(Originally published in OC WEEKLY, Thursday, August 17, 2006)
See me coming, you ain’t got no change
Don’t worry baby, it can be arranged
Show me you can smile, baby just for me
Fix you with a Drumstick, I’ll do it for free
—Tom Waits, Ice Cream Man
It sounds like the ultimate summertime daydream: buy yourself an ice cream truck and drive around America giving away free ice cream, getting by mostly on good karma and stopping off at concerts to hang out backstage with rock stars. But that daydream is all in a day’s work for Matt Allen, the Ice Cream Man.
Show Allen a smile, and he’ll fix you with a Drumstick, or a Good Humor Bar, or a Choco Taco, and he’ll always do it for free. Since 2004, Allen says he’s handed out 35,000 ice cream treats at concerts, festivals and other events across the USA. He hopes to give away a million before he’s through.
On a muggy Sunday in early June, Allen pulled over on his way to Kansas and spoke to me by phone. He was beginning a three-month tour. He already sounded exhausted, and while we chatted, an angry wasp was pestering him inside his truck. Allen has spent this summer driving through the desert in a 1969 Chevy truck without air-conditioning or cruise control, sleeping on a thin mattress spread atop the freezer in the back, and waking with the sunrise. Ice cream trucks are notoriously unreliable, and Allen takes it as a given that his—which he has christened Bessie—will break down at some point.
“Yeah, Bessie hasn’t been too friendly lately,” Allen says. “Just about everything in her is brand-new. I’ve had to replace it all. They’re not made for trips like this, so you have to do endless preventative maintenance for all the things that could go wrong. It’s been unbelievably horrible.”
Allen has just about the most fun job ever, but having this much fun is damn hard work. He’s put in 100-hour weeks as the Ice Cream Man, sometimes traveling 15 hours per day.
The Ice Cream Man arrives at a concert, hands out free treats to the crowd and the crew backstage, then he’s at leisure to enjoy the show as the sun goes down. At icecreamman.com, Allen and a small team of volunteers write concert reviews and post photos of folks happily scarfing down their complimentary treats. Allen relies on corporate sponsorship to underwrite his tasty brand of philanthropy, and he’s worked out deals with sponsors ranging from Mochi Ice Cream to WESC clothing.
“I’ve always kinda had a hatred for advertising,” Allen says. “But if we do it right, this is a win-win for everybody. I always say, they can run a quarter-page ad someplace, or for the same money, they can use us. For them it’s a cool way to integrate their product into the event, and we need their money to keep Bessie running and to keep the freezers full.”
The operation is headquartered in Long Beach, Allen’s hometown, but it reaches all over the nation and Allen plans to take it international soon. He’s working on a sponsorship deal with Toyota that would see a fleet of Yaris cars transformed into roving mini-Bessies, or “Bessitas,” as Allen calls them. But until then, he’ll continue to saddle up Bessie and together they’ll travel the nation doing God’s work.
Allen has always been a free spirit, planning his life around the kind of wild ideas that come to you when you’re staring out your office window during a joyless lunch hour. He and a buddy once made a roller coaster trip across America, riding 100 coasters in a month. Another time, Allen rode a bicycle from Long Beach to Maine, raising $17,000 for breast cancer research. He’s hiked the Appalachian Trail. Most of us give up our lunch-hour fantasies, finish our coffee, and go back to poking around on eBay and pretending we’re working. But Allen just isn’t a life-of-quiet-desperation kinda guy.
“It’s the doing it that gets it done,” Allen says, “not the planning.”
Allen started selling ice cream in college. He bought a three-wheeled bike, attached a cooler, and rode around Denver with a boom box playing instrumental jazz. After he bought Bessie for $1,200, he had an epiphany: Why not roam the Earth, giving ice cream away? He makes it sound like the most natural thing in the world.
Allen says he’ll give this operation five to seven years, and if it doesn’t work out, he’ll be ready to give it up.
“I’ll disappear,” he says, “then appear someplace new. I’ll start over. With a new adventure.”