The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

What is it like to drive an ice cream truck? Often you’re frozen out of the American Dream.

Cover images for 8/27/17 magazine ( Illustration by Yippiehey/JSR Agency / )

Corrections: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Mitch Berliner as a co-owner of Berliner Specialty Distributors; he is a former co-owner. The story also incorrectly characterized a dispute between one driver and Berliner Specialty Distributors over purchasing ice cream at Costco; that sentence has been removed. The article also has been amended to note that a provision in Berliner’s contract—making clear that the company is not responsible for ice cream melting—was not introduced this year; it has been in the contract for years.

Just outside Washington, in Hyattsville, Md., there are over 200 ice cream trucks parked in a vast four-acre lot at Berliner Specialty Distributors. In the nearby corporate suite, in the air-conditioned comfort of the waiting area, hangs a vintage photo of the company's then-co-owners, brothers Guy and Mitch Berliner, who bought the business in 1988. (Guy is still an owner. Mitch has since retired from the company.) In the photo, they are standing beside a white Good Humor truck in Good Humor Man suits, wearing captain's hats and saluting, as the dome of the U.S. Capitol gleams in the background. "I try to make sure," Guy Berliner tells me one morning in June as he hovers over some kids who are visiting the facility and devouring free ice cream, "that people never forget that I'm selling the most loved food product in the world."

The 200-plus ice cream men and 10 or so ice cream women who work with Berliner make up the overwhelming majority of ice cream truck drivers in the Washington area. To talk to them, I leave the cool cocoon of the office and step through a door that locks one way, into a harder, more austere part of the sprawling, low-slung building. Out here, in an open-air, concrete-floored corridor, six men are on a wooden bench outside a giant freezer, waiting for product.

All are African immigrants. West Africans constitute roughly 80 percent of Berliner's ice cream truck drivers, and most come from either Sierra Leone or Guinea — small, neighboring nations on Africa's Atlantic coast. Among one another, the Sierra Leoneans speak an African Creole born during the British slave trade. The Guineans speak French. They worship, many of them, at the Prince George's Muslim Association, and often spend winters back home in Africa.

"How do you like this job?" I will ask over a dozen drivers during my week of daily visits to Berliner. There's a lilt in my voice, a hopefulness. I want to believe that the selling of ice cream, with the trucks' ting-a-ling-ing and the clamor of children, is a happy enterprise — a refuge of sweetness in a country gone sick with anxiety and scandal.

Yet nearly every time my question is met with a killing pause. The pause contains the whole story, really. In the pause I can sense the drivers’ weariness with my romantic mind-set.

“It’s all right,” one driver tells me.

“It’s better than sitting at home, watching television,” says another.

“I have better business prospects back in Sierra Leone.”

“I’m thinking of switching to Uber.”

The ice cream man was born in 1920 when Harry Burt, the founder of Good Humor, invented ice cream on a stick before appointing a truck with a freezer and bells. Drivers were full-time employees back then. Today, though, they're independent contractors. They own their trucks and therefore enjoy a freedom that the company men of decades past didn't have.

They are also, however, responsible for all repairs — not to mention insurance, and the cost of health inspections, and the cost of the vendor’s licenses required by the cities, counties and states that they sell in. Nor do they, in practical terms, have quite as much control over their business as they might want. Because they carry hundreds of dollars’ worth of product, they need secure parking; they also need fridge plug-ins. In greater Washington, there is, beside Berliner, only one other company that offers ice cream truck parking: Star Vending, on Good Hope Road in Southeast Washington. But it has space for only a few vehicles. So Berliner has a virtual monopoly, which means that vendors are obliged to play by Berliner’s rules: Each driver who signs up to pay $61 a week for parking and refrigeration privileges also consents to buy all of his ice cream from the company, even though he could get it cheaper elsewhere.

At Berliner, the tension between the large company and the small contractors is palpable. One morning, a feud over Berliner’s ice-cream prices all but boils over as a young driver in a T-shirt, flip-flops and shorts confronts the driver coordinator — a sturdily built Berliner employee named Marcus Strong. The driver is screaming in heavily accented English, his words caroming off the concrete as a cashier looks on, ensconced behind a bulletproof plexiglass window.

On another day, a driver tells Strong he's worried about his safety. "The light near my parking spot doesn't work properly," he says. "It needs to be fixed." (Guy Berliner says it was fixed immediately.) When the vendors come back to Berliner each evening at nightfall, they carry thick wads of cash; last year, on July 4, a man sneaked into the lot and shot one driver, 26-year-old Mohamed Diaby, nine times and robbed him. Diaby is now unable to work. And there have been similar shootings nearby: Another ice cream truck driver, 21-year-old Dedric Dowing, was shot on Alabama Avenue SE last October, and in 2015, a 22-year-old driver, Brandon Brown, was shot dead while selling ice cream from a truck in Frederick, Md.

