I had an adventure Saturday. I went to visit friends who’ve recently bought a 5-acre farm literally on the edge of Florida’s Everglades (so in a sense they have 5 million acres) 45 minutes southwest of downtown Miami.
Just getting there was amazing – Florida’s turnpike has replaced toll-takers with cameras that record your license plate. You speed through “the toll booth” at 65 miles an hour. (Much faster and I assume you’re dinged for a speeding ticket too.) Saves time, saves gas, saves tax-payer dollars.
I was in a Hertz rental, my own 1997 Jeep Grand Cherokee – explained here – having died from disuse. But the Hertz computer is apparently tied in to the EZ Pass computer, so through the toll booths I sped.
My destination was (and I am disguising this only slightly, to preserve their privacy), “the corner of Southwest 206th Avenue and 392nd Street.” Can you imagine? Manhattan, with millions of residents, only goes up to 12th Avenue. Beyond that is the river. Three Hundred-Ninety-Second Street? That would put you practically in New Hampshire.
“Keep going past the prison,” read my friends’ directions. (And pass the alligator farm.)
The “big house” I was aiming for is their own – solid, three storeys, built shortly before Hurricane Andrew wiped away almost everything else in 1992.
Turn at the Starbucks . . . then, at Robert’s roadside fruit stand (I’ll come back to that), keep going as the paved road narrows and eventually becomes dirt . . . you will see standard green-and-white reflective street signs but may notice that they sit cemented in old used tires. If you’re feeling prankish, you can just move them.
Great. I’m going to get lost, run out of gas, and eaten by alligators.
To avoid this, we agreed to meet at the fruit stand (I’ll come back to that). Like tugboats meeting an ocean liner (or in this case a Toyota Corolla), they would meet me and guide me in.
Their Everglades-abutting 5 acres with that solid three-storey home includes a pond and faux waterfall; and an enormous growing pavilion – a giant, empty one-storey structure made of fabric walls and ceiling, with irrigation tubes ready to rain from the ceiling.
They bought all this out of foreclosure for $275,000 – 60% less than the the bank had lent against it. I think that, even in today’s market, they got a good deal. Unless they are eaten by an alligator or asphyxiated by an anaconda. Or mauled by a bobcat. Or accidentally shot by one of their neighbors (in the distance one could hear a good bit of target practice going on).
I wore long pants and Rockports, expecting reptiles and muck – click here for a story on how Florida’s Republican legislature and governor are perhaps even less enthusiastic about wetlands than I am (I, at least, would like to preserve them) – but the worst I encountered was a spider.
Rather, the place was all about the trees, none of them more than 19 years old (did I mention hurricane Andrew?), yet palms reaching to the sky, a “plum” tree whose yellow apricot-like fruit (with two or three pits each) were about the most delicious things I’ve ever tasted (“grow more of these,” I urgently suggested to my friends), an avocado tree large enough to supply all Delaware with guacamole, a pink-grapefruit tree, bougainvillea (of course – this is Florida), and a tree with a green tubular trunk and branches that appeared to have erections on every branch waiting to explode into sprays of purple flowers, as many of them already had. My friends called it their “happy tree.”
They get great Internet and cell reception. (As an urban customer of AT&T, I needn’t belabor the irony.)
After checking my email and making BAUXITE with the last seven letters of the computer Scrabble game I was finishing, I put all that away and watched as they hauled out the Bocce balls. I learned a new game. Basically, it goes like this: one player tosses out the little ball that you then try to get your four much bigger balls to come closest to. You can roll your ball toward the little baby ball, but on the clumpy twig-strewn lawn, it can easily go astray. So I got the idea of lofting my ball in a very high arc, so it would basically just fall – thunk – next to the little ball and I’d win at Bocce as I had with BAUXITE. Except that (and I had forgotten this because they had plied me with wine coolers just prior to suggesting we play for money) I throw like a . . . well, let’s just say baseball was something I truly dreaded as a kid, and Bocce balls are roughly the same size and shape. So when I threw mine way up high, so it would come almost straight down – thunk – by the little ball and not roll, so mine would be closest to the little ball and I would get a point for each of their balls that was further away, we all but instantly realized I had miscalculated and that my hard plastic ball was very possibly going to come down – thunk – on the hood of my rented Toyota Corolla.
