Spotlight: Mr. Willie

A good ice cream truck is always heard before it’s seen, and when “Pop Goes the Weasel” fills the streets of Midtown, it can only mean one thing: Mr. Willie is on the way. Children, and apparently adults, rush to the sides of Monterey, North Reed and other Midtown thoroughfares with money in hand to greet their beloved ice cream man.

What’s your background?

I’ve been doing this off and on for 40-some years now. I’ve been around it a while. When I started out, I was even selling popcorn. Yeah, the ice cream truck had a popcorn machine on it back in the day.

I came here from Chicago because my mother was sick and I wanted to be near her. When she passed, I stayed down here.

I hear you used to play some music in Chicago.

Well, I played music in the church mostly. I tried to do a little something with the rock ’n’ roll, blues and such, but I couldn’t make it. I played some drums with Buddy Guy, Sam Cook and a few other great ones. But I was always a church man, and still am, so I mostly sang spiritual songs. I really never got the feeling for all that other stuff.

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What’s the best part of your job?

When I run up on a group of good people with no problems that don’t waste no time. Sometimes the grown people, the mama or the daddy, they come and want ice cream when I pull up. And when they come, the only time I leave there is if they’re smiling.

I’ve met a lot of people along the way. In Chicago, I met a lot of poor folks because I sold ice cream in some of the rough neighborhoods — Blackstone, South Side, Cabrini-Green, places like that. I got along with everybody, and they always treated me all right.

Which ice cream sells the most?

Strawberry Shortcake was the best-seller for a long time, but now I’m selling more of the Jolly Rancher Watermelon Ice in a cup. My favorite ice cream right now is that Mr. Vanilla.

Is this a fun way to make a living?

Yeah, you know, you make it like that. Sometimes you can’t do nothing right. But you just do the best you can, you’ll come out of it in a minute. That’s what I do. But I’ve got some good (customers), man. North Reed, Monterey, there’s some wonderful children over there. Always real respectful, nice, smiling. I just want ’em to keep coming to Mr. Willie.

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text by Ellis Metz

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