State Street Scribe
by Jeff Wing
I moved to Santa Barbara in 1986 with a band. There, I said it. That was long ago and far away. In the interim I’ve tastefully grayed and mellowed, all the while agglomerating file cabinets full of the sort of triplicate gibberish that signals to the Establishment that I am worthy of serious consideration. While I’ve yet to ascend to that aerie of success that bestows a gravel drive lined by welcoming topiary, a swimming pool, a Hugh Hefner long-stemmed pipe, silk pajamas, and a many-gabled mansion teeming with conversationally gifted centerfold models, I have done pretty well for myself.
My long-suffering Life Partner is a hottie and my BFF (a potent combination), my kids are intelligent, attractive and witty smartasses, and my car’s diaphanous floorboard allows me to occasionally grasp the tarmac with my Fred Flintstone feet and tear down the road yelling “Yabba Dabba Do!” What’s more, I have the privilege of writing this marvelous column for everyone’s favorite news and arts journal, and I strut about my beautiful adoptive hometown like Travolta in Saturday Night Fever, but without the triumphalist dimple, jewel-smashing 70s bell bottoms or confident outward gaze. Well you can tell by the way I use my walk I’m a fraidy-cat too scared to talk. I’m working on that, but am otherwise radiantly successful by every reasonable measure. Even as I sit here and type this sentence I can smell my ancient and dissolving Chuck Taylors at the end of my outstretched legs. Y’know? I’ve made it.
Age of Incompetence
There was a slightly turbulent period in the late eighties, though, when I found myself out of my depth, and in a foreign country. Can you imagine? I’d fallen in love with a Dutch visitor to Santa Barbara and made the impulsive decision to drop everything and follow her home. “Home” was a lovely town on the Dutch Channel Coast, a place called Monster (etymological provenance: the 11th century monastery that was the town’s seedling) in a province called Het Westland; the agricultural belt of the Netherlands. That meant greenhouses as far as the eye could see, and a season of professional sorrow for incompetent me.
What is Americanism if not a plucky self-confidence that often mixes up Aesop’s Look/Leap sequence? I would show these lovely Dutch villagers how America does it. “This is how we do!” Ultimately my USAssurance would not impress. I unpacked my American can-do and it worked like a charm— an unlucky plague-bearing charm. Think not of a wrecking ball with defined kinetic purpose traveling along a precisely planned trajectory. Think Jerry Lewis with a machine gun. That was me!
On my arrival in the Netherlands, Judie’s parents, Koos and Riek (Jacobus and Hendrika) took an immediate liking to me and I to them. Juud and I settled into the attic room (the “zolder”) at the top of the steep staircase that was the spine of the verticalized house. A single enormous storm window, frequently hammered with violent rain, was set into the steeply canted ceiling. Juudje and I would lie beneath it and watch the huge black crows struggle and cry out in the wind-ravaged air above the house, black low clouds racing by like smoke.
Soon enough I got my first job through a family connection. I would be working in “the tomatoes” for an exuberantly wealthy farmer named Hans. Despite my having eaten enough ketchup in my lifetime to buoy a rowboat, I had never pondered what compels a tomato to exit the soil with its synergies intact. This sketchy Californian grasp of food-growing did not serve me well in the tightly controlled environment of the greenhouse.
All greenhouse work basically involves moving quickly down a row of individual plants and lavishing exacting attention on each one with lightning speed. Dutch kids start working in the greenhouses for summer spending money at a very young age, so by the time they’re teens they are possessed of incredible speed and accuracy in a specialized work sector that requires both in order to meet profitable volume goals. I soon found that the critically detailed tomato tasks were impossible at the velocities required. The apple-cheeked Dutch teens would jitter busily down the rows, moving quickly past me like double-speed characters in a silent movie—while I plodded along like Karloff’s Mummy; slower though, and with little of the Mummy’s flamboyance.
Whether tearing nourishment-sapping little leaves off the stems to embolden the fruit, or moving down the line on a little electric cart to re-hang the lengthening vines, I was an eight-alarm fire in a moist rag factory—slow and unstoppably destructive. There was no specialized task that didn’t end with me smashing tomatoes in my haste. I would hurriedly get to the end of a row and look back at my work. Often it would look like a drunk had plowed through there in a Plymouth.
