Friendship … is born at the moment when one man says to another “What! You too? I thought that no one but myself…”C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves
There are some things you can’t share without ending up liking each other, and knocking out a twelve-foot mountain troll is one of them.J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
”They’re a rotten crowd,” I shouted across the lawn. ”You’re worth the whole damn bunch put together.”F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
Man, these are strange days. The beginning of autumn has always been something of a source of cognitive dissonance living in Florida. My parents and siblings live in Colorado, so every September, I start hearing stories about first freezes and the epic first snowfall. It reminds me of when my family moved from California to Colorado in the mid-1990s. I was in my punk phase back then, if you can imagine such a thing, with purple hair and tall Doc Martens. Finally, the Doc Martens seemed useful instead of rebellious, trekking home from school through snow drifts. I vowed to move to the South as an adult. Cold temperatures and I do not get along. (Which is pretty funny, as my maternal grandparents were Finnish. Guess that’s not an inherited trait.)
Here it is still blazing hot and hurricane season. People elsewhere start posting pictures of leaves changing color, as I gaze upon tall ginger blooms and dahlias. I think they sell mums at Lowe’s now, but that’s mainly a gig for the northern transplants, like all the hostas they kill each year. My impatiens will still be putting on a show in January. Technically, they never stop. My powder puff tree, azaleas, and cape honeysuckle all bloom in the “winter.”
Things are even stranger this year, however, as we are packing to move even further south, so we no longer feel like we “belong” where we are. It’s like everyone else’s calendars keep turning, but we are frozen in some place beyond time and space, waiting until we can be inserted somewhere entirely new and different. Every conversation is a goodbye of sorts. Telling the fishmonger he won’t be seeing us every day. Passing on things we won’t be taking to friends.
Over the years, we amassed a huge collection of heavy, dark wood furniture, which really fit the large federal-style house we used to own. We have resolved to give substantially all of it to Habitat for Humanity this year and replace it with appropriate coastal fare. So even though we are only moving about four hours south, we are totally changing our personal environment. So it’s goodbye to people we’ve known for a couple years and goodbye to many things we have known for a long time.
But the worst goodbye of all is going to be to our gardener, Mr. Perez. I met Mr. Perez by serendipity one morning as I was out mowing the lawn. We had moved in weeks before, and mowing the lawn in the hot Florida sun was something I had really come to loathe. But I would put in my ear buds and get it done. As I was snaking back and forth, Mr. Perez tapped me on the shoulder. I almost jumped six feet back. I stopped my music.
“I can do this for you, the whole yard, for $80 a month,” he said. I thought he was an angel, sent to me personally from God above. I ran inside to tell my husband I was never mowing the yard again.
I quickly discovered that the Perez family was a package deal. Mr. Perez had a day job maintaining landscapes in the various gated communities in town, and taking care of individual yards was something he did as a side hustle. At the end of the week, his wife would show up with a weed-eater. Then he or his grown sons would show up separately to take care of mowing and other stuff.
As I had the sense they were trying to transition from a traditional job to a family business, I started recruiting anyone I could as clients for them. That was not all that difficult. With the Perez family handling the yard chores I hated, I had nothing but free time to go all-out on the flower beds. Whenever someone out walking would ask about the gardens, I would refer them to the Perez family. He’s my secret weapon, I said. Pretty soon, Mr. Perez had a real business in our neighborhood.
Growing up in a family of entrepreneurs and being entrepreneurs ourselves, one personality trait I have serious respect for is hustling new business. My first job out of graduate school was working for a large investment bank. Most people think of investment banks as places where people sit around staring at their Bloomberg terminal all day. That’s the Hollywood depiction of investment banks and hedge funds. The reality is you spend most of your time trying to hustle new business, or what’s called “asset gathering.” Trying to convince people to give you their wealth to invest on their behalf. Only people who have been in business for decades are free from the hustle. And they spend more time on the golf course than behind a Bloomberg terminal.
As a young woman working in finance, building a book of clients was legitimately difficult work. Every man wanted to let the former sorority girl take them to lunch and talk about the markets, but getting them to transfer funds was a different story. I learned what it is like to have to prove yourself against the odds, what it means to have something about you that people do not inherently trust or respect. (Yes, the former sorority girl knows what an interest rate collar is, thank you very much. My life has been about more than nail polish and babies.) And because of those experiences, I feel like I have more in common with an immigrant gardener than with the retired desk jockeys I have as neighbors, who experienced no personal risk in saving their pennies for golden years of whites-only croquet.
My respect for the hustle has only grown as we have seemingly transitioned to a society built on a false sense of entitlement and abundant “where is my free shit” political philosophies. Thus, when I see someone actually trying to hustle, I try to help them build their business. We more than doubled what we were paying the Perez family each month for their services. He did not understand why we were volunteering to pay him more. We explained that we could not live with ourselves for not paying a fair wage for someone else’s work, even if all the other people here were constantly trying to devalue his existence. We are not entitled to his labor. “You are good people,” he replied. In fact, watching the rich, white New Yorkers shit on immigrant laborers went a long way to making me not want to be around them. They call Trump supporters racists ad nauseam, but that’s something rednecks never do – shit on people who engage in hard work.
Over time, the Perez family became my go-to for big projects. They helped me remove a wild curtain of vines from the ancient trees on our property so I could plant the massive back garden. Mr. Perez would become emotional whenever he would see the new progress on what I had planted in place of the vines. He loved driving his mower through the maze of garden paths I built in the backyard, which quickly became loaded with flowers. He and his family humored our daughter for hours teaching her the Spanish names for things. I enjoyed chatting with them about plants. They are the biggest gardening nerds I have ever met offline.
We finally told Mr. Perez we were moving and he was visibly upset. We were upset too. “I understand why you don’t fit in here. You are the nicest people we have met in this town,” he said. I think it is one of the best compliments I have ever received, because I can only imagine what his experiences otherwise are like. We asked him if he would take care of the gardens until the house sells, as we won’t be around to maintain them.
“It would be my honor,” he said.
I wish we could take the Perez family with us.