At 83, Cleo Zeno isn’t the oldest patron of the Renton Farmers Market. That honor goes to Geraldine McQuiller, 94. Geraldine was noted as “probably the oldest” at the Aug. 19 Farmers Market Senior Celebration.
But what Cleo lacks in years she makes up in loyalty and good nature.
“She’s our bright face before the market starts,” says Fay Moss, market volunteer. “She just makes our day.”
Cleo shows her bright face most every Tuesday during the summer market season. The 106 Metro bus gets her from her house on Seattle’s First Hill to the market between 12 and 12:30 p.m. Sometimes she stays until just after 3, when the market starts. Other times she doesn’t leave until 5 or later, to catch the “entertainment and whatnot.”
Cleo isn’t sure how long she’s frequented the market. But she knows it’s been “for the past three years, anyway.”
“I had been hearing about it, and I hadn’t come, and I decided to come one day a couple years ago,” she says.
She’s been coming ever since. She used to come with friends, but now she meets her company under the white canopy in the middle of the Piazza. Company she originally met at the market, like Judy Chapman, 64, who lives at Cedar River Court Apartments in downtown Renton.
“They’re not as old as me, but they’re up there,” Cleo says of her market friends, who are in their 60s and 70s. “I’m the big girl.”
The seniors sit in the front row, where they can bop to the music wafting from the speakers across the square.
“This song was popular when I was young,” Cleo says that Tuesday, about a slow tune from the ‘50s she calls “Chapel.”
Cleo sings along with the Queen Anne band Triple Treat during market performances. Sometimes she dances with the Dancing Cowboy, also known as J.J., or, officially, John Joseph Springer, the 72-year-old market volunteer who is a common fixture on the dance floor.
“And she’s got the moves,” Moss says.
Cleo smiles at that. “I get up and do the twist,” she says, demonstrating in her chair.
When she’s not twisting, she watches others twisting, like the kids who scamper at the Dancing Cowboy’s feet.
Cleo also makes a mean gumbo, Moss says. She started cooking the stuff at age 10 or so, in Chicago. Her family is from New Orleans. She followed her military brothers to Seattle in 1952.
Both had left for war when she arrived, but she stayed anyway.
Cleo doesn’t buy vegetables at the market, but she does buy fruit. “Nectarines or peaches, or if they have watermelon, I’ll get me a slice, not the whole thing.”
She’s also a fan of Bill’s Bodacious BBQ’s chicken sandwich. Sometimes she shares lunch with the market volunteers.
She visits the market so often that plenty of faces are familiar.
“That couple, I see them all the time, here,” she says that Tuesday, pointing out an older man and woman walking by, he with a tote bag and she an umbrella.
Later in the afternoon, Fay Moss returns to Cleo, with a microphone and an announcement for the crowd.
“I want to thank one of our most loyal patrons,” she says. She speaks of Cleo’s “smiling face,” and calls her a “bright shining star.”
For her loyalty, Cleo receives a giant sunflower and a small pendant that reads “You’re a star.”
She soon receives another gift — a big bouquet of colorful flowers from the Dancing Cowboy.
“This is from me, for the very best dancer in the world,” he says.
Cleo plans to finish out the season at the Renton Farmers Market, which lasts until Sept. 16. And she’ll be back next year.
“It’s just a great place to come and get together with people,” she says.
And the weather usually stays nice, like on this warm Tuesday.
“I think I’ve only been here two to three times when it rains,” she says. “It doesn’t rain on these days!”
Later in the market, Fay Moss calls all the seniors up and does an age count-off. Geraldine McQuiller is the last one standing. She too receives a pendant and sunflower
Someday that oldest standing just may be Cleo Zeno.
Renton Farmers Market is Tuesdays from 3-7 p.m., through Sept. 16.
Each market has a food guest and live entertainment. Sept. 2 features Cedar River Smoke House and Temple Beit Tivka, dancers and music. Sept. 9 is Western Day, with Tex Knutson and Whistle Stop Ale House.
Sept. 16 is the closing celebration, featuring food by Southport Cafe.