It’s barely eleven a.m. on a sunny May morning in Astoria, Queens, and already somebody wants ice cream. Though he hasn’t actually reached the beginning of his route yet, Gus Elefantis, fifty-two, notices a little boy in a stroller eyeballing his approaching Mister Softee truck. The dad looks too, nodding at its driver. Elefantis, well over six-feet tall, big-bellied and bald, turns the wheel and applies the brakes. “I can’t say no to the kids,” he admits through a noticeable Greek accent, one that’s commonplace in the neighborhood. He didn’t even have to play the iconic Mister Softee jingle to score his first sale of the day: a small vanilla cup with rainbow sprinkles. Elefantis jokes with the kid’s father about how early it is. The dad couldn’t say no either. After a laugh and well wishes, Elefantis is back in the driver’s seat. Jolly, he says, “Off to a good start!”
Actually, Elefantis’s day started two hours earlier when he and his wife, Lola, forty-two, drove from their Astoria home to the nearest Mister Softee hub in Long Island City to begin cleaning and stocking his truck, which he parks overnight in a lot alongside dozens more blue and white vans of joy. Elefantis has owned and operated his mobile Mister Softee franchise since 1987, servicing the same exact route through the Upper Ditmars section of Astoria from Steinway Street to LaGuardia Airport–a route that was included with the purchase of the truck. Watching his wife wipe down the sink, the refrigerator and the slushy machine, Elefantis explains that Lola has cleaned the truck since they were married twenty years ago. “She’s the best at it,” he says. “I’ve tried to clean the truck plenty of times before, but I’m no good at it. When Lola cleans, it is spotless.”
Elefantis’s morning duty is to “go shopping” and purchase the stock for the day from his old friend Dimitri Tsirkos, who initiated Elefantis into the business and now runs the Mister Softee station, which consists of a few parking lots for the trucks and a distribution store where drivers buy supplies. Into a shopping cart Elefantis loads a few cartons of chocolate and vanilla ice cream mix, which will later freeze up inside the truck’s dispenser. He adds a can of whipped cream, some blue paper cups and a gallon of strawberry syrup.
Lola has finished cleaning Elefantis’s truck and it’s time for her to organize everything inside. She meticulously places each of the various freezer items–Rocket Pops, King Cones, SpongeBob pops–into their own cardboard compartments. “Everything’s in the same place every day,” says the stout blonde, who will later in the day clean homes for her second part-time job. “This way, my husband doesn’t even have to think!” Elefantis agrees, saying he won’t even need to glance inside the freezer as he fills orders for the long lines of customers waiting on the sidewalks. Tupperwares of sprinkles are filled. Gallons of milk are placed just behind a stainless steel refrigerator door at Elefantis’s feet. Chocolate sauce that hardens when chilled is poured into a bowl for Dip Cones. The truck is finally ready.
After unplugging the back of the truck from a wall outlet that is used to keep the refrigerators and freezers inside running overnight, then starting up and revving the engine for a while to warm it up (the truck is about thirty-two years old), Elefantis drives out of the garage to sell ice cream in the neighborhood he’s called home for forty-one years.
His family moved to Astoria from Greece in 1972, when Elefantis was ten. He learned English quickly, graduated high school, skipped college and went right to work. “If you’re Greek, you pretty much either do construction or work in a restaurant,” he says. “I did both for a while.”
Back then, his friend Tsirkos owned a Mister Softee truck and a route of his own. When he heard that Route Number 1 was up for sale, he let Elefantis know. Both Elefantis and his twin brother Clem put half the money down and paid the rest, a total of $55,000, within a year. They also bought another truck. “It just kind of happened, you know?” Elefantis says about his twenty-seven years of selling ice cream. “We did well that first summer, so we figured, ‘why not do it again?’”
Once a truck and its route are paid for, there are other expenses that the proprietors must pay, including rent on the overnight parking spot and stocking the truck. Mister Softee Inc. gets dues or royalties, which it uses partly to buy advertising. Repairs to the truck are also paid for out-of-pocket, but mechanics are on hand at Tsirkos’s station, making things more convenient for drivers. Elefantis’s relative taught him how to fix refrigerators years ago, so now if his breaks down, Elefantis can fix it immediately and not lose a day on the streets.
