QUINCY — The heat radiates off the asphalt, children on tiptoes hand up crumpled bills, and adults wrestle with decisions beneath Order Here arrows at half-open windows crowded with picture menus and homemade signs.
“Can you get hard-serve dipped in chocolate?”
“Are the Italian ices good? The Italian ices? Are they good?”
“Wait, what did he get? I want that.”
You can feel it in the clinging heat and see it in the line at the Dairy Freeze, the long, languid line on this Thursday night crossing the parking lot and curling back at the street, nobody in a hurry. The longest weeknight line so far, on the hottest night of the year, since the annual optimistic opening back in March.
This is the night when all the people who had been going for ice cream sometimes after softball games or dance practice or when the homework was done seem to come at once. The night when the mosquitoes emerge. The night when you wonder how the giant Eskimo boy who has looked down from the sign for so many years, holding a soft-serve cone and swaddled in a parka, can bear the heat, and when a long-awaited season seems at last to have arrived.
“Tonight, it feels like summer,” says Elaine Zagami, who is 60 now, though when she is here she could be 14 again. “There’s something in the air.”
It has arrived without respect to the calendar, too late for Memorial Day, ahead of the solstice and the end of school. And it has settled in muggy fashion, in a way that you know it is really here.
There are three seasons at a place like this, the ice cream stand boarded up in winter: almost summer, summer, and holding onto summer. The first one just became the second.
This is the Dairy Freeze on Adams Street, 50 years old this year, or so the owner says. Some are sure it has been here longer, certainly longer than they can remember.
There are places like it all over New England. If you drew an ice cream stand from memory, it would look like this. Wide and squat, all windows and awning, plunked down on a patch of parking lot alongside the road, no inside seats, no picnic tables, people of all ages eating up against their cars. Candy-colored paint and buzzing fluorescent tube lights. A small menu section labeled “From The Oven” and a big section labeled “From The Fryer,” but soft-serve ice cream the star of the show.
On a night like this, winter seems like it happened years ago. Even last weekend, when it got down to 41 in Boston, feels like a distant joke.
“That’s crazy,” says Madelyn Buchanan, eating a dish of moose tracks and Kahlua brownie in her Buick, all the windows down. “Typical New England weather.”
At 8:15 there are 44 people in line, at 8:45 there are 48, the line turning over a couple of times. Little girls play tag in the corner of the parking lot, singing in unison. “Dead man, dead man, come alive, when we say the number five!” A dad in suit pants and an untucked dress shirt cradles a toddler, the child’s face covered in a perfect Van Dyke beard of vanilla soft serve.
A melting lump of mint chocolate chip oozes over the pavement, but not for long. A door opens, and a long-limbed summer employee emerges with a bucket, splashing it away.
The line thins, grows again, refuses to disappear completely.
Zagami, who now lives in North Attleborough, pulls in at 9:57 p.m., three minutes before closing. “Yessss!” she says, pumping a fist, joining the back of the line.
She came here as a kid with her mom and dad and her three sisters, after they moved over the Neponset from Dorchester in 1967. She is picking up ice cream tonight for herself and her parents, Betty and Gus Antonakos, now in their 80s.
She steps back from the window, last in line, clutching summer to go in a paper bag. The manager, Susan Crouch, switches off the overhead lights and the spotlight on the Eskimo, the lot illuminated now only by the faint glow from the stand. A young woman in a Ford Explorer pulls up.
“Are you closed?” she asks.
“No,” a voice says from behind the Order Here window. “We can still serve.”
It’s 10:03, but what do a few minutes matter? Summer is here.