The Living Streets

“Grab yo’self a piece… right here, take that… giveta try, it’s fresh. Right from ma farm.” In the thick New Orleans heat, his drawl enchants them. I weave through the early morning shoppers, strolling until I reach the corner stall, with the bed of a large farm truck in the backdrop, an improvised sales shelf. There I find Timmy, a renowned Crescent City vendor.

This Tuesday, he wades into the crowding middle-aged women, presenting a watermelon. He erratically waves around a long knife, skewering chunks of the red fruit like a pirate. As he carves, he scans the crowd, looking for anyone unfed, unengaged. “Picked ’em today. Here, take that slice there. From ma field right to your mouth.”

I slip around the edge of the group, pat Timmy on the shoulder, draw closer beside him, and give him a big smile in response to his goofy expression. “The Timmy Show,” I say, chuckling with him, as I stick a piece of watermelon into the side of my mouth, savoring the juice and not bothering to spit out the seeds.

Shoppers step behind his table and handle the thick kale and firm cantaloupes on the open bed of his truck. Upon request, he climbs up and grabs the produce his customers point to, rubbing off the dirt as he leaps down. He wills them into his space, so inviting and swift that I feel like he might just grab their hand and take them on a tour of his farm, if he could.

Timmy_Market_1 Timmy_Market_2

Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays I make it out to crammed parking lots in three different neighborhoods of New Orleans. An hour before shoppers flood the area with their large canvas bags to nose around each farmer’s stand, tents rise into the sky from the searing pavement. By the opening bell, the vendors’ lifting, shifting, and scrambling has ceased. They eagerly await the arriving tide.

At first I am distraught by the humidity coating my body with sweat. I’m stumped by some of the vegetables arranged on farmers’ tables. My ears take in the morning conversations, the chuckling all around me, yet my legs are unsure of where to wander. I exchange guh’mornins and how-are-yas with vendors that acknowledge me. In my pastel yellow Volunteer shirt, I assist whomever I can. Five boxes of zucchini, three crates of sweet corn, and two armfuls of cantaloupe later, I’ve earned myself a free snack. Pen, a Mississippi farmer, gestures for me to approach him, and quietly says, “Get yo’self a melon, boy.”

“Really, you sure?”

“Yeah. Go ’head. No problem,” he nods, still leaning back in his chair, hiding from the sun. A soft smile parts his lips, and I give him a brisk pat on the back as I drift on to other work, ripe melon in hand. My other duties as a market intern call: elderly women are ambling over to the welcome tent and a line is forming for iced chicory coffee.

***

Already in need of refreshment, I make my way over to Amanda and Enrique’s juice and popsicle stand for a taste of paradise. This Tuesday morning, Amanda hands me a peach paleta, a perfect prism of fruit suspended on a stick, crafted with a Nicaraguan touch. My tongue breaks through the thin icy coating, melting the pulp of peeled peaches, bathing my mouth in heavenly sweetness.

“How are jyou?” Amanda asks. She recognizes my face from the numerous occasions I’ve dropped by, my eyes glued to the list of flavors.

“Good… hanging in there.” I return her warm smile, and step back to allow an eager toddler and his mother to browse the handwritten menu. “I’ll be around,” I assure her. And I will, for weeks to come.

***

The searing sun glints on swollen creole tomatoes. In June, the market is a sea of bright red, rich yellow, and deep orange: creoles, cherries, heirlooms.

Creole_Tomatoes

Today is one of my first Tuesdays here. I keep my distance until Danny asks, “So how long you gonna be around?”

I sidle over under the shade of his blue tent. “Eight more weeks.” Too short, I think. Intrigued by the boxes of tomatoes stacked in the center of his table, I ask what comes to mind: “What makes these kind creoles?”

“Well, it’s the soil you grow ’em in. We got our farm in southern Louisiana, near the banks o’ the Mississippi.”

Scanning the packed tomatoes, I spot paler coats, some with a green tint; others have bruises. “How do you know when exactly to pick them?”

“You know, we’re citrus people; we just started with creoles recently. So far as I’ve learned though,” he says, picking up a plump one, “you look right around the base o’ the tomato.” He turns it over and traces a small ring around the bottom. “When this starts to turn red, you know it’s getting ripe. If you wanna get it to market the next day, it’s time to pick it.” Holding up a pale green one, he admits, “We grabbed this one a little too early though.”

“So it’s an art, huh?”

“Different people like ’em different ways, you know.”

Inspired, I inspect, grasp, and select a few softening creoles for myself. I’m still contemplating what I might cook tonight when Danny steps forward to attend to a customer. “That box ’ill be six dollars, ma’am.”

***

By 11 AM, the soles of my feet begin to ache. I drift over to Kay’s side as she shovels shrimp into a hanging scale. “Hey sugah, whatchyu want?”

“Nothin’,” I respond, though I’m thinking company, conversation. She takes a moment to pass a bag of jumbos to a customer.

Between transactions, she tells me about her sons who work on the waters hauling shrimp. “The older one, he’s got his own boat now… oh, he’s been driving those things since he was real young.” Theirs is a close-knit business team: father, mother, sons.

“But my daughter,” she confesses, “she’s the determined one.” She’s a zealous college student, apparently, unafraid to criticize strangers for their diets or smoking habits. Kay chuckles. “She’s been through a lot with bein’ abroad, law school and all… but I want her to do what makes her happy, no matta how tough it is to make ends meet.”

Hearing this, I begin to trust her. “You know, I like focusing on food and working with people, trying to push social change, but how can I make a living doing that, right?”

