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Clinging to the Slow Lane : The Ice Cream Man, like his predecessors 50-odd years ago, is a Rockwellian fixture in many Valley neighborhoods.

August 20, 1993|JEFF PRUGH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

He's the Ice Cream Man, an American institution as refreshing as a month of sundaes.

He comes across as every body's amigo , a Santa Claus for summer and all other seasons.

As he sweats out his workday's journey into night, making his rounds behind not eight reindeer but eight cylinders, he lights up faces of kids from 3 to 93--especially on scorching afternoons that can turn Popsicles into puddles.

To visit an Ice Cream Man named Don Pierson at a park in upscale Encino--or, to ride with another named Percy Parra through working-class Van Nuys--is to tour swatches of Los Angeles' multiethnic tapestry, pop culture and grass-roots free enterprise.

In a world of sweeping change--of fast food and fast bucks, of boom boxes and gangbangers--the Ice Cream Man clings to the slow lane, forever stuck in rewind.

Like his predecessors 50-odd years ago, he's a Rockwellian fixture in many neighborhoods. He still plays those music-box strains of "Old MacDonald Had a Farm" or "Yankee Doodle" or "The Band Played On," sometimes looking the other way if a child customer comes up a dime or a quarter short, always peddling a product that tastes great and doesn't pretend to be less filling.

"Naw, there's nothin' wrong with kids today," one Ice Cream Man tells a customer. "I hear that story every year. You treat kids with respect, and they treat you with respect."

Pierson, a chunky, poker-faced fellow of 53 with a shock of white, curly hair, reaches deep into the freezer and hands the customer a frozen Drumstick.

He sits at Encino Park as dozens of youngsters converge on his white 1969 Harvester International truck, which he says he bought from the U. S. Postal Service for $1,500.

The truck is ablaze in colorful stick-on labels of treats named for icons such as Tweety Bird, Bugs Bunny, the Flintstones and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Also in stock: trading cards that bear likenesses of World Wrestling Federation stars Sid Justice and Bret (Hit Man) Hart.

"Kids are always the same," Pierson says. "Naturally, they're a little more hip now than they were in the old days. But then, maybe not."

This Ice Cream Man, like others, offers not just ice cream but cold drinks, candy, gum, chips and a potpourri of snacks named Screwball (strawberry ice), UFO (Unidentified Frozen Object: vanilla ice cream between two dipped-in-chocolate oatmeal cookies) and Choco Taco (wafer cone shaped like a taco, filled with chocolate ice cream and nuts), among others.

He also tries to put an upbeat spin on an often downbeat world, serving up a homespun work ethic that took root in his native Nebraska, where he long ago drove a bakery truck.

"Now this is gonna be a positive article, isn't it?" Pierson asks, his question a commentary on our times, when even ice cream vendors strive to polish their already squeaky-clean image.

For 27 years, Don Pierson has toiled in Encino, serving a clientele that he says has included celebrities such as Michael Jackson and Annette Funicello (and her children) and watching many of his first customers grow up to rear children of their own.

"This guy is literally the Pied Piper of Encino," says Hal Lifson, a screenwriter and an Encino child of the 1960s. "The kids have always loved him. Imagine! The same guy--in the same neighborhood--all these years!"

It's a journey that has whisked Pierson and his ice cream truck from the Vietnam '60s to the rough-and-tumble '90s. Never mind, he says, that violent crimes have occurred near his apartment in North Hollywood, or that whenever someone "who looks shady" approaches his truck, "I start tapping one of the these." He rapidly taps the handle of a small ice pick against the steering wheel.

"You take a negative look at things, and that's what your mind's gonna be," he says. "You need positive thinking--yes, sir. Like the old story goes, if I'm beaten out of $5, I'm certainly not gonna beat somebody else out of $5. I refuse to do it."

Pierson's seven-day-a-week work schedule begins at 10 a.m.--when he loads up at his wholesale distributor, Dandy Boy of North Hollywood--and lasts until 6:30 p.m., or 7:30 on nights when he caters to crowds at sandlot baseball games.

A decade ago, Pierson abandoned cruising residential neighborhoods and set up shop at Encino Park.

"The neighborhood business pretty well went kaput ," he says. "I used to make a pretty good living driving the truck--but then the kids grew into young adults and the parents still stayed in the homes."

Like the other 600 licensed vendors who drive ice cream trucks in Los Angeles County (another 700 own pushcarts), Pierson operates independently. His most profitable days, he says, bring him about $80--after he purchases his snacks and pays for fuel, upkeep and insurance for his truck.

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