a recent commercial for Big Brother/Big Sister reminded me of this story I wrote for Mother Earth News
Miguel studied the fruit and vegetables laid out on the planks of a make-shift roadside stand. He glanced at the money box with the ‘thank you’ card taped on its side and the stack of re-useable bags next to it. Then he made a beeline back to my car, slammed the doors and turned up the radio. What’s happening here, I wondered?
I’m doing the Big Brother thing with Miggy. Every weekend I spend some time with him; try to get him away from his inner-city neighborhood. Our ride in the country was going fine until I stopped for fruit.
“Here. Have some cherries,” I offered as we drove away.
Miggy took one look at the crumpled bag of sweet black cherries I had just bought. “No way,” he said. “You don’t know where those came from. Besides, what kind of people leave food out in front of their house and expect you to pay for it—on your honor?”
We rode in silence for a while. I knew that if I kept quiet, he would eventually tell me what was on his mind.
Finally, the kid opened up. “That’s not how fruit is supposed to look. Fruit’s supposed to come in those little trays with plastic over it and a tag that tells what it is and how much it costs. Then you take it to the check-out and you pay and they give you a receipt. That’s the way it’s supposed to be.”
“What about bananas?” I asked. “They don’t come in bags or trays?”
My sharp Little Brother thought for a moment. “Well, that’s different. Some of the fruit have labels to let you know they’re cool. Like the little tag they sew on jeans. Designer fruit, that’s what I’m talking about. And some of them—the oranges and the grapefruits—they’re tough. They got their own tattoos like Sunkist or something… And if they don’t have a special tag, well, at least they look shiny and clean, stacked up all neat.” Miggy paused. “That’s a job I’d like to have.”
“What’s that?” I asked.
“Making designer labels for fruit and vegetables.”
I could tell he was on a roll.
“Here’s what I would do. First you got to get down to their level. Put yourself in their place. Take a potato. Potatoes are low. You don’t get much lower than potatoes. Now, wouldn’t it make you feel great if some guy slapped a slick sticker on your head that said, ‘Grade A Select’? And then he stacked you in a pile with the rest of the best. See, that could be satisfying work.”
I loved it when he took off on an idea.
“Now, strawberries and blueberries—that could be hard. I mean, I could design a great sticker. But it would take too long to put each one on.”
Miggy licked his lips, hands waving. “And then, if I really got into it, I could make little instruction labels, like for a banana, that said things like Open Other End. And maybe I could add in a recipe for banana nut bread and like that. And maybe throw in a barcode thingy if the managers wanted it.”
I laughed. “Well, all I can say is, it’s not that complicated for farmers. See, if a farmer saw a worm hole in an apple, he would cut around it or make cider with it. Farmer’s aren’t star-struck by fruit, waxing and stacking them in pyramids, not unless they wanted to sell them to city folk. For themselves, they work around blemishes. Food is food, plain and simple.”
Miggy cut me slant eyes and shook his head. I wanted him to understand. So I told him this story.
“It seems there was a reporter for the National Inquirer cruising the country roads in pursuit of a story when he spotted a pig with a wooden leg in a farm yard. Now there’s got to be a good story behind that pig’s leg, the reporter thought to himself.
So, he knocked on the farm house door and asked the farmer’s wife, ‘So, tell me about this porker, please.”
‘Oh, that pig is a real hero in these parts. Last winter, when we had a fire in the house, the pig woke us all up. When we got outside and realized that grandma was still inside, the pig went in and got her. Dragged her out by the night-shirt. Yessir, saved our lives that pig did.’
‘Yeah, but why does it have a wooden leg?’ the reporter asked.
‘Tell him about this spring, honey,’ the wife asked her husband.
‘This spring when I was plowing the east 40,’ the farmer explained. ‘My tractor tipped and pinned me in a drainage ditch. My face was under water. That pig stuck its snout under my chin and kept me from drowning. Saved my life, he did.’
‘Yeah, but why does it have a wooden leg?’ the reporter insisted.
‘Why, son,’ the wife explained in a matter of fact tone, ‘a pig like that, you don’t want to eat all at once.’
I checked Miguel for his reaction.
“Oh, that’s cold, man,” he replied.
When we stopped for gas and Miggy went inside to buy gum, I poured the cherries from the paper ‘farmer’s’ bag into a plastic ‘grocery produce’ bag left over from luncheon pears. On the way home, I offered him some cherries. This time he accepted without question, munching and spitting pits out the window while we talked over plans for our next outing.