For decades, Sal Cannatella has been a fixture in Mid-City, running a fruit stand out of his van in front of Jesuit High School. In more recent years, the one-of-a-kind fundraiser he throws in local barrooms to help a church's hunger relief effort has found its own place on the calendar.
Cannatella goes by "Sal the fruit man." He's a neighborhood character who's known to be a prickly pear. At 83 he's still out there selling bananas and peaches and tomatoes under an oak tree on South Carrollton Avenue. The work puts him in touch with every walk of New Orleans life, the people who stop by for a snack, on a whim or by habit.
Each August, he taps this extensive network of friends and connections for a fundraiser for the St. Jude Community Center. This center is run by of Our Lady of Guadalupe Church on the edge of the French Quarter and provides meals and other services for the needy.
This year's benefit is Saturday (Aug. 25) at the nearby Bulldog Tavern, 5135 Canal Blvd., from noon to 5 p.m.
As fundraisers go, it’s small and straightforward. What makes it special is the way this street vendor weaves together every strand of a long New Orleans life to pull it off.
The featured entertainment is led by Joe DeNone, the vendor's brother-in-law, who has his Rat Pack lounge act down pat. DeNone plays casinos and conventions. For the benefit, he gets the pub swinging with tunes by Frank Sinatra and Louis Prima, throws in “Sweet Caroline” and switches from black tux to white tux at least once during his performance.
The funds come through a raffle, with prizes supplied by Cannatella and his family, his friends and anyone else around the neighborhood he can put the lean on. All proceeds go to the St. Jude Community Center.
The crowd is a mix of church ladies and courthouse honchos, priests and politicos and random bar patrons who came by for an afternoon pint but end up singing along as DeNone moves from "My Way" to "Just a Gigolo."
The annual party has been a late summer tradition for eight years now (it relocated last year from Finn McCool's Irish Pub to the Bulldog). Cannatella was moved to start it after seeing a line of destitute people waiting for food outside the St. Jude Community Center one blazing hot day.
“I don’t have any money, but if I did those people wouldn’t be standing in line in that heat for food,” Cannatella said. "I don't want to see anyone waiting out there, just trying to get something to eat."
Talk with Cannatella for any length of time and the man's hard edges are easy to detect. He curses like a sailor (in fact, he was once crewman on banana boats) and he can be a touch irascible. His big heart may be less obvious, but it's on full display at his annual St. Jude benefit.
Sal the Fruit Man’s St. Jude Benefit
When: Aug. 25, noon-5 p.m.
Where: The Bulldog Mid-City, 5135 Canal Blvd., 504-488-4191
Admission is free, raffle ticket proceeds benefit St. Jude Community Center.
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