When Mr. Okra died last week, it seemed to mark the end of an era. His real name was Arthur Robinson, and for decades he was a roving produce vendor, singing the praises of his inventory through the city streets. It felt like a last living link to an old tradition in New Orleans.
But Mr. Okra’s trade was also a family tradition and his daughter Sergio Robinson has vowed to keep it going. That’s good news for countless New Orleans people who knew Mr. Okra as part of their neighborhood and for that unscripted élan that always sprouted in the wake of his rumbling pickup.
Mr. Okra united vastly different parts of the city, but not with slogans. The man gave interviews, but he didn’t do speeches. He was famous, but not through any marketing campaign, not 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 but genuine emblems of the 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 trials and faults, and soon you’ll surely hear stories about Mr. Okra.
He drew people out and he made people happy. Shopkeepers paused business to see him. Some residents had shopping lists ready. Children skipped to his tailgate holding dollar bills to buy their own fruit, singing his name.
And when he drove off sometimes neighbors would linger there together on the sidewalk for a just few extra moments, catching up. 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.
So when Mr. Okra’s truck returns to the road it will be a welcome sight in New Orleans. And when his daughter again takes up her father’s tune it will be an even more welcome sound.