Francine is picking through heirloom tomatoes at Berkeley Bowl on a recent day. She has twenty varieties to choose from: Black Crimson, Lemon Boy, Cherokee Purple. The names are as evocative as the shapes and colors, streaks of algae green on bronze, brick-red, gold. A trim woman in her fifties with neatly applied makeup and a wool check jacket, Francine has her bag open, sorting through to find the specimens that speak to her. “I just moved here from San Francisco to be near all this beautiful food,” she says. “I mean, just look at that.” She holds an egg-shaped tomato in the palm of her hand — it’s a delicious-looking paprika color, with a yellow cherry-tomato-size outgrowth near the stem. “This one I’d put on a stand and just look at it.”
This is the gleaming first market of food, built on an ideal of perfection and the illusion of almost limitless choice. Even in Berkeley, where conversations about food politics are as commonplace as talk of Survivor elsewhere, the rules of retail branding apply. We see our food choices as just as much of a status issue as clothing or cars. Nordstrom or Urban Outfitters. Hummer or Prius. The heirloom tomatoes that enthrall Francine help tell us who we are.
One of the things they say is that we have little compunction about waste. Truth is, our gorgeous food supply — even here at Berkeley Bowl — rides on rails of excess. These vast tomato bins look great only because produce clerks are continually culling those we won’t buy. Tim Kilkenny, produce buyer for the Berkeley and El Cerrito Natural Grocery Co. stores, lays out the blueprint for imperfection: “Anything that has the smallest rot dot, any little brown rot dot,” he says. “If you can see it, it’s out. It’s culled.”
Kilkenny has been a produce buyer for various stores since 1987, and he’s seen plenty of those dots. “All retailers have to cater to the more vocal customer,” he says. “So we cull out some stuff on some pretty light provocation.”
It’s all about us, then. But can you really blame us? “Look,” Francine says, holding up a Green Zebra covered with a network of brown scars. “I don’t want to pay $2.39 a pound for that one. Not when I can get beautiful ones for the same price.”
Nor does anyone. So at Berkeley Bowl, the most presentable rejects get twisted up into bargain bags. On the afternoon Francine was picking out her tomatoes, the discount table held a dozen bags filled with headless pineapples, densely pitted lemons, and bruised, sweaty pears. And the cull that doesn’t even make the discount table? Francine says she hopes it goes to someone hungry.
But Ray Saldana, Berkeley Bowl produce manager, says it gets composted — three or four huge bins every day. And while some other retailers let hunger charities pick up some of their cull — Natural Grocery Co., Trader Joe’s, and Berkeley’s Whole Foods store, among others — not everything gets eaten. Given the sheer volume of produce at a store like Berkeley Bowl, it just isn’t practical to find a home for everything shoppers won’t buy. With all that variety comes the acknowledgment that waste is inevitable.
Food waste makes up by far the largest fraction of the stuff we throw away, according to Meghan Starkey, senior programs manager at the Alameda County Waste Management Association, who cites the conclusions of a 2000 study. That’s true of retail businesses and homes alike. In Alameda County alone, businesses such as restaurants and retail food stores trashed more than 57,000 tons of food and food scraps in 2000. According to a 2004 study, food waste was the largest of the 45 material categories that clog the state’s landfills.
Some of our excess food and drink, however, has been given a new lease on life. There are individuals and businesses in the East Bay who have attempted to turn it into something else. They rebrand and sell it back to Volvo-driving shoppers, or use it to define a neighborhood, or simply strive to keep poor families alive through an intensely personal dedication to urban foraging. These three tales offer a glimpse into their worlds.
PART I: THE SCAVENGER
The reek of soured food surrounds Cleveland Thomas Jr. like an aura. Dressed in khakis and a faded blue shirt, the 77-year-old director of Good Samaritan House works his unlit meerschaum pipe as if it’s a thought. He’s on the curb outside Good Sam, a battered bungalow on Oakland’s 10th Street, at just after 8:00 in the morning — time for his daily foraging raid into the plush feeding grounds of the hills.
