Where tomatoes grew, a hateful patch of sod
I’m not in the habit of using my column to publicly mock Tribune readers who may disagree with my views. Readers are our customers. And our customers feed our families and help put food — including tomatoes — on our tables.
Besides, it takes a village, remember?
But lately, people have been writing me on an extremely touchy subject. No, not about the Mueller report. If you haven’t figured out by now that Russia’s Vladimir Putin took our national mania to make politics into our religion and used it to play Democrats and Republicans against each other in the mother of all disinformation campaigns, I really can’t help you.
Simply eat of the lotus fruit, rely on Google to protect intellectual freedom and forget the republic.
Today, I’ve got more important local issues to dealt with.
As local as that hateful patch of green sod in my backyard — a dark green 30-by-30 foot square — where I once sought refuge from the red meat of politics, social media “woke scolds” and never-ending deadline pressure.
It was a place to get away, with a roll of jute in my pocket, tending vines and listening to White Sox games on the radio, thinking of what kind of player Luis Robert might grow into once he gets to the majors. A place to hear the sound of water in the mornings before work, listening to Baroque music and listening to June bugs in the evening after work and the column is done.
But there, I find refuge no more. I can’t even look at it now. I hate the green of the grass on it.
Yes, I know that I’m backing into this slowly. So what? Please indulge me, because it hurts, like this most kind and gracious letter from reader Jack Erlinger of Hoffman Estates, so kind that it cuts me even more deeply.
“I am concerned that politics and other ‘Chicago Way’ subjects are distracting you from what is REALLY important, home grown tomatoes,” writes Jack. “I haven’t read a thing in your columns recently on how your garden is doing & whether Zeus the Wonder Dog is protecting against invaders. Yes, it’s been a horrible start to the Tomato crop, mine caught a curly leaf disease, but they are coming back now. I start mine from seeds, many I harvest myself, I become attached to the plants as if they are part of my family. Thankfully, this recent hot weather has help. The flowers are abundant & ARE producing tiny Tomatoes. Heck, I have some Cherry Tomatoes that are ready to eat today. Now THAT is something to be happy about! “I offer you encouragement and hope your garden survived a horrible spring! (from a Tomato plants viewpoint). Hope to read something soon regarding your garden. Jack in Hoffman Estates”
Well, Jack, I don’t know what to say. I’m struck dumb with grief and self-loathing, so I’d better tread carefully. And I haven’t responded to Ann Baker and George P. Illiopoulos (who has a fantastic tomato crop) and other gardeners, including the Yoda of Tomatoes himself, Mike Hartley, of Huntley, and many, many more.
You’ve all asked about my garden. That’s what gardeners do. We ask. But here’s the thing:
I have no tomato garden this year. There, I said it. And I leave that sentence alone, so that I may contemplate its simple misery forever.
Editors around here have suggested that I “come clean” with readers about my garden issue, but I haven’t, most probably out of shame. A gardener becomes attached to their garden, the way some of us become attached to our jobs and are defined by them. A garden is a place to go to in the morning.
But I thought, with all that’s gone on this year, that I wouldn’t have the time and energy to devote hours to it each day. It takes time to water, to tend and to wait with Zeus for rabbit invaders. It takes time to sweep the dirt off the landscape fabric like a crazy man; and time to snip the perfect tips of purslane for salad.
So, I stupidly, foolishly made a bad garden choice. I ended it. And now I hate myself.
The landscape men came and removed the timbers that once outlined the swingset area for the kids that eventually became my garden. They wheeled in their hateful green sod and covered the loamy soil beneath. That soil that took me years to get just right, adding that smelly compost I made the mistake of loading into Betty’s car.
The men with the sod nodded to me. But I couldn’t even look at them.
And I couldn’t look at kind letters from other gardeners, such as that one from Jack in Hoffman Estates or from many of you out there who wanted to talk about tomatoes and all the rain this year in pursuit of Yemista (stuffed tomatoes) and the classic tomato, bacon and lettuce sandwich.
My friend Bill at the cigar store tells me about nuns on the South Side in my old neighborhood who have a tremendous garden. They don’t wear habits, but I might visit them. Just to watch them work it and talk.
And I’m told of a great tomato garden near a suburban high school that involves kids with special needs. I want to visit that garden too.
And next year? Next year I’m going to have my own garden.
Listen to “The Chicago Way” podcast with John Kass and Jeff Carlin — at www.wgnradio.com/category/wgn-plus/thechicagoway.