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Giving Good Weight
GIVING GOOD WEIGHT
YOU PEOPLE COME into the market--the Greenmarket, in the open air under the downpouring sun--and you slit the tomatoes with your fingernails. With your thumbs, you excavate the cheese. You choose your stringbeans one at a time. You pulp the nectarines and rape the sweet corn. You are something wonderful, you are--people of the city--and we, who are almost without exception strangers here, are as absorbed with you as you seem to be with the numbers on our hanging scales.
"Does every sink grow on your farm?"
"It's marvellous. Absolutely every sink?"
"Some things we get from neighbors up the road."
"You don't have no avocados, do you?"
"Avocados don't grow in New York State."
"They're a Southern crop."
"Who baked this bread?"
"My mother. A dollar twenty-five for the cinnamon. Ninety-five cents for the rye."
"I can't eat rye bread anymore. I like it very much, but it gives me a headache."
Short, born abroad, and with dark hair and quick eyes, the woman who likes rye bread comes regularly to the Brooklyn Greenmarket, at Flatbush and Atlantic. I have seen her as well at the Fifty-ninth Street Greenmarket, in Manhattan. There is abundant evidence that she likes to eat. She must have endured some spectacular hangovers from all that rye.
Farm goods are sold off trucks, vans, and pickups that come into town in the dark of the morning. The site shifts with the day of the week: Tuesdays, black Harlem; Wednesdays, Brooklyn; Fridays, Amsterdam at 102nd. There are two on Saturdays--the one at Fifty-ninth Street and Second Avenue, the other in Union Square. Certain farms are represented everywhere, others at just one or two of the markets, which have been primed by foundation funds and developed under the eye of the city. If they are something good for the urban milieu--tumbling horns of fresh plenty at the people's feet--they are an even better deal for the farmers, whose disappearance from the metropolitan borders may be slowed a bit by the many thousands of city people who flow through streets and vacant lots and crowd up six deep at the trucks to admire the peppers, fight over the corn, and gratefully fill our money aprons with fresh green city lettuce.
"How much are the tomatoes?"
"Three pounds for a dollar."
"Three pounds for a dollar twenty-five."
"Are they freestones?"
"No charge for the pits."
"How much are the tomatoes?"
"Three pounds for a dollar. It says so there on the sign."
"Venver the eggs laid?"
"Kon you eat dum raw?"
We look up from the cartons, the cashbox, the scales, to see who will eat the eggs raw. She is a good-looking big-framed young blonde.
"You bet. You can eat them raw."
"How much are the apples?"
"Three pounds for a dollar."
Three pounds, as we weigh them out, are anywhere from forty-eight to fifty-two ounces. Rich Hodgson says not to charge for an extra quarter pound. He is from Hodgson Farms, of Newburgh, New York, and I (who come from western New Jersey) have been working for him off and on for three months, summer and fall. I thought at first that I would last only a week, but there is a mesmerism in the selling, in the coins and the bills, the all-day touching of hands. I am often in charge of the peppers, and, like everyone else behind the tables by our truck, I can look at a plastic sack of them now and tell its weight.
"How much these weigh? Have I got three pounds?"
"That's maybe two and a quarter pounds you've got there."
"Weigh them, please."
"There it is. Two and a quarter pounds."
"Fantastic! Fantastic! You see that? You see that? He knew exactly how much it weighed."
I scuff a boot, take a break for a shiver in the bones. There are unsuspected heights in this game, moments that go right off the scale.
This is the Brooklyn market, in appearance the most cornucopian of all. The trucks are drawn up in a close but ample square and spill into its center the colors of the country. Greengage plums. Ruby Red onions. Yellow crookneck squash. Sweet white Spanish onions. Starking Delicious plums.
Fall pippins ("Green as grass and curl your teeth"). McIntoshes, Cortlands, Paulareds. ("Paulareds are new and are lovely apples. I'll bet they'll be in the stores in the next few years.")
Pinkish-yellow Gravensteins. Gold Star cantaloupes. Patty Pan squash.
Silver Queen corn. Sweet Sue bicolor corn, with its concise tight kernels, its well-filled tips and butts. Boston salad lettuce. Parris Island romaine lettuce. Ithaca iceberg crunchy pale lettuce. Orange tomatoes.
Cherry Bell tomatoes.
Moreton Hybrid, Jet Star, Setmore, Supersonic, Roma, Saladette tomatoes.
Big Boy, Big Girl, Redpak, Ramapo, Rutgers London-broil thick-slice tomatoes.
Clean-shouldered, supple-globed Fantastic tomatoes. Celery (Imperial 44).
Hot Portugal peppers. Four-lobed Lady Bell glossy green peppers. Aconcagua frying peppers.
Parsley, carrots, collard greens.
Stuttgarter onions, mustard greens.
The people, in their throngs, are the most varied we see--orthat anyone is likely to see in one place west of Suez. This intersection is the hub if not the heart of Brooklyn, where numerous streets converge, and where Fourth Avenue comes plowing into the Flatbush-Atlantic plane. It is also a nexus of the race. "Weigh these, please." "Will you please weigh these?" Greeks. Italians. Russians. Finns. Haitians. Puerto Ricans. Nubians. Muslim women in veils of shocking pink. Sunnis in total black. Women in hiking shorts, with babies in their backpacks. Young Connecticut-looking pants-suit women. Their hair hangs long and as soft as cornsilk. There are country Jamaicans, in loose dresses, bandannas tight around their heads. "Fifty cents? Yes, dahling. Come on a sweetheart, mon." There are Jews by the minyan, Jews of all persuasions --white-bearded, black-bearded, split-bearded Jews. Down off Park Slope and Cobble Hill come the neo-bohemians, out of the money and into the arts. "Will you weigh this tomato, please?" And meantime let us discuss theatre, books, environmental impacts. Maybe half the crowd are men--men in cool Haspel cords and regimental ties, men in lipstick, men with blue eyelids. Corporate-echelon pinstripe men. Their silvered hair is perfect in coif; it appears to have been audited. Easy-going old neighborhood men with their shirts hanging open in the summer heat are walking galleries of abdominal and thoracic scars--Brooklyn Jewish Hospital's bastings and tackings. (They do good work there.) A huge clock is on a tower high above us, and as dusk comes down in the autumn months the hands glow Chinese red. The stations of the hours light up like stars. The clock is on the Williamsburgh Savings Bank building, a skyscraper full of dentists. They go down at five into the Long Island Rail Road, under us. Below us, too, are all the subways of the city, in ganglion assembled.
"How much are the cabbages?"
"Forty cents a head."
"O.K. Weigh one, please."
We look around at empty storefronts, at J. Rabinowitz & Sons' SECURITY FIREPROOF STORAGE, at three gold balls (Gem Jewelers Sales), at Martin Orlofsky's Midtown Florist Nursery. Orlofsky has successfully objected to our presence as competitors here, and we can sell neither plants nor flowers. "HAVE YOU HAD ANY LATELY? CLAMS, STEAMERS." Across Fourth Avenue from the Greenmarket is the Episcopal Church of the Redeemer, a century and a quarter old, with what seem to be, even in the brightest morning light, black saints in its stained-glass windows. Far down Fourth, as if at rest on the paved horizon, stands a tower of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. To the northwest rises the Empire State. Not long after dawn, as trucks arrive and farmers begin to open boxes and set up wooden tables, a miscellany of whores is calling it a day--a gradual dispersal, quitting time. Their corner is Pacific and Fourth. Now and again, a big red Cadillac pauses at the curb beside them. The car's rear window is shaped like a heart. With some frequency, a squad car will slide up to the same curb--a week-in, week-out, endless duet with the Cadillac. The women hurry away. "Here come the law." The Greenmarket space, which lies between Atlantic and Pacific, was once occupied by condemned buildings--spent bars and liquor stores. The block is fenced and gravelled now, and is leased by the Brooklyn Academy of Music, which charges the Greenmarket seventy-five dollars a Wednesday. The market does not fill the lot--the rest is concession parking. Here in the din of the city, in the rivers of moving metal, some customers drive to the Greenmarket as if it were a roadside stand in Rockland County, a mall in Valley Stream.
On a sidewalk around the corner, people with a Coleman stove under a fifty-five-gallon drum are making sauce with our tomatoes. Tall black man in a business suit now picks up a slim hot pepper. Apparently he thinks it sweet, because he takes most of it with a single bite and chews it with anticipant relish. Three ... two ... one. The small red grenade explodes on his tongue. His eyeballs seem to smoke. By the fistful, he grabs cool stringbeans and stuffs them into his mouth.
I forget to give change to a middle-aged woman with bitter eyes. I charged her forty-five cents for a pound and a third of apples and she gave me half a dollar. Now she is demanding her nickel, and her eyes are narrower than the sides of dimes. She is a round-shouldered person, beaky and short--shortchanged. In her stare at me, there is an entire judiciary system --accusation, trial, and conviction. "You give me my nickel, mister."
"I'm sorry. I forgot. Here is your nickel."
She does not believe my mistake a mistake. She walks away in a white huff. Now she stops, turns, glowers. She moves on. Twice more, as she departs from the market, she stops, turns, and stares angrily back. I watch her all the way to the curb. She waves at the traffic and gets into a cab.
A coin will sink faster through bell peppers than it will through water. When people lose their money they go after it like splashing bears. Peppers everywhere. Peppers two deep over the apples, three deep over the plums. Peppers all over the ground. Sooner or later, the people who finger the eggs will spill and break the eggs, and the surface they walk on becomes a gray-and-yellow slurry of parking-lot gravel and egg--a Brooklyn omelette. Woman spills a dozen now. Her purse is hanging open and a falling egg plops in. Eleven smashon the ground. She makes no offer to pay. Hodgson, who is young and whimsical, grins and shrugs. He is not upset. He is authentically amused. Always, without a sign of stress, he accepts such losses. The customer fingers another dozen eggs, and asks if we are sure they are good.
I err again, making change--count out four ones, and then a five, "and ten makes twenty."
The customer says, "I gave you a ten-dollar bill, not a twenty."
I look at her softly, and say to her, "Thanks very much. You're very nice."
"What do you mean I'm very nice? I gave you a ten-dollar bill. Why does that make me very nice?"
"I meant to say I'm glad you noticed. I'm really glad you noticed."
"How much are the tomatoes?"
"Weigh these, please."
"Three pounds for a dollar."
"How much the corn?"
"Ten cents an ear. Twelve for a dollar."
"Everything is so superior. I'd forgotten what tomatoes taste like."
"Will you weigh these, please?"
"The prices are so ridiculously cheap."
"How can you charge so little?"
"In nine years in the city, I've never seen food like this."
"How much are these?"
"Wow! What a rip-off!"
"Three pounds for a dollar is too much for tomatoes. You know that, don't you? I don't care how good they are."
"How much are these?"
"Three eggplants. Three and a half pounds. Three pounds for a dollar. You can have them for a dollar-ten."
"In the supermarket, the vegetables are unspeakable."
"They are brought in from California."
"You can't see what you are getting."
"When the frost has come and you are gone, what will we do without you?"
Around the market square, some of the trucks have stickers on them: "NO FARMERS, NO FOOD." Alvina Frey is here, and Ronald Binaghi, from farms in Bergen County, New Jersey. John Labanowski and his uncle Andy Labanowski are from the black-dirt country, the mucklands, of Orange County, New York. Bob Engle and Jim Kent tend orchards in the Hudson Valley. Bill Merriman, the honey man, is from Canaan, Connecticut; Joan Benack and Ursula Plock, the bakers, from Milan, New York. Ed and Judy Dart grow "organic" on Long Island, Richard Finch in Frenchtown, New Jersey. John Henry. Vincent Neglia. Ilija Sckulovski. Don Keller. Cleather Slade completes the ring. Slade is young, tall, paunchy, silent, and black. His wife, Dorothy, sells with him. She has a nicely lighted smile that suggests repose. Their family farmland is in Red Springs, North Carolina, but the Slades are mainly from Brooklyn. They make occasional trips South for field peas, collards, okra, yams, and for the reddest watermelons north of Chichicastenango.
Jeffrey Mack works for Hodgson part time. He has never seen a farm. He says he has never been out of the city. He lives five blocks away. He is eight years old, black. He has a taut, hard body, and glittering eyes, a round face. He piles upempty cartons for us and sometimes weighs tomatoes. On his better days he is some help.
"Jeffrey, that's enough raisin bread."
"Jeffrey, how many times do I have to tell you: get yourself out of the way."
"What are you doing here, Jeffrey? You ought to be in school."
He is not often pensive, but he is pensive for a moment now. "If you had a kid would you put him up for adoption?" he asks.
"What is that supposed to mean, Jeffrey? Why are you asking me that?"
"My mother says she's going to put me up for adoption."
