It started with a bisexual, nymphomaniac girlfriend and went downhill from there. I know it sounds like fun—it’s the ultimate fantasy, a girl with powerful appetites. She not only liked to masturbate in front of me, but went shopping with me for sex toys, both of us flushed and anxious, our heads stuffed with cotton candy, our slick skin eager to be stroked. But then the cocaine came out and the LSD was taken and the next thing I knew she was sucking a guy’s dick in our studio apartment, not really understanding what the word “fluffing” meant, his photograph about to go out into the world, a swinging single looking for a partner. And I was somehow shocked at what happened. There were rules in place, believe it or not, and they were quickly broken. She pulled up her skirt in the back alley of a hotel restaurant, the hostess with the mostest, her blonde waitress friend down on her knees. She jacked up any guy that approached her on the dance floor, and my jealousy surprised me. So I brought home two girls when she was out of town, this opportunity that fell into my lap a once in a lifetime charity that I could not deny. Between the Aussie and the Brit there was only a blur of limbs and a chorus of moaning. The next morning it was all “please take a pair of complimentary sunglasses on your way out the door and thanks for playing.” I was the last fling of a pool hall diva dressed in skin-tight black from head to toe, cleavage and long legs and the sun came up once again.

I hadn’t hit the road yet. I was still trying to leave.

It ended, as all things did back them, the drama of youth, with screaming and tears—whatever had been there shattered into jagged fragments of innocence lost, intimacy turned out for the world to see, and nothing was special anymore.

A road trip was offered up by my Hacky Sack beach bum buddy. How could this possibly go wrong? We would head down to glorious Conway, Arkansas, work some crappy jobs and save up a few grand, buy a junker of a car and head out to California, the wanderlust running across our itchy flesh, eager to find adventure.

Conway was not the place to find it.

The first hint that things would not go well emerged when the plane landed, when my friend informed me that his parents were not expecting the both of us, just him it turns out, the prodigal son. Unpacking our bags, a lukewarm reception was making me sweat, and my bag of pot had disappeared. He had smoked it before we even left Chicago.

A college degree and extensive computer skills did not go over well in the Bible Belt—that kind of office work was for the women down here. There were factory jobs at $4 an hour, and those were the best gigs in town. My friend came home covered in lint—he worked with toilet paper and paper towels. I stumbled home with a stiff neck from looking over my shoulder all the time. I ate out of a vending machine, not realizing that talking to the girls that worked there was akin to fingering them in the back of a pickup truck. Their men didn’t like it. The lifers down in Conway liked it even less when I got promoted to my own assembly line, troubleshooting a massive machine of metal and gears, computer parts flowing down a conveyor belt, grease and hammers and tobacco spit at my feet. Soon, I avoided the break room at all costs. For my dinner I drove the borrowed family car to a nearby McDonald’s, my thirty-minute break at the factory the only time I was alone. It was a quick push of the gas pedal to a liquor store next door. I melted into the parking lot and sulked. Stuffing the ninety-nine cent double cheeseburger down my gullet, I sucked down a forty ounce, the foam filling my stomach. Often I leaned out the car and vomited it back up, a sad existence that only got worse.

I got fired from this dream job when I went home for Christmas, my parents unaware that I was falling apart, lost on the road. I repeatedly asked the girl in the office if I had enough days to take off, if I could go home to see my mama. Would I have a job when I got back? She said yes, you’re fine, you have two days to spare.

I didn’t. She had lied.

This lead to a day job at a pizza joint next to a nearby university, the best thing I could find. I became a waiter on the lunch shift, where they had a buffet—the college kids scattering their spare change over the scarred tabletops, laughing as they strolled out into the sunlight. My tips were pathetic and never made of paper. If I hadn’t been having phone sex with the ex-girlfriend back in Chicago on a regular basis—pulling the phone cord (that’s right, I said phone cord) into the bathroom, stretching it as far as it could go, as she rubbed between her legs, slipping fingers inside herself, coming into the mouthpiece, my shame reaching a new low—then I might have been able to save a few dollars. Instead, I was broke as hell.

