By Sam Quinones
In the 1970s, Pomona was a big thrift store of a city in the smog-covered valley east of Los Angeles that bore its name.
I grew up in the neighboring town of Claremont, which had five colleges, two graduate schools, a strict zoning code and large old oaks and elms.
But by the time I was growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, Pomona was about two decades past its prime. The Fox Theater downtown had once been a major venue. Bing Crosby had once played its Fox Theater. As I entered junior high school, The Fox showed B movies, then B movies in Spanish.
Pomona’s downtown was quiet. In the early 1960s, city fathers were persuaded that outdoor shopping malls were the wave of the future. They put in a fountain and piped in music. A Buffums department store was supposed to feed the smaller shops along the mall with customers.
The Pomona Mall was finished by the mid-1960s, about the time that the wave of the future turned out to be the indoor mall. A decade later, pawn shops replaced the jewelry stores and boutiques, which left for the air-conditioned comfort of the Montclair Plaza about 10 miles away.
Pomona had neither luck nor luster; it was a flowery polyester shirt 10 years out of style. On Holt Boulevard, the city made a vain effort at attracting glitz. Anything went along Holt, as long as it had neon and an oceanic parking lot. Running parallel a few blocks south was Mission Avenue, where Pomona gave up entirely and bared its true soul. Neon was too expensive for the shops on Mission. The United Mission Inn was on Mission. So was the YMCA. Both were home to derelicts and drifters who paid by the week. They were men who tried to hide their desperation behind greased-back hair and blazers one size too big.
Midway between Holt and Mission on Reservoir Street sat Tropical Ice Cream. A `Help Wanted’ sign was painted on the building in bright red letters. I’d seen the sign before. I’d gone in once and learned that to work there I needed a driver’s license and, for insurance purposes, I had to be 19.
It was September of 1976, about three weeks before the start of my senior year in high school. I was back from a summer trip and I needed a job that I could quit easily when school began. I was 17. I went down to Tropical.
A pasty-faced man with gray hair met me at the door. I think his name was Ed.
Nineteen, I told him. He asked for my driver’s license. Simple math would have told him my true age. You’re hired, he said.
I had to work one day free for a driver who would train me. Then I’d be working for myself, and Tropical Ice Cream. I’d make 30 percent of whatever I sold. That day they put me on a truck with Wilson. Wilson was a nice old guy. He was retired from some job that had worn him down, but Social Security didn’t pay enough, so now he spent his golden years living in a trailer home and selling ice cream around the Pomona Valley. That’s how I figured it anyway. He didn’t talk much about his personal life.
Wilson was like a lot of guys at Tropical: pensioners who had never saved enough to make retirement a time when they could take life easy. Some did it to get out of the house and away from their wives. Tropical attracted another type: the Down-and-Outer. They were usually younger men. This, apparently, was the only job they could hold. Anyway, Tropical didn’t ask for references. Nor did management get too upset when an employee didn’t show up for work. This happened often. Management figured the driver had moved on or died.
These drifters were usually less dependable than the pensioners, so Herm Trop showed them no mercy. Herm Trop and his brother, whose name I’ve long forgotten, owned the company. Each was as squat as a fire hydrant, with curly brown hair, thick necks and a bustling waddle to their walks.
The Trops had played football. Their gridiron memories – from the days when helmets had no facemasks — were dear to both men. Graying photographs of them in action graced the imitation-walnut paneling of a dark room where the ice cream men counted their money late in the afternoon. The Trops had played the front line.
We always knew Herm was coming long before he appeared in front of us. His gruff, cussing baritone was the soundtrack to everyone’s day at Tropical Ice Cream. I don’t remember his brother saying much. But Herm never passed up an opportunity to bark his wisdom at his crew of retirees and alcoholics. He clearly viewed today’s male specimen as lacking the toughness that allowed him to claw his way to the top of the Pomona Valley ice cream game. Few who stayed had the gumption to talk back to Herm Trop.
At Tropical, the ice cream men were gruff, unshaven and with poor teeth. They grunted a lot. They never, for example, said “Yes, ma’am,” or “Okie-dokie,” or “Coming right up.” They showed little feeling for the kids.
I figured I’d be different. At first I was eager to engage the children. Countless five-year-olds came to my truck, plopping 17 cents in gooey change on my counter.
“How much can I get with this much?”
“Well, let’s see,” I’d say, trying my best to sound like Mister Rogers. “How much do you have? One, two, three. Do you know how much this is worth? That’s worth five, so now you have eight.”
And so on. Finally I’d have to let him know the brutal truth. He could only afford a Popsicle.
“But I want a drumstick.”
“You don’t have enough for a drumstick.”
A drumstick, a cone of vanilla ice cream covered in chocolate syrup and sprinkled with nuts, went for 35 cents. Our positions thus stalemated, the discussion would go on as a line would form. One of us would eventually relent. As time went on, it was the kid.
