Giving Up the Garden

“Hey!” a high-pitched voice called down to me. I stopped raking and looked up: The owner of the voice was a boy, maybe five or six, who was sitting on the fire escape of the apartment two floors above mine. He was sucking on a bright blue Popsicle, his brown legs dangling through the railings.

“Hey,” I said back. Setting the rake aside, I shaded my eyes to see him better.

“Watchu doin’?” the boy asked, kicking one sneaker back and forth. His lips were the color of Windex.

“Raking the dirt,” I replied, somewhat halfheartedly.

The boy regarded me for a moment. Then he said, “Why?”

It was a good question. For almost a week I’d spent my afternoons fruitlessly attacking the dense-packed mud in the “yard” of my first-floor Brooklyn flat. It was April, and I’d moved to the apartment from farm country just a month earlier. Nostalgic for the lawn and garden I’d left behind, I’d had visions of turning the dingy, twelve-foot square outside my new back door into a blooming oasis of azalea bushes and perennial beds. What I especially wanted, though, was grass—a patch of sweet-smelling green that I could walk in barefoot, like I had back home.

So far, though, the little piece of ground had stubbornly resisted my efforts. The dirt, which had probably sat untouched for the last half-century, was hard and unyielding as asphalt. Determined, I’d lugged gardening tools and an economy-sized bag of peat moss on the subway from a nursery on Atlantic Avenue, but I was under no illusions; it would take weeks of hacking, sifting, and aerating for anything to be able to grow there.

Of course, this was all much too complicated to explain to the kid on the fire escape, who was still watching me. So, taking up my rake again, I said, “Well, I want to grow stuff down here.”

The boy looked at me silently, running a turquoise tongue over his lips. Then he got up from his perch.

“You crazy,” he said, and then disappeared through the window to his apartment. Later, beneath where he’d been sitting, the tines of my rake snagged in a half-buried nest of splintered Popsicle sticks.

There were many such artifacts waiting for me in the mud, as it turned out; over the next few days, as I dug deeper, my little yard became a sort of urban archeological site. I unearthed beer bottles and candy wrappers and spent batteries, soggy matchbooks and broken plastic forks, half a purple china mug, a matted Dr. Scholls insole, and a one-armed Han Solo action figure. There were rusty wire hangers, peach pits, kitchen magnets in the shape of alphabet letters, hair barrettes and cigarette butts, empty Chapstick tubes and about a hundred of those metal pull-tabs that used to come off soda cans. One day I found a wet, filthy dollar bill; on another I discovered a decapitated Barbie like a tiny homicide victim. I shoveled all of it into garbage bags and dragged it to the bins out front, where my building mates were always sitting on the stoop, smoking and talking after work.

Slowly, I made progress. There was one major setback after a heavy rain, which turned my carefully fluffed soil back into a slimy, Fudgsicle-like slab, but once I carved little drainage trenches around the edges of the yard things began to dry out again. I mixed in a second bag of peat moss. I bought fertilizer and a garden hose. Finally, feeling victorious, I scattered thick handfuls of grass seed over everything.

That night I called a friend back in rural Massachusetts, where I’d moved from.

“Guess what?” I said. “I’m going to be the first person on my block to have my own yard!”

I knew that it would take four or five days for the grass seed to send up sprouts, but I could hardly wait. I went to bed on the third night—the first warm night of the season—imagining that I’d wake to see tiny green threads poking through the dirt, evidence of my success.

When my alarm clock rang in the morning, I leapt out of bed and made for the glass-paned back door (which would let me gaze through the safety bars at a mass of color once my garden was in bloom). But as I approached, something seemed weird. The view of my yard seemed to be obscured by something, some sort of billowing white cloud. Fog? I rubbed my sleep-blurred eyes.

The mystery was solved as soon as I opened the door. In all the time I’d worked on my yard, I’d never given a thought to the crisscrossed network of laundry lines that hovered just a few feet over my head, suspended between the fire escapes above. Now, though, it was clear that my neighbors had been awaiting the warm weather for their own reason: a chance to save money on the dryers at the laundromat. The fluttering white cloud I’d seen through my window (which, I could now see, bore a pattern of faded pink roses) was actually a set of sagging queen-sized sheets, so heavy on their line that they practically grazed the ground. They brushed my face as I ducked under them, and dodged several swinging pairs of jeans, to see the few little grass shoots that had emerged overnight.

The balmy, sunny weather continued over the next week, and so did the loaded clotheslines. The laundry blocked out the sun, and after a few days my little blades of grass had wilted and died. The following Saturday I considered starting over, but I felt too discouraged. What was the point of having a garden I’d never be able to sit in, or even see, for all the drooping towels and sweatshirts?

That afternoon I gathered up my garden hose, rake, spade and trowels, and a half-empty bag of fertilizer, and left them on the sidewalk in front of my building. (True to form, the invisible neighborhood scavengers made off with them within a half-hour.) And that evening, feeling resigned—maybe even a little relieved—I decided to enjoy the weather like a city person: by taking a spot on the front stoop, and getting to know my neighbors.

From Divine, 2006