How Can I Tell Whether an Ice Cream Truck Is Legit?

Q: Having grown up in the boonies, the phenomenon of retrofitted trucks advertising frozen treats and cruising deliberately up and down residential streets while blaring high-pitched jingles just didn’t happen. Ever. As an adult now living in a city where ice cream trucks do exist (at least I think they do, unless some weirdo is playing “The Entertainer” while driving up and down my street every Saturday afternoon from June through September), I’ve wondered about their legitimacy, especially since I have a young son who I’m guessing in the next couple of years will start to recognize the nightmarish siren song of roving ice cream vendors and want to pursue them. Should I be wary? Should I be selective as to which frozen novelty shoppe on wheels that my son and I patronize? I’m not sure why I’m so neurotic about something so innocent, so innocuous. It must be that music ...

A: I vividly remember darting after ice cream trucks as a suburban kid ... that is, before I grew older and they began to take on that sinister, Pied Piper-ish quality and I began to dart away from them. (It is that music.)

But for a while there, hearing those creepy chimes (caution: adult language at 39-second mark) — which are actually banned in some communities — while I played outside was enough to send me into full-on emergency mode: I’d drop everything, run into the house and beg my mom for money. If she responded to my frantic pleas of “WHERE IS YOUR PURSE?! I NEED MONEY NOW! GIVE IT TO ME!” I’d run back outside and chase down the truck. I don’t even remember what my favorite ice cream treat was — a Good Humor something or other — I just remember the overwhelming sense of urgency I felt whenever I heard “Turkey in the Straw” playing somewhere in the distance on a warm summer’s day.

So to answer the question, sure you should be selective about which roving ice cream vendor you patronize with your son, although I’m not sure you have much of a choice as they aren’t that ubiquitous. Due in part to urban lore, a few disturbing news stories and the overactive imaginations of protective parents, ice cream vans have gotten a somewhat shady rep in recent years. But rest assured, 99.9 percent of the time ice cream truck proprietors won’t try to abduct your child, push drugs or turn into an evil clown/monster — they’re honest, hard-working people just trying to make a living like everyone else. But here are three things to consider before buying a Creamsicle out of an anonymous jalopy:

Get to Know Your Local Ice Cream Peddler

Chances are if an ice cream truck is “legit,” the friendly operator will frequently be the same. If there’s always some scowling, random dude behind the wheel — and behind the Mister Softee machine — I’d be a bit skeptical. Whoever it may be, get to know them. Feel free to make small talk but be careful not to veer into interrogation territory. Operating an ice cream truck is a fascinating small business — how many ice cream men and women do you know? — so I’m guessing they’ll have some stories to tell depending on how long they’ve been at it.

And although ice cream truck drivers come in all shapes and sizes — they do seem to be predominately male save for Maria the Ice Cream Girl — I’d avoid purchasing frozen novelties from anyone who looks like Pennywise the Dancing Clown, Pete Dougherty or Clint Howard.

Know the Rules and Regulations

Along with getting to know your local ice cream peddler through small chat, I’d be aware of any local laws regarding selling ice cream novelties out of a slow-driving, music-playing vehicle. To start, unless your local ice cream truck is a bootleg operation, the owner should possess a business license (and a driver’s license!) and have it displayed. But when it comes to permits for selling frozen treats from moving vehicles, things can vary from municipality to municipality.

As of last summer in Seattle, for example, the operation of roving ice cream trucks remained illegal and unregulated. Gary Johnson of the city’s Department of Planning and Development tells The Seattle Times: “We're not really enforcing it, but it's not legal to vend without a permit, so technically it's illegal.” However, in nearby Tacoma, permits are required and vendors must submit to background checks, fingerprinting and more.

Despite their illicit status, rebellious roving ice cream trucks continue to troll for customers in Seattle. If you want to stay on the right side of the law, I’d simply avoid the predatory, stop-and-go trucks and instead frequent ones that are parked in a fixed spot. Given that gourmet-ish — and frequently eco-friendly — food trucks are all the rage in pretty much every American city, I’m guessing you’ll be able to locate at least a couple of Twitter-trackable spots that offer dairy-based delights. The two biggies here in NYC are Van Leeuwen Artisan Ice Cream and Big Gay Ice Cream Truck, where cone offerings include the Bea Arthur (vanilla ice cream, dulce de leche, crushed Nilla wafers).

How to Spot a Secret Drug Operation

I’m going to go out on a limb here and assume that you’re not looking to score drugs, prescription or otherwise, from the same place where you buy your son a Choco Taco. Most ice cream trucks don’t double as illicit drug dispensaries. But it does happen.

In 1998, the operators of an ice cream truck in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, were busted for selling more than just Fudgsicles. “It was full service: ice cream, bonbons and weed,'' Sgt. Richard W. Miller of the 62nd Precinct told The New York Times. Lorna Gaudette of Lake Havasu, Ariz., was arrested on the same charges — selling “really Good Humor” — out of an ice cream truck — in 2010. And more recently, on Staten Island, a mobile purveyor of both Rocket Pops and the prescription painkiller oxycodone was shut down. I’ve even encountered an idle ice cream truck in South Philadelphia that was straight out of “Cheech and Chong’s Nice Dreams.” I’m unsure if the teenagers running the truck were selling or just smoking what I smelled as I walked by, but one thing’s for certain: Mister Softee was most certainly stoned.

If the roving ice cream trucks continue to (understandably) give you pause, you can always make your own frozen treats. I’m going to spend my summer fantasizing about eating a cherry-dipped served out of this amphibious beauty floating down the Thames in London.