Monday, September 6, 2010

In The Garden

Paramus. I grew up there. It’s a suburb of New York. Long Island is the genuine suburb, an extension of Brooklyn or Queens, a tendril sprouting directly from the Evil Goddess, Manhattan. We’re a whole different state across the Hudson River on the Jerseyside. We weren’t Tories during the Revolution and ever since, we've been met with a habitual and customary disdain from the citizenry of the other Manhattan tendrils. Even our own cities, like Newark, Hoboken and Jersey City exist as shadowlands of the great urban whore of Babylon.

Paramus was technically considered a suburb of the whore, a kind of Levittown, a place entirely transformed by the housing boom of the 50s and 60s. An agrarian culture that remained mainly Dutch—who drove out the few Lenne Lenape they hadn’t murdered—from the colonial era throughout the 19th century. By the 20th century, the Paramus farms had become famous worldwide for celery. Farming in New Jersey wasn’t as profitable anymore by the end of World War II, so the cluster of Dutch families sold their celery fields to developers. Split levels on one acre lots replaced the farms, all gone by the time my memories begin.

When my parents moved there before I was born, Paramus was cheaper than other towns in Bergen County. This municipality had no center or stop for the Erie Lackawanna that would eventually become the NJ Transit train routes. Paramus was just the cross roads of Route 4 & Route 17, a place where the highways intersected and along those highways stores and Shopping Malls were built.

No mere Manhattan extension like Long Island, no. The N.J. suburbs weren’t only moons that orbited metropolis, they were separate and unequal miniature planets. Small town USA, little Walton Mountains in and of themselves. The City only something in television or books or the place Dad disappeared to every morning and came back from at night, tired and/or angry. It was more distinctly town than related suburb, an entity defined by its own version of America, not just by its proximity to the Capital of the World.

Gardening became my hobby of a few summers, the pre-teen through early teen years. Hippies had become so associated with the Vietnam War, which was over by then and we all were mad we missed out on the rebellion—at least protesting the war gave the older brothers and sisters a focal point for their rebellion. The protests were long over, they were moving to the country, it was a New Morning, take up yoga, rediscover Eden time, denim jeans and chambray work shirts; paisley something only the Partridge Family wore, which had been cancelled anyway. It was just before Punk arrived, which I embraced as soon as I heard about it. The Glitter Rock crap never did it for me. What’s a white middle class suburban kid supposed to do? What other choice but the Hippie and getting into the same argument about hair length that you remembered hearing as a kid between the parents and the older sibs when you would rather have been watching Gigantor undisturbed.

Social upheaval had been with the culture for at least ten years and had long been commoditized by my time. You could go to the Mall and buy your bean bag chair and concert kit hash pipe, made from spare lamp parts.

I had been a voracious reader, though the gardening began before I discovered the Paul Schmidt translation of Rimbaud, I was just starting the Kerouac and Ginsberg, having finished the Kesey and the Robert Heinlein. One older brother formed a commune in Ohio with some Bergen County friends. It seemed a thing to do, gardening. Trendy, even and in keeping with counter culture ethos.

I was already in charge of the lawn. I earned five bucks a week mowing the lawn. The old man wasn’t into the yard, he wasn’t a yard man. He was in the minority in town. Lawn obsession bordered on mania throughout American suburbs. There wasn’t just the mowing, but the fertilizing, the lime, weed control. I hated yard work when I did it with Dad. My father had a violent temper and his training as a Marine Corps Captain always came out. Yard work was just another afternoon of ridicule and humiliation. I of course was a wise ass; my sarcastic back talk fueled and amplified his acerbic tone. Yard work inevitably ended with him shouting at me and usually implementing some form of corporal punishment. Inevitably I wound up in tears, feeling worthless from the constant torment. The truth was we probably both would have rather been doing any thing other than raking leaves or trimming hedges. We never had an unkempt white trash yard—in fact, Paramus law forbade grass growing above three inches high; bad lawn care could result in fines—but we were outclassed by most of the other yards in the neighborhood. Dad just wasn’t a yard man.

With my brothers grown and gone, I cut the lawn which I could do without the stress of paternal supervision and get paid for it. The parcel on which the house was built was just an acre, like all the others. Growing up it seemed so huge. We were able to play football and baseball in the back yard. But I guess anything seems big when you’re little. The neighborhood was built on a hill and our home was located about mid-way up. There was once a real bad ice storm and we could take the sleds and start at Forest avenue—about ten houses above our house—and ride all the way down the hill, from back yard to back yard—not many fences as I recall to obstruct us, although maybe part of the route was on the glazed over sidewalks. We headed down to the woods, which was what we called the swamp at the foot of the hill. In the summer, the woods were filled with skunk cabbage and frogs. Everybody said there was still deer there but I had never seen one.

I got a subscription to Organic Gardening. Some other friends were doing a garden too. My father encouraged the gardening hobby, it was in the back yard, less lawn to cut. Maybe he remembered the Victory Gardens of his own youth, ironically spent in Great Neck. Actually, he was probably either in College or fighting the Imperial Japanese in the South Pacific theater when Victory Gardens became a patriotic fad. By the time I was a full-fledged teenager and young adult, we did not like each other. A long time passed after the garden summers until Dad approved of me again. But, he approved of the garden and his encouragement felt good. We rented a roto-tiller and I roto-tilled the area in the back yard. The roto-tiller—blades attached to a row of wheels that cut into the dirt, slicing deep into the lawn, destroying it, turning the clumps of grass back into dirt. I was metaphor prone even at that young an age, probably scribbled some gardening poems in the notebooks I kept.

