A woman wearing a hat adorned in plastic fruits stood at the corner of Lessepps and Burgundy streets pointing to a rainbow that seemed to be over Bywater.
Those in the street were part of the overflow crowd this June, 2012 Saturday night. They had gone to B.J.'s Bar 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 people will throw big birthday parties for you. For Okra, another June; another birthday celebration.
Key to his technique is his pickup truck, which he drives around town vending fruits and vegetables. This is no ordinary truck though; it is 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 underscores that it is indeed Mr. Okra who has arrived on your block. Of course, folks in the neighborhoods already knew he was coming because the truck contains 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 are not necessarily in need of produce; it is just hard to ignore Mr. Okra.
As usual, at this annual splash trays of pot luck food were lined up in B.J.'s. back room. On this night there were stuffed tomatoes, stuffed bell pepper, macaroni and cheese, ham and roast pork. 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 prophecy was unfulfilled.)
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 an unmistakable stocky build similar to Okra’s came to the back to sample the food. He identified himself as the great man’s “nephew-in-law,” and said that the birthday boy had indeed arrived and was sitting in a chair outside.
We scurried to see Okra seated near the bar’s front door. Bills, 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. Although there was already plenty food, eventually more people came in carrying more trays.
After a while Okra left his perch outside and entered the building. He relocated to 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.
According to a tattered but glittery sign, Little Freddie King, the bluesman, had celebrated his 70th birthday at B.J.’s . For all the waling of blues singers, however, no cry is as established locally as “I’ve got okra.”
By the time we left the party, the color spectrum in the sky was 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.
WATCH INFORMED SOURCES, FRIDAYS AT 7 P.M., REPEATED AT 11:30 P.M.WYES-TV, CH. 12.
BOOK ANNOUNCEMENT: Errol’s Laborde’s new book, “Mardi Gras: Chronicles of the New Orleans Carnival” (Pelican Publishing Company, 2013), has been released. It is now available at local bookstores and at book web sites.