My Life With Lowell’s Favorite Good Humor Man, Mister Softee
By Pierre V. Comtois
He became a summer tradition.
When the sun shone down from blue, cloudless skies and heated up the city sidewalks such that
walking barefoot was impossible without burning your feet, there was that familiar jingle that came wafting on the still atmosphere of lazy afternoons or the heavy air of approaching evening. Then it was that the boys of summer filled local parks with their softball leagues and young people seeking the cool of darkening skies crowded city parks. Children ran about or climbed the monkey bars fearing only the first street light signaling the time to go home and older teens found dark corners to steal a kiss with a willing lass.
That was exactly when activity would halt with the sound of the distant notes. Hurriedly, teens dug into their jeans to count out change and fathers would peel out a few dollars from thick billfolds. And as the jingle grew louder, the truck would appear at the far end of the park, lit all around both inside and out so that its markings were unmistakable: not a boring popsicle truck this, but a purveyor of real ice cream made from creamy West Lynn mix into vanilla and chocolate flavors. Banana boats, floats, sundaes, and parfaits; double cones or mixed cones smothered in jimmies or colored “tippy toes;” popcorn and snow cones and cartwheels too. And for that last penny, double bubble bubble gum pieces were there to be had.
With a loud roar of its powerful generator, the truck would finally pull up just behind the baseball diamond’s back stop, the driver cut the engine, and in a trice, gleaming in his paper hat, white shirt, and stained apron, he’d be there on his little revolving stool and asking the first in a long line of customers waiting eagerly at the window “What’ll it be shorty?”
Mister Softee had arrived!
It was like that summer after summer for twenty-five years, from 1960 to 1985 until the presence of Mister Softee (even if no one knew his real name) became an institution in the city of Lowell, still dead or dying as it was with idle factory floors and decaying mill buildings. An institution everyone took for granted until one day the familiar truck with its giant representation of the coneheaded Mister Softee on its sides, its dazzling fluorescent lights, and its much-anticipated treats, was suddenly gone.
Mister Softee (whoever he was) had retired and for many, life in the city on hot summer nights would never be quite the same.
That was over 35 years ago when life-long Lowell resident Vincent Comtois retired.
Yes, now it can be told. Mister Softee was my father, Vincent Comtois. Born in 1924 on Lakeview Avenue, right on the Lowell/Dracut town line, he was thirty-five years old when he suffered an eye injury while on the job working in a quarry. Out of work, he saw an ad in the Lowell Sun that representatives of the Mister Softee Corp. of Runnemede, N.J. were going to be in Methuen to talk to interested parties about joining their franchise. With a doubtful wife in tow, Vinny made the trip to Methuen, heard the rep’s spiel, toured a sample truck, and was sold on the idea of becoming an ice cream vendor.
Borrowing the money from relatives, he bought his first truck which in the beginning he kept in the front yard of his Desrosiers Street home in Centralville, only steps from where he grew up on Lakeview Avenue. Now he was in debt both for a new house he’d had built only the year before and for a new business as well as having three children to support. Quickly, the basement of the house was filled with supplies: boxes filled with ice cream cones, sundae cups and banana boats, soda cups, and plastic spoons, cartwheel cookies, and jars of butterscotch and strawberry syrup. Also outside, alongside the house, was a big, walk in refrigerator where he kept the ice cream mix that was delivered every other day by the Lynn Creamery. Health Department regulations required washing and sanitizing the serving area in the truck every day and so, mornings were given over to that and after noon time, he took to the streets of Lowell to begin his route.
Afternoons were spent in Pawtucketville and lower Centralville and evenings in upper Centralville (Shedd and West 9th and 5th Streets), the Acre (Rock and Lagrange Streets), and part of the Highlands (Textile Avenue). But the evenings were dominated by public parks where much of the local action took place. In particular, he visited St. Louis Park in Centralville multiple times a night and was always mobbed. In between, he stopped in Pawtucketville where there were always pickup games going on at a sunken basketball court. (Named after Fr. Bourgeois since 1973) There, he took turns stopping on Textile Avenue and in the back parking area where Olsen Hall stands now.
To his relieved wife’s surprise, Mister Softee proved to be a hit with the city’s residents. Vinny had at last found his niche! However, one couldn’t make a living for a growing family working only six months a year. At least not in the beginning. In the other half of the year, Vinny scrambled to find other kinds of work. What local mills were still in operation provided employment in the early years, but Vinny soon branched out with another self-employment gig. He became a milkman delivering milk, juice, cream, and butter doing business as Vincent’s Dairy on a route he bought along with a van then a used pickup truck.
