200 Miles in an Ice Cream Truck

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Have you ever been on an overnight road trip with your boss? I mean, there must be people do it all the time, right? It’s a not-unheard of demand for any number of professions. But last weekend, on a 24-hour work trip to Portland, Oregon, this was a rather memorable first for me.

I work as a part-time branch associate for a smallish community bank. It’s not really the type of job one might associate with road trips and overnight travel. The branch is an easy five blocks from my apartment. Most of my workday is spent at a teller station about as sprawling as a phone booth. And the farthest I usually travel on the job is to the Starbucks on the next corner.

But an overnight stay was called for last weekend, as the company was holding its annual employee-awards gala at the Portland Hilton. My boss, Stacey, was up for two big awards that evening, so even though no paid time was allotted for the trip, the presence of her staff was forcibly coerced gently encouraged.

Naturally, any reservations I may have had about devoting the better part of my weekend to an unpaid work function were allayed by the promise of a free dinner. And Stacey generously sweetened the deal by putting each of us up in the hotel at her own expense. It also didn’t hurt that the “City of Roses” is a handsome town, and always a fine place to visit.

The night played out as only a gathering of hard-partying bankers could. Awards ceremonies may be invariably tedious, but open bars and chocolate cake will always help to dull that pain. People-watching with a table full of tipsy colleagues never fails as an amusing way to pass the time (and never, ever devolves into catty critiques of the hairdos and formal wear of intra-company rivals). There was plenty of drunken reveling when Stacey won the “Manager of the Year” award. And afterward, our team made its way to an elementary-school-turned-brewpub to drown the remainder of our night in (surprisingly not-awful) raspberry-flavored beer.

I rode down to Portland that day with Stacey and her husband. It was an uneventful, but well-soundtracked three hours in their cushy SUV. But arrangements for the next day’s drive home were a tad less conventional. While the hubby would be driving solo back to Seattle, the boss and I needed to swing by another branch to pick up the truck … the ice cream truck, that is.

I work for a bank that glories in its un-banklike quirkiness. Our branches are designed to resemble inviting hotel lobbies, and are referred to as “cafes.” Cash and receipts aren’t so much handed to customers as they are served on polished-wood platters with a fancy chocolate coin on the side. We offer complimentary espresso, sweets, and free internet access to anyone who walks through the door. And we regularly host local merchants and organizations in need of promotional-event space (“What’s that? You want to set up a professional dog-grooming station in the middle of our lobby? You bet!”).

We also have an ice cream truck. It’s one of the bank’s more deliciously ingenious marketing tools, used to dispense free frozen treats at picnics, parades, and any number of other bank-sponsored events. The truck is shared by a handful of the bank’s Washington State branches, and for the weekend of the awards gala, it was Stacy’s and my duty to retrieve it from Vancouver (WA) and drive it back to Seattle. Fun! Right?

Too bad a terrible glitch would turn the sweet promise of this on-the-road adventure into bitter disappointment on wheels. Normally, of course, you’d expect a three-hour drive in this particular SUV (sweet-utility vehicle) to be a nonstop joyride of frozen delights; a 200-mile, sugar- and cream-fueled jaunt down the Häagen-Dazs Highway. And, had the truck’s freezer been fully functional that day, I suppose this would have been the case.

But the truck was a lie. And not even a truck, really. It was just a big, empty van with the big, empty promise of “free ice cream” splashed across its sides. There was no ice cream, free or otherwise. That broken freezer melted my sugar-high hopes like so much Cherry Garcia, reducing them to a tepid puddle of oozy disappointment. The dream was over before it even started.

All that was left now was the long ride home in a goofy-looking van.

Adding profound insult to grievous injury, we discovered that the van was ill-equipped to play the music on either of our portable devices. With a CD-only stereo system, our great road-trip playlist was suddenly cut down to the few discs that were already in the van (Alvin and the Chipmunks, and an empty case missing its copy of the Grease soundtrack. Awesome). We also had our pick of cheery talk radio (of the “Praise Jesus!” and “Obama’s a socialist-alien!” variety), and a selection of top-40 stations that seemed to know of only four contemporary pop songs between them.

But the trip did go fast. Literally. Not being loaded down with 31 flavors of frozen cargo does wonders for a vehicle’s agility. I can imagine what a sight we must have been – a big, flashy delivery van, painted in Mystery Machine colors, covered with silly slogans, and cruising along at 85 mph (past a puzzled state patrol officer looking unsure whether to stop us for speeding, or to grab a quick sno-cone). Weaving through freeway traffic with the urgency of a blaring ambulance, we no doubt gave the impression that some dire ice cream emergency required our immediate attention. And actually, such an impression wouldn’t have been that far off.

There was no way we were going to drive 200 miles in an ice cream truck and not have any ice cream. Surely that would upset the natural order of things in ways both frightening and unfathomable. So about halfway through our journey, Stacey made the kind of brilliant executive decision that earned her that “Manager of the Year” title: “That’s it,” she declared. “We’re stopping at the next Dairy Queen and getting Blizzards!”

The confused looks we were given as we rolled into the DQ parking lot in our “free ice cream” truck were priceless. The irony was lost on no one as I stepped up to the counter. With a bewildered smirk, the cashier couldn’t help but ask what the hell we were doing there, and why on earth we were buying our ice cream.

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As we finally rolled back into the Emerald City, I was kinda hoping Mike would be there to greet us as we pulled up to my building. I didn’t know him as a child, but one of my most cherished images is that of a young, pudgy Mike running with the contents of a hastily smashed piggy bank and yelling “WAAAAIIIT!” as he chased down a passing ice cream truck. It’s a hilariously precious Mike-memory that he and I revisit often. But alas, he wasn’t home that afternoon. And I suppose that was for the best. There was nothing for my ice cream-obsessed boyfriend to chase this time but a couple of licked-clean DQ containers.

It had been a road trip quite unlike any other. It’s not every day that a banker like me is delivered door-to-door in such a memorable and exciting fashion. I was bummed about the truck’s crappily timed freezer malfunction, but in the end, we got our ice cream, and the indelible memory of a unique and oddly delightful excursion. After Stacey dropped me off, I waved goodbye to our flawed, but noble chariot. My Blizzard-buzz waning, I ambled inside, crossed “Drive 200 miles in ice cream truck” off my bucket list, and crashed.

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