Hear that bell? Maybe four or five blocks away? It’s Wednesday night in Eau Claire’s Third Ward neighborhood, and maybe you’ve been waiting for that bell all week. Perhaps you’re standing in your driveway, holding your money. Maybe the bell caught you off guard, and you’ve bolted up in a panic: searching for loose change or digging through old pants pockets for stray dollar bills. Hurry up, or you’ll miss it.
The Ice Cream Man is coming.
On a full-sized tricycle, the Ice Cream Man, also known as Paul Braun, pedals a 400-pound freezer packed with 20 varieties of push-ups, drumsticks, soon-to-be-gone Choco Tacos, ice cream sandwiches, and, last and least in popularity: frozen fruit bars.
Paul lives up on Eau Claire’s North Side Hill, but once a week over the past 20 summers, he’s pedaled through our neighborhood and down our street with the bell ringing every time the trike hits a bump. My wife and I have enjoyed both the anticipation and the surprise – seeing our kids sprint out the door over the years, zero to 60.
What’s it like, I wondered, to be the bearer of such good news, to be the Ice Cream Man? Paul usually lingers around for a few minutes of conversation after each sale. One night last summer, sensing a story opportunity, I asked, “Could I shadow you on the route sometime?”
“Sure, anytime,” Paul said.
The following Wednesday, we meet at his friend’s Third Ward garage, where Paul stores the ice cream trike, and roll out at 6:20, ringing the bell. Paul doesn’t need to yell, “Ice cream! Get your ice-cold ice cream here!” The bell does the talking, and the product sells itself. He doesn’t wear a white apron or funny hat – just his tan “Paul’s Pop Cycle” T-shirt. The three-wheel freezer, with its string of battery-powered popsicle lights and the softball-sized bell, is attention-grabbing enough. Paul doesn’t transform when he climbs on the giant trike; everyone around him does. I’ve lived in this neighborhood for 20 years, but I’ve never seen it through this lens. These are the same streets and houses, but with the Ice Cream Man, it has a feel-good, sepia filter – as does every person who flags us down.
Some hold their money with both hands. Some have coin purses. Others slap their pockets.
“I’ll be right out,” a man yells from his window. “I’m just getting my wallet!”
A group of teenagers stops their football game and, without a trace of mockery or irony, approaches us and scans the menu of pictures plastered to the side of the freezer. “I gotta go with that Spidey-pop,” one says, and the rest join in with their careful orders.
A block later, a man on a bike catches up to us, and without even glancing at the menu, he says: “I’ll have a caramel fudge vanilla drumstick.” I’m guessing this guy is a regular.
Paul enjoys the Third Ward and continues his routes here for many reasons. In addition to having multiple generations of friendly people that connect and congregate in their front yards, it also has another key selling point for Paul: it’s one of the flatter neighborhoods in Eau Claire. That’s a key factor when pushing a 400-pound freezer on a three-wheeler. “It’s a wonderful group of people,” Paul says. “I enjoy how appreciative they are. Some have even said, ‘Please don’t ever stop doing this; it’s such an important part of our neighborhood.’ ”
At our next stop, a toddler proudly proclaims, “I heard your bell!” Then, when his dad removes the wrapper off the Bomb Pop, the kid stares at it and says, “It looks like a rocket ship!”
His dad, stoic but careful, says, “I’ll have the Haagen-Dazs, please.”
Parents remind their kids repeatedly to remember their manners, and one mom takes a break from the soft glow to remind her son, “Can you get off your bike because if you drop your ice cream you’re not getting more!!”
Then she turns to us, turns her smile and sweetness back on: “Have a great night!”
“Bye-bye, Ice Cream Man!” the boy yells.
Sometimes Paul chats with the customers in a continuation of the conversation from the week before, and the week before that, and the week before that. They talk about vacations, house projects, recipes, internet provider speeds, rewiring cars, and, of course, the weather.
People with visitors will say things to their group like, ‘I told you this was real! They didn’t believe me!’
At our next stop, as preschool kids stand eye-level with the menu, one middle schooler across the road yells, “We’ll be right there! Just waiting on the money!” Then he runs over and makes two selections, yelling back toward his house: “Daaad! I got you an ice cream sandwich that I’ll probably eat anywaaay!”
