Candy Lady Reba Judkins Gives the Kids a Moveable Feast for Pennies on Harlem's Harsh Streets

updated 01/13/1986 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/13/1986 AT 01:00 AM EST

A Mister Softee ice cream truck ambles down Harlem's 127th Street chiming a calliope-like song. The children waiting on the steps of the Harriet Tubman elementary school (P.S. 154) pay it no mind. A mom-and-pop store around the corner sells all kinds of tempting snacks, yet few of the kids go there. Instead, when the bell rings at 3 p.m. announcing the end of school, these young consumers race across the street and crowd around a weather-beaten park bench at the St. Nicholas housing project. There they shop for Gummi Bears and Gummi Worms, Blow Pops and Reese's, Sugar Daddys, licorice strings, sunflower seeds and fruit drinks. Presiding over the park bench shop with the pride of a Park Avenue store owner is Reba Judkins. To the kids she is the Candy Lady.

"You got snakes?" asks a girl who presses forward through the dozen or so children surrounding Judkins. Snakes of course are a variation of the Gummi candies. "I know what you like and I'll get it for you tomorrow," the Candy Lady promises, always eager to please a customer. As fast as the kids order, Judkins' hands race among her array of jars and boxes to package the sweets in sandwich bags. She stows dollar bills in her bosom and change in a coin dispenser hanging from her belt. "That's a quarter, not a dime," she tells a youngster who had overpaid. "How about the little kids in the corner? What can I get for you today?...Don't leave your book bag over there.... Are you sure your mama won't be mad if you buy this much candy?" Then the Candy Lady packs up her traveling store and it's off to 114th Street with a side trip to other blocks.

In a neighborhood where crime-wary store owners protect their merchandise and themselves with bulletproof glass and limit the number of children who can enter at a time, Judkins and her welcoming smile are a refreshing change. More than just another street peddler, she brings sweet favorites to her young customers and sells most of them at the good old-fashioned price of a penny apiece. A dime buys her most expensive treat—a Chico Stick. Reese's and Sugar Daddy cost a nickel, the fruit drinks a quarter. As far as anyone knows, she's Harlem's only Candy Lady. "Nobody else has time for them, darling," she says in Alabama accents that 23 years in New York have failed to mute. "I like to sell penny stuff because the stores don't carry them. You can get 25 pieces of candy for a quarter with me. What I'm into is trying to give a kid as much as he can get for his money. I remember what it was like to buy penny candy."

Judkins, 42, has been giving the kids in this part of Harlem their money's worth for two years. "I'm a kid at heart and I love kids," says Reba, who is usually dressed in jeans, a turtleneck and vest. It all adds up to no more than $5 to $10 profit for an afternoon's work. Not that she minds. "I get a pleasure out of this," she says. "It's not the money. You have to experience it."

After collecting a couple of days' worth of candy from wholesalers, Judkins drives a jalopy to her rounds, arriving across the street from Harriet Tubman just before 3 p.m. A stickler for keeping things clean, Judkins makes a ritual out of setting up. She wipes off the park bench and spreads newspaper on the seat, then washes her hands with rubbing alcohol before handling the candy. "Oh yes, they're ready today—I remember those days, running to buy candy," Judkins says as the kids rush up, their clamor shattering the calm and their feet stirring up small dust storms. "I've got the candy you want," she hawks. "Everybody will have a chance to shop."

She has a big heart for her customers, whom she protectively calls "my kids." At Easter, Halloween and Christmas she gives them free treats. The hearty "Thank you" she delivers after each purchase makes any kid feel like a big spender. "You can count. I like that," she tells one little girl. "It helps me out a lot. You're going to have to get a present, the way you can count." She's also not reluctant to chastise the children. "I have to get on them about hygiene, having clean hands," she says. "I have to get on them about buying so much candy. If they come over too early, I tell them to go back to school."

The first of 10 children born to sharecroppers in Tallassee, Ala., Judkins quickly learned that penny candy was a luxury her family could seldom afford. "I was a very good girl coming up and people could trust me," she says, so the elderly widow who ran the local store "let me work with her and would give me candy to take home." After graduating from high school in 1962, Judkins moved to New York to work as a live-in housekeeper, but she backed out of the job soon after arriving. "I'd had enough of stuff like that back home," she says. "I just wanted to come to New York." She worked as a bartender and waitress, trained as a nurse (she got hurt and dropped out), then became a driver for a messenger service in 1979.

An automobile accident in December 1983 ended her job as a messenger. Now the money she earns as Candy Lady is her only income. Divorced and the mother of a 23-year-old daughter, Judkins shares a Bronx apartment with her taxi driver boyfriend, Alonzo Corbell. Her candy has been snatched twice, but that's not her job's most common hazard. "Some of these kids are so short they just keep hitting me on the leg to get my attention," she says. "Boy, it gets sore." But only bad weather keeps her off her streets. "Some days I'm not feeling well," she says. "But when I come around these kids, right away I get my energy back."

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