With two, three, and four people working every truck, the farmers can occasionally take breaks, walk around--eat each other's apples, nectarines, and pears. Toward the end of the day, when their displays have been bought low and the crowd is becoming thin, they move around even more, and talk in small groups.
"What always surprises me is how many people are really nice here in the city."
"I was born in New York. My roots are here, you know. I'd throw away a bad cantaloupe, anything, so the people would come back."
"We have to leave them touch tomatoes, but when they do my guts go up and down. They paw them until if you stuck a pin in them they'd explode."
"They handle the fruit as if they were getting out all their aggressions. They press on the melons until their thumbs push through. I don't know why they have to handle the fruit like that. They're brutal on the fruit."
"They inspect each egg, wiggle it, make sure it's not stuck in the carton. You'd think they were buying diamonds."
"They're bag crazy. They need a bag for everything, sometimes two."
"They're nervous. So nervous."
"Today I had my third request from someone who wanted to come stay on the farm, who was looking for peace and quiet for a couple of days. He said he had found Jesus. It was unreal."
"I had two Jews in yarmulkes fighting over a head of lettuce. One called the other a kike."
"I've had people buy peppers from me and take them to another truck to check on the weight."
"Yeah, and meanwhile they put thirteen ears of corn in a bag, hand it to you, and say it's a dozen. I let them go. I only get after them when they have sixteen."
"They think we're hicks. 'Yeah,' I say. 'We're hicks and you're hookers. You're muggers and you breathe dirty air.'"
"I hardly smoke in the city. Down home I can smoke a whole pack of cigarettes and still have energy all night. You couldn't pay me to live here. I can't breathe."
If the farmers have a lot to say about their clients, they have even more to say about each other. Friendly from the skin out, they are deep competitors, and one thing that they are (in a sense) competing for is their right to be a part of the market. A high percentage of them seems to feel that a high percentage of the others should be shut down and sent away.
The Greenmarket was started in 1976. Farmers were recruited. Word got around. A wash of applicants developed. There was no practical or absolute way to check out certain facts about them--nor is there yet. For example, if some of the goods on a truck were not grown by the farmer sellingthem, who did grow them, and when, and where? The Greenmarket quickly showed itself to be a prime outlet for the retailing of farm produce. On a good day, one truck with an eighteen-foot box could gross several thousand dollars. So every imaginable kind of seller became attracted. The everpresent problem was that anyone in jeans with a rustic address painted on his truck could load up at Hunts Point, the city's wholesale fruit-and-vegetable center, and head out at 5 A.M. for the Greenmarket--a charter purpose of which was to help the regional farmer, not the fast-moving speculator, survive. Authentic farmers, moreover, could bring a little from home and a lot from Hunts Point. Wholesale goods, having been grown on big mass-production acreages (and often shipped in underripe from distant states), could be bought at Hunts Point and retailed--in some instances--at lower prices than the custom-grown produce of a small Eastern farm. Prices, however, were an incidental issue. The customers, the people of the city, believed--and were encouraged to believe--that when they walked into a Greenmarket they were surrounded by true farmers who had grown the produce they displayed and were offering it fresh from the farm. That was the purpose and promise of the Greenmarket--if not the whole idea, an unarguably large part of it--and in the instances where wholesale, long-distance, gassed-out goods were being presented (as some inevitably were) the principle was being subverted. In fact, the term Greenmarket had been coined--and registered in Albany--to set apart these markets in the public mind from certain "farmers' markets" around the city that are annually operated by Hunts Point hicks.
"Are you a farmer, or are you buying from an auction?" was a challenge the farmers began to fling around. Few were neighbors at home--in positions to know about each other.They lived fifty, a hundred, a hundred and fifty miles apart, and came to the city to compete as strangers. They competed in sales, and they competed in slander. They still do. To a remarkable--and generally inaccurate--extent, they regard one another as phonies.
"He doesn't even know what shoe-peg corn is."
"Never trust a farmer who doesn't know shoe-peg corn."
"What exactly is shoe-peg corn?"
"Look at him. He has clean fingernails."
"I happen to know he has them manicured."
"I bust my hump seven days a week all summer long and I don't like to see people bring to market things they don't grow."
"Only farmers who are not farmers can ruin this market."
"These hustlers are going to work us off the block."
"There's farmers selling stuff they don't know what it is."
"What exactly is shoe-peg corn?"
"I like coming here. It gets me out of Vineland. Of course, you pick your ass off the night before."
"Look at Don Keller's hands. You can see the farm dirt in them."
"His nails. They'll never be clean."
"Rich Hodgson. See him over there? He has the cleanest fingernails in New York State."
"That Hodgson, he's nice enough, but he doesn't know what a weed looks like. I'll tell you this: he's never even seen a weed."
AROUND THE BUILDINGS of Hodgson Farms are some of the tallest volunteers in New York, topheavy plants that swayoverhead--the Eastern rampant weed. With everybody working ninety hours a week, there is not much time for cosmetics. For the most part, the buildings are chicken houses. Rich's father, Dick Hodgson, went into the egg business in 1946 and now has forty thousand hens. When someone in the city cooks a Hodgson egg, it has quite recently emerged from a chicken in a tilted cage, rolled onto a conveyor, and gone out past a candler and through a grader and into a waiting truck. A possible way to taste a fresher egg would be to boil the chicken with the egg still in it.
Dick Hodgson--prematurely white-haired, drivingly busy --is an agrarian paterfamilias whose eighty-two-year-old mother-in-law grades tomatoes for him. His wife, Frances, is his secretary and bookkeeper. He branched into truck farming some years ago specifically to keep his daughter, Judy, close to home. Judy runs the Hodgsons' roadside stand, in Plattekill, and her husband, Jan Krol, is the family's vegetable grower, the field boss--more than a hundred acres now under cultivation. Rich, meanwhile, went off to college and studied horticulture, with special emphasis on the fate of tropical houseplants. To attract him home, his father constructed a greenhouse, where Rich now grows wandering Jews, spider plants, impatiens, coleus, asparagus ferns--and he takes them with him to Harlem and wherever else he is allowed to sell them. Rich, who likes the crowds and the stir of the city, is the farm's marketer.
The Greenmarket, even more than the arriving Hodgson generation, has expanded Hodgson Farms. Before 1976, the family had scarcely twenty acres under cultivation and, even so, had difficulty finding adequate outlets for the vegetables Jan grew. The roadside stand moved only a minor volume.Much of the rest was sold in New Jersey, at the Paterson Market, with discouraging results. "Paterson is semi-wholesale," Rich says. "You have to sell in units of a peck or more. You're lucky if you get three dollars for a half bushel of tomatoes. You ask for more and all you hear all day is 'That's a too much a money. That's a too much a money.'" (A half bushel of tomatoes weighs twenty-six pounds, and brings at least eight dollars at the Greenmarket, giving good weight.) The Hodgsons tried the fruit-and-vegetable auction in Milton, New York, but the auctioneer's cut was thirteen per cent and the farmers were working for him. They also tried a farmers' market in Albany, but sold three bushels of peppers and a couple of bags of corn in one depressing day. They were more or less failing as small-scale truck farmers. Dick Hodgson's theory of family cohesion through agricultural diversification was in need of an unknown spray. NBC News presented a short item one evening covering the debut of the Greenmarket. The Hodgsons happened to be watching.
"The first place we went to was Fifty-ninth Street, and the people were fifteen deep waiting to get to the eggs. I couldn't believe it. There were just masses of faces. I looked at them and felt panic and broke into a cold sweat. They went after the corn so fast I just dumped it on the ground. The people fell on it, stripped it, threw the husks around. They were fighting, grabbing, snatching at anything they could get their hands on. I had never seen people that way, never seen anything like it. We sold a full truck in five hours. It was as if there was a famine going on. The people are quieter now."
Quietly, in a single day in the Greenmarket, Rich has sold as many as fifteen hundred dozen eggs. In one day, nearly fivethousand ears of corn. In one day, three-quarters of a ton of tomatoes.
"How much are the tomatoes?"
"Fifteen hundred pounds for five hundred dollars."
Rich is in his mid-twenties, has a tumbling shag of bright-red hair, a beard that comes and goes. When it is gone, as now, in the high season of 1977, he retains not only a mustache but also a pair of frontburns: a couple of pelts that descend from either end of the mustache and pass quite close to his mouth on their way to his chin. He is about six feet tall and wears glasses. Their frames are pale blue. His energy is of the steady kind, and he works hard all day with an easygoing imperturbability--always bemused; always a controlled, sly smile. Rarely, he looks tired. On market days, he gets up at four, is on the Thruway by five, is setting up tables and opening cartons at seven, has a working breakfast around nine (Egg McMuffin), and, with only a short break, sells on his feet until six or seven, when he packs up to drive home, take a shower, drop into bed, and rise again at four. His companion, Melissa Mousseau, shares his schedule and sells beside him. There is no market on Mondays, so Rich works a fourteen-hour day at home. He packs cartons at the farm--cartons of cauliflowers, cartons of tomatoes--and meanders around the county collecting a load for Harlem. The truck is, say, the six-ton International with the Fruehauf fourteen-foot box--"HODGSON FARMS, NEWBURGH, N.Y., SINCE 1946." Corn goes in the nose--corn in dilapidating lath-and-wire crates that are strewn beside the fields where Jan has been bossing the pickers. The pickers are Newburgh high-school students. The fields, for the most part, are rented from the State of New York. A few years ago, the state bought Stewart Air ForceBase, outside Newburgh, with intent to lengthen the main runway and create an immense international freightport, an allcargo jetport. The state also bought extensive farms lying off the west end of the base. Scarcely were the farmers packed up and on the road to Tampa Bay when bulldozers flattened their ancestral homes and dump trucks took off with the debris. The big freightport is still in the future, and meanwhile the milieu of the vanished farms is ghostly with upgrowing fields and clusters of shade trees around patches of smoothed ground where families centered their lives. The Hodgsons came upon this scene as farmers moving in an unusual direction. With the number of farms and farmers in steady decline in most places on the urban fringe, the Hodgsons were looking for land on which to expand. For the time being, rented land will do, but they hope that profits will be sufficient to enable them before long to buy a farm or two--to acquire land that would otherwise, in all likelihood, be industrially or residentially developed. The Greenmarket is the outlet--the sole outlet--that has encouraged their ambition. In the penumbral world of the airport land, there are occasional breaks in the sumac where long clean lines of Hodgson peppers reach to distant hedgerows, Hodgson cantaloupes, Hodgson cucumbers, Hodgson broccoli, collards, eggplants, Hodgson tomatoes, cabbages, corn--part vegetable patch, part disenfranchised farm, with a tractor, a sprayer, and a spreader housed not in sheds and barns but under big dusty maples. The family business is integrated by the spreader, which fertilizes the Greenmarket vegetables with the manure of the forty thousand chickens.
Corn in the nose, Rich drives to the icehouse, where he operates a machine that grinds up a three-hundred-pound block and sprays granulated snow all over the corn. Cornsnow. He stops, too, at local orchards for apples, Seckel pears, nectarines, peaches, and plums. The Greenmarket allows farmers to amplify their offerings by bringing the produce of neighbors. A neighbor is not a wholesale market but another farmer, whose farm is reasonably near--a rule easier made than enforced. The Hodgsons pick things up--bread included --from several other farms in the county, but two-thirds to three-quarters of any day's load for the city consists of goods they grow themselves.
In the cooler of E. Borchert & Sons, the opiate aroma of peaches is overwhelming, unquenched by the refrigerant air. When the door opens, it frames, in summer heat, hazy orchards on ground that falls away to rise again in far perspective, orchards everywhere we can see. While loading half-bushel boxes onto the truck, we stop to eat a couple of peaches and half a dozen blue free plums. Not the least of the pleasures of working with Hodgson is the bounty of provender at hand, enough to have made the most sybaritic Roman prop himself up on one elbow. I eat, most days, something like a dozen plums, four apples, seven pears, six peaches, ten nectarines, six tomatoes, and a green pepper.
Eating his peach, Rich says, "The people down there in the city can't imagine this. They don't believe that peaches come from Newburgh, New York. They say that peaches come only from Georgia. People in the city have no concept of what our farming is like. They have no idea what a tomato plant looks like, or how a tomato is picked. They can't envision a place with forty thousand chickens. They have no concept how sweet corn grows. And the people around here have a false concept of the city. Before we went down there the first time, people up here said, 'You're out of your mind. You're goingto get robbed. You're going to get stabbed.' But I just don't have any fears there. People in black Harlem are just as nice as people anywhere. City people generally are a lot calmer than I expected. I thought they would be loud, pushy, aggressive, and mean. But eighty per cent of them are nice and calm. Blacks and whites get along much better there than they do in Newburgh. Newburgh Free Academy, where I went to high school, was twenty-five per cent black. We had riots every year and lots of tension. Cars were set on fire. Actually, I prefer Harlem to most of the other markets. Harlem people are not so fussy. They don't manhandle the fruit. And they buy in quantity. They'll buy two dozen ears of corn, six pounds of tomatoes, and three dozen eggs. At Fifty-ninth Street, someone will buy one ear of corn for ten cents and want it in a bag. The reason we're down there is the money, of course. But the one-to-one contact with the people is really good--especially when they come back the next week and say, 'Those peaches were really delicious.'"
