In a dimly lit depot in Hunts Point, the Bronx, Heli Vasquez prepared his Mister Softee truck for the drive to Manhattan. He had a fully charged AirPod in his ear, a giant bag of SunChips within reach and DVDs of his favorite old music videos to play.
But all that would come later. “The first thing I do every morning is I taste the ice cream,” said Mr. Vasquez, filling up the hoppers of his soft-serve machine with chocolate and vanilla mix. “I make sure the ice cream is good.”
Good: A light, airy, melt-away texture that can maintain its form as it’s rolled sideways in chocolate sprinkles, or dropped upside down into a vat of warm, waxy blue dip. A smooth, dense-but-not-too-dense consistency in the mouth, and a long, clean flavor.
Mr. Vasquez is one of about 200 Mister Softee drivers who roam the city, dispensing the sweet, industrially engineered flavors of summer to a jangling soundtrack. They lap parks and residential blocks, pull up strategically near the exits of schools and public swimming pools and punctuate sunny days with milkshakes, ice pops and cones.
All the truck drivers start with the same prepackaged cartons of liquid mix, but the quality of their ice cream isn’t uniform. Machines malfunction in countless ways, and some vendors worry more over the details than others. Dirty tubes can lend the ice cream unpleasant off-notes and aftertastes. And a faulty temperature control setting often produces ice cream that’s too stiff or too soft.
Mr. Vasquez, who at 50 has wiry, muscular arms and a graying, impeccably groomed goatee, said most machines tended to be 2 to 4 degrees off. Over time, he has come to rely on his senses, and not a dial, to find the ideal setting (about 18 degrees).
If Mr. Vasquez has a feel for the work, it’s because he’s been driving a Mister Softee truck for 31 years. His father, Lautaro Vasquez, drove one for 40 years before retiring in 2011.
Like most drivers, including those for Mister Softee’s local rival, New York Ice Cream (formerly Master Softee), Mr. Vasquez is a self-employed franchisee. He drives seven days a week in ice cream season, from late March to mid-October. Out of season, he finds work in construction, or making deliveries, and spends more time with his family; he and his wife Patricia Vasquez have two children and a miniature poodle they call Loco Lucas. They vacation, often visiting El Guabo in southwestern Ecuador, where Mr. Vasquez was born.
But this year’s unrelenting cold weather threw off the calendar, said Peter Bouziotis, who has been distributing ice cream from the Bronx depot for 22 years. So most drivers started selling about six weeks late.
“That’s six weeks you’re never going to get back,” Mr. Bouziotis said.
Mr. Vasquez said long hours don’t bother him, and neither does being alone in the truck. What’s tough is how everything — everything — in the ice cream business depends on the weather. How one day, one week, one year can be so vastly different from the next.
Mr. Vasquez arrived at the depot around 10 a.m., order in hand, and Mr. Bouziotis slid box after box across the counter — waffle cones, slush bases, sprinkles and syrups. (For the last three summers, the biggest prepackaged seller has been a SpongeBob SquarePants pop, followed by a Minions pop.)
All 75 trucks that park in the depot run routes across Manhattan and the Bronx, and Mr. Vasquez and his father own three. Patricia Vasquez, his wife, and Daniela Vasquez, his sister, take turns driving one; his colleague Sherzon Medina drives the other.
Close to the water on the Upper East Side, at the edge of Carl Schurz Park, Mr. Vasquez pulled up on the corner of 84th Street and East End Avenue, where he would stay put for most of the day. It was a beautiful Saturday morning and the sun was out, but a chilled breeze came off the East River — the kind that was bad for business.
Mr. Vasquez cut all the fruit for the sundaes, and organized his garnishes. He rearranged the freezer so the most popular items were easy to reach. On the truck’s TV screen, just above the dashboard, he played videos and concert clips of Celine Dion, Lionel Richie, Phil Collins and the Eagles.
Mr. Vasquez plays his music quietly inside the truck, and almost never blasts the widely known, widely loathed Mister Softee jingle from his loudspeaker. When he does, it’s for five seconds, 10 max.
It’s not just that he’s avoiding a ticket for a noise violation. Mr. Vasquez said people tend to know he’s around, because he is always around — he has been around for three decades — standing behind these gleaming machines with a baseball cap on, ready to go.
“Give me a vanilla two-face,” said a twentysomething man working on the building across the street, still wearing his hard hat. Mr. Vasquez made him a cone half-covered in rainbow sprinkles and half in chocolate sprinkles, moving quickly and elegantly in the narrow space.
Over the next six hours, Mr. Vasquez composed swirled cones and chocolate dips. He made fruit-topped cups and sundaes drowned in syrup, strawberry milkshakes and root beer floats.
When kids charged the truck from the playground, shouting over one another, Mr. Vasquez easily deciphered their orders. Teenagers sharing one large frozen yogurt got extra spoons before they could ask.
“No, no, no,” a woman in a wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses said, handing him back the change. “We owe you a dollar from last weekend, remember?”
Mr. Vasquez said he once had an offer for steadier, full-time work as a doorman on the Upper East Side, but he didn’t take it. “I love to deal with all this,” he said, gesturing toward the line — negotiating parents, screaming children, chaos. “I love to make ice cream.”
As the temperature dropped, the line dispersed, and Mr. Vasquez’s father, climbed up into the truck. At 77, Lautaro Vasquez visits his family a few times a week to chat, run errands or deliver them lunch as they work (say, a quart container of caldo de salchicha). As a bonus, he can run the truck for a while if anyone needs a break.
Before he moved to the United States and became a citizen, Lautaro put on a suit every day and taught primary school in Ecuador. He worked in restaurants in New Jersey as a busboy, and in Midtown Manhattan office buildings, pushing a coffee cart.
When he bought his first Mister Softee ice cream truck in the 1970s, it cost $8,000, and though it didn’t come with power steering, it did come with a route around Union Square. (A new truck now goes for about $140,000.) The soft-serve machines were more demanding back then, and Lautaro remembers how he had to stop and refill the hopper after every fourth cone, or the ice cream wouldn’t flow at all.
In 1987, when Heli moved to New York and started working on the truck, he picked up on everything so fast, Lautaro said: His son didn’t just learn how to serve the ice cream, he learned about the mechanics, about the refrigeration, about how to sell. Heli paid such close attention that he understood the ice cream at another level.
“Prueba,” Lautaro said. He had brought a cup of vanilla soft serve from the truck that his daughter was driving, and he wanted his son’s opinion on it. “Prueba, prueba!”
Mr. Vasquez tasted and nodded with approval. Sure, the weather could have been better, but today the ice cream was good.