At night, for fun, down here in Conway, Arkansas, I decided to take a ride with the manager of the pizza place, his girlfriend in the middle seat, as we sucked down beer and drove around town, cruising the dirt roads and looking for niggers. His word, not mine. He liked to find stray black kids and pelt them with rocks as he drove by. I swallowed my beer and muttered into the dashboard. He asked me to speak up, son. I told him it wasn’t right, any of it, the nigger talk, the rocks—his whole fucked up way of getting off. He dumped me in a cornfield with a couple of beers, and told me to find my way home. You’re a college graduate, I’m sure you can figure it out. As he pulled away his girlfriend turned around, looking out the back window, and I was relieved. I would eventually find my way home, I knew that much. As long as a truck load of angry black kids didn’t drive by and stone me to death. I smoked and drank, staring at the stars, barely remembering which way to head—the limited choices helping me to get back to town, it was only a left and two rights, I thought.

I didn’t want to be here. I needed to find my friend—we needed to get on the road—we had to get out of this town.

When the girlfriend pulled up in the pickup truck an hour later, I was not surprised. She apologized for her drunk-ass boyfriend, and we sat in the cab and drank more beer. She started to cry, showing me bruises, some of them fresh—pulling up her shirt, stretching a bra strap, unbuttoning her jeans. You could see where this was going. Her life was a mess, her boyfriend a racist jerk with no hopes of going anywhere, her sobs drenching my shoulder, and soon enough, her tongue was in my mouth. I fucked her from behind in the redneck’s pickup truck, a toothy grin stretching across my face. We drove back with the windows rolled down, panic starting to wash over me—he’ll have to smell it, he’ll have to know. I was a dead man, I thought to myself.

The next day at work, sick to my stomach, I walked in the door and he asked me to step into his office. This was it, he knew. I turned to glance at the girlfriend as she stood behind the cash register, her lips pursed, swallowing laughter, eyes sparkling with secrets. This was all a game to her. Instead of a fist in my mouth he stuck out his hand and asked me for forgiveness, apologizing for being an asshole. No hard feelings? I swallowed and shook his hand. No worries, bro, we’re good.

When I got home from work that day, the family scattered all over town—the father at the rail yard, the mother at a daycare center, older sister at the diner, the underage sister lying on the couch, one hand slipped into her jeans, her eyes rolling over me—I discovered that my buddy was gone. The straw, this was the straw—he had joined the navy and left me here all alone. My jaw hung open, the girl on the couch muttering something about a shower, peeling her clothes off as she walked to her bedroom, and everything felt like a trap. I sat down on the tattered living room couch, my feet on the faded rug, all lumpy and crooked. I pulled it back to fix the strange terrain, and I saw dirt underneath a worn hole in the wood floor, and a herniated root pushing through.

This was road tripping gone bad.

There was a bus station in town, a mile away. I grabbed everything I had, which wasn’t much—a handful of wadded up bills and a backpack—and got ready to hoof it into town. I didn’t stick my head into the bathroom and tell the girl, naked now, curtain pulled back, pale white skin and firm breasts, not eighteen yet, definitely not eighteen yet, I didn’t tell her I was leaving and give her a quick kiss, my tongue in her mouth. That didn’t happen. I didn’t lift the lid of a cookie jar high up on a shelf and steal forty dollars—that is a lie. I didn’t go to the master bath and pick up the lid on the toilet to pilfer a pint of Jim Beam that the father had hidden from his wife. He didn’t drink, so there was nothing for me to steal. I was committing no crimes on the way out the door—I was only surviving, trying to find a way out.

Boots on gravel, trucks whooshing by, the corn and dust swallowed me up. I walked, invisible, towards the bus station, bourbon on my breath, a cigarette burning down to singe my fingertips numb. I made my way out. I can’t say as much for the rest of them, and in my departure, I forgave them, and moved on.

An old man with six fingers total saws lugubrious anthems of loss and love on a zither with a caved-in box and crooked plectrum. His only lyric: ¿por qué? repeated over and over like incantation. He sits on an old barber’s chair perched against a crumbling wall along one of the Zócalo walkways. He has breadcrumbs in his moustache, and the graffiti behind his sombrero’d head, reads, in Spanish: Fuck Your Mother. We drop a few sweaty coins into the empty yogurt dish at his feet. His eyes drop like bats feeding.

