Day had barely broken when I got myself out of bed, chugged a cup of coffee, grabbed a banana and eased out the door. The summer sun gives me a headache, and I fear its burn, so my outdoor excursions happen early or late in the day. I headed to the garage where my bicycle is stored, enthralled by the fiery apricot glow of the rising sun in the eastern sky.
I live in Cutchogue, on the North Fork of Long Island, a long narrow peninsula that is perfect for bicycle riding. It’s a farming community, and most of the roads that crisscross the towns are bordered by acres of fields bursting with seasonal crops: grape vines, corn, potatoes, peppers, sun flowers, pumpkins – the list is long.
This morning, my destination is a farm stand on Oregon Road, about four miles north of my house. I bike there several times a week to buy their corn, which grows in the surrounding fields. For as long as the season lasts, I can satisfy my craving for this particularly succulent corn with sweet kernels that burst in my mouth.
For half an hour, I travel north on Depot Lane, pedaling past lush fields releasing a gauzy mist. This early, there’s little traffic, maybe a tractor or the occasional car. Free as a bird, I glide down the center of the road, using the rear-view mirror mounted on the handlebars to watch for traffic.
I turn left when I reach the corner of Depot Lane and Oregon Road. The old, rustic farmhouse, with the stand out front, is near the corner and I see a large stack of corn on the worn kitchen table used to display the fruits and vegetables they grow.
Usually, I take $2.00 from my pocket and put the bills under a container of berries or tomatoes, with just their tips sticking out. The container hides the money and keeps it from blowing away in the gusty breezes that whip across the fields. This morning, I find a pair of metal pliers at the back of the table so I put the bills under that.
Corn costs 50 cents an ear. After choosing four fat ones, I put them in my bike basket, and continue west on Oregon Road. Cruising freely down the center, lost in thought about my daughter’s upcoming September wedding, I don’t hear the car roaring up behind me until it’s right on my heels. Surprised, I quickly move out of the way as the car, covered with field dust, zooms by and screeches to a halt. I stop and watch the driver, a middle aged woman, fling open her door, heave herself out, and slam the door shut. She walks toward me, shouting, “Really? Really?”
What? What is she hollering about? Did I in advertently drift in front of her car? I guess that would make me angry too. She pauses in front of me, hands on her hips.
“Really?” she yells. “Four ears of corn?”
Corn? This is about corn?
“You can’t pay for four ears of corn?”
I feel like a kid being blamed for a deed that her sibling or the dog committed. I try to answer. “I did pay. I put the money….”
She interrupts. “Oh yeah. Where?”
“Under the pliers so it wouldn’t blow away.”
That shuts her up. “Oh my God,” she said at last. “I got to my front door just as you were putting the corn in your basket. I didn’t see you leave any money. I hollered, ‘wait-wait,’ but you ignored me and rode away. That’s when I got in my car and chased after you.”
“I didn’t hear you,” I tell her. “I always put the bills under a container of fruit or vegetables to keep them safe.”
“Oh,” she says softly, “that’s you? I’m so sorry.” Both of us take a couple of deep breaths and look at each other.
“Someone is stealing from us,” she explains. “Almost every day, even if there’s less than $10 in the box, it disappears. I don’t want to lock it. What if someone needs change? I don’t know,” she continues, her words coming out in a heavy sigh. “It’s $5 here, $8 there- after a while, it mounts up.”
Farm families are hard-working folks. And 50 cents at a time isn’t great compensation. The North Fork is a low crime area, something we residents enjoy and perhaps take for granted. I tell her how sorry I am that this is happening. She takes a deep breath and apologizes again for her accusation. Then she leans toward me and surprises me with a small hug. An unexpected feeling of warmth passes between us. She gets in her car, makes a U turn, and heads home. I decide to head home also and hop on my bike. Gliding along, I mull what just happened, and realize it reminds me of something that took place last summer.
My dog Gracie and I were taking a midday walk in our neighborhood. The heat was stifling, the air humid, and the bugs wouldn’t leave me alone. No breezes- even the birds were quiet. In the stillness, I heard car tires approaching, and as the front of the car came into view, I saw a large plastic soda bottle fly away from the passenger’s side and land, with a loud thunk, in the road. It rolled to the side as the car, a white Prius, drove slowly on. I peered in as it went by and saw a woman driver with a teenage girl as the passenger.
I was angry about this thoughtless littering and hurled my words at their closed windows. “We don’t litter in this neighborhood.” The car proceeded for a few more feet and then stopped. It backed up until it was next to me. The driver rolled down her window and said, “Were you trying to tell me something?”
I debated for a moment. Did I want to pursue this? Then I took a deep breath and told her how angry littering makes me. To my surprise, she agreed.
“What about the soda bottle that just landed in the road?”
“What soda bottle?”
I explained what I had seen, and she swore they would never litter. She turned to the girl and said, “Sing the litter ditty I taught you when you were small.” Seems she and I have things in common- we both drive hybrid vehicles, and her children, like mine, grew up on a steady diet of respect for the planet.
“The soda bottle must have been lying in the road,” she suggested, “and then I clipped it with my tires when I drove by, bouncing it to the side.”
I wanted to believe her. Just then, another car approached, and it was time to say goodbye, but not before we agreed this had been a unique way to meet a kindred spirit. Her car rolled quietly away, and Gracie and I proceeded on our walk. Remembering her daughter’s sweet voice singing the litter ditty made me smile. A small breeze sprang up, and both the air and my mood lightened.
I brought the corn into the kitchen when I got home. I told my husband, who was having breakfast, about my experience.
“How come these things always happen to you?”
“Just lucky, I guess,” was my answer.
I hope the farm family finds a way to stop the thievery. I wouldn’t want them to get discouraged and stop selling their freshly picked fruits and vegetables. Their superb corn is one of the many advantages about living here on the North Fork.
Two incidents, one year apart, both caused by false assumptions. Either one could have ended on a sour note, with nasty words and hard feelings. Instead, they developed into unexpected moments of intimate sharing with complete strangers. I am lucky to have moments like these in my life.