Last year, in the wake of Diaby’s shooting, Berliner installed security cameras and also hired off-duty police officers to sit outside the gate of the parking lot in the evening and patrol the yard. Drivers now pay a portion of the officers’ fees and are discontent when they feel service is flagging. “Sometimes they’re sitting in the lot of the towing company across the street, and that’s not right,” I hear one driver tell Strong. “We’re paying them to be here.”

I beseech several drivers to take me out on their routes, but they’re wary. One of the first days I go, it’s Eid al-Fitr, the last day of Ramadan, and even though it’s a sunny, low-humidity day — perfect ice cream weather — very few drivers are working. The next day I wait some more, and over and over I’m demurely rejected. “A lot of these guys,” Strong tells me, “they think you ask too many questions.”

I do go out, though, with Hamidu Jalloh, who, at 57, is relaxed and youthful, with an easy smile and not a speck of gray hair. Hamidu arrived in 1989 from Sierra Leone and was enticed here by an older cousin who in the '70s earned an M.D. in public health from Johns Hopkins. "I wanted to be a lawyer or a doctor," Hamidu tells me, "but unfortunately I didn't have the money to go to college." He went for only one year, in the '90s, to a community college in Florida, and found it impossible to pay his tuition as he upheld a tradition central to his tribe, the Fulani: As the oldest son in a polygamous family, he's obliged to help support his parents.

For the past 25 years, he’s done that by selling ice cream and a few other food items — hot dogs, nachos and candy, for example — in Southeast Washington, in poor, mostly black neighborhoods. “White people just don’t buy a lot,” Hamidu explains. “They’ve already got ice cream in the fridge. ... But in the black neighborhoods, there are no stores nearby, or they can’t afford to go to the store. My truck is the store, and if people have money, they’ll buy.”

Selling ice cream to children is mostly a late-afternoon or evening enterprise, and we start the day by selling lunch to construction workers building a plant in Southeast for Pepco, the utility company. Hamidu serves them with game wit. Each time he sells a $2 ice cream sandwich, he says, “That’ll be two hundred dollars.” When one longtime customer gripes about the heat, Hamidu reaches into the fridge, then flicks him with a fistful of ice; the guy flinches and laughs. “You still hot now, brother?” Hamidu asks.

The work is numbingly monotonous, and as we troll the streets at five miles per hour, Hamidu is able to tell me about what this job has brought him. From April to October, he works, aside from Eid, every single day that it doesn’t rain. He begins, typically, at 8 a.m., going to various wholesale markets — District Food in Northeast, for instance — to buy candy and hot dogs and chips. Then he goes to Berliner to select the ice cream he needs by tapping a touch screen. He boards his truck at 10:30 and drives until about 9 p.m., so that he can return home, finally, around 10:30. A good day’s gross is $200, and roughly half of that goes to his expenses, meaning that in an average six-month season, he might net about $15,000, before self-employment taxes. He often has less than $100 in his bank account.

“What’s the most you ever made in a day?” I ask.

“Seven hundred and fifty.” Gross, he means.

The least?


Why does the truck have bars on the service window?

“Oh,” Hamidu says, blithely, “that’s because one time I got shot.”

The attack came in 2009 a few blocks from the Benning Road Metro station, when a man in a ski mask stepped toward his window, demanding cash. Hamidu reached for it, but the man shoved a gun into Hamidu’s chest. A struggle ensued, and a stray bullet lodged itself in his right thigh. He used to sit on his feet for hours at the mosque, but now he can’t pray like that. “Sometimes it burns,” he tells me, “but hey, it’s gone into history. You can’t complain about it.”

I’m in the back of his Chevy step van, perched on a stool, and at each stop, the customers gape at me, curious as to why there’s a middle-aged white man in the truck taking notes. “He’s my boss,” Hamidu says to one man. “He’s out here to check my progress.”

Whispering to me, he says, “If they see a white man on the truck, they always think he’s the boss.” He goes to the cooler and fetches two Popsicles. Then, stagily, he sings out, “How am I doing, boss?”

