Originally written on July 4, 2006
My dear friend Rachel is a little unique. God bless her. She really should have been born in another time. She's a contradiction in terms. There is this one side of her that is a prim, proper, conservative girl, who likes to quilt, do cross-stitch, bake pies and wear button down shirts and khakis. This is how the girl looks like on the outside: She is tall 5’8”, and very thin, dare I say willowy? With long spindly arms and legs like Audrey Hepburn. She also has long cascading curly brown hair, that at 36, she normally wears down to her waist, but she recently cut so that it now reaches her mid-back (she said she cut it so that I would not yell at her to get a haircut when I saw her). If you look at her and me together you would think that there is no way on earth that we would be friends, but we are, because deep down, I have a Martha Stewart/Betty Crocker side of me too, except I don’t look like it on the outside.
Today is the 4th of July, and it is Rachel’s only day off this week from her job at a federal governmental agency. So Rachel wants to spend the entire day with me. She has already decided what the first activity will be, berry picking. Sounds nice, huh? Berry picking. Has a nice ring to it. Sounds simple. Sounds kind of Little House on the Prairie-ish. You are right, except when it is 92° with about 85% humidity. But, in the spirit of friendship, I don my tank top, my white shorts, slather on the sunscreen, we pick up Rachel's mom and drive out to Conte’s Farm, which is located somewhere in the interior of the Garden State down long country roads. When we finally make it out to Conte’s Farm, we grab buckets with strings attached to their handles and climb aboard a stake-bed cart pulled by a little old wrinkled farmer on his tractor and take a very bumpy ride out to the berry field (nobody warned me that I need a sports bra for this activity). So here we are the three of us standing at the end of the rows of blueberry bushes. The weather beaten farmer gives us a tip, the best berries are down low to the ground, because most people do not want to stoop that low and therefore, all of the good berries at eye-level and above have already been picked over. Great, I come all the way to New Jersey to become a stooped over migrant farm worker, somehow I think if I wanted to do this for a profession, I would have found plenty of work in California.
“Ok,” Rachel says, “now only pick the biggest berries. I don’t want to see anything in your bucket less than the size of a nickel.” Rachel's mom and I look at each other and roll our eyes.
“I’m going to inspect your buckets afterwards,” Rachel continues. “And remember think like a berry!” “Yes, I’m thinking like a berry,” I respond.
Then we tread down our respective rows and start picking. I repeat silently in my mind, "Think like a berry, think like a berry!" I now begin an onesided conversation rearding this mantra. "Think like a berry. Now that what exactly does that means? If I was a berry, what would I think about? Well, I would think about how to survive this terrible heat." I stoop over a pluck a few large blueberries at the base of one of the bushes. Hmmm, the good thing about stooping down near the base of the bushes is it’s kind of cool down there, because the bushes kind of makes their own shade. “If I were a berry,” I think, “I would grow near the base of the plant so that the leaves and the other berries would provide me with some shade.” I go slowly down the row squatting down near each bush picking the nicest, largest berries at the base of every plant. There are other crazy people in the field picking too, but everyone is so intent at the task at hand that they are silent in their endeavors. There is a stillness and calmness in the silence. It’s almost meditative, except for the pounding relentless heat and thick humidity bearing down on you.
In my picking, I’ve discovered that if you turn over a bunch of berries, the ones underneath the bunch, closest to the ground and shaded by the others in the cluster are the biggest. “If I were a berry, I would grow on the backside of the bunch, facing the ground, so the other berries in the bunch would protect me from the relentless heat of the sun.” It also makes sense to grow closest to the ground, so that I would be first in line for the hydration and nutrients, which come up the stem from the roots. “If I were a berry, I would be first in line for water, because it is stinking hot out here!”
Rachel's mom and I are at the same point in our respective rows. We stumble upon a family, mom, dad and two boys, out in the field with us. The mother and father are discussing their third son, who has elected to stay at home (clearly an intelligent boy!). They are worried that their son is spending too much time reading Ray Bradbury.
“He stayed up all night reading this Ray Bradbury,” the mother complains.
“Who is Ray Bradbury?” asks the father.
“I don’t know, but I am going to have to find out, because I am worried about him,” the mother replies.
“Yes, you should definitely check out who this Ray Bradbury is,” the father instructs.
“I’m sorry to overhear your conversation, but Ray Bradbury is a wonderful author,” I interrupt.
“He is wonderful,” Rachel's mom adds.
