Dred, You Got Okra?
When Ignatius Murray turned eighteen, his father went to the official registry of Westmoreland Parish in southwestern Jamaica and signed over the leases on the twenty-acre family farm to his son. It was an act of trust and faith. With the gesture, Raymond Murray conveyed his belief that Ignatius was ready to accept the mantle of manhood, and also that of Raymond's twelve children, his lastborn was the one to whom he wanted to entrust the family legacy. Or maybe Ignatius was just his father's last chance to make a farmer out of one of his offspring. None of his older brothers and sisters wanted to farm. And to Murray, the bequest felt more like a yoke than an honor. "He say he leave this heritage for me, but I didn't want to it," recalls Murray, shaking his head. "I didn't want to farm."
All during his childhood, Murray worked the farm. The demands of the earth came before school. The demands of the earth came before play. There was never time for play, he says. When the sugar cane was ready for harvest, Murray left his classmates and cut cane. And despite everything his family put into the farm, the Murrays barely scraped a living out of the earth. Ignatius's mother, Ira, hammered and smashed rock to pebble that she would sell to cement manufacturers in order earn money for the family's Christmas. "It was work, work, work, full-time work. I got so tired sometimes," he groans. "I wanted to leave and go to different place and do something different."
But now 38 years later and 500 miles from his homeland, the farmer's son has come to understand his father's gift. It was not just the gift of land but knowledge of the land. And not just the understanding of when to plant okra and callaloo, or how long it will be before the crop is ready for harvest. He gave a simple knowledge that the land gives back if nurtured, coaxed, and coddled. He gave Ignatius the insight that a person can create a bounty from nothing but dirt and a handful of seeds -- with his own hands, with his own sweat.
"I didn't realize what he was giving me until now," says the 56-year-old, looking out over rows of Scotch-bonnet pepper bushes.
Murray's canvas is Overtown. On one lot, and then another, and now a third near NW Eighth Street and Fourth Avenue, he has turned vacant land into verdant, riotous, scrappy garden. Near the massive pillars of I-95, which sliced and bisected this part of Miami and decimated an already wounded black business community, sugar-cane stalks more than ten feet tall sway in the sun. On the corner of Eighth and Fourth, the windows of a storefront that recently housed the Gibson Park Baptist Church are shuttered with plywood boards. Nearby in Murray's garden, a clump of fat green bananas shoots from a stalk in an abundant bunch. In the neighborhood known as The Swamp, on the western edge of Overtown, where too many men and women with glassy, wanting eyes hunt for solace in a pull of cheap liquor or the whoosh of crack cocaine, Scotch-bonnet peppers sprout little buds of scorching green. In a place of so much aching desperation and emptiness, Murray looked out and saw fields of produce.
A flock of hens scurries out from under some sugar cane and squabbles across NW Fourth Avenue toward People's Bar-B-Que, as Murray clomps into his garden in black baggy gym shorts, his long dreadlocks and full beard now gray. He snaps a brown grizzled pod of okra from a bush and slits it open lengthwise with his thumb. Spreading the pod apart, he nudges out a repository of little knobby brown seeds and pushes them into his palm. In these seeds Murray sees the okra he will plant in the fall. He cracks a pencil-thin sprig from what looks like a cluster of weeds, shakes it, and shows little black specks that fall into his hand. They will give him a crop of callaloo, a leafy vegetable similar to collard greens that is popular in Jamaican cooking.
Murray's motivations are primarily monetary. The West Indian Market will buy callaloo and hot peppers to sell to homesick Caribbeans. A produce broker has said he will buy as many Scotch bonnets as Murray can supply for one dollar per pound. If Murray can grow enough, sell enough, he believes he can fashion a living here in this poor soil in one of the poorest parts of Miami.
"I grow hot peppers but I can't grow enough," he says. Local people who know their hot peppers want the ones Murray grows. "My peppers have special flavor," he boasts. "The peppers they import don't have no flavor like my peppers. They don't get them right. They pick them when they're too young. They are not ripe."