For most D.C.-area drivers, selling ice cream is such a marginal pursuit that they have almost nothing to invest in their trucks. Hamidu's step van is a 1990 model, bought recently for $1,500. Before that, he was in a 1976 Good Humor truck. That vehicle is still sitting in the Berliner lot, its engine kaput, and it is not out of place. The Berliner lot feels a bit like an automotive trauma ward: On any given day, two or three trucks are being worked over by on-site mechanics, their front wheels jacked high off the pavement.

To pay for repairs — and to cover rent in suburbs such as Greenbelt and Lanham, Md. — many drivers look for second jobs. But it is not easy to find such work, given the seasonal, overtime nature of mobile ice cream sales. Some drivers land morning delivery gigs, and others patch themselves through the winters as Uber drivers. But Uber is only an option for the owners of cars built after 2006, and Hamidu can’t afford such a vehicle, in part because he’s saddled with child support payments. The father of three children, ages 13, 15 and 20, he got divorced four years ago. “She wasn’t getting enough time from me,” he says of his ex. “I’d be so tired every night when I got home.”

Each autumn Hamidu travels back to Sierra Leone for a few months. There, with savings that are meager by U.S. standards, he can make real investments. Echoing a sentiment I’ll hear often from drivers, he’ll say, “Two hundred dollars is a lot of money back home.”

Two years ago, going in 50-50 with his nephew, Hamidu opened a gas station in Freetown, the nation’s capital and a city on the rise in the wake of a civil war that ended in 2002. The Chinese are investing heavily there, most notably, in a new airport, but so far Hamidu’s gas station is off to a rough start. It brings in only $20 or so a day, and recently it was robbed at gunpoint.

Still, in Sierra Leone, Hamidu has clout. He is working, he tells me, on the presidential campaign of Alpha Timbo, a Sierra Leone People’s Party stalwart and a onetime minister of labor and industrial relations — and he’s helping to coordinate an upcoming Timbo visit to the United States.

Not much separates Hamidu economically from the residents of Potomac Gardens, a low-income Southeast Washington housing complex that we enter as evening sets in. But when a group of little kids surrounds his truck outside one apartment tower, he’s suddenly tentative, scared and all business. He hands out the treats rapid-fire as his tiny customers bubble beneath his window, shouting. He leaves while there are still children rushing toward his truck, cash in hand. “It’s not safe there,” he says as we drive away, “and when the kids aren’t around, that’s when the young guys do bad stuff to you.”

Our last stop of the evening is a homeless shelter near the Stadium-Armory Metro station. This strikes me as an unlikely sales venue, but the ice cream bells cast a mesmerizing spell. One woman orders 10 $1 Cotton Candy ice cream bars — one for each of the delighted children dancing beneath her. The generosity of this woman is stirring. But then I get down out of the truck and talk to her as she sits in a battered lawn chair on the sidewalk beside the shelter. “That bastard shouldn’t be on the block talking his voodoo,” she says, referring to Hamidu. “His prices are crazy! Crazy high! Why don’t you just tell him to get out of here right now?” She glares at me. “He’s ripping us off!”

"In the olden days," Guy Berliner tells me, "kids used to play outside more and their time was unstructured. Now they're inside, playing video games, or they're away at camp or at soccer practice. The traditional method of going of down the street, ringing your bell — that's a declining business."

As Berliner sees it, today’s drivers need to network and seek out special events. “Maybe they go to the local nursery school,” he says, “and find out when the picnic is and then offer to give 10 percent of their sales back to the PTA.” To facilitate such negotiations, Berliner furnishes drivers with dressy collared shirts and small portable coolers that they can carry to meetings, giving away samples at their own expense. In June, the company also hired a college student, a marketing major at the University of Maryland, to help drivers use Google to identify possible clients and then write them pitch letters. But Kally Njai, a driver from Sierra Leone, says that trying to line up scheduled sales jackpots is difficult. “We go to camps,” he says, “and nine out of 10 times they don’t want us there.”

There is no national alliance of ice cream truck drivers, but at Berliner there is a vendors association. Nearly every driver on the lot belongs, and the group’s principal focus is ice cream prices. “Customers don’t want to pay more,” the association’s president, Malik Kaba, tells me one morning, “but Berliner’s prices keep going up.”

In time, I’ll email Robert Reich, a University of California at Berkeley professor who served as Bill Clinton’s secretary of labor. “It’s not unusual,” Reich responds, “for independent contractors to feel squeezed by companies that have far more market power than they do and which also face little direct competition.” Reich describes the dynamic as “monopsonistic,” and he argues that monopsonistic power is “arguably growing in the U.S. economy” as contractors in numerous industries feel their lives shaped by corporate giants. “Uber drivers are a good example,” Reich says. “They complain that their margins are squeezed by Uber. Another example: Small businesses that contract with Walmart complain that their margins get squeezed continuously.”

