The Great Garden
This is the plan I’ve come up with by the time the podcar releases me into the hot evening air in front of the house on East 7th Street: go up to the garden and spend twenty minutes, half an hour tops, checking out the shading system. It’s a simple task, one that doesn’t necessitate me interacting with anyone beyond the bare minimum. I just need to keep my head down, do my job, and get out again. I’m actually invited, so I shouldn’t be as nervous as I am. But it feels like the future of our farm, our whole existence, depends on me getting it right. I find that terrifying.
I watch the podcar hum away, fighting an urge to run after it. It stops at the intersection and waits for the next oncoming car train like a living thing, its bright yellow coat reminiscent of the city’s once-iconic cabs. Then it leaps forward onto 2nd Avenue and is gone, leaving behind the empty street lined with freshly planted trees and the eerie silence that has become typical for Manhattan since its recent ban on private cars.
It was Lenny’s idea that I do this, for research purposes. Lenny is the horticulture production leader on our community farm over in Brooklyn, and he’s big on research purposes. But this is a peculiar one as it involves going to a party. A happy-sounding murmur floats down to where I stand on the sweltering sidewalk, I suspect from the rooftop garden. The facade of the old townhouse is about as green and lush as I expected it to be when Lenny gave me this address in the East Village, along with the invitation from Finn Larsen, the host and owner of the place. A landscape architect with dozens of awards and at least as many patents for designing the world’s most sophisticated way of keeping plants alive in 120-degree weather. His surprise invitation wasn’t addressed to Lenny, or me, but to Roots as a whole, apparently unconcerned that the whole farm might show up and crash the thing.
Lenny said he’s disinclined to spend an evening with supercilious Manhattanites, and Judy, who oversees the farm, is so mad at how privileged everyone’s over here she’d probably bomb this place given the chance. Apparently, I’m the safer choice, and so I’ve been tasked with checking out the shading system that makes Larsen famous and his gardens sustainable. Not that we could afford the system itself for our farm, which stretches across the sunbeaten roofs of three broken office buildings over in Greenpoint, all abandoned by their previous tenants. But we need to learn enough to keep our veggies from dying.
So here I am, nervous. Curious, too. I’ve been to Manhattan before, but it’s different now. Like everyone else on Long Island, I’m cut off by military checkpoints and by invisible walls of wealth. There’s never been an official decision, mind you, but those of us still holding out in the eastern boroughs know that we’ve been rezoned in some fundamental way. Even the parts of Brooklyn and Queens that haven’t been slapped with permanent evacuation orders now make up a giant flood zone protecting Manhattan from the Atlantic. No one invests a cent anymore. No one provides the services we should be getting. We’ve been left to fight and figure it out for ourselves. I swipe the code on the invitation card across the reader mounted next to the front door and watch in amazement as the display turns to green, giving me access.
When the elevator doors slide open on the 5th floor, I stare at multiple versions of myself in long mirrors framed by sheets of what looks like marble. I look small and alien in all that freezing white. I straighten my back and look taller now, but still out of place. I tug at my black dress which feels too tight because it’s borrowed. I pull the pin out of my hair, reassess.
It’s only now that I notice the glass doors at the end of the hallway, glowing green in the mirror. I turn around, forget about the hair, and walk towards the doors like they’re magnetic. Although I have never actually seen one of them before, I know immediately what it is: an indoor farm floor. All the new luxury high-rises in Manhattan have one of these, as do all the office buildings that have been turned into condos. But I wouldn’t have expected one in an old brownstone like this one. They must have sacrificed one of these chic apartments. I wonder if Lenny knows about this as I touch the glass and stare at the unreal world behind. Long rows of veggies, just like on our farm, but instead of the scorching sun, they have gentle growth lights, and it’s five layers of them growing on top of each other, stacked on enormous metal shelves. It must all cost a fortune, the world’s most expensive way of producing local food. An idle robot is dangling from the ceiling, all hands and arms, body-less, ready to pick and plug. I wish someone in the house would call in an order, so I can see if its technique is superior to mine. One thing it has on me is the lack of a back that hurts like a motherfucker.
Another door opens, and out steps a couple looking like they’re on their way to the Met Gala. The happy voices, louder now, wash into the hallway.
“Going up?” asks the man, holding the door for me.
I nod and stalk toward them in my unfamiliar heels.
“It’s a steep climb,” the woman murmurs as I pass her, eyes on my cheap dress.
The door closes, and I stand alone in front of a flight of wide wooden stairs leading up to yet another floor. There’s no reason why my heart should race like this. I twist my hair back into the usual bun. After all, I’m here for the garden. Then I hitch up my dress and slip out of my heels so I can walk up barefoot but balanced.
