Photo Essay

Stranger with Melons

The Watermelon Man

One of the things that let's me know I'm hooked on photography is when I feel the onset of that slow burning, but overwhelming itch. It's that itch that says, "Excuse me, but you have struck my fancy and I must get your picture." (By the way, this must be said only in your mind and with a British accent). This desire can originate from a person, a setting, an everyday object...but it's usually something that I'll see a few times, ruminate over, then make the decision that I have to return with camera in hand.

In this case, it was the watermelon man.

He's an elderly black man who I've seen for several summers selling watermelons out of the back of a beat-up pickup parked in front of a small Baptist church. He has his wicker chair and is almost always settin' in the shade of a nearby tree. Doesn't matter what the temperature is because it's summer and he's got to move those melons. He's a lot like Vince with the Shamwow, except he's old, African-American, isn't dynamic, and has no headset mounted microphone. Other than that they're EXACTLY the same.

So... a few weekends ago I picked up Chinese for lunch and returned home, passing this man along the way. I declared the timing was right and after switching lenses, I grabbed my Nikon and headed out the door. Our friend, Marjie, also into photography, was visiting for the week and insisted she should go along to see how this all went down. No way, babe. This was a one-man operation. Not everybody is dying to get their photo taken and I had the suspicion that this might be one of those people. I didn't want to scare him off with a carload of passengers. Or even one, for that matter.

Driving there I thought about how this man might see things from his angle. A strange white guy pulls up with a camera trying to photograph a black man selling watermelons? Would he think there was a racial component to it? Would he be suspicious about my overall intent? Does he just not like to be photographed (having taken a lesson from my wife in that subject)? All were legitimate considerations. How could I get across to him in essentially a quick sales pitch that I do this as a hobby, I find him interesting and wanted to document a slice of classic southern, summer culture?

He's not the first stranger, or even roadside fruit seller I've photographed. Hap was the first, found in rural North Carolina. He couldn't figure out why I wanted to shoot him, but agreed. He's included in the story photos along with several others. There have also been fish mongers, gas station attendants and guys returning shopping carts in the dead of winter. Each time you get that nervous energy because you're about to ask a total stranger for a favor. You never know how they'll react. Plus, I'm sure some were packing heat. That's why I tell people I live my life on the edge, baby. Awww yeah.

One other note; the wife and I watched the other day as the watermelon man pulled his truck onto the road in front of us. The large patio umbrella he used to shade his melons from the sun was still open and standing straight up in the back of the truck bed. "This is not going to end well" was the general statement we had as he picked up speed and the wind turned his umbrella inside out. It proceeded to fall over and then hang off the right side of the pickup, only inches from the road. What did he do? Did he slam on the brakes and fix it? Hell no. He gave a slight pause in his acceleration, then drove home like that as if he didn't have a care in the world. He's the honey badger of fruit vendors. Watermelon man doesn't give a shit.

So I turned into the gravel church driveway and approach him, camera left on the front seat.

"How much are they going for?" I asked.

There was no way I couldn't grease the wheels a bit by buying one.

"Seven." was his reply.

I gave him my money and did my best to explain why I wanted to take his picture. His silence made it apparent that the more I talked, the more he might not like the idea. I thought a shot of him sitting on the tailgate with a huge pile of watermelons would be perfect. That was met with silence. Uh oh. I quickly capitulated to a simple shot of him sitting where he was. He took a long time to answer, but finally agreed with one condition: "No names." Uhhh, sure. Perhaps this is his life in witness relocation. Or he's trying to stay under the radar of Big Watermelon. Their money and tactics are even nastier than big oil. Both were highly probable scenarios.

In the time it took me to return to my car and grab the camera, another customer came up and was standing next to the watermelon man. I gave a quickly worded explanation of what I was doing and much to my delight he said, "Ain't nothing wrong with that." You could tell this set my subject at ease because he went from unmoving silence and an almost-scowl on his face to unmoving silence and a stone face. Much better. I took a few shots, thanked him, promised him a print if it looked OK and left with a big melon in the back of the car.

Now, as has been said, for the rest of the story. The shot turned out OK, but not great. It would have been so much better if I could have gotten him out of that frayed wicker chair and into the light near the truck, but that's neither here nor there. The anticipation and experience of interacting with him was the interesting part. I now had a print and as promised, wanted to get it to him. I was definitely curious to see how he would react. Unfortunately... I wasn't going to find out.

Returning a week or so later, he was in almost the exact same spot under the tree. I waited with my turn signal clicking for about forty cars to pass before I could pull in. In that entire time, the unnamed man was asleep in his chair, legs splayed out and head at a 90 degree angle with his mouth open. That man was in some serious REM sleep. Drooling-on-your-pillow kind of hard sleep. A kind of sleep I definitely did not want to wake him from.

I had hoped the sound of my tires on gravel 5 feet away would wake him. It didn't. Nor when I slammed my car door loudly. I paused for a second then spied the passenger side door of his truck that was left open. I chose to lay the envelope with his print on the seat and get back in my car. I got a little freaked out for a moment because the thought struck me, "What if this guy is dead?" I just left my calling card and this would not look good. I actually gave a 5 count to watch his chest move. Making sure someone is breathing when you deliver a photo is generally a solid rule to observe. He was and I left. He was still conked out as I drove away.

I could stop again sometime and ask him what he thought of his picture, but it's so much better this way. The silent delivery, the unknown questions of whether he was pleased or not will stay hanging out there. I can only hope he's a bit mystified and curious about the whole experience, just like I am.

2 responses

  • Cindy Romero

    Cindy Romero gave props (19 Aug 2013):

    I love this story, and the images of interesting characters. I can so relate to your description of the 'itch' to capture an interesting-looking person who has sparked your imagination. Thanks for sharing about your experience....I'm still in the early stages of finding my courage for street photography or capturing strangers, but the spark of imagination is firing more and more. I really enjoyed your story. :-)

  • Kelly Nichols

    Kelly Nichols   gave props (22 Aug 2013):

    What a great story and one to which I can truly relate. Your desire to get the photograph and your sense of humor show through. I really enjoyed the story and meeting the characters in the accompanying photographs. I can't tell you how many times I've wanted to ask someone but have been leary and just kept walking by. And then the remorse sets in. But, as you have illustrated here, there are many more along the road.

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