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Tomato Raid Goes Sideways

I'm not in the habit of issuing disclaimers here; way I sees it, you pays your money, you takes your chances. Life is a crapshoot in all its many aspects, and opening and perusing a newspaper is no different. If you want to partake of a weekly feature written by a demonstrably unstable miscreant whose inability to adhere to even the most basic guidelines of polite society has obligated the authorities to forcibly separate him from the general populace for a period comparable to the life expectancy of your average goat, you should know what you're in for and you deserve whatever you get. We're all adults here. However, I should warn you: the following tale does not depict me in the best light.

At this point you're no doubt thinking: wait, what? Not your best light? You must be kidding. Week after week you have spun tales of criminal stupidity and stupid criminality, depicting yourself in no uncertain terms as a shiftless, unprincipled, malingering, sneak thief dope fiend with no more moral sense than a coyote, and now you're warning us you have information that may tarnish your image? Great Creeping Jesus, what now? Are you some kind of animal rapist or Al-Qaeda operative? No offense, but it would probably take a transgression at least that odious to lower the bar any more on our assessment of your character. Fire away, sir, and fear not for the trajectory of our estimation — you've nowhere to go but up.

To which I say: Hm. Fair enough, I guess. It's not as if I'm about to relate anything particularly base or villainous; rather paltry and trifling, actually, and therefore contemptible and embarrassing, hence my admonition. Being an outlaw is one thing; being a low-down no-good crop rustler is quite another. Incidentally, I do not refer to Mendocino's most storied and contentious cash crop; that is one crime to which I will not stoop, not the least reason for which is that I place a significant premium on my own hide, and also it's Just Not Done. No, my reaping what I did not sow was… Well, I'm getting ahead of myself.

I was on an especially good run — "good" in the sense of acquiring enough dope of sufficient quality to keep me crisscrossing Fort Bragg and environs for several days and nights running — hustling, transacting and pilfering in an operation accomplishing nothing but its own pointless continuance.

That's the thing about tweaking — you're never finished. However, at some point the body will insist on a bit of rest, and it was in that spirit that I headed down Cypress to visit my friends Dan and Darla in their snug little condo, nice, normal folk who are solicitous of my health and welfare and a stop I make when I want to remind myself that I am in fact a human being and not some kind of sentient, bipedal raccoon.

Darla came to the door, raised her eyebrows at me and said, "Jesus Christ, you look like hell. Get your ass in here.”

I gave her a hug and plopped down into a recliner. "Aaah, that's the stuff." I said.

Darla stood in front of me, hands on hips eyeing me worriedly. "Have you slept or eaten at all?” she asked.

“I hardly think I could've reached this advanced age without having done so, but if you mean recently, then no," I said. Incidentally, that sort of smartassery is my default response to most inquiries and probably the reason for the regular beatings I suffer, but it's a disease.

"Jerk," she said, swatting me. “You're too damn old to be behaving like this, you're gonna dry up and blow away. I suppose you're here to eat.”

"I'm here for the pleasure of your company! I wouldn't turn down a sandwich though. Where's Dan?”

“Ukiah. I was going to make some homemade Bolognese when he got back but I guess I can start it now. We've got to have some fresh tomatoes, though. You think you could make it to Safeway? I'd go, but I don't trust you alone in my house."

"None taken, and of course I can handle a trip to Safeway. I'm afraid my capital condition is a state of transition, though. So I fly, you buy, as the saying goes.”

"I expected as much. Here's 10 bucks. Do you know how to pick a good tomato? Bring back a full ten dollars worth of good tomatoes or I will kill you.”

“On it," I said, pocketing the sawbuck and heading for the door. "Red, ripe, and plump. You can count on me.”

“All right," she said, slightly doubtfully. "I'll start browning the meat and simmering the onions and stuff: Here, take this." She handed me a canvas grocery bag with the Safeway logo on it. Back out onto the street I went, already feeling some pep in my step thinking about stuffing myself with pasta and sauce Bolognese. It was enough to cause me to burst into impromptu song. "Sing us a song, you're the tomato man," I bawled lustily. "Plump ripe and red they'll be, 'Cause were all gonna mack on some Bolognese, and drink Arizona iced tea, if there's any cha-a-a-nge..." 

"Tomato, tomahto. clamato, clamahto, let's eat some Bolognese!" and plenty more in that vein. Down Franklin Street I high-stepped, warbling melodiously the joys of the tomato, when quite suddenly the stars, invisible though they were that sunny autumn afternoon, aligned spectacularly. Witnessing the beneficent celestial arrangement, an august panel of gods from several sects, denominations, and historical eras convened and decided as a group to confer upon me some divine largesse and a brilliant sunbeam focused itself on my coordinates as a heavenly choir sounded a lush chord.

Directly to my right, flanking a nondescript shotgun house, was a side yard given over completely to agriculture, specifically Solanum lycopericum — you guessed it, tomatoes. Running the length of the house and extending out ten feet or so were nothing but tomato plants, all or most bearing mature fruit. I saw fat beefsteaks and golden cherries, deep red romas and gaily particolored heirlooms. I did a quick calculation in my head. Price of tomatoes at Safeway: $10. Price at God-gifted garden: $0. Net gain to me: $10. Seemed like a no-brainer (as do most of my decisions).