Tomorrow is Friday, one of three organized food giveaway days at Good Sam, and some of the goods are already piled up in anticipation: cases of Egg Beaters, fifty-pound sacks of sprouting potatoes, plastic milk crates bristling with stale baguettes. But Thomas is heading out for more.
At a time when food pantries are trending bigger, better funded, and as tightly organized as government bureaucracies, Good Sam plays it old-school: This is urban pantrying at its rawest and most personal. Larger, more organized pantries tend to restrict the number of times in a month that people can apply for food. But anyone who’s hungry can shout through Good Sam’s screen door and expect something to eat — every day if need be.
The San Francisco-raised former engineer slides into his 1987 caramel-colored Ranger pickup, a Mad Max-looking gent with gray hair, ’80s-style aviator eyeglasses, and the ruminative, laconic air of a senior citizen. Thomas’ pantry lost its affiliation with the Methodist Church more than twenty years ago. It gets no grants, and no funding except for the rumpled fives, tens, and twenties the occasional supporter presses into Thomas’ hand. He drains his Social Security checks to keep the Ranger going. He also dips into the pension he earns from Bechtel Corporation; at one time, Thomas helped build nuclear power plants in Pennsylvania. But six months after his retirement in 1984, he threw himself into Good Sam, where his wife Mary was volunteering — she passed away in 1986.
Part of his foraging drive stems from growing up in San Francisco during the 1930s. Young Cleveland had a vague sense of the Great Depression: “I saw a lot of people that were really needy, just getting food from the government,” he remembers. “From that I always thought if I was able to help people, I wanted to do it.”
Today he just wants to find some decent cilantro. “They like the cilantro,” he says. Thomas tends to talk about the families who show up at Good Sam as if they’re his kids. “Parsley they won’t take,” he adds. “But cilantro is good.”
The old man reckons there’ll be more than 250 families showing up on 10th Street at 5 a.m. tomorrow, trailing rolling wire shopping baskets lined with trash bags or rice sacks, carefully folded and saved for food days. “We had 274 families on Tuesday,” he notes, steering the Ranger up 14th Street en route to Lincoln Square. His truck is crammed with papers and tools, and a few ancient-looking cheese logs roll around the bench seat as it lurches into gear.
When Good Samaritan House opened in the mid-1960s, its Eastlake neighborhood was largely African American. Now, the area at the southeast rim of Lake Merritt is largely Asian. “Ninety percent are Asians,” Thomas says. “Chinese, Vietnamese, Laotian.” Many don’t speak English.
A little while later, Thomas is back behind the swinging doors at the rear of the Lincoln Square Safeway, a big space crammed with carts, waxed cardboard boxes, and plastic bread trays packed with cull, the detritus of the produce bins. For scavengers like him, this is pay dirt: Scarred lettuce leaves stripped from still-saleable heads. Bruised peaches. Shucked ears of corn crazed with worm trails. He strikes gold — three bunches of battered cilantro. But the slimy mung-bean sprouts he finds are beyond salvage.
“Just a few do what I do,” Thomas explains. He’s picking out portobello mushrooms as dry as old sponges from a nest of slimy lettuce leaves. A jimmy-sprinkled donut with a single bite missing surfaces among the leaves. “Others just rely on the food bank.”
Nearly three hundred local hunger agencies — food pantries such as Good Sam, soup kitchens, and shelters — depend on the Alameda County Community Food Bank for some level of support. Most shop the food bank for free or highly subsidized food, use it for access to government surplus commodities, or rely on it for social services such as nutrition counseling for their client families.
Thomas does this too, though less than many other agencies. He gets the bank’s bulk food for organized giveaways — those potatoes and Egg Beaters, for instance — although he steers clear of USDA subsidies such as rice and powdered milk. Nothing against bulk commodities, he says. But without more volunteers, the task of portioning out bags of rice for more than 250 families is overwhelming.
Just foraging through cull takes almost all of Thomas’ time. He does it six days a week from 7:30 a.m. until around 3:00 p.m. Sundays are a day off, sort of — he still stops to pick up day-old bread from Semifreddi’s bakery in Emeryville. Raymond Williams, a semiretired contractor, helps out a couple of days a week, but two years ago, Thomas had a stroke and was laid up for two weeks. His son, Norman, took over foraging.