Vendors flash their wares. Leather wallets with big silver snaps. Purses of all sorts of hides bearing the ecstatic faces of the toothy gods, handbags made of tortoise shell and obsidian. Earrings of snail shells, snakeskin belts. Something about this commerce stirs in us a sly uneasiness, but admiration. This is a market without middleman, and the directness of it—the chance to place the pesos for a turtle purse into the durable hands of the man who, just last week, ripped the small wriggling body from the shell—is chilling, as it is alluring.

Like somnambulists, we zombify the market, wide-eyed and stiff-legged, not saying a word or looking at each other, Mexico City the only reaction shot we need. I want to know everything Louisa is thinking, if thoughts of Chicago evaporating like tea steam rush her with their thin whistle, if she is only in the moment or already forcing upon it reflection from some unknowable, but probable future. I want to know, but stare straight ahead until she speaks.

“I’d really like an agua fresca.

Her voice is like the hand that pulls me from the bottom of the pool, where I lost myself gathering pennies to the point of drowning; the same penchant for blind engrossment that caused me as a child to piss myself while watching Sesame Street. I suck air. It’s filthy and wonderful. All sewage and roasting corn.

“We have to find the kind that’s all fruit, or mixed with milk,” I say, “the ones mixed with water can hurt us.”

“It’s so tempting though,” she whines, gesturing to a stand mixing prickly pear drinks, cantaloupe, coconut, tamarind.

“Those are the water ones, baby,” I say, “Trust me, you don’t want to get sick.” And immediately I hate playing the role of reason, of lack of surrender, but I’ve been struck with parasites many times before; once, years ago in Mérida, Yucatán, when I couldn’t help but eat a guyaba berry rolled in chile powder, handed to me by a cloaked 100-year-old Mayan woman sitting streetside on a blue plastic crate. I paid for such surrender with high fever and higher intestinal duress for weeks, cut with no sleep and freezing cold sweats. It was only later that I found out that, in Taíno mythology, that the guyaba was typically reserved for opías, or the walking dead, who would parade the Ceiba forests and make of the berry the edible centerpiece for their night-feasts, taking the form of pale navel-less humans, or bats. In fact, according to the legend, the ruler of these dead bore the name of Maquetaurie Guayaba, Lord of Sweet Delight. The nectar of the berry was often used as the base of a black body paint used to evoke the nature of death in various rituals and rites. So, maybe that had something to do with it.

“Oh, I know,” Louisa croons as we pass the fruit drink stands, “but they look so good.”

Restraint, especially when it comes to ingestibles, when we’re traveling has thankfully never been our strong suit as a couple. But pass the stands we do. Soon, as if antidote, we’re looking to buy a knife from a short middle-aged man in a tank-top, serpentine scar tattoos adorning both of his shoulders, moustache guyaba berry-death paint-dark, straw sombrero ripped open at the top, exposing his wet knotted hair. Surely we need something sharp with which to excise our agua fresca loss. We make this transaction wordlessly. The scarred man shows us various knives—thick-bladed, thin-bladed, switch-bladed, stone. Bright knives inlayed with jewels, knives used and stained with old blood and rust. When we shake our heads, he retrieves a new one from its slumber on his crowded blanket. He is barefoot and his foot-tops bear old puncture wounds.

After seven failed attempts, he retrieves a stunning obsidian knife with an Aztec design carved handle of green onyx. It is ancient-looking and beautiful, fresh from some painful sacrifice—agua fresca or otherwise. This is the one. The eyeballs convince us; carved into the handle, they bug-out at us, hypnotic enough for Louisa, continuing our opera of silence, to grab my unscarred shoulder. The man sees this, nods, and immediately wraps the knife in bubble-wrap and scotch tape. We pay him the 150 pesos (about twelve bucks) without bargaining, he touches our scalps as if blessing us, his tepid hands the texture of hessian, and we move on to the section of city on the other side of the Zócalo, where we have not yet been. Stone knife safely sheathed in packing material, we stroll the streets, teeming with life and neighborhood, dollies overloaded with wares of all kinds—carpets, jugs, cow heads, clothing—small cars honking, open flatbeds rattling, bicycles swerving, barely navigating the madness of street stand and pedestrian. We think of that man and his zither, can’t decide whether everything or nothing we see answers his endless question of Why? We barely navigate this madness ourselves, oblivious to the rules, the imbroglio of smell and sound, looking for anything alive to eat.

