A few weeks ago I lost my friend Bill… and this last week I lost another friend. This friend was a fellow mad gardener who encouraged my love of science, nature and gardening when I was just a kid.
He wasn’t a famous guy, or a writer, or even a particularly coherent speaker. In fact, he looked homeless, often had a mongrel dog with him, and drove an assortment of battered vehicles loaded with all kinds of strange junk.
At my Grandpop Perry’s memorial service less than two years ago, he actually brought a big rubber snake with him and was teasing random children with it by pretending it was alive.
This didn’t happen during the service itself, fortunately. It was just after the burial. You should have met this guy – it would make sense.
Let me introduce you to Gary.
Last Chance Church
When I was a kid my Dad co-pastored Lauderdale Community Church in the Ft. Lauderdale area of South Florida.
Members often joked that the initials stood for “Last Chance Church,” and that if you couldn’t make it at LCC… you couldn’t make it anywhere.
Gary was a wild-eyed, gap-toothed guy with endless energy and a handshake that would crack your knuckles. He was in and out of LCC all the time and his fearsome appearance would startle those who weren’t familiar with his gentle interior.
Gary was born in ’52 so he was a couple of decades older than me, but when I was a kid he found out I had gotten a microscope for my birthday so he brought an old, worn vintage box of specimen slides to church as a gift for me.
Slides of mouse organ slices, to be precise. He fit in at LCC. We had former biker gang members, down-and-out single moms, great solid families with wonderful kids, islanders on their own time schedules, homeless people, missionaries, business owners, construction workers… if you showed up, you were family.
I have to share more stories about Gary though… ’cause it just gets better.
Crazy Plants and Custom Paint
Gary was always gardening.
He collected flowers and beach beans, palms and tropical fruit, vegetables and herbs and anything that grew. He showed me my first coontie palm and introduced me to the atala butterfly. He germinated lots of coontie seed and would plant them all over to attract the butterflies. Just a year or so ago he saved a pair of atala butterflies for me, carefully dried and placed in an envelope.
I wish I’d written him more often.
When I was a teen and gardening seriously, Gary would share seeds sometimes.
Once he brought me a baggie of red beans with white ridges he told me he got from some Thai friends. My guess is they were a type of lablab. “These grow real big,” he said.
I planted them in garden behind my parents’ house and ran some strings up the wall so they could climb. I assumed they wouldn’t get up to the roof but I was wrong. Those beans not only grow up and onto the roof, they covered a good chunk of it. As an experiment I ran another string from the eaves a good 30′ to the top of a flagpole… and the vines followed that all the way across. Then they created massive, rough, hairy pods loaded with beans. The trunks got to be at least an inch across, too. I’ve never seen beans like those… and I’ve never seen them again. Weevils ate my saved seeds and that was that.
Gary would show up sometimes when you didn’t expect him. I remember him showing up at my parents’ place once carrying a mug which he held out to my mom, grunting a single word. “Coffee!” She rolled her eyes, but got him coffee.
For a while Gary drove a huge battered old station wagon with faux wood paneling on the sides. Inside you’d find tools, camping gear and weird and random items like plastic lizards, coconuts, rope and scavenged bits and pieces.
He once asked if I’d paint a picture on the tailgate for him. I asked him what he wanted and he said, “fish, underwater.” So that’s what I painted. Now it was a big, battered, tasteless tan station wagon with an amateur painting of reef fish on the back. A thing of beauty!
Truck Trips and Expired Produce
When I was in college I took care of a house for a while for a family and had some gardens going in the yard. Gary showed up one day and said “Hey – want manure?” I said yes… and he yanked two big recycling bins of elephant manure out of the back of his station wagon and dumped them in the side yard for me. “I can also get spoiled produce for compost,” he said, “I know a guy.”
And he did, because shortly after he showed up with boxes of rotten greens and fruit. When Gary knew you were interested in something, he would share it with you. His hands were always open, though he owned almost nothing himself. As best as I can tell, his income came from odd jobs and charity along with scrap-metal scrounging. Gary wasn’t the kind of guy that held down a job or was even really employable, though my friend Jack did hire him to drive a truck for his thrift store… which I’m sure was a loss.
I also worked at Jack’s thrift store when I was a teenager and often would go out on one of the trucks to pick up donations. A few times I got to go out when Gary was driving.
Gary would pack all the donation boxes up one side of the truck and every time he took a turn, some of them would fall over and crash in the back. Gary would wince and say “oops, oh man…” but didn’t re-stack the boxes.I have no idea why. It was like he thought they should just stay there and not fall over.
He was cut from a different piece of cloth.
Scratch that. He was made of something else entirely.
Jack… if you’re reading this… I probably owe you a few bucks. More than once, that thrift store truck ended up at some rare plant nursery or other out in Davie on our lunch breaks, which may have gone longer than they should have, occasionally.
One day when I wasn’t working, Gary showed up and we were talking about plants. He told me that there were native orchids that grew wild in Florida. I didn’t know that and asked him where. “Oh, out in the Everglades. And some even closer.”
“Where?” I pressed.
