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Notes From the Lawn

Container Gardening

Even in urban decay, nature can find a way to thrive. This week: Making the case for making friends with your neighbors, both human and insect.

A few years ago I lived in Washington, D.C., in an apartment on 17th Street above a used bookstore that was above a deli. Our front door was sandwiched between the deli and a chic optometrist’s office owned by one of our apartment neighbors, an Ethiopian woman named Fozia. Before Fozia opened her store, however, the space was occupied by a neighborhood café whose owner, Cusano, came from a family of butchers. Though Cusano gave the impression of being unable to butcher a croissant, he wanted the name of his café to evoke his family’s history: the “Meet Market” lasted a year. When Fozia opened her store a few months later, she rather cleverly had kept the outdoor space, becoming the first optometrist I’ve ever known to have outside seating. Every morning the fashionable employees who doubled as her entourage pulled upholstered sofas, wing-backed chairs, and a long table out of the shop and onto the sidewalk. The juxtaposition of lush fabrics and rough cement was striking, discordant, like silk and sand, seaweed and beads. Fozia’s team carried boxes of eyeglass frames to customers outside, executing neat little pirouettes as they glided through the heavy glass door.

That first summer, Fozia filled a number of fantastic urns with flowers. These she placed in groups beside a low railing along the sidewalk, and I admired their color and plant combinations. I always passed them with pleasure, but one Saturday around noon, on my way back to the apartment, I thought I heard a cricket. My experience with crickets had previously been limited to evenings in the country, so it was unsettling to hear the quiet, rhythmic chirping in the middle of the city, in the middle of the day. I tried to find the insect in Fozia’s pots but discovered the noise was coming from somewhere lower, somewhere beneath the sidewalk grate I was standing on. I crouched down. His song was lovely, but I couldn’t see him, only urban mess: cigarette butts, gum wrappers, bottle caps, and worse.

A few months earlier a constant, mechanical, high-pitched squeaking had plagued the neighborhood and after several sleepless nights, I began a search to discover its source. Perhaps if I had not endured the long, hot expanse of June and July in our nation’s capital. Perhaps if we had gone away at the beginning of the summer, as we’d originally planned, or had installed the new air conditioner our apartment needed, I would have kept walking, climbed the stairs, forgotten all about the cricket. But my mind was so heat addled and vacation deprived that his situation derailed me. It seemed an affront to all things gentle about summer, a little spectacle of gloom.

At first I thought one of the street’s shopkeepers might have access to the subterranean container in which he was trapped. I knew most of them because a few months earlier a constant, mechanical, high-pitched squeaking had plagued the neighborhood and after several sleepless nights, I began a search to discover its source. It’s difficult to appear normal, however, when describing a sound no one else has heard.

“Hi. I live in one of the apartments above your shop?” I would begin, the question mark keeping me cheerful. “I wondered if I could ask you about this sound I’ve been hearing. It’s worse at night, but…”

Relentless, I coaxed each of them outside, where, to my relief, they did hear the sound—satisfying them I wasn’t crazy, only annoying—but they had no idea what was causing it, and, moreover, didn’t care. Ultimately the squeak was traced to a loose belt in the deli owner’s cooling equipment, which he replaced when the police told him to. Since then, I’d started buying my olives elsewhere and couldn’t imagine it going well if I went in now and asked about springing a trapped cricket.

I could try Fozia, who had been sympathetic about the squeak, but the only other time I’d talked to her at any length was when my husband and I locked ourselves out of our apartment and she invited us to crawl through her window to the fire escape. She offered us wine and invited us to stay for dinner, but we were too tired and frustrated to accept. We always meant to develop the friendship. The idea was perpetually on the mental list: Go to the theater, get more exercise, talk to Fozia, but somehow the right moment never arrived. On the hallway landing at night sometimes we heard her speaking another language inside her apartment—loudly, on the phone—and we’d pause and listen. The conversations always seemed very one sided, Fozia sending a constant stream of words halfway around the world, or so we imagined. She burned a lot of incense, dressed exquisitely, and owned furniture upholstered in red damask and leopard skin. Saving a cricket—another escape involving metal grates—did not feel like the best next move.

I looked around. On the street apron was a square of yellowing grass, and I concluded that the cricket must have been trying to leave this place for the relative Eden of Fozia’s pots. Crossing the pavement in the heat of midday, dodging shoes, strollers, and roller blades, he must have slipped through the grate, landing hard on the metal floor below. Now he was singing. For what? For a mate? For help? Was it fair for him to be punished for trying to improve his surroundings? By mid-afternoon, the metal box would be as hot as a cauldron.

I turned quickly and dead-headed a few of the faded petunias in one of the pots. I crushed the pink blooms in my fist, then dropped them. They landed in a pile on the grate, a jumble of damp petals until I poked them through with my toe. An offering. The cricket received them, going quiet a moment. Then, relentless, he started up again.

A few weeks later, Fozia invited us over for drinks but we had a conflicting engagement and couldn’t go. We had a Halloween party that year and invited Fozia, but the party was large and she didn’t come. It occurs to me now that she wasn’t very happy in the city—I think her shop, such a hybrid, was struggling. That winter she moved out, and we left the winter after that.


TMN Contributing Writer Jessica Francis Kane’s first novel, The Report (Graywolf Press, 2010) was shortlisted for the Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize and was a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection. Her story collection, This Close (Graywolf Press, 2013) was long-listed for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award and the Story Prize and was named a Best Book of the year by NPR. She lives in New York with her husband and their two children. More by Jessica Francis Kane