The city was killing me. I had lived in five suspended-in-the-sky Brooklyn boxes in five years. And had commuted through Grand Central Station for three of those years, navigating the sweltering shuffle of feet in a kind of fish-feeding frenzy, darting between sharp elbows and swinging suitcases, muttering halfhearted “Sorry”s as I stuffed myself into the subway car before the doors slid shut with that metallic bing bong.
And then there was my office, tucked into Midtown East. A gray-on-gray cubicled affair, filled with the pallid faces and fluorescent-lighted sighs of my co-workers, whom I loved, but kind of pitied, along with myself. The dull click of everyone’s computers — we were all writers for a trade publication — was the droning buzz of a hive. I just couldn’t shake this nagging feeling: I needed air, light, space, the heady stench of dirt. Slowly, like a sheet slipping from my legs, it dawned on me. Gardening. That was it!
My great-uncle had bought a house in Amagansett in the 1960s. My family and friends visited periodically, but our country jaunts were basically limited to Indian Wells Beach, the I.G.A., and the occasional bacon run to Brent’s on Sunday morning.
We had always rented the house during the summer, but this year it was empty and beckoning, its gray shingles and sun-dappled roof singing its siren song. A house by the sea, a house in the forest, a house!
I gave my two-week notice and started combing through the classifieds of the newspapers in the Hamptons. The general reaction to my decision to flee the teeming streets of N.Y.C. was one of pleasant confusion. “Gardening, really?” they’d exclaim, nodding their heads slowly. “Wow, yeah, I think that sounds great.” They thought I was crazy. Yeah, crazy like a fox.
Meanwhile, my boyfriend, a day trader (he’s not that “type” really, honest, he’s just excellent at math; he wears Megadeth T-shirts), had managed to convince his company to let him trade remotely.
We gave away everything we could, packed up the rest in appropriated bodega boxes, stuffed them into my Volvo, and headed east. And then suddenly — well, as suddenly as a storm you see rolling in that spills its sodden belly from the sky — we were living in Amagansett and I was working as a gardener.
Dressed in jean shorts and a T-shirt, slathered in sunscreen, and padding about in sneakers, I was at “the yard” by 8 a.m., greeted by a team of men, some Hispanic, some surfer-type college kids, some from the Shinnecock Reservation, but all humble and hard-working. The air was cool, the sun low. We’d lug the day’s tools into various vehicles — personally, I was in charge of the black pickup truck with a slipping transmission — and head into the fray.
Federico and I were almost always together, tending to the yards of seven or eight houses a day, pulling weeds, pruning rosebushes, planting a kaleidoscope of peonies, lantana, impatiens, cosmos, and morning glories. And, of course, staking a slew of hydrangeas whose heavy heads would languish in the mud following any rainstorm.
Bouncing along in the truck with the wind rustling my hair, the radio spilling out some classic rock, and Federico swilling horchata in his sun hat, I was happy. I savored the dirt beneath my fingernails and my aching back. I fell asleep to the winged roar of insects and awoke to birds. And my boss? El jefe? Kind, gentle, forthcoming, and lanky. He was frazzled but funny, strict but sweet. It was a pleasure working for him.
Then, at a wedding on Martha’s Vineyard, I fell off my bike. Hard. Road rash covered my entire left thigh, and my back was so thrown out I could hardly walk. I don’t know if it was crouching in the sun or slamming my spine onto gravel, but whatever happened, I couldn’t garden anymore.
Strange but true (and isn’t that how life always tends to be?), the same week that I tumbled from my bike into a bed-ridden state, The Star offered me a part-time position, elevating me from freelancer to reporter, complete with my own desk. And window! If Midtown East could see me now.
Here a new chapter has fluttered open its pages and I’ve been just as happy. It’s a different kind of stress; no longer do I fret over overtrimmed bushes or broken-necked tulips. Instead, it’s deadlines, fact-checking, parsing the correct hamlets for the police reports, and convincing a rather ancient Dell to print out my stories for editing.
I’m not sure what’s next; I’m a bit daunted by the prospect of winter here, to be honest. What I do know is that my seemingly irrational, fly-by-night decision to uproot and upend my life was one of the best decisions I ever made. I only hope I can keep trusting my instincts.
Catherine Tandy is a reporter at The Star.