A tribute to the longtime owner of Tom Robinson’s Seafood Market.
If you asked one person who knew Tom Robinson for more than five minutes what was most striking about the man, you might reasonably expect six answers, each in conflict with the other five.
When Tom wasn’t outraged by stupidity (which was usually), he laughed about it. He laughed more than most people, and most people, if they had any sense, joined in with him. His original charm was nearly irresistible, unless he happened to grossly offend you. Which was known to happen: Democrats, for some reason, don’t like to be mentioned as ‘feckless idiots’ any more than Republicans care for the sound of ‘sleazy morons.’ Tom loved the idea of states’ rights, but thought ‘Tea-baggers should be euthanized.’
He’d earned a degree in botany at UNC-Chapel Hill in 1975, and then traveled abroad to study in Norway . He then came home and turned his attention to selling fruit and vegetables on Rosemary Street .
He switched to seafood, spent most Wednesdays driving his truck around New Hanover and Carteret counties, assessing and buying fishes, oysters, shrimp, scallops, crabs, and other tasty delectations from watermen, merchants, and assorted scoundrels along the coast.
(He confided in about ten other people one vinous evening that Wilmington was ‘the evilest city in Christendom.’) He liked most of them, of course, but was unsparing in his disdain for their short-sightedness. (‘If you kill all the damn fish and catch the rest, then there won’t be any fish. And you won’t have any to sell. They don’t understand that.’)
Some time in the ‘eighties he sold the fish market and went back to Norway to study boat building. At the end of this splendid adventure, he came home because the people who’d bought the market from him had not followed his instructions.
He was seldom imprecise when instructing others how a job must best be done. His sweetheart of 17 years Kay Hamrick recalls his telling a new employee how to scour the inside of a fish box (“Use a circular motion, going slowly in a clockwise motion…”) He had no opinion of failure to follow simple instructions.
He collected stuff wherever he went. Norway , Denmark , France , Canada , New York . Whisky, firearms, magazines, financial records, tools, books, knives, racing pigeons, boat designs, oyster shells, cooking stuff. He had plans for each of these, just not enough time to get it all done. His little sister Jane recalls Tom as a small child running out of their house in Wilmington, dressed in his bathrobe, grabbing a hoe, dashing to the garden, muttering boyish curses, “complaining that he’d slept late, and was already way behind.” Years later, we planted cypress trees at his farm in Chatham County , so Tom could have timber for the boat he was going to build.
Some evenings Tom came to our cabin on the Haw River , and he drove over in his delivery truck; every cat in Bynum scampered across that bridge following the bodacious smell. “We’ll have supper outside, in the moonlight” he said, “among the sacred groves.” We talked about sailing, Leif Erikson, Magellan, Chinese junks, “the French and their food,” the advantages of the single-action Colt, the excellence of Southern generals in the War between the States, and, inevitably, the burgeoning presence of the Mafia in Wilmington.
Although the house he shared with Kay is loaded with boxes full of stuff, and the farm he owned is littered with old cars and trucks packed tight with Tom’s things, none of that is anything compared with the information and plans he squirreled away in his head. ‘I suppose you knew that more soldiers from North Carolina died defending Virginia than from any other Confederate state, including Virginia . But do you have any idea how many Black soldiers fell defending Wilmington ?’ And everything he knew, he staunchly defended with a strong opinion, whether it was the inferiority of John Jameson’s whisky (“Fine stuff if you enjoy the taste of kerosene.”) to the grace and power of the works of Edvard Grieg. His favorite comic strips were The Phantom and Prince Valiant. His demented support for the Tar Heel basketball program absolutely eclipsed rationality. He loved playing with his dogs, racing his numerous pigeons, and fighting with the tax people in Wilmington (“Because they’re wrong.”) When Harvey Gantt ran against Jesse Helms for the senate, Tom gave Mr. Gantt a benefit fish-fry in the yard next to his market.
Tom got cancer in 2000, endured the indignities of chemo-therapy, felt tired sometimes, scarcely slowed down, and seemed to get better. But cancer has a way of coming back, and his did. More chemo last year, then H1N1 influenza, and then pneumonia. Some of the last things he said in the hospital were orders for the fish market and telling Kay to keep after those incompetent crooks in the Wilmington tax office. He hung on with the respirator for days and days, and oftentimes we thought he would ride it out. His adored Kay sat down beside him for the long siege.
He never got to build his boat, but they tell me he’s sailing now, under a cloud of sleek racing pigeons, smart wind at his back, getting the feel of it. Sometime, I hope, he’ll take us for a ride.
By friend George “Jake” Horwitz