IN THE MOONLESS NIGHT, with the air too heavy for much sleep anyway, we are up and on the road, four abreast: Anders Thueson, Rich Hodgson, David Hemingway ... A door handle is cracking my fifth right rib. Melissa Mousseau is not with us today, and for Hemingway it is the first time selling. He is a Newburgh teen-ager in sneakers and a red football shirt lettered "OKLAHOMA." Hemingway is marking time. He has mentioned January half a dozen ways since we started out, in a tone that reveres the word--January, an arriving milestone in his life, with a college out there waiting for him, and,by implication, the approach of stardom. Hemingway can highjump seven feet. He remarks that the Greenmarket will require endurance and will therefore help build his stamina for January. He is black, and says he is eager to see Harlem, to be "constantly working with different people--that's a trip in the head by itself."
When the truck lurches onto the Thruway and begins the long rollout to the city, Hodgson falls asleep. Anders Thueson is driving. He is an athlete, too, with the sort of legs that make football coaches whistle softly. Thueson has small, fine features, light-blue eyes, and short-cropped hair, Scandinavian yellow. He is our corn specialist, by predilection--would apparently prefer to count ears than to compute prices from weights. When he arrives in Harlem he will touch his toes and do deep knee bends to warm himself up for the corn.
Dawn is ruddy over Tappan Zee, the far end of the great bridge indistinct in mist. Don Keller, coming from Middletown, broke down on the bridge not long ago, rebuilt his starter at the toll-booth apron, and rolled into market at noon. Days later, Jim Kent's truck was totalled on the way to Greenmarket--Hudson Valley grapes, apples, peaches, and corn all over the road. Gradually now, Irvington and Dobbs Ferry come into view across the water--big square houses of the riverbank, molars, packed in cloud. In towns like that, where somnolence is the main resource, this is the summit of the business day. Hodgson wakes up for the toll. For five minutes he talks sports and vegetable prices, and again he dozes away. On his lap is a carton of double-yolk eggs. His hands protect them. The fingernails are clean. Hodgson obviously sees no need to dress like Piers Plowman. He wears a yellow chemise Lacoste. The eggs are for Derryck Brooks-Smith, aBrooklyn schoolteacher, who is a regular Hodgson city employee. Brooks-Smith is by appearances our best athlete. He runs long distances and lifts significant weights. He and Thueson have repeatedly tried to see who can be the first to throw an egg over an eight-story building on Amsterdam Avenue. To date their record of failure is one hundred per cent--although each has succeeded with a peach.
We arrive at six-fifteen, to find Van Houten, Slade, and Keller already setting up--in fact, already selling. People are awake, and much around, and Dorothy Slade is weighing yams, three pounds for a dollar. Meanwhile, it is extremely difficult to erect display tables, open boxes, and pile up peppers and tomatoes when the crowd helps take off the lids. They grab the contents.
"Weigh these, please."
"May I have a plastic bag?"
"Wait--while I get the scales off the truck." The sun has yet to show above the brownstones.
This is the corner of 137th Street and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard, known elsewhere in the city as Seventh Avenue. The entire name--Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard--is spelled out on the street sign, which, as a result, has a tip-to-tip span so wide it seems prepared to fly. The big thoroughfare itself is of extraordinary width, and islanded, like parts of Broadway and Park Avenue. A few steps north of us are the Harlem Performance Center and the Egbe Omo Nago African Music Center, and just east along 137th Street from our trucks is the Mother A.M.E. Zion Church. For the Tuesday Greenmarket, the street has been barricaded and cars sent out, an exception being an old Plymouth without tires that rests on flaking steel. On the front wall of the church is adecorous advertisement: "Marion A. Daniels & Sons, Funeral Directors." The block has four young sycamores, and contiguous buildings in every sort of shape from the neat and trim to broken-windowed houses with basements that are open like caves. On 137th Street beyond Adam Clayton Powell are two particularly handsome facing rows of brownstones, their cornices convex and dentilled, their entrances engrandeured with high, ceremonious flights of stairs. Beyond them, our view west is abruptly shut off by the City College cliffs in St. Nicholas Park--the natural wall of Harlem.
The farm trucks are parked on the sidewalks. Displays are in the street. Broad-canopied green, orange, purple, and red umbrellas shield produce from the sun. We have an awning, bolted to the truck. Anders Thueson, with a Magic Marker, is writing our prices on brown paper bags, taping them up as signs. "Is plums spelled with a 'b'?" he asks.
Hemingway tells him no.
A tall, slim woman in a straw hat says to me, "I come down here get broke every Tuesday. Weigh these eggplants, please."
"There you are. Do you want those in a bag?"
"You gave me good weight. You don't have to give me bags."
Minerva Coleman walks by, complaining. She is short and acidulous, with graying hair and quick, sardonic eyes. She wears bluejeans and a white short-sleeved sweatshirt. She has lived in this block twenty-three years. "You farmers come in too early," she says. "Why do you have to come in so early? I have to get up at four o'clock every Tuesday, and that don't make sense. I don't get paid."
Not by the Greenmarket, at any rate. Minerva works for Harlem Teams for Self-Help, an organization that is somethinglike a Y.M.-Y.W.C.A. It is housed, in fact, in a former Y, the entrance to which is behind our truck. Minerva is Director of Economic Development. As such, she brought the Greenmarket to 137th Street--petitioned the city for it, arranged with the precinct to close off the street. While her assistants sell Harlem Teams for Self-Help shopping bags (fifteen cents), Minerva talks tomatoes with the farmers, and monitors the passing crowd. As the neighborhood kleptos come around the corner, she is quick to point them out. When a middle-aged man in a business suit appears on the scene wearing a sandwich board, she reads the message--"HARLEM TEAM FOR DESTROYING BLACK BUSINESS"--and at once goes out of her tree. "What do you mean, 'destroying black business'? Who is destroying black business? What is destroying black business? Get your ass off this block. Can't you see this market is good for everybody? The quality and the price against the quality and the price at the supermarket--there's no comparison."
Exit sandwich board.
"How much are the apples?"
"Three pounds for a dollar, madam."
"Are they sweet?"
"You can eat them straight or bake them in a pie."
"Give me six pounds of apples, six pounds of tomatoes, and three dozen extra-large eggs. Here the boxes from the eggs I bought last week."
Mary Hill, Lenox Avenue. Florrie Thomas, Grand Concourse. Leroy Price, Bradhurst Avenue. Les Boyd, the Polo Grounds. Ylonia Phillips, 159th Street. Selma Williamson, 141st Street. Hattie Mack, Lenox Avenue. Ten in the morning and the crowd is thick. The sun is high and hot. People aredrinking from fireplugs. A white cop goes by, the radio on his buttock small and volcanic, erupting: " ... beating her for two hours." In the upstairs windows of the houses across the street, women sit quietly smoking.
"Are these peppers hot?"
"Those little ones? Yeah. They're hot as hell."
"How do you know how hot hell is? How do you know?"
The speaker is male and middle-aged, wears a jacket and tie, and is small, compact, peppery. He continues, "How do you know how hot hell is? You been over there? I don't think you know how hot hell is."
"Fifty cents, please."
The hundreds of people add up into thousands, and more are turning the corner--every face among them black. Rarely, a white one will come along, an oddity, a floating moon. Just as a bearded person becomes unaware of his beard and feels that he looks like everyone else, you can forget for a time that your own face is white. There are no reminders from the crowd.
Middle-aged man with a woman in blue. She reaches for the roll of thin plastic bags, tugs one off, and tries to open it. The sides are stuck together and resist coming apart. She looks up helplessly, looks at me. Like everyone else on this side of the tables, I am an expert at opening plastic bags.
"These bags are terrible," I tell her, rubbing one between my thumb and fingers. When it comes open, I hand it to her.
"Why, thank you," she says. "You're nice to do that for me. I guess that is the privilege of a lady."
Her husband looks me over, and explains to her, "He's from the old school." There is a pause, some handling of fruit. Then he adds, "But the old schools are closing these days."
"They're demolished," she says. "The building's gone."
They fill their sack with peppers (Lady Bell).
The older the men are here, the more likely it is that they are wearing suits and ties. Gray fedoras. Long cigars. The younger they are, the more likely it is that they are carrying shoulder-strapped Panasonics, turned on, turned up--blaring. Fortunately, the market seems to attract a high proportion of venerable people, dressed as if for church, exchanging news and some opinion.
Among our customers are young women in laboratory smocks with small gold rings in the sides of their noses--swinging from a pierced nostril. They work in Harlem Hospital, at the end of the block, on Lenox Avenue.
Fat man stops to assess the peppers. His T-shirt says, "I SURVIVED THE BERMUDA TRIANGLE." Little boy about a foot high. His T-shirt says, "MAN'S BEST FRIEND."
Our cabbages are in full original leaf, untrimmed, each one so broad and beautiful it appears to be a carnation from the lapel of the Jolly Green Giant. They do not fit well in collapsible shopping carts, so people often ask me to strip away the wrapper leaves. I do so, and sell the cabbage, and go back to weighing peppers, making change, more peppers, more change. Now comes a twenty-dollar bill. When I go into my money apron for some ones, a five, a ten, all I come up with is cabbage.
I prefer selling peppers. When you stay in one position long enough, a proprietary sense develops--as with Thueson and the corn. Hodgson, the true proprietor, seems to enjoy selling anything--houseplants and stringbeans, squash and pears. Derryck Brooks-Smith likes eggs and tomatoes. Hemingway is an apple man. Or seems to be. It is early to tell. He is fivehours into his first day, and I ask how he is getting along. Hemingway says, "These women in Harlem are driving me nuts, but the Jews in Brooklyn will be worse." Across his dark face flies a quick, sarcastic smile. "How you doing?" he asks me.
"Fine. I am a pepper seller who long ago missed his calling."
"You like peppers?"
"I have come to crave them. When I go home, I take a sackful with me, and slice them, and fill a big iron skillet to the gunwales--and when they're done I eat them all myself."
"These tomatoes come from a remote corner of Afghanistan," Derryck Brooks-Smith is saying to some hapless client. "They will send you into ecstasy." She is young and appears to believe him, but she may be in ecstasy already. Brooks-Smith is a physical masterpiece. He wears running shorts. Under a blue T-shirt, his breasts bulge. His calves and thighs are ribbed with muscle. His biceps are smooth brown loaves. His hair is short and for the most part black, here and there brindled with gray. His face is fine-featured, smile disarming. He continues about the tomatoes: "The smaller ones are from Hunza, a little country in the Himalayas. The people of Hunza attribute their longevity to these tomatoes. Yes, three pounds for a dollar. They also attribute their longevity to yogurt and a friendly family. I like your dress. It fits you well."
Brooks-Smith teaches at John Marshall Intermediate School, in Brooklyn. "A nice white name in a black neighborhood," he once remarked. He was referring to the name of the school, but he could as well have meant his own. He was born in the British West Indies. His family moved to New York in 1950, when he was ten. He has a master's degree from City University."It is exciting for me to be up here in Harlem, among my own people," he has told me over the scale. "Many of them are from the South. They talk about Georgia, about South Carolina. They have a feeling for the farm a lot of people in the city don't have." He quotes Rimbaud to his customers. He fills up the sky for them with the "permanganate sunsets" of Henry Miller. He instructs them in nutrition. He lectures on architecture in a manner that makes them conclude correctly that he is talking about them. They bring him things. Books, mainly. Cards of salutation and farewell, anticipating his return to the school. "Peace, brother, may you always get back the true kindness you give." The message is handwritten. The card and its envelope are four feet wide. A woman in her eighties who is a Jehovah's Witness hands him a book, her purpose to immortalize his soul. She will miss him. He has always given her a little more than good weight. "I love old people," he says when she departs. "We have a lot to learn from them."
"This is where it is, man. This is where it is!" says a basketball player, shouldering through the crowd toward the eggplants and tomatoes, onions and pears. He is well on his way to three metres in height, and his friend is taller still. They wear red shorts with blue stripes and black-and-white Adidas shoes. The one who knows where it is picks up seven or eight onions, each the size of a baseball, and holds them all in one hand. He palms an eggplant and it disappears. "Man," he goes on, "since these farmers came here I don't hardly eat meat no more."
