I picked up a flat of strawberries cheap at Eastern Market and figured I'd swing by Mulenga Harangua's place to share the wealth and find out the latest scuttlebutt. He's squatting in a west side house that looks like it's about to fall down — peeling paint, boarded windows, graffiti-covered. He didn't answer the door when I knocked, so I went around to the yard, figuring to leave the strawberries on the back porch.
When I got to the yard it was as if I had been transported to a verdant paradise. Mulenga is a black man with a green thumb. There were flowerbeds along one side of the lot with yellow and purple blooms already brightening up the view along with blossoms from a peach tree. Planting beds framed with scavenged bricks formed neat rows across the lot, and into the next one. No one lived next door, and the fence was long gone. Spring greens were already springing up in one bed while parsley thrived in the next one.
Looking farther back, I noticed a young lady who looked to be in her teens planting seedlings from a box. Four thick plaits hung from her head and she was very obviously pregnant. She moved with the easy elegance of someone who is very comfortable in her body. She wore a hat that looked like one that children would fold together from newspaper, except it seemed to be made from tin foil. Just then Mulenga stepped out of the garage, wiping his hands off on an oily rag. He wore a similar hat.
He gave me a big smile and came right over. "How ya doing?"
"Not bad. I got a good deal on these strawberries and thought I'd drop a few off here."
"Thanks, I appreciate that. My strawberries won't be coming in for a couple of weeks yet." He indicated a leafy hillock in the next yard before plucking a berry from the box I carried. He bit into the berry and made a face. "I don't mean to criticize your gift, but my berries are a lot sweeter and more flavorful than these. You need to come back when they're ripe."
I set the box of strawberries down. "So what's with the tin foil hat?"
"Oh, this is to protect us from radiation."
"The sun's rays are too much for you?"
"No. I'm talking about radiation from those damaged Japanese nuclear plants."
"But that doesn't pose a threat to us."
"That's what they'd like us to believe. They've found radiation spikes in this country. And when you add that to the daily radiation we already endure, well, I'm keeping the hat on."
"Suit yourself, but I don't think aluminum foil is going to help."
The young lady had stopped planting and was looking in our direction. One hand held the shovel and the other rested on her hip as the sun glinted off her hat. My curiosity kicked in.
"Who's the young lady? And tell me you're not the father."
"Man, do you think I'm some kind of child molester. She ain't but 16."
"And who is she?"
"That's Christy. She's one of those girls from the Catherine Ferguson Academy. You know the school for pregnant teenagers."
"What's she doing here?"
Mulenga spread his arms wide to indicate his fiefdom. "She is making this happen. It started last year when I went by the school to check out what they were doing. She was in the field and I started asking questions that she had answers for. After I went by there a few times, she asked to visit my garden. She's got the know-how. I can make things grow, but she's helped me turn this into a garden of paradise."
Mulenga indicated a pile of grayish clumps next to the garage. "See that; it's bird droppings. There's plenty of it in some of these abandoned buildings. It makes decent fertilizer. Then I've got a compost pile over in the easement where I throw all my cuttings, clippings and kitchen waste. Christy got me doing that. As much as this girl knows about agriculture, I can't believe they're closing down that school."
"If they don't turn it into a charter school."
"That just goes to show you that the city doesn't want urban agriculture to take off. If they did then why would they close up the best training program we have here in the city?"
"The mayor has expressed his doubts about the city going in that direction. However, the mayor doesn't run the schools. That's the EFM's bailiwick."
"Regardless, urban agriculture is something that people want so I guess it's something for the city to scoff at. I see people getting into this and it changes their lives. People who seemed lost to the world suddenly get connected to it. Christy is so much into it I think she's gonna be lost if they close that school."
"So where does she live?"
"What? Are you crazy? You can't have a 16-year-old pregnant girl living here with you. What about her family?"
"They put her out."
"What are you going to do when the baby comes? It looks like it could be any day now."
"We're still a few weeks away. I met these Muslim midwives at the produce market where I drop a few things off on consignment. I'm going to take her over to them when the time comes."
"So are you ready to be a baby's daddy?"
Mulenga squirmed uneasily. "We'll see how that goes. But in the meantime, she's been helping me, and I'm gonna help her. It would help if I could get some cash flowing through here. She's got some ideas, but they're going to take some time."
"You're not growing marijuana here, are you?"
"That would be one hell of a cash crop — that's for sure. But I'm not trying to go to jail. There's probably somebody growing weed nearby, but I'm not one of them. I need to keep myself free and unencumbered for my political activism."
"What political activities."
"I've decided to become a Deather."
"What does that mean? You want to die?"
"You've heard of the Truthers who believe the real story about what happened on 9/11 has been covered up; and the Birthers who believe that President Obama wasn't born in the United States and is therefore ineligible to be president. Well, the Deathers want proof that Osama bin Laden is really dead. Obama could start by releasing the long-form death certificate."
"Why do you want to do that? Do you really believe bin Laden isn't dead?"
"They could have him locked up in Montana somewhere as far as I know. I am for full disclosure of everything no matter what."
"Does that include those shoplifting convictions you had from when we were teenagers?"
"Well, maybe there are some things we don't need to talk about."
"You know what? I think that tin foil has gone to your head."
"I'm a Tin Man with a heart. And, this," he indicated the yard with a sweep of his arm, "is my Emerald City."
Hmm ... I guess there's no place like home.