Feb 19, 201810:05 AM
The Editor's Room
Weekly Commentary with New Orleans Magazine’s Errol Laborde
Mr. Okra On the Way
Last of the Street Vendors
CHERYL GERBER FOR NEW ORLEANS MAGAZINE
Every Saturday morning, usually some time between 10 and 11 a.m. we could hear that amplified voice in the distance. There was a melody to it as he sang out, “I got okra, I got bananas, I got lemons…..” People in the blocks ahead would scurry for their wallets and then head to the curb in anticipation of the old psychedelically painted pickup truck decorated with a potpourri of vegetable sketches. In our block, the woman across the street would escort her two young daughters, each of whom was carrying a dollar, to buy a banana. The girls were thrilled by the purchase. (One day when they are Wall Street investors they will recall their first financial transactions made with the man called Okra.)
Outwardly there was a real simplicity to him – a guy in his truck selling produce, but in his inner cosmos there was a genius at work. People would wait to buy items from him whether they needed them or not, and most often they didn’t. (A zucchini once lingered in our kitchen for days before we figured it was time to toss it. A stalk of asparagus might have undergone the same end had we not discovered a simple recipe on the internet utilizing the microwave, olive oil and Parmesan cheese.)
Business scholars should study why Mr. Okra (whose real but lesser known name was Arthur J. Robinson) drew a crowd:
- He had an infectious smile.
- In the age of high tech media his simple loud speaker cut through all the noise.
- His old truck, with the message “Be Nice or Leave” displayed prominently in several spots seemed like something destined for the Smithsonian, or at least the Cabildo.
- He had an entourage of various family members.
There was something about him that made people want to provide support. He was invited to park his truck inside the Jazz Fest. Someone even produced a toy with a recording of his chant so he too had a song to sell.
His greatest artistry though was at his annual birthday party celebration held at B.J.’s Bar in Bywater. All along his route he had been inviting customers to attend, and they did. When they arrived Okra was not hard to find. He was seated near the front door where, by tradition, he would greet guests who would then pin money to his shirt. Imagine being in a business where customers stand in line for the privilege of pinning dollars to you.
There was a time when street vendors roamed throughout the city. One sold poles for making clothes lines; some sold callas, a type of rice cake. There were praline vendors and sellers of seafood. Customers responded even if just for the experience.
There is good news. His daughter will carry on his business so now there will be a “Ms. Okra.” And for those who stood along his route it can always be said, “we got memories.”
BOOK ANNOUNCEMENT: Errol’s Laborde’s books, “New Orleans: The First 300 Years” and “Mardi Gras: Chronicles of the New Orleans Carnival” (Pelican Publishing Company, 2017 and 2013), are available at local bookstores and at book websites.
WATCH INFORMED SOURCES, FRIDAYS AT 7 P.M., REPEATED AT 11:30 P.M. WYES-TV, CH. 12.