Paul is a modest guy. He enjoys the hoopla, but he doesn’t let it go to his head. It’s a good workout and a nice change of pace from his day job improving words and crunching numbers at Ayres Associates as a database/website editor.
“I feel like the Tooth Fairy, a unicorn, and Santa Claus all wrapped into one,” he says. “People with visitors will say things to their group like, ‘I told you this was real! They didn’t believe me!’ ” The rookies look at the Ice Cream Man like he’s a time traveler from a bygone era and often take pictures.
Still riding high from the fun of the last stop, we hear: “OHHHHH YEAH! ICE CREAM MAN!!!” And the traveling party starts all over again. A man with tattoos and a heavy metal shirt thoughtfully weighs his options. After dropping off a pizza, a delivery guy eyes us up, strolls over, and orders an ice cream sandwich. “Bring something, take something,” he says.
Another man pulls alongside us in his car and says, “Are you heading down Ripley Street? If not, I’ll get something from you now.”
Choco Tacos, with their just-announced discontinuation, are a big topic of conversation. Paul jokes that they could become a frozen collector’s item. “If you run out of Choco Tacos,” one guy yells as we drive off, “next year just bring regular tacos.” We all laugh.
Every other block is its own mini-party, and we’re only halfway through the night.
What is it with humans and ice cream? When someone brings up ice cream, no one says, “That’s a terrible idea.” Even the lactose intolerant will take a pill or choose a sorbet. Why do adults not outgrow it and leave it behind like Skittles and Pop Rocks?
My father was a Uniroyal factory worker who scooped an ice cream cone each night, and we all followed suit. It was something everyone agreed on, something all of us had in common. In some of my earliest memories, I’m sitting with Dad on our back steps in the dark, eating ice cream under the stars. I was so young that I couldn’t eat the bottom part of the cake cone—the grid was too tough for me to crunch through. When I handed it to Dad, he knew what I meant without saying anything. And he finished it for me—always without complaint.
Like me, the Ice Cream Man was the youngest of five kids. And his parents, too, had a weakness, or a strength, for the world’s greatest dessert. “We didn’t have a ton of extra money,” Paul says. “We didn’t go to Disney World, but we did get ice cream. Whenever we went camping as a family, we had to do two things. First, we had to find a church because we were Catholic and couldn’t skip. Second, we had to find an ice cream place nearby.”
When Paul had his own family and spent some time as a stay-at-home dad, he brainstormed entrepreneurial ideas.
Back then, there weren’t many ice cream options in Eau Claire, outside of Nelson’s Cheese House and Dairy Queen. After studying the market, the options, and prices, Paul eventually made the leap with his company called 9 Degrees – buying the freezer on wheels off eBay from a guy in Florida. By this time, Paul and his wife, Pam, were both working day jobs. Then, in addition to pedaling two or three routes a week, they had standing gigs at Owen Park on Tuesday nights and Phoenix Park on Thursdays and Saturdays. Paul, Pam, and their two children set up in the heat and arrived home after dark, only to have more clean-up to do, not to mention household chores.
This wasn’t grab-and-go frozen treats; they hand-scooped ice cream cones by the thousands. Their daughter and son grew up in the business, taking orders and scooping ice cream as a family through their high school and college years.
It was long hours and a lot of work, but to varying degrees, all four look back fondly on those years.
“Sometimes we shake our heads wondering how we did it, but we were having fun pretty much until the end,” Paul said. “All the set-up, tear down, the prep, that stuff wasn’t super fun, but when we were selling, I was flabbergasted that people thanked us when they were the ones giving us money. They were so happy that we were there.”
Paul’s kids are now grown and on their own. They sold the hand-scoop ice cream part of the business and gave up the stationary gigs. Now at age 56, all that remains for Paul’s Pop Cycle is the occasional specialty gig and Wednesday evenings in the Third Ward – where there will always be a new generation of ice cream lovers. The only thing that can slow this operation down is the oncoming winter.
The sun sets earlier every Wednesday in August, and tonight is no exception. We’ve got a route to finish.
On the next block, a man climbs down his ladder, smiles, and says, “This is my cue to be done for the day.”
“We love this guy,” his wife says referring, probably, to Paul.
We almost miss our next customer, as no one is outside his house, but we hear a man yell out the window in a panic: “Whoa! Whoa! Whoa!” He stocks up for the week, and at the end of his order he says, “Better throw in one of those Oreo sandwiches in case I get dangerously close to losing weight.”
