Gentrification’s Constant Gardener: Natalie Beach on Finding Herself in South Brooklyn’s Gardens
“What else to do with an excess of feelings but give yourself room to grow?”
Contractually, my book Adult Drama was meant to be finished years ago, and it may well have been, if not for my garden. My husband, the budget balancer, hates when I say this. To his ears I’m confessing a fiduciary misstep, like investing in a time-share. The truth is, I didn’t accidentally prioritize the garden over paid work, and if given a do-over, I’d make the same choices, only this time I wouldn’t overplant the tomatoes. This is just the way it is.
I spend more time in my garden than at my desk. By extension, this fiscal year I’ve spent more money on milkweed, terracotta pots, worm castings, etc., than I’ve earned, money that would only make it to my LLC if I quit mucking around in the planting beds and hunkered down at the computer to fulfill my obligations.
Any gardener would understand. In your little patch of dirt there are also obligations—endless obligations—to attend to. For example, as I write this it is late October, and where I live in Los Angeles, in plant hardiness zone 10b, my passion fruits are plunking to the ground and need to be collected and preserved, the peach tree must be cut back, the artichoke divided, the Brugmansia fed, the drip irrigation reset for winter, the bay leaves dried, the radishes, kale, broccoli, and fava bean seeds sowed. This would be my entire afternoon and then some, if it weren’t for my other work, the work that pays the bank who owns the land that the garden is on.
When I was younger and lived in Brooklyn in zone 7b, I worked as a landscaper. It was good hard work, and I was very bad at it, although I tried. (Lesson learned: you inflate the skills on your résumé one too many times and eventually you’ll look down at your hands and see a whirling chainsaw you have no idea how to operate.) Most mornings the crew would stuff the company’s Toyota Echo with shovels and rakes and be out in South Slope or Prospect Heights, laying slate, tending to the perennials. Each day I’d get filthy and misgendered. I loved it.In your little patch of dirt there are also obligations—endless obligations—to attend to.
My first day I had to assemble a backyard table in Ditmas. My boss dropped my coworker Mateo and me at the site with the hardware and a six-hundred-dollar slab of live-edge oak. Our job was to bolt the underside of the wood onto the metal frame. It was a misty spring day and I remember my knees sinking into the damp grass as I kneeled under the table, diligently torquing the socket wrench.
Mateo worked alongside me and I could already tell from the soft way he handled the tools that he had been doing this work—actual work—his entire life. He grew up building cabinets with his father and uncle, and learned from them, he said. When Mateo asked who taught me I laughed in disbelief. It was obvious that no one had taught me anything. And also: You, Mateo! You’re going to teach me.
I had worked through the pile of screws by the time I realized my mistake. There were two different sizes, and I had accidentally been using the longer ones. Like a dead man walking, I climbed out from under the table and ran my palm over the surface of expensive wood. I felt the slightest prick. A screw tip had pierced the surface, but just barely. Half a centimeter more and I would have ruined the table.
I’d have been fired, or resigned in disgrace, then off to an office assistant job where I’d wear Ann Taylor shift dresses and be exhausted at the end of the day despite having done nothing. As it happened, I failed to ruin the slab. I kept the job and I suspect it changed my life.
“Natalie, are you feeling strong?” was the boss’s way of asking me to lift something heavy, flagstone, manure, a contractor bag of gravel.
Mateo and I built a fire pit out of river stones, laid brick, tamed a wisteria. I mixed cement with a short-handle shovel and poured the foundations for fence posts, and the next week we installed the panels which still smelled of pine and sap. We did bimonthly yard maintenance, hardscaping, heavy pruning. I heeled my shovel into overgrown backyards and found thick glass aspirin bottles, shards of porcelain buried in the soil. The blisters on my palms burst then calloused.
I learned to arrange plants in waves instead of rows. I learned about transplant shock. We’d drive out to wholesale nurseries in Long Island and fill the van with yarrow, goldenrod, coneflower, juniper. I filled my head with new abilities, new words, some even in Latin.