Now comes a uniformed racing cyclist--All-Sports Day at the Greenmarket. He is slender, trained, more or less thirty, and he seems to be on furlough from the Tour de France. Helooks expensive in his yellow racing gloves, his green racing shoes. Partly walking, partly gliding, he straddles his machine. He leans over and carefully chooses peppers, apparently preferring the fire-engine-red ones. Brooks-Smith whispers to me, "That bicycle frame is a Carlton, made in England. It's worth at least five hundred dollars. They're rare. They're not made much anymore."
"That will be one dollar, please," I say to the cyclist, and he pays me with a food stamp.
Woman says, "What is this stuff on these peaches?"
"It's called fuzz."
"It was on your peaches last week, too."
"We don't take it off. When you buy peaches in the store, the fuzz has been rubbed off."
"Well, I never."
"You never saw peach fuzz before? You're kidding."
"I don't like that fuzz. It makes me itchy. How much are the tomatoes?"
"Three pounds for a dollar."
"Give me three pounds. Tomatoes don't have fuzz."
"I'm a bachelor. Give me a pound of plums." The man is tall, is wearing a brown suit, and appears to be nearing seventy. "They're only for me, I don't need more," he explains. "I'm a bachelor. I don't like the word 'bachelor.' I'm really a widower. A bachelor sounds like a playboy."
"Thirty-five cents, please. Who's next?"
"Will somebody lend me a dollar so I can get some brandy and act like a civilized human for a change?" We see very few drunks. This one wears plaid trousers, a green blazer, an opencollared print shirt. He has not so much as feigned interest in the peppers but is asking directly for money. "This is my birthday,"he continues. "Happy birthday, Gus. My mother and father are dead. If they were alive, I'd kick the hell out of them. They got me into this bag. For twenty years, I shined shoes outside the Empire State Building. And now I'm here, a bum. I need to borrow a dollar. Happy birthday, Gus."
SLADE, OPPOSITE, is taking a break. He sits on an upturned tall narrow basket, with his head curled into his shoulder. Like a sleeping bird, he has drifted away. I need a break, too--some relief from the computations, the chaotic pulsations of the needle on the scale.
"Two and a quarter pounds at three pounds for a dollar comes to, let's see, seventy-five cents. Five and a half pounds at three for a dollar twenty-five, call it two and a quarter. That's three dollars."
"Y'all going up every week. Y'all going to be richer than hell."
"How much are the nectarines?"
"Weigh these, please."
Turn. Put the fruit in the pan. Calculate. Turn again. Spin the plastic bag. Knot the top. Hand it over. Change a bill.
"You take food stamps?"
"Yes, but I can't give you change."
"How much are the green beans pounds for a dollar and with you in a minute next one--please."
I take off my money apron, give it to Rich, and drift around the market. I compare prices with the Van Houtens. I talkcows with Joe Hlatky. We are from the same part of New Jersey, and he once worked for the Walker-Gordon dairy, in Plainsboro, with its Rotolactor merry-go-round milking platform. Hlatky is a big, stolid man with a shock of blond hair not as neatly prepared as his wife's, which has been professionally reorganized as a gold hive. They work together, selling their sweet white corn and crimson tomatoes--not for nothing is it called the Garden State. Hlatky's twenty-one-year-old daughter, Juanita, often sells with him, too. She is a largeboned, strongly built, large-busted blonde like her mother. Hlatky says that he and his family are comfortable here in Harlem, feeling always, among other things, the appreciative good will of the people. I remember Minerva Coleman telling me that when the farmers came into Harlem the first Tuesday they were "a little nervous--but after that they were O.K." She went on to say, "You can tell when people don't feel quite secure. But now they come in here and go about their business and they don't pay nobody no mind. They like the people here better than anywhere else. I don't know why. I would assume they'd get ripped off a little bit--but not too much." And now Hlatky, standing on 137th Street weighing tomatoes, says again how much he likes this market, and adds that he feels safer here than he does in other parts of the city. He says, "I'll tell you the most dangerous place we sell at. The roughest part of the city we go to is Union Square." So rough, he confides, that when he goes there, on Saturdays, he takes along an iron pipe.
Hlatky today has supplemented his homegrown New Jersey vegetables with peaches from a neighbor in California. They are wrapped in individual tissues. They are packed and presented in a fine wooden box. He bought them at a wholesalemarket. Robert Lewis, assistant director of the Greenmarket, happens along and sees the peaches. Lewis is a regional planner about to receive an advanced degree from the University of Pennsylvania, a gentle person, slight of build, a little round of shoulder, with a bandanna around his throat, a daypack on his back, steel-rimmed spectacles--all of which contribute to an impression of amiable, academic frailty. He says to big Joe Hlatky, "Get those peaches out of sight!"
With an iron pipe, a single tap on the forehead could send Lewis to heaven twice. Hlatky respects him, though, and is grateful to him, too, for the existence of the market. Hlatky says he will sell off these peaches, with a promise not to bring more--never again to bring to a Greenmarket so much as a single box of wholesale fruit.
"The peaches are from California," says Lewis. "They must go back on the truck."
Hlatky casts aspersions up one side of 137th Street and down the other. Has Lewis noticed Slade's beans, Hodgson's onions, Van Houten's lettuce, Sekulovski's entire load? He says he feels unfairly singled out. He knows, though, that without Lewis and Barry Benepe, who created and developed the Greenmarket, the Hlatky farm in New Jersey would be even more marginal than it is now. ("Here you can make double what you make wholesale. If I sold my stuff in a wholesale market, I couldn't begin to exist.") And while Lewis and Benepe might lack a certain shrewdness with regard to the origin of beans, they contribute an essential that no farmer could provide: a sophisticated knowledge of the city.
One does not just drive across a bridge with a load of summer squash, look around for a vacant lot, and create a farmers' market in New York. Tape of every color is in the way:community boards, zoning committees, local merchants, City Hall. In order to set up even one open-air market--not to mention five or six--it was necessary to persuade, and in many cases to struggle against, nine city agencies, which Benepe describes in aggregate as "an octopus without a head; pull off one tentacle and another has a grip." Benepe is an architect who has worked as a planner not only for the city government but also in Orange County, watching the orchards disappear. When he conceived of the Greenmarket, in 1974, it seemed "a natural answer to a twofold problem": loss of farmland in the metropolitan area and a lack of "fresh, decent food" in the city. Moreover, farmers selling produce from their trucks would start conversations, help resuscitate neighborhoods, brighten the aesthetic of the troubled town. "It seemed too obvious to ignore," Benepe says. "But most obvious things do get ignored." Benepe, like Lewis, is a native of the city. Son of an importer of linen, he studied art history at Williams College (1950) and went on to M.I.T. His dress and appearance remain youthful. To the Greenmarket office, on Fortieth Street, he wears brown denim highwaters, polo shirts, and suede Wallabees. He has long sandy graying hair, a lithe frame, a flat stomach. He rides a bicycle around town. He has a steady gaze, pale-blue eyes. He knows where City Hall is. He once worked for the Housing and Redevelopment Board. To start the Greenmarket, he knew which doors to knock on, and why they would not open. He approached the Real Estate Department. "They seemed to think I wanted to rip them off." He affiliated the project with the Council on the Environment of New York City in order to be eligible to receive foundation funds. He tried the Vinmont Foundation, the Richmond Foundation, the Fund for the City of New York, the America the Beautiful Fund. Finally, the J. M. Kaplan Fund said itwould match anything he raised elsewhere. He went back to the others, and enough came through. Of the Greenmarket's overall cost--forty-two thousand dollars in 1977--the farmers, renting space, pay a third.
Lewis, twenty years younger, was a colleague of Benepe in Benepe's urban-planning firm, and helped him start the market. They searched for sites where farmers would be welcome, where neighborhoods would be particularly benefitted, where local fruit-and-vegetable stores were unlikely to open fire. Lewis to a large extent recruited the farmers. He sought advice from Cornell and Rutgers, and wrote to county agents, and interviewed people whose names the agents supplied. He went to roadside-marketing conferences, to farmers' associations, to wholesale outlets. Under his generally disarranged locks, his undefeated shrug, Lewis has a deep and patient intelligence that tends to linger over any matter or problem that comes within its scrutiny. If he is ready to rebuke the farmers (for selling West Coast peaches), he is also ready to listen, without limit, to their numerous problems and even more numerous complaints. Day by day, market to market, he is a most evident link between the farmers and the city. He binds them to it, interprets it for them. Son of a New York University professor, he has no idea what shoe-peg corn is, but he was born in Brooklyn Jewish Hospital, grew up in Crown Heights, and has a sense of neighborhoods, of urban ways, that reaches from Flatbush to the hem of Yonkers. He is not much frightened by Harlem or intimidated by Fifty-ninth Street. He is a city man, and, more important, he is an emeritus city kid.
After staring up the street for a while, Hlatky puts the peaches back on the truck.
"Cigarette lighters! Cigarette lighters!"
The Zippo man did not grow his produce down home. "Cigarette lighters!" Never mind where they're from. They're fifty per cent off and selling fast. While Lewis goes after the Zippo man--effecting an at best temporary expulsion--I return to my peppers.
"Give me two, please. Just two. I ain't got nobody with me. I live by myself. I throw food in the pot. I stick a fork in it. When it gets soft, I eat it."
A man has come along selling Lysol. He offers cans to Rich Hodgson and, at the same time, to a woman to whom Rich is selling apples. One result of the Greenmarket's considerable success is the attraction it presents to street hucksters, not the Sabrett's-hot-dog sort of street venders, who are licensed by the city, but itinerant merchants of the most mercurial kind. Some conceal things under their jackets. They are readily identifiable because their arms hang straight, as whose would not with five pounds of watches on either wrist? They sell anything--ski hats, tooled-leather belts, turquoise rings, inflatable airplanes. They spread blankets on the sidewalk and sprinkle them with jewelry. Man comes by now selling his dog. They always try to sell to the farmers, who are possibly better customers than the customers. A guy came up to me once in Brooklyn and offered me a case of hot mangoes. I assume they were hot. What other temperature could they be when the case-lot price was two dollars? Another day in Brooklyn, a man pulled up to the curb in an old Chevrolet sedan, opened the trunk, and began selling Finnish porgies. Cleaning them, he spilled their innards into a bucket and their scales fell like snow on the street.
As to nowhere else, though, such people are attracted to137th Street. All day they come by, selling coconuts, guavas, and terminal-market cucumbers out of carts from the A. & P. "Crabs! Crabs!" The crab man has bright-red boiled blue crabs. Three for a dollar, they dangle from strings. Now a man arrives with a rolling clothes rack crammed with sweaters and pants. He wants eighteen dollars for a two-piece ensemble. "No, thanks," a woman tells him. "I don't want to go to jail." She turns to the peppers and glances up at me, saying, "If a cop came around the corner they'd drop that stuff and run." Now a young man and woman in turtlenecks and Earth shoes wheel up a grocery cart full of comic books, cotton hats, incense, and tube socks. He has a premature paunch. Her eyes are dreamy and the lids are slow. She leans on him in a noodly manner. She looks half asleep, while he looks half awake, as if they were passing each other in the middle of a long journey. "Tube socks! Incense! Tube socks!" The man fixes his attention on Rich. "It's going to get--I'm telling you--cold on that farm, man." The socks are still in the manufacturer's package, marked a dollar ninety-five a pair. "Cold, man, I'm telling you. Here's six pairs for five dollars." Sold.
Minerva Coleman, who has been watching, stares after the couple as they go. "That must have been a Long Island girl," she says. "A Harlem girl would know I'd break her ass."
There was a firehouse across the street once. It was razed, and a vest-pocket park is there now, smoothly paved, with a chain-link fence, three strands of barbed wire, and a fanshaped basketball backboard that (most weeks) has a net. When I am not turned toward the scale, and while I wait for customers to fill their plastic bags, I often watch the games across the street. Some of the boys who play there move like light, their gestures rehearsed, adroit. They go both ways, hitwell from the outside. The game they play, almost to the exclusion of any other game, begins from the outside.
Say five, in all, are playing. One starts things off with a set from outside.
"How much are the peppers?"
"Three pounds for a dollar."
"Pick me out three pounds. I'll be back after I get some corn."
"Where are your beans? What happened to your beans today?"
The shooter hits five straight from twenty feet. He is a pure shooter. Now he misses. He and the four others go for the rebound. The one who gets the ball is now on his own to try to score, while everyone else tries to stop him. He dribbles right, into the one-on-four. He stops. Jumps. Shoots. Misses.
"Weigh these, please."
"Weigh mine, please."
Another player grabs the ball. Now he makes his moves, trying to score against the four others. The ball pulsates in his hands. His legs are flexed. His feet do not stir. He picks his moment, leaps, arches his back (ball behind his head), scores. The ball is handed to him. He goes outside and shoots an unguarded set. He hits. He shoots another. He misses. Someone else gets the rebound. Now it is four against that player as he tries to drive and score. He misses. The player who gets the rebound now faces the four others ... .
