The death of Arthur “Mr. Okra” Robinson last week seemed to mark the end of an era, the loss of a living link in New Orleans to the old tradition of the roving vendor singing the praises of his wares through the city streets.
But Mr. Okra’s trade was also a family tradition, and even through tears, the next generation of that family vowed to keep it going. That’s good news for countless New Orleans people who counted on his visits and who value the unscripted élan that always sprouted in the wake of his rumbling pickup.
Mr. Okra died Thursday (Feb. 15) at his home at age 74 (see funeral information below).
Sergio Robinson, his daughter and a longtime presence behind the wheel of his truck, plans to get that truck back on the road soon, following a time to mourn. Even on Friday, the day after her father’s death, she was certain of that.
“It's what he wanted me to do,” she told me. "It's something we talked about, how I should continue it when he was gone."
Sergio Robinson has been doing the job for years, taking over more of the responsibilities of her father’s route as worsening health continued to sideline him. For some of her customers’ younger children, hers is the face and voice they associate most with the arrival of the produce truck. You could call her Ms. Okra.
Still, the loss of Mr. Okra leaves a hole in the hearts of those who knew him as part of their neighborhood. He united vastly different parts of the city, but not with slogans. The man gave interviews and was happy to chat, but he didn’t do speeches. He was famous, but not through any marketing campaign beyond the reach of his own voice.
It was all about who he was and how he went about his business. And it was also the way New Orleans responds to those unofficial, genuine emblems of this city. It's that off-kilter character which eludes precise definition but is easy to see when it rolls up on your block in a burst of color and welcome sound.
Ask enough New Orleans people why they love their city, even with all its warts and faults, and soon you’ll surely hear stories about Mr. Okra.
It started with his job, a self-made vocation that had the feel of a throwback. In an age of big-box stores and meal kit delivery services, he sold fruit and vegetables door to door from the back of a truck, making a few bucks at each stop.
But he embellished the work with big doses of his personality, and that gave the old-fashioned practice the vitality of here and now.
It came through in his famous sing-song sales pitch, crooned over the truck’s loudspeaker as he cruised at parade pace down the streets. And there was simply him, his grin above the mic when he saw someone he knew, his rotund build filling the driver’s seat like a throne.
He drew people out and he made people happy, and when he drove off sometimes they would linger there together on the sidewalk for a few extra moments, catching up. It felt like he was part of your particular neighborhood, and the wonder of it was how people from many different neighborhoods felt the same way.
If Mr. Okra's mode was a throwback, it also provided something timeless for his hometown, something that goes way beyond a bunch of bananas.
Back in 2009, I did an all-day ride-along with Mr. Okra for a story I was writing. We started early in the morning and kept zigzagging through streets until the afternoon, stopping at the homes and shops of his regular customers and also for customers of opportunity waving him down.
A New Orleans neighborhood can change drastically by traveling a few blocks or just turning a corner, and Mr. Okra took it all in with the view over his dashboard. Along stately avenues and crumbling streets, we met people who fawned over him, who sang his songs right back to him or who slowly pushed walkers up to the rail of their porches, collected bags of his produce and quietly returned inside. For some, his visit was a cultural moment; for others, it was a necessary service.
In recent years, Mr. Okra would celebrate his birthday each June at the Bywater barroom BJ’s Lounge. His relatives and friends laid out a long battleship row of chafing dishes and pots and pans filled with New Orleans home-cooking.
A collage of his customers from across town would gather there, packing the old corner bar from front to back. They pinned cash to his shirt in the traditional birthday custom and swapped stories about their common friend.
Mr. Okra had celebrity status among his fans. But at the end of the day, he was a man who worked hard and made his own way and relied increasingly on his family in his later years.
That includes Sergio Robinson, now 56. She is one of his nine children (including one who is deceased), and she started riding along with her father in the produce truck some 20 years ago — at first off-and-on and eventually every day. That tenure syncs closely with that of Mr. Okra’s right-hand man, Willie “Frog” Nelson.
“Okra gave me that name,” said Frog. “He said I croaked like a frog.”
Frog too is eager to keep the truck rolling, because Mr. Okra told him that’s what he wanted.
The street vendor tradition goes back generations in the Robinson family. Mr. Okra himself once described how he worked with his own father, Nathan Robinson, who he called “the first Mr. Okra man." That was in the 1930s, when he got started with a wheelbarrow, before upgrading to a horse and buggy and, later, a truck.
When the modern Mr. Okra truck returns to the road it will be a welcome sight in New Orleans. And when Sergio Robinson again takes up her father’s tune it will be an even more welcome sound.
He didn’t play the trumpet or the piano, but for decades, Arthur “Mr. Okra” Robinson provided one of the distinctive sounds of a city famous f…
The death this week of Arthur “Mr. Okra” Robinson took one of the resonant sounds of New Orleans from its streets. The roving produce vendor w…