Berliner used to have rivals in Washington. When it took over, there were, Guy Berliner says, “four or five other companies involved in mobile vending.” Two went out of business, one moved to New Jersey, and Berliner bought another, Briggs Ice Cream. In 1995, Berliner augmented its Hyattsville plant with the Fort Knox of refrigerators: a 35-foot-tall ice cream freezer that covers as much area as two basketball courts and is constantly kept at minus-20 degrees. The company can now store, and also receive in tractor-trailers, so much ice cream that no other company can compete. “Guy’s got the master distributorship,” laments Bob Miner, who runs Maryland-based Circus Ice Cream and supplies many of Washington’s ice cream carts, “so I buy from him. Everything I touch, he’s making something off it.”

Driver Abdul Kabba, who’s the vice president of the vendors association, tells me, “Guy’s a nice man. He’s cool. He’s always smiling and joking, and sometimes he listens to us. This year, for the first time in five years, he didn’t raise prices. But sometimes he doesn’t listen. This year he brought out a contract that he wanted everyone to sign. It said stuff like, ‘If your ice cream melts, we’re not responsible.’ It wasn’t fair, and it hurt this one friend of mine.” (Berliner notes that, in fact, this provision has been in the contract for years.)

Yayah Bah of Sierra Leone says: “My line of power went off. I lost over $1,000 worth of ice cream [in retail value] and when I took my case to Marcus” — the driver supervisor — “he said, ‘Sorry, we can’t help you.’ That contract was unfair. But when we got it, Marcus told us, ‘Anybody who doesn’t sign it will have to leave the yard.’ I don’t have any other safe place to park my truck.” Strong denies saying that. As for Berliner, he points out: “We put that part about melting in the contract in case of a catastrophic situation. In practice, we always cover them on meltdowns. When you’re dealing with so many mobile vendors, someone’s going to complain. But we’ve had guys here 15, 20, 25 years. If they weren’t happy with us, they wouldn’t park here.”

Sandy Shepard, tall and middle-aged, is the lone vendor affiliated with a relatively new Kentucky-based company, Kona Ice. Shepard invested in a spiffy $96,000 Kona Ice truck painted to look like a bamboo beach cabana as it pipes steel-drum music from a crisp stereo system and offers customers an array of syrup nozzles facing the sidewalk, so they can choose their own artisan flavors of shaved ice. He describes his eight years at Berliner as a journey toward understanding the Islamic soul. “At first, you start to learn,” he says. “Then you start to respect, and then you start to love. There’s a brotherhood going on here, and there’s a dignity. These guys are going around all day in these beat-up trucks, and they’re working so hard. Even when it’s Ramadan, when nothing touches their lips all day, not even water, they’re out there selling ice cream. They’re serving.”

Shepard talks for a while about zakat, the Islamic practice of tithing, which sees the drivers at Berliner pooling funds to help brethren in need. When Mohamed Diaby was shot last year, his co-workers gave him $2,500. “When a dude’s running late,” Shepard says, “another driver will get his ice cream for him and put it in his truck. One time I borrowed some jumper cables from my neighbor Abdul. I attached them wrong and they burst into flames. I said, ‘I’ll buy you some new ones,’ but he said, ‘No, no, no, that’s okay. You didn’t intend it.’ It was beautiful, really. It was love.” As Shepard speaks, Hamidu Jalloh is sitting beside him, grinning and silently chuckling in assent. Then he leans into Shepard, grinning warmly, his chin resting on the other man’s shoulder.

On another day I ride with Abdul Jalloh, who is unrelated to Hamidu and, at age 39, a more stylish presence. His head is shaved, and he wears tortoiseshell Ray-Ban eyeglasses and designer jeans, the legs artfully ripped. He is stocky and muscular, and when he discusses politics, he exudes erudition, referencing the 2002 book "Globalization and Its Discontents" by economist Joseph Stiglitz. "Do you think Africa is poor or is it made poor?" he asks me before transitioning to the dynamics at Berliner. "I can't say we're exploited," he says, "because we're contractors. We can leave any time. But we're victims of the open market, of capitalism. Here, there's a lot of capital. You can do a lot of things in business. But in my business, I'm not making nothing."

Abdul grew up in Bunumbu, a small town in the belly of Sierra Leone’s diamond industry. His father, a teacher, often hunted the gems, and when Abdul was small, he’d go with his dad into the hills after rainstorms looking for glittering rocks exposed by erosion.