This is mariachi operetta, nervous breakdown, a broken spirit stitched with corn silk. And this is breakfast. Breakfast after losing ourselves in the streets, after shedding the snakeskin of the guidebooks, dodging glass and flying water. Perhaps we will find our huitlacoche one day, but it won’t be today. Perhaps that’s the last anniversary a couple has before they die, no matter their age: the huitlacoche anniversary, attainable only on the verges, rendering in a smear of its black smut, the others obsolete: paper cotton leather linen wood iron sugar steel huitlacoche huitlacoche huitlacoche…

Louisa and I nearly fall from the street into the restaurant, México Viejo, Old Mexico, and are berated by its pottery, its orange walls, contained pockets of steam kicking like the tar pits into the yellow film of iron chandelier light. This is, after all, the best buffet we’ve ever seen, and the place is stuffed with patrons—families with freight trains of kids, business-suited groups basking in the lunch break, old men eating alone, old women staring them down from behind blue clay bowls of caldo de res.

The host, a barrel-chested man with a thick moustache, comes at us with a puzzled look. He stands about as high as my sternum, and I am only five feet, seven. He says nothing, carries no menu, and shrugs. I look to Louisa for help and, miraculously, she says, “Dos.”

“Una mesa para dos personas,” I say, needlessly, forcing my remedial Spanish onto anyone willing to listen. Yes, I am a gringo, I want to tell them, but not one of those gringos, you know? ¿Verdad?

The man nods, his moustache appearing to take flight, leave his face like some hirsute moth and flit about the room. He sits us at a wooden table as squat as he is and gestures, almost dismissively, toward the buffet with the back of his hand.

“Muchas gracias,” I say.

Here, the man stops and manages a smile, his moustache returning from its flirtation with some underage mamacita in a corner booth, once again perching on his face like some gothic canary. He parts his lips. His moustache flaps for dear life.

“De nada,” he says, or growls, or rasps. The words sound forced through knife-cut vocal cords and tracheotomy, plopping into our ears, rheumatic, robotic, phlegmatic, sweet. And we do, we do feel welcome.

Our waitress, a young, curly-haired woman in a flowing brown dress so diaphanous, she should be our waitressssssss, steps to our table with two mugs of coffee before we even order it. This is assumption of the highest working order and I want to stroke her hair, if only to test the perfect spring of the curls. Louisa blows her a kiss and descends into a clatter of South African-accented “Gracias, gracias, gracias…”

Our waitressssssss laughs, her voice carrying into the air like a coffee percolator run on helium, and disappears again into the psychedelic madness of the restaurant. Louisa and I look to the buffet, an L-shaped number covered in white tablecloths, different stations manned and womanned by the staff, clad in purple button-down silk shirts bearing white irises, the women with red flowers pushed behind their ears, flattening masa dough for fresh tortillas, searing various meats to order, juicing papayas and carrots, unraveling spools of white cheese, roasting green chilies until their skins blacken and blister, this tiny opera of food played out on a pot-bellied guitar, and we don’t now what to do, how we can accommodate all of this food, taste everything made to order, taste everything premade and marinating in pottery pots and bowls, painted garishly with fat women hauling grapefruit, with Jesus bleeding on the gustatory cross, his crown of thorns replaced with a mass of seething beans. All the juices, all the soups, each diner bearing a calm that we can’t seem to enforce upon ourselves, our hearts festering in pots of their own, the gas-heat turned up way too high, burning to the bottoms.

“Oh my god,” Louisa says, and she’s absolutely right. The best of nervous breakdowns. Of broken spirits stitched with corn silk. We stand. We step toward it, this burbling beast of breakfast. It opens its arms to us like the obese aunt, over-make-upped, over-perfumed, we only see at holidays. This buffet, before we are done, will surely pinch our cheeks red. I feel off-course, having jumped the tracks. I don’t know where to begin. Louisa slaps me on the ass, and rights me with a word.