Thomas figures someone will step in as a successor when the time comes. “One thing I learned when I was working,” he says. “There’s always somebody who can come in and take your place.”
Bridget Galvan, programs manager for the Alameda County Community Food Bank, calls Thomas an extreme example of a “mom-and-pop” food agency. Their kind is dwindling, she says. They make up about 15 to 20 percent of the food bank’s client agencies, but most are older than seventy, and technology-averse. “Some of them don’t even have a fax machine,” she says.
Forget faxes. Good Sam’s phone isn’t even working. Something to do with switching, Thomas explains. But it’s emblematic of the way he operates: Apart from the internal combustion engine, he relies solely on his own inner drive to keep Good Sam going.
The scrappy, tenuous, and sometimes-chaotic quality of Good Sam House contrasts with the more organized salvage practices of food pantries such as Concord’s Monument Crisis Center. Monument relies on an intricate choreography of volunteers — seniors and Rotarians — to pick up and sort through salvage, not to mention alliances with Safeway’s Northern California distribution center and the Food Bank of Contra Costa and Solano Counties. Thomas is a maverick who prefers to be hands-on. Literally. Right now, he’s picking through a box of Tuscan melons whiskered with mold to find a single edible one. “You ever tried one of these?” he asks the Safeway produce clerk, whose nametag reads Leonard. “These are real good.”
Thomas tosses aside a couple of prepacked deli salads to get to a few damp heads of bok choy. Then he sees what he really wants: a small box of clementines with a few missing. He stops the clerk. “I saw these little tangerines here yesterday,” he says. “Can you let me have them?”
“Always happy to help the homeless,” Leonard says.
Thomas loads a few gallons of just-past-pull-date milk and orange juice onto a cart. He gets green peppercorn baguettes, Passover whitefish in jellied broth, Atkins cereal bars, and Jolly Ranchers. It’s the residue of the American diet, dead fads, and stale seasonal specials.
Next stop is the Safeway store at the base of Montclair Village, the highest reaches of Oakland’s affluent uplands, where there’s no shortage of high-end swag. Thomas scores big: three full flats of strawberries, the fruit only slightly stained with age spots, and perfect-looking brown Turkey figs. There’s a “plugged” watermelon, which had a small triangular piece cut from its rind so a customer could taste it.
In the parking lot, the scavenger examines half a dozen fragrant pineapples — they were cleared out to make way for new ones. “I think the pineapple sale started today,” he says to the guy who chalks car tires. “These here are probably better than the new ones.”
He makes a trip back to the takeout food counter, where the deli manager is ready for him. She’s packed a shopping cart with the stuff she wants to get rid of. It’s mounded with unsold rotisserie chickens in plastic containers, fancy cheeses past pull date, and buttered, uncooked panini sheathed in clear wrap. There are bouquets of roses, yellow and pale lavender, the petals just beginning to pucker along their edges.
Upon Thomas’ return to 10th Street, the payload of the caramel-colored Ranger gets dismantled in a process of near-anarchy. Mrs. Loo, a longtime volunteer, seems to be in charge. Two women help her unload, dropping some cases on the curb, stacking others precariously on overturned milk crates on the bungalow steps, in an order that seems to make sense to Mrs. Loo. “If you help unload the truck, you get first choice of what’s on it,” Thomas explains. But a woman who’s been waiting for Thomas to return — sitting with a man and an older lady in a parked car — gets out and starts unloading some of the best stuff directly into her car.
She grabs a couple of leftover rotisserie chickens, the ones labeled Tuscan-Herb. She snags the panini. “Ooh, these are good sandwiches,” she says. Mrs. Loo doesn’t stop her. She gets a gallon of milk. The man leaves the car and joins her; he picks up a bouquet of pink roses, but the woman snatches them away. “I want to give them to Mama,” she says.
She carries them to the car. “Happy birthday, Mama,” she says, handing them in to the older lady, suddenly sweet.
The Ranger is empty, and Mrs. Loo is busy assembling food bags for herself and her helpers. The cilantro and bok choy disappear into shopping bags. She takes handfuls of clementines and drops them into the bags like someone doling out candy to trick-or-treaters.
