As one who spent his formative years in Millbrae, I have fond recall of many places that, since my childhood, have either undergone much change, or have disappeared completely. In the case of defunct shops and businesses, the street numbers and buildings still remain, occupied by someone or something that has no relation to what it once was. But there is one enterprise that left without a trace about a half-century ago. Although no physical evidence remains of her existence, Millbrae’s Ice Cream Lady was, for a few years, as much a part of our landscape as any standing structure in town. Between roughly 1958 and 1963, her familiar truck along with its accompanying music roamed up and down our city’s streets peddling frozen ice cream treats for a dime. Combine the fact that she was selling items that were crucial to any kid’s diet with what was an unforgettable persona, you definitely have the makings of a legend, or at least someone with a cult following.
Between the mid1950’s and the end of the 1960’s, Millbrae ran through several ice cream men and women, and during the height of the Baby Boom, we often were visited more than once during the same day. The idea of ice cream being sold directly by way of a truck was a holdover from an earlier time when our city streets were full of vendors selling anything from fish to fruit. Food being sold directly from a cart or truck was necessary 100 years ago, as most households did not have available transportation to drive to a store. Another factor was that in pre-World War II America, many homes did not yet have refrigeration units, and many items could only be purchased if they were going to be used immediately.
The concept of the ice cream truck is generally credited to the Good Humor Corporation of America, who first took to the streets in 1920 selling chocolate ice bars on a stick in Youngstown, Ohio. What started as one truck selling one item grew to over 2,000 trucks throughout the country, offering as many as 85 assorted ice cream novelty flavors or combinations. The Good Humor Corporation and its competitors followed the population flow to the suburbs, directing most of their sales energy toward the growing Baby Boomer demographic, as 55% of the customer base was 12 years old or younger.
Millbrae’s Ice Cream Lady first appeared around 1958. She was somewhat stocky, wore sunglasses and had frizzy hair, but her most memorable characteristics were the hole in her throat, no doubt the result of a tracheotomy, along with the frog-like voice that came from the same procedure. One would like to think that her health situation and her attempt to work through it would evoke sympathy and admiration, but kids are kids, and usually her appearance inspired fear from younger children, and sick humor from the older ones. Normally, she would arrive on my block after lunch usually between 1pm and 3pm. Pinehurst Court consists of 21 homes and, in its heyday, housed over 60 kids, so we must have been considered profitable territory. Since we were also visited by an evening ice cream truck, many of us had developed a two-a-day ice cream bar habit. Unfortunately, I came from a large family, and my mother was seldom willing to shell out seven dimes every time an ice cream truck came rolling up. As luck would have it, my best friend Dougie was an only child, and his generous mom would always buy the both of us ice cream bars whenever I happened to be there, which, coincidentally, was everyday. It was just as well that Doug’s mother was happy to fetch us our treats, as I was afraid of the Ice Cream Lady anyway, as my first dealing with her did not go well…at the age of four, I attempted to purchase a popsicle with four shiny pennies, only to be publicly humiliated when informed that I was quite a bit short. Other children were also weary of her, as she had little tolerance for kids who had trouble making up their minds over which flavor to choose, and the words “hurry up kid, my ice cream is melting” were quite intimidating when delivered with that unforgettable croak.
As you no doubt can tell, I never did learn the Ice Cream Lady’s actual name, or anything else about her for that matter. Nature abhors a vacuum, and my sister Patrice took it upon herself to create a back story for the woman, and thus the saga of “Myrtle Krinkle” was born. According to Patrice, “Myrtle,” in addition to being our ice cream lady, was also the sweetheart of Howard Cobb, the well known proprietor of the “Brick of Gold,” Millbrae’s legendary convenience store, although in Patrice’s fictional world, “Myrtle” also had relationships with “Jack” of Jack’s Hobby Shop, and “Kilpatrick” of Kilpatrick’s Grocery. None of this was even remotely true, but my sister’s stories found an eager audience, and eventually, scores of children from my neighborhood began to believe that Patrice’s version of the Ice Cream Lady was true, at least as far as her name being “Myrtle Krinkle.” As the saying goes, “when the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
As mentioned, for a while, my block was frequented by two ice cream trucks, as in addition to the Ice Cream Lady, we also had an ice cream man who had an evening route, generally motoring up Pinehurst between 6 and 7pm. As I recall, he was a dark haired man with a mustache, and spoke with a heavy Italian accent. One memorable day, the inevitable finally happened…the Ice Cream Man came too early, and the Ice Cream Lady came too late, resulting in both of them showing up at 4:30. The shouting match that ensued, featuring the woman’s frog voice and the man’s excited Italian, could be heard for blocks. Despite having two ice cream trucks on our block at the same time, very few sales were made, as most of us didn’t want to be seen as taking sides… almost like when our parents fight.
I honestly can’t tell you exactly when the Ice Cream Lady stopped coming. Between friends, school, sports and television, even the disappearance of the daily ice cream truck can go unnoticed for several weeks. Although I tend to think that her final days in my neighborhood occurred in early 1963, others assumed she was still selling ice cream in Millbrae years after last curbside stop…kind of a local version of the “Mel Allen Syndrome” (I’ll explain later). Other ice cream sellers took her place, but they too faded away, as the combination of Baby Boomers growing up and the price of insurance and gas caused the eventual demise of the daily ice cream person. In later years, the ice cream truck would make an occasional comeback, including during my daughter’s childhood. Watching my little girl waiting on the curb holding her dollar (yeah, a dollar) almost brought a tear to my eye.
I’m guessing Millbrae’s Ice Cream Lady as long since passed away. I’m hoping that, somewhere in the great beyond, she’s at a place where it’s always sunny, and the sidewalks are filled with children holding dimes…she deserves nothing less.
Note: Mel Allen was the longtime voice of the New York Yankees, who was unexpectedly fired after the 1964 season. Allen was so closely identified with the Yankees that even years after his departure, baseball fans outside of New York still believed he was the Yankees announcer. Hence the “Mel Allen Syndrome,” which I kind of made up.