In time, I became more “efficient.” I’d quickly count the kid’s change and give him two or three choices. I’d grown to understand a little about the old men I worked with. They figured that life owed them more for years of toil than a retirement spent in the oppressive Los Angeles heat in a tin box on wheels selling ice cream to kids with dirty faces.
Wilson and I spent that first day rumbling along his usual route through Walnut, another faceless L.A. suburb. Like so many towns, I knew of Walnut only from the tacky television commercials where some discount furniture mogul with a bad toupee would stand in front of a dinette set reading from cue cards that announced his latest great deal and easy credit terms. He’d then launch into his inventory of stores around the L.A. basin where these great deals were available: La Puente, La Canada, Marina Del Rey, Glendale, Costa Mesa, Van Nuys, Sherman Oaks, Ontario. Then he’d usually finish with something like: “And our new store in Walnut. Se habla Espanol.”
Here I finally was in Walnut. As our jingle blared out the loudspeakers and down its quiet streets, Wilson shared with me the sacred tricks of the ice cream trade. Jealously guarded tips like: “Go slow,” “Turn your jingle off when you’re selling” (a lesson I quickly ignored since I didn’t see the point. The jingle let people know I was there), and of course, “Put the most expensive ice cream at the bottom of the freezer because people don’t buy it as much.”
Wilson showed me how to fill the truck freezer. Every morning, the drivers would load up, ordering that day’s product from a porthole in the Tropical building. Behind that window was the company freezer. Gusts of frost blew out of it into the early morning sunshine. Inside, two guys would shuttle between the window and the stock, filling orders. The product came hurtling out: boxes of Ice Cream Sandwiches, Drumsticks, Sundaes, Push-ups, Popsicles, and their red-white-and-blue, rocket-shaped cousin, the Astrojet.
Wilson taught me to read a routebook, a tablet that had the turns written out from the moment the driver left the Tropical lot: “Turn left on Mira Vista. Turn right on Del Mar. Turn left on Rancho Val Verde,” and so on.
Under the smog and relentless sun, the truck grew furnace hot. To quench my thirst that first day, I gulped down six orange sodas. I returned home with teeth coated in sugary moss. I never ate or drank anything out of my truck again, and I haven’t had an orange soda since that day. Instead I brought a gallon jug of water, put it in the cooler and drank it throughout the day.
After the first day, I was a pro. I’d sub for whatever driver turned up missing that day. I often had work. I did Baldwin Park, Hacienda Heights, Upland and other cities that I can’t remember. The jingle was my constant companion and even now, 36 years later, it still comes readily to mind.
Only once was I asked to sell someone marijuana. “The other guy did,” said the disheartened customer, when I told him he was out of his mind. And only once did someone ask if I wasn’t scared, since someone had shot at a competitor’s truck a few days earlier.
About two weeks into my Tropical Ice Cream stint, I walked into work and heard Herm. Drivers stood in a circle around him and another man whose pride Herm was dissecting.
The driver, a scruffy younger fellow, had apparently had his truck towed from Santa Fe Springs when it broke down the day before. Repairmen later determined the problem to be a snapped fan belt. Herm seemed to think that any moron could have figured that out.
“A simple fucking fan belt. Don’t you know how to fix a fan belt? It’s the easiest goddamn thing in the world.”
And the abuse went on and on. The drivers crowded around, looking uncomfortable, but drawn to the smell of blood. Finally the driver, whose name I never knew, could take no more. In front of all of us, he began to cry. He held up his hands. They trembled.
“You see these hands,” he screamed, losing control as he tried to explain. “They used to slap ab in some of the best restaurants around. Now they can’t do it any more. I used to be one of the best abalone chefs around. Fuck your job.”
He ran out and stalked toward Mission. I never found out what was wrong with his hands and why they no could longer cook abalone.
We all stood there for a moment, embarrassed. Then Herm broke the silence that he could never stand for long.
“I don’t know what his problem is? All I said was it’s easy to fix a fucking fan belt. Jesus, he takes things too personal. Everybody back to work.”
Then with a wave of his cigar, he was off.
We all took our cue and slowly dispersed. Ed came up to me and informed me that the Santa Fe Springs route had an opening that day. I’d never heard of the place, not even on television commercials.
He gave me a routebook, an ice cream order and as I was walking away, he said, “Oh, and watch out for Big Al.”
I was a little too numbed by what had just occurred to wonder much about what he meant.
Santa Fe Springs proved to be about 30 miles away, over the hills and into the Los Angeles basin. It was near Downey. Downey, as any kid who watched commercials could tell you, was the home of Bob Spreen Cadillac: “Where the freeways meet (pause) in Downey,” went his commercial. I was glad to finally know where Downey was.
Still, I doubted I would make much. Santa Fe Springs sounded middle class. Ice cream men learn quickly that the best selling is in blue-collar neighborhoods, which can’t afford store-bought ice cream, but have the money for the occasional Popsicle or Push-up for their kids. So in the 1970s nothing warmed the ice cream man’s heart like driving down streets lined with big and battered American sedans, Doughboy swimming pools and seeing guys in blue mechanics shirts and Budweiser baseball caps going to work.