The loft is spacious, stylish, and it smells like heaven. About a hundred guests are loosely grouped around a fifty-foot gourmet buffet, orbited by servers. No one pays any attention to me, so I don’t bother slipping back into my shoes as I start making my way towards the long row of French doors to my right, where I expect to find the garden.
Still not feeling any calmer, I snatch a glass of wine from a passing server, reminding myself that I’m invited. I take a sip, then a gulp, wondering whether I should introduce myself to the host, who is speaking to a group of admirers at the other side of the room. Lenny showed me some pictures, and I immediately recognize Larsen by his chiseled-tall-sleek-blond look. Think Dylan Moss ten years younger, or any of the other generic faces you find all over the streaming services. I debate putting my shoes back on since I can hardly greet the man barefoot, heels in hand. But I have no idea what to say to him in front of all these people, so I regain my momentum toward the French doors, push against one of them, and walk into an intoxicating soft breeze carrying the scent of blossoming cascades of jasmine.
I’m finally where I wanna be, and I’m immediately in awe.
To my left are two outdoor aircon units, designed to look like sculptures, but most of the guests here probably don’t even notice them. They only notice the breeze, ten degrees cooler than down on the street, the pleasant scent of flowers, the riot of colors, carefully arranged in intricate patterns. There’s a row of LED lights, half-hidden in the foliage, that make the colors pop like that. A young couple gazes around, both women whispering. They abruptly turn around and walk back inside, probably to ask Finn Larsen for his next available appointment.
I can’t say I’m not impressed myself. If he can keep flowers alive like this, imagine what he can do with crops. I sit down on the divan next to the fountain and take it all in until I have finished my drink. Then I look up at the reason I’m here. The protective awning, patented for all the ways and angles in which its various parts move, tilt, tip, and turn with the sun, dipping in and out of the wind. It looks like a giant sailing ship, except its patented sails are made from photovoltaic material and stacked horizontally. A masterpiece of horticultural engineering.
I stand up and step onto the divan to touch one of the sails. Amazing how smooth and silken it feels, engineered to adapt its penetrability to the intensity of the sun, and yet sturdy enough to survive all our summer hurricanes and the blizzards in the winter. I look around before slipping into the shadow behind the tree lights and walking toward the large masts that anchor the construction in the floor of the terrace. I’m alone now. The only other person I can see is a bare-chested guy working on some kind of video installation, but he is behind another row of French doors in the room next to the party and oblivious to me.
I touch one of the masts. It’s made of wood, which comes as a surprise, but what I really want to see are the joints that allow the sails to move smoothly in so many directions while withstanding wind speeds of 135 miles per hour. I look around again and up to the first joint, remembering why it would have been smart to not wear a dress for the occasion. But it’s too late for regret, so I hike the fabric all the way up to my waist and begin to climb.
I’ve reached the first joint and I’m trying to position myself in a way that allows closer inspection when one of the glass doors pops open and the video installation guy steps out. There’s not even a question about whether he’s seen me. I wonder what’s more humiliating, waiting until he’s looking up at my undies from below or jumping down, and I decide to go for the latter. I’m still tucking at the hem of my dress by the time he reaches me, buttoning down a blue shirt he must have slipped into on his way over here. We are both mostly covered now as we face each other in the semi-darkness.
“Hi,” he says in a voice that sounds more amused than annoyed, his eyes on my hips. “Can I help you with something?”
“I don’t think so,” I answer, truthfully since I’ve had no time to come up with a better lie. “I was just, uhm … looking at the joint.”
He looks up and then at me again. “I saw that.”
“I was curious to see how they work.” What else can I say, really? “I’m one of the guests,” I add tentatively, wondering whether that will make it okay for him.
“Well, in that case, why don’t you come inside before you break your neck in the rigging?”
He turns around and I follow him, relieved that he’s not making more of a fuss. But when I want to turn left, back toward the main room, he motions me to follow him into what I now realize is a studio. It dawns on me before he even turns around again who I am dealing with.
Whoever that other guy was – probably it was Dylan Moss talking to his fan club – this here is the man himself, Finn Larsen. I have no idea what he is doing bare-chested in his studio while he’s throwing a party next door, and I can’t say he’s looking any less generically chiseled-tall-sleek-blond than the other guy, but I now remember laughing at his impossibly blue eyes in the pictures, thinking they were somehow enhanced. If they are, they have been enhanced in-vitro since he’s now looking at me with them. Piercing me.
“Nice to meet you, Mr. Larsen,” I say and reach out my hand while gauging the degree of my embarrassment, which clocks in right below catastrophic.
