Friday, January 16, 2009

Romantic thoughts from an Ice Cream Truck

There are Eureka moments in your life, the one's where something pops, synapses fire, neurons open up a whole new highway to someplace new. We're all far removed from the days when we were 8, and we spent each day wanting to get toys and what crack not to step on outside. And it's not those moments after you've painted your mailbox gray, or cut the leaves off of your mother's favorite plant, and your dad comes home furious. It's those times when the knowledge of something far more than what you knew suddenly opens up.

Summers in Georgia are filled with hot, sweaty, humid days, and there is nothing like hearing the tones of a ringing bell driving down the street in either a rhythm, or in short, staccato notes that toll of a break from July and a moment of December (in your mouth, at least) as the Ice Cream truck meanders down the road. And on the side of the road, are children, crumbling up the dollar bills placed in their hands by parents who want either a moments peace, or know that if one dollar can give their children a little happiness, then it's much more important than the dollar that goes to pay the light bills. Maybe there's a tinge of nostalgia in those dollars, as if the parents would be out there as well, shouting out "esta esta" while pointing at the colorful images of fudge bars and banana popscicles.

The ice cream truck business is, for the driver, not a very pleasurable experience. The trucks here in Georgia are ones bought from the brink of extinction, with no hint of an Air Conditioner ever having been installed. The motors may run...may not. And the coolers inside the trucks are the same way...bought from some dying grandmother's estate sale and coached back to life by some duct tape and some freon. So it is expected that successful, eager businessmen are not going to choose "ice cream truck driver" as their first profession. Instead*, this falls to the people who are down on their luck, swept aside by society, forced into such a job because there's nothing much more they can do, with drugs or mental conditions slowing their thinking capacities down so that it may be hard to make change for the tykes with the dollar bills. But that is not to say that ice cream truck drivers are reprobates and criminals. The ones I met are usually very normal, kind people, with the conditions that have brought them to that state being their only vices.

And so it was that my stepdad, now retired and looking for a way to contribute to the family budget, got in contact with the local ice cream truck service and became one of their best drivers. And while I never understood why he would rather put the dry ice into the coolers (which never did quite keep the ice cream cool enough) with his bare hands, I understood (or think I do, now) why he took the job.

The ice cream, you see, was not just high caloried milk and sugar, but rather bars of short-term happiness. We were bringing treats into neighborhoods that normally would never have gotten such things. For in the time that he drove the ice cream trucks, the best neighborhoods to sell from were the poorest socio-economically. But the parents were always willing to give a dollar, or 50 cents, to the kids to get something from the truck each day.

I went with my stepdad a couple of times, and marveled at the joy we could bring kids just by traveling down the street and selling ice cream. Didn't they know they could get more for a fraction of the cost just by going to the grocery store? But that would be ruining the experience.

So I remember sitting in the passenger seat of the ice cream truck on some hot Spring day, reading a book that my 12th grade English teacher (Mr. Nunes, a professor at Dekalb College, now Ga Perimeter), had assigned to us. And there, in that ice cream truck, I had what I call a Eureka moment (my second to that point, but that's another story.)

[*These statements are opinions based on experience only and are not endorsed by the Ice Cream Truck Drivers of America.]

Most people have no problem living without thinking deep thoughts. The most serious conversations might cover the attributes of the latest American Idol contestant or the Defensive strategies of the Chicago Bears (which is usually Urlacher, all the time). And for some reason, teachers hold out the really important stuff till you get to High School. I remember in 11th grade, Mrs. Cook teaching us American Literature. In doing so, I was introduced for the first time to the ways that people thought about the world. By the time we got to Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men, I was awash in being able to think about literature in ways of symbolism, in the ways that people think about life. Earlier that year, she introduced a way of thinking called Romanticism. As she explained it, it was talking about things that were of Nature, thinking emotionally about the world, and dealing with the unknown in ways that accepted the irrationality of human existence. And that was okay, I guess. I read Thoreau and really enjoyed his writings, but never really quite got past that. All those meanings and thoughts meant nothing to me, not really.

But the next year, Mr. Nunes really got into the processes in which philosophers thought about the world during each period of literature. How that the unknown was looked at either with scientific assuredness that one day mankind would know everything, or in the supernatural wonder that there were things that we could never know, and only could grasp through the heights of mental thought. He showed us how Nature could be the trim, properly cared for gardens of Wordsworth's poetry, or the wild foreboding mountaintops of Coleridge, or the cold, uncaring Nature of Stephen Crane's "The Open Boat."

And so it was, I sat in the back of my stepdad's Ice Cream truck, reading a copy of Goethe's Sorrows of Young Werther, a tale of forbidden love and the throes of emotional outburst and melancholy. The love interest of Werther being an already married woman, and the love that he felt he could only return as friendship, as society would not let him go further. And as the emotions welled up inside him, he delved into philosophical thought about life, about nature, about the world as Goethe would have seen it (through the beliefs of Immanuel Kant.)

It came to me, as I was reading, that the ideas of Romanticism, the yearning, the emotions that are brought back in times of quiet solitude (Wordsworth), that pain and pleasure are usually the same thing, and things that are not always obtainable, be it paradise, or love, or simply a warm touch, are things we must keep striving for, even if it drives us insane. We must keep pushing further towards those heights of feelings, and not live in the microcosm that is our own boring lives. I had on my front Myspace Page (and will again) a quote from the band Engima, "Open your Heart, and Push the Limits." This is the feeling I got in that Ice cream truck. It's the Eureka moment that said, "There's more out there than just video games and ice cream. The world is filled with experiences and knowledge that are just waiting to be slurped up. If only you would climb up to the cliffs of this world and look out over to the far reaches, to experiences and emotions still unknown to us in this world." My only regret is that I have not always striven to do this, as fear of those heights are as real as those a acrophobe has. We have to live according to society's rules, for the most part, and unfortunately, the laws are there to keep us safe, ere we fall.

One day, I will return to Goethe's masterpiece, and will refresh those feelings I had that warm spring day. And perhaps living in the Phenomenal world (as Kant would call it) is for the best, as there are few times in our lives when we can climb up to the apex. In the valleys, there is happiness and contentment, even if there is paradise on the mountain.

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