“Taco,” she says.

Again, she is absolutely right.

 

**NOTE** Please forgive me if I do not respond to your comments.  I am presently on the road for my BAROLO Book Tour.  If I’m coming to your area for an event, I’d love to extend you an invitation!

Tour schedule here: http://matthewgfrank.com/?page_id=101

Info. about the book here: http://www.nebraskapress.unl.edu/product/Barolo,674189.aspx

Thanks!  -MGF

We’ve been on the sidewalk for five minutes and have moved about fifty feet. Pedestrian traffic on this main thoroughfare near Mexico City’s Zócalo is at its rush hour peak. We turn around, as if searching for a way out, some secret exit ramp, some side alley that will carry us like the matron saint of shortcuts, to a breakfast table and a bosomy pair of steaming mugs. Instead, over the tight parade of purposeful people, we see fat-handed Juan Pérez, beaming his biggest smile of the day, leaning against the doorway of the Rioja, watching our backs.

He sees us turn and raises his arms over his head about to take flight, or, flight-lazy, command the sky and its tenants—sun, moon, stars, Venus—to come to him, drop themselves into his ample palms and drive us walkers to some eternal fiery last meal. He shakes his arms, shuddering in their dress shirt sleeves, and Louisa and I do the same, nearly getting trampled in the process. We right ourselves, face forward again, and immediately miss the sight of our new friend, some good luck charm in concierge clothing.

On a lark—Skylark, Crested Lark, Calandra Lark, whichever species croons the most extravagant coffee-song—Louisa and I push a group of teenagers aside, hip-check their outermost member, and turn left from Avenida Cinco de Mayo onto the slightly less crowded Calle de Monte de Piedad. We read in some guidebook that there’s a restaurant near here that, when available, serves huitlacoche omelets.

We became obsessed with huitlacoche in the first few months of our relationship, having supped on it in Chicago two nights after Louisa met my family for the first time. We stole away to Frontera Grill, just the two of us, Chicago’s famed authentic Mexican restaurant, and were lifted into orbit by the plateful of the oil-black huitlacoche crepes with rich poblano crema. Seeking it out with obsessed fever since then in Mexican groceries throughout Chicago, we could only find it canned—still delicious, but leagues away from the explosiveness of the fresh stuff.

Huitlacoche, revered by many, reviled by many more, is also know as corn smut, dirty, evil, guilty pleasure of the fields, temptress blight, husked pornography… It is a greasy black fungus that results from maize disease, routinely cursed and trashed in American farming, but greeted with biblical gratitude in the fields of Mexico. Linguistically, as seems typical in Mexico, the gravity of such gratitude is coupled with an affirming observational humor; huitlacoche directly translates from Nahuatl into English as raven shit. Louisa and I know it as the truffle of Mexico.

We knew this would happen—that we would come here and spend many an hour, most of them likely fruitless, crisscrossing the city in search of fresh huitlacoche, affirming something ourselves: that after a year trapped in Chicago beneath the wet cloak of mother-disease, each action damped by death—driving, watching television, eating—we still have the ability to revise our priorities, to again shove taste upward, and climb, even if over a mountain of bones, to reclaim it.

And climb we do with protesting stomachs, lean headaches whistling for café con leche, along the shopfronts of Calle de Monte de Piedad—doorless convenience stores peddling magazines, thin-wrappered candies, cans of beer, middle-aged women with suckling infants strapped diagonally to their flanks with green scarves selling woven change-purses and belt buckles on the sidewalks in front.

Soon, the crowd clots like blood, the entire city wounded it seems, and it’s up to us, we melee-ensconced foot travelers, to see, with our body heat alone, that it doesn’t turn septic.

“Why have we stopped moving?” Louisa asks, her voice thick with desperation, all sustenance seeming further and further away now, as supernatural demands are placed upon us walkers to do the sustaining.

I wipe the sweat from my forehead and swear I can hear the stamping of combat boots, a massive collection of angry chants. I’m hungry, thirsty, tired, and panicked; I wish Juan Pérez were here to explain, to smooth the edges of this human blanket and turn everything placid again. I wish the people we loved would never get sick.

