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.
In the evening, he’d tuck me in and say, “On your walk to school in the morning, I want you to count the number of birds you see. Tell me about them when I get home from work. I want to know what they looked like, and what they were singing about.”
At Bill’s nursery, I find myself keeping a tally of the birds I spot.
∗ ∗ ∗
In 1974, When Bill Tall was 18, he bought a 15-foot trailer and moved from his parents’ home to the nursery. He was eager to be on his own, but more importantly, he loved the nursery. After getting married, he bought a mobile home and he and his wife moved in. Before long they had three children. They all lived in the mobile home at the nursery until Bill’s father passed away.
“I was going through my dad’s estate,” says Bill, “when I found out that he’d set up a savings account for me with all the money I paid him in rent to keep my nursery on his land. It was amazing. I had no idea he’d done that. With that money, I was able to move my family out of the trailer we’d been in for 15 years. We built a home right here on the property.”
The Talls moved into their new house in 2000. Their older daughter Rebecca was 15; their son Sam was 13; Sara was 11.
Bill’s dad had worked for airplane factories his whole life. It provided a secure income. He’d wanted the same for Bill, the opportunity to care for his family without a lot of stress.
“My dad always wanted to have his own business. That’s why he bought the land. But he’d lived through the Depression, so he was hesitant. He wanted to put up a building here at the nursery and go into business for himself.”
When Bill’s dad was in his 80s, he and Bill opened a deli at the nursery.
“We tasted every bagel and pickle in all of San Diego. We opened on his birthday. We called it Nate’s Cafe, after Dad. He died three weeks before the deli opened. I learned from that. If you want to do something in life, just do it. The next morning, you might not wake up.”
Bill says that until he had his third child, his dad never told him he was proud of him.
“A lot of people might see that as a bad thing. Not me. It made me work harder, to try to be better than him. It made me strive to prove I could do this. The drive I have is because of my parents. I thank my dad for this. The reason why I got into the nursery was because when I was a kid, my mom would tell me that my vegetables out of our garden tasted better than Dad’s. In the back of my mind, I knew I was good at this.”
∗ ∗ ∗
A sign in front of Bill Tall’s house reads: “Private Residence, Farmer Bill’s House.” That doesn’t stop people from wandering inside.
Sam Tall, Bill’s only son, says, “When I was a kid, I’d be at home, eating breakfast, and people would wander into our house thinking it was part of the nursery.”
Sam, 25, lives with his dad in exchange for working one day a week at the nursery.
“Rent he would be paying somewhere else is put aside in a savings account,” says Bill. “In four years he’ll have enough money to purchase his own home. My children are the most important people in the world to me. I want to give them what my dad gave me.”
Most Sundays, Bill hosts free classes in his living room on subjects such as organic farming, beekeeping, raising chickens and goats, and solar cooking. He has a kitchen table that seats 35 and a large butcher-block island perfect for demonstrations. For a recent class on raising chickens, a tweet was sent out to all his followers suggesting they bring their own chairs; it would be standing room only.
That day, customers piled into the living room. Some stood in Bill’s bedroom, peeking out through the doorway. The class was so full, Bill opened a window so that people outside could listen in.
Bill’s Sunday-afternoon classes were born out of an unfortunate tragedy involving his horse and a turkey.
“Clyde, my horse, stepped on a turkey and killed it. A couple of workers were carrying the turkey away to the dumpster when I stopped them. ‘Wait a second,’ I said. ‘I can probably eat that.’ That’s how the class on raising chickens got its start.”
Rebecca, Bill’s older daughter, says, “When we began doing classes, we got the same four people coming week after week. Now we always have a full house. That’s how my dad is. He always has his finger on the pulse.”
Bill’s next new thing will be a “How-to” YouTube video — he always has a new thing. At the moment, it’s the baby chicks. In a few months, he wants to host olive-oil classes; after that, he’s considering selling brew kits.
∗ ∗ ∗
Rebecca says: “I grew up thinking that all adults love their job the way my dad loves his. It wasn’t until I was 17 or so that I realized that most people hate their jobs. It blew my mind. My dad was always very supportive. If there was something I wanted to do at the nursery, he let me do it. I managed our restaurant when I was in the ninth grade. If Sara, Sam, or I came to him and said, ‘Dad I want to be an astronaut,’ he would say, ‘Okay, let’s figure out how you can do that.’”
I speak to 23-year-old Sara Tall by telephone. She lives in Hastings, Oklahoma. “It took me moving away to college for me to really appreciate what a great dad he is,” she says. “I’m really thankful for the way he raised us. When I was a kid, he let me do the signage around the nursery.
“I just had my art thesis. My dad and brother made 15 frames out of the most beautiful wood. Since he couldn’t come [to Oklahoma], he sent them. It was pretty cool to have my art displayed in something they’d created.”
At City Farmers Nursery, Sam Tall gives me a tour of the woodworking shop in the garage of Bill’s home.
“Dad and I spend a lot of time out here,” he says.
Bill says, “I came out here one day and Sam was making a beautiful box. I asked him, ‘How the heck did you learn how to make that?’ He said he’d learned by watching me.”
Rebecca admits that Bill isn’t one for expensive gifts. “My dad is not a big gift-giver. He makes stuff, beautiful things. When I moved into my house, he made me a butcher-block cutting board. It’s really cool.”
