I knew to stop my tractor with the front right tire alongside the crack in the curb to best place the wagon behind me for midday sun. I had done it so many times it was second nature. Most every day, from Easter to Thanksgiving, I set up my makeshift farm stand under a tired, old oak at the top of Ferry Road in Newburyport’s ‘Three Roads’ intersection. Like my dad and ten grandfathers before me, I worked the family farm and sold in town that which we produced with our own labor.
Having planned for a busy Saturday, I had packed the wagon with potted rosemary and baskets of winter squash, eggplant, and super juicy late-season tomatoes. I had also brought gigantic chrysanthemums, bursting with bright yellows, oranges, and rusty reds.
Jumping off the tractor and onto the grassy roadside, I readied to unload and set up an eye-catching display for prospective buyers driving by. As I put together a bench of apple boxes and old planks, I noticed the neighbor sauntering toward me down the sidewalk. He was a professor from a state school nearby and had previously made clear his disapproval of my farm stand.
A fastidious fellow, he seemed the type who woke each morning, looked for the grain, and then set out to go against it. For the past few weeks, he had called the police to have me evicted from the spot, but this was the first time he approached personally. He threatened to have me shut down, adding that he was a member of some city board.
I paid him little attention. Instead, I went about my day greeting customers, loading bags of veggies and stuffing those gigantic mums into the backs of cars. But still, I couldn’t shake thoughts of his threat. He obsessively mowed and swept the sidewalk in front of his house while he watched me interact with my customers. Then I noticed a particularly begrudging stare as his cheerful and lovely wife paid for two brightly colored mums to set out on their steps, just like my other happy customers.
Folks lined the street and made an event of shopping from my wagon. I knew many by name and looked forward to greeting them with their usual orders. ‘Three Roads’ was a social corner, with a comfortable interaction of strangers, friends, and old-school New England personalities. Some were customers, many weren’t. Friends stopped by with coffees in each hand. Others were walkers who happened by and ended up staying half-hours before they knew it. Many members of the police force checked in just to talk of childhood memories, and salespeople stopped to pitch their wares. My farm stand at ‘Three Roads’ became a hub for town news and saw a cross-section of New England life.
Catching word of a city official using his influence to threaten me, a man in a little red hatchback zipped in behind my tractor. He was a heavy, tired looking man in his late thirties and when he climbed out from the driver’s seat, he held a small grey dog in his arm. Though it was curious, I recognized him as the owner of a local newspaper, The Undertoad. I knew why he was there.
Tom Ryan, direct and without small talk, got right to asking questions about the farm and our stand, the neighbor, and my right to sell on public property without a license. Though I had not met Tom before, his genuineness was so apparent I spoke freely and explained how the neighbor sprayed his political clout. I told him about the farm and our 12 generations working the same land, and I told him of a hundreds-year-old state law that allows farmers and fishermen to sell wherever parking is legal. Then I pulled an old tattered paper citing the law from my back pocket. Tom’s entire face seemed to smile as he read it. In his sharp and deliberate way, he asked a few more questions and listened long enough to hear answers before leaving. Then he said goodbye, and he and his friend climbed back into the little red hatchback.
As days went by, the neighbor’s threats ceased and calls to the police stopped. Though his compulsive sweeping and trimming of the sidewalk continued, I was left alone. Assuming Tom must have written of the situation in his paper, I picked up a copy of the ‘Toad from the packy up the street. There was no word of me, my farm stand, or of the neighbor. Tom never wrote of it.
He stopped by a few more times that fall, visiting and watching folks whiz by. We talked of the farm, the city, and of the squirrels chattering overhead. We didn’t talk about the neighbor because the problem was resolved. Neither did we talk about Tom’s role in its resolution. Rather, we enjoyed a new relationship based on independence and snuffing out drama.
Tom is no longer a newspaperman. He’s up North where he belongs, now a hiker and a vegan. A transcendentalist, he writes of life in the mountains and of his personal relationship with the natural world. And, of course, of Atticus. I’ve also moved on from Newburyport and found a quiet life across the river on the shore of Amesbury’s Lake Attitash. Tom and I still chat, having rooted our friendship many years ago beneath the oak on the corner of ‘Three Roads.’
A few nights back we discussed what it means to be New Englander. “It’s all about a simple life,” Tom shared with relaxed tones, “We avoid drama up here and try to keep things positive.” I completely agree. Tom may not have been born into a multi-generation Yankee family, but the exchange we shared about standing ground, taking time to talk, and working hard to maintain independence sure are Yankee qualities. Maybe, being Yankee isn’t necessarily something one is born into, but rather a process. Maybe too, it’s just keeping things positive, simple, and helping out when another needs it.
Recently, I drove by that old, tired oak under which I used to sell my plants and vegetables. A hundred feet or so down the road was that very same neighbor, sweeping his lonely March sidewalk, and advertising his diligent little habit to passers by. I cracked a smile and haven’t looked back since. I suppose that too is a little bit Yankee.