“Oh, that’s good to know, because our son has become obsessed lately,” the mother explains with a quite relieved look on her face.
“Ray Bradbury is a literary legend. He has won every literary prize there is. He writes mostly science fiction with a little horror thrown in. But, it is very high quality science fiction. I don’t like science fiction, but I have read and like Ray Bradbury. He has been writing since the 50-60’s and is still writing today,” I explain.
“Well, that really sets my mind at ease. My son was up all night reading and did not sleep, so that is why he did not want to come berry picking with us this morning,” the mother explains the son's absence.
“How old is he?”
“Oh, well that is the perfect age to read Ray Bradbury. You should try reading some too. Try the “Illustrated Man”. It’s one of his short stories. It’s about a tattooed man, who starts to go crazy and at night believe that his tattoos come alive and talk to him and do things. You would really like it,” I advise.
“Oh. that sounds good,” the father responds.
“Yes, it is very good. I waited three hours in line at the “L.A. Times Festival of Books,” one year to meet Ray Bradbury and have him autograph my copy. I still have it on my bookshelf at home,” I explain.
“Wow, I definitely will read one of my son’s books then. Thank you,” the mother smiles.
“I think that if I had a 16 year old son, who was into reading anything, I would be very proud. It means you raised him right. And if he is reading Ray Bradbury, then he has quite an imagination. Which is going to help him later in life when he has to go out and find a job,” I surmise.
“You’re right,” the mother responds.
“It’s going to help him with the ladies too. You see when you have been dating as long as I have, you realize that in the end you want a man who is interesting to talk to and I find that men who are literately inclined are the most interesting. They think about the things that they read and that stimulates great conversations. Women find that attractive.”
“I think you are right. Boys are you listening to this lady?” the mother addresses her two younger sons. “They are only 12 and 8, but it is never to early to understand what's important in life.”
I look at the 12 year old. “You should ask your older brother to lend you some of his books. It will make you popular with the ladies when you get to high school.”
The 12 year old looks at me and shakes his head no. I smile. I recall what was important in high school, good looks and athletic ability. But those things fade with time and what remains is what is on the inside, the mind, the soul, the spirit. Thank goodness for Ray Bradbury, because without him, young men would probably not read at all. I’ll also silently give a nod to Mark Twain, while I’m at it.
After about 2 ½ hours of bending down in search of nickel-size or larger berries, I am covered from head-to-toe with soil (don’t wear white shorts to go berry picking because they will not be white for long) and I am thoroughly soaked from perspiration. I retreat back down my row to the dirt road and call out, “Rachel, I am ready to go back now.” Rachel's mom quickly responds, “I hear ya. I’m ready to go back too." Rachel reluctantly answers, “All right, all right. I’m coming." Rachel and her mom emerge from the bushes, completely drenched in sweat too. Rachel would have had to pick the hottest day of the year to pick berries. They are blueberries however, and it is the 4th of July, so I guess in scheme of things, it's a kind of appropriate activity.
After the tractor pull back to the check out stand, we drive back to Cherry Hill with the air conditioning on full blast in the Lancer (my unfortunate rental car assignment). Before reaching home, we stop at a roadside vegetable stand to buy fresh sweet corn and Jersey tomatoes. They don't call Jersey the Garden State for nothing.
Next up, showers for all, plus a mid-day nap, in preparation for tonight’s activities, fireworks in Philly (this is my choice of activity now).
I am going to drag Rachel into Philly to the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum (yes, the Rocky steps) to watch Lionel Ritchie in concert (For you young ones out there, that’s Nicole Ritchie’s father. He use to be in a band in the 1970’s called the Commodores. I seriously had to explain who Lionel Ritchie was to some pimply faced clerk behind the check-out counter at the local Wa Wa), and watch fireworks light up the sky behind the museum. Rachel hates crowds and most people in general. She does not like to socialize with the rift-raft, but because I only come once a year and Lionel Ritchie is sort of cool, she is coming along with me without any complaint. We decide to take the Speed Line from Haddon Field, NJ into Philly, PA. Haddon Field is the next town over from Cherry Hill.
