One of the first articles I wrote for The Daily Meal had to do with a certain New York City woman, newly arrived in Harlem after purchasing a condo in late winter, who, come summer, repeatedly called the police to complain about a Mister Softee ice cream truck playing its jingle on the corner outside her window.
It was meant to be a straight-faced news item, but I had trouble holding back my disdain for an entitled gentrifier who had assumed she could simply purchase part of the block and ruin things for everyone without adapting to her new neighborhood’s existing cultural patterns. I felt justified. How could anyone call the police over an ice cream truck?
While I still maintain that calling the authorities is a bad idea in almost all circumstances, I have come around to at least one part of the unnamed woman’s argument: Ice cream trucks are a total nuisance.
A little background: I moved to my historically less posh (shall we say) neighborhood of Brooklyn a few years ago from Asheville, North Carolina (an under-the-radar food town, sure, but small) — and, man, I was down for it. My neighborhood had exactly what I’d come to New York City for — trash-strewn streets, a longstanding and vibrant local culture, a reasonable level of diversity and a burgeoning arts and nightlife scene largely fueled by millennial transplants and second-wave gentrifiers, like myself, from other regions or from other parts of the city.
I arrived in mid-summer, and the playful lilt of the ice cream truck jingle was one of the signals that I now lived in the amazing, vibrant, chaotic New York that this country mouse had previously only seen reflected in, like, Spike Lee joints and episodes of “Seinfeld.” Hearing the ice cream truck camped out on my block meant that my semi-fictional dream city was meshing with my reality, the equivalent of watching a woman in a suit run to the curb with her arm raised yelling “Taxi!” as though the driver could hear her. It was like watching kids run through the spray of a pried-off fire hydrant, or looking at the skyline from a rooftop that I had to climb through someone’s roommate’s closet to get to. Hearing the ice cream truck was like getting great pizza by the slice or exchanging a knowing glance with a savvy bodega cat.
The distant jingle seemed like the soundtrack of the place where I’d always wanted to be. Eventually, I learned to differentiate the various truck companies — there are at least two rival ice cream cabals that patrol my neighborhood, as well as a host of seemingly independent operators — by their individual jingles.
And, eventually, I learned to despise every single one.
First off, let’s agree that ice cream is delicious, and that children are wonderful and they deserve treats. I’m sure a case could be made that ice cream trucks are a burden on traffic flow or a nutrition-negative public health hazard or an economic drain on struggling communities — but I’m not here to make that case.
No, I hate the ice cream truck for the same reason as that Harlem gentrifier I was so prepared to malign: The jingles are an intolerable commercial intrusion into public mental space. You can hear them loud and clear from three blocks away. The melodies aren’t designed to be pleasant to listen to or to make anyone happy; they’re just designed to make sure you know the ice cream peddler has arrived bearing sweet, sweet dairy treats.
Imagine a truck driving slowly down your street (or worse, posting up on your block for an hour) while blasting the words “Nike… Just Do It.” over and over from a loudspeaker, or a Papa John’s pizza truck blaring John Schnatter’s voice repeating “Better ingredients, better pizza!” You’d be aghast. People supposedly dislike aggressive, garish public branding — loud, glowing, taunting advertisements are one of the ways that dystopian movies signal to viewers that the characters are navigating a soulless hellscape.
Mister Softee’s iconic jingle is, essentially, the brand’s “Just Do It.” The company guards it as jealously as any other brand guards its own trademarks — Mister Softee famously filed a lawsuit against a splinter faction in 2015 to prevent copycats from playing the song. And just like any other commercial entity, Mister Softee and his ilk have no qualms about forcing their marketing into your brain right through your open window.
Look, no one chooses to live in New York City for the peace and quiet. But certain sounds — the rattle and screech of the elevated train pulling into the station, the incessant fire and ambulance sirens — result naturally from the churn of city life, in response to the needs of the people who live there. I still love these sounds.
The ice cream jingle, on the other hand, exists to create a need that is not there. The bodega on the corner actually has a freezer fully stocked with ice cream, if anyone ever wants some — but the ice cream truck crashes through the block with a hard sell, whether you thought you wanted ice cream or not. It calls to kids directly in the same way that has been roundly criticized when employed by companies that sell cigarettes or sugary cereal. It forces parents to either pony up or explain to their heartbroken kids why ice cream time isn’t always ice cream time.
I’m not saying we need to lock up Mister Softee for noise pollution or ban food vendors from operating on city streets. But instead of treating it as a welcome sound of summer, we should call out the jingle for what it is: a self-interested appropriation of the public soundscape, the moral equivalent of that guy blasting music from his car or revving his engine at the stoplight.
This summer, while I’m sitting on a rooftop that I had to crawl through my friend’s roommate’s closet to get to, I’ll tune out the ice cream jingle as best I can. I’m trying to hear the splash of water as it pours out of the fire hydrant.
Jeremy Rose is a geek about how food and drink interact with culture, language, science, economics and ethics. He lives in Brooklyn with a three-legged cat, and rather than feed a virulent earworn he’d prefer to make a delicious summer cocktail at home.