By Frank Flanagan
Frank Flanagan is a freelance writer fresh from Rhode Island. This is the second in a series of columns by Flanagan where he explores Orlando with a newcomer’s perspective.
“He’s just always been there,” said Tonya of Wally’s Wine and Spirits, when I asked her if the man selling tomatoes in the parking lot was affiliated with the store, “he’s somewhat of a neighborhood staple.” Arnold, as I would come to know him, has been selling tomatoes behind the now Wally’s Liquor for years, even prior to Wally’s existence. Now 80, Arnold drives just a few miles down from Lockhart to sell his product almost everyday.
I spoke to Arnold briefly one Friday afternoon about his business in the neighborhood. When I asked Arnold what his name was, he quickly responded in a sass-filled and slippery tongue, “Well it’s right there on the truck.” Arnold’s Tomatoes. The whitewashed plywood housing atop the bed of Arnold’s maroon pickup truck is weathered from years of use, like Arnold’s permanently tanned leathery skin. Arnold sets up shop in the back of the Wally’s parking lot on the corner of Mills Avenue and Weber Street, under the feeble protection and shade of a few sparse trees.
Arnold didn’t have much to say about his operation, which in his defense is relatively simple. He picks up tomatoes from the market, sets them on a folding table in the lot, and hopes for people to come by. He didn’t have anything to say about his success, but I would imagine he doesn’t do too poorly if he continues to peddle his tomatoes after all these years.
Arnold did however condemn the Obama Administration, claiming that our president has impeded his success. Arnold’s frustration stems from a law that requires Arnold to transport fresh tomatoes in fresh cardboard cartons each day, and not be re-used. Arnold showed me one of the cartons, which looked very similar to the cardboard boxes people use to clean out their desks after being fired. The carton did seem to be in fine condition after its one day of use. Regardless, though staunchly opposed, Arnold complies and uses a fresh carton each day.
Our conversation turned completely unprovoked. Arnold apologized for not having more to say. He told me that he considered himself a loner, and that is how he has always been. I took this to mean that Arnold had no more interest in talking to me and thanked him for his time, but as it turned out the conversation was far from over.
When Arnold was 19 he was engaged to the love of his life. Unfortunately the wedding never took place. Arnold’s fiancé, 18 at the time, ran off with another man who Arnold could only describe as a monster. Reflecting on the relationship he never had, Arnold described the years of terror his once-love faced in the hands of her abuser, the monster.
For a self-described “loner” Arnold spoke with a heavy heart, and much sympathy for the battered woman he once loved, and the tragedy she endured. Arnold must have maintained some proximity to her, having known that her son took matters into his own hands, assaulting the “monster” with a box cutter – an event that would have him sent to a mental institution.
Initially not outspoken, Arnold’s willingness to speak about such personal issues surprised me. After revealing his story without my expressing so much as a hint of interest in his personal life, you wonder just who Arnold has left to talk to. Even in the wake of what seems to have been a tough life, Arnold seeks no pity, and goes to work selling his tomatoes.
Just a little while after our conversation had ended one of the fiercest thunderstorms I have ever experienced began. I happened to be driving back past Wally’s once the storm had ended, and there was Arnold, his plastic folding table ripe with tomatoes, un-phased by the storm. Amazing.