Cleveland Thomas sucks his cold meerschaum and watches. He seems unmoved. “We’re a very privileged and rich society,” he says. “We can pick and choose.” He accepts this without cynicism, he says: “We’re just sort of a throwaway society. That’s just the way it is.”
Looking at the stacks of battered food waste on 10th Street, it’s easy to imagine there’s a Tuscan-Herb chicken for anyone who wants it. “There’s so much wasted, and so many hungry people,” notes Sandra Scherer, executive director of Monument Crisis Center. “It’s just distribution that’s the problem.”
For his part, Cleveland Thomas has figured out the distribution thing. Just so long as he and his truck can hold out.
PART II: THE ‘GROCE OUT’
Tall and patrician, dressed in crisply pressed slacks and a dress shirt, Ken Stutz takes a sip from his glass. He works the wine over his palate. “It’s got a little personality,” he says, nodding slowly to register approval. It’s earthy, so herbaceous it’s almost weedy, with a resinous burr of oak. “There’s something about it,” he says.
Stutz is taking part in an impromptu wine tasting. “This one’s more jewel-like than the last,” says his host, Bennie Tiapon, who conducts casual tastings whenever someone like Ken stops by — once a week, maybe, on Friday afternoons. Stutz, a Piedmont businessman, drops in only occasionally, and he rarely buys more than a couple of bottles. But he has connections — his word of mouth means something to guys who are inclined to buy more seriously. It’s all about finding a hidden gem where you least expect it. And this tasting room — a cluttered kitchenette above the Berkeley Grocery Outlet store — is where you’d least expect it.
The wine with a glimmer of personality is a 2005 Little Valley Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa, a generic black-and-white label with a scrap of clip art, no UPC marks, and a price of $4.99. In fact, the five wines store manager Tiapon is twisting open this afternoon are all under $10 — well under.
Grocery Outlet is a place many people associate more with food-stamp shoppers than with Piedmont wine buyers itching with the thrill of the find. Founded in San Francisco in 1946 as a place where dented cans got sold off cheap, the company’s bright, generic rainbow logo still screams “downmarket.” The privately owned chain boasts 125 stores in its Western states franchise link, not including the stores in Berkeley, Oakland, and Redwood City, which the company owns outright. The chain’s headquarters are in Berkeley — actually, here in the very office where Tiapon is trying to charm Stutz with closeout Cabernet.
Company literature describes Grocery Outlet as the nation’s largest “retailer remarketers of excess and problem inventories.” A place, in other words, where stuff close to death dies quietly. Generously marked down.
Welcome to the aftermarket, where foods deemed unsellable at places like Safeway or Berkeley Bowl find their last breaths. Perishables reaching the end of their sell-by dates. Products whose labels have changed, or whose cases were damaged in shipping. Trial balloons that sank before they reached the shelves. It’s the product equivalent of produce cull. “It’s interesting to see what happens to foods when people don’t want them anymore,” Stutz says.
The Grocery Outlet’s cheery rainbow promises very different pots of gold depending on who you are. “We really have two kinds of customers,” says John Wylie, vice president of marketing: “Need and Want.” Look around the Berkeley store’s parking lot: “Everything from junkers to Beemers,” he observes.
Members of the shopping cult of sorts the chain has spawned refer to it fondly as the Groce Out, in homage to the bizarre and sometimes sickening stuff they claim they’ve seen here. Oreos rolled in Pop Rocks. Malt-liquor energy drinks called Sparks — “I tend to think of them as a ghetto speedball,” explains Davor, posting to a Tribe.net message board dedicated to Groce Out fans. Another poster describes a salad she made from ingredients she found at the store, dressed with a mixture of vinegar and strawberry jam. The Burning Man crowd stocks up at Groce Out annually on cheap vodka, tuna, and cupcakes before heading to the desert. “Foodtainment,” Davor observes.
