Harvesting Hope From a City Garden

Inspiration often comes from unexpected places.

During one of the roughest periods of my life, I used to drive south on 295 to East Capitol every morning, swing by the Robert F. Kennedy Stadium, and down one of the residential streets into Washington, D.C., for work. I was not alone.

There was a stream of cars in front of and behind me. At times we moved fast, but often we inched along the one-way street into the city. There were so many of us and, of course, we all had to be in at the same hour. The houses we passed were old and well worn, the front yards small, most of them surrounded with picket or board fences.

One day as I zoomed past, I saw an elderly man working industriously in his yard. Just peeking up over his picket fence were the bright green tassels of ... corn. Yes, corn. He had half his tiny yard planted in corn. Not an expected sight just blocks from the Capitol.

One of the problems in coming from Kansas is that everyone thinks you have spent your early life on a farm and are automatically an expert on all things agricultural. Identifying oneself as a city girl from Kansas seems always to disappoint. But one thing I do know: Corn is not your easiest crop to grow.

Now, I myself had grown tomatoes and radishes in a small plot in the Maryland 'burbs. I had even grown potatoes, a favorite since my grandfather (who was at one time a farmer, and always a gardener) showed me how.

You can plant the tiniest piece of potato with an eye in it, and later you will be digging up lots and lots of potatoes. Potatoes are generous. Corn is not. While you can get 10 or more potatoes from that small part you planted, you get only two ears of corn from a stalk. A stalk is one plant. That's about enough for a medium-hungry person at one sitting.

I was disillusioned when I helped my grandfather pick corn. "Only two?" I said as I searched up and down the stalk for more. I couldn't believe, after the potatoes' abundance, that corn was so stingy. "Only two," my grandfather said. "You have to plant a lot of corn to make it worthwhile."

And here was a D.C. resident who had done just that. I don't know how many stalks he had, but day by day we all watched those stalks go up.

Every morning, he was out there tending them. From time to time as I crept by in slow traffic in the far-left lane, he would be working by his fence barely three feet away, and we would make eye contact. I smiled, and he, being obviously a gentleman of the old school, nodded and smiled back.

There was never enough time to say anything. First, I didn't know what to say to this perfect stranger with admirable gifts, and second, mornings were pretty awful in those days. I was a recently "displaced homemaker" with two small children, entering the business world for the first time. I was hurt, scared, and slow at picking up my new job. And each day I hoped that the old, well-used car I had been left with would make it to the office.

SO every day, there we all were, filling his morning air with carbon monoxide, noise, and hurry, and there he was, growing corn. We commuters never seemed to daunt him; he was always genial, always nodding and smiling when you caught his eye. And his corn got taller and taller. It towered way over his head. Even the stalks closest to the fence, and therefore closest to us, the polluters, flourished.

And somehow, during that long, lonely summer, I needed to see that corn. To me, every morning headed for a job I was not gifted at, it was the impossible happening before my eyes.

By fall, I was not so hurt, or scared, and I knew my job. The car gobbled up a new clutch, new brakes, a new distributor cap and battery, but it hung right in there, depositing me to my office faithfully, if fitfully. The corn, of course, was finished. One day it was gone, the yard bare and clean-looking. Tidy, but stark.

That winter, my office moved, and I found a faster way to work. A year or so later, I happened down that street again one summer day, and there he was, tending the tall green stalks.

I wish now that I had said something. I wish I could have let him know how much his efforts meant. How often that summer, shrinking before the seemingly impossible, I had said to myself, "Wait a minute: I know a man growing corn on C Street!"

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