Mateo was twenty-seven, the ideal age for a hot coworker. He came from Watsonville, California, along with 80 percent of the country’s strawberry harvest. He grew up working on farms and later building fire-resistant homes in Central America, which is why he could actually do things, like speak Spanish and build guitars and climb up cherry trees with a saw tucked in his belt, and which is why I predictably fell head-over-Timbs in love. What can I say? Know-how is a turn-on. Meanwhile I was unclear if Mateo found my chipper ineptitude insufferable or kind of cute.
We worked day in and day out next to each other, up to our elbows in wet dirt. Mateo spoke with a stutter, and when he got stuck on a word, I filled in his pause with every romantic, thrilling thing I wanted him to say to me. I began to nurture vivid fantasies. Our van after a nursery run, a humid forest of palms and roses in the back, a bed of soil bags, our tool belts clattering to the floor… At the time, OkCupid asked users “Are you more horny or lonely” and while I would never pretend I wasn’t both horny and lonely, more than that, I was desperate to become someone. If Mateo could love me—hell, even just like me a little more—he might teach me everything he knew. His abilities might rub off on me. I might learn to walk through the world as he did, as a person who knew how to handle themselves.
Most of our clients were Brooklyn creative types. I’d go inside to use their bathroom and clock the rows of Samuel Frenches, the advance readers and Academy screeners. If I ran into the client I’d nod to their bookshelf and drop some line like, “Topdog/Underdog really holds up,” to let them know that just because I was cleaning their backyard I still knew who Suzan-Lori Parks was. As if I was the first person with a BFA to pick up a rake.
One day after work I was drinking a coffee by Greenwood Cemetery when a white lady in a minivan pulled up beside me. She asked me if I lived in the neighborhood and if so how did I like it. She asked what I did. I was covered in dirt and wearing work boots and cargo pants with a pair of Atlas Fits sticking out of my pocket. “I’m a writer,” I said. The woman whooped. “The artists are moving in!” she shouted to her husband in the passenger’s seat. She turned back to me. “You’ve made my day. We’re buying a building here.”
As much as the landscaping work rejuvenated my spirit, I couldn’t ignore the fact that the people who hired us were new residents to Bed-Stuy and Flatbush who were very concerned about securing the property lines. We’d rip out the chain-link and put up tall, tasteful pine boards. As they say, good fences make good neighbors.
Hauling in potting soil, hydrangeas, and new picnic tables to yards full of crab grass and old tires, it was easy to pretend we weren’t displacing anyone, and instead building something out of nothing. Everyone deserves outdoor space, I told myself, as if I was working for everyone. In a sense, I became gentrification’s constant gardener. I replaced the cement with pea gravel, planted box hedge borders, and every two weeks the money appeared in my account like crocuses coming up through the snow.
Winter arrived and I filed for unemployment. I knew that for me, the job wasn’t just ending for the season. While I had won most improved, I knew I wouldn’t be asked back next year. If it weren’t for Mateo covering for me, I’d have been fired my first week. I knew that moving forward, instead of working as a landscaper, I’d write about it, a job hauling stones would become an experience, just another anecdote to tell at the garden parties of my future.
Still, I mourned the person the job turned me into. I had garden-vision, and saw the world in chlorophyllic layers of trees and shrubs and ground cover, having learned the names of the plants I shared my home with. My arms were toned and my ass stood at attention in my cargo pants. I could confidently operate a chainsaw.
Jamaica Kincaid wrote, “The garden makes managing an excess of feelings—good feelings, bad feelings—rewarding in some way that I can never quite understand.” Now that the gardening was over, I couldn’t manage my excess of feelings for Mateo. He was heading back to California for the winter, maybe forever, he told me. This was just after our last shift, at one of the last remaining dives in Park Slope where you could drink whiskey in a dark room at 3:30 in the afternoon.
