Sunday, March 30, 2008

Small Stars

I’m concerned because it’s been a while since I’ve seen the Tomato Man. I asked my mother and she swore she saw him a couple months ago, but admits it’s been a long time. I’ve asked around and no one knows where he might be. He’s disappeared before, a couple weeks here and there, but the only other time he’s been gone this long was when he and his girlfriend went to jail. I hope he’s not locked up again, or worse. There’s only so much a person can take, and the Tomato Man has taken a lot already.

My first afternoon back in Florida, when I just moved back from Atlanta, my mother took me to lunch and on the way back home she nearly gave me a heart attack when she slammed on the brakes, almost skipping the curb, screaming “I NEED TOMATOES!!!!”

She got so excited that she dropped her cigarette and burnt a hole in the thigh of her capris.
Good Lord, I thought. I’d certainly seen her have a nicotine fit before, but never a tomato fit, and no nicotine fit had ever inspired the sudden impulse to scream and halt traffic on A1A. These tomatoes must have been packed with eight balls of coke and heroin by the way she was acting.

“There’s Tomato Man!!” she said pointing, “See if you can’t get his attention.”

I rolled down my window and sure enough, there was a man furiously pedaling a rusty bicycle down the sidewalk. Rigged to the back of the bike was a wide, flat, homemade, wooden box stacked with a mountain of tomatoes that looked like it was a good speed bump away from a red, pulpy avalanche.

My mother honked the horn and the Tomato Man pulled his contraption over. We got out and my mother began sorting through the tomato mountain picking out the ones she wanted. When she finished the Tomato Man put them in a brown paper bag and charged her three dollars.

“You pretty ladies have a nice day!” he called as we sped away.

The tomatoes bled when we cut them. They were heavy globes of red with dusty skin that still smelled of heat and fields; the green summer scent of vines; asterisk-shaped yellow blossoms and lacy leaves. We had tomato sandwiches on buttered toast for dinner, but we could have eaten them plain.

“This is the best tomato I have ever had, I swear to God,” I said.

“See,” my mother said wiping mayonnaise from her chin.

We ate them again with eggs for breakfast. For lunch we made sandwiches with basil and prosciutto and pretty soon we were driving up and down A1A looking for the Tomato Man again.

“So, all he does is sell tomatoes from the back of a bike?” I asked.

“Mmm Hmm,” said my mom.

“He doesn’t have a schedule or anything?”

“No, you have to just be in the right place at the right time. He rides up and down the island, never goes over the bridge. Sometimes I don’t see him for weeks.”

My family has lived on a barrier island off the coast for the past 15 years. It’s nothing more than a long, narrow strip of land, barely a few blocks wide, including the beach, and is separated from the mainland by the Intracoastal canal. You can’t get on or off the island without crossing a drawbridge and if the bridge is out you’re pretty much screwed until it’s fixed again. I love the island though. Once you cross the drawbridge it’s like you’re transported back in time 50 years, to an old Florida that barely exists anymore. The Island is the Florida you remember visiting when you were little, with fishing piers, beachfront dives, motels with pastel neon signs, and stands where you can get fresh squeezed orange juice and coconut patties.

This Florida’s almost gone. A few years ago they tore down the diner that used to make homemade pickles and now when you’re going over the bridge you can see the construction cranes looming like skeletal, metallic dinosaurs. They’re building more high rise condos for millionaires, but with the building market going bust, a lot of them will sit vacant and wasted. They should have left the diner. This is why I’m so worried about the Tomato Man. He could be another casualty, one more uniquely beautiful personality paved over, crowded out by tacky post-modern architecture.

The Tomato Man has been an institution on The Island for years. He’s an old hippie, and it’s hard to tell how old he is, or was, because his skin is as weathered as un-oiled teak. He’s cracked and brown, with long, thinning blond hair. He’s perpetually sunburned and scabby and it’s best not to think about how dirty he might be. He only wears shorts and tie-dyed tee shirts.
I began to have tomato fits just like everyone else in my family. Every time I saw the Tomato Man pedaling down Beachfront Avenue, I’d have to pull over to get my fix. I’ve never had tomatoes like these. They were real – not those hard, tasteless, pink hybrids with the tough skin that some moron developed so that tomatoes could be shipped halfway across the world. Don’t they realize that tomatoes weren’t meant to be shipped halfway across the world? The Tomato Man did. He took a lot of pride in his product.

