Atlanta Writers Club Presents…

Rick Bragg Prize for Nonfiction Winner: Harry Duke

 

A View From the Sidewalk

 

When I retired, I decided to open a sidewalk produce stand. I did not need the money. I just needed something to do and to feel good about it. I talked with the folks who manage the local Housing Authority about doing something for the residents there who live on very limited income. Along with the local zoning officials, we reached an understanding.

From the Farm on the Sidewalk…

I have some regulars who stop here every Saturday. Not just folks from the Housing Authority but some from three or four blocks beyond and more who drive from the other side of town to shop with me. Some just cruise the road in front of me every Saturday; we recognize and wave at each other. Carl is a grizzled, bewhiskered elder who has been driving by several times a day since I first opened. He always waves but doesn’t stop. Today was different.

“Ye got any green tomatoes? Good deal! I got to run an errand but I’ll be right back. Save ’em for me, will ye?”

While he was gone, other customers were snapping up green tomatoes like they were apples of gold. When he returned, only ten pounds were left in the box.

“I’ll take all of ’em. How much?” He didn’t care about the price. Wrestling a wad of bills out of his pants, he just wanted the total. I don’t often see people with a certified pocket full of cash. “Can ye get me a whole box?”

“What you gonna do with all those tomatoes?”

“I slice ’em ‘n freeze ’em so I can have ’em all winter.”

The next week I was waiting for him with a 25 pound box of green tomatoes.

When he asked the price, I said, “Tell you what. For 5 minutes of your time, I will make you a great price.” So it happened that he carried off the tomatoes, some squash, a peck of peaches and a watermelon to his car and returned to give me those 5 minutes. He is one of the few that seem to have the ability to spend in excess of $10. I wanted to know more about him and his place in this community.

“Yep. I live right over yonder, just behind that brick house. But I was born over near Stone Mountain. I moved out here more ‘n fifty years ago when I started to work for the city.”

In that 5 minutes, he told me about growing up in what was then the mostly undeveloped countryside east of Stone Mountain, riding in a buggy with his dad along dirt roads that are buried today under layers of concrete and asphalt, working for a small dairy farm while a teen, cotton fields where subdivisions have taken root, and seeing the last steam engine chug between Atlanta and Augusta.

“Can ye get me ‘nother box of them ‘maters?”

“Sure, but you already got 35 pounds. Why so many?”

“It ain’t all for me. I have taken in some folks down on their luck. When they can, they pay a little rent. I buy groceries and do the cookin’. I got no other family to care for and they seem pretty grateful for what I can do to help. I have been blessed.”

*

Billy came by three times. Billy, with his pants cinched up high and tight around his slender frame, always leads with his right hand—he greets everyone with, “Hi, my name is Billy,” and he shakes your hand no matter how many times he has met you that day.

To my surprise and delight, he came along the third time with Peggy, a late middle-aged woman who I have not seen in quite a while. She is fond of sweet potatoes and I usually give her one or two each time. Today she is pulling a red Radio Flyer wagon. She’s all smiles but talks little. Billy interpreted for her.

“She wants a watermelon if it ain’t too much. How much are they?”

“Three dollars,” I said.

“That’s good. Can I pick any one she wants?”

As he stooped to grab up the largest one, Peggy produced the bills and a pretty much toothless smile to back them up. Could have knocked me over with a feather. With watermelon in the wagon, they moved on toward the intersection. I turned to the next customer.

Then—and suddenly—Billy was standing in front of me again.

“Hi, my name is Billy. She wants a cantaloupe, too.”

Before he got away this time, I asked him, “Are you still getting your breakfast on Sunday?”

“Uh-huh. The folks from that big brick church come and get me on Sunday and take me to breakfast. I get a biscuit and gravy and all the coffee I want. I stay for the singing.”

Yeah, good folks at that church. I think Carl is good folk, too. Was it Jesus said something about “Unto the least of these?”

*

There is a lady from just down the block who comes by here on her way to the convenience store. Like most, she does not have much. Sometimes she keeps a couple of youngsters who appear to be her grandchildren. I say that because when they are playing outside her house; I hear her gruff voice loudly calling after them a lot. From my place on the sidewalk, I would think staying with her as a child would be a hard thing. Once or twice she has asked if I had bananas. I don’t usually carry them.

About mid-morning she came up the street with the two little boys in tow and crossed over to my side to ask if I had bananas.

“Absolutely! A whole box…and better priced than anybody else in town.”

“Yeah. Uh-huh. I see.” She walked on with no show of emotion and I was left thinking well, I’ll be a monkey’s uncle.

Ten minutes later she came back, children still trailing along, stood right in front of me and asked, “You got nanners, you say?”

“Sure do! A whole fresh box full.”