Finally, there’s the gasoline. “If there’s one thing that has hurt this business, it’s the gas prices,” Elefantis insists. “Getting started used to be a lot easier. Because of gas, paying off the truck and the route takes so much longer, making it harder for people to make money. Then they don’t want to stay in the business.” Rising milk prices don’t help, either. “We can’t just double the price of a cone from one year to the next because then nobody would buy from us,” Elefantis says.
Elefantis will spend between nine and ten hours driving around Astoria, jumping from the driver’s seat to the access window countless times, taking a toll on a big man’s body. “You’re walking on steel all day,” he says. “Talk to any Mister Softee driver and they’ll tell you that their legs from the knees down are a problem.” Though there is an air conditioner in the truck that isn’t completely useless, its function is countered by the heat emanating from the refrigeration units, not to mention the sweltering humidity in New York City’s summer air. The back of the truck is searing on days when temperatures climb above ninety-five degrees, which are also some of the least profitable days because patrons stay inside their air-conditioned homes. Naturally, rainy days hurt business as well. Profit margins for drivers vary year to year, depending on the weather. Elefantis fondly recalls one year in the early ’00s when the weather was so cooperative that he started driving in February and didn’t stop until Thanksgiving. “I made a lot of money that year,” he says with a wry grumble and nod of the head.
Typically, Elefantis doesn’t drive the Mister Softee truck for more than six months a year. He works every day it doesn’t rain between April and October, unless there is an important family event or holiday like Greek Easter. A day spent inside his home is a day he’s not making money, so he’ll put in twelve-hour days as often as he possibly can. On those days he misses his daughters, Joann, eighteen, and Nora, eight.
After a long summer season and parking his truck for winter, Elefantis searches for a new seasonal job to provide for his family. “Once I drove a cab, but that was too much driving in one year for me,” he laughs. “Usually, I work part-time in construction or at a restaurant just like when I was young.” In some ways he would love a stable nine-to-five job, he says. But with Mister Softee, he’s his own boss, which has its perks.
“I eat ice cream every day,” Elefantis discloses, admitting that he dips into his own supply, usually after accidentally making something that a customer didn’t ask for, like a cone with chocolate sprinkles instead of rainbow. “I feel like I have to eat the mistakes. I don’t want them to go to waste!”
When he’s had enough ice cream for the day, he gives his errors away, no charge. Elefantis loves giving away free ice cream. Last April, on the final day the New York State standardized tests were administered, Elefantis offered free ice cream to all the students and faculty at P.S. 2, the elementary school on his route where he sent both his daughters. “They were all stressed out about the test,” he says. “For me, it’s not about the money.”
“My husband loves everyone,” says Lola. “Adults, kids, pets. It doesn’t matter.” Elefantis’s pals at the Mister Softee truck depot unanimously call him “the best,” quick to observe an unintentional correlation between his success and his route, Number 1. His strong relationships with regular customers give Elefantis enough volume to hold steady on prices and still do well. He sells cones for just $2.00 with no extra charge for sprinkles, whereas most other drivers have marked theirs up to $2.50 or more, plus a sprinkle charge.
The side windows of the truck have few decals, making it easy to see into the back where Elefantis works. This is by design. He feels it makes parents much more comfortable dealing with him because it shows he has nothing to hide. Elefantis doesn’t drive his route late at night because he knows the jingle will prompt kids to jump out of bed. During the daytime he plays the song only once per block to limit the disturbance.
“My mother always told me that if you live in a glass house, don’t throw stones at your neighbors. And I live in a glass house,” he says, referring to his windowed truck. He calls the job “easy,” in spite of the long hours away from his daughters while they’re on summer vacation, the heat, the hurt in his legs, the lack of pension, and the requirement of fresh employment every winter. But Gus Elefantis isn’t going anywhere, to the delight of the many Astorians he comes into daily summer contact with. “Unless I hit the lotto,” he says, “which I don’t play, I’m not going to stop.”
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Michael Stahl is a Queens-based journalist and a Narratively features editor. He barely tweets anymore @MichaelRStahl.
Kyria Abrahams is a photographer living in Astoria, Queens, and the author of “I’m Perfect, You’re Doomed—Tales From A Jehovah’s Witness Upbringing (Touchstone, 2009).”