Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Good Humor

By Mary Cashiola

JUNE 21, 1999:  Cruising down Covington Pike's car-dealership strip, where the rows of shiny automobiles gleam painfully in the sunlight, the ice-cream truck stands out. Next to those new cars, it's too dusty, too noisy, and instead of a graceful warranty sticker, it has about a million circus-colored decals stuck onto the window.

"I've got more flavors than Baskin-Robbins," ice cream-man Steven Pepper says of his selection.

The inside of the truck is just as colorful as the outside and twice as hot. There is the 2,000-pound freezer, the $1,000 worth of ice cream, and Pepper, a gregarious man with a wild mane of graying hair. He is wearing jeans, a tie-dyed tank top under a faded blue shirt, and, while driving, his once-Birkenstock-clad feet are bare.

Then there are the trinkets: the troll doll keychain hanging from the ceiling, the extra sunglasses attached to the visor, the Grateful Dead stickers on the interior. And the Frisbee that sits on the dash, overturned and holding quarters, a lighter, and a pack of cigarettes.

As he drives the ice-cream truck he has leased for the past three years, Pepper listens to Bob Dylan and Jimmy Buffett. The truck used to play the music that most people associate with the ice-cream man -- the tinny "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star," Scott Joplin's "The Entertainer," "Pop! Goes the Weasel" -- but these days Pepper uses a bell to draw his customers.

"Nothing works like the bell," he says.

When he pulls into a parking lot, he'll give a couple of good jerks to the bell's string dangling from the ceiling of the truck. Then he waits and watches. The customers straggle up, digging in their pockets for change and in their billfolds for singles.

Although he sees his share of children, most of the 500 customers Pepper serves daily are adults at bike shops and car lots.

Pepper spent 25 years in the hotel/restaurant business before becoming an independent contractor selling ice cream about five years ago. At first, he wasn't making much money. Then a friend told him to go try Craigmont High School. On the way, he stopped along Covington Pike and discovered that commercial areas were as profitable as residential ones.

"It's not as easy as it looks," says Pepper. "You've gotta be smart, a little bit fast, and you can't be afraid. You gotta be able to talk to people."

Like most of the ice-cream vendors, Pepper has a set route he drives every day. And with that route come his regular customers. He knows their faces, some of their names, and always what they like to buy.

"Hey, man, I got your favorite again. The truck came this morning." The customer grins broadly and gets out his money while Pepper rummages through the boxes in the freezer.

At another stop he says, "This guy has bought a fudge bar every day for the last five years," as he points to an elderly mechanic walking toward the truck. Pepper has a deal with another customer: They flip over the $1.50 ice cream the man likes. If Pepper wins, the customer pays him $2; if Pepper loses, the customer pays him a dollar.

But with regular customers comes responsibility. Although he drives the truck more than 200 days a year, if he skips a day, his regulars sometimes boycott him for days afterward.

"From February first to Halloween is ice-cream season," says Pepper. But he's not limited by the season -- he runs 11 months out of the year, stopping only in December. "As long as I'm in the truck, I can always sell."

Depending on the weather, Pepper will sometimes spend 12 hours in the hot truck, drinking water to keep himself cool. Most people think that the hottest time of the year is the ice-cream vendor's busiest, but that's not necessarily true.

"After the Fourth of July, it'll kinda tail off. It's the dog days after that. Kids are inside playing Nintendo, people are taking family vacations," Pepper says. Plus, his commercial customers will be holed inside in the air conditioning. But in general, he says, "You can sell ice cream from dawn to dusk."

"Some people think it's boring, but everybody's got their own row to hoe," Pepper says. "Basically, it's the best job I've ever had."

With most of the customers, young and old alike, Pepper has an easy banter. One man always calls him an old hippie and Pepper will answer back, "It takes one to know one." For the customers, getting ice cream is a little break from work, a sugary treat.

"We're here to make them smile. The ice cream has funny names -- Tongue Splashers, Sour Pusses, Scary Cherries. It's all about fun.

"Everybody likes ice cream."


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