The ice man moveth. Because if he stoppeth, he's a goner.
John Styer, a gym teacher at Rock Terrace School in Rockville, spends his summers on the streets of downtown Bethesda, selling relief from the heat in the form of Hawaiian Shave Ice cones saturated with sweet syrups.
He's been doing this for four years. He pays $295 a year for a license from Montgomery County, which says he's the only pushcart vendor in the county. Folks on the street love him.
But some businesses in the increasingly chichi collection of shops known as Bethesda Row complained about Styer. Shaved ice, after all, doesn't quite fit in with high-end audio, foreign films, tapas and art galleries.
Last month, the county revoked the ice man's license.
"He has a regular route license, which means he has to constantly keep moving," says Edward Calloway, an investigator in the Department of Permitting Services who has been tracking the ice man for years. "He is supposed to go to the customers, not have them come to him."
Styer has mainly stayed put, in front of the Barnes & Noble store, because, with a steady flow of customers, he has no reason to move along.
The law says vendors who stay in one place require a site-specific license. To get that, a property owner would have to approve Styer's use of the land.
But Styer, 53, says he's always done what his current license requires: "I asked the county, how long can you stay in one place without a customer? I was told 15 minutes, so at first I moved around. But then I found I never went 15 minutes without a customer. So for four years, seven days a week, I've been in the most visible place in Bethesda and there's been no problem, and suddenly my license is revoked."
Styer's attorney, Christopher Hitchens -- not the cable TV pundit, but a nice guy in Silver Spring -- won the ice man a stay, allowing him to remain on the streets, moving frequently.
On Friday, Hitchens said the county may be backing down. A county lawyer said it will rescind its revocation of Styer's license. But the license expires this month, and the county says it won't be renewed. Possible resolution: The county may let Styer use public land across from his current perch.
For now, Styer remains in limbo. He's never gotten a straight answer about how long he can stay still. Calloway says there's no specific time limit, but he's sure Styer is violating the intent of the rule. And as Bethesda traffic has worsened, the county has worried that Styer poses a danger to himself and his customers. (Never mind that Styer works only afternoons, when traffic is light, not evenings, when the restaurants fill up.)
So why force Styer to roam the streets, luring children into the path of traffic? Why the sudden crackdown? Calloway won't say who complained, just that they are nearby businesses.
Federal Realty, which owns the Bethesda Row development, takes a strong hand in shaping its retail landscape. It recently refused to renew the lease of a used book dealer, Second Story Books, replacing it with a gift shop to be called Artsy Fartsy. But Federal spokesman Kris Warner says the company didn't complain about the ice man: "We don't own the sidewalks. It's a public street."
Federal did reject Styer's request to rent a sidewalk kiosk because "we already have tenants who sell frozen treats," such as Gifford's ice cream, across the street. The owner of Gifford's did not return my calls.
No matter who complained about the ice man, the county hopped to. "They're big, powerful businesses, and I'm just a guy on the corner," Styer says.
Summer's finally kicking in: Save the ice man.
Principal Watch: Ten weeks after I reported on the phony doctorate held by Walker-Jones Elementary School Principal Wilma Durham, D.C. Schools Interim Superintendent for Life Robert Rice has only defended Durham.
Contrast that with New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, who just announced that 45 principals who received unsatisfactory ratings will not return to their jobs. Intent on holding school leaders accountable, Klein also plans to sack five assistant principals whom investigators caught shopping at Macy's and Lord & Taylor while they were supposed to be at work.
That, Mr. Rice, is called cleaning house; now that you'll be around for a while, you might give it a try.