People all over town know New Orleans native Arthur Robinson as Mr. Okra — or sometimes just Okra — his trade name as a roving produce vendor who patrols the streets in a pickup truck packed with fruits and vegetables and painted with renderings of his inventory. His voice — a deep, bullfrog baritone — bellows from the truck-mounted P.A. system, announcing his inventory and its goodness. His banter has been featured on numerous albums by local bands, he's a regular vendor at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival and he was the subject of the 2009 documentary Mr. Okra. Robinson celebrates his 69th birthday June 9, with a party at the Bywater bar B.J.'s Lounge (4301 Burgundy St., 945-9256). The party starts at 6 p.m. and is open to the public. Mr. Okra's truck will be on display outside.
How did you get into this kind of work?
Robinson: It was my father. He was the first Mr. Okra man. He started selling fruit from a wheelbarrow, then from a horse and buggy, then from a truck. I rode around with him from way back. I had other jobs, but I always came back to this. I look at it this way: It's a job, and you got to have a job.
You travel all over town these days. Have you seen changes in the city along your routes?
R: Oh, things change. I remember when children would see you coming, they'd call for their parents, saying, "Mama, mama, here comes the vegetable man!" Now, you pass by, some of these areas they got here, you ask the kids if their parents want something and they look at you like you're crazy.
Do you ever worry about competition or copycats?
R: If someone else goes around doing this, what would happen? I have my own customers. They'd say, "That's all right, we got Mr. Okra coming." People give me their phone numbers, ask for special orders. If I don't come around for a while, they're calling me up, asking if I'm sick or need something. I got some nice customers. They look out for me and I look out for them. — IAN MCNULTY