On a telephone pole next to his lot on Fourth Avenue, a hand-lettered sign advertises his skills. "Honey, Do This. Do That," it reads. "Landscaping, welding, carpentry, plastering. No job too small. Ask for Murry." "I do everything to make a livelihood," Murray explains.
Although his aim doesn't vault much beyond making a living for himself, to the people around him the garden has a meaning beyond just a plot of land and a wealth of vegetables. As he walks back down NW Eighth from a tour of his plots, a tiny woman hustling down the other side of the street spots him and as if on cue calls out. "Murray, hey, Murray!" she hollers. "Murray, you got any peppers?" Murray offers to gather up some that have just fallen to the ground, since he doesn't have any ripe on the bush. While he disappears into the greenery, Barbara Ann "Speedy" Brown stands before the garden, gazing out in awe. "Look at this. Just look at this. Murray, you got something here!" she shouts to him. "Gosh knows you got something here."
After accepting a small plastic bag of peppers, Brown walks away, declaring to anyone within earshot: "That's a man there. That's a man. That's a real man."
Murray came to the United States ten years ago because he thought he could make some fast money and then go back home. He had worked as a blacksmith, carpenter, welder, and plasterer in Jamaica before returning to the family farm at age 28. He figured there would be money in those trades here.
Things had worked out well on the farm for a while. Murray worked with his father until Mr. Murray became ill in his nineties, and then he managed the farm on his own. He married, built a nice house with his own hands, and raised eleven children on the income from the land. But in the Eighties, it seemed he always came up short no matter what crop he tried. It seemed like every idea he had to make money, every other Jamaican had at the same time. He planted peppers when the price was high and saw the price plummet when the crop came in and the market was glutted. "We have better soil over there," he says. "The food we have back home is good because the soil is better. But we don't have enough people there to buy what we grow."
Farming, like everything in Jamaica, is also beholden to the tourist industry. Everything in the economy rises and falls with the tourists. If Jamaica has a good tourist year, hotels and restaurants want lots of produce. If it is bad, they don't. When the tourist season wanes, the market dries up no matter what kind of a year the country had. Farmers also sell goods to the American market. Murray sold sweet potatoes at a nice profit when U.S. farmers had a bad year but the next year suffered when the United States had plenty of its own potatoes.
To the north, the United States loomed large in his mind. Like many before him who come here on the promise of better lives, Murray believed that in America his money problems would be over. "I believed, " he says, echoing the old immigrant creed, "you could pick money up off the street!"
When he arrived, making a living here proved more difficult than he had imagined. The trades he had practiced in Jamaica didn't help him as he'd hoped. Construction methods differed here, and he had to relearn plastering and carpentry and other skills according to local methods. Without a high school diploma, he says, he couldn't get certification, and thus the good pay that a welder commands. He had to work "under the table," and so didn't get paid much for his labor.
Still, Murray felt hopeful after Hurricane Andrew ravaged South Dade County in 1992. There was plenty of work to be had in the construction trade as people rebuilt homes and businesses. He signed on to a work crew headed by a couple from Georgia and spent two weeks fixing roofs near Florida City. At the end of the two weeks, the bosses drove up in a pickup truck and told the workers to climb in the back so they could go get their paychecks. Somewhere on Bird Road, Murray and the others got out of the truck to wait under a tree while the pair went to the office to get their pay. Murray and the others are still waiting.
He was taken again by an African man managing a job on Miami Beach, after weeks of promised paychecks never materialized. "I couldn't believe this happens in America! I couldn't believe the people would do me that way," he cries.
In his desperation, Murray remembered his father's words: "Boy, if you come up and have some strength, don't use it to fight with men. Use it to fight the earth. You will always win."
