The Bubblegum Cigarette Racket

My brief boyhood interaction with the maybe-not-so-innocent neighborhood ice cream man.

The Bubblegum Cigarette Racket

We knew the song because everyone knows the song. The song carries a meaning like something instinctual, like birdsong or thunder. We’d sprint from the icebox of the living room into the triple-digit heat of the Texas summer, chasing down the Ice Cream Man. We always caught him; he drove slowly.

Kelsey and Richard and Jennie and James — that was us, the kids. We didn’t love the Ice Cream Man, but we depended on him. He provided an essential service that went beyond daily sweets. I remember using one of his Popsicle Ice Cream Turbo Pops to assuage a lost (broken) tooth after I fell (was pushed) down the small slide that led to our kiddie pool in the front yard. The tip of the Turbo Pop was red, which made it hard to distinguish blood from melted syrup.

When the Ice Cream Man came through, Kelsey handled the exchange. I’ve always had a fear of money, which is to say I’ve always had a fear of responsibility. The exchange worked mostly the way you might expect: give money, get ice cream. The rub came when we stood there waiting for change and the Ice Cream Man held his hand above our heads, palm-face up, and shook his head.

From behind the woolly curtain of his mustache, he explained: “No coins.”

We had to take his word for it, because otherwise we’d have to stack ourselves in a human ladder to glimpse into that large palm and see for certain if he was lying. He was, of course, but we had no way of calling him out.

We reached a deal. Rather than coins, we’d take bubble gum cigarettes as change. We were thrilled.

The bubble gum cigarette racket continued until my mom finally thought to ask for change. We reached into our pockets and produced a dozen sticks. Momma Bear wasn’t pleased. By the time the Ice Cream Man came back around, Momma Bear had gone from not-pleased to peeved to pissed.

So pissed-off Momma Bear strutted out after the slow-rolling Ice Cream Man and stopped him in the street. He listened to her tirade for a patient minute. Then, brilliantly, from behind the woolly curtain of his mustache, he explained: “No English.” Momma Bear hooted and stomped until the Ice Cream Man drove off. The jig was up, and the Ice Cream Man never came back.

We’d later hear him — driving down nearby streets, a peddler like any other — and think to chase him down. We never did. It was too risky, the heat too oppressive, our sense of geography too pitifully lacking.

Richard smokes now, and thinks the detail of the bubble gum cigarettes must be significant. Kelsey instinctively curls up whenever she hears the song, and she won’t go out with friends to hail down other ice cream men. Jennie and I have developed a habit of protecting the identity of those who have slighted ourselves or our family. That way, we keep Momma Bear away from confrontation.