Saturday, August 30, 2003

The Wealth of Neighbors

I'm sure the smell of tomato plants in the summer is a very early memory. My grandparents Severini grew tomatoes in their garden in the back yard. I don't remember those tomatoes as well as the plants in the garden between our back yard and the house directly "above." (It was above because a series of hills making up at that time one long ascent pretty much ended at our back yard, and there were four more streets behind us on that plateau.) That garden belonged to the Petroys, one of which was a relative of my Severini grandfather. There were lots of Italians in our area, many of them from the same village or region of Italy, and lots of them related by blood and marriage. Where there are lots of Italians there are lots of tomato plants, and they became a standard for other people as well. That was our world: we ate chipped ham sandwiches, skyscraper cones and Klondike bars from Isaly's (before the rest of the planet knew about them), and we had gardens and tomatoes.

The Petroy's garden was huge. All of the Petroy's-Katie, Jimmy, and Uncle Frank-- lived a long time-I hear Katie is alive still, she must be 100 by now. But as they got older the garden got smaller, especially the rows of tomato plants. Of course, as I got older the garden also seemed smaller. I remember running through the rows when the plants were taller than I was, and being yelled at by Katie or Jimmy. That garden was a small neighborhood adventure.

We didn't have a garden, or at least not much of one. My mother wasn't the outdoor type I guess, and my father wasn't interested (besides, not Italian.) But about this time every year, baskets and boxes of tomatoes and peppers would begin appearing in the kitchen. Neighbors would sometimes bring them and visit with my mother, or just exchange a few words at the back door. If we weren't home, tomatoes and peppers appeared on our back porch. Later on I sometimes cooked up some for myself, tomatoes and peppers in olive oil.

I remember these gardens when I smell Margaret's tomato plants. I water them, and I pick the tomatoes. The little orange ones will tell you when it's time---they'll fall into your hand with just a touch, or a slight twist of the stem.

I also think about the tomatoes on the back porch when I read the latest tortured explanations of the selfish gene and Darwinist natural selection. I don't argue with evolution, I just don't think it's necessary or realistic to think of everything only in terms of competition, of the struggle to survive. It doesn't take much more than common sense to see that cooperation is also essential.

Sometimes they're related, I'll grant you that. Sharing your bounty of tomatoes, like sharing your deer meat when you've come home with a buck across your car hood, is a form of bragging, of boasting of your skill and luck. But the good feeling you get from sharing your good fortune is a good feeling you can get from sharing and cooperating in other ways, and that rush of lovely chemicals must be pretty much part of our standard equipment by now. It encourages you to share. It also encourages you to excel, so you’ll have something to share.

Some Native cultures associate wealth with sharing, to the point that when somebody gets too wealthy they hold a give-away and give it all away. It’s an anti-envy move as well, but then virtues and vices are invariably related.

One more thing about the Petroy's garden. It got bigger when Katie's daughter Lucy moved in next door, and the combined garden crossed their backyards. She had married Corky Cocheletti, and they had a son also called Corky. He was younger than me so I didn't play with him much, except that his father had some boxing equipment in the basement and we got interested in that for awhile. I did go with both Corky's to my first high school football game, a thrilling experience---under the lights, all the sounds, the band, the cheerleaders, hot dogs and so on. And football with real equipment not on TV or a mile away from you sitting high in some stadium.

Anyway, young Corky grew up to be a model, for awhile the top male model in America. There was at least one magazine in the 70s that had an article by me and a picture of him. He was also trying to be an actor (he had some movie parts, and shows up even now on commercials occasionally), and he dated Pam Dawber when she was the costar of Mork and Mindy. He brought her to the neighborhood one day. I wasn't there but I hear she really liked the garden.

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