Once in town, I followed the routebook, then parked under some trees to read my path for the day. With my jingle going loud, I didn’t hear him come up.
I looked up. Next to me was another ice cream truck. Sitting in the springy driver’s seat, which was begging for mercy, sat an enormous squat white man, with a cap, a mustache and a scraggly beard. His belly-button peeked out from beneath a faded blue t-shirt.
“You work for Trop?’
“You see that book in your hand there, that’s my route. I wrote it,” he said. “This is my town. I’m going to dust your ass of the road.”
He roared off. As I watched him go, I said to myself, `There goes Big Al.’
I don’t remember much about that morning, except that I didn’t see Big Al at all. I forgot he existed and concentrated on making a killing.
I did all right that morning, for a morning. Santa Fe Springs wasn’t as middle-class as I’d feared. I saw a couple of Doughboy pools. And a few women were out watering their yards with curlers tangled in their hair. The yards were small, the grass was not too green. It was going to be an excellent day.
Still, any ice cream man knows the real selling doesn’t start until the sun is high in the sky. It was just after noon when I saw Big Al again. We were both making turns onto parallel streets, a block apart. He must have seen me because as I rounded the block and made a left onto the street between us, he had already made a right. He had sped up, come down the street ahead of me, and now slowed to a crawl as I trailed him. Down the street we marched, our jingles turned up loud. We sounded like a calliope run amok. The peace of the street was ruptured. Housewives came to their doors, holding their children to them.
Half way down the street, Big Al stopped for a customer, blocking my way. I could only sit and wait until he finished his sale. By this time our dueling jingles had brought the neighborhood to their front doors.
Big Al moved on and I left him as he turned down the next block.
The war escalated throughout the afternoon. Half a dozen times we met on some quiet street. Big Al, more familiar with the lay of the land, usually had the advantage. As the afternoon progressed, I found myself less concerned with selling and more preoccupied with beating Big Al onto the next street and leading our mad calliope for while before I stopped in the middle of the street and blocked his path. On a couple of occasions I sped by little children waving for me to stop. Wilson’s counsel to “Go Slow” was forgotten.
Once, as I stopped to sell, Big Al sent over a stringy-haired teenage boy who I’d seen working in his truck. I’m still mystified as to why. The kid stood in line, trying to act nonchalant. Some kind of reconnaissance mission, no doubt. He got to the front of the line and I told him to go to hell. He walked off, apparently lacking the intelligence he was supposed to gather.
Through it all, I thought of all the reasons why Big Al might have it in for me. Clearly, when he looked at me he saw Herm Trop. I could imagine Herm cussing the big fellow out.
Still, I had my competitive edge honed fine when about 3:30 that afternoon I was finishing the route for the second time. I found Big Al stopped and selling. Great. A golden opportunity to wreak havoc on the fat man. I parked beside him, relishing the thought of stealing his customers and forcing him to back up to get around me.
The plan was succeeded. As our jingles rocked yet another quiet neighborhood, I took three of his kids. I think I even sold a drumstick. I was hot. Big Al would be displeased.
Sure enough, his tires squealed as he backed up to get around me. I stood at my window selling Astrojets as fast as I could. The kids were all mine now.
I remember vaguely sensing him not pass by, but stopping instead. Strange.
Then I heard something fall into the front of my truck. The next moment the vehicle shuddered with a thunderous explosion. I fell back. The sound ricocheted against the tin walls. Shards of paper littered the floor. My ears were humming.
Outside a mother stared up at me with her mouth agape. She quickly pulled her son to her as I cursed and ran to the driver’s seat, pulled away and gave chase. I rounded a curve and saw him at a stop sign.
I accelerated. Big Al was mine. I’d like to say I rammed him and sent him headfirst through the front window. But at the last moment I lost my nerve and only bumped him.
My ears were still ringing and I was dazed from the attack. But I quickly realized my mistake. Big Al was truly enormous. Not tall, but wide. His arms were like hams and his stomach still peered out at the world from beneath his sweaty t-shirt. His truck sighed with relief as he got out.
He trundled up to me, hitching up his pants and adjusting his cap. There was no fooling him.
“You hit me.”
Here I figured I’d play dumb.
“What? You threw a cherry bomb in my truck and I can’t hear what you’re saying.”
He reached in and switched off my jingle.
“You hit me,” he said with a sneer, “and if I wasn’t on parole I’d rearrange your face.”
I left Santa Fe Springs that afternoon and didn’t return for 20 years or so.
I stayed for another three weeks at Tropical, working intermittently, then school started and I never went back.
I’d love to know what became of Big Al. I saw where Herm Trop died a few years back, at the age of 87.
Pomona’s downtown has made an unexpected and successful transformation, and the Pomona Mall is now an arts and antiques district and the Fox Theater has been restored. The last time I drove down Reservoir, there wasn’t an ice cream truck around for miles.
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