Wednesday, June 3, 2009
About those strawberries. All week they've been ripening just fine, but then the ripe ones would just... disappear.
Today I think I found out why. I was reading in my yard, a bit out of sight, when I looked up and saw my neighbor on her hands and knees in my strawberry patch. I ran over and yelled at her, and she jumped up, smiling nervously. In her hand were two prime red strawberries.
She is an older teenager, I would say, and lives with her extended family about five houses down the street. I don't know her at all though I've seen her from time to time. Her mother seems to speak only Chinese. Her grandmother grows bok choy and green beans--and a few strawberries--in their yard, and gathers huge loads of deposit bottles. The grandmother and I nod and smile when our paths cross, but otherwise my interactions with these neighbors are few.
More disturbingly, her mother was waiting for her on the public sidewalk, not ten feet away, pushing a stroller that held the young woman's toddler son. This little heist was a family affair. Maybe that's part of why I blew up, yelling at the young woman, telling her over and over that she was "stealing," that she was a "thief." She gave me back my strawberries and slunk off, chastened I hoped.
But now that some hours have intervened, I have to wonder about my reaction. Am I really that invested in ownership of a handful of strawberries? What happened to my belief in a communal ethic of sharing? This family of neighbors is to all appearances rather poor: why not give them some strawberries? And they are neighbors: all the more reason to be generous. Did the differences of race and language play a part here? Was this a case of "those people" taking from "us"? Maybe they bring different assumptions about property and ownership that would be interesting to learn about. Maybe I should have offered them some strawberries before they took them. Has my pride in growing things overwhelmed some more fundamental values?
These are questions that cut in multiple directions, and I haven't reached any certain conclusions. If I see this girl or some other human predator in my strawberry patch again, I may temper my reaction, but to what degree I'm not sure. Turns out these reflexes of ownership, of "it's mine," are deeply embedded. One more reason to appreciate my urban garden, though: as a microcosm of the urban, where these issues of anonymity, human density, strained relationship and cultural difference do arise.