Row Warriors

Vendors at historic Produce Row battle the forces of modern commerce

Work-release employees are sprinkled throughout the market. Up until Hardwick, they have not caused any serious trouble. Says Hughes, "They're actually very dependable people. They have to be to work on time; they have to be back on time. They come in, do their job, keep their noses clean, and if they don't they can't stay at the halfway house, so the people down here have found them to be a valuable labor source."

The most recent slaying involved the beating and stabbing death of Devon Lenard Jr. in January. Two men -- Randy Stroud, 44, and Jason Stroud, 22, both from the Metro East -- were arrested and charged. They have yet to go to trial. All three were employees at the market and, according to police sources, Lenard had been fired that night. He begged to get his job back, to no avail. The employer, United Produce, called security, and he was escorted out the gate. Later, the employer saw Lenard, in a sort of obstinate protest, back at his job. Instead of calling security again, the Strouds took it upon themselves to put Lenard off the property. There was a fight, one of them pulled a blade, and Lenard lost his life. The altercation was caught on videotape by the cameras that Hughes had installed.

"These unfortunate events really had nothing to do with Produce Row and the fruit industry," says Hughes. "They have to do with working conditions throughout the world. I mean, if you're working with a nut, how do you know he's a nut until he turns nutty?"

Another day on Produce Row, trucks coming and going through the gate, a stream of activity throughout the place. Guys on jeeps moving pallets of bananas from one side of the street to the other, someone yelling at someone for being clumsy. Over at Franklin they're regrouping after a busy night. Here come the a.m. customers, those with no predawn work schedule. General Simms, owner of the Arkansas Fried Chicken restaurant on Martin Luther King Drive, comes in to buy some potatoes for his hash browns. Up drives Paul Pagano -- "Father Time" -- in his patriotic bread truck. Pagano, "at the smallest end of it all," is possibly the last of the roving produce peddlers in St. Louis, buying small lots of produce for daily delivery to residents in the senior-citizen apartments in the Bevo area. "When they see me," he says, "they have something to talk about besides their ills, pills and doctor bills."

Two nuns drop by. The Little Sisters of the Poor have made their way down the street, collecting their weekly dole of produce for the convent. This has been going on for years, and their van is fairly stuffed with fruits and vegetables. "Everybody on the street gives," remarks Fran, proudly, "and it's the best stuff, not your throwaway produce."

The orders filled, there is a lull in the activity. Over near the kerosene burner, Harpo toasts his fingers, the nub of a long-smoked cigar clenched between his teeth. Brother's on the phone, Fran's moving pallets of potatoes. Fella named Bobby walks in, studies Harpo for a moment. "Every time I come here, you're in that friggin' chair," he razzes.

"Nah, you see me over there sometimes," responds the old man, nodding toward some other favored perch.

"That's right," says Bobby, "you're in the corner like a dog."
Harpo ignores the remark. Nobody's rattling his cage. Ancient eyes peer brightly from hollowed sockets. "Man," he says to no one in particular, "I wish I had a penny for every tomato that went through my hands.

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