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Illustration by Alix Ayoub

Do you know the ice cream man?


…and so on and so on, for about 10 hours.

That, you may recognize, is the Disney classic, or in this case, the siren song of Mr. Ray’s Ice Cream and a heads up to children everywhere to grab their money and run.

“I play the song loud so that kids can hear it from a mile and a half away,” chuckles the winsome Ray Gordon, who I love instantly and has been serving ice cream to Columbus under the moniker Mr. Ray’s Ice Cream for 15 years.  “It’s the only way the kids will have enough time to get themselves together.”

This song—or one of the other 32 tunes Ray installed into his truck—is his battle cry, and arguably the backbone of his ice cream truck business. During my childhood, it served as a triumphant theme song announcing that my hero, The Ice Cream Man, was about to swoop in and make my listless summer afternoon feel special. My family didn’t always have the means to take a summer vacation, or send me off to camp or theme parks, but I could always do enough chores (or scavenge through enough couch cushions) to add a little melty magic to my day.

On one sunny spring afternoon, I had the honor of playing Ray’s sidekick and learned what a day in the life of one of my childhood heroes is like. (OK actually Ray’s equally charismatic brother Robert Hodges is his sidekick, making me the overly excited woman-child riding in the passenger seat, confusing parents. I’ll take it.)

Ray is one of about 25 independent ice cream truck drivers in the Columbus area, and one of the longest-serving. He entered the ice cream business after being injured on a construction job, looking for less physically taxing work. It was instantly a good fit. He used the money he received from workers comp to buy his own truck, and now has two: one for selling novelty items, the other for soft-serve treats.

“The hardest thing at first was learning how to find the neighborhoods with the most kids,” explains Ray. “There was a lot of trial and error to get the best routes down.” Today Mr. Ray’s routes are mostly in Worthington and Powell, with weekends spent parked at Alum Creek Beach or at special events such as Red, White, and Boom.

Our day begins at a blank building near Columbus’s Edgewood neighborhood, where about a dozen faded ice cream trucks sit parked in the lot. Inside, Ray and Robert receive the day’s ice cream orders from a friendly middle-aged woman who they have clearly befriended over the years. Ray performs any maintenance that needs to be done on the truck—which he built and wired himself (and comes complete with a restroom, in case that was one of your burning questions)—while Robert stocks the freezer with almost 30 different ice cream novelties. We gas up and head north to Worthington Hills, coincidentally only five minutes from where I spent my formative ice-cream-truck-chasing years.

“This job is really fun. We get kids of all ages. The older kids usually know what they want, while the little bitties stare with big eyes for a few minutes taking in all of the options.”

Once the song switch is flicked, there’s no turning back. Ears perk, money is fumbled, and bike pedals spin. We are greeted by sticky waves, swinging braids, and out-of-breath ice cream enthusiasts. We receive a squirt gun salute from a brown-haired boy on a trampoline and a celebratory dance from another. A girl, who’s about 10 with long blonde hair and braces, sprints a few blocks to be our first customer. I am all giggles, quickly realizing I am not the only one who considers The Ice Cream Man a suburban American folk hero.

“This job is really fun. We get kids of all ages. The older kids usually know what they want, while the little bitties stare with big eyes for a few minutes taking in all of the options,” says Robert, who mans the customer window while Ray drives. “We tend to look out for any little ones who may have been left without. We try to make it fun for everyone.”

Ray chimes in, “Sometimes the kids will run the truck down and ask if anything is free. Sometimes we’ll have ice cream that’s melted out of shape but still good to eat, so we’ll give that out. Or I’ll grab a handful of bubblegum or candy and throw it up in the air. The kids will scream, ‘Thank you, Mr. Ray! Thank you, thank you!’” Ray beams. I beam, too.

As with anything, the job has its challenges. Each workday is 10-12 hours long and vulnerable to setbacks out of anyone’s control.

“I always say I work Monday through Friday—weather permitting. Weather is very important. Once, I didn’t check it and got stuck in a thunderstorm so bad there were tornado warnings. Trees were blowing and rain was pouring. Luckily it’s easy now, you can check it anytime on your phone,” says Ray. Weather affects his business in other ways, too.

