"They got a reality show about everything else," Ras King says after we meet up around 2:30 p.m. in the car wash parking lot next door to Magic City. He's trying to convince me that a reality show about a day in the life of an ice cream man would be worth watching. Though I haven't seen him in action yet, I'm sort of intrigued by the title. He says he'd call it "The Man in the Magic Truck."
Surely, there is no bigger childhood hero of summer than the ice cream man. Who else has his own theme music, a specially equipped vehicle, and the power to turn frowns upside down during a drive-by? Now that newfangled food trucks are the culinary rage, the old-school ice cream man peddling rainbow-colored treats in his white van seems like an image frozen in time. But that's part of the psychology behind King's soft sell. "Half of these people got ice cream at home," he says. "But everybody's got to have that ice cream truck experience."
His roving office, a 1988 Chevy Vandura with a happy polar bear painted on the side, has the power to turn grown men into kids and kids into expert negotiators. At one stop on the Westside, a little girl no taller than the van's front tire looks up at him with big, wet eyes in an attempt to bargain with no money: "Next time we'll pay you back, we really will."
When he pulls up in front of Ludacris' Disturbing Tha Peace headquarters, he literally disturbs the peace by flipping the switch on his music box back and forth, like a DJ working a mixer. Imagine the chopped-and-screwed version of "La Cucaracha."
Onboard, King hauls more flavors than Baskin-Robbins — 46 total, including SpongeBob SquarePants, strawberry shortcake, and Spider-Man. At 25, King's been in this line of work for four years. While he sets his own schedule, he also has a wife, a 5-week-old daughter, and four step-kids to support, so it's a daily grind. He splits his earnings with Polar Treats Inc., the company he's been a driver with for a year. On a good day, he can make $150, depending on the weather. But it isn't the money that keeps him doing it as much as the love.
"Ice cream is like smiles. So pretty much they're paying me for smiles," he says after we leave a Marietta Boulevard apartment complex full of brown and black kids and parents. "I actually get a rush. Like all of them running to the truck, they were excited. I feed off that — kinda like a superhero riding around giving kids ice cream on a hot day."
But today, his magic truck has turned into kryptonite. About midway through his shift, smoke starts billowing from under the hood. A nasty power-steering leak leads to a popped fan belt, an overheated engine, and a dying battery. "I gotta be a damn ice cream man and a fuckin' mechanic, for real," he says. It's too early in the day to call it quits. So he fights to turn the wheel with each turn, as children and their parents seem equally compelled and repelled by the smoking ice cream truck.
By the time we pull up in front of his house seven hours later, I'm grateful to be alive. "Thanks for sticking it out with me, man," King says. "You could've left and caught the bus home a long time ago." Maybe the reality show could work, I leave thinking. But he'll have to get a new title. Or better yet, a new magic truck.