The Not-So-Good-Humor Man

illustration by Emily Wood

When I was a child, I grew up across the street from Mr. Fagylalt, a Central European immigrant who owned and operated an ice cream truck.[1]  In the summers, he circumnavigated our neighborhood, his truck tinkling repetitive music that lured nickel-and-dime-toting children to the edges of their yards. Back then, even in the heavy humidity of a South Carolina August, we mostly played outside.

I doubt that Mr. Fagylalt could make it today with children ensconced in their rooms engaged in Mortal Kombat or OD-ing on TikTok videos. I know I would have stayed inside if I had owned Madden NFL 2020 instead of the electric football game we owned. Most of the vibrating plastic players merely rambled around and around in circles. With an open field in front of him, a running back would suddenly hang a hard right and run out of bounds. You passed the ball by putting a felt oval in the quarterback’s hand, pulling his arm back, and catapulting the felt in hopes of hitting the receiver. It was so boring I rarely found anyone willing to play it with me.

Anyway, in those days, people called mobile ice cream vendors “good humor men, ” and, sure enough, Mr. Fagylalt was always in a good mood when I talked to him, or rather, when he talked to me. However, now when I think of Mr. Fagylalt, the adjectives “dirty” and “old” have supplanted  “good” and “humor” as modifiers. Let’s put it this way: although Mr. Fagylalt never attempted to molest me in any physical way, he did infuse my vocabulary with a host of Anglo-Saxon vulgarities, words that no one used (at least in front of us) in our house. He didn’t define the words; I picked up their meanings in context from the same old stories he told over and over.[2]

Stories delivered in an accent as thick as Porkolt.[3] One of his favorites featured a mutt named Champ and our neighbors the Foxes, who lived on the corner of Lenwood and Dogwood. The Foxes kept a meticulous yard with neatly trimmed shrubbery and manicured grass. They took great pride in their yard’s appearance, seemingly removing fallen pine needles on a daily basis. One day Champ got into some ice cream chemicals stored in the Fagylalt carport. He ended up slurping down the found treasure and urinating on the Foxes’ chain link fence. “Oh, zat, dog,” Mr. Fagylalt would say in an aside and launch into a side story about the time he saw Champ mount such-and-such a bitch vividly describing the apparatus involved in the procreative act. Eventually, he’d return to the main plot, to wit: Mr. Fox mistook the brownish urine staining his fence for rust until a rainstorm washed it away. At the end of these too-oft-told tales, Mr. Fagylalt laughed and laughed. I hated every minute but was too timidly polite not to stand there for at least one retelling. I don’t remember if I faked-laughed myself, but I doubt it.

Luckily, Mr. Fagylalt and I had a falling out. One summer, when the Fagylalts vacated their house for several weeks, some friends and I entered his ice cream truck, which was unlocked. When inside, we merely looked around to see what it was like in there, and I discovered to my delight that the truck’s music was produced just the way a jack-in-the-box makes music –  with a crank that propels a rubber mechanism that goes around and around plucking out notes. 

Unfortunately, others at various times also got inside the truck and engaged in a bit of vandalism. When the Fagylalts returned and made inquiries, someone noted that he or she had seen a red-headed boy over there, so Mrs. Fagylalt told my mother, who ended up taking my word that I had not vandalized the ice cream truck. I also think my parents (and others in the neighborhood) were hip to Mr. Fagylalt’s off-color ramblings.

When I left for college at eighteen, the Fagylalts still lived across the street. I remember bumming a ride home one Friday for a weekend in Summerville.  Upon arrival, as I walked across our lawn with a sack of dirty clothes slung over my back, a swarm of kids on banana bikes were popping wheelies in our yard. As I shouted “hey” to my nine-year-old brother Fleming, he yanked back on the handlebars too hard and landed on the ground on his rear end.

“If you keep that up, you gonna break your coccyx,” I warned.

He looked up at me with a puzzled expression. 

“Sounds like you’ve been talking to Mr. Fagylalt.”


[1] Even though this man and his wife must be long dead by now – they were older than my parents – I’m going to obscure his identity in the very unlikely event that one of his offspring were to happen upon this post.  Just for fun, though, see if you can guess his country of origin, as I sprinkle hints throughout the post. Hint #1: his native language is not Indo-European in origin.

[2] In James Joyce’s short story “An Encounter,” the young narrator runs across a Mr. Fagylalt-like man whose stories also orbit in circles: “He began to speak on the subject of chastising boys. His mind, as if magnetized again by his speech, seemed to circle slowly round and round its new centre. He said that when boys were that kind they ought to be whipped and well whipped. When a boy was rough and unruly there was nothing would do him any good but a good sound whipping.”

[3] A meat and vegetable stew popular in Székesfehérvár.