He takes my hand, grinning. “Nice to meet you too, Ms. …?”
“Shavir,” I say. “Shavir Tayard.”
“Pleased to meet you, Shavir. I’m Finn. And you’re from Roots, I suppose?”
Something deflates inside of me. I’m not sure whether it is my embarrassment or my self-esteem. “Is it that obvious?”
“Well,” he pauses, amusement sparkling in his eyes. “It might come as a surprise to you, but there aren’t many people here tonight who’d risk their dress and their bones climbing up the mast to check out the mechanics of my joints. If they are curious, they’d probably just ask me.”
I had no idea it might be as easy as that. “Well, I couldn’t find you,” I offer vaguely, and then I add: “I am invited. Roots, I mean. We got an invitation.”
“I know,” he says wryly. “I sent out the invitation. Only I was expecting Lenny Johnson.” He nods to the screen wall behind him, which I now realize isn’t a video installation but showing the virtual blueprint for a garden project. The right edge of the projection is lined with a dozen feeds from the cameras that must be placed all over the living room, showing the feasting guests from the most bizarre angles.
“Lenny couldn’t make it, unfortunately, so they sent me instead,” I offer by way of explanation. I nod toward the feeds. “Shouldn’t you be in there with your guests?”
“I’m on a deadline,” he says. “And there’s a longstanding tradition in this town of throwing parties without actually attending them.”
I’m unaware of that tradition, but it sounds like Manhattan to me. Everything that’s extravagant, excessive, or bizarre sounds like Manhattan to me. It somehow manages to be the poster child for resilient adaptation and the most wasteful place on Earth. So I guess it makes sense that Finn Larsen now offers me another drink and a chair before calling up the technical models of his shading system and talking me through every detail of its functions like I’m a potential client and he has all the time in the world.
He’s good at this, clear in his explanations, patient in answering my questions, his voice warm, his eyes on me or the screen wall, an intensity in his bright blue gaze. I’m trying my best to pay attention, given that this is a too-good-to-be-true situation, but I can’t help wondering what he is getting out of this. Why isn’t he working toward meeting his deadline right now? Why isn’t he joining the party that must have cost him a fortune? And for that matter, why did he invite any of us over here in the first place?
“Do you have any more questions?” he asks.
I do, about a million of them. But I ask that last one. Why invite us?
“I appreciate what you do. And it’s a pleasure these days to talk to someone who understands what it means to keep plants alive up on a roof.” He says this in the same matter-of-fact tone he used earlier, and I immediately wonder whether he’s signaling some kind of roof cred here or whether he wants to let me know we’re two of kind, which we aren’t by any stretch of his pampered East Village imagination. Just ask him how many hours he’s spent tilling, planting, or harvesting in the blazing sunlight, feeling his brain cells melt into his skull. How many times he’s had sunstroke, or frostbite, or anything in between.
Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s great that he and his kind are turning Manhattan’s buildings into vertical botanical gardens, making the city’s air the best it’s been in a century. I’m all for that fancy utopian biophilia project, as long as he doesn’t claim it has anything to do with the kind of work we are doing on our side of the fucking East River, where we grow food under what I hesitate to call natural conditions just so people have something to eat other than the soaked-through cardboard that’s flooding the streets after each storm.
I don’t say any of this, of course.
I usually get quiet when I’m enraged, all attention focused inward as I formulate my outrageous response. Which is a problem most of the time. Like now, for example, because Larsen’s just asked me a question about our community farm, and I only got the gist of it because I was busy dealing with my enragedness. So I have to ask him to repeat himself before I can properly answer what happens to be a knowledgeable inquiry about shading and irrigation that betrays not only his expertise in urban rooftop ecology, but a surprising level of insight into the specific conditions on our farm.
“Have you visited us?” I ask pointlessly because clearly, he hasn’t. He tells me he has only followed our story in the press, but he hopes to see it himself someday.
“Really?” I can’t stop myself from asking. “Why?”
This is the first time he looks caught off-guard. His smile tilts into an awkward angle as he unlocks his gaze from mine. “I’m just curious. I want to learn more about what you guys are doing, working with the soil in these extreme conditions, how you’re coping.”
He makes it sound like we’re some kind of vanguard working at the most radical frontier of urban agriculture, but the truth is that compared to what’s going on over here in Manhattan we’re a dinosaur, a hopeless group of fossil farmers that still grows crops in real soil in real air under the real fucking sun. Over here, they not only have impossible paradises up on their rooftops, but also the top-notch indoor food floors I saw on my way up. Fully automated nutrition centers with an output tenfold of ours, and there are no storms, no hail, no sunburns, pests, or even seasons that interfere with it. They generate perfectly shaped, unicolored veggies all year round, nourished by growth fluids, stimulated by growth lights, plucked, plowed, and planted by robots, all of it controlled by solar-powered climate systems and delivered to your apartment according to the orders your fridge phones in. We, by contrast, are lucky if we can keep our fridges running at all during the next brownout. Usually, we can’t.
