Sunday, July 22, 2012

the Boo Radley next door

Boo Radley lives next door.  And he gardens.

One of the selling points of my urban apartment was that our soon-to-be-bedroom overlooked the scraggly patch of grass and one sturdy tree that our real estate agent optimistically termed "the garden." It appeared untended, weeds in pots, nothing coming to fruition in the pale early May sunshine.  The back gate had a broken lock, there were remnants of trash, and I looked forward to putting up light-and-sound blocking curtains.  But when we moved in in late July, our "garden-view" was a leafy greenery of tomatoes, brave flowers, and pungent herbs, and the curtains remained in the box.

I've looked out at the garden countless times, wondering who tended it.  At first, I thought it was the realty company.  Upon further dealings with my misers-known-as-landlords, images of my landlord paying for apartment-ly improvements, such as a working buzzer or a kindly gardener, become laughable.  A tenant then, I presumed, but a tenant that I never saw.  No one had ever appeared in the garden to tend to the crops; they seemed to grow magically, rural accidents staking out their urban property.

Until today.  I still don't know his name.  I'd seen him sitting peacefully on a bench across the street from my building, smoking a pipe, arms contentedly crossed.  He'll nod to me, occasionally, as I come in after work, and after almost a year of the occasional head bob, we've progressed to shy smiles and a raise of the hand. 

I was sitting in the garden with my gent, sipping red wine and reading an intoxicating combination of The Omnivore's Dilemna and Julie and Julia.  We were getting up to leave when Boo came in, filled a watering can, and started on his crops.  I smiled tentatively, but he was engrossed in his work, coaxing leaves and fruits and flowers out of the old pots in our backyard.  

But I couldn't leave.  I'd seen Boo, seen him tending the garden unseen, and I had to thank him.  

"You make this garden, this backyard such a beautiful place."

He stared up at me, a little startled I think.  People sometimes ignore old ones, or the funnily dressed; maybe he hadn't heard a voice in a while.

"Thank you."

And with those two words, Boo came to life, piling my hands full of tomatoes, thyme, rosemary, and three kinds of basil, as much as I could carry, after I told him I loved to cook.  He told us about his life working for "Sam" (the government, we got, after a wink and a joke about working for his "uncle"), and asked timidly about ours, why we were Philadelphians and what we were doing in his city. 

Smiles and thanks and ten minutes later, I'm inside, gratefully smelling basil and so touched by this unassuming urban farmer, a man who showed us the best place to cut the herbs so that they'll keep growing, and encouraged us to come and take of the plants, as the taking will only lead to more growth.  A lesson in life, I think, as well as a lesson for my hopelessly black thumb.  Giving out what the plant will take, sharing your small wealth of smells and tastes will only multiply into more for everyone.  It's unselfish to the extreme, shyly growing sustenance for everyone in the apartment building, slipping away unnoticed and leaving behind a climbing, brimming tomato vine as the only evidence of your presence.

Thank you, Boo, for gardening the small things, tending to your quiet, green realm, and looking out for us "kids" on Spruce Street.

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