You couldn’t plant before May 15th, I remember. That was the last day of frost. I raked in the top soil and fertilizer, which was different than the lawn fertilizer; it was manure, dark, rich brown, thick fecal odor. I even had a compost heap for a couple of seasons, which I would cover the garden with come the end of fall.

Then we went back to the garden store—in the winter they also sold Christmas Trees— for the seedlings. I drew a diagram of the garden, what I would plant where, watched the shadows in the sun and tried to determine vegetable location by the amount of sunlight they would receive. Each seedling was a tiny plant in a tiny plastic flower pot. I liked envisioning the plants they would become, the fruit they would bear. Seedlings represented hope and possibilities.

I grew only vegetables. One summer I even had some rows of corn and I still remember eating a freshly picked ear of corn and being amazed at the sweet flavor. I loved the look of the miniature cornfield, four rows standing knee high by the fourth of July. I grew strawberries. They didn’t really come up that summer I planted them, but the leaves didn’t go away and I remember not planting them the next summer, but that didn’t matter. They blossomed like crazy by then. I had this harvest of strawberries, so many we were giving them away. Actually we gave most of the vegetables away. My mother preferred TV dinners, she wasn’t into cooking. She had raised six kids. My parents were tired and had enough. My raising was more reluctant annoyance than Dr. Spock micromanagement.

You had to go organic, man. For insect control, I ordered praying mantis and lady bugs from the classified sections of Organic Gardening The lady bugs came in a box. They were for the tomato plants to eat the aphids. I think they were sold by the pound, you just left the box opened by the tomato plants. The lady bugs were piled several inches deep in the container. The praying mantises were in this cocoon, which looked like a gray turd on a stick. Within a couple of days, the tiny green insects swarmed out. They matured quickly. Within a couple of weeks, dozens of these long thin insects, slivers of green ribbons were crawling around the garden. I still see them in the back yard, decades later, off spring of the original preying mantis. Worked pretty well too, I never had an insect problem in the garden,

Besides the stakes for the tomato plants, I would grow cucumbers which needed a fence. It was kind of cool, the vines crawling up and intertwining through the openings of the plastic fence as they grew. And the zucchini, as seen here. If you look at the picture, you can see the cucumber fence. For some reason I remember learning—from the Italian family across the street whose parents were born and bred in Jersey City?—how to cook zucchini, slice it and cook until soft in olive oil with oregano. I have this vague memory of her teaching me or telling me back then, and I actually made it a few times, back then. I remember this. I had earned Cooking Merit Badge as a Boy Scout. Cooking zucchini was not an outlandish act, and I basically cook it the same way today.

Come harvest time, there were always as many weeds as there was produce. I had lost interest. I was young. What seemed cool in May was dull drudgery in August. By then, gardening meant just picking the produce. I kept mowing the lawn for the five bucks, but eventually I started working other part time jobs. By High School, I may have still loved Kerouac, but it was Rimbaud over Whitman. I was listening to Horses much more than Europe 72. I could barely talk to Dad, much less plan a garden together. Girls, drugs, college... I couldn’t sustain interest in the garden. My younger sister tried it for a while, having gone into her vegetarian phase.

Before I abandoned the endeavor and still believed in the garden, I found the baby rabbit. I saw them in the garden, eating the lettuce, the wild rabbits, cotton tails, brown fur, white fur puff on the ass. They weren’t that big a nuisance and it’s not like we had a shot gun—my father worked on Wall Street for goodness sakes. The rabbits always ran away from me, darting between the leaves than rapidly scurrying across the lawn. The baby rabbit didn’t run away.

I was mowing the lawn. This tiny rabbit just appeared, then suddenly rushed from the mower into the corner of the garden. She stopped between the strawberries and the corn. Frozen but quivering, not moving, just there, no more scurry left. I didn’t want to scare her any more than I already had. I reassured her everything was all right. She didn’t respond when I tried to pet her. I don’t remember growing carrots, or if I did they weren’t yet ready to be picked. I went inside, there were store bought carrots in the refrigerator. I cut a carrot into small pieces, brought it out to the rabbit, who still hadn’t budged. I put the carrots near the creature. I had this image of taming the critter, a suburban version of Gentle Ben. I could raise wild rabbits in the garden, raise them for what I didn’t know. I imagined them frolicking near me as I fulfilled my caretaker chores then eating carrots from my hand. I could name them and call out to them by name and they would come and keep me company. The next day I went to check on the bunny. She still hadn’t moved from where I left her. Flies were on the uneaten carrots. The rabbit was stiff, completely motionless. Either I or the lawn mower had paralyzed her with fear. She was scared to death. I dug a hole and buried her in the garden.


  1. Tim, I never pictured you working with the earth. How very waspy of you! Love the story though it is sad. M

  2. I'm half wasp, on the old man's side. I just hide it well