Monday, October 1, 2012

Hell Hath no Fury like a Waitress Scorned

I do not like P. Allen Smith. This is not a statement about my feelings about the P.Allen Smith that we know from TV or books; rather, this is a statement born out of a personal interaction with said person. It was a brief interaction, and experienced many years ago, but one that has left a particularly sour taste in my mouth, rather like biting into a seemingly delicious grape, only to find it bitingly under-ripe, sharp and sour. The incident occurred when Mr. Smith was just at the brink of what would become national and even international acclaim. Well before he authored and sold a plethora of authoritative books; before he become a well-known TV personality seen regularly on sets across the nation, this was at a time when Mr. Smith as merely a local garden variety public television guest, who would also periodically show up on the five o’clock news to share his recommendations on how to choose the best perennials for your garden. I would hazard to guess that at the time of our brief encounter very few people in the state of Arkansas knew who P. Allen Smith was…but I did. I LOVED P. Allen Smith. My mother had instilled in me a love of gardening from an extremely early age, and we spent every Saturday morning watching public television gardening shows like The Victory Garden. Surprisingly, in the agrarian based society of the South information about flower gardening was very hard to come by. However, it was something that we needed and needed badly. My mother and I had been raised in Oklahoma, and found gardening in the humid turbulent weather of Arkansas far different from that of the arid and windy Plains. So, we turned each weekend to Mr. Smith. We were enchanted by his slow Southern Drawl, and seemingly endless knowledge about flower gardening in this South. So, it stands to reason that the day I met him should stand out in a brilliant and positive light. Sadly, it does not. The year couldn’t have been later than 1993, but I am fairly certain it was even earlier than that. I was in college and working as a waitress in a local eatery as many college students do to help pay their educational expenses. It was lunch rush, and probably one of the absolute worst in all my memories of being a waitress; every table in my section was packed, and had become so all at one time. I had no fewer than 30 patrons upon whom I was waiting at the time, and each of them needed something NOW. My last empty table was taken seated, and as I rushed over to greet them I found myself nearly breathless, as I would if a Hollywood star had ridden into my hometown and plopped themselves into my section. It was P. Allen Smith, and a female companion. Mr. Smith was taller than expected, made obvious by the rather awkward way he had folded his taller than average frame into the cane back chairs meant for female occupants. His blonde hair fell over a rather patrician brow just as it did each Saturday morning on channel 2, and even over the din of the lunch rush crowd I could hear the deep resonating of the tenor of his voice. His companion that day had to be nearly a decade his senior, with shoulder length salt and pepper rather frizzy hair and large framed tortoise shell spectacles. As I approached their table to ask what I could offer them to drink, neither patron turned to acknowledge my presence. Rather, Mr. Smith barked out “Tea”, and his companion “Diet Coke”, and the pair continued on with their conversation. In the mad rush that was that day, and I’ll admit, in a bit of nervous anticipation of perhaps getting to actually visit with my gardening idol, I rushed to fill their glasses and return to the table. Placing the glasses in front of the patrons I asked “have you decided what you’d like for lunch today?” Neither patron turned to acknowledge my question. You might envision that they were engaged in some sort of heated debate on the best way to produce vegetables-organic fertilizer or chemicals? Or perhaps they could be seen as debating the difference between the symmetry of the English garden and the abandon of the Prairie style. But no, their conversation was casual and seemingly slow moving; certainly nothing that couldn’t have been interrupted to reply to their wait-staff. However, it was obvious to me that Mr. Smith and his companion were wholly uninterested in my presence and apparently unconcerned with the rate at which their lunch might (or might not) arrive. So, I left the table to attend other guests who were in need of my attention. Within seconds I was again walking past Mr. Smith’s table, when from his side I heard “What is THIS” slung loudly in my direction. I stopped in my place and said “I’m sorry?” Mr. Smith replied “What is THIS!” while gesticulating at his companions glass of diet coke. I glanced at the glass and saw nothing at all out of the ordinary. He must have seen the perplexed look on my face, or perhaps, like a predator, sensed fear in his quarry. “THIS”, he said “is a glass that ISN’T full, and she hasn’t even taken a SIP”. His companion stared at me in an aloof and smug fashion, while managing not to flex a single facial muscle. Taking a second look at the glass I did see that perhaps the level wasn’t completely full. Anyone who has ever had