Oh, God, oh, God, oh, God, I thought as I watched it come down. A totally disproportionate response to the possible consequences, to be sure; but emotional muscles flexed that I had not used since the clever time, age eight, I had pretended to throw a dart at my baby sitter, only forgetting to let go behind my shoulder before throwing my hand in her direction.
The baby sitter survived, the Toyota Corolla escaped by a couple of feet, I lost $8, and we went inside for dinner.
FLASHBACK: It is 52 years ago, a Saturday. A young boy in an exurban New York back yard fails to raise his mitt fast enough and gets hit in the eye. His Dad comes running, terrified (oh, God, oh, God, oh, God!), to see if he’s okay (on some level he must have known his son was not born for baseball). He will be fine, with nothing more than a world-class black eye.
CUT TO: A six-year-old boy named Robert at more or less the same instant* being deposited on the side of the road at what is now the corner of Southwest 192nd Avenue and 344th Street with a bushel of cucumbers to sell.
Robert sat all day that Saturday and no one even stopped. That evening, Robert’s father decided that “there can’t be that many people who don’t like cucumbers; they must not see this little boy standing here on the corner.”
The next day, Robert’s father placed a sign on each side of the table proclaiming in big red letters “Robert Is Here.” By noon Robert had sold all of the cucumbers and walked home. The following weekend, a neighboring farmer added tomatoes to Robert’s display and a fruit stand was born. Robert was out here on the corner every day during Christmas break with his little sister, Rose, helping him. When school started again in January of 1960, Robert’s mother made arrangements for the bus to pick him up and drop him off at the fruit stand. Robert and his mother would set up each morning and leave a coffee can on the table. Customers paid by leaving the money in the can using the honor system. The bus would drop Robert off after school and he would work his stand until it got dark and his mother took him home for his bath and supper. By the time Robert was nine years old, he had hired a neighbor lady to work for him while he was in school. Robert bought his first ten-acres of property when he was fourteen. He planted an avocado grove on it and rented out the house. . . .
PRESENT TIME: Another Saturday. The young boy, now grown with no trace of injury, pulls his Toyota Corolla into Robert Is Here, having read about it on the Internet. (There is now, 52 years later, an Internet.) He listens to a rough contemporary playing electric guitar – songs from his era – for the entertainment of the shopping throng. And there, at the central cash register, is Robert.
“You’re Robert!” I said, still enjoying his story and my adventure to the Everglades.
“I am,” he smiled.
“Well, I just have to shake your hand.” Only in America, right?
Robert seemed pleased. (Robert seemed also to be raking it in. Can an offer from Warren Buffett be far behind? Robert’s fruit stand is like the Nebraska Furniture Mart, only further out in the boonies, selling bananas instead of bedroom sets.)
He turned to the next customer and I turned back to perusing the tomatoes – the tomatoes looked so good – and the next minute I am being tapped on the shoulder. Robert hands me a personally sliced mango center, with a napkin base for efficient, sanitary hand-off and consumption. It is wonderful. Robert has made a friend for life.
And so it came to pass that while my weekend farm friends were eating barbecued chicken from Publix, I was eating sliced tomatoes from Robert’s . . . with a dozen more back in the car to take home for future consumption.
Sea salt, a little pepper (and be sure to slice thick, vertically when you’re holding the tomato between thumb and forefinger on its side) (and cold from the refrigerator, however much the great chefs, like Charles, disagree) – does it get better than this?
It. Does. Not.
And that’s not the mango wine talking (although the mango wine was actually pretty good) because I was driving home – had to get back to good safe pavement before dark – and needed a clear head.
We discussed plans for the farm, the need to find the proper Latin name for the happy tree (I’ve spent 20 minutes Googling and still can’t. Anyone? Anyone?) and the idea one of my friends had – in response to the problem of a new antibiotic-resistant strain of infection he had read about – that we should replace germ-passing handshakes with sterile little bows, or elbow bumps or something. (The mango wine was actually pretty good. Did I just say that?)
I was home before ten, adventure concluded, doing email. Move over, “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”
*There’s no reason to think these two things really happened at the same time – I think mine actually happened a year earlier. It’s called dramatic license, for crying out loud.