There’s a single visible bullet hole in the right side of Hamidu Jalloh’s ice cream truck. He remembers the incident quite vividly.
He was parked in the 5000 block of Bass Place SE one evening last November. It was starting to get dark out. Jalloh had just finished serving some customers and decided to do a quick cleanup before moving on to the next stop. His back was turned when he heard someone approaching. He figured it was another customer. It wasn’t. It was a guy in a ski mask with a gun, demanding cash.
“OK, I’ll get it for you,” a terrified Jalloh promised. Fetching some greenbacks, however, wasn’t as easy as dishing out an ice cream cone or grabbing a can of soda from the cooler: The cash box was on the other side of the truck. As Jalloh reached behind him, the gunman got jumpy, shoving his arm through the window and pressing the barrel into the vendor’s chest.
Operating on instinct, Jalloh grabbed for the weapon. A struggle ensued and the gun went off. Neither man was hit but the bullet left its mark in the truck. Then the robber managed to jerk the weapon free and blasted Jalloh in his right leg. The gunman fled. Jalloh, meanwhile, had to fling himself, bleeding, through his serving window to catch the attention of a passing D.C. police cruiser.
“When tough times come, crazy stuff happens,” says Jalloh matter of factly, showing off his scar.
The 49-year-old father of three from Sierra Leone was lucky to survive. But what exactly is an ice cream seller doing driving around Southeast D.C. on the verge of winter?
S ome area residents have long had their suspicions about Jalloh. Neighborhood Listservs have been abuzz with sugary conspiracy theories dating back several years. “Is this the ice cream truck that really sells drugs?” inquired Hilleast e-mail discussion group commenter Daniel Glucksman last May. “This winter an ice cream truck was driving around, music playing. Are any kids really buying ice cream at odd hours in the winter? In fact, it parked next to Harris Teeter one evening. I watched as young adults lined up at the window. None walked away with ice cream.”
Another eyewitness, identifying himself as Tyler Gellasch, claims to have seen similar stuff: “I don’t know if there is only one truck or many. But I can say with certainty that I have seen transactions not involving food or beverage occur at an ice cream truck—and as late as midnight.”
Apollo Gonzales, meanwhile, offered this account of a curious ice cream vendor he’d spotted: “No way this guy is just selling ice cream. The last two nights I’ve seen him get out of his truck and walk over to parked vehicles and exchange items with people in the cars (at 18th and C SE), or have seen people approach his drivers side window and quickly exchange items before he drives off (at 18th and Mass SE), or come out of the bushes to exchange items (Mass and 19th SE).”
In July 2008, fears about the child-magnet mobile allegedly peddling illicit adult treats reached such a fevered pitch that Caroline Jhingory, then an aide to Mayor Adrian Fenty, hopped online to assure residents that she was on the case: “I am the Ward 6 coordinator in the mayor’s office of Community Affairs and Relations. I have received various reports of an ice cream truck in the Bay St area that may be selling drugs/alcohol.…Uncertain, if this is one truck in particular, but if someone can send me the tag number and/or a description of this truck I can check on its permits.”
Regulators soon swooped in to inspect Jalloh’s truck, finding nothing fishy, however, among the various treats.
A case of mistaken identity? Not likely. First District Commander David Kamperin of Metropolitan Police Department says his vending officer knows of only one ice cream truck currently operating in and around Capitol Hill, and that’s Jalloh’s.
The ice cream man himself says his odd work schedule doesn’t mean he’s up to anything. Sure, he keeps late hours sometimes, but only when he has a steady stream of evening customers. As for having a valid reason to drive around in winter: “I sell hot food like hot dogs and Cup-a-Soup,” says Jalloh. “That keeps me going in the winter.”
Trying to quell Listserv paranoia, D.C. police Sergeant Christopher Micciche posted on Dec. 21, 2009, that he’d stopped Jalloh on more than one occasion, and the ice cream man is legit: “He did not appear to have any items for sale that were not permitted, nor was there anything suspicious about him, his vehicle, nor the contents. He is apparently a legitimate businessman who has many customers in your area…”
Of Jalloh’s truck, police spokesperson Gwendolyn Crump would say only that MPD has done site inspections and answered calls for service about the truck and that it “was inspected twice and there were no violations.”
None of the posters who claimed they saw Jalloh acting suspiciously returned phone or e-mail inquiries.
“I told the police, you can search my truck anytime and you can bring dogs,” says Jalloh. “I don’t even smoke and I don’t drink. I wouldn’t sell anything illegal. Police officers come to my truck [to buy things] almost every day.”