a diet coke out of the fountain knows that it tends to bubble up rather aggressively, and once it settles, can leave the glass looking less than entirely full. I managed a weak “I’m sorry”, and grabbed the glass to take it back to refill it. And refill it I did-right up to the brim of the lip. It was so full in fact that surface tension in the beverage caused a perfect meniscus, and getting the glass back to the table in that fashion required the balance of a dancer and the patience of Job. Placing the glass back on the table, I smiled sweetly at the lady and said “Full”, and turning to Mr. Smith said “and as always, refills are free”. I don’t remember much more of that lunch encounter except that neither Mr. Smith nor his companion spoke to me again except to place their orders, and neither looked at me a second time. I did not get to ask Mr. Smith about the best way to propagate Digitalis Purpurea, nor did I get to thank him for all the garden knowledge I’d gleaned from him. Instead, that day left me with a general dislike for him that I have carried for these last two decades. Not anything nasty, spiteful or vengeful, just a general dislike- the sort one has when one encounters someone that you can genuinely say you wish you didn’t know. I stopped watching his show, never bought a single book, and felt a marginal degree of annoyance as his fame and acclaim grew. A decade later Mr. Big Prize and I very nearly bought the home that sits just next door to Mr. Smith’s home in Little Rock’s Quapaw Quarter. I liked the idea of living next door to his idyllic ‘Garden Home’ as he calls it, but loathed the idea of always having my attempts at gardening compared to his. We did not buy the house. Then, just a few years ago, I was in Illinois and switched on my television, only to be greeted by that familiar Southern drawl and sage garden advice. A national viewing audience brought him fame and fortune. Over the years I got peripheral glimpses of his many successes; so much success in fact that he has been able to build himself a pre- Civil War style manse, and fill it with both live and human stock to make it flourish. All those years I would think “If only they knew him”. Then, today I did something I had vowed never to do; I bought one of his books. I purchased P. Allen Smith’s Garden Home. I felt I could do it in good conscience as it was published in 2003, and I picked it up in a used book store. At first I picked it up merely out of curiosity, but was quickly sucked in. The dedication is to “Gloria”, and my first thought was to wonder if Gloria was the be speckled companion who had such a fondness for Diet Coke. Then I made the mistake of turning the page. I began reading, and heard in my head so clearly that deep Southern Drawl, as though it was reading those words to only me. I read page after page about how his home came to be on that corner in the Quapaw Quarter (he saved it from demolition and moved it to the site), read about his love for the home, for the land, and the meticulous way in which he planned the revitalization of both. “So many things in common” was my first traitorous thought. We, too, just completed the utter renovation of a period home, just five years older than Mr. Smiths. For the last months we have been working tirelessly to plan the specifics of the landscape, though sadly we are not nearly as well equipped either financially or professionally to execute ours in similar fashion. Still, so much in common in ideal and methodology, and so much in common in life philosophy and passion. Gardening for Mr. Smith is as essential to his life and mine as breathing is to most others. It nourished our souls, and we both think and speak of the Garden, the Earth, the Process, as though it is a living and animate being of its own. I now want to pursue urban stock keeping; I hope to start next year with a small flock of chickens and ducks. He too loves small livestock husbandry, and shares that passion beautifully through the words in his book. Sadly, I found myself falling deeply in love once again with his advice and his experience. I envy his life; one that has allowed him to make a very good career of extolling the virtues of the earth. Once again, I can appreciate what he has to share, and am open to what I can glean from him as I really embark on creating my very own Garden Home. What I would give to have him (or at very least his staff and finances) with which to create my version. In a sense, I do. I have the book. I can find inspiration and motivation. But I found an interesting thing there as well-forgiveness. Forgiveness for an old and now seemingly silly hurt-one which I am certain he neither remembers nor would credit. I was angry at him for destroying my vision of him, but perhaps I’ve been unfair in my assessment. Perhaps he’d had a very bad day. Perhaps he and his companion were deeply engrossed in the deal for this first book. Perhaps he was negotiating the deal for the very house he would someday save. Or perhaps he really is an arrogant and surly person. Whatever the case, it doesn’t change the fact that I can learn from him and enjoy his work. And it doesn’t change the fact that we should never judge quickly, and should always forgive freely. See, P. Allen Smith has taught me a lot today.