I miss tackiness.
There’s actually a fair amount of it in my house, but once I pull out of the driveway and head into Johnson County proper, everything is so ... well, proper.
No garish billboards trying to save my soul or help me figure out who’s the daddy. No dusty fake flowers on restaurant tables. No tasteless gift shops selling fake dinosaur bones.
Tackiness was a major element of my childhood. That’s what happens when you grow up in a town whose biggest retailer is a roadside collection of kitsch called Hillbilly Junction. Corncob pipes? Dogs playing poker? Enormous belt buckles featuring Confederate flags? They had ’em — along with billboards for miles around pointing weary travelers to the home of family “dinning.”
My grandma’s house was best of all. In addition to plenty of plastic flowers, she had a lifetime subscription to the National Enquirer, which I started reading at about age 6. At 8, I was sensible enough to be embarrassed about it. By 9, I started denying I had ever opened it, but just between you and me, I read it cover to cover every time I went home from college.
The most awesomely tacky thing in Grandma’s house was so tiny that apparently I’m the only one who ever noticed it. My relatives claim to have no memory of it, but I think they’ve just suppressed the trauma of having seen it hanging in that kitchen year after year. It was about 6 inches square, one of those shellacked plaques that are supposed to look like walnut but are really particleboard, with a thin sheet of metal crookedly glued onto it. Inscribed on the metal, in a suitably spiritual-looking typeface, were the words “He Touched Me.” And a giant fingerprint.
These days, the jokes would write themselves. Thankfully, my childhood occurred in a more innocent time. Or at least, a more clueless and denial-prone one.
So you can see how living in Joco has been an adjustment. Sure, I left the rural Ozarks way back in the ’80s, but when you grow up as close to Branson as I did, lowbrow Americana gets into your blood and never truly leaves.
That’s why I get a kick out of ice cream trucks. They’re one of Joco’s few concessions to inelegance. They’re nostalgia and garishness and overpriced high-fructose corn syrup all rolled up in one, with blaring Scott Joplin music to boot. What could possibly be more American?
Neighborhood uproars, that’s what. If you haven’t seen people get riled up about ice cream trucks, you haven’t spent much time in Prairie Village lately.
PV is home to many patrons of the fine arts, but their appreciation does not extend to distorted versions of “The Entertainer” played at volumes that would make a screwdriver jab to the eardrum seem comparatively pleasant.
That’s how an ice cream truck company learned that brightly painted vans and the promise of a sugar rush can take you only so far in the mean (but preferably quiet) streets of Prairie Village. Especially when you blast out-of-season Christmas songs and random tunes from yesteryear all day long.
I’m sympathetic to the residents who are demanding that somebody somewhere do something about the commotion. Nobody hates loud noises more than I do. Loud noises — or even the possibility of them — make me do things like scream, refuse free concert tickets and walk out on Springsteen. If I can’t tolerate high volume even for three minutes of “Born to Run” with professional sound engineers involved, how long could I possibly tolerate a cheap loudspeaker blaring “Turkey in the Straw”?
I’d like to think, though, that if these trucks were roaming my neighborhood, I could take a deep breath and somehow ignore them. Even when I’m working from home on deadline. Even when my son is begging for sweets.
Because for me, the appeal of the ice cream truck doesn’t come from the Eskimo Pies, the Popsicles or the Drumsticks. It comes from the tug of the past, which is a quiet thing. It comes from memories of long, hot afternoons dripping with humidity and scented by chlorine, freshly mowed grass and coconut suntan oil.
In that time before cable TV and the Internet and video games, the ice cream truck livened up the day in a way that would be impossible to explain to a child today. Hearing it come down the street was a rare and joyful thing, and I loved it not because I wanted the treats, but just because.
The sugar rush? I didn’t need an ice cream truck for that. I had plenty of access to junk food at Grandma’s house, where the music was old-time hymns played on the very style of upright piano “The Entertainer” was written for. I ate Ding-Dongs and drank Tang and read trashy celebrity gossip while sitting at the kitchen table next to that fingerprint wall plaque that only I remember.
My life in those days may not have been tasteful, but it was so, so sweet.