"Mister, will you weigh these peppers? Do you want to sell them to me or not?"
"Sorry. Three and a half pounds. Take them for a dollar." Who wants to make change?
After a reverse pivot that is fluid beyond his years, the kidwith the ball scores. He walks to the outside. He takes a free set. Swish. He hits again.
"Weigh these, please."
The shooter misses. The rebound goes high. All five are after it. The boy who grabs it turns and faces the mob.
We see the same game all over the city. Always, the player with the ball is alone, the isolated shooter, the incubating star --versus everyone else on the court. There is never a pass, a screen, a pick, a roll, a two-on-two, a two-on-three, a three-on-two, a teammate. I turn with some peppers and rattle the scale.
Bartley Bryt comes by and says a cop caught a thief who was ripping off Sekulovski. Bryt is young and white, in bluejeans, Pumas, and a rugger shirt. He is doing a summer job, helping administer the market. He is slim, good-looking, with a shock of light-brown hair--Dalton School, 1977.
I ask him how old the thief was.
"About forty-five," says Bryt. "The only elderly person I've ever seen stealing here. When there's trouble here, it's usually from kids, but there's not much trouble, because the community feeling is so great here. People are so nice to you. Where I live, people go in and turn on their air-conditioners and that's it."
"Where do you live?"
"Seventy-fifth Street between Park and Lexington."
"HOW MUCH ARE THE CUCUMBERS?"
"Eight for a dollar."
"Give me some ham knuckles, too."
"No ham knuckles."
"I was here earlier and there was ham knuckles here."
"Not at this truck, ham knuckles."
"Bobby Van Houten has ham knuckles."
"Yeah. He's killing us."
"Look at all those people at his truck. They're ten deep."
"He'll gross five thousand dollars today if he takes home a cent."
"He buys the stuff at a slaughterhouse."
"I'd like to see those pigs he talks about."
"If he raises pigs, I raise bananas."
The Van Houtens, next to us, are working from a truck with an eighteen-foot box. There is no larger vehicle here. To secure their choice position--on the corner, at the mouth of the street--they arrived at four in the morning on the first Harlem Tuesday. Wherever you are at the start, you remain for the summer. The Van Houtens are nothing if not aggressive. With their high-piled fruit-and-vegetable displays and sixteen hundred pounds of ham hocks, hog jowls, and additional pig products coming out of a cooler on the truck, they are frenetically busy. Of the five people working there, four are named Van Houten. Like the Hodgsons', their operation is a family conglomerate. Behind the peaches and peppers is Jim Van Houten, stocky, cheerful, nervous, with a big lick of dark brown hair shading a round, thoughtful face. He is a Master of Business Administration (Cornell University). His wife, Sue Ellen, is close to the cabbage. She brings paperbacks for lulls in the glut. Kay Van Houten, Jim's mother, is dark-haired, trim, youthful, and small. Tomatoes, peppers, jowls alike, she works tirelessly at the scales, the all-day conversion of weight to cash, which she accumulates in a steel box in the cab of thetruck. Her other son, Bobby, while selling at least as much as anyone else, periodically leaps onto the truck, lights his pipe, heaves out produce, jumps off the truck, builds and rebuilds high displays, lights his pipe, and moves up and down behind the tables exhorting, encouraging, assisting, scolding, spreading the contagion that seems to impel him, his need to get the best of the bazaar. Bobby has pale-blue eyes. He has patrician high cheekbones, turn-of-the-century sideburns, the heroic good looks of an archaic star. He is obviously the boss--the field boss, anyway, his father being the corporate mastermind, the absentee trucklord.
"They have a big place out in Pennsylvania."
"They say they have a big place out in Pennsylvania."
"Yeah. I happen to know they run a fruit stand in Rockland County."
"They buy their stuff wholesale and bring it from the stand."
"Bobby is a truck driver, not a farmer. He makes long hauls in big rigs."
"I seen him at Hunts Point."
"Look at the stuff on their truck--all those brand-new cartons of Lake Ontario celery."
"They got lettuce from upstate, too."
"Long Island potatoes."
"Pennsylvania my ass."
"You know the name of their place? It's called Van Houten's Hunts Point Farms."
The Van Houtens last year spent ten thousand dollars on seeds. Their place--near Orangeville, Pennsylvania--is on a tributary of the Susquchanna River, about a hundred and fiftymiles west of New York. They rent a couple of hundred neighboring acres as well, so they have about five hundred under cultivation. They work not just busily but feverishly--from dawn some distance into dark--with little time and probably less inclination to contemplate the scenery they are helping to preserve. Their farm is among the intervales where the Poconos and the Alleghenies reach toward one another in the central Appalachian uplift. Their terrain is like rising bread against backdrops of long, low mountains. These Pennsylvania ridges, steep-sided and flat-topped, run on for tens and even hundreds of miles. Knob Mountain, the nearest to the Van Houtens, stands high above the farm, its slopes mainly wooded but open, too, with fairways of upland pasture. There are red covered bridges, nut-colored unpainted barns, narrow crown roads among corn shocks in the autumn--pheasant land. It is a strangely mottled country, where, not many miles to the east, you can make your way in brilliant sunshine across long vistas of standing grain--pastures full of Guernseys, barns full of milk--all the while approaching a high plateau on which there is stationary cloud. When you go up there and out of the warm countryside you enter a spitting fog and before long come into the slippery streets of a small corroding city where atmospheric acids are eating the J. C. Penney and the town common is a huge anthracitic pit. Not much seems to link these plateau towns with the needlepoint-sampler valleys that surround them--not much except, perhaps, the pheasant. The bird is curious and goes up there, too--pecks at the edges of the pit. On a coal-town street, I killed one with my car one day when I went out with Bob Lewis to visit the Van Houtens. The right front fender broke its neck and little else. I tossed it into the back seat and dressed it later at home, expecting peacoal to come out of its gizzard but discovering instead the pebbles of the valley. Stuffed with bread, raisins, and Greenmarket onions, it was as succulent a bird as ever climbed a hill.
The Van Houtens' packinghouse is a white barn in a state of picturesque dilapidation. The farmhouse is brick, square, solid, and Dutch, with a windowed cupola at the apex of a pyramidal roof. It is surrounded by heavy oaks and maples, and a hundred acres of field corn are visible from the kitchen. Bobby's parents have a place nearby, while he lives in the farmhouse with his wife, Anne, who is a schooltcacher, and their four young children, including twins. He was wearing the same threadbare jeans and faded denim shirt he wears in New York, his belt buckle roughly a pound of steel, on which raised letters said "FIELD BOSS." We cruised in his pickup, climbed steep roadless hills, and crossed bottomlands crowded with cabbage--savoy cabbage, with its spinachlike cobbled leaves. Cucumbers, broccoli, collards, cauliflower, cantaloupes, eggplant, peppers, lettuce--Van Houten's "Hunts Point" Farms. "Yeah," said Bobby. "The good Lord made twenty-four hours in a day and seven days in a week, and we work every bit of it. We spray with parathion. We spend forty thousand a year for fertilizer and chemicals, and another two thousand for the chopper that spreads the chemicals. Parathion is deadly, but in three days it's dissipated. It will never take the place of DDT. It's not as safe, either. You can drink DDT straight. It won't hurt you. During the war, Italian prisoners were sprayed with DDT. No one ever died from it. The government hurt us bad when they took away the DDT."
There was a stock pond and a fenced-in woodlot, with pigs and cows among the hemlocks, cherries, and pines. Pigs weresquealing and fighting for position around an Agway feeder. We leaned on the fence and watched. "Field-corn prices are dropping every week, and the futures are worse," said Bobby, with a suck and a puff and a dash of flame. He uses a steel cylindrical lighter that shoots a foot-long tongue of gas. "So right now it pays to put the field corn through the pigs. If the price goes up, it won't pay. Pigs go well behind cows. They run together. Pigs will eat what the cows won't eat. A third of corn goes through a cow. Pigs thrive on that stuff." Burlap bags soaked in crankcase oil were wrapped around the trunks of trees. After the pigs rub up against the trees the oil that coats them discourages lice. In a lean-to deep in the woodlot rested a pig three times the size of any of the other pigs. "The truck must have missed that one," Bobby said. "And more than once. Some of them hide in the woods when the truck comes. We have up to a hundred and fifty here at any one time. We send off about twenty a week. The slaughterhouse gives us extra jowls and knuckles for the New York market. No one around here eats that stuff. You'd be surprised what they do eat, though. When the testicles are sliced off, the more farmer farmers take them in and cook them. I throw them away." Standing nearby was a Mercedes-Benz diesel fifty-ton refrigeration unit, keeping cool the knuckles, jowls, spareribs, sausage, baloney, and smoked neck bones that within a few hours would be transferred to the truck for Harlem.
Van Houten Farms is a heavy supplier for Mrs. Smith's Pies, of Pottstown, Pennsylvania, where Mrs. Smith bakes ten thousand pumpkin pies an hour and uses Van Houten Boston marrow squash. They are grown by the no-till method. Just plant the seeds and let the field go--sixty-five acres, two thousand tons of squash, big orange bombs hidden under thatches of weed.
"Did you ever sec ketchup before it went into a bottle?" Bobby said, turning into a field of tomatoes grown for the kitchens of Chef Boy-ar-dee. They appeared to have been harvested by migrant sauropods who had ripped whole vines from the soil and thrashed the tomatoes free. Hundreds of thousands--crushed and split--were now ready for delivery. On arrival at the plant they would be unloaded with a high-pressure hose--tomato slurry. We went up on a dome of channery shale, hundreds of feet above the surrounding terrain, where tomatoes grew wider than the spread of a man's hand, almost to the size of curling stones. The ground was so steep that, to hold the soil, rows of hay and sod were interspersed with the vines. While the low-ground tomatoes were on the way to Boy-ar-dee, these would be rolling toward Harlem.
The Van Houtens sell to Boy-ar-dee for three cents a pound. The tomatoes they take to Harlem return ten times that. They sell tomatoes at Hunts Point, too--for less than half of what they get in the Greenmarket. "Lots of times we don't make money selling wholesale. When corn goes at Hunts Point for two-seventy-five a box, there's nothing left for us." From big canneries to city sidewalks, they sell at every type of outlet. They have to--to dispense their considerable production. And, as one would imagine, their roadside stand is not a card table. Rather, it is a fair-sized store. It is close to the New York-New Jersey line, less than twenty miles north of the George Washington Bridge. "It attracts the carriage trade," Bobby said. "Cadillacs, Lincolns, Jaguars. We pay a hundred and seventy dollars a week in taxes there, and the customers are bitches. One Tuesday in Harlem, we had six salespeople working the counter. Each of the six grossed as much as the roadside stand for that day--and four people were working the stand. I'd rather wait on those people in Harlem anyway.I'd rather wait on them for ten hours than on our affluent trade at the stand for ten minutes. If I had my choice I'd take a market every day solid black. Second choice I'd take the Spanish, last of all the whites. They're a solid pain in the ass. They ask if something has sodium nitrite. Well, to preserve something, the only alternative is embalming fluid. Some woman gets out of a Lincoln Continental and peels back an ear of corn. 'Oooo, a worm!' she says. 'Do you use chemicals on this corn?' And I say, 'Lady, you can't have it both ways.' The people in Harlem appreciate our being there. We sell cabbage three heads for a dollar there. Three heads for a dollar is a good deal for those people and a good deal for us. They rarely complain. They tell you how nice the tomatoes are, how nice the sweet corn is. It gives you a nice feeling at the end of the day."
The Van Houtens are, as Bobby says it, "Blauvelt Holland Dutch," yielding only twenty years' seniority to Henry Hudson himself. Gerrit Hendricksen Blauvelt was their seminal patroon. His sons were part of a syndicate that bought the Tappan Patent, west of the Tappan Zee. "Oh, yeah, we're S.A.R., C.A.R., D.A.R. Both my mother and father are Blauvelts. I'm Blauvelts fourteen ways. The Van Houtens didn't come over until 1670. The house I grew up in was built in 1731." The original address was Muddy Brook, New York, a name that was changed a century ago--in an early example of suburban semantics--to Pearl River.
When Bobby was growing up, the family ran a dairy farm in Pearl River that is now three fathoms deep--a reservoir owned by the Hackensack Water Company. In 1953, when he was in kindergarten, he and Jim put up a table beside the road and sold vegetables from the family garden. With the moneythey took in, they bought their first TV. They planted a larger garden the next year, and bought an automatic washing machine for their mother. Four years later, they built the present stand. In the late sixties came the reservoir. "Dad and I were not going to be storekeepers. We didn't want to grow things on a few acres for window dressing and bring in all the rest--like most roadside stands." From Albany to Delaware, they searched for a farm, and, answering an ad, found the one in Pennsylvania. In the big woodlot where the pigs now hide were thirty-eight oaks, each with a girth of eight to ten feet, and coveted by cabinetmakers. These oaks were older than the nation--O.A.R. Fortunately, the previous farmer had repeatedly refused to sell them. As a result, the farm was in a position to make a payment on itself. The Van Houtens sold the trees.