On the next block, a man hobbles down the sidewalk on crutches with his wife.
“Best day of the week, right?” his wife says. “We wait for this. We were worried that we missed it! He was making double time.” The man smiles, stays focused on the menu, and orders.
The kids are excited. I expected that. What surprises me are the adults. One runs out in his socks. Another hustles out of the house and into the road after we pass, flagging us down from behind. We circle back, and she catches up. “Thanks for the turnaround,” she says. “We’re making a new dish in there, and I had to get the basil in!” Then she studies the menu and happily says, “Hmmm … decisions, decisions …”
“When that bell goes off,” the next customer tells me, “in every adult, there’s a 5-year-old saying, ‘YESSSS!!!’ ”
Toward the end of the night, I ask Paul for his take. “Do you ever wonder,” I ask, “if these adults love ice cream so much, why they don’t just get some at the grocery store? It’s not like you have all the ice cream, and when you leave their street, they’re out of luck until next week.”
“I’ve thought about that,” Paul says. “But that’s part of the reason 80% of the houses don’t have someone rushing out to buy from me. Maybe they aren’t home. Maybe they can’t hear the bell over their air conditioning. Or maybe they’re being practical.”
We’re interacting only with the most joyful people in the neighborhood. I sense this isn’t just about nostalgia; customers love the experience and want to keep the bell ringing for the future.
But in the end, Paul seems to benefit as much, if not more, than anyone on his route. To provide this magic is to be surrounded by it for over two hours straight, and Paul says it never gets old. “The few times I’ve started the route in a foul mood, by the end, I’m feeling great,” he says. “Sometimes people ask me why I do this … and I don’t know why anyone wouldn’t want to do this.”
Purely for journalistic purposes, I ask, “Do you think when we get to my street, I could drive the ice cream bike?”
“Sure,” Paul laughs, like he knew I would ask eventually.
When we get to my street, we switch bikes. The trike seat is bouncy but comfortable. Getting this beast moving, however, takes a lot of effort. Steering it does, too. “It takes a certain amount of body English to turn the corners,” Paul says.
I get it rolling, grab the rope, and ring the bell – not holding back. My neighbor across the street laughs, and my wife and son are at the end of our driveway, smiling. This is intoxicating, but they’d be smiling anyway. It’s not just me; it’s the ice cream. I’m just the conduit. After our block, unfortunately, I give the reigns back to Paul. This is his gig.
I can see why he does this. It’s a hit of pure oxygen. Ring the bell. See the smiles. Hear the yells. Be the Ice Cream Man. He’s selling ice cream, but people are buying the experience. At an ice cream shop, you find the ice cream; with Paul’s Pop Cycle, the ice cream finds you. It has a lucky-day sensation that makes adults forget their diets and open their wallets.
Paul accepts donations for charities rather than tips, so even the cash aspect has a feel-good aura. Last summer, Paul raised over $1,000 for JONAH’s Advancing Hope Fund, which provides micro-loans to individuals who’ve fallen on hard times, and Chippewa Valley Bridge Builders, which supports immigrant families seeking asylum and settlement in Eau Claire. This summer, he’s already raised over $500 for Community Haven House--an Eau Claire day shelter for the homeless.
With reasonably priced cold treats and a good cause, it’s a summer blast of good vibes – to be or to catch the Ice Cream Man, this fleeting freezer cruising past like a shooting star.
So, when you hear the bell, pour a handful of coins out of the change jar and hustle outside. Come September, it’ll be quieter in the neighborhood. Wednesday night will be just another school night for the kids. Time to get serious. The sun will set earlier. Temperatures will fall. Paul will put the freezer into storage, and eventually our entire state will turn into a frozen landscape.
The adults know that summer, like childhood, is limited, and if you have a chance to put it on pause with ice cream, take it. The kids cheer at every opportunity, unaware, as they should be. And Paul pedals on – magic on wheels – wiser than us all.
Ken Szymanski is the 2020-2024 Eau Claire Writer-in-Residence and the author of Home Field Advantage and Sit Down and Stay Awhile: My Aunt Lil, a Small-Town Bar, and a Lifetime of Polkas. For more on Ken, visit kenszymanski.com.