Rachel and I get into the Lancer and I select from my CD collection, Eminem’s “The Eminem Show.” You see, this is why Rachel is such a contradiction in terms. Prim, proper Rachel LOVES rap music. She knows every single word of every single Snoop Dog song by heart. For a girl who would not dare cuss in public (or private), she loves those fowl mouth rappers. She also loves Howard Stern, and adult cartoons like “South Park” and “King of the Hill.” I swear to god, she made me listen to Howard Stern when we lived together, just to see my outraged reaction to most of his schtick. And she would make me stay up to 10pm every Wednesday night to watch “South Park” and fowl mouth Cartman was her favorite. Go figure. A Jewish girl from Cherry Hill, has a wild streak in her. That’s why we get a long so well. We have fun and try not to take life to seriously. Plus, she hates Christian conservatives, who she thinks are taking over the country and trying to tell everybody else how to live their lives. I’m right there with her. In the end, words are just words. They mean nothing, except when you apply meaning to them. So if you think of it that way, then bad words can’t really be “bad”, they are just words like every other word on this page. You as the reader/listener apply the meaning to them. So think of Rachel as “Slim Shady” and me as “Dr. Dre”, as we cruise the Lancer toward the Haddon Field Speed Line.
We jump on the Speed Line and end up a block or two from the famous William Penn statute in the center of town. From there, it's just a hop, skip and a jump down the Benjamin Franklin Parkway to the museum's steps. Actually, it is quite a walk and I am enjoying every minute of Rachel asking “Are we there yet?” as payback for oppressively hot berry picking earlier in the day. The Streets of Philadelphia are shut down to vehicular traffic. The whole city has turned out for Lionel Ritchie. Eventually, we slap our blanket down on the grass to the right of the museum stage, which gives a clear view of the large big screen that they have set up to televise the concert. And then we wait. We are surrounded by a sea of humanity. White, black, brown, red, yellow faces are all around us. It is wonderful. I love being in the center of a crowd. Be a part of something larger than myself. The power of the human race is awesome. Even Rachel remarks that she is enjoying being part of the diverse crowd. A man a couple rows behind me has on a t-shirt that read “Roscoe’s Chicken and Waffles” a reference to a venerable Los Angeles dining establishment. Can’t escape L.A., where ever I go.
First up this the Philadelphia Pops orchestra. The play mostly patriotic songs with a little Mozart and Beethoven thrown in for culture. The next performer is Fantasia Barrino the 2004 American Idol winner. She is great. A burst of energy. She sings “Tell Me Something Good” from the Chaka Khan song book. The crowd and I rise to our feet and sing along with her. I raise my hand up to the sky during the refrain. "Can anybody tell me something good?" What a great song. Rachel remains seated in her little conservative, prim manner, with her legs folded neatly behind her and hand clasped in her lap. Although I did detect a slight head bob. After Fantasia, was a performance from Cirque du Soliel. Nice, and short thank goodness. I don’t know about you, but I have had enough Cirque du Soliel, thank you. I refuse to see another of their hundred millionith shows in Vegas anymore.
Finally, the performer we are all waiting for, Lionel Ritchie takes the stage. Ladies, he still looks good. Slim and handsome. Yummy. He sings all of his old Commodore music. “Easy Like Sunday Morning,” “Say You Say Me,” and “Once, Twice, Three Times a Lady.” Some women and men in the crowd slow dance together. It’s sweet. Then he cranks it up with classics like, “Dancing on the Ceiling,” “Brick House” (my personal anthem) and “Fire”. I am on my feet shaking everything. Even Rachel can’t sit down, she is up too and dare I say, dancing? I think I detect some hip movement. And do I see her mouthing the words? I think I do!
Then it starts to rain. I hand Rachel an umbrella, which I have packed inside my purse and I rip open my emergency rain poncho that I brought all the way from California ($1 in the bargain bin at Target!) and slip it over my head. Lionel Ritchie’s set ends early without him singing “All Night Long” (a disappointment) and the officials decide to start the fireworks display. It was magnificent. Even in the rain. With the museum as the foreground, the pyrotechnic colors light up the sky in synchronization to music ranging from John Melloncamp’s “Pink Houses”, to James Brown’s “Living in America” to “Independence Day” from the Dixie Chicks. You see, we all can get along, even with diverse musical tastes, if we think of something greater than ourselves, like our nation’s birthday.
Once the fireworks display was over, we trudged back down Benjamin Franklin Parkway carried by the sea of humanity, back to the Speed Line, then into the Lancer with Rachel and I rapping in tune to Eminem all the way back to Cherry Hill. A great time with my BFF as always. I just love that girl.
Red, White and Blueberries. A satisfying 4th of July indeed.
Copyright Romy Schneider 2009. All rights reserved.