When he moved into a tiny apartment on NW Seventh Street and Fourth Avenue three years ago, Murray's window overlooked a trash-strewn, city-owned lot. "It looked like a slum," he says. Since the lot didn't seem to have a caretaker, he began cleaning the debris, hauling out planks of wood, cartloads of old bottles, pieces of concrete block, and reams of cast-off construction debris. "People thought I was crazy," he says, laughing. "I didn't know who it belonged to, but I started cleaning it." As he cleared a spot, Murray tilled the ground and stuck in a banana sapling and a couple of stalks of sugar cane, actions that didn't improve the general opinion of his sanity. But as those plants and their offspring proliferated and bore fruit, he noticed the talk change.
"People always saying, Dred, you got any okra? Dred, you got some peppers? Dred, you got any cane today?'" he parrots. "They all waiting on the sugar cane."
Murray pulls out a pocketknife and deftly cuts a fourteen-inch hunk of cane, peels back the tough bark in long slices, and takes a bite, chewing on the white pulp to extract the sweet juice and spitting out the ropy fiber. "When I get thirsty, this is what I do," he explains, adding, "It's good for the stomach."
Early on in his botanic enterprise, an incredulous Miranda Albury, driving by in a city-owned vehicle, slammed on the brakes at the sight of the garden. Albury is the administrator of Overtown's Neighborhood Enhancement Team (NET) office. Among its other duties, the NET issues citations for overgrown lots, abandoned vehicles, and other code violations. Albury informed Murray that the property belongs to the government. Nobody, however, has told him to stop gardening. "We just ask him to keep the weeds trimmed," Albury advises.
The owner of one of the other lots on NW Fourth and Seventh Avenue, who Murray knows only as a Jewish guy named Steve, was amazed at how Murray transformed his property, located opposite the city-owned plot. He drove Murray around Overtown, pointing out nine other vacant parcels he owns, offering to let his Jamaican squatter plant them too, if he wants. And City Commissioner Art Teele has promised several times to get some truckloads of rich dirt so Murray can mix it into the nutrient-poor, sand-laced soil. "I'm still waiting on the dirt, still waiting on the dirt," Murray says. "I saw him the other day and he say he bring it Tuesday."
As the garden has grown from one plot to three, and over more than two-and-a-half acres, it is beginning to look more and more like a small farm and less like a garden. Still, Murray isn't satisfied. "I need to do more. I need more land," he says, casting his eye over a half-planted field. "I need about ten acres, and a tractor, and a good water pump." And after pausing for a moment, he adds, "And some good people to help." Murray is standing at a lot on NW Ninth Street and Fifth Avenue. Four rows of sweet potatoes stretch out in front of him. He grabs a pickax and claws at the soil packed around the plants, breaking it up so that the roots can spread. One of the men helping him forgot to put oil in a hand-held tiller Murray restored, and the engine burned up. Since then, all the work he does is by hand. If he had a tractor, he would attach a tiller, plow up more of the lot, and plant even more potatoes. "Sometimes I think I'm not making any money, but I can't help myself. I love it," he declares, satisfied with his handiwork.
Although he has yet to hit paydirt in the United States, Murray has discovered that things he took for granted on a simple country farm in southwestern Jamaica are revelations when transplanted here. Farming has a meaning in Overtown that it didn't have in Jamaica.
"The children here think potatoes grow in the store. They think okra grow in the store. They think beans grow in the store," Murray exclaims. "I want to show them the land that they got, and what the land can provide."
"He's a friend." That's how Michael, fourteen, sums up why he and his pack of rough-and-tumble buddies have jumped over a padlocked chainlink fence into Murray's garden. "If we need something fixed, he does it for us -- for free."
"Plants, too," adds Dwayne, thirteen. "He tells us about 'em."
In a parking lot across Fourth Avenue, the boys have a go-cart up on blocks. For three hours they have been trying to remove the motor from an old edger of Murray's to put onto the vehicle. They've scrambled back over the fence to hunt for supplies. José, eleven, Leroy, thirteen, and Tyrell, eleven, root through a box of odds and ends, picking up sockets and joints and studying them with mock alarm. Dwayne, who abandoned a T-shirt, a black net stocking he had capping his Afro, and a pellet gun he had tucked into his waistband back at the parking lot, spots a large adjustable wrench.
