Bill Tall smells like sawdust and dirt. He reminds me of my father.
Bill always wears the same thing: a green City Farmers Nursery T-shirt, yellow suspenders that look like measuring tape, and jeans.
At 8:55 on a Friday morning, there are already customers waiting. Bill has just gotten in a shipment of baby chicks, and people are eager to buy.
“What are you guys, farmers?” Bill greets the crowd gathered outside the nursery. He glances at the clock and laughs. “I’ve got 60 seconds before I open. Give me a minute.”
“We were worried you might sell out,” a woman says.
“Sell out? I’ve got about 300 more of these little guys in a cage at my house. This morning, 20 of them escaped and were pooping in my living room.”
Bill started City Farmers Nursery in 1972, when he was 16, with the $200 he’d saved from working as a busboy at SeaWorld. He put the nursery on a piece of land his father owned, and it has remained in the same location, in City Heights, at the corner of Euclid and Home, for 40 years.
“I was a geeky kid,” Bill admits. “I had no social life. This nursery was my thing.”
Bill’s nursery is home to dozens of chickens, turkeys, a 45-year-old horse named Clyde (a birthday present bought for his now 27-year-old daughter when she was 2), turtles, a koi pond, an old mutt named Abby, a tabby cat that catches rodents, and hundreds of plants.
When Tall graduated from Madison High School in 1974, his father insisted it was time for him to get a “real job.” He didn’t think Bill’s gardening hobby could possibly be a long-term career. Bill disagreed.
“When I first started this business, my dad ‘let’ me do it. When I turned 18, he said, ‘You need to get a real job. Go to the factory and earn a living, get benefits.’”
I said, “Dad, what if I love what I do and want to keep doing it?”
“Well, then I am going to have to charge you rent.”
“So,” Bill says, “I paid him rent.”
∗ ∗ ∗
The more time I spend with Bill Tall, the more I like him. The first time I visit the nursery, I observe him interacting with his customers. An older woman hovers around the front desk. She peeks into a small cage that holds a dozen baby chicks. After 30 minutes, she decides on two Buff Orpingtons.
“I have to wash my hands before picking them up,” she says.
“Now, wait just a minute,” Bill says. “You’re raising chickens. They’re filthy! Don’t get all anal about cleanliness.”
The woman laughs.
Another woman telephones, asking about special gear for the chickens she recently purchased.
“You can buy all that stuff, but you don’t need it,” Bill says.
The woman has already purchased an electric egg-turner.
Bill is flabbergasted. “What for! Don’t you have kids or a husband that loves you enough to turn a couple of eggs once a day?” He remains on the phone for another five minutes. I hear laughter through the receiver.
Next, Bill sells a customer some seeds. He urges the customer not to put the garden on a timed watering system. “That’s the whole point of gardening. Get out there and enjoy it. I have never heard anyone say, ‘I was in my garden working, and oh, man, was I ever stressed out.’ Gardening is a stress reliever.”
The customer nods.
More people enter the shop. Sometimes, there is a long line, but Bill takes his time with everyone. He answers questions, he jokes around, he offers advice. People don’t mind waiting so much.
The shop is unique. Near the cash register sits an antique piano. An employee might play a tune to entertain the customers. The day I am here, a little girl with pigtails sits at the piano and pounds on the keys.
Seed packets peek out from the drawers of an old card-catalogue holder. Rope swings, gardening books, mushroom kits, door-knockers, and beekeeping gear are sold. A display of dusty gardening tools hangs on one wall.
Bill’s dog Abby sleeps on her bed, in front of a bookshelf lined with children’s gardening books and tools. Three parakeets and two cockatiels are in cages at the back of the store. K.C, the nursery’s cat, curls up on a rocking chair near the front door.
City Farmers Nursery occupies one and a half acres. Hand-painted signs are everywhere. Near the palm trees, a sign reads: “Palm Reading, ten cents.” Another reads: “Will work for food.” This means what it says, Bill tells me. “If someone comes into the nursery wanting a wheelbarrow, or a shovel, they can borrow one in exchange for avocadoes from their tree at home, or some preserved peaches.”
A mom pushes her son on a swing in a playground near the fruit trees and roses. In a muddy cliff behind the shop there are earth worms to be dug up and purchased. A barn houses the horse, the turkeys, and chickens.
On a Sunday afternoon, I spot a little boy near the front of the shop. He’s digging with a small shovel in soil near the tomato plants. A handful of customers push red Radio Flyer wagons with plants in them — the nursery’s version of grocery carts.
My dad would have loved Bill Tall’s nursery.
∗ ∗ ∗
When I was a kid, my dad always took the long way back to our suburban Chicago home. He sought out winding, tree-lined roads, even if it tacked extra minutes onto the drive.
Some Saturdays, he would arrive home early from a side job. If he caught me inside watching cartoons, he’d let out a long sigh.
“It’s a beautiful day,” he’d chirp, even if it weren’t. “Go outside and explore!”
Often, after mass on Sunday, we would drive to the Palos Forest Preserve.
We spent hours hiking the trails. We stayed until dusk. We tiptoed over leaves, whispering, hoping to spot a deer. I remember sucking in my breath at the moment we saw one. Dad squeezed my hand. We stood still as trees.