One of the most recognizable voices in New Orleans is not a singer, not a rapper, and not a trumpeter.
It’s a man selling fresh produce from a truck.
At the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival presented by Shell Sunday, Arthur Robinson, otherwise known as Mr. Okra, is indeed where he is best known: The driver’s seat of his Ford F-150 pickup truck. With a CB radio microphone in one hand, Robinson recites a litany of his offerings to fest-goers as they stream past: Bananas, strawberries, cucumbers, oranges, pineapples, and, of course, okra.
He has been selling at the festival for four years and for 31 years has been selling in the streets of New Orleans every day of the week. The rewards of this kind of life are simple: “I meet people and they appreciate me,” he says.
Indeed, Robinson is a homegrown celebrity here where regularly poses for photos (always with a thumbs-up), shakes hands, visits with regular customers, and is happy to sell you — besides the produce of course — a little green device called “Mr. Okra In Your Pocket,” which gives the buyer a home version of the man himself. Push any button and Robinson might give his advice on cooking (“It ain’t no use in cooking, if you don’t use fresh veg-e-tables”) or just one of the things he believes is true (“It ain’t no joy like a ninth ward boy!”)
Sergio Robinson, his daughter, has been working with him for 28 years. “They love his voice,” she says of their regular customers pocketed throughout New Orleans. She and co-worker Willie Nelson — yes, he gets asked about that famous country singer a lot — ride with her father each day, jumping out of the truck to deliver produce to streetside customers.
As New Orleans is in a renaissance of fresh food markets, Mr. Okra represents the last of a dying, but beloved, tradition in the city. His daughter says not only is their produce fresher than most, they also deliver directly to elderly people who don’t own a car or have any other way to get fresh food. “For them, we’re it,” she says. “They need us.”
At the festival, pineapples, bananas, mangos and even cucumbers sell quickly — Sergio will even cut them up for you. Tourists whose stomachs are not quite prepared for the opulence of New Orleans cuisine appreciate their efforts.
The produce on the Robinson truck is not just more reasonably priced than other food at the festival, “it’s good for you and it’s healthy,” says Jeannie Anderson of Philadelphia who snaps a few photos of Mr. Okra before picking some fruit. “I should do more New Orleans things, but it will kill me,” she says, laughing.
When he’s not in the driver’s seat, Robinson is usually at his home in the Ninth Ward watching cowboy movies, among other things.
But he lives for his truck. Next to him in the passenger seat is everything he needs for today: Hand sanitizer, a bottle of Gatorade, and a thick wad of $1 bills. As customers gather, he stops talking and grabs his CB radio to sell:
“I have oranges and bananas.”
“I have pineapple, I have strawberries.”
“I have the mango.”
A tribe of Mardi Gras Indians appear and drown out his speaker. He pauses until they parade by. He can wait. The fruit is always fresh.