Hundreds came to the Farmers Market every Saturday during the vegetable and fruit harvest season. There, in the open air under a pouring Fresno sun on the northwest corner of Courthouse Park, they chose their string beans one at a time.
Mom was no exception. She took me with her on Saturdays to carry her purchases while she went through her shopping ritual.
Farm goods were sold off flatbed trucks, racks, car trunks, pickups and station wagons that arrived in the dark of the morning. All produce was on display and ready for the first customers by 6:30 a.m.
We usually arrived about 7 a.m., after a 30-minute drive from our house on West McKinley Avenue near Central High School.
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Mom, a country lady who was named Lucille Spears Bell before she was old enough to protest, grew up on a produce farm in Holly Springs, Mississippi. She always walked around and examined the displays first before making purchases. She had patience, the patience of biblical Job.
If she had any problems on her mind on our way to the market, they faded away as soon as she mingled around the produce stands. People were constantly walking across Van Ness Avenue and Fresno Street toward the market. It was common to see a truck with a crowd of four or five deep admiring the peppers, reaching for the corn, and gratefully filling the merchant’s money apron with fresh green city lettuce.
Mom and I moved around the cornucopia arena that was filled with people of different nationalities as we looked at the plums, red onions, yellow crookneck squash, grapes, cantaloupes and cucumbers.
“These are burpless cucumbers, lady,” a merchant said. Mom nodded and we kept meandering along. I noticed some more burpless cucumbers as well as cranberry beans, silver queen corn, sweet Sue bicolor corn, cherry tomatoes, parsley, carrots, collard greens and celery.
“How much are the potatoes?” someone asked.
“Five pounds for 50 cents.”
“Three pounds for 65.”
“Are they Freestones?”
The merchant smiled with a shrug of his shoulders and said, “No charge for the pits.”
“How much are the tomatoes?”
“Three pounds for 40 cents. The price is right there on the sign.”
Mom finally stopped, took a paper bag from the stack near the scales, shook it open, handed it to me and reached toward the peaches. I was mesmerized by the selling, the coins and the bills, and the all-day touching of hands.
“How much these weigh?” a man asked. “I need three pounds.”
“That’s maybe two and a quarter pounds you’ve got there.”
“Weigh them, please,” the man asked.
“There it is,” the merchant said. “Two and a quarter pounds.”
“Take the quarter out,” the man said. “I’ll just take two pounds then.”
The mix of people, in their throngs, were the most varied I had seen in any place. At that time – the mid-1950s – the intersection of Van Ness and Fresno was the hub if not the heart of Fresno. That site, on Saturday in the fall season, especially the first Saturday in October, was also a nexus of race and culture.
The older shoppers who walked around in a group with their shirts hanging open and their hands folded behind them were the old-school Armenians from the Sunnyside District; white-bearded, black-bearded and split-bearded Armenians. They were the descendants of those who came to America with green thumbs and pockets full of seed they used to start their crops.
Mom knew that when she went to the Farmers Market she would be surrounded by true farmers who grew the produce they displayed, and offered it fresh from the fields free from pesticides or other chemicals.
“Never trust a farmer who doesn’t know shoepeg corn,” Mom told me as we headed home. “Look at their hands. Their fingernails. A busy farmer doesn’t have time for cosmetics. But he knows his produce. Buy from him.”
Mom never believed in being idle. She always had time to visit with neighbors and make new friends.
I suppose that’s one of the reasons she went to the Farmers Market so regularly; the people contact and the touching of hands.
It was such a wonderful experience for me. A lot of hands touch at the Farmers Market.
You went away knowing you got good weight.
Elvin C. Bell of Fresno served as a Fresno City Council member from 1960 to 1979 and from 1975 to 79 as mayor pro tem. He is the author of about a dozen books, most recently, “Friends, Patriots, and Scoundrels: A Memoir.” Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.