“Hey, I’ll show you.”
We got into his car and drove out to a gas station near my parents’ place. He said hi to the owner and asked if we could cut through the back. The owner waved us on, so we did. Behind that little gas station was some giant live oak trees. “Up there!” Gary said. I looked up… and sure enough, there were colonies of orchids growing in some of the long, rough, mossy branches.
Whether or not we threw things up there and dislodged some to plant elsewhere I will not share here.
He planted orchids – both wild and tame – here and there all over my grandparents’ backyard. Why my grandparents? Well…
My Grandpa Greene was a respectable kind of guy who worked with his hands and believed every man could pull himself up by his bootstraps and nail down some sort of a living if he worked hard and learned some basic skills for dealing with people.
Keep your word, have a firm handshake, show up on time, work hard and do it again day after day.
He and my Grandma decided to rent a room to Gary for a while because Grandpa figured he could help Gary stop wandering about and skipping from thing to thing and get some solid work going.
It didn’t really work out that way, as containing Gary was like containing the wind.
Gary would work hard, but he also lived in a totally different world with totally different priorities. Keeping a job, dressing in an average manner, showing up on time… they just didn’t register with him.
He wasn’t lazy, he just lived in another sphere.
He planted orchids all over my grandparents’ backyard – which they didn’t mind. But he also planted loofah vines along the fence which rapidly consumed a chunk of the backyard and grew up into the trees. This was getting to be a bit too much for my Grandma, but the last straw was when Gary threw masses of Spanish moss into her backyard oak tree. She most definitely did NOT want Spanish moss in that tree, thank you very much, and she told Gary that enough was enough with his crazy gardening experiments!
Though my Grandpa tried to make a respectable working man out of Gary, it couldn’t be done. Eventually Gary found another place to stay, but my grandparents still had a soft spot for him and he was always welcome in their home.
While he was with them, Gary built a solid compost bin from cinderblocks. Though my grandparents had never composted before to my knowledge, they started thanks to Gary… and kept composting.
People might think Gary was crazy. He was crazy, I guess, but in a good way. He had crazy faith.
One time he invited me to join him on a manure run. He had decided to get a bunch of horse manure from a ranch in Davie and thought I might want some for myself. I agreed and we took off in his battered station wagon.
As he drove, I noticed the gas tank gauge was all the way at empty. “Gary,” I said, “shouldn’t we get some gas?”
“Naw,” he said. “It’s fine.”
We drove further out into Davie and the tank was really looking way too low. I did not want to get stuck in the middle of nowhere.
“Gary, I really think we should get some gas.”
“Quit worryin’,” he said, “I told you it’s fine. I prayed o’er it.”
All that morning and afternoon we rode around on empty. We stopped here and there, made it to the ranch, loaded up with manure, and wandered here and there back… until I finally said, “Look, Gary – I’ve got five bucks! Just get some gas! I can’t take it!”
Gary shrugged and pulled into the next gas station. I pressed the $5 into his hand and he went inside.
A minute later he came back with a pack of cigarettes, then proceeded to put the rest of the $5 into the tank… something like $2!
“There,” he said.
I just shook my head. There was no one like this guy.
One time I watched him give away his lunch and his groceries to a single mom begging in front of Publix with a couple of kids.
I thought “she’s trying to scam us,” he thought “it doesn’t matter, I’m going to help.”
That humbled me.
Another time he stopped by the side of the road when we were in the big Thrift Store truck picking up a donation. A few children were playing there so he said “hi” and asked them if they knew his friend Jesus.
They shook their heads, probably a little taken aback by this fierce-looking stranger.
Gary said, “well, He’s the one that died to save us all. He’s the Son of God and sacrificed his life for you kids. If you believe in Him, you’ll go to Heaven. You need to ask your parents to take you to church, okay? Then you can learn more about Him. Ask your parents to go to church, alright?”
You might see Gary and think “this guy looks like a crazy homeless man in a less-than-roadworthy vehicle,” but I have a feeling God saw him in a very different manner.
I did too.
Once you knew him, his generosity, faith and loyalty were unmissable. He never fit in this world but I know there’s a place for him in the next.
Though he looked very serious in photos, in person he was more often than not sporting a wide grin. We lost one of the good guys this week.
After a battle with pneumonia, Gary passed away at the age of 64. A couple of days before he left, he told his mom that he thought he was going soon to heaven and really wanted to go.
Thank you, Gary, for everything. One day we shall meet again. Say hi to Bill for me.
* * *
O Lord, our Lord,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!
You have set your glory above the heavens.
Out of the mouth of babies and infants,
you have established strength because of your foes,
to still the enemy and the avenger.
When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars, which you have set in place,
what is man that you are mindful of him,
and the son of man that you care for him?
Yet you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings
and crowned him with glory and honor.
You have given him dominion over the works of your hands;
you have put all things under his feet,
all sheep and oxen,
and also the beasts of the field,
the birds of the heavens, and the fish of the sea,
whatever passes along the paths of the seas.
O Lord, our Lord,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!
-Psalm 8, ESV