I knew I had to make my peace with Mister Softee.
I needed a strategy or we’d be hitting the ice cream truck five days per week, September through November and then again from March to June. Our single-income family budget would implode within a month. Mercifully, the solution came to me, like an icy blast from an open freezer door: Mister Softee would be a once-a-week treat, on Tuesday afternoons, before piano lesson. This once-weekly indulgence has held, except for heat spells, when mommy caves, as she should. Three years later, I have come to love Ali, aka “Mister Softee Man,” and can’t imagine life without those complementary institutions: Public School 217 and the Mister Softee truck. It’s Saturday afternoon, school’s out, and, with sporadic foot traffic to his truck, it’s a good time for an interview. As I fumble with the audio, a girl timidly approaches the Mister Softee truck.
“Yes young lady, what can I get for you?”
In his mellow Turkish accent, pleasing as vanilla frozen custard, Ali Kazan has been asking that question since 1990, when he started selling ice cream out of a Mister Softee truck on Ocean Parkway. Fifteen years later he drove two blocks east and parked his truck at Newkirk and Coney Island Avenues, in front of PS 217, throbbing with 1,400 kids.
Mouth and eyes wide open, the girl scans the offerings on the side of the truck.
The soft-serve options alone send her pigtails into overload.
Choose your cone:
Choose your custard:
Choose your topping:
The two face (half chocolate, half rainbow sprinkles)
Not in the mood for soft-serve?
Lick-a-Color? (aka artifice on a stick; it should be banned for what it does to internal organs as well as external clothing.)
Dismissing helicopter dad’s suggestions, she finally tilts her chin up towards the patient face awaiting her order and makes her own choice:
“A vanilla cake cone with rainbow sprinkles please.”
Ali’s burly arm reaches out of the window cut in the side of Mister Softee and hands the girl a colorful, tilting tower of creamy goodness.
Flashback to me, age eight: I’m standing in the parking lot of the Carvel in Spring Valley, New York, scarfing a melty vanilla with chocolate jimmies. Grandpa is not letting me anywhere near the beige upholstery of his Oldsmobile. I remember those flimsy, bi-fold napkins—20 or more of them—no match for the disintegrating cone. Bliss.
Business has been good for Ali. He now has three trucks.
“My cousin and me, between us three trucks. One truck is not enough. When I was single it was OK, but when I had a son and daughter and wife, everything has tripled!”
His laugh, silky as soft-serve.
“You know the story of kids. You pay the bills. One truck is not enough anymore!”
I do know the story of kids. Orthodonture and summer camp fees loom on the horizon.
Has the neighborhood changed?
“Yeah, when I moved here there used to be block parties on Parkville, East 9th Street, and 10th street. And the neighborhood is changing. People move out. New people start coming in. Still, right now I see the changes still. I see changes, more people coming from inner-state to New York (City). And students move here like from other states.”
But new to the nabe or old-timers, everyone still eats ice cream.
“So tell me,” I ask, “what is your best seller?”
“Vanilla and chocolate obviously! Vanilla and chocolate, soft, and then hard ice cream cones – rum raisin and cookies and cream.”
A savvy businessman who aims to please his clientele, Ali added rum raisin, and other hard ice cream flavors, four years ago.
“Rum raisin and grape nut because a lot of Jamaican people started asking for rum raisin.”
“Do you sell more cones with sprinkles or more plain?”
His answer surprises me.
My sweeping conclusion: humans play it safe. We choose vanilla, no sprinkles. Disappointing!
Still, at $2 per plain cone, it’s the steal on Coney Island Ave (with the Kent Movie Theater’s Wednesday matinee running a close second).
“Yes, and I make mini-cones for little kids,” Ali adds, “$1.50. Sprinkles included. No extra charge.”
“I didn’t know about the mini-cone,” I perk up.
“Kids crying and so why not? Mini-cone $1.50. Make people happy, kids happy, and I’m happy,” Ali says.
As a parent, I see the deep logic in this solution to the daily temptation of the ice cream truck.
I steer Mister Softee to an uncomfortable subject.
“What about the line cutters?”
To my mind, there’s a special place in hell for folks who cut to the front of the line, and I’m curious to know if Ali shares my uncharitable judgement.
“But what can I do?” he shrugs. “I have to do the right thing but I can’t control it.”
He’s right of course. He can’t control rudeness, so he doesn’t let it bother him. It bugs me though, as I hold my own in the queue and stare down encroachers. I could never do his job. Mister Softee is the embodiment of cool.
Unlike most TV jingles, the Mister Softee song, around since 1960, has never changed.
