Saturday, December 31, 2011


It's New Year's Eve, and a glorious day in Richmond. I've spent a year missing exploring cities on foot. I've spent a year thinking it would never be the same to do it by myself. I charged my camera battery, put my boots on, and went for a walk. I first saw Henry from behind, and snapped a picture of him.

His was the only booth at the 17th Street Market that had any wares. I had to buy something, or at the very least, talk to the vendor who had taken the time to set up.

I picked out two bright oranges, and admitted that I have no idea how to cook turnips.

The younger man working the stand said, "Ahh, just get 'em. Boil em, little salt and pepper and butter, all set." And so I picked out two. "You'll need three," he said, in a way that belied his seconds-earlier confidence that I would be "all set."

With my two oranges, and my three turnips, my total was just $2.00. I gave him a five and told him he could keep the change if he let me take his picture.
"What's your name?" I always love to know someone's name before taking their picture.
"Tim. I'm Tim."
"I'm Amy, Tim. Thank you for the turnips. I will probably never cook them. But I will love having your picture."

As I was walking away I heard someway say, "Hey! Take my picture!" I was too embarrassed to admit to the old man that I already had. That's when I found out his name was Henry.
"I'm Amy. It's nice to see you here, Henry. My grandfather's name was Henry."
"He black and sell produce?"
Well, no.
I said I would be HAPPY to take his picture. And I was.

And then he said he had to show me something.

And we walked to his truck and he started talkin.

"Got a Christmas card this year. Let me show you. First one. First card I got. Someone took my picture just like you did, and then she sent it to me in a card. Christmas card. Look. See? Henry Christian, right there on the envelope. Henry Christian. That's me. Inside was a picture of me just like the one you took. Same chair."

Here's Henry holding a picture of Henry that someone just like me took.

We talked and talked. I kept asking him questions about his life. I found out these things about Henry

Turnip pusher, Tim, is his youngest son.

There are other children, one who works over in the West End, one they don't see much after the nervous breakdown.

Henry's been coming to the 17th Street Market longer than any other vendor, 29 years.

His wife has heart disease, and takes 4 pills in the morning, 4 in the afternoon, and 4 in the evening.

He grows everything I saw today.

He's 81 years old. And drives a gravel truck, only missing work for those 30 days of radiation to treat his prostate cancer.

He's never made more than $150 a week, but has built four homes, and has never had a mortgage payment.

He has a Ford Model T that he drives to the market once a year. Young people sometimes ask him if they can take pictures of it and they dress as old gangsters and "act a fool" for some pictures.

The pastor of his church helped him build two houses, but he only lived to be 101, and couldn't help with the last two.

He had so many pictures to show me, including one taken at the market in the summertime. Henry is standing with two pretty young women on either side of him.
"I get lonely. I tell the old black women I got these girls waiting for me if ever no one wants me."
And then he laughed at himself.

"I'm still driving my gravel truck. I have two. I'm 79. My wife is 75. I'm just six years older than she is."

"Six? Are you 81?"

"How you know that?"

"Oh, Henry."

"Are you staying downtown tonight? It's New Year's Eve. People are crazy. Shooting over in Church Hill just the other night."

I assured him that I was not staying downtown after dark, that I actually heading home when I bumped into him.

"Are you okay? Do you need some money for later?"

"No, no. I am fine."

And so he gave me an apple.
"You pick it out," he told me. "Any apple here. Pick out the best one. Do you need turnips?"

No. I don't need turnips. But I needed this day. To be out in the sun. To explore the city like I used to do. To meet Henry and Tim. To have someone let me pick out the best apple, and give it to me in exchange for conversation, and stories.

I love Henry. I love his openness, and his gratitude, and his pride. I love his humor, and stories. I love that he reminded me the reason I go exploring in the first place, and that I can do it alone if I have to.

I took a picture of the return address on the envelope from the person who sent Henry the picture she had taken of him. I am going to write to her and let her know that I met Henry, too, and that I am grateful that he had her card to show me--that tangible thing that could be turned over in our hands that began a conversation that saved me today in ways I can't explain. And made the end of very difficult year a little better.

All Henry knows is that he went home three turnips lighter today. He'll never know how much he lightened my load.