In Jalloh’s view, the drug-dealing theories are trumped-up accusations simply intended to drive off a roaming vestige of the old neighborhood. Eighteen years ago, when he first began wheeling around in his sugary white 1976 Chevy delivery truck with the Good Humor label, the area from Capitol Hill to Capitol Heights was prime turf for the African-born ice cream man. After immigrating to this country in 1991, he first found work washing cars. But a cousin soon converted him to the lucrative ice cream business. (As many as eight of his relatives similarly hawk the cold sweets, he says.)
Jalloh has been driving the same truck and same route ever since. That much hasn’t changed. Neighborhood demographics are a different story. “The problem I’m having is that these people just moved in from the suburbs, where it’s quiet,” he says, “so they keep complaining about me to the police.”
Perhaps the biggest complaint—even more so than the whispers about drugs—is the noise. The signature feature of Jalloh’s vehicle is its megaphone-shaped loudspeaker and the distinctive tune that routinely blares from it. That would be “Turkey in the Straw.” As Jalloh drives from spot to spot, it’s this hoedown-y 19th-century ditty that announces his approach. After almost two decades of playing the song, Jalloh doesn’t hear it. Not so the people of Capitol Hill, among the city’s most vigilant when it comes to nuisances. In Jalloh’s view, “detractors of ‘Turkey in the Straw’” is longhand for “gentrifiers.”
On the occasions when the noise sticklers show up at his truck to complain about the music in person, Jalloh says he tries to reason with them: “I keep it as low as it can go so that somebody knows that I’m around.” Sometimes, the complainants see his point. If the conversation turns sour, though, Jalloh gets obstinate: “You’ve only been here a few years,” he tells them. “If you guys come here you’re not going to change us! We do ice cream in this city!”
Chris Matias, 40, who moved to the corner of 18th and D Streets SE six years ago, calls Jalloh’s diddy “the theme song from hell.” Says Matias, “He comes with the theme blaring at all hours of the night. I hear from neighbors that it takes them forever to get their children to sleep.” Matias says the truck stops in front of his house every day around 7 p.m. He says he can’t have phone conversations when Jalloh’s truck is around and that he’s asked the ice cream man to pipe down. Jalloh, he says, is “defiant” about the issue.
The ice cream man counters: “They just can’t stand the music.”
O n a recent Saturday, City Paper rode shotgun as Jalloh’s truck squeaked and sputtered along its usual path. It’s tight in there. Most of the floor space gets taken up by a large “cold plate” freezer. The rest of the truck being almost completely cluttered by boxes of junk food and a huge, cloudy jar of maraschino cherries. Jalloh needs all this stuff because his ice cream truck is ”just like a store on wheels,” he says.
The veteran ice cream vendor approaches his route like an experienced hunter who knows the habits and dwelling places of his prey. This particular weekend, what Jalloh calls a “Spanish” soccer team is kicking around on a practice field, near RFK Stadium. The team and its spectators often buy copious amounts of ice cream bars, he notes. The vendor shows up at about 4:30 p.m., because this is around the time soccer practice ends. ”They don’t buy anything going in,” he says, “only coming out.” Jalloh’s truck rumbles into a nearby parking lot. Flipping a switch that resides to the upper left of the driver’s seat, he lets the music rip. People look up as the truck rolls to a stop.
It’s not a good day for ice cream. “It’s cold out today,” says Jalloh. Though it’s sunny, the temperature is holding at about 50 degrees, and it’s windy. As Jalloh’s song washes over the field, though, he gives it his all, pressing a button that sets off a low-toned bell that seems to gurgle more than chime. As he waits, adding to the cacophony, Jalloh listens to some upbeat African music over a car stereo fastened above the dashboard. Incredibly, “Turkey in the Straw” does its magic. Several customers line up. As he abandons the truck’s ripped leather seat for the serving window, he switches off the siren song to give his customers a boisterous hello.
Continuing along Jalloh’s route, it becomes quite obvious that some neighborhoods are more easily seduced by “Turkey in the Straw” than others. Pulling onto 7th Street SE, for instance, Jalloh tries the turkey call on shoppers at Eastern Market. While there are plenty of people wandering around the open air market, few seem to be interested in the Good Humor truck. Jalloh rings his bell and a nearby police officer, watching over the market, gives him the evil eye.
The nasty look recalls another incident the week before, when a cop patrolling the same area questioned him about being there. Jalloh says he calmly told the officer he sells ice cream at Eastern Market from time to time, and showed the officer his vending license. The cop apologized, he says, and told him that he’d only asked because someone had called 911 on the truck. The cop was obligated to check him out. “I wasn’t mad,” says Jalloh, “the only problem is when you say I cannot sell here.”