Real casual-like he walks over to Jon Strain, 35, who has been sitting on a patio chair in the garden observing the ruckus with amusement. "Can we borrow this?" Dwayne says, lifting the wrench toward Strain but looking beyond him in his Mr. Cool way. Murray isn't around. Hasn't been seen since early morning when he took off in a truck. In his absence, Strain is fielding inquiries from a spot of shade by the garden tool shed. "Sure," Strain deadpans.
"Let's go," Dwayne orders, and the boys fall into line and jump back over the fence. It's been like that all day. Danny, a fellow Jamaican, stops by to lean against the fence and talk. "Dred there?" a woman hollers from the pathway as she cuts through the grass on the side of the lot walking to the little store nearby. Bony, Tony, and Jermaine check in to see if there is any work.
Strain is waiting on Murray, too. This is where he comes now when he wants to relax, to talk, to do a little work, to contemplate where life has taken him. "I look up to him. I respect him," Strain says of Murray. "He is like an elder."
Last December 25 Strain was robbed at gunpoint near Federal Highway and Washington Street in Fort Lauderdale. The gunman shot Strain once in the leg, twice in the trunk, and then pushed the barrel of his gun up under Strain's chin and fired. The bullet went through the roof of Strain's mouth, shattered his left eye socket, and exited his body between his eyes. Miraculously, no major arteries were hit and the Virgin Islands native didn't lose his eyesight. Strain says in the aftermath he wants to live simply, in a way that allows him to appreciate life. While he recuperates, Strain comes to the garden to work with Murray. "He is living off of what God gave us," Strain explains.
When he got out of the hospital, Strain got into a taxi and came here. He was homeless, since he hadn't been able to pay his rent and had nowhere to go. Murray, Strain says, helped him. Although Murray doesn't talk much, he gave Strain encouragement. "He said to me I'm a strong person and I have a strong will to life, which is true," Strain says quietly. Working in the garden has brought Strain peace of mind and spiritual sustenance while he wrestles with the violence of what happened. "Really, this is one of the few places where I feel safe," he says.
Murray says he would like to return to Jamaica someday, "looking a little better than this." Meanwhile working the earth has given him a new appreciation of his adopted home, which he expresses like the überfarmer he is. "I say, God bless America'; I know this land is good," Murray bellows. And then as an afterthought, he adds, "But the people don't know what to do with it."
The farm has begun to pay off for Murray, though not from produce sales. Marvin Dunn, a Florida International University professor of psychology, who cultivates an ornamental garden with FIU students on an embankment of I-395 in Overtown at NW Fourteenth and Third, saw Murray's garden and believed. With Murray's promise he would help, Dunn approached Stephen Sonson, the owner of 42 vacant parcels of land in Overtown, some a block square on NW Second Avenue, along the community's former nightclub row, and asked if he could farm them. Dunn offered to make Murray a partner in the enterprise, but the independent Dred prefers getting the steadier $500 weekly pay as a consultant and doing his own thing with his garden. As a "consultant," Murray will oversee tilling the land, planting crops, fertilizing, and the harvest.
Dunn says he's thought for 30 years that Overtown's vacant land and unemployed might come together in a fruitful way. With Murray's Jamaican expertise, the professor thinks his vision of tomato and strawberry harvests can make destitute Overtown sprout. He formed a for-profit company, Dunn Brothers Produce and Decorative Plants, leased an office, and readied one lot for planting. He's also discussing landscaping projects with the City of Miami Community Redevelopment Agency. "In a way, Murray inspired me," says Dunn.
"I've never had no partner," Murray says. "I would like to help him, [but] also go on with my own thing." He says he'll talk more with Professor Dunn before actually moving ahead, though things look good. He wants to make sure he's compensated adequately for conceiving the idea of Overtown as breadbasket in the first place. "I got my professorship the hard way," by working the ground. "I know he's inspired and ready to go, but I really want to get something out of [all] this, too."
Murray laughs, a rare thing. With rooted meaning.
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