A Horse, a Wagon, A Man
a Bill Curtis Book Review
In an age of capitalist-democracy when big-box discount warehouse superstores and food distributors occupy entire city blocks, a man with a horse drawn wagon laden with fresh fruits and vegetables looks like a thing of myth.
Representing self-reliance, total independence, business acumen, survival savvy, all attributes of the "American Way", next to a taxi driver an Arabber is a self-determination prototype. He is a merchant from another era, when people understood life was hard, not necessarily a convenient experience, and to make it in this thing called life, a man must use total wit. He made a paycheck happen, not happen to him.
Think about it. Have you ever seen an Arabber who looked directionally confused? Arabbers, as Monalisa DeGross tells it in her children's book Granddaddy's Street Songs, are men who celebrated their profession as an act of dedicated service to the people.
While DeGross tells the Arabber story, Floyd Cooper's illustrations bring Arabber lore to life on the page. The pictures, literally, ooze you into the story, transporting the vibrancy, color, and compassionate of urban true grit to the point of feeling. Cooper's drawings convey the pageantry of the profession, the elegance of friendship between men in service to the people. Before Kujichagulia, Nia, Kuumba or Imani came into the Black lexicon in 1965 with the advent of Kwanzaa Holiday, there were the Arabbers living Nguzo Saba principles
Although a children's book, "Granddaddy's Street Songs" is instructive as well to adults and projects positive values. Solid value concepts: self-determination, purpose, creativity in business affairs, and faith-in-self. These are the attributes of self-made-men and women, the courageous who give life color, expression and meaning, and show all the rewards of self-reliance, an African-American elder tradition. It appears every mom wants her son to live these values.
DeGross serves the story well. She gives Arabbing a dignity, a poise, a place in the dynamic, big American, free enterprise landscape. Cooper paints it to life.
Did I mention that the main character was a boy? Did I mention the grandfather? Didn't say anything about their relationship, did I? Ain't nothin' but love. Wholesome to the core. No Grimm's scary fairy German tale, Granddaddy's Street Songs is a Bill Curtis (MRR***1/2) Must-Read-Reading.
Bill Curtis' commentaries and reviews have been published in the Afro-American, The Baltimore Chronicle, The Baltimore Press, The Baltimore Times, The Baltimore Sun, Financial Independence Magazine, Every Wednesday, Blind Alleys, African-American News & World Report, and at Barnes and Noble on the internet. Contact Mr. Curtis at WebReady@theglobe.com or P.O. Box 2043, Baltimore, MD 21203-2043.
Granddaddy's Street Songsby Monalisa Degross, Floyd Cooper (Illustrator), Floyd Cooper
Roddy loves to bring out the old family photo album and listen to Granddaddy tell stories about his long-ago days as an "arabber", a fruit and vegetable vendor. With his horse-drawn wagon laden with the freshest produce, Granddaddy would ride down the cobblestone streets and narrow brick alleys of Baltimore, singing out his special calls to customers. Singing along with Granddaddy makes Roddy almost feel like he's an arabber, too, as if those long-ago days have come alive.
A Horse, a Wagon, A Man
Read an Excerpt
Granddaddy," I say, "tell me a story about long ago, when things weren't like they are today."
"I recall the summer of nineteen hundred and fifty-five," Granddaddy begins with a smile and twirls the ends of his mustache.
"Wait just one minute!" I say, stopping him so I can run and get what we need for a good, long story.
"Easy now," Granddaddy warns as I pull the blue leather photo album from the shelf and bring it to him. I slide the big book on his lap and watch as Granddaddy wipes the cover with his sleeve. I open the cover slowly, this book is so, so old.
"You can begin right here," I say and point to a picture glued on soft black paper.
"Arabbin'? You sure you want to hear about arabbin'?" Granddaddy asks, as if he thinks I've made a mistake.
"Well, let me see now, where should I start?" He pretends to glance over the pictures before he begins with words that I know by heart.
"Hiii, yup! Hi, yup. Git-di-yup!" Granddaddy click-clucks his tongue to make just the right sounds. The slow toe-heel prance of Granddaddy's horse begins.
"Git it up, Daybreak, it's time to meet the mornin'!" he says. He flips his fingers and in my mind I see the reins gently slap Daybreak's broad mahogany rump.
Granddaddy makes his voice moan and groan until I can hear the wagon creak and crack, slip-slide backward just a bit, and then follow Daybreak down Central Avenue.
"Where y'all going?"I ask.