“I usually start March 15. Well, this year there was still ice on the ground. We missed about two months of spring, and that hurts business. Spring is important because when it gets too hot in the summer, the kids are inside where it’s cool and don’t want to come outside. Our biggest competitors on hot days are PlayStations and computers.”

And when business drops, competition rises.

“I’m willing to put more gas into the truck to go further. I’ve been on these routes for 15 years. Everyone knows these are my routes. But when business is tough there can be incidents. Once I got blocked into a cul-de-sac by two other trucks—a husband and wife team. I had to call a police officer to get out.”

In addition to going the extra mile (or 20), one of the most noticeable things that sets Ray apart—especially after my visit to the lot where other kind-of-shady-looking trucks are parked—is exactly what he boasts on his business card: “Cleanest truck in town.” He and his brother also don uniforms of Mr. Ray-branded violet T-shirts. Both of these fall into a code of professionalism and ethics he holds himself to, which he believes has helped him stay in business for so long.

As we’re finishing the route, our very first customer, the brace-faced blonde girl, chases us down again.

“My mom sent me to buy ice cream for my brothers,” she pants, and then repeats three times during her purchase, I guess so she doesn’t seem greedy, which makes me want to give her a massive hug. Then two little boys—about 8—ride up on bikes and weigh their options. One of the boys unfolds his Spiderman wallet and treats the pair to a couple of Sour Bomb Pops, which Ray tells me is currently the hit of 2015. (Though he says nothing has knocked the Spongebob Squarepants treat from number one in his 15 years, which explains the ornamental, crazy-eyed, yellow sea square dangling from his rearview mirror.)

“This is the best job. When you turn a corner and you see kids jumping for joy, that’s better than working in any other kind of job,” gushes Ray at the end of the day. “Seeing the smiles on the kids faces and seeing the happiness…I love my job. I love it every day. You can’t beat it for nothing. No matter what’s going on in the world, in my household, with my family… we get on this truck and it’s just serene. I’m just so blessed to have a job like this.”

I immediately feel as drippy as the Strawberry Shortcake bar I’m eating and think, “We’re blessed you do too, Ray.”

Jill Strominger is a Columbus native who recently returned to her hometown after years baking and blogging on the East Coast. When she’s not chasing down The Ice Cream Man, she’s making homemade treats of her own. For her simple ice cream recipe, see the next story.

Youngstown, Ohio: Where the Ice Cream Man Began

Mr. Ray and his ice-creaming cohorts may not exist today if not for a Youngstown, Ohio, confectioner named Harry Burt.

In 1920, Burt developed a smooth chocolate coating that was compatible with ice cream. His daughter Ruth was the first to try the frozen treat—she thought it tasted great but complained that the chocolate-covered ice cream chunk was too messy to eat. Burt’s son Harry chimed in, suggesting that Burt freeze the wooden sticks used for their Jolly Boy Suckers—a lollipop candy Burt previously invented—into the ice cream to make a handle. Burt took his advice and the Good Humor Bar was born, getting its name from the 19th-century belief that a person’s “humor,” or temperament, was related to the humor of the palate, or “sense of taste.” (I know I am much happier when I’m eating something delicious, like ice cream, compared to something that’s not, like sand, or salad, so this must be true.)

Burt decided his novel treat deserved a similarly novel marketing approach. He emulated the tactics of old-time street vendors and outfitted a fleet of 12 street vending trucks with freezers and bells to sell his creation—the first set of bells were from his son’s bobsled. Just like the ice cream truck songs we hear today, the bells let neighborhood children know a Good Humor truck was headed their way so they could gather up their money in time to buy ice cream from the (now iconic) white-clad Good Humor truck driver.

What started as either vanilla or chocolate ice cream covered in a chocolate shell is now at least seven different varieties of Good Humor bars, plus ice cream cones and sandwiches. The Harry Burt Building in downtown Youngstown is now home to the new Tyler Mahoning Valley History Center, a historical-themed community space that houses MVHS archives, displays local and traveling exhibits, and plays host to community events. The C enter currently boasts the story of its rich (get it?!) Good Humor history near the entryway.

Information and imagery was provided by Good Humor and the Tyler Mahoning Valley History Center. The Center is located at 325 W Federal St., Youngstown.