In 1991, when Abdul was 13, rebel soldiers swept into Bunumbu and burned down his family’s home as they cut off children’s arms and legs with axes. Both of Abdul’s parents died in the war, as did his only two siblings. Abdul himself was shot in the head. As he’s loading the truck, he bows low to show me the scar behind his left ear. But when I ask what happened, he changes the subject. “No,” he says, “I don’t want to think about it.”

We drive south along the Capital Beltway until we're ting-a-ling-ing through Forestville, Md. As customers crowd his window, ordering hot smoke sausages and aqua blue sugared drinks, Abdul scrunches his phone between his shoulder and ear and keeps talking in Creole.

He’s discussing business, I learn. He, too, has a little venture in Freetown, a cinder-block grocery store that he built for about $2,000, and now he has two clerks working there for a slice of the profits. Recently, each of them took $300 worth of goods to sell in the countryside. Abdul is negotiating the terms of his reimbursement, and doing so at considerable expense. Internet service is still spotty in Freetown, meaning that he needs to use phone cards that cost 50 cents per minute.

He fled Bunumbu when he was 15, he tells me, escaping to Holland. He lived in Europe, mostly in Rotterdam, for 15 years. He worked in factories; he sold used cars. He made enough money to travel to see relatives in the United States in 2008, and he is here now only because, during that visit, he met his wife, a certified nursing assistant who works with the elderly. He likes Holland better, he says as we’re trolling through Forestville. “There,” he says, “every neighborhood is mixed, but here in this country each neighborhood is either black or white.”

He tells me that ever since he arrived in this country, he has felt under suspicion. Once, he says, in a black neighborhood, a mother came storming out to his truck, accusing him of stealing money from her child, who’d bought ice cream for his friends without telling her. “Go back to Africa,” she told him. “You don’t belong here.”

Another time, in College Park, a police officer stopped him and asked to see his vendor license. “He asked if I had a criminal record,” Abdul says. “He said, ‘Are you wanted?’ and I was upset. I said, ‘Why should I tell you?’ And then he made me kneel on the grass with my hands behind my head. That was on July Fourth last year.”

To Abdul, the fact that his questioning happened on Independence Day is incidental. To me, it's not. Abdul and so many of his colleagues left their homelands to become entrepreneurs in a country that promises unlimited opportunities for all. But success in America comes hard when you are a small-business man at the whim of the weather, not to mention economic and cultural forces much larger than yourself. For many, the profession that Guy Berliner describes as "selling the most loved food product in the world" barely delivers on the American Dream.

Abdul Kabba will tell me that in the past five years three drivers affiliated with Berliner, including his uncle, have returned home to West Africa to start businesses. “One started a hotel in Sierra Leone,” he says. “The other two are traveling to China to buy goods to sell in Africa. They’re all doing well.”

Abdul Jalloh harbors his own dreams of returning. “Africa is my future,” he says. “I have to go back.” But going back is traumatic. Abdul has not set foot in Bunumbu in almost a quarter century. “The main obstacle,” he says, “is finding the courage. I have so many bad memories. But I want to do something for Bunumbu.”

For now, he’s doing something for Waterloo, a poor city near Freetown that was particularly ravaged by West Africa’s 2014 Ebola outbreak. As he drives about in his ice cream truck, he keeps his eyes peeled for discarded items left on the curb. So far he’s found eight bicycles and two wheelchairs, and he’s shipped everything back to Waterloo — the bikes to a school, the wheelchairs to a hospital. In December, he’ll build a wheelchair ramp at a Waterloo hospital.

His biggest contribution may be in business, however. “Africa needs partnerships,” he tells me as the afternoon cools into evening. “It needs investments.” His grocery store, for instance. “It’s in the center of Freetown,” he says, “and things are getting better there now. The war is over. People are coming back to the city. The country is developing. There are better houses than before. I want to get a bank loan so I can go to China to buy building materials that I can sell at my store, and to Dubai, to buy electronics. But I need money — $20,000, something like that. I’m trying to get a bank loan, but the interest rates are high in Sierra Leone. Last time they wanted 15 percent.”

We turn onto another street. The bells ring and the children stream outside, carrying dollar bills. When Abdul greets them, he does not smile. He is talking on his phone, his eyes cast off into the distance, his focus thousands of miles away.

Bill Donahue is a regular contributor to the magazine. During the summer of 1983, he worked as a Good Humor Man, driving an ice cream truck through the suburbs of Hartford, Conn.

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