“I don’t sell if they aren’t good. I wait ‘til they’re ready,” he told me one day.

“Where do you get them?” I asked.

“I got a friend up by Okeechobee. He grows them up there. Don’t use no pesticides, no nothing. These tomatoes are all natural. And I’ll tell ya, if he brings me a load down here and I don’t think they’re red enough – I’ll line ‘em out in the sun ‘til they’re ripe, ‘cuz I won’t sell something that isn’t exactly how it ought to be. That’s how come I stick with tomatoes. Look how beautiful they are. Look how they hold the sun.” He stepped back to admire his wares.

“I’ll show you somethin’” he continued, picking up one of the tomatoes and turning it over.

“There’s a star on the bottom of each one. Look. It’s a little sun.”

I looked closely at the tomato’s underside, expecting to see nothing. I mean, it wasn’t a far stretch to assume that the Tomato Man had experienced his fair share of hallucinations and there was a lot more about him that was burnt besides his skin. But the tomato man was right. There’s a star on the bottom of every tomato; a tiny shining sun. Turn a tomato over and you will see a little rough spot like the tomato’s belly button with faint whispers of gold raying out into the red. Look closely, and you will see the star.

“You’re right!!” I exclaimed.

My sister told me that the Tomato Man sold weed too, but I don’t know if that’s true. Not that I would be surprised, if it were. She said he was well known amongst the students in her high school and that his pot was just as good as his tomatoes. It makes sense I guess, because how much money could a guy make peddling tomatoes over a three mile stretch of beach? You wouldn’t think you’d be able to eat on that kind of income, unless of course you could survive on tomatoes.

Tomato Man was mostly homeless. We asked where he lived. His reply was that sometimes he lived on the beach and sometimes he’s scrape up enough for a short stay in a rent-by-the-week place.

“I don’t need much,” he reassured us, “I’m the happiest person you’ll ever meet.”

And he was until the mafia got a hold of him. Well, that’s the rumor anyway. The mafia that ALLEGEDY exists ALLEGEDLY shook down the Tomato Man. I have no idea what really happened. People on the Island love to talk a good story, especially when they’ve spent several hours on a fishing boat in the hot sun kicking back Miller Hi-Lifes. The story for a while was that on The Island there were two rival Italian coffee shops – a good one and a bad one, and both were run by real Italians, actually from Italy. Café Uno was the good one where my Dad and I hung out and it had a nice little newsstand and was run by an older gentleman and his lovely wife. Café Due was the bad coffee shop, run by a seedy bunch of young Sicilians who everyone swore up and down were running an illegal gambling ring in a secret back room. They also said the Sicilians had organized some crime and were attempting to “tax” local businesses, except no one really took them all that seriously. Since no one took them seriously, they had to pick on whoever seemed the most vulnerable. Tomato Man was very vulnerable.

One afternoon I was sitting in class and another student came in late with blood on her shirt. She looked quite shaken. When the teacher asked her what happened she began to sob.

“Someone beat up the Tomato Man and I had to call 911.”

About 80% of the room gasped because that 80% had at least visited the Island and knew exactly who she was talking about because they had crossed the drawbridge in search of his tomatoes themselves. It was a dark day. No one knew if the Tomato Man was alive or dead. We didn’t see him for weeks and during the time that he was missing rumors swirled that the Sicilians had beat him up and taken his cash. No one knew what happened to his bike.
Months later the Tomato Man reappeared.

“What happened to you?” I asked.

“Some kids robbed me,” he said, “Took me forever to save up for a new bike.”

And for some time all was well. We had tomatoes all year round and we even took some on trips to see family up North. Our relatives nearly cried upon seeing the tomatoes’ perfect redness while outside it snowed.

Then Tomato Man went missing for a few more months and when he returned it was with a girlfriend who looked exactly like him, just with longer hair. The Tomato Man had found his Tomato Woman.

“The damn police are givin’ me a hard time,” He told us one day, “They keep tryin’ to shoo me out of here.”

There was a great public outcry and an article in the paper. Tomato Man got a peddler’s license. Everything seemed ok, but Tomato Man and his girlfriend disappeared again. This time they were in jail and when they got out Tomato Man promised everyone that he did not do whatever it was he had been locked up for and that some no good friend of his had set him up. You know how it goes.