Still, an operation like this was going to require some serious rationalization to justify it to my poor, withered conscience, languishing at death's door but yet possessed of a voice. I looked around and saw some ravens on a nearby power line eyeing the garden and looking particularly ravenous, though I don't know how else ravens would look. Better me than them, right? And where is the owner when harvest time is clearly upon his crop and in danger of dying on the vine? Perhaps he was called out of town on family business and neglected to provide for it. Besides, he'll never be able to eat all these ’maters, and will probably make gifts of them to his friends; which I would surely be if he only got to know me.

"Thank you," croaked my conscience weakly from his sickbed. "Carry on.”

Into the yard I crept, staying low to avoid the windows. I'd have to steer clear of the exotics, tempting though they were, to perpetuate the fiction that I'd done my trading at the Safeway. I found a group of likely-looking plants bearing fat, glossy, grocery-style tomatoes, fairly uniform and blemish-free, and started picking. I'd reached right around what I considered ten dollar's worth when a shadow fell over me. I looked up and saw a displeased-looking gentleman glaring down at me. Outside of the bat in his hand he was not at all outfitted for baseball, so I was forced to conclude that said implement was being employed for uses less salutary to my well-being than sport. I sighed, put the bag down, and prepared to cravenly beg for mercy.

"Why are you stealing my tomatoes?" he said.

"Uh... spaghetti sauce?" I said.

He shook his head impatiently. "No! Emphasis on stealing. Not what do you want the tomatoes for — why are you in my yard STEALING my tomatoes!”

"Uh, that I don't have an excuse for, except that I have a long history of making bad decisions. I could pay you for these," I said.

"If you can pay for them, why not go to the grocery store a block away and choose from their vast array of tomatoes? Why rob me?"

I made a face intended to convey my utter mystification as to my motives or behavior, shook my head and shrugged.

"Let's see the money," he said.

I handed him the tenner. "Oh man, thank you, and I'm really sorry about this,” I said, picking up the bag.

"Nope. Leave 'em here," he said, slapping the fat of the bat into his palm. "See ya."

I nodded ruefully and walked away. Sonofabitch, I thought. Snookered into another untenable situation by mischievous and vengeful gods.

I headed north on Franklin, toward the Safeway, deep in thought. Secreting $10 worth of tomatoes around my bony frame, clad for the balmy fall day as I was, and making it out of the store was clearly impossible. The one "solution" I kept coming back to — forgetting the whole business and moving on to the next adventure — felt wrong and cowardly. I decided to suck it up, return to the scene of the crime, and plead my case as best I could.

"Oh, hey, it's the Tomato Bandit," said the homeowner in response to my knock. "What can I do for you?"

"First," I said, "I'm sorry, very sorry, for trespassing on your property and rustling your crops. I've been awake for a long time and don't know what I was thinking. I have a friend around the corner who foolishly trusted me to go to the store and buy tomatoes so she could make me sauce Bolognese, and I failed to resist my natural inclination to behave like an opportunistic weasel. If I don’t come back with the goods she’ll never trust me again, which is not your problem and probably justified, but… If you give me the tomatoes, I'll come back and give you another ten bucks. That, or work as a farmhand. You probably need some help harvesting all these, right? Or whatever, I'll do anything. Please."

He shook his head and went back into the house, returning a few moments later with the bag.

"Here," he said. "Stay out of my goddamn yard."

"Thank you," I said. "Sorry. Your tomatoes are lovely."

"Don't push it."

I waved and shagged ass back to Cypress and Darla's place, which was deliciously redolent of simmering beef and garlic. "Have no fear, the ’maters are here," I said. "And a sweeter batch you never saw.”

"That took awhile," Darla said. "Whadja do, plant and harvest a crop by yourself?"

"Ha! Good one! No, I really just conducted a standard money-for-produce transaction at a licensed retail outlet. You know how that sort of thing goes."

"Uh, yeah. Right. Okay, score, blanch and peel 'em. Get to work, son!"

I ate spaghetti Bolognese until I passed out and then I ate some more. My close call cured me forever of tomato rustling, though I did, when season and proximity allowed, regularly glean low-hanging excess from sidewalk-adjacent persimmon trees in Ukiah. According to my conscience, if more than 50% of your body is on public property, it's legal.

Educational Addendum: So you don't feel like this has been a complete waste of time. There has been much debate over the correct botanical classification of the tomato and whether it is a fruit or a vegetable. In a little known Supreme Court case, Nix v. Hedden (1893), that body decreed it was a vegetable. Why jurists and not botanists were making the decision is a mystery, and one hopes at least some experts were consulted. I feel the distinction is pointlessly semantic and offer the following rule: if you can make a pie out of it, it's a fruit. If the majority of a random sampling of young children hate it, it's a vegetable.

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