Taking cold comfort

Jun 17, 2009 at 12:00 am

Birdwatchers and butterfly hunters know the score: When the weather warms up, all sorts of striking creatures start returning. Again we can savor the thrill of colorful fauna in its natural habitat, teaching us something and leaving us a story to tell. 

But we can't all afford to load up the car and drive out into the sticks to crane our necks at birds and butterflies. At least not that often. That's why, in all seriousness, I recommend that my friends come down to Hamtramck and watch our ragtag fleet of motley ice cream trucks instead. After all, both birds and ice cream trucks are brightly colored, noisy little things that return in the spring. And when a truck has a crowd of children racing after it, we might appreciate the scene in much the same way we enjoy watching a robin with her chicks following along. Behold, the majesty of nature.

And my town of Hamtramck is definitely the place to see these cheerful, melodic sugar-sellers in their natural habitat. Throughout the day, what seem to be several hundred ice cream trucks ply the streets of this 2.2-square-mile city, which means they are absolutely everywhere. Talk about an opportunity to work on your life list!

The first sign that an ice cream truck is drawing near might be the jaunty melody "Do Your Ears Hang Low?" If you do hear it, you must remain patient. You might hear the melody several hundred times before you actually see the truck, but when it comes, have no fear that it will race on by. They have an uncanny ability to attract a new crowd of children once they're right in front of you. Or your house. Or, if you have one, your driveway.

But that hardly matters, because it's so delightful to listen to "Do Your Ears Hang Low?" again and again that such trifles as needing to pull one's car out would hardly matter. Besides, you get a better look at the truck, appreciating its hand-painted charm. No two are alike, and there are even a few old New York City-area Mr. Softee trucks in the fleet, all creatively decorated and patched up like it's Havana. Watch long enough, and you may even see an unusual ice cream motorcycle putter along — complete with sidecar and rear-mounted freezer case. You'll certainly be tempted to snap a photo or record the delicate warble of the prerecorded ditty, if you can hear it clearly. Sometimes it will be drowned out by motor noise, as all of the trucks seem to use the very latest in loud-engine technology to keep the ice cream cool. 

Once the vehicle stops, the driver and the excited young children begin their gentle negotiations. You might worry that the driver will cut off the music or switch the coolers over to battery power  for a couple minutes, but, thankfully,  he's sure to keep everything running, not wanting to spoil anybody's pleasure. Over the din, you'll often hear at least one of the children ask, "Hey, you won't make a deal?" over and over again before the calorie-jitney finally buzzes off.

Of course, some may worry that hearing these songs over and over again might have some deleterious effect on the mental health of Hamtramck residents — at least those who aren't deaf. As one friend observed, "Hasn't that ice cream truck been by here three times in five minutes? And there's an ice cream stand on the corner!"

Yes, surprising as it may seem, some in Hamtramck cannot appreciate this sweet music of summer, arguing that the cumulative effect of hearing the same jingle over and over could make a person crack, pick up the nearest ax, and hack their family to bits. Or that, if you were to suddenly go insane, you would begin hearing "Coming 'Round the Mountain" in your head. But these sourballs are few. For the most part, if Hamtowners don't appreciate this joyful noise, it's because, by the busy days of high summer, they're so inured that they hardly hear it anymore. 

Luckily, ice cream trucks are upping the ante with beautiful new sounds that won't be ignored. As if produced by natural selection, one of the ice cream jingles has evolved to become catchier, stickier than simple barnyard fiddling. This one is clearly designed to turn heads. It certainly turned my head the first few thousand times I heard it. One of my friends calls it theme song of "the hip-hop ice cream truck." It also plays a sort of tinny march, but with a chunky beat behind it that kicks the march into a whistle-tweeting, horn-honking, Spike Jones-style finale that ends a moment of silence with this bellowed question: "Hello?" 

Hello? As if it were some exotic mynah bird, this truck actually speaks. And what a wonderful affirmation to hear day after day! Truly, Hamtramck is the City of Friendship.

Michael Jackman is slowly being driven insane. Send comments to [email protected]