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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On the Latchis Theater Marquee

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(Photo credit)

“Impatient Truck Driver Destroys Latchis Marquee,” reads the alarming headline from yesterday’s Brattleboro Reformer.

For those who may not know, the Reformer is the local paper in my hometown of Brattleboro, Vermont. And the Latchis Theater is the place I called “work” for three years before I moved to Seattle in 2001. Both the town and the theater hold very special places in my heart, so this crazy bit of news hits close to home – literally.

It’s been a rough few months for Brattleboro’s historic and normally quite lovely and vibrant Main Street. Back in April, a fire nearly destroyed the iconic Brooks House, displacing about 80 residents and a dozen or so beloved local businesses (no small blow for town of Brattleboro’s size).

And now this nonsense.

The Latchis Memorial Building is another true Brattleboro icon. Built in 1938, it’s listed on the National Register of Historic Buildings, and is one of only two authentic Art Deco structures in the entire state of Vermont. The Greek Revival-themed interior of the Latchis Theater is one of downtown Brattleboro’s must-sees. Even Rachel Maddow recently saw fit to give a televised shout-out to Brattleboro’s “awesome, old, independent movie theater.”

Personally, my favorite Latchis Theater memory was the time James Earl Jones came to host a special screening of Doctor Strangelove. While introducing the film, he indulged his audience with a dramatic, Darth Vader-voiced, “May the Force be with you.” I’m not gonna lie: it was possibly the most thrilling moment in my Star Wars-geeky life. (And I know, I know. That was never an actual Vader line. But I was so schoolgirl-giddy in the moment that I totally let it slide.)

Anyway, while working at the Latchis Theater, I fulfilled a number of regular duties: projectionist, concession seller, ticket seller, ticket taker, popcorn sweeper and floor un-sticky-er, to name just a few. Also, candy taster (unofficial), and seat warmer (if the movies were good).

But probably my least favorite of these tasks was the weekly changing of movie titles on the three-screen theater’s dual-sided marquee. New movies started on Fridays, so every Thursday evening – rain or shine, blizzard or hurricane, zombie stampede or alien-robot invasion – up the ladder I went.

For a guy not terribly keen on heights, the situation was less than ideal. Keeping my balance on a rickety, fifteen-foot ladder while trying to loosen the previous week’s jammed-on film titles – and then doing my best to securely affix the new ones – was no simple chore.

Pulling from a heavy bucket of steel letters that dangled precariously from the ladder’s side didn’t help much either. Most of these decades-old letters were rusty, jagged, and thoroughly grimy. (And, according to Mr. Latchis himself, banned by OSHA many years prior. But whatever). And they had a peculiar aversion to staying put on the marquee panels (hence the forceful jamming).

All the while, I prayed that no one passing on the sidewalk below would unwittingly kick out the ladder, or be unlucky enough to catch a jumper-letter with their cranium. I also hoped people would refrain from stopping and staring (because they did that. It’s a small town), or trying to take my picture.*

Meanwhile, limited marquee space sometimes called for awkward and increasingly cryptic abbreviations like “CROUCH TIG HID DRAG,” “B WITCH PROJ,” and “SWEITPM.” (Care to take a crack at that last one?)

With these, one had to be very careful not to confuse or offend. I’m just sayin’ – my handiwork probably had a few passersby wondering who this fool on the ladder was calling a “b-witch.”

But at least there was a little hazardous-duty pay involved. My minimum-wage base got a two-dollar bump for every hour spent up on the ladder. I know, right? That was two bucks extra per week! Suckers.

Just before I departed my job at the theater, I was permitted to hang a brief farewell message – to myself – on the marquee (because I’m modest like that). I don’t exactly recall what I decided to say – about myself – but it was, no doubt, very touching (because I’m generous like that).

Anyway, in all seriousness, I love the Latchis Theater. It is a genuine treasure in the heart of my hometown. And as much as I may have griped about my often-menial chores as a lowly movie theater staffer, I consider it a great privilege to be able to say I once worked there.

Of course, I know the building will be just fine. A destroyed marquee is a relatively superficial wound for a sturdy block, and for a resilient community.

But the thoughtless dolt behind the wheel of that truck did more than just rip a fancy sign from the face of an old building. He demolished a small piece of my hometown, and with it, a little bit of my own personal history. And that makes me a little sad.

I may have hated changing that crusty old marquee. But I never wanted it to disappear.

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*One night, while on marquee duty, I looked down and noticed a guy with a fancy-looking camera slowly strolling by. I didn’t think much of this at the time, but two days later, there it was: A huge photo of my backside splashed across the FRONT PAGE of the Reformer. The image had nothing to do with anything. Just a great big picture flashing my ass-end across most of Southern Vermont and parts of New Hampshire and Massachusetts. The caption simply read, “A man changes the Latchis Theater marquee.” Now, I know I have a lovely posterior. That’s a given. But it’s not really that newsworthy, is it?