The stores can feel like supermarkets in a parallel dimension. There are cornflakes with Arabic labels — manufactured domestically, but never made it out of the country. Watermelon-pink Indonesian tuna steaks in clear Cryovac look disturbingly fleshy. Sunny Harvest frozen cauliflower florets look like huge, misshapen teeth. Sometimes the brand names themselves are off-kilter: Krasdale ice cream bars. Wortz crackers. Richfood orangesicles.
Back in the ’80s, when the food aftermarket was fringy at best, manufacturers would have written off a lot of this stuff as deductions. They would have donated some of it to food banks. But nowadays so-called problem inventories are hot. And in the East Bay, problem inventories of luxury foods such as wine, imported cheeses, and organic freezer items have lit a fire under a small population of well-heeled shoppers such as Stutz. “You go there for the adventure,” he says. “It’s maybe what Trader Joe’s was in the past.”
He means a place that’s a little sketchy around the edges, seeded with just enough high-end finds to make you want to go back. It’s the closeout nature of the place — the fact that guys like Stutz will often find something new, but where a great discovery might disappear in two days — that makes the Grocery Outlet as much about entertainment for the better-heeled as about subsistence shopping for those with less.
East Bay food and wine guru and radio host Narsai David talks about the wine departments at the Oakland and Berkeley stores as if they’re open-air markets in another country: You’ve got to know how to navigate. “The advice I give to my listeners is to talk to the wine manager or the store manager,” he says. “Describe what you’re looking for, and then buy a sample bottle of each wine they recommend. Make sure you’re back there the next day — you can’t wait, because it may be gone by the time you go back for it.”
Next day? Hell, Stutz says some guys he knows crack open a bottle in the parking lot. If they like it, they’re back in for a case.
Robert, a 61-year-old lawyer, is trawling the wine department in the Oakland store on a recent day. His shopping basket contains organic hamburger buns and a bottle of Bordeaux priced at $4.99. Dressed in neat-looking jeans and a long-sleeved shirt, the lawyer, who won’t share his last name, recites a familiar Groce Out mantra. “You never know what you’re going to find,” he says. “It’s serendipity.”
Indeed, manager Tiapon was telling Stutz about the serendipity of last month’s shipment of Katrina wines, fancy French bottles sold off by an insurance company after it settled on a damaged warehouse. The prices hit new Grocery Outlet highs. There was a Sancerre for $25.99, a ’97 Hospices de Beaune for $22.99. “We got eight pallets,” Tiapon says. “They went out the door in three weeks.” Three of his best wine shoppers spent more than $5,000 each. Talk about foodtainment.
Like others bit by the bug, Narsai David has his own Groce Out war stories, such as the truck accident that rocked a load of upmarket wines. “There were stains on cases,” he remembers. “But the wine inside the bottles was still good.”
Susan Beardsley is another “want” customer. Owner of a company that makes chai, she lives in San Francisco and spends her day stopping at high-end retail stores such as Whole Foods that stock her product alongside organic, health, and luxury foods. But this weekly stop at the Berkeley Groce Out is pleasure, not business. Her basket is filled with an Amy’s organic frozen pizza, organic soy coffee creamer, crab cakes, and a box of frozen halibut. “It’s kind of fun to look around here, like potluck,” she says.
Beardsley does the bulk of her personal shopping at Whole Foods, and Rainbow Grocery in San Francisco. She can shop anywhere. And she’s not exactly sure what draws her to Grocery Outlet. “It’s cosmopolitan,” she says, looking around. “All kinds of people are here. I was just in the Marin Whole Foods and it was so — white.” For her, shopping here in the aftermarket feels real. But only if she can walk out with a few organic goodies.
Today, Stutz has found his own goodie, but only after Tiapon reveals that the Little Valley Cabernet comes from a big-name California boutique winemaker. “Oh, really?” Stutz says, clearly impressed when the manager drops the name.
On the first market, the businessman probably wouldn’t have touched a bottle. But here, amid the ambience of the downmarket, a wine made quickly from a glut of juice seasoned with oak chips becomes an amazing find.
PART III: THE FRUITY ARTISTS
Susanne Cockrell is steering a hulking steel-frame cart down a driveway cutout and up Oakland’s 49th Street. The cart is triangular, with a blue metallic frame, big spoked wheels, and arched rails that anchor a series of empty woven baskets. “We’ll see about this,” says Ted Purves, Cockrell’s husband.
