Years and years ago I experienced the first of what would be a modest number of stints on the unemployment line. This first time was different than some of the others, though, in that it was by choice.
You see, the summer before I graduated high school I took a three-week trip to Australia. It was my first real exposure to something other than what I’d grown up with and it opened my eyes just a little. I got back home a week after my senior year of school had started, determined to make some changes. Looking back, it seems somewhat ludicrous that I would already be trying to fix mistakes that I’d made in life, but if there’s one thing I excel at, it’s making bad decisions and completely fucking myself over.
I worked at McDonald’s back then. I’d probably worked there for one year when I decided that it was beneath me and I needed to find something more suited to what I believed to be the awesomeness that was me. I didn’t quit right away, but the seed was planted. As so many life changing decisions originate, all it took was the kernel of an idea to lodge in the fertile soil of my mind where it would grow into inevitability.
McDonald’s was an okay job for a high school boy, but I was going to be a college man and damned if I was going to enter the university as a minimum wage lackey who smelled like fast food and wore a horrible polyester uniform and paper hat. No fucking way.
So the months flashed by. You’d think that I would form some sort of plan about what to do after I quit. But that was not happening. I was going to join my friends on a graduation trip to Hawaii and then I was going to hand in my two week’s notice and set the world on fire. Well, all that went more or less according to plan . . . to a certain point. I graduated high school. I went to Hawaii. I quit my job. But I had overlooked one key aspect when formulating my plan. What now?
That summer was rough. It was fun, but it was rough. I was “juggling” two girls for the first time in my life (“juggling” might be grossly overstating things, but it’s my story so I’m going with “juggling”). I had no job, so I had lots of free time, but I was miserable. I had no money. I had no ambition. No drive. One of the girls I was “juggling” didn’t even like me all that much and it was pretty clear that the one that did wasn’t going to work in the long run. Easy to see in retrospect. At the time I was a mess.
Things came to a head when my dad spotted an ad in the local paper that he thought sounded like a fun summer job: driving around an ice cream truck. I figured, “What the hell?” So we drove down to Seattle to pick up the truck and the ice cream, sign papers, and whatever.
It was bad enough to drive the gaudily painted Jeep ninety miles north on Interstate 5. Worse was the fact that you couldn’t turn off the music, which in this case was “Pop! Goes The Weasel” over and over and over again. Madness set in around mile ten. But I made it home in one piece and began unpacking the ice cream to the family freezer.
For some reason the ice cream truck didn’t come equipped with a freezer for the, you know, ice cream. Instead you had to store the ice cream separately, load up a supply in the cooler and hope it didn’t melt before you sold it all. We got about half the ice cream novelties unpacked before I realized that it wasn’t all going to fit in the family freezer. “Start eating!” I screamed, panicked, still unhinged from ninety minutes of “Pop! Goes The Weasel”. My logic was impeccable. The ice cream was going to melt. Nobody was going to buy melted ice cream. So just eat it.
The first thing we had to do was find a better solution than eating half the inventory. My dad and I drove out to where they had cold storage and rented a unit, where we put what we could salvage of the novelties. It wasn’t much, but I had at least a week’s worth. Maybe more if I really stunk at being an ice cream man (spoiler: I did).
The next day I got an early start. Now, in my defense, there was no training. I had no idea what I was doing. I had never been an ice cream man before. My only interest in ice cream to this point had been in eating it. But how hard could it be? You drove around in neighborhoods with kids and the product pretty much sold itself, right?
But that music . . . . It was just the worst. Maybe it would have been different if the tune switched up every now and then, but no. Just “Pop! Goes The Weasel” on infinite repeat. I couldn’t take it. Being somewhat handy, it didn’t take me long to wire my Walkman into the vehicle’s sound system, where I promptly started playing Van Halen’s “Ice Cream Man” (I had no problem being too on-the-nose here). Finally the madness could stop and I could get to selling ice cream novelties. However, and if you saw this coming a mile away pat yourself on the back — you outsmarted a teenage moron — one of THE biggest, if not ONLY marketing tool at the disposal of your humble Ice Cream Man is the organ grinder-type music that blares from the speakers. That sweet siren’s song that brings the children running, wads of money clutched in tiny fingers. And I had replaced that with nearly indecipherable hard rock. Needless to say: the kids were not exactly lining up around the block.
It probably didn’t help things that I was almost hopeless behind the wheel of the ice cream truck. It could have been (and probably in an earlier lifetime was) a postal truck, complete with the steering wheel on the right (ie. wrong) side of the car. My only previous experience driving with the wheel on the right was one fuzzy night in Australia some months earlier. It wasn’t difficult, but it was different and, combined with the different weight distribution of the truck, I almost flipped it a couple of times, once riding on the right two wheels for some distance.
I did manage to sell about $50 worth of ice cream, which is really amazing considering how enormously I’d botched the whole enterprise. Did I have higher hopes for Day 2? Not really, but I didn’t have a lot of choice in the matter. That said, I pretty much gave up halfway through that second day. I had a complete emotional breakdown when I got home. I realized that I’d made a huge mistake quitting my job before obtaining a new job. I was screwing up my relationship with my girlfriend by deluding myself into thinking I had a shot with the second girl. I felt like a complete and utter loser and being the world’s absolute worst ice cream man was not helping my mental stability, despite the endless line of fudgesicles going into my mouth.
Together my parents and I determined that the ice cream biz was just not for me and made arrangements to return the truck and the remaining inventory. I called up my friend Jason, who agreed to follow me to Seattle in his car and give me a lift home after I’d dropped the truck off. Solid plan. So we loaded up the meager number of ice cream novelties that were still in sellable shape and started back down I-5.
We got about 3/4 of the way down when something snapped on the truck (miraculously, not me). Fortunately, I was able to coast to a service station, where I found a payphone and gave my parents a call. Now, I can’t really remember what happened next. My shaky recollection is that we called Joe (the ice cream company) and told them to come get their shitty truck. We left it there, ice cream melting in the back, and Jason drove me home (where we probably shotgunned a case a beers, which would explain the shaky part of my recollection).
Perhaps needless to say, the good people a Joe Incorporated were not overly pleased with me. One, they did not like that I only got the truck 3/4 of the way there. But they did understand. It wasn’t my fault the thing was a piece of shit. That was on them. But they were not so understanding when it came to the diminished returns on the ice cream novelties. Not only did I have next to no money for them, but the inventory was down quite a bit from the ice cream that had melted on day one. But that was also on them. I had “I don’t know what I’m doing” written all over every exposed bit of skin.
I ended up ending things with the second girl (yeah, I’m going to go ahead and stick with that version of events) and my girlfriend and I went out for another year and change. I spent the rest of the summer doing odd jobs here and there and, really, I didn’t get a stable job until spring of the following year.
I’m not one to learn a lesson or look on the bright side of things, but I did glean one valuable thing that summer: ice cream is a lot more fun to eat than it is to sell.