In a dimly lit depot in Hunts Point, the Bronx, Heli Vasquez prepared his Mister Softee truck for the drive to Manhattan. He had a fully charged AirPod in his ear, a giant bag of SunChips within reach and DVDs of his favorite old music videos to play.
But all that would come later. “The first thing I do every morning is I taste the ice cream,” said Mr. Vasquez, filling up the hoppers of his soft-serve machine with chocolate and vanilla mix. “I make sure the ice cream is good.”
Good: A light, airy, melt-away texture that can maintain its form as it’s rolled sideways in chocolate sprinkles, or dropped upside down into a vat of warm, waxy blue dip. A smooth, dense-but-not-too-dense consistency in the mouth, and a long, clean flavor.
Mr. Vasquez is one of about 200 Mister Softee drivers who roam the city, dispensing the sweet, industrially engineered flavors of summer to a jangling soundtrack. They lap parks and residential blocks, pull up strategically near the exits of schools and public swimming pools and punctuate sunny days with milkshakes, ice pops and cones.
All the truck drivers start with the same prepackaged cartons of liquid mix, but the quality of their ice cream isn’t uniform. Machines malfunction in countless ways, and some vendors worry more over the details than others. Dirty tubes can lend the ice cream unpleasant off-notes and aftertastes. And a faulty temperature control setting often produces ice cream that’s too stiff or too soft.
Mr. Vasquez, who at 50 has wiry, muscular arms and a graying, impeccably groomed goatee, said most machines tended to be 2 to 4 degrees off. Over time, he has come to rely on his senses, and not a dial, to find the ideal setting (about 18 degrees).
If Mr. Vasquez has a feel for the work, it’s because he’s been driving a Mister Softee truck for 31 years. His father, Lautaro Vasquez, drove one for 40 years before retiring in 2011.
Like most drivers, including those for Mister Softee’s local rival, New York Ice Cream (formerly Master Softee), Mr. Vasquez is a self-employed franchisee. He drives seven days a week in ice cream season, from late March to mid-October. Out of season, he finds work in construction, or making deliveries, and spends more time with his family; he and his wife Patricia Vasquez have two children and a miniature poodle they call Loco Lucas. They vacation, often visiting El Guabo in southwestern Ecuador, where Mr. Vasquez was born.