Pulling the cellophane wrapper off a new pack of cigarettes, she said “well, they sure do like ‘nanners. But, I ain’t got no money. Come on, kids. Let’s go.”

Hold on! I am not going to let someone walk these children by a buffet of goodies they like and are good for them and then tell them to move on because a pack of cigarettes took the last dollar!

“Wait a minute. Come around to this side of the tables, boys. Tell me what you like.”

“Well, go ahead!” Grandmother commanded. Puff puff.

Two minutes later, the boys crossed the street with a bag of bananas, apples and oranges. I felt better.

*

There is no temptation so hard to deny as the one we set before ourselves.

My favorite lady from Tidewater Virginia stopped by with her little dog, Diva.

“I jes’ stopped by to get a couple tomatoes ’cause you always got the prettiest tomatoes of anywhere. Oooo…don’t them collard greens look good!”

“What? Oh, no. No thanks. I don’t wanna mess with them greens. You gotta wash ’em ‘n wash ’em again and then you probably got to wash ’em a third time and maybe one more after that and then they gotta cook for hours and that smell goes all through the house. Ugh! No, sir. I don’t wanna mess with them. But…they sure do look good.

“Let me jes’ get my two tomatoes and get Diva and be on my way. Here, these will do. How much is that?”

With tomatoes in a bag, she turns toward her car.

“C’mon, Diva.”

She stops abruptly at the end of my table.

“Those collards sure look pretty. Uh-huh.”

She lingers.

“No, I don’t wanna mess with ’em. C’mon, Diva!”

I turn to the next customer. She wants grapefruit, turnips, and sweet potatoes. Suddenly, there is a hand thrust in from off to one side and it’s holding 3 bills just inches from my face.

“S’cuse me, ma’am. But, I just got to have a bunch of them collards. They’s too pretty not to taste good and I sure do like my collards!”

I am not sure if I did her a favor by slipping an extra bunch in her bag.

*

Two young ladies came by. They laughed when I asked if they went to school around here. I was thinking high school because I used to teach in the local high school. They said they were roommates, both 26 and graduates of a large university with a tiger for a mascot. This would be their first Thanksgiving away from family and they wanted to fix collards “like Mama” but they weren’t sure how Mama did it. We talked a good bit about home cooking, the dishes they most missed from Mama’s table and the upcoming holiday. They seemed excited but also a bit sad at the thought of being in their home but not “home for the holidays.”

I know that feeling, too.

 

Speaking of giving thanks, Calendar Girl came by. She was headed back to her unit with a plastic bag full of discarded scratch-offs from the convenience store. The owner lets her pick them from the trash bin in the hope of finding an overlooked winner.

We talked small talk and she cast her eyes on, of all things, the onions.

“How much for one?”

“25 cents.”

She says nothing. I know her situation. It is five days before Thanksgiving. No matter what the price, she cannot afford it. The nearest thing she has to money is a plastic bag of used losers. She cannot buy an onion.

Let me digress a moment.

Next door to where I stand is a Greek sandwich shop run out of a small house. People come from all over town to eat here. But the Greek who runs this place sees himself as a member of THIS community. Each Turkey Day, he stays open for regular customers but also prepares the traditional feast for those people in the immediate area who would not enjoy the meal otherwise. No questions. No charge.

I remind Calendar Girl of this. But she has a stubborn streak (read PRIDE here) that makes it difficult for her to easily accept such help. I don’t know about you but I’ve never met anyone who was hungry and content to be so at Thanksgiving.

So, Calendar Girl and I stood on the sidewalk ‘a-dickering’. She offered to go home and look for a quarter and come back for the onion if she found one. But here I am with some surplus and the day is nearly done.

“I tell you what. Let me share some of this with you and we will settle up when next we meet.”

Her expression told me she was trying to process this concept of buy now and pay later. Quickly, I grabbed a plastic bag, loaded it with apples, tomatoes, a grapefruit, two sweet potatoes and the onion then slipped it over her arm and pointed her in the direction of her door.

“You have a nice day and don’t forget Thanksgiving dinner at the Greek’s place.” I smiled.

“But, this is too much. I can’t eat it all,” she protested.

“Share it with the lady that lives next door,” I called after her.

“I can be back in ten minutes,” she called.

“Don’t bother. I’ll be gone by then!”

“When will you be back?”

“I’ll be back when the strawberries are ripe in Florida.”

She waved and turned for her door.

*

He slid down from the cab of his pickup and literally danced across the sidewalk to my tables.

“Will you sell me one tomato?”

“Sure! Here’s a bag. Pick the one you want.”

Grabbing up one of nearly a pound, he proudly exclaimed, “This ‘un ‘ll do. That’s my lunch!”

“Gonna take it home and make a sandwich?” I asked.

