Elijah Carter, or “The Watermelon Man” as locals know him, presents a memorable display around an old van loaded with whole melons ready for sale on the corner of 84th Street and Lindbergh Boulevard.
Passing through you would likely notice the scene. Carter sometimes dons a large sombrero to escape the summer sun and his bright, red, quartered slices of watermelon seemly tantalize passing drivers.
Across Southwest Philadelphia vendors cash in on commuter traffic passing through onto I-95 and to the Philadelphia International Airport with inventory such as newspapers, bottled water, bouquets of roses, stuffed animals or soft pretzels. Salesmen can be seen regularly throughout heavily trafficked areas of the city, especially during summer. But 62-year-old Carter’s product stands out.
“Are they painted?” asked Pedal Mohamed, who stopped to check out the inventory baking in the sun. Everyone seems to think Carter paints his watermelons.
“No, there’s a little trick,” said Carter. “Just cut them up and leave them out in the sun and the sugar heats up and it turns bright, bright red.”
As Mohamed put it, “I’ve never seen watermelon like that.”
On a good day Carter can entice 50 customers buying up watermelons, which sell for $5 for small varieties and $10 for large ones either seedless and seeded. He chose to sell watermelons because his father sold them for a long time and they can last up to six weeks if stored properly. He said the economic downturn hasn’t had an effect on business.
“I’ve noticed more and more people are buying up bigger ones,” Carter said. “People seem to like the seedless ones. But me, personally, I think the seeded are better. They’re sweeter.”
Sometimes he acquires specialty melons, but take note they often go fast. Just about every patron he gets asks what type of melons he has at the moment, looking for varieties like Sugar Babies, Yellow Crimson, or Moon and Stars.
“Any time I can get my hands on the specialty melons they are gone that day,” said Carter. “Some are orange and some can be black. But they like them because they’re all sweeter.”
Carter has been in the business of selling watermelon in Southwest Philadelphia for over 20 years, but it goes back in his family over six decades.
In 1948, Elijah’s father moved to Philadelphia from Georgia. On the corner of 34th Street and Mantua Avenue in West Philadelphia, Carter’s father sold watermelons from 1948 to 1989, making enough money to raise 11 children. After his father died, Carter took over the family business. He then moved the operation to 84th and Lindbergh because it was a busier intersection.
Carter is working to pass the family watermelon business down the line as he approaches retirement. As his father did, Elijah has turned most day-to-day operations to his two sons Corey Carter, 29, and Kyle Carter, 33. Elijah Carter still maintains his position as a Southwest Philadelphia spectacle and to everyone else as the Watermelon Man.
“I never considered selling anything else,” Carter said. “I plan on doing this as long as I possible can.”
He’s also training his 13-year-old nephew Savaughn Jones. “One day I might be out here by myself,” Jones said as he tapping away at melons. “I like selling stuff. I like the cash, but I think I’m going to try to get into college. This is just summer work.”
But the teenager knows his melons. “You tap on a melon to make sure it is ripe,” said Jones. “If it sounds hollow, it’s going to be ripe; if it thumps, probably not.”
Carter is on the Southwest Philadelphia corner nearly seven days a week from 10 a.m. until 7 p.m. Some of Carter’s patrons are merely passing by, lured in by the eye-catching display. But most of them know him on a first-name basis. Carter said that members of the Philadelphia Eagles and Philadelphia Police Deputy Commissioner Sylvester Johnson are regular customers.
“Sylvester comes out about once a week to buy a melon,” Carter said.
Shopper Alex Sepko stopped by the stand one day. “Sweet as sweet could be,” he said. “Now I’ve been coming to him for about two years …mainly because of his consistency.”
At the end of the day, Carter has to plan for the next few weeks. “Tomorrow I’m going to go down the market and load up the van with about 300 more watermelons,” he said Carter. “And then we’ll get ready for about four more weeks.”
See the Watermelon Man’s location here.