July 25, 2010

Ice cream trucks not music to all ears

There are two basic reactions to the tinny, distorted version of "Turkey in the Straw" that carries across Wichita neighborhoods this time of year:

There are two basic reactions to the tinny, distorted version of "Turkey in the Straw" that carries across Wichita neighborhoods this time of year:

"Yaaaaay! The ice cream truck!!"

Or, "Oh no, not another ice cream truck!"

Joseph Stanga's is the latter.

"I'm not anti-ice cream. Not at all," said Stanga, 33. "I just don't think they need to play the music that loud and that often. It's obnoxious."

Stanga petitioned the Wichita City Council recently to better enforce the city's noise ordinance as it relates to ice cream trucks that hover around his home on South Chautauqua. He said he's heard amplified music —"La Cucaracha," "The Entertainer," sometimes "Greensleeves" — from blocks away, sometimes six or seven times a day.

One recent afternoon, Stanga watched an ice cream truck pull over to make a sale. It continued to blast "La Cucaracha" at full volume, Stanga said, so he asked the driver to turn it down.

"He kind of shrugged and said, 'I can't,' " Stanga said. "That doesn't seem right."

City code dictates that ice cream truck music should not be audible beyond 300 feet — about a block — and should be turned off "when the vehicle is stationary for the purpose of making sales."

The owner of Wichita's largest fleet of ice cream trucks said he doesn't get many complaints about music. When he does — usually from people who work the night shift and sleep during the day — he tells his drivers to be respectful and reasonable.

"It's pretty much self-regulated," said Doug Owen, branch manager for Frosty Treats, a Kansas City, Mo., company that operates 18 trucks in the Wichita area.

"When they stop to make a sale, they do turn it down," Owen said. "I tell them to be courteous, to cooperate with people and try to do as they ask."

But that telltale music is crucial to business, Owen said, especially during heat waves that drive customers into air-conditioned living rooms and basements.

"Without it, we're not going to sell any ice cream," he said. "Nobody's going to know you're there."

Owen hopes to eventually replace the sound systems on his fleet with old-fashioned bells, the brass kind he remembers from his childhood in Kentucky.

"To me, it's a better sound," he said. "It goes all around instead of just toward the front.... And some people like it more than the music. Sometimes those tunes get stuck in your head."

Ice cream music is unmistakable and usually sends kids scrambling for money, said Adrian Robertson, a 29-year-old vendor who drives a route in west Wichita.

"We're like a superhero," he said. "They hear the music and then they see the truck coming. They're always smiling and happy."

When developing routes, many drivers purposely play the same song in the same area at the same time every day, so families within certain blocks learn when to expect the ice cream truck. That also explains why some people think the song never changes.

"I do change it up, but I kind of have a pattern," Robertson said.

Since starting his route in March, Robertson said he has logged a few complaints. The manager of a mobile home park he visits each day came out of her office and threatened to report him for disturbing the peace, he said.

"I told her I was sorry, and when I pass her house I'll remember to turn it down," Robertson said.

The digital music box on his Frosty Treats truck plays eight selections. But there are two he refuses to play: "Brahms' Lullaby" and "La Cucaracha."

The first, because "it puts people to sleep," he said.

And the second because "I can't see playing a song about cockroaches. I'm selling food here."

City leaders forwarded Stanga's complaint to officials in the law and inspections departments. Council members asked to be briefed in coming weeks about ice cream truck guidelines and how they're enforced.

Stanga, meanwhile, says he doesn't want to be viewed as curmudgeonly or anti-summer. He just wishes the music and the temperatures would simmer down a bit.

"It's too loud. One of the major problems is the volume they play it," he said.

"Sometimes I can hear them and can't see them at all."

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