“Nope. I gotta drive over to Augusta and I got some salt packets in my truck. I’m gonna eat it on the way. Y’know…bite ‘n wipe.”

Bite and wipe. Indeed!

*

Stooped at the waist and pulling a wire shopping cart behind, her face had seen a lot of years and though today was a bit warm, she might have been wearing every outer garment she owned. I reached for a bag in anticipation.

“Gotta go over to the store first. Things I needs but I will be right back.”

A few minutes passed and here she comes.

“Afraid I don’t have as much money as I hoped I would. I think sometimes prices go up when I can least afford it.”

I bet there are lots of people who get that feeling.

We talked a good while. She has three grandchildren living with her. All elementary age. She is keeping them while her daughter/their mother is gone awhile out of town. “I don’t know when she is gonna be able to come for them. Y’know, when I come by here the first time, I seen you from way down the road and I said to myself, ‘that’s my t’mater man.’ I was so glad to see you.”

I taught school for over 40 years and have lots of wonderful memories. But I am not sure I can recall one student greeting me and starting my day with, “I am so glad to see you.” Oh, yes. There was one time. I had been away for a few days and my substitute was an ex-Marine.

*

Everyday I am here, he usually comes by in the early afternoon. His gait combines a slow shuffle with a side-to-side roll like a boat at anchor riding gentle swells beneath its hull. The black cane with the tripod tip steadies his agonizingly slow progress along the sidewalk. The baseball cap cannot conceal the thick curly gray hair. He is a tiny man. Dark with shiny skin, he is most likely somewhere between 40 and 90 years old. I am thinking closer to 100. Forming words seems to take much time and effort. Generally I tip my hat to him and he labors to turn his face toward me. He was returning from the convenience store with the usual black bag in his hand. I nodded toward him. He looked my way.

“What you got in the bag today?” I smiled and asked.

He paused in between the gentle swells.

“Don’t know. They jus’ give me a note ‘n some money ‘n send me to the store. Reckon I’d know if I could read ‘n write.”

His gaze turned back down the street and the swells carried him along.

*

A sedan pulled up at the curb.

“Them collard greens?” came a craggy voice from the shady interior.

“Yes, ma’am.”

Her face leaned toward the open window, looked right into my eyes and with not the least bit of warmth in hers growled, “Well, you ought to sell out of them real fast ’cause that is all them folks eat!”

My, oh my, oh my.

I may not be exact about what she meant but I know how it sounded in my ears. With one sentence and that bony finger, I knew where she stood on the folks I care for and appreciate. I don’t think the driver heard how the lady said it. If she did, I think she would have been embarrassed.

What was it Dr. Seuss wrote? Something about how we must be better than them because “they have no stars on thars.”

“That is all them folks eat.” As if they are all the same. If they live down there in that part of town, they are poor, they deal in drugs, do petty larceny or they pimp their young girls and otherwise abuse their children and each other. Can’t trust any of them.

On another day in a small town far away, two men are talking. One tells the other he has found someone who inspires and gives him hope. The other listens until he hears where this new celebrity speaker comes from and then dismisses it all with, “Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?”

Nazareth was a poor town of such repute and low status that it and its inhabitants were looked down on by all the rest of the region. It was incapable of producing anything or anyone of worth to the world. It was the armpit of the country.

The two men keep talking until the more persuasive prevails and they go off together to see this wunderkind. The rest, as they say, is history

The area where I have been dealing in produce probably deserves some of its reputation but not all the residents deserve to be branded with the same iron. There were good and honest people in Nazareth. There are good and honest people in the Housing Authority and the surrounding area despite the crime statistics and the frequent blaring of sirens. Maybe their circumstances are rough and low but they have character, dignity and value. They do not need a bony finger pointed at them because their means are slight.

*

Albert came by. I vaguely remembered him from some time back.

“I kinda hoped it was you. My neighbor said it was you. You ‘member me, don’t you? You give me a couple sweet ‘taters last year ‘n I didn’t have enough money to pay you for ’em. You told me to pay you back when I could. You said them ‘taters was 60 cents. Well, I come up here to pay you back. I got two dollars.”

So, Nathaniel said to Philip, “Can any good come out of Nazareth.”

Selah, y’all.

 

Harry Duke is a retired educator living on a small patch of ground in Newton Co., Ga. where he tends a scraggly bit of garden, a one-tree peach orchard and too much grass to try to keep neat. In other times, he has roofed houses, sold cars and cookies, and flipped burgers to make ends meet. For a time, he also pastored a small country church. To protect his sanity from the black hole that can be retirement without purpose, most days he can be found peddling tomatoes to local mom and pop eateries, flirting with women half his age and scribbling a few lines toward the completion of his next literary work.

 

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