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Mr. Okra’s Birthday Party

ARTHUR NEAD ILLUSTRATION

A woman wearing a hat with plastic fruits on it stood at the corner of Lesseps and Burgundy streets pointing to a rainbow that seemed to stretch over Bywater.

Those in the street were part of the overflow crowd that had gone this Saturday night to B.J.’s Lounge to celebrate Mr. Okra’s 69th birthday. Okra, whose real name is Arthur Robinson, is proof that if you have the right technique you can become a cultural icon, and that people will throw big birthday parties for you.

Key to his technique is his pickup truck in which he drives around town vending fruits and vegetables. This is no ordinary truck; it’s a psychedelically painted vehicle with images of produce throughout and the message “Be Nice or Leave” displayed prominently in several spots. A sign at the back announces that it’s indeed Mr. Okra who has arrived on your block. Of course, folks in the neighborhoods already knew he was coming because the truck is equipped with a loudspeaker from which Okra’s chant can be heard blocks away: “I got tomatoes, I got grapes, I got eggplant, I got okra.”

Residents along the way are lured to the street even if they’re not necessarily in need of tomatoes. It is just hard to ignore Mr. Okra.

Toward the back of B.J.’s, trays of food were spread out. There were stuffed tomatoes, stuffed bell pepper, ham, roast pork and macaroni and cheese.

Curiously missing from this cornucopia was okra. (Earlier that day as Okra made his rounds he predicted that there would be an okra gumbo at the celebration, but the gumbo offered no such bounty.)

Okra himself could not be spotted during the early hours. I thought maybe there would be some sort of grand entrance. However, a man with Okra’s unmistakable stocky build who came to the back to sample the food, and who identified himself as the great man’s “nephew-in -law,” said that the birthday boy had indeed arrived and was sitting in a chair outside.

We scurried to see Okra there, seated right outside the bar’s front door. Money, mostly fives, tens and twenties, had been pinned to his shirt by partygoers. I had seen this custom practiced with brides but never with okra vendors – and he didn’t even have to promise anyone a dance.

There would, however, be music. A band headed by Guitar Slim Jr. set up in the back. Meanwhile, although there was already plenty of food, more people came in carrying more trays.

After a while Okra left his perch outside and entered the building to relocate in a stuffed wingback chair right inside the entrance where all his worshippers could see him. Nearby was a box of aprons with images of okras stamped on them, given as favors to guests.

Little Freddie King, the bluesman, had celebrated his 70th birthday at B.J.s; at least that’s what I gleaned from a glittery sign commemorating the event. For all the wailing of blues singers, however, no cry is as established locally as “I’ve got okra.”

By the time we left the party the color curves in the sky were long gone. All that legend about the pot of gold – it’s true. Mr. Okra that night had been seated at the end of the rainbow.
 

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