For a few more years we continued to have perfect tomatoes with stars on the bottom and everyone was happy until some idiots started tearing down landmarks like the diner that made homemade bread and butter pickles. Big shot developers from New York and New Jersey invaded wearing mirrored sunglasses, driving Vipers while they texted on Blackberries, making deals to build fifty-story condominiums to blot out our skies. Not even the Sicilians could do anything about it. People like that don’t want old hippies pedaling through their million dollar views. I’m sure they got the police to hassle the Tomato Man so he’d go away. I’m sure they found a way to chase him out. Why do you need some homeless man selling tomatoes? There’s plenty of tomatoes in the grocery store.

But I could be wrong. Maybe sometime soon I’ll pass the Tomato Man cruising down A1A on his bike just like always. I’m praying.


MP said...

I remember that Florida. That is the one we visited in the 1970's. I was bummed to read..last year I think..about the trailer park community that sold out to the big developers..they were on an outer island. These people all became millionares..but was it worth it? I doubt it. If they could only build affordable housing and not these hi rise condo's then it would be good.
I'm so sorry for your loss of homemade pickles, that sucks. Hope you see the tomato man soon!

Mim said...

I don't even eat tomatoes and this post made my mouth water. I always feel like I should like tomatoes b/c they look like they'd be good. And every once in a while I'll try to eat one...never works.

Wide Lawns said...

Briny Breezes! It was not worth it. The people were not happy. They have to pay taxes on the money and can't afford new places or the property taxes on them. It was really sad.

Mim - I bet you'd like these tomatoes! I have things like that too. I really want to like olives and I keep trying but I just can't do it.

gulfsidebo said...

There's hardly anything in the world that is as comparable to a wonderful tomato. That was a wonderful story! I hope you see him and his exquisite tomatoes once again.

Mim said...

Black or Spanish olives? B/c I'm not so much a fan of the black olives but Spanish Olives are awesome! especially if you get a really dirty gin martini. You'd start liking olives then...oh yeah. MMM dirty gin martini, it's a meal and a drink all rolled into one!

Anonymous said...

If it didn't involve sending them halfway across the continent I'd send you some tomatoes. I think they'd stack up. Dirt (well built dirt; local clay, added sand and compost with maybe some residual steer manure, but I don't think we hit this bed with that shit) and water and sun. Lovely bushes of tomatoes and new red ones showing up every day.

I'll focus some energy on your local tomatos when I eat ours.

Anonymous said...

This comment is going to be way longer than it should be, but there is no e-mail...

I just finished reading your blog from the beginning. I sympathized and understood (kind of) and sincerely and completely enjoyed every single word.

I met a girl when I was in my first year of college. We fell for one another immediately. She was a senior, I was a freshman. Atthe end of my senior year, I became disillusioned with college and all it stood for so I cam home for a year off. Girlfriend follwed a couple of months later. That's when it started. She turned into a manipulative, twisted person who stalked everything I did while simuletaneously (sp?) seeing other guys from work. She hated my family and made that clear, a huge problem because I am very close to my family. The night she cused out my mom to her face, I left her standing in a parking lot with no ride home. I just walked away from the whole thing.

Your stories struck such a chord with me. You talked about your diamond heart and your unwillingness to let someone close. I was similiar. I grew instantly jaded with women in general. I would date girls searching and waiting for them to be the manipulative bitches I was convinced all women were. And when I found what I thought I was looking for, I'd throw it back in the girl's face, content in my confirmation of the evil of women.

That was almost two years ago, and I now have a wonderful girlfriend who loves me and cherishes me and makes me happier than I ever imagined would be possible.

All that said, thank you for writing, for being so open and giving me the opportunity to find someone with whom I can relate. Granted, my family does nto have the stories your does, but I definitely felt a kindred spirit. Keep writing!

Anonymous said...

I go past my Mom's on the way home from work and she has a garden full of beautiful ripe tomatoes. I am going to pick some and have BLT sandwiches for supper. Love your blog.

twinsmom said...

I don't eat tomatoes either but now I'm itching to investigate the grocery store tomatoes and see if I can see at least an inkling of a star!

I say inkling being that they're just of the grocery store variety...

Please let us know if you find more info regarding the tomato man! I sincerely hope he's back soon as good as new and just decided to take a tomato honey moon or something!

