- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 4, 2005

Surakata Kondeh is the Good Humor Man. “Everybody likes the ice cream man. It’s an American tradition,” says Mr. Kondeh, who departed his native Sierra Leone in the mid-1990s as the small West African nation descended into civil war.

Today, the 39-year-old vendor hawks his ice cream crunch bars, hyperstripe Popsicles, nutty cones and — believe it or not, spicy sausages and pickles — around the neighborhoods and businesses of Manassas.

Based on the smiles of customers and shouts of passers-by, he’s right about the American passion for frosty confections.

“We all scream for ice cream,” a woman driving a minivan on Centerville Road yells at a stoplight.

Later, when Mr. Kondeh stops in a Manassas subdivision, he attracts small clusters of children.

“My favorite is the Screwball,” says Seni Julie Jiminez, 6, indicating a cone of cherry ice with a gumball at the bottom.

Seni, along with 4-year-old brother Willy and 7-year-old sister Digna, scampered up to the window on Mr. Kondeh’s van for a quick, cool confection.

“We like him,” says Seni, with a smile and some cherry slush on her chin.

Mr. Kondeh laughs.

“That’s what makes it interesting. The kids, they make you laugh,” he says.

Mr. Kondeh, a tall, thin man wearing a white T-shirt and jeans, owns his Good Humor truck. It’s a Ford Econoline van with a fiberglass top, coolers and, of course, the clanging bell and chiming music that announces the ice cream man’s presence. The Good Humor logo and a “stop for children” warning are painted on the sides and back.

He starts his day at Berliner Specialty Distributors in Hyattsville, which is the East Coast distributor for Good Humor-Breyers and its other brands, including Klondike and Popsicle. The company runs about 325 trucks in and around the D.C. metro area, says Ray Bornstein, Berliner’s director of vending.

Mr. Kondeh loads his truck with popular new products, like SpongeBob and Spider-Man Popsicles, as well as old stand-bys, like the vanilla ice cream sandwich. Each goody sells for between $1 and $2.

He unplugs the van, which has it’s cold-plated coolers chilled overnight, fills up with gas and by 11:30 a.m. or noon heads across Washington with several hundred treats in his truck, including snacks, the pickles and Wagner’s red-hot sausages.

“Some people ask for them. You have to please the customer,” Mr. Kondeh says, explaining the nondairy items.

It’s a blazing-hot day and the van has no air conditioning. Mr. Kondeh will have an occasional candy-center crunch bar, his favorite, but mostly sticks to cold water to keep him going.

The truck pulls into a cul-de-sac and Mr. Kondeh rings his bell, then plays the music — one tune is “It’s a Small World” — for about 30 seconds. Any longer and he worries it will annoy people.

“You don’t want the customer to feel bad,” he explains.

A couple of small faces peer out front doors, and apparently ask out-of-sight parents for some money. Then they scoot over to the truck.

“People may have ice cream in their freezer, but they still come outside to see the ice cream man,” Mr. Kondeh says as he heads to the window cut out of the side of the van.

“Hola amiga,” he says to one customer, using the Spanish he picked up to better communicate with clientele in neighborhoods and work sites with heavy immigrant populations.

“As long as you are able to communicate with your fellow man, you will do business with that person, and you will understand that person very well,” he says.

Mr. Kondeh also speaks French and Arabic. He taught French in Sierra Leone before a civil war, which lasted from 1991 to 2002, cost tens of thousands of lives and displaced an estimated 2 million.

Mr. Kondeh landed in neighboring Guinea, where he got a job with the U.S. Agency for International Development, and in the mid-1990s he moved to the United States.

He now works at a community center in Maryland year-round, and as an ice cream vendor seasonally. He came upon the ice cream job when a friend told him about it.

At first he wasn’t certain, because the hours were demanding — he often stays out until 8 p.m. and then heads to the other job, leaving little time to visit with his wife and two children.

“But it worked out. I got very interested in seeing he different people out there, the kids. It’s an atmosphere, not just a business,” he says.

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