Nearing the End of A Long, Hard Career, 2010
The farmer’s market where I shop has 40 to 50 vendors at the peak of the summer, and while it’s open three nights a week, Friday is the happening night. It’s away from the city in a more rural area, but there’s a traffic jam at the intersection in the middle of nowhere on Friday night.
It’s been open since right after WWII, May to November, and several of the largest truck farms around are there as well as some of the smallest farmers. I enjoy shopping there, being part of the bustle and noise, looking at all the beautiful produce, buying something from as many stands as possible and saying a meaningful “thank you” to each one, knowing the person I’m paying is the one who picked the stuff today, cleaned and packed it for tonight, and is also the person who planted and grew it.
Whenever these gentlemen are there I can always find something to buy from them, and this Friday I found myself among a crowd of others who do the same. The two men are uncle and nephew, and the younger man, in the background, is in a wheelchair. They never have a lot of stuff, compared to the other vendors, but just enough to handle it seems.
The older man moves a little slowly and he can’t always make change well, but nobody minds, everyone is patient. He’s a little difficult to understand because he apparently has no teeth, and the place is so noisy, but we do our best. The other man tries to help him but he has some motor coordination issues in his hands. It’s no problem to wait an extra few seconds.
While we waited for him to pack peppers into a paper bag for another person at the table, the man in front of me asked him how much the peaches were: $2.50 per basket. He turned around to me and asked if I was getting the peaches too. No, I was getting some potatoes, neatly scrubbed and positively glowing in the evening light. I always buy from these guys when they’re here, I said. The man in front of me nodded, Me too.
The woman paying for peppers looked at us and nodded as well, and the man behind her. We looked around at others smiling and nodding—and I had nearly whispered it to the man ahead of me, but the message must have resonated with all of us waiting in line. What a wonderful thing to know.
Through the years I’ve learned little, but they’ve been coming here since the market opened. They are both veterans, of WWII and Viet Nam, and lifelong farmers, but I wonder how they manage to prepare and load crates of vegetables in the truck. I wonder where they find the strength to get up in the morning.
I don’t want to ask probing questions, but I looked at the older man’s hardened, thin body and gaunt face and I know he’s worked hard, physically hard, every day, in a way most of us would never stand up to.
And yet he is always, always smiling. When I point out the basket of potatoes I’d like and he picks up a paper bag, I hand him one I’ve brought that’s already open. Here, use this, save your new one for someone else, I say. He smiles even broader, Thanks, honey, he says.
What the heck is he thanking me for?
We all want to help these two in some way, knowing this evening gig is probably hard for both of them, but the best way to help them is by doing just what we’re doing—buying something from them.
I want to thank them, though, for growing vegetables so well, for coming there every week, for working so hard for so many years and providing food for thousands of people, for supporting our economy, for staying with farming when it’s so difficult, for serving in the armed forces, for being a symbol of so many things I’ve always seen as good about this country.
Thank you, I say as he hands me my change. I can’t stand there and thank him for all those things, but I can at least say “thank you”.
And I think he knows I don’t mean it’s just for the transaction. I think that understanding is what’s behind his smile.