Bobby, out of Pearl River High School, did not go on to college. "What could it teach me?" His extraordinarily integrated knowledge of what was coming to be called agribusiness would develop empirically on the farm, and his passion for the driving of behemoth trucks would develop on the road. Twenty-six hours here, thirty-three there, he often takes field corn from Orangeville to sell to cattlemen in Florida, and something in him lives for those journeys. "I know every route number going to and around the South, and that's worth something. It may not be worth much, but it's worth as much as Greek mythology." Once, in a big tandem-axle twin-screw sleeper-cab tractor-trailer, he started alone out of Vero Beach with twenty-five tons of Indian River oranges, and thirty-six hours and no pills later he delivered the fruit in Toronto. The air there was twenty below zero and he was still in his Florida shirtsleeves. He had supported his stamina with "sixteen gal-Ionsof coffee." He feels sheer contempt toward all the young drivers on pills.
Hanging around Hunts Point over the years, Bobby developed considerable admiration for the savoir-faire of a certain broker there. He once observed him taking on a buyer to whom he had sold rotting peppers. There had been a layer of good ones on the top. Now the buyer was back in a rage, and the broker was rising to the situation. Speaking with disarming and convincing candor, he succeeded in calming the man down. Then he sold him another load of peppers. As these, too, went out of the terminal, they were split and seamy but covered with a healthy green-pepper veneer. Bobby said, "You're crazy. You're really crazy. That guy will kill you."
"Bobby, you don't understand," said the broker. "Think about it. And tell me a better way to get that man back here tomorrow."
"Yeah, this is some business," Bobby said, finishing the story. "We have friends in New Jersey, and they hope we'll have a cyclone, or a flood. We hope they'll have a hurricane. Things like that drive the prices up for the lucky ones. Every year has its own difficulties. In 1972, we had a dry, dry summer. We irrigate from two creeks, and they were running very low. We took a bulldozer and dammed both of them--ended them right here. People downstream all said it was the driest year they'd ever seen."
We went into the farmhouse for dinner with Bobby's wife, Anne, and his father, James, who has the air of a contented President retired on a farm in Pennsylvania--a big man with a baby's grin, a tan scalp, protruding ears, a swift staccato manner of speech. Like Hodgson père, though, he runs the place, prepares the trucks for Bobby's trips to town. "Yourmarket there in Harlem, now, your colored want a good heavy yellow corn," he observed, and went on to say that among the various outlets for their produce the Greenmarket, by a wide margin, is in every way the best. Anne set turkey before us and gravy, stuffing, and single tomato slices that overlapped their plates. "It's too good to be true," she said. "The Greenmarket is too good to be true." Before sitting down herself, she added a buttery-crusted peach pie that was above two inches thick. "Something will spoil it," she went on. "I know it will. It's just too good to be true."
"It's a land of plenty," Bobby said.
"It's a land of too much," said his father.
Monday evenings Bobby is loaded and away by nine. Over the mountains and through the Water Gap he runs four hours to Pearl River, where he sleeps two hours in the cab. Jim, who lives nearby, meets him at three, and they unload produce for the stand. Then they load on onions, potatoes, fruit--the things they will sell in the city that they don't grow on the farm. By four-thirty, Bobby is away for Harlem. By six he is selling hard. Now, in the afternoon, he is still unflaggingly at it--displays descending, his mother and brother beside him, scales rocking gently like boats.
Bartley Bryt brings us the news. Like the rest of us, the Van Houtens keep their cab doors locked, but this afternoon for a short time someone forgot. The door (it was not the outside one but the door on their side of the truck) was left unlocked for perhaps fifteen minutes. We are watched more closely than we think, for in that brief lapse someone, somehow--coming possibly from under the truck--reached into the cab and took the steel box there, which contained upward of two thousanddollars. Without detectable changes of expression, the family continues to sell.
BROOKLYN, and the pickpocket in the burgundy jacket appears just before noon. Melissa Mousseau recognizes him much as if he were an old customer and points him out to Bob Lewis, who follows him from truck to truck. Aware of Lewis, he leaves the market. By two, he will have made another run. A woman with deep-auburn hair and pale, nervous hands clumsily attracts the attention of a customer whose large white purse she is rifling. Until a moment ago, the customer was occupied with the choosing of apples and peppers, but now she shouts out, "Hey, what are you doing? Your hand is in my purse. What are you doing?" The auburn-haired woman not only has her hand in the purse but most of her arm as well. She withdraws it, and with intense absorption begins to finger the peppers. "How much are the peppers? Mister, give me some of these!" she says, looking up at me with a gypsy's dark, starburst eyes. "Three pounds for a dollar," I tell her, with a swift glance around for Lewis or a cop. When I look back, the pickpocket is gone. Other faces have filled in--people unconcernedly examining the fruit. The woman with the white purse has returned her attention to the apples. She merely seems annoyed. Lewis once sent word around from truck to truck that we should regularly announce in loud voices that pickpockets were present in the market, but none of the farmers complied. Hodgson shrugged and said, "Why distract the customers?" Possibly Fifty-ninth Street is the New York Pickpocket Academy. Half a dozen scores have been made there ina day. I once looked up and saw a well-dressed gentleman under a gray fedora being kicked and kicked again by a man in a green polo shirt. He kicked him in the calves. He kicked him in the thighs. He kicked him in the gluteal bulge. He kicked him from the middle of the market out to the edge, and he kicked him into the street. "Get your ass out of here!" shouted the booter, redundantly. Turning back toward the market, he addressed the curious. "Pickpocket," he explained. The dip did not press charges.
People switch shopping carts from time to time. They make off with a loaded one and leave an empty cart behind. Crime on such levels is a part of the background here, something in the urban air, so many parts per million. The condition is accepted with a resignation that approaches nonchalance. The Van Houtens' loss was extraordinary but theirs was by no means the only cash box that has been stolen. We lost one once in Brooklyn, with something like two hundred dollars. For various reasons, suspicion immediately attached itself to a part-time employee who was selling with us and probably handed the box in a bag to a confederate. The previous Wednesday, he had been working for another farmer, who discharged him for dishonesty. Now, just after our cash box disappeared, he began saying, and repeating, in an excited voice, "It's real, man. It's real. We don't like it but that's reality--reality, man--and there is nothing we can do." Rich felt there was something he could do. He said, "You're fired."
Politely, the man inquired if he could know the reason for his dismissal.
"Sure," Rich said. "I don't trust you."
"That's cool, man, cool," said our ex-employee. He took off his apron and was gone.
Most thievery is petty and is on the other side of the tables. As Rich describes it, "Brooklyn, Fifty-ninth Street, people rip off stuff everywhere. You just expect it. An old man comes along and puts a dozen eggs in a bag. Women choosing peaches steal one for every one they buy--a peach for me, a peach for you. What can you do? You stand there and watch. When they take too many, you complain. I watched a guy one day taking nectarines. He would put one in a plastic bag, then one in a pocket, then one in a pile on the ground. After he did that half a dozen times, he had me weigh the bag."
"This isn't England," Barry Benepe informed us once, "and a lot of people are pretty dishonest."
Now, in Brooklyn, a heavyset woman well past the middle of life is sobbing pitifully, flailing her arms in despair. She is sitting on a bench in the middle of the market. She is wearing a print dress, a wide-brimmed straw hat. Between sobs, she presents in a heavy Russian accent the reason for her distress. She was buying green beans from Don Keller, and when she was about to pay him she discovered that someone had opened her handbag--even while it was on her arm, she said--and had removed several books of food stamps, a telephone bill, and eighty dollars in cash. Lewis, in his daypack, stands over her and tells her he is sorry. He says, "This sort of thing will happen wherever there's a crowd."
Another customer breaks in to scold Lewis, saying, "This is the biggest rip-off place in Brooklyn. Two of my friends were pickpocketed here last week and I had to give them carfare home."
Lewis puts a hand on his forehead and, after a pensive moment, says, "That was very kind of you."
The Russian woman is shrieking now. Lewis attends herlike a working dentist. "It's all right. It will be O.K. It may not be as bad as you think." He remarks that he would call the police if he thought there was something they could do.
Jeffrey Mack, eight years old, has been listening to all this, and he now says, "I see a cop."
Jeffrey has an eye for cops that no one else seems to share. (A squad car came here for him one morning and took him off to face a truant officer. Seeing his fright, a Pacific Street prostitute got into the car and rode with him.)
"There." Jeffrey lifts an arm and points.
"There." He points again--at trucks, farmers, a falafel man.
"I don't see a policeman," Lewis says to him. "If you see one, Jeffrey, go and get him."
Jeffrey goes, and comes back with an off-duty 78th Precinct cop who is wearing a white apron and has been selling fruits and vegetables in the market. The officer speaks sternly to the crying woman. "Your name?"
"Eighty-five Eastern Parkway."
Every Wednesday, she walks a mile or so to the Greenmarket. She has lived in Brooklyn close to half her life, the rest of it in the Ukraine. Heading back to his vegetables, the officer observes that there is nothing he can do.
Out from behind her tables comes Joan Benack, the baker, of Rocky Acres Farm, Milan, New York--a small woman with a high, thin voice. Leaving her tropical carrot bread, her zucchini bread, her anadama bread, her beer bread, she goes around with a borrowed hat collecting money from the farmersfor Catherine Barta. Bills stuff the hat, size 7--the money of Alvina Frey and John Labanowski and Cleather Slade and Rich Hodgson and Bob Engle, who has seen it come and go. He was a broker for Merrill Lynch before the stock market imploded, and now he is a blond-bearded farmer in a basketball shirt selling apples that he grows in Clintondale, New York. Don Keller offers a dozen eggs, and one by one the farmers come out from their trucks to fill Mrs. Barta's shopping cart with beans and zucchini, apples, eggplants, tomatoes, peppers, and corn. As a result, her wails and sobs grow louder.
A man who gave Rich Hodgson a ten-dollar bill for a ninety-five-cent box of brown eggs asks Rich to give the ten back after Rich has handed him nine dollars and five cents, explaining that he has some smaller bills that he wants to exchange for a twenty. Rich hands him the ten. Into Rich's palm he counts out five ones, a five, and the ten for a twenty and goes away satisfied, as he has every reason to be, having conned Rich out of nine dollars, five cents, and a box of brown eggs. Rich smiles at his foolishness, shrugs, and sells some cheese. If cash were equanimity, he would never lose a cent. One day, a gang of kids began taking Don Keller's vegetables and throwing them at the Hodgson truck. Anders Thueson threw an apple at the kids, who then picked up rocks. Thueson reached into the back of the truck and came up with a machete. While Hodgson told him to put it away, pant legs went up, switchblades came into view. Part of the gang bombarded the truck with debris from a nearby roof. Any indication of panic might have been disastrous. Hodgson packed deliberately, and drove away.
Todd Jameson, who comes in with his brother Dan fromFarmingdale, New Jersey, weighed some squash one day, and put it in a brown bag. He set the package down while he weighed something else. Then, reaching for the squash, he picked up an identical bag that happened to contain fifty dollars in rolled coins. He handed it to the customer who had asked for the squash. Too late, Todd discovered the mistake. A couple of hours later, though, the customer--"I'll never forget him as long as I live, the white hair, the glasses, the ruddy face"--came back. He said, "Hey, this isn't squash. I didn't ask for money, I asked for squash." Whenever that man comes to market, the Jamesons give him a bag full of food. "You see, where I come from, that would never, never happen," Todd explains. "If I made a mistake like that in Farmingdale, no one--no one--would come back with fifty dollars' worth of change."
Dusk comes down without further crime in Brooklyn, and the farmers are packing to go. John Labanowski--short, compact, with a beer in his hand--is expounding on his day. "The white people are educating the colored on the use of beet greens," he reports. "A colored woman was telling me today, 'Cut the tops off,' and a white woman spoke up and said, 'Hold it,' and told the colored woman, 'You're throwing the best part away.' They go on talking, and pretty soon the colored woman is saying, 'I'm seventy-three on Monday,' and the white says, 'I don't believe a word you say.' You want to know why I come in here? I come in here for fun. For profit, of course, but for relaxation, too. I like being here with these people. They say the city is a rat race, but they've got it backwards. The farm is what gets to be a rat race. You should come out and see what I--" He is interrupted by the reappearance in the market of Catherine Barta, who went homelong ago and has now returned, her eyes hidden by her wide-brimmed hat, her shopping cart full beside her. On the kitchen table, at 85 Eastern Parkway, she found her telephone bill, her stamps, and her cash. She has come back to the farmers with their food and money.