It’s late on a Friday morning, and Cockrell and Purves are on a mission. With any luck, by the time they steer their postmodern rickshaw back to the Temescal Amity Works storefront near Telegraph Avenue, its baskets will be brimming with fruit, backyard discards from neighbors in this North Oakland neighborhood. “We may be cheaper than calling a yard service,” Purves says.
Today offers something new. For the first time in the two years since Cockrell and Purves launched Temescal Amity Works, they’ve gotten a call from a neighbor with excess walnuts. Black walnuts, to be precise, from an ancient sixty-foot tree. “Walnuts are also known as yard garbage,” says Purves, who’s wearing designer eyeglasses and a preppy-looking striped Oxford shirt.
Purves and Cockrell, who is dressed in jeans and a gray wool sweater, have the look of grown-up college TAs. Both are in their early forties and are professors at California College of the Arts, floating between the Oakland and San Francisco campuses. Purves also is a writer and occasional curator. Cockrell, with a background in performance, is an administrator for first-year art students. This is, after all, an art project.
The pair started their edible quest with grant money cobbled together from Creative Capital in New York, San Francisco’s Creative Work Fund, and the Oakland Cultural Arts Fund. They landed storefront space half a block from the district’s bustling commercial zone on Telegraph, commissioned Oakland artist and fabricator Andrew Bigler to help design and build their cart, and launched what they call the Big Backyard Project.
The couple’s plan was to glean essentially unwanted fruit from backyard trees before it rotted, shriveled up, or became windfall. They’d give it away for free, to anyone who stopped by the storefront and was willing to bag it up and take it. But unlike Cleveland Thomas, Cockrell and Purves weren’t interested in feeding the hungry, keeping waste out of landfills, or helping homeowners keep their yards tidy. The artists were interested in creating what they call social sculpture.
“We always think of material as being these things that you shape and mold,” Cockrell says. As she and Purves describe it, the concept of social sculpture sees human interactions as the equivalent of modeling clay. “It’s really the idea that people, or the things that we do together, the things that we say, or the place that we walk, the trees that we plant — all of that could actually be looked at as material,” she says. The couple found inspiration in the work of 20th-century German performance artist Joseph Beuys (pronounced “boys”), who once lobbed a blood sausage over the Berlin Wall as a gesture intended to unify East and West Germans.
They started Big Backyard with the hope that it would reveal a truth about the shape of a community and say something about the way neighbors interact. Interactions sculpted, as it were, out of backyard excess. Whether the project succeeds as conceptual art is open to debate. Nevertheless, Cockrell and Purves are now finding it difficult to let go.
Cockrell steers the cart from Clarke onto 48th, cruising slowly down the middle of the street. Half a block away, two women pause, about to slip into a parked van. They shoot the rickshaw curious looks. “Shall we give them some information?” Purves asks. “They seem interested.”
Cockrell takes a couple of the postcards clipped to the cart’s frame to give to the women. The cards show photos of the fruit, or of events Amity Works has sponsored. “We don’t have anything for you,” one of the women shouts. They’re already hip to the project. Another tenant from their co-housing complex once donated avocados from a couple of backyard trees. “Come by tomorrow,” Cockrell yells back. “We’ll have oranges and black walnuts.”
A neighborhood of some seventy square blocks in the north Oakland flatlands, Greater Temescal spans more contradictions than most. Originally farmland, it was largely settled by Italian immigrants who planted fruit trees and cultivated large gardens. They even made wine, roping off blocks for yearly grape-crushing festas. Today the fast-revitalizing ‘hood is dotted with both subsidized housing and chic restaurants; multifamily compounds and big-ticket loft condos; not to mention a dense inventory of modest 1920s-era stucco bungalows edging toward the million-dollar price range.
Temescal finds itself fertile ground for a new debate about urbanism, one that’s gotten ugly in the two years since Temescal Amity Works started parking its fruit cart out front for neighbors to help themselves. The debate pits development proponents against more progressive residents concerned with sustainability, access to green space, and making the neighborhood self-sufficient for residents.
