An unlikely plot proves fertile
ground for gardening—and
friendship. BY SHARON WATERS
IT STARTED AS A PLEASANT DIVERSION as I walked to the Y each morning. I would stop and watch the attendant of a no-name gas tation on Route 27 in Metuchen cultivating
a small vegetable garden in a grassy strip next to
the garage bays.
It was the summer of 2011. For months, I
tracked the gas-station gardener’s progress as he
tilled the meager plot and sprayed water from a hose,
all mere feet from the fuel pumps.
I began to strike up short conversations while walking
by or paying at the pump. I learned that he was a Filipino who
once farmed many acres in his native land. He moved to the United States eight years ago to find a more lucrative occupation, but
in central New Jersey, work and land were hard to come by. Still,
he found a way. Bloom where you’re planted, as the saying goes.
The gas-station gardener told me what he was growing—
tomatoes, eggplants, string beans, green peppers, cantaloupes,
pumpkins, and a few veggies I had never heard of—and how
each was progressing. His English was choppy, but his excitement filled the gaps: “Look. Here. Tomatoes. Almost. And
here. Eggplant. Now.” I marveled that anyone would be crazy
enough to consider eating these vegetables, grown in soil that
likely was soaked in oil and tainted by exhaust fumes.
Tomatoes weren’t our only topic. I’d tell him about my job
or my weekend. He’d tell me about his commute by train and
bike from his home in Rahway and how his wife didn’t like him
to work such long hours. He shared his pride in his daughter,
a doctor, and his son, an economist, both of whom live in the
Phillipines. All this, but I didn’t even know his name. I asked
once, but it was hard to pronounce and I promptly forgot it. I
didn’t want to ask again.
Then the gas-station gardener started promising me tomatoes.
Each day, I’d insist I couldn’t take from his bounty. And each day
the garden’s green growth inched closer to ripeness. When he gave
me three tomatoes, I had little choice. I thanked him for the gift.
I tried to tell myself the tomatoes were organic, but I could
only view them as toxic. The tomatoes sat on my counter for a
few days. I was troubled. If I threw them out, I’d have to find a
new gym. Finally, I decided to give one a try.
It tasted good, with the sweet succulence one expects of a
Jersey tomato. I was sold—and I didn’t have to pony up the
joiner’s fee at a new gym.
Last year, the garden almost didn’t happen. My friend explained that the owner didn’t want him using so much water.
Then, there he was tilling the ground. He and his boss had
reached an accord—a smaller garden was allowed. But the gas-station gardener was crafty. He planted peppers in the weeds
by the edge of the sidewalk, where the owner wouldn’t think
to look. There were other challenges, including eggplants and
string beans stolen from their vines.
This year, harvest season came and went, but the little
plot sprouted only dandelions. My friend had grown tired of
fighting with his boss over the plants. He tried to grow tomatoes at home, but the ground was too hard. I suggested
that next season he try my front lawn. At a glance he declared the soil just right. Now I can spend the winter looking forward to my very own crop of high-octane Jersey tomatoes—courtesy of my friend, the gas-station gardener. ■
Sharon Waters is a freelance writer in Metuchen. She has a notoriously brown thumb. I L L