WEST OF THE SUBURBS, thirty and more miles from Manhattan, the New Jersey-New York border terrain is precipitous and glaciated and--across a considerable area--innocent of high-speed roads. Minor roads run north and south, flanking the walls of hogback ridges--Pochuck Mountain, Bearfort Mountain, Wawayanda Mountain--but the only route that travels westward with any suggestion of efficiency is the Appalachian Trail. The landscape is remarkably similar to Vermont's: small clearings, striated outcroppings, bouldery fields; rail fences under hard maples; angular roads, not well marked, with wooden signs; wild junipers signalling, as they do, penurious soil; unfenced cemeteries on treeless hillsides; conflagrationary colors in the autumn woods. Moving among such scenes, climbing, descending, losing the way and turning back--remarking how similar to rural New England all this is--one sooner or later tops a rise where the comparison in an instant blinks out. Some distance below, and reaching as far as the eye can conveniently see, is a surface perfectly flat, and not merely flat but also level, and not only level but black as carbon. There are half a dozen such phenomena in this region, each as startling to come upon as the last. Across their smooth expanses, distant hills look like shorelines, the edges of obsidian lakes. The black surfaces were, indeed, once fluid andblue--lakes that stood for many centuries where north-flowing streams were blocked by this or that digital terminus of the retreating Laurentide glacier. Streamborne silt and black organic muck gradually replaced the water--prognosticating Lake Mead, Lake Powell, Lake Sakakawea, and the Lake of the Ozarks some years hence when they have filled in solid behind their dams. The surface of the mucklands (as they are called) is not altogether firm. It will support a five-inch globe onion. For that matter, it will support a tractor--but it is not nearly dense enough to hold up a house. There are only a few sheds on the wide flats. People live on "islands," once and present islands, knobs that break through the black surface just as they did when it was blue. Pine Island, New York, is a town in a black-dirt sea--the largest and most productive muckland of them all. Maple Island, Merritts Island, Big Island, Black Walnut Island are spaced across it as well, and their clustered houses resemble small European farming communities. The fields surrounding them seem European, too, for the acreages of black dirt are ruled off in small, familial segments, like vineyards in Valencia or the Côte d'Or. No fences, no hedgerows interrupt the vista or separate one farmer from another. Plots abut. The vegetables that come out of this rich organic soil are in their way as special as wines: tall celeries, moist beets, iceberg lettuce as crisp as new money, soft Boston salad lettuce, broccoli, cauliflower, carrots--and, above all, onions. What the beluga is to caviar the muckland is to the onion. Millions upon millions of onions are grown in the black dirt. Early flat onions. Hybrid onions. Red Globe, White Globe, Yellow Globe onions. Buccaneer, Bronze Age, Benny's Red Onions. Tokyo Long White Bunching Onions. Harvestmore, Ebenezer, Nutmeg Onions. Yellow sweet Spanishlate mild onions. Everywhere you go and everywhere you look are bags and boxes and bushels of onions. Pine Island, where the crop is warehoused, is Onionapolis. The hot days are dry on the muckland. After leaving it, in the evening, farmers sometimes go hopping from island to island, have a beer or two at the Meadow Tavern, and two to four at Mike's Tavern, and four to eight at Leo's Tavern in order to be ready for the Red Onion, a sort of staging area, or base camp, as good a place as any to prepare an all-out assault on the Jolly Onion.
Onion boxes, in this early-autumn harvest season, are in random stacks across the level plain. All day long, harvesting rigs move slowly among them like floating dredges, scooping the powdery soil, "pulling onions." John Labanowski has been pulling onions for twenty days now, stirred toward delirium by the fine black dust, the hammering sun, the asynchronous cacophony of his odd machine. The lower end of a steel conveyor belt, which is angled toward the ground like a stairway, moves forward through the soft earth and nuzzles under the onions. The conveyor consists of runglike rods set apart so that dirt can fall through, but not as far apart as the diameter of an onion. Tops and all, the onions ride uphill. The tops are brittle and dry. Bolted to the rig is a fan that could fly a Jenny. It blows off the tops and scatters them downwind. Clean now, appearing just as they will in a market, the onions reach the top of the conveyor, turn a corner, and roll down a chute. Andy Labanowski, John's uncle, is sitting on a cantilcvered seat shoving crates into place beneath the downpour of onions. Roughly four hundred and fifty will fill a crate--in nine seconds. The crates are wooden and heavy. Their loaded weight is eighty pounds apiece. With his left hand, Andy beginsto case one (on rollers) off the harvester, and with his right hand he moves another one below the falling onions. Empty crates are piled on the harvester almost to the point of toppling, and John feeds them down to Andy while the whole grotesque contrivance is kept in motion by John's father, John Labanowski, who sits out in front on a steel-padded tractor--taciturn, enigmatic, in his visored cap and tinted glasses--and advances the enterprise at ten to the minus seven miles per hour. There are thunderheads along the border of the sky, but even if they were directly above us we could not hear the rumbling. Three separate engines power the rig. We are well into the afternoon now, four of us working this Orange County clipper ship. Our skins are as black as the four of spades. There are white doughnuts around the eyes. Old John has the look of a coal miner moments out of the shaft. His brother, Andy--spare, dark-eyed, gregarious--is courting sunstroke under a Budweiser hat that has turned black. Young John, also called Yash, came to work in high-top leather boots, gray twill trousers, monkey-fist gloves, a blue porkpie hat, and a pink T-shirt--all of which now are solid black. He turns away from a gust of dirt. "You can get blowed out," he says. "Winds blow fine dirt so hard it sometimes cuts the tops. But don't worry. This dirt will never kill you. My father's sixtythree and he's still going."
A stone jams the conveyor, and John the elder stops the tractor, gets off, picks up a wrench, and crushes the stone. When Polish farmers first cleared the muckland, stones were hauled in and dumped on the soil to help it support the weight of horses. There are fifty Labanowskis in the valley now. Their cousins the Osczepinskis--who also go to Greenmarket --farm here, too. The harvester moves on. Its weight shakesthe earth. The tenth part of an acre vibrates around us like a quaking bog. There are cracks in the dry muck--crevasses of a sort--that will go as much as six feet deep. Onions by the hundred are lost in the cracks. The soil is so rich it will burn. Now and then a farmer flicks a cigarette off his rig and starts a ground fire. Old John, who smokes, has put out three such fires on his fifty acres this summer. Blazing black dirt is not easily controlled. In 1964, there was a fire in which a couple of thousand acres of soil burned. The fire crossed many property lines. It was harvest time, and crated onions were stacked across the plain. Fifteen million onions roasted. The fallout quickened appetites in Greece. "There were big winds. You couldn't go nowheres evenings. The air was too thick to see." A tractor blew up. The fire engines of many towns and a firefighting helicopter converged upon the muckland without significant effect. The fire lasted more than a week, and went out under long heavy rains.
John's father, John, flies in chartered aircraft to spy on onions elsewhere in the state. He is the Francis Gary Powers of the Labanowskis. If black-dirt farmers know the stages of the harvest in competitive counties, they can decide whether to wait or pull. Labanowski and his wife and two neighbors hire a twin-engine plane at the airfield that was Stewart Air Force Base, and, taking off over Hodgson's Brussels sprouts, head north by northwest--to Canandaigua, Canastota, Batavia, Elba, Fulton, Oswego. They land in some places and snoop by car. They fly low over other checkpoints and bulbous destinations.
Lurching onward. It is now my turn to align the boxes under the thundering onionfall. One small timing error and two hundred onions crash in your lap, spew out over theground. I somehow lose a foot between two rollers, and nearly crack an ankle. "I guess that's dangerous," I remark, recovering the foot.
"On a farm, everything is dangerous," says Yash.
After thirty minutes of filling boxes, my arms feel as if they have gone eighteen innings each. I scarcely notice, though, under the dictates of the action, the complete concentration on the shifting of the crates, the hypnotic effect--veiling everything else in this black-surfaced hill-bordered surreally level world--of the cascade of golden onions. Onions. Onions. Multilayered, multilevelled, ovate, imbricated, white-fleshed, orange-scaled onions. Native to Asia. Aromatic when bruised. When my turn is over and a break comes for me, I am so crazed with lust for these bulbous herbs--these enlarged, compressed buds--that I run to an unharvested row and pull from the earth a one-pound onion, rip off the membranous bulb coat, bare the flesh, and sink my teeth through leaf after leaf after savory mouth-needling sweet-sharp water-bearing leaf to the flowering stalk that is the center and the secret of the onion. Yash at the end of the day will give me three hundred pounds of onions to take home, and well past the fall they will stand in their sacks in a corner of the kitchen--the pluperfect preservers of sweet, fresh moisture--holding in winter the rains of summer.
We quit in early evening, having filled two thousand crates with a hundred and fifty thousand pounds of onions, which would bring thirty thousand dollars at Greenmarket. prices if only so many could move there. They will bring about eight thousand dollars at the current (and not attractive) wholesale price. They are five per cent of the Labanowski harvest. In the family's packinghouse on Big Island is a tall refrigerator filledto capacity with beer and surrounded by onion crates full of empty cans. We open sixteen cans to smooth off the day. Beer running down our arms streaks them white. We sit on onion crates with the building between us and the falling sun, and we look out over the black lake to forested hills called Mount Adam and Mount Eve. "Yeah, it gets to be a rat race here," says Yash. "In the city, sometimes, I slam things and screech at the customers. I don't know why. We've made a lot of friends there, you know. I sort of favor Brooklyn. The colored go for the big beets there. The whites go for the small beets. I don't know why. Everybody wants the Boston lettuce. I say, 'If I'd known you wanted to buy it this bad, I'd of grew a whole acre for you.' They like to bargain in Brooklyn. My cabbage is fifty cents a head, and they say they want three for a dollar. Tomatoes they watch the scale. I give them two pounds always for a pound and a half. Fifty-ninth Street? That's like high class. At Fifty-ninth Street, I get people with gloves."
FIFTY-NINTH STREET in the rain, and--despite the awning--the apples and peppers are wet.
"Is there a towel?" a customer asks. She wears a white hat, no gloves.
"A towel. Water weighs something, you know."
I give her three and a third pounds for three. "There you are, madam. I weighed your water."
I remember asking Derryck Brooks-Smith, before I'd ever been here, to describe the Fifty-ninth Street Greenmarket forme, and he said, "White people. Mucho white people--or ones passing for white. Be careful with nickels and dimes. People are more careful there than in any other market. Sixty per cent of them are richies, and people who are really making it, and upper middle class, but when you weigh something you have to defend what you say. They'll ask you, 'Why is this a dollar-ten, and not a dollar-five?' They are--shall we say?--a little tight."
Brown bags are breaking open, corn and potatoes spilling into mud. Nonetheless, as midday approaches, the crowd becomes ever more dense and compressed, moving between parallel rows of farmers in complex slow currents.
"Amazing!" I remark across the table. "So many people out in the rain."
"It's this or the supermarket," says a tall woman in a transparent coat, handing me a sack of pears.
"Two pounds even, at three for a dollar twenty-five--that's eighty-five cents, please."
"Twice forty-two is eighty-four."
"Eighty-four, then." Out of one wet dollar. My apron is filled with wet bills. When a twenty comes along, five minutes are required to change it.
"How much are the tomatoes?"
"Three pounds for a dollar."
"How much are the apples?"
"Three pounds for a dollar. It says so there on the sign."
"They are McIntoshes, are they not?"
"Yes, they are."
"Why are they called McIntoshes?"
"After Charles Macintosh (1766-1843), who invented their waterproof skin."
"I'm finally discovering what real vegetables smell like."
"I never knew lima beans came in a pod."
"These beans, they don't snap."
"My bean hasn't snapped in years."
"Where is your lettuce? I'll take a head of lettuce."
"We don't have any lettuce. Try the Labanowskis, across the way."
The rain is not hurting their beautiful lettuce, and Yash is soaked to the skin. In salute, he lifts a Budweiser. People are formed around his truck in scrums. They press in from all sides, bent over, pushing hard, and now and again a head of lettuce flies out to the side. Between beers, the Labanowskis munch carrots. They pick up heads of lettuce and bite into them as if they were large green apples.
"If I had to stay on the farm seven days a week I'd go crazy!" shouts Yash, over the crowd.
"I'd say he went some time ago," mutters a man choosing peppers in a London Fog.
