The Ice Cream War

It's a hot, sweaty, cutthroat business. And in most city neighborhoods, it's illegal. A report from the front lines of the battle of the Bomb Pop.

Schmid stresses the safety issue, as well: "I've nearly run into children, as a matter of fact, and I know other people have complained about that. What happens is, the trucks stop in the middle of the street, they don't pull over, and the kids come around the truck just like they do for a bus, but there's nothing there, even by state law, that prohibits [drivers] from passing around an ice cream truck, and they don't even have the authority to have the caution signs."

Mary Perkins says that besides equipping trucks with swing-out safety arms and convex mirrors, Frosty Treats works with drivers to emphasize safety, convening bi-weekly meetings that all drivers are required to attend. Rookie drivers are shown a safety video and are encouraged to help guide children as they make their way to and from the trucks.

Still, Frosty Treats vendors drive alone, which, asserts Jim "Happy Time" McMillen, is the main cause of accidents. With two people in a truck, one can fetch ice cream while the other safeguards the kids. "There's accidents out there," McMillen maintains. "Even though a child is not hit by an ice cream truck, I would say oftentimes they get hit because of an ice cream truck. I've actually had kids come up to the truck buck naked -- they're in the tub, Mommy left them in there to play with the rubber duck, and they hear that bell and out they come. And they don't look."

Tom Carlson
"It ain't what you do. It's how you do it": Washington Park, Illinois, is Von Harrell's territory
Jennifer Silverberg
"It ain't what you do. It's how you do it": Washington Park, Illinois, is Von Harrell's territory

Von Harrell's got a divide-and-conquer strategy to selling ice cream in Washington Park, Illinois. "One day I'll do this half," he explains. "I won't touch the other half, because I want them to miss me. The next day I'll switch over. I do that on the strength of, you don't want people to spend their money every day on ice cream, because they'll get burned out.

"Except for the Dobbs guys." He laughs. "They buy every day."

"Washington Park isn't bad," Harrell says of the area's long-held reputation for violent crime. "It's over-exaggerated. I grew up in north St. Louis, so I'm used to what goes on in what you would call the ghettos. I mean, people can feel fear. When they see fear, they tend to act on it. But most of the time they're more scared of me than I am of them. They don't know what I got in this car. I've had confrontations where maybe a few words are exchanged, but nine times out of ten they're trying to see where I was: Is he the type we can chump? If we figure out we can chump him, we gonna take everything they got. But they figure: Hey, he's a man, so just leave him alone. And I don't have no problems."

Still, as with all the routes, these streets are not without their dangers. Harrell remembers days in the '90s when gang activity around here was at a fever pitch, after the Gangsta Disciples came down from Chicago. Once, he says, he drove his truck smack-dab into a rivalry at the Roosevelt housing project. "This guy came running around the corner," Harrell recounts. "He ran past my truck and into a house, and fifteen seconds later another guy comes running around the corner and he's got a gun in his hands. I'm right here, and I've got all these kids by the side of the truck. 'Y'all got to get going! It's time to go!' I'm getting the little kids away from the truck."

The gunman stopped, and Harrell found himself stuck in the middle. "The guy in the house comes out with a gun. I've got all these children here. 'Y'all got to go!' Then the parents see it and start running up to get their children. One guy starts shooting at the other guy, and he shot back, and I'm seeing the bullets hitting the ground and dirt flying up. I'm trying to drive backwards, I've got the kids away, and I'm trying to drive backwards. And I didn't go back into the Roosevelts for a long time."

But he goes back there now, and will continue to. This is his job, and he loves it. "It's a hustle," Harrell says. "This is survival. You're doing something legit. You're not breaking any laws. And I try to instill these certain qualities into my children. It ain't what you do. It's how you do it."

Plus, he says, it's nice to be loved. "I am one of the most popular guys you'll see, and the way the kids go stone-cold crazy -- you try and keep a smile on people's faces. When they see you, you're an escape from the negativity of life itself. The things that might bother you, or are having problems with. I know this truck can put a smile on a person's face. And that's a good feeling."

Correction published 9/10/03:
In the original version of this story, we misspelled the name of the home of Blue Bunny ice cream, Le Mars, Iowa. The above version reflects the corrected text.

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