It was 1979. There were five of us twenty-something college girls renting a funky old house in the outer Sunset District of San Francisco. We spent the first few days exploring the nooks and crannies of our new abode. It was Martha who suggested we extend our inspection to the neighbourhood, and so off we set. Two blocks from our lodgings we discovered it: Utopia.
It was a true “hole in the wall.” A sign on the outside of the window suggested there might be ice cream on sale within and that compelled us to investigate further. Nancy, our ice-cream-aholic and aficionado pushed open the door and led the way. None of us were prepared for what met our eyes.
An old-fashioned dime-store soda bar took up half of the room. Placards spouting all sorts of home-grown, granny wisdom filled the small space. The walls were a cheery dandelion yellow. Standing on the other side of the counter, a short, stalky, balding gentleman with a white moustache greeted us with a smile wider than his face. “Welcome,” he boomed, “to Polly Ann Ice Cream!” He swept his arms out over the room inviting us to take it all in. “How can I serve you?”
On the wall behind the gentleman was a large roulette wheel. And on either side of the disc were beautifully painted plaques. They were organised into columns of twelve, twenty-four on each side of the wheel. They bore the most fascinating names and pictures. One had “Bumpy Freeway” printed across its face with an image of a rocky road fading into a sunset. Another read “American Beauty” and carried the image of a stunning deep pink rose.
“Is this an ice cream shop?” Nancy asked.
“It most certainly is,” the man replied. “Let me introduce you to Polly Ann’s.”
Mr Hanson, for we later learned that was his name, began telling us about his ice cream. “Some shops have 24 flavours. And others have 32. We make 250 different kinds of delectable frozen wonder, although there are only 48 flavours on offer at any one time. Allow me to introduce you to some of our favourites.”
For the next 30 minutes Mr Hanson danced behind the counter, back and forth between various tubs of ice cream. Each time his hand would swoop a small spoon into a flavour and he would hand one of us a unique taste sensation. “Try this!” he would excitedly shout. “It’s vegetable! There are 8 different kinds of vegies in there! Dinner and desert all in one! And here’s a winner! American Beauty! It is made with roses!”
“What is ‘Bumpy Freeway?'” I queried between his dashes.
“Ah,” he said. “Most people would tell you that it is just another name for Rocky Road. But our Bumpy Freeway is made with the finest, darkest chocolate available and with the pinkest mini-marshmallows money can buy and the freshest walnuts on the market. Try some!” One tantalising taste and I was hooked.
“Why do you have a roulette wheel hanging on your wall?” Celia enquired.
Mr Hanson’s face lit up even brighter. “That,” he proudly exclaimed, “is my invention. It is for people who cannot decide. I spin the wheel and they agree to purchase whatever flavour the wheel lands on.” Each slice of the disc was vibrantly coloured and touted a number corresponding to a flavour of ice cream. Two of the sections read ‘FREE.’ We all decided to trust fate and one-by-one let Mr Hanson turn the wheel for us. My first Polly Ann cone was watermelon.
Needless-to-say Polly Ann Ice Cream became our local haunt. Over the course of the year in which we lived in that house, we managed to consume just about every flavour Mr Hanson produced. Long after we moved away we would continue to make the trek to this little piece of heaven on earth.
Years later, as I sit on the other side of the planet and reminisce, I realise it is not just the novel flavours and quirky names I miss. It is not just the wild decor and the dynamic host. It is the laughter and the love. It is the passion and the dream. At Polly Ann’s anything seemed possible, even eating your dinner for dessert.
(Today’s assignment: Choose a place to which you’d like to be transported if you could — and tell us the backstory. How does this specific location affect you? Is it somewhere you’ve been, luring you with the power of nostalgia, or a place you’re aching to explore for the first time?
Today’s twist: organize your post around the description of a setting.)
nota bene: Polly Ann Ice Cream lives in the heart of the Outer Sunset to this day. Next year it will turn 60 years old. It is currently owned by Charlie Wu and the roulette ice cream wheel is still on the wall. The building it originally occupied was torn down. It can now be found on the corner of Noriega and 39th Avenue. “If you’re going to San Francisco . . .”