Across the sky immediately to the north of us run the improbable cables of the Roosevelt Island tramway, and from time to time a gondola appears, floating up and eastward, or slowly descending, suspended, increasing the sense of carnival in the scene that lies below. The Greenmarket occupies a quarter of an acre running from Fifty-ninth Street to Fifty-eighth along Second Avenue, bordered with fence-climbing vines and trees of heaven. The lot is rented from the city for a dollar a year. Not long ago it contained a row of shops and restaurants, and upstairs apartments--all of which were wiped out in the name of a fresh approach to the Queensboro Bridge. The approach road has not been built, but tall cooperatives have risen overhead--thirty-six floors and upward, with balconies sprocketing their sides and swimmingpools deep in their kidneys. One building has a Rolls-Royce agency on the ground floor. The Greenmarket's obvious popularity at this address is not altogether welcomed by the people of the big co-ops, and through their community board they and others of the upper East Side have imposed some severe if not Draconian rules. No cider by the glass. No brownies by the square. No bread. No jam. No jelly. No houseplants. No balloons. No banners. No music (the market attracts enough riffraff as it is). No market, in fact, in the early or late season --an articulated suspicion that everything ever sold here has not been grown, as claimed, on regional farms.
"How many acres do you have up there?"
"A hundred and twenty."
"And how many chickens?"
"Forty thousand chickens?"
"Four times ten to the fourth."
"Are they running loose?"
"They are not running anywhere."
"What do you feed them?"
"Grain products, plant-protein products, animal-protein products, processed grain by-products, dehydrated alfalfa meal with Ethoxyquin added as a preservative, ground limestone, salt, calcium iodate ..." Prepared for the question, I am reading from a card. "Cobalt carbonate, copper oxide, copper sulfate, iron sulfate, manganous oxide, zinc oxide, methionine hydroxy analogue calcium, Vitamin A supplement, D-activated animal sterol, niacin, calcium pantothenate, riboflavin supplement, Vitamin B-12 supplement, menadione dimethylpyrimidinol bisulfite, Vitamin E supplement, and folic acid."
"Just as I suspected. And how fresh are the eggs?"
Derryck Brooks-Smith--working Saturday, off from school --speaks up to answer. "They were laid, to be perfectly frank, two days ago or one day ago but not this morning."
"Oh. You call yourself a farmer. The eggs should be fresh."
"They are fresh. The yolks will stand up and yell at you. The average egg in a supermarket is three weeks away from the hen."
Brooks-Smith sells two dozen jumbos to a black man with seven bracelets on each wrist, hair in ringlets, and what appears to be about six pounds of tin around his neck. An occasional star comes in here, a face shot out of the midnight tube, and people also arrive in Lincolns, which they park in the Kinney next door. For the most part, though, they are everyday eye-shadowed urban Americans. A dog is in the market. Male. He is not loose. He is leashed. He is, nonetheless, in the market, and a woman makes strong complaint. "Put up a sign! Keep them out! A person's legs are too precious!" she screams.
She has gained the attention of Bob Lewis. "This woman is referring to the fact that we don't really allow dogs in here," Lewis says quietly to the dog's owner.
"She is crazy, too," says the owner, whose dog is six inches high.
The rain has ended and shafts of bright sun have broken through, with the result that mists are rising. An elderly woman tells me she walked a mile to be here. A big bald man in a button-down shirt is drinking beer from a one-quart can. The can is in a brown bag. "The heaviest consumption of beer in the world is in Belgium," he informs us. "Belgium is one place where I believe I could get in trouble." He buys six pounds of apples and an ear of corn. There is a short manbefore us now in lemon-lime-cherry-and-grape striped trousers and a shirt in bourbon, burgundy, and crème-de-menthe squares. He explains to a neighbor how to bake an eggplant. "Insert holes in it," he tells her, "or the thing will explode."
Man in a Harley-Davidson T-shirt over a gravid half-mast paunch. He wants the telephone number of the community board so he can call and complain that the farmers here are not permitted to sell plants. The number is 679-2287, and Bob Lewis writes it, crossing the stems of the sevens.
Harley-Davidson: "That's a seven?"
"That's the way they write sevens in Europe."
"This isn't Europe. This is America. We've got too many Europeans here. And Spanish. What we need is more Americans, not Spanish. They came here--these animals--and won't learn English."
"Honey! Honey here!" shouts Brooks-Smith. (We have no honey. We never sell honey.)
"Eggs! Eggs! Get your eggs here!" shouts the honey man, across the way.
There is a rhythm in the movement of the crowd, in the stopping, the selecting, the moving on--the time unconsciously budgeted to assess one farm against another, to convict a tomato, to choose a peach. The seller comes to feel the rate of flow, and--for all the small remarks, the meeting of eyes--to feel as well the seclusion of anonymity that comes with the money aprons and the hanging scales. Rich Hodgson --handing them their blue free plums. They don't know he skis in Utah. Melissa Mousseau--changing a twenty for a bag of pears. They don't know that she goes, too. Hemingway and Thueson, the athletes, have heard more encouraging sounds from other crowds. "If you charge for three pounds, give methree full pounds and not two pounds and fifteen ounces, boy."
By a blue Chevrolet panel truck, opposite us, the crowd's rate of flow is perceptibly arrested. The displays there are smaller than most, the list of items shorter. Some of the prices are higher. The zucchini is fifty cents a pound. The corn, the tomatoes, the green beans, the squash are not all superior to their counterparts around the market, and certainly not to ours. So why, then, does the crowd almost crystallize when they come to Alvina Frey? They don't know anything about her except her address (Chad's Farm, Mahwah, New Jersey), if they happen to notice it on the truck, but they can easily sense a consistent standard, a kind of personal signature, in the colors and textures before her.
"What the small farmer offers is fresher, more selected material," Alvina has said. "The small farmer throws away the bad stuff. If my produce is better than some people's, I'll charge more for it. Some of the other guys say I'm Fifth Avenue. I don't care."
She is trim and attractive, petite, with intensity in her narrow, gentle face, and gold earrings that swing and flash. Her hair is short and has flecks of gray in it. Her skin is richly tan, her eyes a bright pale blue. She wears tennis shoes and light-blue denims with bell bottoms and a striped cardigan that looks soft and expensive. At first glance she seems so Short Hills that one wonders whether she is playing, and whether she, as some others have done, starts from home empty and collects her goods on the way to market--hand-me-down potatoes, Hunts Point pears. From years in the sun, though, there are deep radial lines around her eyes. And now, toward the end of the season, her hands are rough, callused, cracked, her fingers like small bananas. Her nails are split, and the skin that surrounds them is dark with terrarian stains.
She is very busy, and pressed for time, selling. But she takes time to educate, too. She tells people not to be impressed by fat cucumbers. The long thin ones have fewer seeds. To the universal question "Is the corn fresh?" she says, "You can tell for yourself." She reaches for an ear and holds it upside down. If the stem at the break is a damp, pale green, the corn has been off the stalk less than a day. After about twenty-four hours, the stem turns white and chalky, opaque. With more time, it turns various shades of brown. The stem at the break of the ear in her hand is damp, pale green.
"Are the beans fresh?"
"Eat one. If you can eat it and it's juicy and not stringy, it's fresh."
People may also sense when they linger close around Alvina Frey that she is--perhaps a little more than anyone else here--what the Greenmarket is about. Not far from the city, she works a long-established farm that, before the Greenmarket, was on its way to being cut up and sold. While the Hodgsons look for new ground and the Van Houtens have found it, Alvina is all but desperate to hold the farm she has, which her grandmother farmed before her. Her grandmother, in fact, cleared the land. The grandmother's name was Alwine Pelz, and she was born on a farm in Saxony in the eighteen-sixties, emigrating as an adult to New Jersey. Her husband was a loom mechanic, and he found a job in a Paterson mill while she looked through the country for a farm. Fifteen miles northeast of Paterson, in the township of Ho-Ho-Kus, she bought fifty-five acres, close by the New York State line. To irrigate her crops, she dug a well, and walled it with fieldstone, topped by four stone columns and a pagoda roof. With her husband's help, she then constructed a fieldstone barn. "She did what she knew how to do, my grandmother--she farmed.When my grandfather went to the mills in Paterson, he took her tomatoes, corn, beans, potatoes, beets--you name it--to the Island Market and sold them there. He went down with his horse and wagon. He didn't have a truck until the late twenties. My grandmother grew strawberries, too--two or three acres of them--and she had apples. She made cider, and I know damned well that during Prohibition she made hooch. She worked every day out in the fields until six months before she died. She was ninety-one years old. She farmed with horses. She never went in for anything mechanized. Neither did I, at first. Toward the end, when stuff grows high, you can't get in with a tractor. I had horses until fifteen years ago. About the only mechanical thing my grandmother ever had was the cider mill. It was steam-driven and made an awful racket. The ones that lived over the hill, they used to complain."
Her nearest neighbors are no longer over the hill. They are on the hill, around the hill, in the hill. The farm is on an old, blacktopped crown road that has become a suburban street, with a Little League field, swimming pools, trim lawns, and mini-wheelbarrows a foot high that have house numbers on their sides. The well is still there, however--its masonry tight, its water serving the farm. The stone barn is a high and beautiful structure that is now covered, like a superannuated college, with ivy. The countryside Alvina remembers from her girlhood had many truck farms, dairy farms, separating what have become contiguous towns: a future that the New Jersey State Highway Department began to sketch in the nineteen-thirties, when it created what is now Route 17, a north-south bifurcation of Bergen County, its purpose being to bring the Catskills closer to the city. Alvina remembers the new roadrunning through garden country with rich dark earth full of carrots, radishes, and beets. All of what is now Paramus--of what is now a levitated Levittown with houses checkered to the curve of the earth--was celeryland and lettuceland. Where Okonite and Minolta are now, Alvina's father, Frank Pelz, had a farm of his own. The day the new road opened he went down it with a load of cabbages. The truck body was not bolted on well, and the load shook loose--heads all over the road. Route 17 has come to be called a "butcher boulevard," and when heads roll on it now they are more likely to be human. Alvina is safe enough at six in the morning as the Chad's Farm truck moves south toward the city past the Olds-Toyota and the Swiss Chalet, past the Tiffany Diner and Pay Less Building Supply, past steak houses the size of high schools. Castle Auto Truck Parts (turrets, battlements). Car Crazy Eddie. The Value House. The Cottage Beautiful. Mc-Donald's, Burger King, Shatzi's Hofbrauhaus (Bavarian half-timber). John Barleycorn's Restaurant. The Golden Plough (a barn full of steak and lobsters). The Jade Fountain ("Chinese-Polynesian"). Nasser Aftab's House of Carpets. When Route 17 opened, New Jersey had twenty-nine thousand farms. Today there are seventy-nine hundred. Only forty-eight are left in all of Bergen County, and one is Alvina Frey's.
After her grandmother was gone and her father, too, Alvina worked the place with her first husband, Chad Chodorowski, and for some years they sold all their produce wholesale, mainly in Paterson. Eventually they built a roadside stand. The day it opened, in 1968, Chad suffered a heart attack. A year later, he died. Alvina's grandmother had had ten children, most of whom helped her with the farm. Alvina has no children. She has reduced the acreage under cultivation tothirty-eight, and works it generally alone, with part-time help in the fields and in the stand. Her husband, Ed Frey, assists to some extent, but he is an excavator with a full-time business of his own, and while she is digging furrows he digs sewers and graves. "I love to see stuff grow. When it doesn't do well I could cry," she says. "But I don't like herbicide. The last time I used it was in tomatoes. I use as little chemical as I possibly can."
People who come regularly to the Greenmarket often bring things to Alvina. At Fifty-ninth Street, an elderly woman appears weekly with a container of orange juice for her. When there is no juice, Alvina sucks on the ice with which John Labanowski chills his beer. People take pictures of her. They invite her up for coffee. "I got one customer here at Fifty-ninth Street who's a drinker, male--a damned good-looking distinguished man, even if he drinks. He once brought me a hard-boiled egg in clear gelatin. Some kind of French dish. You don't like it, but you have to eat it." She receives weekly reports from a man who once bought a gourd. Following her directions, he cut holes in it and hung it out a twentieth-story window. A bird came to live in his gourd.
"I love the city--meeting different people, learning that all the things you learn about the city are not true. I see more people in the two markets I come to--Brooklyn and Fifty-ninth Street--than I do in several weeks in Mahwah at the stand. I wouldn't quit this for nothing in the world. The people are wonderful, and the market means a lot to them. They don't want anything to screw it up so we won't come in anymore."
A short time ago, Chad's Farm was drifting down a long and steady economic decline. In the wholesale markets, themiddleman, in her opinion, wanted too much. A couple of years ago, a half bushel of tomatoes brought as much as four dollars and fifty cents. Now it brings five dollars, a difference that fails to compensate for the inflating costs of gasoline, fertilizer, utilities, containers, and dust. "I'm too small for Hunts Point and too big to make a living only out of a roadside stand. There was four of us--farmers--on my road once. When Johnny Werling went out of business he was forty. He finally had to get a job. That's rough--to farm all your life and then have to get a job. That's where I was headed when the Greenmarket came along. The Greenmarket is a godsend. Next year, I'd like to do different. I'd like to rent out my stand and come into the city every day."
Copyright © 1975, 1976, 1978, 1979 by John McPhee