Although there is no interrogation this time, Jalloh’s trip to Eastern Market doesn’t turn out well. Two kids who look to be about about 10 fork over five bucks for two cherry collision cups. But that’s it. No other takers. But later, when he rolls into the Potomac Gardens area, everything changes, including the rules. “You need to stop writing now,” he says. Jalloh explains that in this area, a reporter scribbling on a note pad will be mistaken for an undercover cop gathering intelligence. “I don’t want them to think I’m trying to sell them out,” he says.
Here, no one takes offense to Jalloh’s music, or gives him the evil eye. Twice, in fact, teenagers do a silly dance to the repetitive melody. Everyone seems to know him. ”I’ve known this motherfucker for a lota years,” one customer says. “Since you were a kid,” smiles Jalloh.
Business picks up immediately. Many of the adults who end up at Jalloh’s truck order nachos with cheese and chili sauce for $2.50 a pop, or hot dogs with mustard or chili for $1.50. The kids who mob the truck tend to order penny candy, or else (despite the weather) frozen treats that range from $1–2. Jalloh gives away broken popsicles to the kids who hang around the truck looking disappointed because they don’t have the cash for any of his products. Money piles up in his small steel cash box.
No one asks for or seems to expect any drugs. Only the tasty, if somewhat unhealthy, food Jalloh plies is bought and sold. As a rule, Jalloh says he won’t even discard trash for people since unsavory types are apt to pitch drugs into trash bags when police come around. “You never know what’s in there,” he says. “You just try to stay in the rules.”
A comprehensive search of public records reveals that Jalloh has but one blemish on his record. In 1992, he was arrested for assault on a police officer. Asking Jalloh about that incident animates him. He claims he’s never done anything to hurt anyone: “I’ve never killed an ant to my knowledge! I’ve never stepped on an ant!” He says the arrest wasn’t what it might seem. According to Jalloh, the trouble began when a cop he knew came over to his truck and demanded a free soda. Jalloh refused. Even though he sometimes gives free stuff to civil servants, he says he doesn’t like being pushed around. “You don’t come to me and try to command me. I don’t go for that.”
A few days later, he ran into the same officer again when his truck was stopped at a red light near RFK stadium. Another driver pulled up and asked Jalloh directions. While he was talking to the fellow motorist, Jalloh says, the officer came over to him and accused him of stopping in the middle of the street to peddle ice cream, which is illegal. The cop ordered him to pull over. He says he tried to do as he was told. But the cop, who was standing near the truck, claimed Jalloh tried to hit him with the vehicle, he says. Jalloh was arrested for assault with a dangerous weapon. He later pleaded guilty to simple assault and spent 30 days in a halfway house, he says. “It’s painful when someone tries to take advantage in this life,” says Jalloh. He calls the incident “the only problem I’ve ever had in my life.”
Jalloh’s experiences underscore some general truths about the larger plight of ice cream vendors in the District. A Freedom of Information Act request submitted to D.C. police by the City Paper reveals that, since the year 2000, city ice cream vendors have been the victims of alleged criminal activity far more often than the perpetrators. None have been arrested for dealing drugs.
According to police reports, on Feb. 4, 2008, an apparently agitated ice cream vendor rammed his truck into an ex-lover’s “occupied vehicle” and further assaulted the victim with a baseball bat.
On July 31, 2007, an ice cream vendor drove off without giving a customer the hot sausage he ordered, or the change he was due. The victim had paid with a $100 bill.
On Jan. 14, 2010, an ice cream man was arrested for carrying a Glock 22 handgun.
More often than not, it’s the customers carrying weapons. Ice cream vendors have been victims of robbery, theft, and assault at least 20 times since 2000.
Apparently, in the District, knocking over an ice cream truck is old hat. Way back in November 2002, for instance, an ice cream truck was held up with all the bravado of a stage coach robbery. On the 2200 block of Hunter Place SE, an ice cream truck man was selling frozen treats when someone approached him and whipped out a gun. Evidently, the two were on a first name basis, “Jeff, get off the truck or I’ll kill you,” the robber stated. “Jeff” did just that. Meanwhile, the stick-up man rode off in the ice cream truck. Two other ice cream vendors would be robbed that same year.
Despite declining crime rates, ice cream trucks were still getting jacked as recently as 2009. Last July, an ice cream truck selling treats on Burbank Street SE ran into trouble when two men surrounded the vehicle. One “opened the side door to the ice cream truck,” according to a police report, “brandished a black semiautomatic handgun and asked ‘How much ya’ll made tonight?’”
A few months after, it would be Jalloh’s turn. But the veteran concessionaire remains undaunted, despite his wounds. “My dad used to tell me one thing,” he says. “Make sure what you do is right, everything else will fall in place.”