Summer Guide: Chillin' With the Ice Cream Man

A peek into the high stakes world of ice cream—full of cutthroat 'gypsies' and Choco Tacos

Above: Adorable, but foolish, a child makes the common mistake of choosing Spongebob over Spider-Man's superior flavor.

In 1580, an Englishman named Richard Jones wrote a catchy melody called “Greensleeves”—a whimsical tune scholars speculate is about a prostitute getting grass stains from copulating in a field.

Today it’s one of the two and a half functioning songs on Mark Davison’s “Nichols Electronics” music box, mounted on the dashboard of his 1977 DJ-5 ice-cream truck.

“We’ve got ‘Greensleeves,’ ‘Home on the Range,’ and this thing,” he says. A shrill four-second loop of broken carnival music starts repeating over and over. “Pretty terrible, right?” Davison says, quickly switching it back to “Greensleeves.”

As the tune’s pleasant Elizabethan whimsy returns, 40 yards away we spot an adorable child on a bicycle. The clarion call of icy goodness resonating from our truck suddenly registers in the child’s brain. His bike rolls to a complete stop.

Paralyzed, the child stares back.

“Hello, there!” Davison waves at the child in his upbeat, cartoonish voice.

In a fit of passion, the child suddenly tosses his bicycle to the ground, runs across the street, and pounds on the door of his home, screaming for the deliverance of his mother and three crisp dollar bills.

“It’s funny,” Davison says. “Kids on bikes always decide to dump them and go on foot when they see me. You’d think it’d be faster to ride home to get money.”

Davison, a kind-faced, white-bearded man with a hearty chuckle, has collected an impressive catalog of astute observations on the psychology of children and their families over the six summers he’s operated Chillz, his Kirkland-based ice-cream-truck empire (he owns other trucks and several stands) with the motto “Be Safe, Have Fun, Eat Ice Cream.”

“If kids don’t know anything, they get Spongebob,” he says, gesturing to one of the four Popsicle varieties printed on his yellow shirt. “The flavor is terrible; Spider Man is a bit better. Older folks usually get fudge pops. If dads ever get anything, without fail it’s the Snickers bar. Teenage boys tend to get Choco Tacos—they think the name is funny or something. Little girls like watermelon pops. When it’s cooler outside, people like ice cream more—when it’s warmer out, they tend to go for popsicles,” Davison says.

This man’s life work is making children very happy. A year after getting into the summer ice-cream-truck business, Davison also tacked on the coveted and lucrative title of “Mall Santa.” Children, recognizing Davison’s jolly facial features, often ask him if he’s Santa. “Now do you think Santa would actually leave the North Pole in the summer to go around selling ice cream?” he always tells them.

Beneath the jingles and cute clamoring children, the ice-cream-truck business can get deceptively intense. Fighting for turf is a real struggle—other ice-cream men we reached out to for this piece refused a ride-along, fearing we would disclose their routes to parasitic, enterprising imposters.

One day, Davison discovered that a man with a nearly identical ice-cream truck had “bombed” a popular apartment complex on his well-established Kirkland neighborhood route. The children mistook the imposter for one of Davison’s drivers, and ran out in droves. They were quickly disheartened that the man was charging dollars more than Davison, and only stocked about half of the items advertised on his truck.

“I call them ‘ice-cream gypsies,’ ” Davison says. “They come and steal the kids from the best spots on your routes, and disappoint them with their price-gouging. When I came back to the apartment complex, the kids and their parents were all mad at me for raising prices! I had to convince them that this guy wasn’t [one of my guys].”

Kids know Davison. They know exactly what time he will drive by their homes, and talk to him like a family member.

“One of the most interesting parts of driving the same route for six years is seeing things change,” Davison says. “I’ve seen so much development in these neighborhoods, so many families come and go. I’ve known some of these kids since I started the job. It’s incredible to watch them grow up.”

We pull up to one house where the whole family—Mom, Dad, and two brothers—are waiting at the front of their driveway with money in hand. Davison tells me he’s been delivering ice cream to the younger boy since he was born. Today he is wearing two plastic 12th Man necklaces.

“Hello, there!” Davison waves. “Well, look at that—are you the 12th Man? Or, well, you’ve got two—looks like you’re the 24th Man!”

“Um, I’m actually 6½ years old,” the boy says. “Who is that in the back with you?”

“We’ve got a reporter following me today to find out what it’s like to be the ice-cream man,” Davison says.

“One day I want to be the ice-cream man like you,” the boy tells Davison. “I just got a Jeep like yours, except it’s small and kid-sized so I don’t think I can fit any ice cream in it yet.”

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