The crowd pushes together and soon, we’re in the middle of a street protest, bulldozed forward and to the right. I reach for Louisa’s hand before we can get separated and wonder if those feeding infants can make it through this, still cling fast to the breast. She catches my thumb and uses it to scale my arm. The line of people leading the protest pushes through in the street, carrying signs painted onto bedsheets, words that I can not read. They shout into their megaphones, and the following mob repeats their credo in deafening unison. Banners are tossed into the air, along with bottles and water balloons.

All side streets pour into this one, everyone interrupting their day to see what’s happening. Pedestrians—single, couple, family—stop along the sidewalks and curbs to watch. A father hoists his daughter onto his shoulders so she can see the throng simultaneously hoisting their fists into the air as if striking some invisible overhead drum. People stop and take their breakfasts standing up against the shopfronts, arrested, a multitude of tacos, enchiladas, tamales, held aloft, stopped short on the way from hand to mouth. The tiny women on the street corners freeze in front of their hot comals, their fresh rounds of masa dough only half-pressed into tortillas.

The call-and-response continues in rhythm, some of the marchers bearing angry faces, some excited smiles. And in between such extremes, the breaking of glass, and popping of balloon rubber, urgency and innocence commingle and take Louisa and me into their embrace. Our hearts are boiling and our mouths are confused—Scream? Smile?

What they don’t do, is chew, sip, kiss. But they will again, and will again soon. Yes: this is a place of gravity, gratitude, affirmation, humor, and faith. Faith that food will again fill us, coffee will keep us from sleeping on our feet. We will live today to change our socks, ascend the Rioja stairwell, this time as if from the penetralia of the earth.

The marchers pass, the megaphone sparkling now two blocks away. Louisa and I look to each other and don’t say a word. Somewhere above, a big black bird must be releasing into this world its holy shit, carrying with it the essential nature of division and protest, and we know, we just know, bedsheet-less and without bullhorn, still far below all plummeting excrement, that we will find our elusive huitlacoche. Looking up, we do with our mouths the only thing we can. We open them.

Farming: The occupation of choice for dudes and chicks who want to raise their own food, work out in the sun, be their own boss and slave 18 hours a day so some mustached hipster at a farmer’s market with an iPad under his arm can bruise the shit out of the plums.

On second thought, how are your peaches this year?

“On second thought, how are your peaches this year?”

 

I come from a long line of farmers myself, and I can tell you that not all farmers are grass stalk-chewing old cats who run makeshift booths with half-tan arms and 12 strapping youngins who speak with respect.

There are all kinds of farmers.

Beef farmers.

Christmas tree farmers.

Wind farmers.

Rabbit farmers.

Hookworm farmers.

Solar farmers.

Baby farmers.

That last one is exactly how it sounds.

Salmon farmers.

There were alpaca farmers, but that pyramid scheme has pretty much gone belly up.

“My wool is worth gold and gems.”


And farmers nowadays can be the slick office-y types, like those who use special retina-scanning sunglasses from their Manhattan penthouses to run armies of thresher robots in Minnesotan fields.

But that could have been from a dream.

Farmers can also be the factory farm mogul types who buy 10 city blocks and go onto treat their cows, chickens and pigs like soccer balls and ashtrays.

Fucking assholes.



There are hair farmers.

Sugar beet farmers.

Butterfly farmers.

Coffee bean farmers.

And there are the small family produce farmers, like my father and his father.

A dying breed.

Like the brown pelican battling a blanket of sweet Louisiana crude.

My father and his father (plus my uncles and cousins and other relatives) toiled away in the fields and barns from sun up to sun down. They drove tractors in one direction and sat feeding seeds and saplings into planters in the other. They shipped produce to Cleveland in beat up pickups and shiny semis. They could identify every leaf on every sapling on the horizon. They wore John Deer hats without irony.

Good old boys.

Hard-working-smeared-eye-glasses-wearing-4am-rising-and-shaving-large-brood-supporting farmers.

If you had a question about strawberry season or how far apart to plant pumpkin seeds, my father could hook you up.

If you wanted to know which tomato varietal was best to grow on your half-shaded deck, he was your man.

