to find the ghostly music box that would not give him a minute’s peace. The other slight problem was the fierce competition among ice cream vendors.
Summers in Georgia are hot. Many a southern author has used the weight of this oppressive warmth for the backdrop of countless stories. Eudora Welty. Flannery O’Connor. Tennessee Williams. Harry Crews. The heat is a thing that lingers and presses in, like atmospheric opium, doping the crowds into soporific languor and making them irritable. So it was no small stroke of good fortune that I was invited to my neighbor’s place for some ice cream. I was hesitant at first, not wanting to pillage his livelihood. Any shrewd drug dealer knows it is bad business to “smoke up” the inventory, but my neighbor assured me he had plenty, it was an accepted perk, and to choose whatever I wanted, and “Can you hear that fucking music, or is it just me?” I helped myself to an ice cream sandwich and told him I couldn’t hear anything. He told me to listen as he consumed a bomb pop like it was a rather lewd sex act, encouraging me to hear the icy notes hanging somewhere in the rafters of his house. “It sounds a bit like pop goes the weasel,” he said. I asked as to whether he could maybe change the music that the ice cream truck played. He said no can do. It is universally recognized as the soundtrack of the ice cream man. To play nothing is to pass through neighborhoods unnoticed. To play regular music is to be misunderstood as any old douchebag cruising slow with his radio blasting.
It was an enjoyable afternoon. The ice cream was served cold and delicious. There had been bad news of late. News seems to be worse in an election year, said my neighbor. Tragedy is used as ammunition, he said, and if there is one thing we don’t need any more of it is ammunition. We have plenty already. I agreed. Plus he was getting nervous about his own situation, he said, shoveling an Italian ice over lips, teeth and tongue stained an electrified purple. As the summer was heating up so was the competition among rival ice cream trucks for the good neighborhoods. He had received threats. Stay away from here and stay away from there. I told him to be careful and went to leave through the front door when I noticed something on his doorstep, wrapped in newspaper. We unfolded it. There was a solitary ice cream cone melting in the hot sun. My neighbor looked down and gulped. The message was clear, he said. Luke O’Brozzy sleeps with the ice pops. I asked who Luke O’Brozzy was? My neighbor said he was another ice cream truck driver who pushed his luck too far by driving through rival territories. A low level casualty in a rich man’s dessert war. They had made an example of him.
“What are you going to do?” I said.
“Evolve or die,” he said and jumped into his truck.
I went back to my house. In any capitalist enterprise, be it street serenaders, mimes, pail drummers, hippie buskers or Afghani tombstone washers, it is important to control the turf. Control of the turf means control of the money. The world is his, who has money to go over it, says Ralph Waldo Emerson. But there were neighborhoods in Boston I’m sure that even Emerson wouldn’t go near. His famous line of traveling is a fool’s paradise was probably scribbled down hastily after having his ass handed to him by a couple of Southies for lingering a little too long in the Irish projects. A bloody nose and two black eyes will make any geek look to nature in its splendor as the only place a man can truly be free.
I didn’t see my neighbor for a few days. The ice cream truck was nowhere to be found. Eventually he knocked on my door with a look of terror in his eyes as he started throwing boxes of ice cream into my house.
“Just take it all,” he said, his voice quavering. “I’m leaving town. I’d rather run dope. At least those guys have a code of ethics. These ice cream guys, it’s like sitting in that refrigerated truck freezes your heart. They’re brutal. Watch yourself and if anyone asks, you never met me.”
A solution in one area may engender problems in another. As I sit here surrounded by my newfound ice cream I may have to contend with a sudden onset of obesity. The world is merciless. There is no recourse. I put on a recording of William S. Burroughs singing that line from The Black Rider.
“When it gets too hot for comfort and you can’t get an ice cream cone, taint no sin to take off your skin and dance around in your bones.”
(This entry is dedicated to John Miller, who I’m going to miss for all the great reasons, and to Michael Herr, author nonpareil.)
More Alembics to come.