The Rose and the Thorn


June 22, 1982

They set great store by their gardens…their studie and deligence cometh not onely of pleasure, but also of a certain strife –Sir Thomas More

The brands of heroin most actively hawked Wednesday afternoon, June 9, 1982, on 3rd Street east of Avenue C were Red Tape and Yellow Tape and Buddha: open-faced boys on street corners approached cars, solicitous merchants selling glassine packets containing a “trip for your dollar that will make you holler.” For a certain extra sum, the sellers might direct a shopper to any of several derelict buildings where one could, in relative safety, mix with water, cook and strain and administer one’s drugs. Two of these shooting galleries, very heavily trafficked, are in the block of 3rd Street between avenues C and D—or were that week. Walking their slow, gravity-defying walk, the 3rd Street dope fiends stopped mid-block last Wednesday, slightly confused, possibly transfixed by an unexpected vision.

Tranquil between two tenements, on land that was long ago an orchard, grows Mrs. Olean For’s garden, a proper, formal, gated refuge, at its entrance a bower of tea roses, full-headed, fresh pink, trained in an old-fashioned arch. The junkies stood outside the gate, staring in and nodding. Drowsily in the summer breeze, the blossoms nodded back.

Walking in this neighborhood with a friend some weeks ago, I found many gardens. The East Village, on 9th Street at Avenue D, on 8th Street farther west, in lots tucked up between tenements and fenced off from the debris, is alive with produce: lettuce leaves, collared from the sun and rats, grow in one plot beneath a stuffed sock-monkey effigy. On a stake in another patch, a plastic hobby horse is impaled: he snorts mid-air over a plot of beans. A sign nearby warns, “People Who Bother The Dogs—They Are Watching You.” Giant vegetables, ripe as dreams, recede in formal perspective toward a sunny horizon in a mural painted on the building wall.

By midsummer, harvest in this part of Manhattan will be rich. But Mrs. Olean For’s garden’s yield is of another sort. Her “studie and deligence commeth not only of pleasure but also of a certain strife.” When I met her, she was lying on her side outside the garden gate in the shade of a gingko. A small boy crawled at her side as Mrs. For cut the grass, leisurely, with a scissors.

“Go on it,” she said, “it’s for everyone. It’s my garden, go ahead. I’m the director, the coordinator, and the waddyacallit—everything.”

“I’m Olean,” she said, “and this is my grandson, Kai. That’s who I’m fighting for . . . but let’s have a look inside.”

A level brick walk, laid in herringbone pattern, wound past a railroad-tie wall, toward a white-painted stockade fence. Day lilies, hosta, and immature yellow rose bushes hugged the walk. A pair of ill-matched trees—a Japanese black pine, spiky and dark, and a weeping willow; the one with a deep tap root, the other spreading and shallow—thrived, at a civil distance. A wheelbarrow full of glass shards and dirt was parked in the path; at the side two cisterns (“Kristos” brand pepperoncini barrels) stood filled with turbid water. By the garden’s west wall a 10-sided bench circled a healthy young peach tree, it’s sooty fruit scattered on the ground. A trench—dug for what?—lay raw and dry. At the back wall a modest herb garden emerged: basil, parsley, rosemary.

“Do you like it?” Mrs. For asked, coming into the shade. “This garden is my life. I was many things, a Vista Volunteer, a civil rights organizer back in—oh, who knows how long ago that was?—and now I end up here with this project, which I love.”

A small woman, Olean For has a ready smile, incompletely toothy. She showed it: “The tea roses, the whole thing, I planted it. Designed it. I won a prize for it. The most improved lot. Mayor Koch came and the newsmen and Mollie Parnis, the clothes designer. They came and I gave them all some of my lemonade. They loved it. I knew they’d be thirsty.

“When I first came here there was so much garbage. Terrible. It was this high”—she indicated knee-height. “The Council on the Environment helped me get started. A donor donated the fence and now it’s all beautiful and I love it.

“The roses are my special pride. They’re so heavy I have to tie them up with string. The kids try to pull them, but”—she laughed a little laugh—”they get themselves stuck.

“I say to the city,” said Mrs. For,” you can organize the peoples in the blocks. Just give them a little help. I say to the rich man, put some factories down here, give us the empty lots, we’ll plant and homestead and work. I say you’re rich, I’m poor, alright. You don’t want to live here. I do. Let’s live in peace.”

As she talked two young men stopped outside Mrs. For’s garden, raising the volume on their box radio, which was playing “Planet Rock.”

“The whole block down here,” Mrs. For said, “is full of these beautiful youths, so much of them. But every store, all these empty buildings, is full of drugs. It’s a shame. The young people don’t get a chance. They used to park their cars out here, the big bosses of the drugs. They come over from New Jersey and stay there all day. Twice they broke my fence. But I tell them, ‘Look, we can’t go to Jersey and do stuff to you over there, don’t you do it here.’ I fight. I fight for my beautiful grandson. The big bosses tell the junkies, ‘Get her out of the way,’ but I tell them, ‘Look at the beauty in front of you. If you kill me, you kill yourself.'”

A woman at the gate waved at Mrs. For, who left her seat to chat. Flies buzzed in the cool. It was quiet under the peach tree. Mrs. For’s grandson sat at our feet and played with a ball.

“Let me see can I find you a good one,” Mrs. For said to her friend, reaching up to the rose vine and clipping a flower at the peak of its bloom. Returning to her seat, she said, “I’ve had my problems here, yes, with the dope fiends and running out of money. My fish pond is just a ditch now because I couldn’t afford to get no further. I have faith though. Last year for six months I had no running water. I thought my trees would die of thirst. They say these trees can’t make it at all in the city. But here they are.”

She looked around her garden with a careful, appraising eye. “I start at eight,” she said, “and I don’t leave here until five, or sometimes 4:30 if I’m so tired. But while I’m here I can ignore the outside world.

If heaven is this way, with childrens playing in the grass, it still couldn’t be any better than what I have here on earth.” With that, Mrs. Fr tossed Kai his ball, and he toddled after it, out of the leafy shade into a bright patch of sun.