February 26, 2012

The Dilly Man


My then-wife and I moved to Brooklyn in the summer of 1990. On our first night in the new apartment in a new town, we sat at the kitchen table taking stock of our surroundings. I still had my doubts. Moving to New York wasn’t my idea.

        The first sound I recall drifting through the open front window was a bottle being smashed on the sidewalk outside. That at least gave me some hope. After a few years in the wilds of Philadelphia, I found the sound of pointless destruction strangely comforting—a connection to the life I’d just left behind.

        The second sound I heard a few short minutes later was a warped and tinny version of “Turkey in the Straw.”

        My wife stared with a mix of confusion, worry, and contempt as I leapt from my chair and shuffled through the unpacked boxes and stacked furniture toward the front window shouting, “Dilly Man! Dilly Man!” I knew that look she was giving me—I’d seen it a thousand times—but I just didn’t care.

        It could have been anyone or anything playing “Turkey in the Straw,” (a passing low-eider, a retarded kid with a PlaySkool boom box) but I knew better. The nature of the arrangement told me it couldn’t be anything but an ice cream truck.

        I hadn’t encountered a roving ice cream truck since 1974. In all the cities I’d lived in since then, ice cream trucks never saw fit to troll my neighborhood. Still, there’s something that gets into the blood, into the genes, into the reptilian part of the brain that tells you when one’s approaching, no matter how long it’s been.

        I stuck my head out the window and watched as the white Mister Softee knockoff truck (it might have been “Mr. Soft,” or “Kustard King”) slowly rolled down Sixth Avenue. As the song tinkled into the distance I returned to the kitchen table.

        “Okay, I’ll stay,” I said.

        In the weeks that followed I learned that the ice cream man was on a tight schedule and route, and drove past the apartment every evening at the same time. On Tuesdays, he would park outside my door for half an hour (between seven thirty and eight p.m.) before moving on. On a few occasions that first summer I even ran downstairs and bought something from him:  A cone, a sundae, a rocket pop. They were okay, I guess, but I was more interested in the experience.

        As the summer wore on the tape continued to stretch and deteriorate, giving an added ominous air to “Turkey in the Straw,” like a clown in dripping makeup. That made me even happier.

        Anyone who lives in New York knows Mister Softee (and Mister Softee knock-off) trucks are an inescapable fixture of the summertime atmosphere, like the stench of fish and piss. And like those other things, in time the ice cream truck outside my window faded from my consciousness.

        A few years after moving in, I read in the paper that the driver of that particular truck was busted for selling pot, coke, and a variety of pills out of the back of his truck along with rocket pops, ice cream sandwiches, and sundaes, and I kicked myself for not knowing this earlier.

        Back in Green Bay in the early seventies we didn’t have Mister Softee, we didn’t have the Good Humor Man—we had The Dilly Man.

        He wasn’t known officially as “The Dilly Man,” but that’s what we came to call him. I don’t think he had any kind of official title and he wore no uniform (like the Good Humor Man’s trademark white suit and cap), but he drove the roving Dairy Queen truck. Thinking about it, calling it a truck is pushing things a little bit. More than anything it resembled a three-wheeled pickup much like an NYPD parking enforcement vehicle. Unlike those, however, it had a spinning red and white Dairy Queen logo mounted on the roof of the cab, and tinkled out a happy song that could be heard three blocks away.

        The range of that song was important, because if you were seven or eight years old, it gave you time to prepare. Unlike the trucks in New York, see, the Dilly Man had no fixed route or schedule. Like Jesus, no one could predict the day or hour of his return. He could appear at any time, and on any street. He just went where the whim took him. Two weeks could go by with no Dilly Man sightings, then he might swing past three days in a row. As a result, my friends (few as they were) and I spent most of our summers on edge, waiting for him to appear. Whenever we were playing outside, we did so with one ear cocked down the street. The moment he appeared, every second counted. But at least we had a well-tuned strategy. Hell, we had the drill down to military precision.

        Whoever heard the distant song first took up the cry: “Dilly Man! Dilly Man!” and the rest would join in. That’s when we went into action. It didn’t matter what we were doing, what we were in the middle of. Everything was dropped.

        If we were in my yard, then the others would quickly station themselves at the curb to catch his attention and make him stop. Meanwhile I would run into the house to find my mom and get change enough from her for everyone, all the while shouting “Dilly Man! Dilly Man!” If I was at a friend’s house, I'd wait at the curb and he’d do the running. Some mothers were more amenable to ponying up the cash than others. Fortunately nothing on the truck cost more than a quarter, and most things cost a dime. But if a bunch of us were out there, it could add up.

        Then, change gripped tightly in hand I had to race back outside hoping the Dilly Man hadn’t gotten fed up with waiting. If we ever blew it, he might never stop again.

        There wasn’t a big selection on the truck, and of course they were all Dairy Queen products—ice cream sandwiches, drumsticks, soft serve cones (vanilla only), Peanut Buster Parfaits (those cost a quarter), and the ubiquitous Dilly bars (hence the name), coated in chocolate, butterscotch, and something approximating cherry, each slipped into an individual paper sheath.

        If we were inside when he passed, we usually didn’t hear him until it was too late. If we were over in the field three blocks away, that was tricky, too. Trying to race him to the house was pointless. The only hope was that someone else would stop him along the way, giving us that extra edge. And if I was alone, then it was imperative that I heard him as far away as possible and knew where my mom was at the time. If I missed the Dilly Man during one of his rare passes the rest of the day was shot. I’d failed.

        It didn’t really matter what we got from him. Hell, sometimes we didn’t even want ice cream. But we had to stop him. That’s what it was all about—we just had to stop the Dilly Man, just to know that we had done it. It was like catching a leprechaun, or Jesus.

        Christ, sometimes I’m ashamed to consider how fucking idyllic my childhood was.

        But it might help explain how giddy I became shortly after moving to the Bunker a year ago, when I heard the Mister Softee truck roll by. I haven’t stopped him yet, but one of these days I will. And when I do, first thing I’m gonna find out is whether or not he’s dealing, too.


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