Ali rocks his rendition of the plain vanilla jingle.
“Mister Softee ice cream is the best (pause) ice cream…
Mister Softee ice cream is the best (pause) ice cream…
Creamy, creamy ice cream, is the best (extended pause) ice cream.”
Ali adds sprinkles to his phrasing: dondurma, or ice cream in Turkish.
Compliant with city noise codes, Ali explains that, “when we stop we are not allowed to play (the Mister Softee jingle). Sometimes we forget. When we are in front of the school, we are not allowed to play. When we pass by churches, mosques, synagogues, we turn off the music. Respect people praying inside. That’s the rules. But sometimes we forget!”
It’s Sunday morning: I picture kneeling parishoners at St. Rose of Lima on Parkville humming, “Mister Softee ice cream is the best (pause) ice cream…”
Ali estimates there are 100 Mister Softee trucks in Brooklyn. The Conway family created the king of frozen confections in 1959 in Runnemede, New Jersey. Everything Ali needs comes through the king. At the Mister Softee depot, Ali Kazan has a parking spot alongside the 99 others. That’s where he gets all his supplies for set-up and clean-up.
“We have to supply everything Mister Softee provides,” he says, laying out his typical day. “We cannot supply somewhere else. We have to use their stuff. We have to park in their depot. We have to do everything. In the morning, we get our stuff. At night when we go back, we clean everything. We have to clean with Clorox everything. All the machine parts.”
This slacker housekeeper is impressed.
“You clean the machine with Clorox every night?”
“Every night. We have to tank three days. More than three days we cannot stay with that. The thing is, when we’re plugged in, it’s safe. three days if you don’t touch it.”
Beyond ice cream, the Mister Softee truck is like my mommy-purse, full of handy items hidden from view.
“Band-Aids and hand sanitizer,” Ali explains. “If somebody falls, extra paper towels. All day long they run to me. Somebody’s nose bleeding? I give it to them ice.”
Dang, better than a Hatzolah volunteer ambulance.
“Yes. First aid is here, at Mister Softee! Everybody runs here for ice, paper towels, Band-Aids and most families know I have that.”
Now I know too. Who knew?
What are Ali’s best memories? Just the simple pleasure of watching kids grow up, graduate, go away, and return.
“I know this little girl who became a mother; now I’m serving her kid. I know a lot of kids became cops, doctors, I know a lot of kids became teachers.”
How does he know all this?
They tell him. They are eager to run up to the truck where they bought Sponge Bob pops with bubble gum eyes, so many years earlier. They are dying to tell Mister Softee Man what they’ve made of their lives. And he listens.
“One day, five years ago, I was sitting like this. One lady stopped. ‘Ahhhh! You still around?’ I said, ‘Yes, I am still around.’ She said, ‘When I was little you used to come to my neighborhood, East 5th Street and Cortelyou. Of course, I am still the same except I have some extra grays.’”
He tugs at his fuzzy, salt ‘n’ pepper chin. I am reminded of a gummy bear.
“They grown up. They married. They have kids.”
And he’s serving their children now. In this ever changing world Mister Softee Man offers a consistency that comforts like a chocolate milkshake.
I finally get around to asking him why he got into this biz in the first place.
Ali’s father was a barber, so, at first, the son picked up the clippers too – briefly.
“I didn’t like that work,” Ali says, crinkling his nose under a Yankees cap pulled low over his tanned brow.
“You really enjoy this work, don’t you?” I ask.
“I love it.”
“What is the most satisfying thing about his work?” I inquire.
“Freedom! I work seven days a week. When it rains, like yesterday, I take a day off, but, you know, especially I am my own boss! Like today, I wanted to come a little late. I called my cousin, told him to come here, and then I enjoyed breakfast with my wife and kids. Then I came and started work, and if I want to go early, I go early.”
Freedom. Dig it.
Mister Softee man works outside, in the sunshine. He has flexible hours – and complete mobility.
We’re wrapping up. A woman approaches.
“Hi, can I have a toasted almond?”
I’m heartened to see she does not order plain ol’ vanilla.
“Sure,” says Ali, handing her nutty happiness on a stick.
There’s hope for the human race yet.
Postscript: It’s gonna be a hot summer. What’ll be your go-to frosty treat?
I’m rolling towards the snowball – vanilla ice cream on top of an Italian ice. Yum! My six-year-old will stick to his Neapolitan ice cream sandwich, vanilla, chocolate and strawberry, wholesome and tidy. I am so pleased he is over Lick-a-Color. My 10-year-old, choosing chocolate soft-serve and matching sprinkles, will continue to need more napkins than Ali can provide. Bliss.