It gets hot in July up in Landover Hills come midafternoon, and when the baby sitter is the meanest person this side of Tanglewood Drive, a kid's life can be hard. So the kids wait impatiently at street corners or jump up and down in the shade of doorways, ears straining for the chimes. Pop Ups, Rockets and Gobstoppers fill their thoughts.
"Where's Paul?" they ask each other. "Where's the ice-cream man?"
Good Humor man Paul Thomas knows these kids, and he loves them in his own rough way. He knows their folks, knows about everything on the streets he drives, from the avenues of Riverdale to the narrow, deadend streets of Cheverly.
He staked out his route six years ago, when he stopped driving tractor-trailers and started selling ice-cream. He's seen kids grow up along these streets, and parents grow old. He knows the good kids and the ones who are "mean as snakes." He can tell you the names of all the babies, and tell tales too lurid to print.
The mark of the trucker is still on him. He winks at the girls, and a Snow Cone seems strange in big hands more used to holding the wheel. A clean white shirt on his back, a bright red cap on his thick gray hair, and a Salem in the corner of his mouth, the 60-year-old ice-cream man drives off through the steamy puddles of the Good Humor plant in Hyattsville just after noon.
He carries no watch, but country-and-western disc jockeys call out the minutes until 9:30 p.m. Sweat fills the deep wrinkles of his face by the time he's finished Riverdale, and when he comes down from Forest Heights at the end of the day to his house by the Good Humor plant, the buttons on his shirt have yielded to exertion.
He still dances across the floor of his truck in thick black slippers when they play his favorite song, and he still jokes with the endless stream of children as he counts the grimy wad of dollar bills. He'll have made between $10,000 and $20,000 by October, and Florida, where he vacations every year, will be waiting.
Thomas starts late in the day because he ends late. Most of the area's 145 vendors have left by the time he begins his shift. They're independent, own their own trucks and keep their own hours. "I do things different," Thomas says proudly. He keeps his money behind the freezer, quarters on the left, nickels in the middle and dimes on the right "because that's the way I like to do it."
He drives out of the plant gates pulling the wooden spoons tied to the end of his chimes-cord. A right turn on 46th Street in Hyattsville brings him to the long line of truckpart warehouses he calls his "commerical route." Then he'll go up and down the residential streets along the Anacostia River, through Riverdale and Edmonston, then up Annapolis Road to Landover and Cheverly.
The first customer of the day is a fellow named Ray. It's printed on his tape measure. "That's 'Ray Bender,'" says Ray. "Like one of these weekends you look to go on but can't afford." Bender takes a chocolate eclair for 60 cents.
Three kids come running up the road before Thomas has time to pull out. "Hi, Paul!" one yells. They are Richard Goins, 10, Charlie Windsor, 8, and Keith Avery, 12. Windsor is covered with silver spray paint. "He held the can the wrong way," Avery explains. Thomas laughs. "Tell how you used the chase me down the street when you could hardly walk, wailing for a free sucker," says Thomas, before the boys leave.
"They've offered me a different route making more money -- so they say," says Thomas. "But I know everyone. I don't see much sense changing. Know what I mean?" Once you choose a route, he says, you have to stick to it. Knowing the customers is what he enjoys in his work. Insolence irritates him, obesity disgusts him, but if he forgets someone's name he stops his truck and paces in front of the freezers until he remembers.
Richard, Charlie and Keith won't let him forget. They catch up with him at the next corner. They've got money now. "From my grandfather," says Keith. They buy a Fudge-cake, Chip Candy and a Strawberry Shortcake to keep them going, then run off.
Thomas samples everything he sells -- once. "So I can tell people what's in them. I don't like sweet things." So when a man working in the hot concerte yard at Colonial Storage Company tells him he wants a Popsicle with ice cream inside it, Thomas knows what to reach for.
"There's no ice cream in here," the man objects. "Keep eating," Thomas says. Finally, the customer finds a small pocket of ice cream. "You must be with Reagan," he moans.
"So long as he stays on his side of the fence down there, we get along just fine," Thomas says.
Thomas knows the grown-ups, but likes kids more. Richard, Charlie and Keith catch up with him again. They have two big leaves sprayed with silver paint. "So that's what you were using the paint for," Thomas says. "What are you going to do with them?"
Two minutes later he drives off with the leaves, traded for a 20-cent Popsicle. "Now what the hell am I going to do with these?" he asks. "Well, these kids are my business. You have to be nice to them; they tell their parents what the ice-cream man said. You know what I mean?"
Thomas likes kids, but not all kids. He has a sawed-off hoe handle on the dashboard. "I can't actually hit one of the children, but sometimes I threaten them with it. It keeps them in their place. Especially the ones 12 to 15. They're smart alecks." Sometimes, he hammers the side of his van to attract the attention of dogs, then he'll threaten and curse them. But sometimes he'll throw them ice cream.
At 4:10, Thomas has $75. He's halfway through his pack of Salems and heading for Landover. He's proud of Landover kids. "They tell the other vendors, 'You're not supposed to be here, this is Paul's route.'"
Courtney Morgan, 13, is his favorite. When he started working Osborn Road four years ago, he was harassed by kids, Thomas says. They stole his tailights. But Courtney drew a picture of an ice-cream truck and wrote, "The Best Ice-Cream Man We Ever Had" on it and gave the drawing to Thomas.
By 6 o'clock Thomas has $90. The second button of his shirt has come undone, and the top of his green boxer-shorts are riding up above his trousers. The kids crowd the truck, climb the wheels and threaten him with water pistols. He loves the attention and teases them, but is glad to get away.
The third button gives way at 7. The kids keep swarming and the pennies, nickels and dimes deep mounting. It's not until 9:30 that Forest heights is covered and the day's work done. There's $150 in the kitty, but Thomas says it was a slow day. "You ought to see me hustle when I've got $200 to $300 in bills coming in," he says. "This ain't nothing. Know what I mean?"