I want to tell him as much, but he has turned away from me to pick up something from his desk, a small glass bottle with what looks like a cutting from an African Blue Basil bush in it. He holds it up into the light, so that I can see that the cutting has already formed new roots in the water. The spidery web of its thin silvery tentacles is reaching out into all directions, ready to hit the soil and grow into a brand-new big basil bush.
“I always keep one of these on top of my desk,” Larsen says, “to remind me of what plants are capable of. They’re so incredibly resilient and yet we’ve managed to create climatic conditions that go beyond what they can adapt to. My clients have a hard time appreciating that. They just want fancy gardens that don’t shrivel up and die in the summer furnace. I can provide that. I’ve learned to do that. But I want to do more than shading Japanese maples.”
“Like cloning African basil?” I ask, nastily. I see him flinch and I immediately regret, if not the question itself, the way it spilled out my mouth. I have learned to use nastiness as an antidote to the insincerity of privilege, but Larsen’s face suggests that I might be misjudging him.
“I want to help,” he says, “if you’re interested. But I’d first need to get a better sense of the exact problems you’re coping with.”
He’s talking about the farm, of course, but I’m confused by his penetrating gaze and the sincerity, unable to decide what he is sincere about. I’ve more than fulfilled my duty vis-à-vis Roots, feeling like a walking handbook of Larsen’s shading system, and so there’s no need for me to expose myself any longer to what is an increasingly perplexing encounter. If Larsen really wants to help with the farm, he needs to talk to people other than me. I politely suggest that he should stop by sometime soon to get a tour, that Lenny will be happy to discuss with him any details of his generous offer, and that I probably need to get going.
“How will you get home?” Larsen asks and again, he takes me by surprise.
“At this hour?” He looks genuinely shocked. “You’re joking.”
I am not joking. No one jokes about taking the subway to Brooklyn. Manhattan’s brand-new personal rapid transit system ends at Delancey, so you have to take the L-train to get back to Long Island. It’s a miracle the train’s still running at all. We owe it to the fact that the city’s decision to protect its subway system with pumps and tide gates against the rising Atlantic predated its decision to turn all of Brooklyn into an unofficial flood zone.
“I can take you,” Larsen says, implying that he owns a car, a rare and hideously expensive thing since the introduction of the podcar system. I’m overwhelmed by this whole situation and the man’s peculiar intensity, and so I politely decline. Or rather I intend to politely decline, but I find myself accepting his inexplicable, generous offer, in part because I dread the unsafe and unsanitary alternative that I’ve taken too many times.
I wonder how Larsen will explain his absence to his guests, but he just makes one quick call and we are outside in his magnificent garden again, the scent of the jasmine heavy in the air. He is an artist, really, a genius, creating all this and being able to sustain it. I want to tell him that I admire the tenacity behind that, but we’re already on our way to the staircase, which it turns out can be accessed from the terrace without encountering another soul.
Once we are in the elevator, I find the time to wonder again why in the world he is doing any of this and what will happen once we are alone in his car. I’m not exactly timid, and any physical threat he poses pales in comparison to what I might encounter on the subway, but I double-check the pepper spray in my purse. I also consider the possibility that he might just want to get laid, though truth be told, an abrasive farm girl in an ill-fitting dress is probably not his best shot tonight, unless he digs that kind of thing, which is where the pepper spray comes in. So I settle on inexplicable chivalry. Though, of course, it might simply be about the farm. Several indicators point to that, but what the hell do you get out of visiting a rooftop farm at night?
His car turns out to be not what I expected. Instead of a sleek Tesla or Porsche, he leads me to a van. His name is on the door, intertwined with the twisting branches of a Japanese maple and the triangular sails of his shading system. It takes me a minute to understand that he’s actually going to drive it himself, which is something I last witnessed when I was seven and on the backseat of my father’s gas-guzzling Prius. The idea of being at the mercy of another human’s subjective judgment terrifies me, and not only because my father was killed in a car accident.
I’m being perfectly quiet so as to not distract the driver. Outside, the dimmed-down facades of Manhattan float by, a greenish shimmer across them even in this low light, covered as they are with millions of plants.
Unlike my father, Larsen is a careful driver, attentive but calm as we cross the sophisticated bridging berm barrier of the Big U that’s been protecting Lower Manhattan from the rising sea since the late 2040s, and friendly with the guardsmen at the Williamsburg Bridge checkpoint.
