“Hey, Mohamed, can I get an ice cream sandwich?” the boy said breathlessly, thrusting a wad of dollars through the window in the side of the truck.
“They do know my music,” Jalloh said with a laugh, rummaging in the box freezer as more kids lined up. “When they hear it, they come.”
Like hundreds of ice cream vendors in the area, Jalloh has been cleaning his truck and stocking his freezers in the run-up to Memorial Day weekend. There are new products to learn (the European Magnum bar is being heavily promoted this season), and new customers to meet on his route in Prince George’s County.
But the music never changes. When you’ve latched onto one of the most effective Pavlovian come-and-get-it gimmicks in marketing history, you stick with it. Over and over.
Jalloh has been locked on this 40-second loop for more than a decade. Sometime this weekend, he will mark, by rough calculation, his 13,500th repetition. It’s his constant companion. He hears it in his sleep.
But he has no idea what it is.
“The name?” he said with surprise, looking up at the Nichols Omni music box that is nearly identical to those in every other ice cream truck in America. “I don’t know what it is. It’s number four. It’s the only one I play.”
Vaguely familiar melody
Guy Berliner can’t name the song, either, and few people know more than he does about the ice cream truck business. The owner of Berliner Specialty Distributors, one of the country’s largest ice cream truck depots, was standing last week in a marina of white trucks. More than 200 vendors pay to park their vehicles overnight at his Hyattsville facility and plug their freezers into long banks of power lines.
Dozens of truck owners, most of them immigrants from Africa, waited to rush cartons of Creamsicles and Choco Taco across the 80-degree parking lot and into their humming freezers.
Davis Copperfield’s territory is Bethesda, and he was loading his truck with Haagen-Dazs bars and Starbucks coffee ice cream. He holds up a box of Ben & Jerry’s Cherry Garcia bars. “The liberal activists love these,” he said with a bellowing laugh.
Copperfield, who spends seven months a year driving an ice cream truck in Maryland but also owns a hotel in his native Nigeria and a bakery in Ireland, couldn’t name the tune he has played for years. “Pop Goes the Weasel, maybe?” he said.
Jalloh has been parking his truck here since coming from Sierra Leone in 1985. He’s on his third vehicle, a gleaming Grumman panel van that he is rolling out for the first time this season. New truck, same music.
Before heading on his rounds, he played the tune for Berliner, who nodded at the vaguely familiar melody.