Leonesse said...

Attention All Tomato Haters...

Don't hate all tomatoes until you try homegrown tomatoes. A totally different experience! Honestly!

Anonymous said...

You are superb. The real life stories are full of local color and you float everything together until it's mythical (with morals included).

Please don't sell out to a fast cash "blog writer" deal. Keep writing and get together only when a well respected publisher will let you do whatever works for you, because you are a classic.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for yet another great story.

Anonymous said...

That was a real great post. I miss the tomato man myself, and I've never even met him.

Sunshine said...

Agh! I'm from SFl (Central Broward) and I am dying to know where you are from. I want to visit the tomatoe man (assuming he comes back). Any place east of A1A that I visit does not seem to fit the bill.

Those tomatoes sound absolutely delicious!


Danette Haworth said...


What an excellent post. I felt like I was there, and like MIM, I hate tomatoes, but I sure liked the ones you described.

Wonderful sketch--carries the laid-back attitude of the story.

Architect Critic said...

Unfortunately, it's too late in the season this year to plant. For a couple years I grew my own tomatoes in different varieties, from cherry to beefsteak. I just didn't get to it this year because of other projects. Your post makes me want to ensure that I plant them next season.

Anonymous said...

Awesome post. I fully love the tomatoe man now.

Neighbourhoods are so cool with their random quirks.

Anonymous said...

Such a lovely story. I'm craving some of these tomatoes right now.

xtine said...

I spent the last week in Florida (and trust me, SSNM, I thought of you, especially when I saw some of those loafers with the medallion while in Key West)

...We drove US1 and 1A and A1A LOTS!

What if we were on your island? :-X

(My bf and I avoid interstates on vacation when time allows, in favor of the smaller roads, because of just what you described: new construction doing away with the old. We're old at heart and LOVE the little beatup shack diners and looking at old fruit processing centers as we drive by).

Kristin said...

I have been buying tomatoes since reading this post. I have tried four kinds from three stores and a farmer's market. None are as good as the phantom tomato you have put in my head. I will be chasing it for a long time.

Unknown said...

This is a wonderful story. I love how vivid it is - I can picture it in my mind. My husband is from Florida, and since we've been married I have visited there 3 times. It is lovely. Your post reminds me of Jimmy Buffett lyrics - we're both fans (Parrotheads). Thank you for the story. I hope the Tomato Man is okay.

Anonymous said...

The Briny Breezes deal fell through a couple of weeks ago. The developer backed out just before the first real earnest money payment was due, no doubt because of the crash in the FL condo market.

I've been going there for years to visit friends who retired there (in fact I'm going next week). Most of the folks I've talked to were very happy about the sale. You need to know that around 80% of the people who own units are snowbirds. They already have houses somewhere else, so the sale was a pure windfall. You can buy a lot of nice vacations for the $800,000 minimum anyone would receive.

My friends do live there year-round, but they have two lots (one with the trailer and the other for an extra parking space) close to the beach, so their share would have been $2.1 million. They were part of the 84% voting to sell.

BTW, no one would have had to pay taxes until they had actually received the money, and even then it would have only been 15% on the gains after the standard $250,000 exemption (500k for married couples) for those who lived there full time.

Most people aren't too broken up over the sale falling through though, they still have their little slice of paradise for now. It's going to sell someday anyway. The town's infrastructure is in need of costly upgrades that can't be put off much longer, which would mean special assessments that the year-rounders can't afford and the snowbirds won't want to pay.

Christi Lee said...

if you need tomatoes like the ones you are talking about I get them every summer in Cali. My dad grows them. He has been doing this for 40 years. Organic, sun ripe, OMFG! tastes like heaven tomatoes. Only in the summer though. =( I know this comment is in your archives, but I had to comment.

I KNOW those tomatoes. OLD OLD OLD people beg for his tomatoes, they say they have not tasted a more delicious tomato since they were kids (like 100 years ago). Even the most expensive tomatoes from whole foods taste like crap compared to my dad's. If you are ever in Cali, or if your parents want some this summer (don't know if thy are still in LA) I'll save you a bag. They are just that good. We live in the San Fernando Valley.

And by the way, I am dead serious when I say that you and I have to be long lost relatives because of the people and events you post here. Really. It freaks me out. As much as I love my life and love your posts, it's not a good thing believe me. Yikes!

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