The guardsmen are friendly, too. After scanning Larsen’s driver’s license and my ID, one of them asks politely whether we’re planning on returning to Manhattan.
“I am,” Larsen says, adding he’s just making sure I get home safe.
“I hope you will get back home safe, Sir,” the guardsman returns dryly. He shines his flashlight at me through the open window and it feels like a warning.
We are finally allowed to pass after Larsen has been presented with a laundry list of Brooklyn’s main thoroughfares, all of which we’re supposed to avoid for our own safety.
“I didn’t even know the checkpoints are still here,” Larsen says once we are alone again and out on the bridge. His voice sounds compressed. “Are they still left from the riots?”
I turn my face to him in the darkness. “It’s for your protection.”
He glances over momentarily as the van picks up speed.
“I’m wearing a black dress tonight,” I add, sounding nasty again, “so I don’t really fit their prey pattern. And I’m with you, that pretty much explodes it.”
He just nods, and I decide to let the iconoclasm go for tonight. I begin to relax, my gaze now fixed on the dark broken skyline of Brooklyn, which is even gloomier at this time than normally, but still looks like home.
I turn my face to Larsen again. Sitting with him in the van feels much more intimate than being alone in his studio with all those people next door, but I’m no longer worried about what he might do. I study his profile and realize he doesn’t look like Dylan Moss at all. There’s nothing generic about the crooked shape of his nose that must have been broken at some point, or the lips that contract for an instant when he swallows, dryly.
He feels my gaze and our eyes lock again. There is a new expression in his, something apprehensive. He looks about as tense as I feel relaxed as the van merges into the familiar traffic on Grand Street, one of the streets we were told to avoid.
“Don’t tell me you haven’t been here before,” I say.
“Not since the riots,” he replies, his voice-controlled. “It looks different now.”
“Yeah.” I erupt in a laugh. “It is different. We’re in a permanent state of emergency.”
We drive past boarded-up storefronts and layered floodmarks, past street vendors and pop-ups, along sidewalks brimming with people eating dinner standing up or sitting down on improvised outdoor seating. Everything is makeshift and transient, waiting for the next storm, the next catastrophe. It looks normal to me, but to him, it must look like a different planet.
“You can drop me off here,” I suggest. Giving him an out.
“No way,” Larsen says. He no longer looks scared, just curious. And a little lost.
So am I. I know every street here, including the ones we’re supposed to avoid, but it turns out I’m unable to explain how to get to the farm in a car. I give the van the address instead and Larsen finally leans back and allows the board computer to take over. He’s more at ease now, and we start talking about my work at Roots and the community outreach we’re doing, inviting people to work with us and helping them to start and sustain their own little gardens. I talk about how difficult that is, barely ten miles from the permanent evacuation zone, the heat waves and the hurricanes tearing in like fucking magic clockwork. And how rewarding. He asks how I got involved in Roots, how I met Lenny. I’m unusually talkative, letting down my guard. His eyes are so intense by now that it does things to me just looking into them. I tell him how I once had a chance to leave it all behind and how the price for that would’ve been too high.
“Why are you still here?” Finn asks.
I try to find the words. But instead, I pull out my phone and show him a shot I’ve taken that afternoon, rows of struggling veggies in their makeshift planters, covered by our third-rate shading nets made for a different climate, a kinder sun, a long-gone time. A sad mix of wilted yellow and bleached out black against the rich distant green of the Manhattan skyline. Bent over the planters are some of the Roots people, friends, neighbors, whoever happened to be in the shot, some of them looking up into the camera, sweating and squinting and smiling out of the insufficient shades of their wide-brimmed hats. I’m proud at that moment because we’ve all grown Roots together and we’re still hanging on.
“That’s a great garden,” Finn says and looks up at me with his blue eyes.
I nod and pack the phone away, because his voice makes me tingle and we’re almost there. The van cuts its engine in front of our building, and then it is me who asks Finn whether he wants to come up. “To see the garden,” I add a little too hastily.
“Of course,” he says, “how else will I know what you need.”
I’m still looking at him, my heart pounding. “So,” I hear myself saying, “this is all just about the garden then?”
He smiles, but it’s a smile I haven’t seen before. There’s something raw in it, something unprocessed. “I don’t know,” he says, “you tell me.”
And then we’re both laughing.
Alexa Weik von Mossner is a writer and literary scholar, currently based in Austria. She is the author of 163 episodes of the German TV drama series FABRIXX. Her short fiction has appeared in Orca and in the Delmarva Review. Website: www.alexaweikvonmossner.com