Exciting the Product
Strangest of all the tomato duties was “trillen”, which roughly translates to “vibrating”. To get the plants to divest themselves of pollen, you would, again, stand sideways on the elevated electric cart with its little foot pedal. Clutching a battery-powered sex-wand, you would move quickly and jerkily down the line of hanging tomato plants, exciting the flowers with the wand’s vibrating rubber tip, dispersing the life-giving pollen. GO!! STOP!! VIBRATE POLLEN-LADEN FLOWER WITH SEX-THERAPIST PRECISION!! GO!! STOP!! VIBRATE POLLEN-LADEN FLOWER WITH SEX-THERAPIST PRECISION!! And so on down the line.
Too often I would stamp on the cart’s sensitive pedal and just go flying down the row, arms waving madly for balance, the vibrating stick swinging every which way like a desolation-dealing machete, reducing hundreds of gorgeous tomatoes to an airborne, variegated paste. After the third or fourth such massacre, an ashen Hans snapped. He didn’t speak much English, so when I’d visited this final ruinous indignity on the man’s now tottering empire, he began frantically signaling the end of my informal contract, dropping to a hunched semi-crouch and chopping his hands back and forth like an empire calling me out. “No! No! No!” he kept saying. “No! No! No! No! No! No!” What it lacked in nuance it more than made up for in a kind of desperate clarity. “Sorry it didn’t work out,” I said on leaving. “It’s a pity,” Hans phonetically replied, the relief palpable, and quickly ushered me through the greenhouse door. I waved goodbye to the other workers and they stared as at a departing Golem.
Mooi Bonen. Pot Planten. Huilen.
My next two jobs were similarly challenging, and I rose to those challenges with the destructive force of a dancing clown with nitro. The family I worked for are a legendary greenhouse dynasty in the region, owners of an enormous parcel of land on which is built a sprawling complex of greenhouses growing a variety of different things, from sunflowers to lettuce. The operation to which I was assigned devoted itself to green beans, a very profitable cash crop that had seen the storied local family ascend the ladder of social respect and material largesse. Unfortunately for them, their fortunes now depended on my ability to quickly and accurately discern good green beans from bad ones as the crop was parsed and readied for market. That job lasted just the one day.
I still vividly remember my supervisor disgustedly going through my overstuffed bag of “bad” green beans at the end of a shift. “MOOIE BONEN! MOOIE BONEN! MOOIE BONEN! he cried out with an almost tactile exasperation (“…beautiful beans! beautiful beans! beautiful beans!”), producing fists full of perfectly formed and ripened beans from my trash bag. This gifted and locally renowned family had brought generations of trial-and-error experimentation, science, and intuitive knowhow to the growing of perfect green beans, and then I arrived to throw them away. Again I waved on leaving, and again my colleagues just stared. “Stunned and aghast!” I whispered aloud in a dawning new spirit of self-congratulation.
A Grown Wealthy Man Cries
I worked my last greenhouse job for a week. I hadn’t yet been completely disabused of the idea that greenhouses could work out for me. This last fit of employment was in nearby Honselersdijk, a 30-minute bike ride away. The work was with potplanten, or potted plants as we call them here in the colonies. Picture a gigantic greenhouse filled end to end with a dizzying symmetry of long, specialized, soil-covered tables with raised edges, the tabletops filled with carefully manicured, nutrient-rich soil, meticulously raked and smoothed as a zen garden.
Squads of specialists would surround the tables, the small plants carefully but speedily punched into the center of each pot in such a way that the roots would be obliged to exit the opened bottom of the pot to unite with the specialized soil beneath. I failed at this, too, and quite terrifically. On what turned out to be my last day, the owner of the place took me aside. I’ll never forget his parting words. “Jeff. When I looking to your work, I think I must cry.” Okay. Is this about a raise?
The takeaway? Know your limits. I have some skill sets, yes. These do not include potting plants, evaluating green beans or sexing-up tomatoes. You have been warned.