Late last year, the two sides faced off over a 67-unit development proposed for a weedy empty lot at 51st and Telegraph where a porn theater once stood. The so-called Civiq project was stalled for months while the factions bickered over a five-foot difference in the height of the five-story project.
A potentially poisonous atmosphere for an experiment in social sculpture, you might think — or perhaps the Big Backyard Project is just what the neighborhood needed. “I think it’s a wonderful idea,” says Jeff Norman, a Temescal historian and self-described community artist. “Conceptually, I don’t know to what extent it’s been realized.”
Norman is skeptical about the notion of social sculpture, or that the artists’ little experiment has really changed the neighborhood in any significant way. Things like fruit exchanges between neighbors probably happen in a lot of places, he says, but he thinks Cockrell and Purves are helping keep things real during a difficult period.
“I think it’s a really cool idea,” Charlie Hallowell says. “It’s a thousand times more interesting and righteous than what 99 percent of people in America are doing.” Hallowell is the chef and owner of Pizzaiolo, a restaurant on Telegraph that shares an alley with Temescal Amity Works. Sometimes, when Cockrell and Purves have more lemons or apples than people will take, Hallowell uses the excess fruit in his restaurant.
Like many neighborhood residents interviewed, Hallowell seems to like knowing that Temescal Amity Works exists, even if he hasn’t actively gotten involved. It’s the idea that matters. “It’s nice,” he says. “It’s not motivated by profit or what they can get out of the neighborhood.”
“It felt like a neighborhood revival indicator,” says Adriana Taranta, describing how Cockrell and Purves picked lemons and limes from her yard twice over the past two years. For Taranta, it began as a desperate attempt to find a solution to a prolific old lemon tree. “But it wasn’t really the answer to our big lemon problem,” she admits. The artists took just enough fruit to make a big batch of mixed-citrus marmalade; Taranta came home later to find jars of marmalade on her front steps. She says she felt the jam, which contained fruit from different neighbors’ trees, was symbolic of a connection with people she didn’t even know. “It makes me hopeful that I’ll connect with people in the future,’ she says.
On Webster Street, Cockrell stops the cart in front of their first stop. The homeowner said he’d leave a box of oranges on the porch, but there are two Pampers boxes full of tangerines. “What a find,” Cockrell says. Purves hoists one of the boxes and starts filling the baskets with fruit. “It’s nice to put them out,” Cockrell says.
“It’s a visual symbol,” Purves says.
Cockrell steers the cart toward the address of the black-walnut donor a few blocks away. A young woman on a bicycle stops. “Amity?” she asks.
“Want some tangerines?” Purves offers. The woman fills her pockets. “I love that you guys are doing this,” she says.
On 49th Street, a woman in a baseball cap pokes her head out of an upstairs window to watch the cart. “We got tangerines today,” Purves yells up. The woman runs out the front door holding an enormous lemon from her neighbor’s tree. Purves drops it into one of the baskets; the woman makes a hammock out of her T-shirt to hold a couple of handfuls of fruit. “Oh my God, that’s so fabulous,” she says. “When global civilization collapses we’ll all be able to survive!”
The black walnuts turn out to be a tease. The dark, leafy tree towers over the back of the house — “Oh, Jesus,” Purves groans when he sees it — but the woman who offered the nuts isn’t home, and the back gate is locked. “Oh, well,” Cockrell says, sounding relieved. She turns the cart around to return to the Amity Works storefront. Tomorrow, Saturday — the one day of the week they’re open — they’ll park the cart out front with its baskets of tangerines for anyone to take.
An African-American kid with braids, a huge backpack, and a spangly silver watchband saunters by slowly. He seems curious and cautious. “Want some tangerines?” Purves asks cheerily.
The kid says nothing and keeps walking. He gets to the corner, turns around, and saunters back. “I’ll take some,” he says. Purves’ hands are full of tangerines. The kid stuffs them in the pockets of his hoodie. A few drop to the street. “Got room in your backpack?” Purves asks. The kid takes off his backpack and begins filling it with tangerines. “Alright, alright,” he says, smiling now, as if he’s just landed something better than someone’s excess fruit.