We split the bill. Mateo was going to Greenpoint and I lied and said I was also going to Greenpoint. We found standing room on the G and I stared at his flexed arm as he gripped the overhead railing.
“So the thing is, I have a crush on you and if you were interested we could have a drink and make out some time?” I was saying. Oh god, this wasn’t at all how I planned it. Mateo was looking at me as if I just told him I’d planted a bomb on the train. “Working with you meant a lot to me,” I kept going. “You looked out for me on the job and never made me feel dumb, even though I had no idea what I was doing. And now thanks to you, I’m not totally useless. So I just thought, it could be fun to… have sex?”It was easy to pretend we weren’t displacing anyone, and instead building something out of nothing.
The train picked up speed in the tunnel, lurching into the curves. “Oh come on, man!” I shouted at him. “We were dirty and sweaty and spent the whole summer on our hands and knees in the soil! I couldn’t have been the only one thinking it!”
Finally, Mateo responded, “This takes balls.” The train came to a stop and I jumped off, not caring what station we were at.
“I’m around for a couple more days,” he said as the doors closed. “Let’s get that drink.”
When I reread my diary from my landscaping days, it’s page after page about my crush on Mateo, when now all I want to read about was my daily life on the job, those small, intimate moments with those gardens I won’t ever return to. This is the unexpected sadness of that job; I never got to see the plants grow.
In Life In the Garden, published in her mid-eighties, the English novelist Penelope Lively writes, “the garden is to elide past, present, and future; it is a defiance of time. You garden today for tomorrow; the garden mutates from season to season, always the same, but always different… We are always gardening for a future; we are supporting, assuming, a future.” I’ve tried my best to write myself back to those South Brooklyn gardens, to try to remember the licorice taste of purple Thai basil plucked right from the stem, the prickly centers of coneflowers, because like gardening, memoir writing is also in defiance of time. But when it comes to plants, dirt, thorns, stones, summer heat, manure, there’s no substitute to being there.
The first thing I did when I moved into my house in Los Angeles was rip up rows of bricks in the yard. Underneath I found construction sand and broken beer bottles, but soil, too, which I’ve spent the last year building up. I planted free shade trees—pink trumpet and crape myrtle—delivered by a city program. I chopped down the suckers from the Chinese sumac that were growing through the bougainvillea.
I’ve begun to plant my own garden—milkweed, pomegranate, Mexican marigold, desert mallow, salvia Hot Lips, and for old times’ sake, goldenrod and mops of sedge. I installed the drip line all by myself. I’ve done mostly everything in the garden by myself, and all without the secret knowledge that would have been bestowed unto me if I had ever managed to fuck Mateo.
(The final night we might have been able to “get that drink” before he left for California, I diligently shaved my legs for the first time in a month, wriggled into my tightest dress, and for hours sat in a bar next to the recording studio his band was using on the off-chance he’d have time to meet, which he did not. He flew back to the west coast and I texted him a photo of Guy Fieri posing with a six-foot-tall hotdog and then wrote, “oops wrong image,” followed by a picture of my tits. The next day, I woke to discover my thighs covered in pustulating sores—folliculitis, the urgent care doctor told me, from shaving with a rusty razor. The crush was never consummated.)
Today, I work out of my office which is in a small cinderblock room under the house. When the door is open, as it is now, I have a clear view of the garden. The fruit on my Buddha’s hand tree is changing to yellow. The first sugar snap peas of the season have seized the trellis. When I look down, I can see a fine layer of dirt coating my computer keyboard, evidence of all the trips I’ve taken to the garden between sentences.
I have hours—a lifetime, if we’re being honest—of work ahead of me, but I also have cabin fever, and the all-consuming desire to dig in the bulbs—Georgia sweet onion, elephant garlic, daffodil, and hyacinth, because what else to do with an excess of feelings but give yourself room to grow?
Excerpted from Adult Drama: And Other Essays by Natalie Beach. Copyright © 2023. Available from Hanover Square Press, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.