On Dec. 15, 1968, Philadelphia Eagles fans booed Santa Claus and pelted him with snow balls. This iconic moment of ill will has defined the coarse pride that Philadelphians take in their city; it also sums up my feelings about summer in Maine. It isn’t the crowds, or the tourists, or the traffic as these things are either over-stated or are integral to cultural and economic life of our industries and institutions (if you don’t think tourists contribute to our cultural identity, read up on the history of our lobster fisheries). No, what bothers me is the heat and the fact that nearly every industry in Maine is seasonal. The sad irony is that many people in Maine don’t have time to enjoy the summer because they are so busy hustling for their winter nut.
One iconic summer industry is the drive-up ice-cream parlor. Now I don’t want to hurt anyone’s business (and it is unlikely that anything I write here will) but I think drive-up ice cream parlors are some of the saddest places on earth.
The ritual is more or less as follows: In search of an “activity” you pile into the car (possibly with some whiny kids in tow) and drive to the ‘50s era structure set in the middle of a parking lot (the architecture is often the highlight of the event). From there you wait in line with a number of other sugar addicts — some of whom are there evidently against their doctor’s recommendations — to be waited on, inevitably, by a high school student. The transaction of an adult buying a child’s food from a teenager makes me further uncomfortable (like having a baby sitter who is younger than you). Once you get your frozen treat your choice of where to eat is comes down to the parking lot, your car, or perhaps a sticky bench encircled with trash on a scrubby patch of grass.
Why not just eat the stuff at home?
The closest analogy to an ice cream parlor is probably a bar. Rather than stay home, people go out for drinks in search of elegance (or at least style), vibrancy and company. As with a nice bar, an old-fashioned ice-cream parlor affords the consumer a certain sense of leisure and sophistication. However, this not the case with a depressing old-man bar; particularly at, say, 10:30 on a Tuesday morning when it is full of the regulars hunched over their beers where misery loves company plays silently on the broken juke box.
But whatever drives the old drunk or the sweets-craver out to indulge their addiction in the quiet company of strangers, both seem to derive from a common impulse against loneliness.
However, while drinkers have a dizzying choice of bars from elegant to dive bars that cater to nearly every conceivable demographic (actors, artists, bankers, bikers, etc.) ice-cream places are limited to essentially the drive-to and the scoops place (a smallish, brightly lit, white-tiled storefront that focuses on to-go orders).
Maybe I am yucking somebody’s yum, and maybe the drive-to ice cream is less analogous to a dive bar then to a drive-through liquor store. The problem is not so much a matter of product but environment.
Trips to the ice-cream stand make for an easy outing; a cheap luxury; and a way to de-fuse over-heated children. Unfortunately, the many lunch counter type soda fountains that were found in drug-stores and candy stores throughout North America are now a thing of the past. It is now almost inconceivable — even to those old enough to remember — being able to go into a Walgreens and find a soda fountain lunch counter, resplendent in ornate brass, chrome, cut glass; staffed by soda jerks in white shirts, bow ties, and jaunty paper hats.
Eating a soft serve in your car just isn’t the same. Let the decline of the neighborhood ice cream parlor serve as yet another example of the path of destruction led by the automobile and the loss of urbanism to the one-dimensionality of our economy.
Zack Barowitz is a flâneur his work can be seen at ZacharyBarowitz.com