The Ice Cream Man Cometh 

Selling bomb pops to Bay Area kids is not quite as sweet as you'd imagine. But Mahmoud Rabah makes up for it.

Ah, the giant lime sherbet ice cream foot with the gumball embedded in the big toe. Absolutely glorious. The epitome of summertime, the apex of all human existence. It's anatomically accurate (maybe a size eight, male), and it melts wondrously in the midday sun, as you regulate your body temperature, indulge your junk food craze, and satisfy your shamefully hidden foot fetish simultaneously.

The Ice Cream Man doesn't have it.

"No, that's expensive, man," explains Mahmoud Rabah, a cheerful Jordanian Palestinian in his late twenties who has graciously offered us the shotgun seat on his ice cream truck. We thank him, and forgive him. For instead, Mahmoud has Chocolate Èclairs, Strawberry Shortcakes, Malt Cups, Tear-Jerkers, Coconut Crazies, Watermelon Pops (with edible seeds!), Frozen Snickers bars, and enormous popsicles shaped like Spiderman, Dora the Explorer, Bugs Bunny, etc. Super Mario (of Nintendo fame) is particularly popular.

As is Mahmoud. He is the Ice Cream Man. He brings joy to the masses, combining the best traits of Santa Claus, Robin Hood, and Jesus. Everyone loves him, and everyone lines up on the street in droves to purchase his frozen wares and stave off the sweltering summer heat.

Except today is rainy, overcast, crappy. Decidedly not sweltering. The sun does not make an appearance. The streets appear to be deserted. And Mahmoud, despite being his own boss, setting his own hours, and driving around in a giant van full of ice cream confections, is having a lousy day, one he certainly does not deserve.

"I like this one," he says, handing us a comically oversized bomb pop. "It's good to make money with it, and also it looks like the American flag. It's good flavor, too. A lot of people like this one, and a lot of people like the Chocolate Banana."

Predictably, he's sold more quasi-flag Popsicles than usual in the wave of post-September-11-and-Iraq-walloping patriotism. There is just cause for optimism that this trend will continue as Mahmoud rolls his truck through the streets of Hayward, where both man and truck sleep -- the truck on a lot with maybe fifteen other individually owned vehicles, and the man with his wife and three children (two girls, one boy, ages five, four, and one). Monday through Friday (he devotes weekends to his family), Mahmoud gasses up his truck, loads the freezer with goodies stocked on the lot, and gets the hell outta Hayward. Drives clear across the San Mateo Bridge into San Francisco.

He used to peddle his wares in the East Bay, back when he started doing this in '97. Those days are over, for two very specific reasons: A) too many trucks in too small an area, and B) the threat of physical violence.

"If I'm in Oakland or Hayward or San Leandro, people no say hi," Mahmoud says. "People make bad language, maybe give me fingers. Not because I am bad, giving them a hard time, but because they're bad."

Robust young scamps have thrown rocks at him, with one even breaking his windshield. The "take the ice cream and run without paying for it" technique also has been employed. Certainly not every Oakland resident is scheming to set his business aflame, but Mahmoud clearly has had enough. He responds to the old urban legend that you can buy drugs out of ice cream trucks with just three words: "Maybe in Oakland."

So now he roams hostility-free Pacifica and South San Francisco, quietly playing the sweetest, most generous Ice Cream Man in history. "It's very fun," he says. "I work with my customers like a friend, like a brother. I treat the kids like my children. If this kid doesn't have the icey cream that he wants, I feel sad, I give to him for free."

He's not kidding. Mahmoud also sells candy -- Gummy Pizzas and the like -- but most of it he casually gives away to any kid under ten who buys anything. If it costs a buck, he'll take ninety cents or less if that's all you got; he'll take a dollar if it's $1.25. Lifeguards at the beach get discounts, as do kids who buy in bulk for their friends. One Pacifica kid, a regular customer, gets a free Dad's Root Beer Creamsicle (fabulous, by the way) after he says that rent troubles are forcing his family to move, again. For every five bucks Mahmoud makes, he gives up about three in free or discounted merchandise. He's a pushover, a saint with sweets. Even when his day is a catastrophe.

First, the weather. "Nobody knows about this weather," he says. "Only God knows about this weather." Even by San Francisco standards, it blows. The sky is gray, the air frigid, the streets deserted. Mahmoud breathes a sigh of relief when he finally makes his first sale: a package of sunflower seeds, two Frozen Snickers bars, and a Sprite. To one guy. "He likes to eat, or maybe he has a friend with him," Mahmoud muses.

He drives along the beach, past school buses full of kids frolicking in the surf, reminding him of childhood vacations to the Dead Sea (Mahmoud moved to America at sixteen, working odd jobs in New Jersey before shipping out West in '96). But even the patriotic bomb pop is wooing few suitors today. A tactical error further depletes morale: We show up at the elementary school he likes to hit every day, but the first two kids who approach inform Mahmoud that classes let out at noon today. It is 1:30 p.m. Curses.

So we drive for long hours on suburban streets that unfold like ghost towns -- often not a person in sight. Eighty percent of the people poking around outdoors end up buying something, but that's not enough to boost morale. This is really starting to bum Mahmoud out.

"I am tired and sick of icey cream," he says. "You think I am liking this job too much? If someone coming to buy my truck today, I sell it to them.

"I get bored sometimes when weather like that. I see big long day for me. I'm drivin' on the street, no talking, no nothing.


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