One in a series savoring the region’s seasonal bounty.
SALEM — As Carlos Rocha swings his black ice cream truck onto Palmer Street, bound for the local playground, he hits play on his iPod.
The jingle from “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” echoes through the neighborhood as he brings his truck to a stop in front of Mary Jane Lee Park.
It’s a little after 2 p.m., 85 degrees, and the sun is shining, but there isn’t a child in sight.
The 57-year-old Rocha saunters out of his truck, wiping the sweat from his brow.
He squints, looking for signs of life.
“This place is usually packed,” he says, leaning against a fence post.
Rocha and his wife own Terry’s Olde Fashion Ice-Cream Shoppe in Marblehead but for the past two years, he has taken up the dying trade of neighborhood ice cream man.
‘I want to keep the kids happy. Like the old days.’
He has learned that rising gas prices, truck maintenance, and volatile weather make running an ice cream truck a costly enterprise.
“It’s hit or miss,” he says.
Right now, Mary Jane Lee Park is looking like a miss.
Then, from behind the jungle gym comes a low rumble.
Seven-year-old Adonis Valenzuela zooms out of the shade on his Razor scooter, tearing around the park path on a beeline for the truck.
He hops a crack in the pavement, tilts his head back, and lets out the classic summer clarion call: “Ice cream!”
Like clockwork, a gaggle of children, older siblings, and parents emerges from the shaded benches in the back of the park.
Valenzuela tosses his scooter to the ground and runs up to Rocha’s window.
“What do you want?” the ice cream man asks.
Valenzuela hops back and forth in place, waiting for his older sister, Taiz Ortiz, to cross the playground.
At 14, she controls the cash.
The duo settle on a plastic cone of blue raspberry ice cream, and Ortiz pulls a folded $5 bill from her purse.
Valenzuela runs back to a bench in the shade, cone in hand, ice cream already dripping from the corners of his mouth.
Ortiz asks her little brother for a scoop, and that other staple of summer life, sibling ice cream politics, rears its head.
“Wait,” he squeals, pulling the ice cream closer to his chest.
He takes one last bite before handing it over.
“I paid for it,” she says with a smile, taking her own scoop.
Back at the truck, Rocha takes stock of his offerings and prepares for his next stop, an isolated beach in Marblehead.
He has been in the ice cream business since 1980, nine years after he arrived in New England from his native Portugal.
The shop in Marblehead opened in 2004 and by 2011 was doing so well, he and his wife, Terry, decided to hit the road.
The truck would not be a big moneymaker, Rocha figured, but it would promote the shop. Plus, it would be nice to spend time outside in the summer. Then, an electrical fire tore through the ice cream shop that fall.
“If I didn’t have the truck,” he said, “there was no way I could have opened back up.”
The truck helped stabilize his finances and the shop reopened in a new location last October.
He still takes the truck out but splits his time between neighborhood routes and events booked in advance. He can make twice as much at festivals and birthday parties as on a route.
The innocent days of trucks roaming quiet summer streets are a memory for most towns. Anyone who works in an ice cream truck must undergo a full criminal background check, and sex offenders are banned from receiving permits.
The state does not keep data on how many trucks operate in the Commonwealth, but many drivers say neighborhood trucks have begun to disappear.
Despite the cost of a truck, Rocha still has a soft spot for dishing out soft serve on the neighborhood route. “I want to keep the kids happy,” he said. “Like the old days.”
Twisting past stone walls and big beach homes, Rocha blasts his jingle again before turning onto secluded Grace Oliver Beach in Marblehead.
The tide is high, and there are only a handful of people on the beach.
It looks like another miss until 7-year-old Anna Stilwell climbs up from the beach clutching a fistful of sandy dollars.
She goes straight for the Tweety Bird ice cream bar.
She trots back to the beach, unwrapping the bar. Disaster strikes: Her 3-year-old brother, Beckett, reaches for the bar and knocks it to the sand.
The two argue while Anna tries to wipe grains of sand from the ice cream.
Rocha overhears the two and comes down from the truck holding a fresh Tweety Bird.
As the kids munch on their ice cream, their mother, Mary Beth, laughs.
Another summer day, same story.
“How is it?” mom asks Anna. “Was it worth $5?”
Anna slowly nods.
“I ate his gumball eye,” she says proudly before strolling down the beach.
Rocha returns to the truck and leaves the beach, off to try his luck elsewhere.
After cycling through his usual places, he closes shop at 8:30 p.m.
He ends another summer day, this time, with more hits than misses.Javier Panzar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org Follow him on Twitter @jpanzar.