"We're on our way to the market!" Granddaddy says. "Got to load up at Camden Market."
"There's Mike Coleman standing out in front of his bicycle shop," Granddaddy points out as we head down Baltimore Street. "And right next door is Henry's Harness Shop."
"You gonna stop and say hello?" I want to know.
"Naw, not today," he says. "We got to get to the market."
As I reach over to turn the page Granddaddy says, "Whoa, slow down Roddy. We don't want to move too fast." He pats my hand.
I lean toward the fuzzy black-and-white pictures. "Gee, I'll bet some of these pictures are even older than you are," I say.
"I know the buildings are," Granddaddy says with a laugh.
At the market there are rows and rows of wooden stalls. Each stall is filled with a different type of fruit or vegetable. In some pictures I see fat, funny fish resting on glassy chips of ice. I wave at the men standing beside the stalls. I like the flat straw hats on their heads and the long, shiny aprons that cover their overalls.
"Granddaddy, there are so many kinds of fruits and vegetables. How did you choose?"
"It was easy. I was careful to select only the crispest, freshest, and ripest produce for my wagon," he says proudly.
"Who is that?" I ask pointing to the next picture.
"That's Peeler!" Granddaddy says, looking pleased.
"He sure is wearing some funny-looking pants," I say, giggling.
"Roddy, that's Peeler's gimmick," he explains. "All arabbers had to have something that made them different."
"And did his gimmick work?" I ask.
"Sure did. Peeler had the second-best gimmick on the east side."
"Who had the best?" I ask with a sly smile. Granddaddy winks and moves on.
"Now look here," he says. "There's my wagon all packed and ready to go. There's a water bucket for Daybreak, and plenty of oats for him to eat. My lunch is packed in that hamper, along with my thermos filled with iced coffee. I had plenty of extra basketswe didn't use paper bags as much as they do nowadays. And right there are my scales. I always carried two sets, and both of them were perfectly balanced."
"Now is it time to get started?" I ask, trying to rush to the next part.
"No, not yet, I got one more thing to add," he says.
"Your gimmick?" I ask, as if I don't know.
"Yes, my big fancy umbrella. It protected my produce from the hot sun. Roddy, there wasn't another umbrella like mine on the entire east side," he says, puffing up his chest.
"Or anywhere else," I add.
I look closely at the next picture, my nose nearly touching it. "That looks like me!"
"Shucks, Roddy, now you know that's not you," Granddaddy says, laughing. "You wasn't even a whisper in nineteen hundred and fifty-five. That's your daddy; he worked with me that summer. He wasn't a bit older than you are now."
"Granddaddy, he looks just like you, and I look just like him. Who do we all look like?"
He flips to the front of the album. And there on the first page is Great-granddaddy Slim.
"I guess all the Johnson men look alike," I say proudly, and we nod.
"Granddaddy, I wish the world was in color when you were arabbin'."
"Don't you worry, Roddy. I'm gonna describe things so well, you're gonna feel just like you were there."
"I'm ready," I say. When Granddaddy takes me on his arabbin' ride, I don't know whether to look at the pictures or him. I always try hard to do both.
Granddaddy cups his hands around his mouth and sings out:
Wa-a-a-ter-melons, I got wa-a-a-ter-melons.
Come git my wa-a-a-ter-melons.
Sweet, juicy, juicy, red to the rind.
Red, juicy, red, juicy wa-a-a-ter-melons.
Come git my wa-a-a-ter-melons.
Melons, melons, and melons.
I got melons, melons, and melons.
I love hearing Granddaddy's callsthey sound like songs. I begin to pat my feet to the rhythm of his voice, as he sings out loud and clear:
If you like what you hear
Then you'll love what you see.
Peaches, peaches, yes, sirree.
Round, fuzzy, firm, and ripe!
I'll betcha need a bib with every bite.
All morning Granddaddy and Daybreak clip up cobblestoned streets and clop down narrow brick alleys, selling to old customers and meeting new ones as they travel along. I see babies waving, kids bouncing balls, and people laughing and talking, trying to decide just what to buy. And Granddaddy's calls help them make up their minds:
Ce-le-ry, long, green, and fine.
If you give me a quarter, I'll give back a dime.
Listen to me sing. Listen to me holler.
Listen while I tell what I got for a dollar.
Yellow onionsI got 'em.
Summer squashI got 'em.
Got peppers, green and red.
Got them hotter than you ever had.
Open your doors, come out and see.
Don't buy from others, just buy from me.
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