Each morning began at four o’clock loading up at Charboneau Dairy, a Book Street distributor located just down the street off Lakeview Avenue, and ended about ten a.m. He kept this job for years even in the summers while working the ice cream truck. By the second year in business as Mister Softee, he’d built a new garage that allowed him to move his truck indoors and room to store his supplies (and an extra stall for a second truck if he decided to expand). Vinny paid a neighbor to come in every day to wash and sanitize the truck while he ground ice for snow cones and popped corn for popcorn and restocked the truck with supplies. In the evenings when he came home around nine p.m., he’d pull up in front of the house to drop off the money tray with my mother for counting (later, I took over that job and the gungy pennies and sticky dimes that had been clutched in sweaty little hands was awful; when I finished counting and rolling the change I couldn’t get to the sink fast enough to wash my hands!) But the workday wasn’t over yet. In the garage, Vinny would take another hour or so making cartwheels (Mister Softee specialty ice cream sandwiches) and then draining the ice cream machines.
As the years passed, Vinny’s Mister Softee business became a family affair. A few years after starting, he hired the oldest of my cousins to take over for him on Sundays so that he could spend a few hours with the family usually taking us to local places like the Merrimack River for a swim or Lakeview Park or Benson’s Wild Animal Farm.
Meanwhile, me and my sisters were brought in to help out. We’d take turns making the “chilleroos,” flavored ice on a stick made with Mister Softee copyrighted cups and sticks. Over a low table, we’d arrange fifty cups at a time and from a dispenser, fill each one with flavored water (strawberry, grape, etc) then snap on a plastic cover through which we’d slip a wooden stick in a prepared slot. After that, we’d very carefully, transfer the cups into a waiting freezer counter stacking them just right and making sure the plastic covers remained firmly in place. It was a delicate operation (especially when the freezer was deep and we had to lie on our bellies in order to reach all the way to the bottom) to stack the cups so they didn’t fall over. If that happened and mix spilled out, it would freeze quickly on contact with the snowy bottom of the freezer and make a mess that would be the devil to clean. My father paid us fifty cents an hour for that job!
On Saturday mornings, I washed the outside of the truck (being paid a princely $1 for the job) There was a lot to it. Plenty of filling and refilling a pail with soapy water, climbing up and down a ladder to reach all the way to the top where dead bugs plastered themselves around the lights. Beneath the serving window you were sure to find long since hardened smears of ice cream and hard to wash off dirty handprints and shoe scrapes. Worst of all though, was trying to clean the greasy oil that always managed to collect near the exhaust outlet at the back of the truck where the generator was. Believe you me, I worked for every penny of that dollar!
When I got a little older, my father took me on to work with him on the truck. I’m not sure how much value I was to him except to make sure no one reached inside and tried to make a grab at the handle that dispensed the root beer or orange soda. Still, I managed to handle my share of customers and quickly got the hang of laying down the twirls of ice cream onto small or large cones. Banana boats were the easiest to make and the most fun as I got to pour the syrups over the ice cream! But working on the truck wasn’t all peaches and cream. Besides having to dodge my father who was always in a hurry, there were the customers themselves. Sure, most people were patient and well behaved, but a few were less so. Particularly in the rougher neighborhoods of the city where jokers used to plant nails or glass under the truck’s wheels (more than once my father had to take the truck in to have the tires changed due to punctures caused by such pranks) or kids climbing on the front and rear bumpers for an impromptu ride up the street. Often my father had to stop the truck and chase the kids off. Others would buy an ice cream only to throw it at the truck (they particularly liked to smear it over the big front windows) Then there were the would-be freeloaders who constantly asked for credit or ordered something and then left without paying. I used to ask my father why we needed to go to those neighborhoods but he always replied, “Because that’s where the money is.”
Not that money was everything for Vinny. There was also family, and faith. When St. Louis Parish held its annual carnival to fundraiser, my father would be there with his truck, volunteering a few precious, late summer days for the cause. In those days when families traveled a lot less than they do now, a neighborhood carnival was a big attraction. At recess, kids in the schoolyard would watch the roustabouts pitch tents and assemble rides talking about what they planned to do first when the carnival opened. Saturday was the big day for the carnival when it seemed everyone in the world was there and the streets of Centralville were like a ghost town. The parish sold its own hot dogs and hamburgers from a kitchen set up in the rectory’s garage but the biggest food items were pizza sold by the slice and of course, Mister Softee! Parked at the end of the garage near the schoolyard, Vinny handed out free ice cream to the clergy and donated all of his earnings made during the carnival to the parish. The last thing I’d do when I left the carnival for the day, my arms filled with prizes and one hand holding a pizza, was to visit the truck to say so long to my father. He’d be there long after I left and into the night making for a very long weekend. It was moments like that, looking back at him as more people filled the serving window after I left and those brief summers working with him on the truck, that I learned to have a great deal more appreciation for what he did in order to support his family.