He could trim 50 heads of lettuce in under 10 minutes.

Could tell you the national price average for corn, plus the going price in any of town’s supermarkets.

Could parallel park a forklift carrying a six-foot pallet of peppers without looking over his shoulder.

He was that kind of farmer.

And he didn’t boast.

 

 

A woman at a dinner party recently asked me about my family and I told her I grew up on a large produce farm in Northeast Ohio.

It’s one of the fun facts about myself I tend to throw out to people.

(Another one — and this is usually told while swimming — is that I used to pee in the pool with my trunks pulled down to my thighs like I was standing at a urinal until I was 10 years old and realized I could just pee right through them.)

“I didn’t know you were a farmer,” she said.

“Yup. I’m a farmer.”

“So you were a farmer?”

“Totally. I was a farmer,” I said, crossing my arms.

“How cool! You have cows?”

“Nah, just produce.”

“You have chickens?”

“We just grew fruits and vegetables. Yeah.”

“So no animals at all? Not, like, pigs?”

“Nope. We grew, oh, cabbage, corn, strawberries, all kinds of peppers and all kinds of squash, collard greens, kale, uh green beans, pumpkin, the occasional patch of kohlrabi. We used to have an apple orchard and a peach orchard, but that was a long time ago. It was a pretty big operation, actually. Twelve hundred acres. It was in the family for like 76 years or something. But we sold it all like 10 years ago. We had hundreds of migrant workers, too.”

“I can’t believe you’re a farmer.”

“Yup. That’s me.”


But holy shit, here’s the thing: I was no farmer.

I’ve been letting people all my life believe that I was a farmer, I do it all the time — Did I tell you I grew up on a farm? — but the truth is I was way more of a factory worker than a farmer.

My father, he was farmer.

My grandfather and uncles and aunts, they were farmers.

Laboring for a dozen years in a series of sweltering, interlocking barns did not make me a farmer.

“Don’t forget to punch in, ‘Farmer Greg.'”


I’ve never driven a tractor in my life.

Never hoed a field.

Never worried about the lack of rain.

Never put on a yellow slicker and grabbed my kale knife.

But no one ever needed me to do those things. With two older brothers, several older cousins, gritty year-round employees and a hundred or so migrant workers, I was kept out of the fields and delegated to the barns. To their loading docks. To their clanging machinery. To their mountains of ready-to-be constructed corn crates and wax boxes.

My jobs included walking around the corn wagon and heaving just-packed wooden crates onto my chest so I could toss them into the hydrocooler, standing at the end of a belt to pack thousands of peppers, zucchini and yellow squash into wax boxes, running up and down a conveyor belt slapping stickers on each piece of squash that bounced past, stacking boxes and crates of produce six feet high onto pallets, disposing rotten produce by the bucket load back into the fields, cleaning the equipment, constructing boxes and complaining, complaining, complaining, blah, blah, blah.

I could show you how to fold together a strawberry box in under five seconds.

Could tell you how many corn crates could fit horizontally or vertically on the freezing lip of the hydrocooler.

Could tell you the best spot and job at the rotating green bean table. (You want to be the last sorter before the first packer. Claim six-seven o’clock at the circular table and you should be golden.)

I was way more of a factory worker than a farmer.

But that’s not really that fun of a fact to tell people.

It’s depressing, to tell you the truth.

Makes everyone feel guilty.

Makes them confess that they spent their summers getting high at the lake house.

Or waking at noon to play video games in the air-conditioned basement.

I then defend my childhood, they say, “Oh, I’m sure it was a good experience,” and I agree that it was and then we both seem a little let down.

So for that reason, I continue on with the charade.


On Friday we checked out a roof-top organic garden growing on top of a favorite Chicago restaurant, and as we walked around the beds of saplings my friend pointed to a row and asked what they were.

I froze, knowing my farming history was once again going to be put to the test.

They could have been watermelon, for all I knew.

They could have been weeds.

Luckily her husband took one look at them and claimed they were peas.

“Yeah,” I jumped in. “Those are definitely peas. I grew up on a farm, you know.”

“Yeah, Greg,” my wife said. “We know.”