She nods as she wraps two pounds of shrimp in week-old newspaper. “But you youung. You’ll get it together, even if you don’t know now.”

Kay_Market_1 Kay_Market_2

Some days I hop on my bike, pedaling into unfamiliar neighborhoods. I discover occasional clusters of crammed shops, pop-in po’boy joints, and hole-in-the-wall bars. One Wednesday afternoon, I spot the Community Book Center in Mid-City. I slow down and park my bike a few paces down the sidewalk. I give the front door a hefty push. Relief: the AC blasts me in the face. I gaze around the shop as I approach the desk. Metal shelves hold a variety of books I’ve never seen before: illustrated tales of the Underground Railroad and the Civil Rights Movement, monochrome volumes by African intellectuals, social theory by Black psychologists and activists, and contemporary titles about New Orleans community organizing. I zero in on Floodlines, and pick it off the shelf. On the opposite wall, tapestries, paintings, and musical instruments are loosely arranged, an altar to the African roots of the city’s people. The woman dozing at the counter awakens and looks at me.

“How you doin’?” I ask her.

“Fine… gettin’ by,” she says. She confesses she’s affected by the uproar around the Trayvon Martin case. “But you know what I’m sayin’. We in the same world after all… How you doin’?”

“Good,” I respond. “Makin’ my way around the city.”

***

It takes me a few minutes to catch onto the beat of the brass band, a wild ensemble of blaring horns and raining drums. It’s a Sunday afternoon in late June, and I’m deep in the crowd of a second-line parade. Up until now, I’ve read newspaper excerpts and books, and heard concerned discussions about violence threatening daily life in New Orleans: kids disappearing from the parks, basketball courts scattered with apprehensive, edgy teenagers. But here I am, here we are: it seems like the whole community has streamed into the streets, dancing together to one rhythm. I begin to strut, glancing beside me to see a big man pulling a cooler on wheels; he uses the same white towel to wipe sweat from his forehead and condensation from a chilled can of beer. Men and women alike, in anything from t-shirts and athletic shorts to fine, collared Sunday attire, raise bottles in the air and wave handkerchiefs with delight. They glide down from their porches into waves of ecstatic neighbors, flowing over any and every piece of open ground. Stopping to stare is hardly allowed; “keep on movin’” is the mantra of the afternoon. The surge of the shaking, shimmying crowd pushes me on, block after block.

Secondline_1 Secondline_2

Market shoppers pass by Pen’s table with wide, glowing eyes, drawn to the piles of field peas and beans. He and I spend this Tuesday leaning against the tailgate of his pickup.

“Been at this since the ’80s. Left for a bit, but then I came right back. Now it’s me out there, all on my own… But yeah, occasionally I’ll get a hand for few hours pickin’ or plantin’.” By now I know that Pen’s property is part of an African-American Mississippi farming cooperative, and that it’s been in his family for several generations. He takes his time to share snippets of his life history with me, in the same slow way that he rises to answer a customer’s request, tugging up his low-hanging shorts.

“Really,” he tells me today, “family is what it’s all about. There are times where I had nephews, cousins, uncles, aunts, grandkids out there with me… We had one of the little ones, he was fascinated by bugs. We couldn’t keep ’im inside.” He chuckles, shaking his head. “He isn’t like the other kids. All o’ them are livin’ in the city, don’t know nothin’ about bein’ out in the sun and dirt all year.

“Not just anybody can work the land. You’ve got to know the seasons, how to treat the plants, when to water ’em ‘n’ pick ’em. And my poppa taught me all that.”

“Cultural knowledge, passed down from one generation to the next,” I chime in. I know relatively little about farming.

“Yeah, right, a whole lotta knowledge. But it’s a whole lotta work too. Work work work, all year. Me and the field.” His back slumps with the weight of age, of a fruitful history in open acres of greens, melons, and beans—fields I can still only imagine.

Pen_Market

The next week, I return to the Book Center. Sweat gleams on my forehead. I approach the counter more confidently this time. “Here to see you again,” I tell Mama J.

Her commentary this morning is about the racism institutionalized in New Orleans schools. I listen intently, her strokes of struggle and domination adding to the complex portrait of New Orleans in progress in my mind.

Before I know it though, a half hour has passed, and I have to cycle to work.

“Well, you come by any time, ya hear?!” she says as she turns to attend to a woman who has entered the store.

“This is it for me,” I say, aware this will be my last chance to visit for the summer. “But I’m linked to the city now. I’m bound to come back.”

“Oh, you like all dem new people, fallin’ in love with our city,” she says with a glint in her eye. “They all comin’ here thinkin’ they can cook. And, yeah, they’ve got skill and ingredients, but only we in New Orleans have got the love.”

MamaJ_1 MamaJ_2

From time to time on New Orleans summer days, grey clouds roll in over the market, bringing cool air and sprinkling the crowds with a peaceful rain. This particular Saturday, a shower rushes in, surprising mid-morning shoppers as they hurry to gather their groceries. As I duck under the edge of the market’s welcome tent, I see complete strangers drift together under any available covering. Parents grasping their toddlers’ hands and older women heaving canvas bags huddle side-by-side. Nosy dogs meet pre-schoolers, middle-aged parents meet young single moms, and grandmothers meet college students. Life slows down for a moment, and for a moment we all notice we are together.

 

Elias Estabrook is a native of Somerville, Massachusetts, where he never ceases to find park lawns, public squares, and community centers to spend his afternoons. After a summer surrounded by food, he has finally progressed from avid consumer and admirer to amateur cook. Send him an email at elias.estabrook@yale.edu.

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