But aside from petty vandalism what caused him the most anxiety was the truck’s generator. At least once every season, it would just go on the blink which would cause my father to go into a panic because there were no qualified technicians in Lowell who could work on such a complicated piece of machinery. His first stop in such instances was at a local garage off Hildreth Street. If he was lucky, it would be a simple problem the mechanic there could fix but if it wasn’t, that meant a second resort to Frank Page, a cousin in Salem who was a self-taught mechanic and one of those guys who seemed to be able to fix anything. (Inspired by my father’s example to get into the business himself, Frank and his wife Ruthy owned a popsicle truck as well as my father’s first Mister Softee truck sold to him when my father upgraded; over the decades Frank and Ruthy likewise became legends in their own community)
But going to Salem invariably meant at least a couple days off the road and every day lost was money out of Vinny’s pocket. Most bothersome of all were those rare instances when Frank couldn’t fix the generator. That meant the worst possible scenario: a drive down to Runnemede, New Jersey where the Mister Softee Corp. had its headquarters and its qualified mechanics. Needless to say, by the time Vinny had exhausted all his possibilities and returned from an indefinite stay in New Jersey, over a week of the prime summer season was likely to have been lost.
In later years, some of the stress was relieved when first, my younger sister Rachelle helped him on the truck and then my younger brother Joe. Like myself, Joe’s experiences working with my father could be unpleasant too.
“The kids in the rough neighborhoods would buy an ice cream and throw it back at us through the window or smear it on the front windshield,” recalled Joe. “They threw rocks and even fired shots with their BB guns at the truck from surrounding homes. And when things were quiet around the truck, I knew what was going down. They were scrawling their names on the back of the truck with magic markers. New song titles, drawings, ‘Ed loves Sue,’ and simple initials were always popular. The Mr. Softee franchise company would offer to repaint the truck free once every three years, but so what? It needed it every three days!
“My father had a rule on the truck: if it started to rain and we made three stops without getting a single customer, we could go home,” said Joe. “By the end of that first summer, I was praying for rain every day! But my father was always reluctant to give up. He just waited longer at every stop hoping someone would show up.
“I managed to stay on the job for another season or so but by then I’d had enough,” concluded Joe. “It was hard to understand how my father could put up with the job for as long as he did. So I asked him once, ‘You must love this job to have stuck with it the way you did for all these years.’ But his reply was a surprise to me; I just wasn’t mature enough at twelve years old to realize that there could be more compelling reasons to stick with a job you didn’t like. ‘I did it because I didn’t know any other way to make enough money to support my family,’ he told me. It was then I realized that he endured the long hours, the extra jobs in the winter, the insults from unthinking kids, and the petty thievery from dishonest customers, for me.”
After Joe, Louis, the youngest, stepped in and actually took over for my father on Sundays just the way my cousin had done before. To this day, it’s a mystery to me how he was able to handle it. He even used to bring his girlfriend (later his wife) along with him! Things must have been easier by then (or the more rambunctious customers figured they couldn’t fool around with my brother) because I never heard Louis to complain much about the job.
“In my short career as Mister Softee’s stand-in, I think I experienced a little of what my father must have felt about the job,” said Louis. “I enjoyed seeing the smiling kids and it felt good making people happy. I sensed that it was that same feeling that kept my father going for all those years. “By driving the truck on my own, I learned the nuances of the job that I didn’t catch when I’d been just my father’s helper when I was younger,” recalled Lou. “Things like when to add the mix to the ice cream machines, how long to spend at each stop, and how important a watch was to the route. Although I enjoyed all of that, I was lucky not to have to bother with less glamorous parts of the job like washing and sanitizing the truck, restocking, managing, and accounting. It was just a day job where I drove the truck and sold product to customers. As a twenty-year old kid, I really had no interest in grinding out sixteen-hour days to run the entire operation. Mostly what I got out of it as a young man, was the realization of the dedication it took to run a Mister Softee truck.”
By the time Lou ended his career as a Mister Softee, things were winding down for Vinny. My mother had passed away and us kids had begun to move on. His first Mister Softee truck had been traded in for newer models but retirement loomed on the horizon. It was just as well. By the early 1980s, the city parks were empty, fewer children seemed to be on the streets, and the streets themselves had become a more dangerous place to do business. The days of would be Bowery Boys and Dead End Kids were gone, replaced by drug dealers and the occasional shooting. After 25 years, to the relief of the family, Mister Softee decided to call it quits and sold his truck once again to Frank and Ruthy. From then on, he receded into local legend, recalled by every kid who ever came to his truck with a sticky quarter in their hands or be given a piece of bubble gum on the sly if they didn’t. No one went away empty handed.
Little did he realize at the time how beloved he’d become to those who remembered that jaunty jingle as the Mister Softee truck appeared in their neighborhoods. Kids would scatter in all directions to find spare change and beg parents to get them a real ice cream treat. Mothers, naturally, would complain that it always seemed Mister Softee came around supper time but as my father would say “I have to be somewhere at supper time!”