Farm Market Folklore

Have you ever thought about all the coincidences and circumstances that woven together create the intricate tapestry that is your world?  How the people that mean the most might be perfect strangers if things didn’t happen as they did?  For years our stands have been fertile ground for cultivating enduring relationships.  One such example is the marriage of Eris and me.  This week we will celebrate our Anniversary and we owe our happiness to one man’s funeral, a matchmaking grandmother, and four busy produce stands.  This is the story of John & Eris.

As one story ends so another begins.  In February of 2000, my grandfather, Dr. Alvin Kay quietly passed away at Sibley Hospital.  That evening he had his family by his side and his last moments felt sad but peaceful with an undertone of acceptance.  He was of the Great Generation and his life shone like a star in the evening sky with a brilliance that still guides me today.

After my grandfathers’ passing there was a lot to do. In my grandmother’s preparations for “sitting shiva” which is the custom in the jewish tradition, she arranged for a tasting at the local deli catering the occasion.  While family arrived to assist with decisions, my grandmother carefully took inventory noticing the beautiful caterer presenting the platters.  Whether through a sense of duty or divine intervention, as the caterer unknowingly smiled, revealing a warm, gentle, kindness, my grandmother thought to herself, “some day this girl will marry one of my grandsons!”.  Which one was yet to be determined.  The caterer’s name was Eris.

Over the course of the following year there were many big changes.  My grandmother renewed her lease on life and suddenly began aging backwards.  She was the life of the party.  She also began frequenting the deli and getting to know Eris, asking, “have you dumped that boyfriend yet?  When can I fix you up with one of my grandsons?”  As for the grandsons, one was married, and another too young.  That left four eligible bachelors.  The eldest, an entrepreneur and attorney, seemed the logical choice.  An easy sell.  He was my older brother.

As for me, my grandfather’s death felt like a punctuation mark noting the end of an era.  In the past, summer evenings as barn swallows swooped he would walk his german shepherd to the empty  barn where I would end my day. As I chalked the tires of the produce wagon, always in a hurry, he would ask, “how’s business?” and we would take some moments to recap the day.  This was now just a memory.  Our humble little produce stand had evolved into a chain of locations, a year round store in Bethesda, and the acquisition of the old Reston Farm Market. We had grown fast and I was in uncharted territory. My close-knit crew that helped build the business saw the opening of the Bethesda store as the finish line.  It was the cumulative result of our joint efforts.  For them it was closure.  For me just the beginning.  As we finished stocking the shelves at 3 AM the night before our grand opening, my right hand man patted me on the back, “well we did it.”  A few days later left for Taiwan to teach English. I woke up wondering “now what?”

The business had become an unruly ship tossed about on turbulent waters and my home was no terra firma.  The “Bradley Hotel” sat off Bradley Blvd down a gravel driveway crowded by lush honeysuckle vines.  Depending on the season the front yard would be a volleyball court, pumpkin patch, or Christmas Tree lot.  The delapidated 1920’s house draped in ivy rooted in cracked stucco and the giant dead oak ornamenting the yard would commonly provoke the question, “does anyone actually live here?”  I would reply, “yes we sure do!”

The day I came home to find the Bradley Hotel painted flamingo pink by my house mates, and the giant oak all but a stump by order of the landlord I took as a sign that it was time to checkout.  As I surveyed my home and my life I felt as if I had taken a wrong turn somewhere and just kept going.  I needed to get back to basics and figure out what I really wanted.  It was time to “woodshed”.

That’s when I thought of the old horse barn on my grandparents property where the produce business all began.  Where as a child I loved bringing sugar cubes or carrots to the horses and spying on the baby barn swallows.  I loved the smell of the barn, saddles, straw and grain.  The smell of the horses. I thought of my grandfather’s trainer, Johnny Jackson, that while made me laugh as he worked with expressions, jokes and stories.  His office in the stables had gathered dust and old furniture for twenty years.  This would be my new lodging.

During this time Eris began to look around the old deli and observed how things were beginning to feel stale.  There was a new owner, the walls had fresh paint, the t-shirts were different, yet the customers, and staff were the same.  The people she felt the closest with had all gone.  She had just returned from Israel after attending her grandmother’s funeral and began questioning her own circumstances.  Maybe it was time for a change.  My grandmother sat at her regular booth at the deli with my mom and older brother.  “How are you, Eris?  I want to introduce you to my grandson.”

The following spring felt like a new beginning.  As life began popping out of the ground and budding forth I was ready for my new role.  We had cut our losses in Bethesda, and accepted that summer was slow at our Reston market.  It was finally time for me to return to the stands.

I had spent the winter living in my modest tack room apartment surrounded by enormous Potomac mansions in the company of a horse, a goat, a rooster, and a hen.  In the evening I huddled by the wood stove strumming my guitar, reading a book, or looking at the stars.  In the morning I would enjoy a cup of coffee with my grandmother, watch a bit of the Today Show, and eavesdrop on her morning telephone conversations.  I had travelled to Brazil alone and taken some road trips with friends.  I had fresh perspective.  It was time to get busy.  I was excited.

My first order of business was to start a garden beside the produce stand on River Road.  I worked the rows by hand and covered them with composted manure.  I loaded up our trucks with herbs and vegetable plants from our Reston garden center, grabbing some hired hands to help when I could.  But mostly I did the work myself relishing in the meditation and solace I found in it. I would pull up my SUV and play Miles Davis or Bob Marley while I worked.  This would be our best season yet.

I needed a good crew and a manager.  Seasonal hiring had become an art and I took it very seriously.  The interview was crucial.  Someone could appear terrific on paper but when it came to the work and how they dealt with people they could be a complete dud.  You had to meet them face to face and test their reactions.  Throw them a cantaloupe to see if they can catch.  Do they handle the produce with respect or treat it careless and harsh?  Offer them a raw ear of corn.  Is it sweet?  Family referrals held no place.  Nepotism was politics.  I needed to be able to hire people based on my instincts and fire them when necessary.  I didn’t want repercussions and hidden agendas.  I was on a quest for the perfect produce stand.

So when my older brother notified me that he had a manager in mind I instantly thought of all the hard lessons I had taken on the chin by hiring his friends and responded, “No thanks.”  However, he insisted and said just give her a call.  I reluctantly agreed.  I’ll confess once I realized she was the cute waitress I’d met at the deli I instantly arranged an interview.  She pulled in as I finished planting a row of tomatoes on one of those few perfect days you get in May with no humidity and high’s about 80.  We continued our meeting at the Starbucks in the Village and our conversation took all sorts of dips and turns that had very little to do with produce stands and job descriptions.  We sat on the terrace sipping our coffee beneath blue skies and cottony clouds.  This was going to be a great summer.

And it was that summer with a crew of new faces that felt like a new beginning.  I was liberated from my failures and hopeless back office forecasts and free to concentrate on what I truly enjoyed with people willing to plunge into the thick of it.  The barn became the new epicenter for this summer subculture and Eris my tireless companion.  In the evenings the barn sat somewhere between hideaway and paradise as we counted the money and compared notes on the days events.   Sitting outside after the heat subsides on a summer evening in good company, glistening from a day of hard work and the well deserved taste of an ice cold beer is an experience I highly recommend.  It is the taste of accomplishment and comradery.   During our evening ritual the sun would cast a golden hue on the coneflowers and holyhocks and the barn swallows would swoop once again.

A couple years later we were married.  Surrounded by our friends and family beneath a huppah made by her mother, Eris said “I do.”  I still consider myself among the luckiest and have to thank one funeral, the poor aim of a matchmaking grandmother, and four busy produce stands.



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