New Friends and Farmers (Part I)

The gray Cleveland skies had me thinking the other day.

‘Why in the world did I ever leave Florida, to pack up my van and move back to northeast Ohio?’

Ah, the weather plays tricks you know, teasing one into believing that the past can yield much greener pastures.

Funny how I got tired of all the beach traffic. And the hot sun. And what seemed like a never-ending supply of batteries and bottled water in preparation of hurricane season. And if I had never sold that house in Clearwater and ended my 17-year run in the Sunshine State, I would have never completed my master’s degree, never taken up urban farming, and never met a gentleman from Guyana named Victor Chan.

Victor came to Cleveland from half a world away, and before the end of this year’s growing season, we met while harvesting our vegetables at Kentucky Garden. He was kind enough to tell me about his life in Cleveland, and the home he now shares with his wife, Balcumarie.

He loves Cleveland and the garden, but he also grows nostalgic for his vchenhome in South America. He especially misses his grown children who still live there. He had worked in the sugar industry there for 27 years, so farming the soil in Cleveland came naturally to him. “Life was oppressive in Guyana,” he said, “but I got a chance to come here to a better way of life.”

As we sat at the picnic table and talked, we realized how Kentucky Garden was such a cultural gem, particularly for Cleveland’s immigrant population. Victor handed me a bitter melon, a bumpy yellow-green vegetable he learned to grow in the old country. He reminisced about that garden back home, and spoke about his long beans, eggplant, hot peppers and okra.

As I watched Victor speak, he would drift back in time, just like I did when I yearned for sunny Florida and walks along warm, Gulf beaches. We both sort of realized our lives are different now, and neither would trade what we have in our new reality, working an urban farm and enjoying the end of harvest season.

This garden gave Victor and me a chance to connect, and we recognized the intersection of two totally different worlds. He is now a veteran of the local food scene in Cleveland, and he fondly remembered the first day he arrived at Kentucky Garden. It was the summer of 1997, and he was really trying hard to get to Cleveland in time for our Independence Day celebration. He was supposed to arrive on July 4, but his flight got delayed.

He also remembers the first day he started his first job — July 24. “I remember it was a Thursday,” he told me. “A friend got the job for me.”

He spoke very little English then, but his first boss at an east-side factory helped get him acclimated. “In the beginning, I talked too fast, and they said, ‘Victor, slow down. You have to go slowly.’ ”

He also got involved in his community, attending church and making new friends who introduced him to Kentucky Garden.

“I love this garden,” Victor says. “After work, you can come out and enjoy the fresh air, and chat with other people. You always meet new people here.”

Yes, Victor. I am one of those new people and I am grateful for the connection.