I was right when I wrote that the Drunk Old Guy wouldn’t last much longer in our garden. I would have overlooked all the minor stuff he agreed to stop doing, then took up again within the week. But while I was in LA this weekend, the neighbors told my co-manager Denise that they didn’t want him living in his van outside the garden anymore, and that he took off in his van after hitting a parked car. Denise is a doer, so she had him out and the lock changed within the day. I don’t miss him, but I also didn’t need Amy asking me how I would feel if he killed himself because we all know that the garden is the thing he loved most in life and what else does he have anyway? Jeez, Amy.
You know how long it took to get replacement garden drama? That’s right – one day. Denise has given Blonde repeated warnings not to leave junk around the garden, so when Denise found three large garbage bags full of cans in the shed on Monday, she put them out on the street. Blonde has been at the garden since the first day. She’s always been a mildly erratic gardener, leaving her plot untended until the day she shows up with a twelve-pack of Natural Light and some baby plants, and re-makes her plot in a fourteen hour blitz. She is also the worst violator of the only rule I care deeply about: no kitsch in the garden.
Blonde called me three times last night, pissed and crying and frantic. She has been laid off (?) from her job at the bakery; to make ends meet, she has been canning. Monday night, after searching trash cans and dumpsters until four in the morning, she left her three bags of cans and bottles at the garden while she went home to get warm and get some sleep. She figures she collected $25 worth of cans, which she intended to spend on her grandson’s birthday present. Each time she got to the part about her grandson’s birthday, she just dissolved into wails. In between sobbing over her lost night’s work, she was furious. Are we ashamed of her for canning? Don’t we know that she takes care of her own? Do we hate recyclers*? We are thieves! Purely mean thieves, who owe her twenty-five dollars! For her grandson’s birthday, and we are back to crying… .
An hour of listening to Blonde left me with two unresolved thoughts. First, it reminded me how terrible it feels to be broke. I was out of work for longer than I want to tell the lot of you after grad school. I remember how each dollar carried such a huge weight, cast a constant fog of worry that was hard to breathe through. If Blonde is feeling like that, $25 is a huge, riveting, utterly compelling amount of potential relief, so important that calling relative strangers to cry and scream at them is trivial, nothing. I also remember how kind people were; how my generous friends would murmur to me that they were taking me out this time (as if I could pay next time – although now I do). I could pass that on to Blonde; to me, $25 means I can’t binge on more plants for my porch this month. Also, as bleak as I remember that time being, I never once considered spending a night climbing into dumpsters for aluminum cans. Because I got lucky at birth, the worst it can get for me is a very unpleasant conversation with my parents.
And then I wonder about the nature of the community garden. The Drunk Old Guy and Blonde are both running afoul of some basic, common sense rules. Don’t shit in the shed; don’t drink in your van all day and bother the neighbors; don’t store your not-garden-related crap in the garden. Right? Obvious rules. But those rules are easy for people who have options; those rules would never constrain me, who can go home to get drunk or shit and never have to find a way to carry three full garbage bags home at four in the morning when I am cold and exhausted. Does creating and enforcing a largely reasonable set of rules have the effect of driving poor people out of a garden designed for the community? Does not enforcing the same rules drive middle class people out of the same garden? You know what? If we can get a garden meeting together to talk about rules, I honestly don’t care how it comes out. I just want people to consciously make that explicit choice; to be aware that these rules that make the garden more pleasant may make life harder for people that have bad choices in front of them all day long and also at four in the morning.
*Which sends me spinning off into the debate over whether taking bottles out of my blue bin robs the city recycling program of its most valuable assets, a topic I managed not to discuss with Blonde. I have also not figured out how to broach that with the aged, four-foot Southeast Asian woman who looks me straight in the eye as she goes through my recycling and would surely kick my ass in any fight I can imagine. She’s going to eat all the grapes on my fence, too and still I yield. I am a coward.