His smile never wavers above his bright red bow tie. This is not a serious man — he has an ice cream cone for a head. And yet in the cheery world of Mister Softee, there are rules.
- Do not sell ice cream on another Mister Softee truck’s route.
- Do not play the music constantly. Turn it off while you’re idling.
- If the machine acts up and pumps too much ice cream onto a cone, do not serve it. Other kids will notice and want a big one, too.
And as of this month, a new rule at a Mister Softee truck lot in Queens: Do not leave your bank of quarters and bills locked in the truck overnight.
It changed what had been standard operating procedure at a Mister Softee parking lot in South Ozone Park for as long as any of the drivers could remember. The place seemed very secure, with cameras, a tall fence and locks on the gate. And the trucks parked there must have looked worthless to a passing thief. What are you going to steal from an empty Mister Softee? Sprinkles?
Drivers routinely hid rolled bundles of quarters and sometimes more in the nooks and crannies of the trucks’ crowded interiors. It was easier than lugging the change home every night. They never had a problem, until April 4, when somebody entered the lot and forced open the service windows of a dozen or so Mister Softee trucks. The thief took hundreds of dollars in coins and bills, the police said.
The Mister Softee drivers arrived for work the next morning to find their trucks damaged and money gone. Out of work for a day of repairs, they became a team of amateur Detective Softees, swapping theories.
The culprit appears on a snippet of video to be a man, the drivers said. He probably climbed on top of a neighboring house and dropped over the fence into the lot.
“The guy was smart,” said Harish Kumar, 52, the lot’s owner.
Mr. Kumar bought the property in 1990 and cleaned it up. A Mister Softee driver lived down the block.
“He asked my husband, ‘Why don’t you make a parking lot for Mister Softee?’ ” said Mr. Kumar’s wife, Iman Khan. He agreed, and ended up buying four trucks himself. His children and relatives now work there, driving trucks, and Ms. Khan oversees the supply of ice cream mix, cones and other ingredients that are sold to the drivers.
Mr. Kumar knows every inch of his lot and his trucks. And so, it seems, did the thief. “He went behind the trucks,” Mr. Kumar said, “so the camera would not see him.”
The thief spent a couple of hours in the lot, going methodically truck to truck. “He got $700 from those three trucks,” Ms. Khan said, pointing, “350 from that truck.”
One veteran driver of 32 years, Henry J. Murphy Sr., 52, was one of the victims. He kept $200 or so in a cabinet that looks like a freezer, with a thermometer on the door.
“Only someone who knows the business would know,” he said.
“A guy who used to work with Mister Softee,” Mr. Kumar added.
So far, no arrests.
Mr. Murphy has been selling ice cream on his route in Jamaica for so long that, when a little girl appeared at his window, he remembered her father as a boy at that age. He earned enough to raise four children in East Elmhurst, Queens, he said. He graciously allowed a visitor to turn on the music for a minute and cross one more thing off a bucket list.
“That music,” he said, “has made me so much money.”
He works his route the way a doctor makes hospital rounds, parking outside a Catholic School on Parsons Avenue just before dismissal, where children lined up five-deep on Thursday. He worked without pause for half an hour before moving on to a playground. Then another school. He greeted many parents by name.
“It’s not just the face on the truck,” he said. “It’s the face behind the truck.”
The thief has not returned, but he may have struck again. A masked intruder broke into several Mister Softee trucks parked at a larger lot in Queens Village two weeks later. The drivers there kept only loose change in the trucks, but still, they were cleaned out, a manager said.
An Ozone Park driver just shook his head and said, “People will do anything for a buck these days.”