At 4 p.m. Wheeler Garrett and his mother, Elizabeth Garrett, left the ice cream man's house with two Target bags full of ice cream to hand out to the kids in their neighborhood, who were dearly missing the friendly sight of Alfa Suleiman's truck.
Suleiman, a neighborhood hero to many, has been unable to work since being shot four times during a burglary at the Marathon Gas Station on Columbus Parkway in Opelika.
"I miss them so much, and I know some of them were waiting for me last Sunday. They know what time I am coming, and they don't see me," Suleiman said as tears fell down his cheeks and off the tip of his nose.
On Oct. 2, Suleiman was working at the gas station and turned his back to prepare pizza for another customer when someone yelled, "Don't move!"
The customer was then shot, and Suleiman was told to lay flat. He pointed the men to the cash register. When asked to open it, he said he couldn't.
"Pow, pow," Suleiman said. "Two shots fired, and then he saw me moving, turned around and shot me again. I tried to play dead, but he shot me one more time."
Alfa’s shoulders were completely shattered. Two iron plates now take the place of his bones. He was in surgery for four hours after being airlifted to Columbus Regional Hospital.
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With crisscrossed slings holding up his numb arms, Suleiman walked out to his parked ice cream truck and pointed at each vibrant photo glued to the side of the vehicles.
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He thought back to the names of children who visit his truck window and the ice cream they skip away with.
Boys love Sonic Boom,
Suleiman's personal favorite is the chocolate lover. He reached far and uncomfortably to point at each label, smiling from ear to ear while trying not to strain his shoulders.
In his shaky hands, he flipped through a yellow folder addressed to him in the scribble of a child, filled with drawings, pictures and letters wishing him a swift recovery. Emotions poured out of the ice cream man as he looked down at the folder of well-wishes and memories from his many years of selling ice cream.
After 23 years, Suleiman has stuck to his love of delivering dipped, sprinkled and multi-colored treats to kids all over the Auburn community. Taking time off to heal from his injuries has not been easy, he said, as tears welled in his eyes again.
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In 1987, Suleiman immigrated to the United States from Nigeria. He only remembers having one struggle in adjusting: the food. Alfa’s brother, a soldier in the U.S. Airforce, said Auburn was the best college in the Southeast.
“When I moved here, I was 23,” Suleiman said. “I had a problem with the food, but eventually I thought, ‘Well, this is pretty good.’”
He was in the area for education and came to Auburn University for just that. During his time in college, he met his wife and later had two children.
After college, he began working for a Chevron station until it was sold. His daughter graduated from Troy University, and his son joined the Navy after high school and is now enrolled at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. To make ends meet and to support his son in college, he decided to open an ice cream truck.
“I’ve been doing it ever since,” Suleiman said.
As he continued to expand his route and work on a consistent basis, he said children began to remember him, his truck and developed a habit of coming to the side of his truck for a cartoon-shaped popsicle. He said they would dance and scream as they ran down the road toward his approaching truck.
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His favorite parts of the job, Suleiman said, are the children. To him, they are the most important part of the business. Suleiman said meeting the parents and developing relationships in the neighborhoods is important to him, too.
For a lot of people, his truck is seen as a reward. Whether the child does what they are supposed to do at home determines whether they get to choose between Sonic Boom or the Batman ice cream pop.
“They call for their birthday and ask to have ice cream brought for their special day,” Suleiman said. “Sometimes the parents can use it and say, ‘If you don’t do your homework, you don’t get any ice cream.’”
Elizabeth watched her children run to Suleiman’s truck weekend after weekend as they grew into the teens and young adults they are today. Wheeler, 14, was 3 years old when the Garretts moved into their current home. Kate, now 17, was 6 years old.
She ran into Suleiman in the grocery store one day and was shocked by his love for the children.
“He knows all the kids, he knows their names and their parent’s names,” Elizabeth said. “He is always happy, and if someone doesn’t have the money for the ice cream, he gives it to them anyway.”
Elizabeth said Wheeler and Suleiman have a special relationship and are “big buddies.” She knew she wanted to do something to make life a little easier while he is out of work. She didn’t want him to stress while he recovers.
On Tuesday, Wheeler and Elizabeth visited Suleiman at his home, something they’ve done frequently lately. Wheeler hopped in the truck per Suleiman’s instruction and took to his neighborhood streets, filling a role that was close to him as a child.
Elizabeth laughed as she recalled the day and said, “He’s such a great guy.”
Elizabeth and her husband started a GoFundMe account for people in the community to help Suleiman.
At the mention of the donation page, Suleiman stopped in his sentence and said he was sure of one thing: Auburn is the best city in the world. He took a few seconds of silence as he held back tears of compassion and appreciation. With the folder of appreciation letters sitting next to him on the fireplace, he repeated over and over: “Auburn is my home.”
“It’s the Auburn culture — everyone caring for each other,” Suleiman said.
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