Being a small-town California girl, I’m always endeavoring to do small-town things. So I start most Saturdays as I did last week—at the local coffeehouse, where the baristas are friendly and remember the regulars, the decor is a perfect mix of cigar-smoking manliness and eclectic girlishness, and everything reeks of fresh coffee and hot apple strudel.
Leaving the coffeehouse, I walk to the farmers’ market, held every Saturday in a local park. It’s a diverse mix of booths, and whether the owner sells seeds, flowers, fruit, or baked goods, it all arises from good soil and plenty of TLC. There’s one booth that I especially love—mostly because of the proprietor. I don’t know her name, but I imagine it’s something romantic, like Rose. (I’ve never asked, just in case it happens to be quite the opposite.)
Rose always has a variety of fruit, with handwritten squares of cardboard telling her customers it’s all “Very Sweet.” She is prob-ably in her late 50s, with long wavy gray hair and a soft Latino lilt to her voice. She obviously loves her job and all of her city-bound clientele who yearn for fruit that tastes like it came from the earth instead of a shelf. She cuts large wedges of Asian pear for her favorite customers and smiles as they bite in, waiting for the happy mmmm that inevitably follows.
“It’s so good, yeah?” she says, already offering a bag and an-other sample. “Try the peaches, kind of small, but so sweet, too, honey. Si, si…You want a plum? Here, I give you one.”
Of course, most people who stop end up buying fruit from her, partly because it is incredibly good and partly because she is so captivating herself. As I wander away, licking peach juice from my fingers and carrying a bag of fresh fruit, I hear her happily offering her wares to more Saturday onlookers:
“Here, honey, try this. Delicious! Good day for fruit, yeah?” I wander by the flower stands and the plants, running my fingers across broad, flat leaves and delicate petals. I have only the tracings of a green thumb, but I love to garden and have to pull myself away from buying more growing things.
My latte is almost gone, so I start back for home. On my way up the hill, I see a sign for a “Giant Plant Sale,” and despite having just overcome my insatiable desire for more plants, I have to peek in. A crusty-looking fellow is standing on the cracked driveway of a small apartment building, smoking a cigarette and lovingly trimming a fern when I walk up. He’s probably in his late 50s, with unkempt, shaggy gray hair, an oversized plaid shirt, and baggy jeans with the trademark soiled knees that every gardener understands. A couple of palm trees, a few small ferns, and a bird of paradise sit on the curb with him—so maybe “Giant” plant sale was an exaggeration.
“Hey, there,” he says, smiling at me as though I am a good friend. “Need a plant?”
I chuckle a little—I need another plant like I need a hole in my head—but I still reach out to touch a giant palm leaf.
He gives an approving nod. “Yep.” He pulls in a hefty draft from his cigarette. “That’s a good choice.” He squints at me from under his bushy great eyebrows, waiting.
We chat a little about the price—and it becomes pretty clear that he isn’t as worried about making a buck as he is that I care for his plants. He introduces himself as Ed, but informs me that many “round here” refer to him as “The Plant Guy.” As far as I can gather, this is his only source of income. He nurses plants back to health or grows them from little shoots in his alley, and every now and then he sells them to clueless people like me in “Giant Plant Sales” and makes just enough money to buy some cigarettes and more plants to love.
I tell him I have a pickup and will be back to purchase the palm tree—despite an internal argument, I can’t keep myself from buying it. “You better hurry,” he urges. “There might be a run on these babies.” Looking down the sleepy street, I doubt it, but I hustle home anyway.
I return a few minutes later, and he is patting another palm tree as he sets it in the back of a blue mini-van. “Take care of him—found him on the street on Trash Day a few months ago…“
As the van drives away, he turns to me. “Hope that wasn’t the one you wanted,” he says, shrugging sheepishly.
I assure him that it wasn’t, and as he loads my chosen beauty into my truck, Ed tells me that he considers himself an abused plant shelter. “People just don’t take time to care about anything anymore,” he says sadly. “If it ain’t a video game or computer somethin’, it ain’t worth their time.”
After we chat for a few minutes, I start to get back in my truck. “Anything else catch your fancy?” he says as I turn to go.
“I only have $30,” I say apologetically, feeling uncharacteristically bad for the still-homeless plants on his driveway.
“No, no,” he replies, gently placing a fern and lacy-leaved airplane plant in the back of my truck. “Here’s a couple more. Take ‘em and love ‘em. And bring ‘em back if ya need any help with ‘em. I’ll nurse ‘em back to health for ya or give ya tips if ya like.”
“OK, thanks.” I look happily at my truckload of greenery and then hand over my hard-earned $30. He seems to take it reluctantly, looking at the palm leaves hanging over the bed as if wishing them good-bye and good luck.
I drive away, carefully staying below the speed limit and considering a stop at the local nursery for palm tree food. I think about the understanding I have with Rose and Ed, that, despite age gaps, cultural differences, or just plain shyness, we could’ve missed each other, but we didn’t. We connected because of a common love for good fruit, growing things, and foggy mornings spent walking and talking.
There are so many surprisingly beautiful things in the small slices of life. I thought about my broad-leaved, healthy palm in the bed of my truck and how, if it hadn’t been for Ed’s patience, it would’ve landed in a landfill and never graced my back porch. I thought about him, and Rose, and me. I wondered if they love helping others see beauty because they see it get overlooked so often. I thought about learning to look into people rather than pass them—to see their souls rather than their stereotypes. Ed isn’t just a nicotine-addicted, gray-haired man in a tiny apartment. He’s a lover of life, a master gardener, and a generous open-handed giver of his green knowledge.
I need grace to see and appreciate these divine sightings, and to savor the moments rather than rush through them. So I raise my trowel to Very Sweet peaches, Giant Plant Sales, and Saturdays spent getting dirty and making friends. To the Roses, Plant Guys, and small-town folk of the world. ❖
This article was published originally in 2016, in GreenPrints Issue #107.