∗ ∗ ∗
Hearing Bill’s children talk about him makes me miss my dad. He was a carpenter. On weekends, he spent hours in his garage, building things.
I used to collect jam and pickle jars for him. I’d clean the jars out and bring them to his workshop. He used them to organize his nails and drill bits. On hot summer days, I poured tall glasses of water and carried them out to my dad so I could watch him work.
When I was seven, he built an addition onto our home. While he was installing the room’s sunroof, he let me climb up the ladder and run around up there. That day, the two of us ate lunch on the roof.
In our basement, he added a miniature door inside one of the closets. It led into a crawl space. We painted the walls in pale yellow and blue, and I stuffed all my toys in that room. My brother, sister, and I used it as a secret playroom.
My husband and I bought our first house after my dad passed away. I found myself missing him while we worked on it. I wished he had been there to help us. He would have loved the big tree in our backyard and the winding roads you drive down to get to our house.
I flew home to Chicago for his memorial service. My mom encouraged me to take anything of his I wanted. All the things he’d made with his own hands were too big to fit in my suitcase. I finally selected a T-shirt that smelled like him, and one of his favorite sweatshirts. I also took an oil painting that my brother’s friend had done of our dad. When I got home, I hung it on the wall. Weeks later, I noticed that he’d incorrectly painted my dad’s eyes brown instead of blue, so I took it down.
When I visited my sister in South Carolina last year, she had an end table that Dad had built sitting in her front room. I was consumed with jealousy. She’d had a van in which to drive it back home, and I didn’t. That’s the way it works.
∗ ∗ ∗
Bill’s three children agree that the building of their home was an exciting time in their lives.
Sam Tall says, “We had a barn-raising.”
Sara Tall says, “Customers from the nursery helped build it. When it was completed, we had a big open-house. Everyone that helped came out to see it. We put all the walls up in one day. The coolest part was that I was 11 years old and got to put up the walls in my own bedroom.”
Rebecca Tall says, “Dad thought of us while designing it. We have a secret passage near the fireplace that goes into the hallway. We talked about drilling little holes in the walls so we could spy on people.”
A short time after their house was built, Bill and his wife got divorced.
“It was awful,” Rebecca recounts. “Here’s a man who believed he would be married his entire life. But it just wasn’t the way of the world. He pulled himself up by the bootstraps and realized he had a business to run and three kids to raise. My dad isn’t bitter. He hasn’t let anything ever make him bitter.”
The Tall children agree that no one they have ever met has had childhood experiences like theirs. They grew up in a surreal atmosphere. They attended public school in diverse City Heights. They were the only kids that lived with farm animals.
“We grew up in almost a commune-like setting,” Rebecca says. “It was odd for City Heights. We learned how to get along with people from all different walks of life. We were different. All the other kids were dropped off at school in their parents’ Honda Civics. We showed up in a beat-up pickup truck. We didn’t have cable or video games. My dad, in his bright yellow suspenders, definitely stuck out.”
“He was iconic in the neighborhood,” Sara says. “Everyone knew who he was. When we went places, people would recognize him. They would come up and say, ‘Hey, Farmer Bill.’”
In elementary school, all three children attended field trips at their own house.
“Dad bought me Clyde when I was two,” Rebecca says. “I wanted to have a pony ride on my birthday. Buying Clyde was cheaper than renting a horse.” She laughs. “That’s how we ended up owning him.”
Bill would walk Rebecca down Home Avenue, holding the reins of the horse so that Clyde could make an appearance at any birthday parties she was invited to.
“Everyone wanted to play at our house,” Sara says.
Most kids in the neighborhood didn’t have yards, let alone one and a half acres to roam.
∗ ∗ ∗
For a while, when Bill was still married and his kids were young, his entire family lived at the nursery. He moved his parents into the apartment building on the property, so he could care for them in their old age. His sister and her husband still live in one of the one-bedroom studios located on the nursery’s land.
“We took care of my parents when they were older,” Bill says. “My kids understand the benefit of taking care of the elderly. They’ll do it for me when I’m older, too.”
Bill’s kids all agree that the nursery will stay in the family.
“We’ll never sell this place,” Sam Tall says. “One of us will take over, probably me. My dad is getting older. He’ll retire soon.”
Rebecca chimes in, “Dad gives us grief about it. The truth is that he is the nursery. You can get plants anywhere. You can only get Bill Tall at one place. My dad has the patience of a saint. If I had to explain to someone how to grow tomatoes as many times as he does, I’d pull my hair out. When we take it over, I want it to be because we want to.”
“I don’t like dirt,” Sara Tall admits. “I’m not big into the outdoors. I love the nursery, but it’s not my thing, and Dad is okay with that. I plan on moving to San Francisco after I graduate from college. I’ll move back [to San Diego] when I have my own family. I want my kids to grow up around my dad.”
∗ ∗ ∗
“I want to be married for 50 years,” Bill tells me, “which means I have to meet someone soon and live to be at least 106.”
Sometimes Bill dates, but not often. His daughter Rebecca tells him that the right person will walk into the nursery one day, and they’ll be the perfect fit. “Dad has a different kind of lifestyle,” she admits. “Not everyone gets him.”
“Who else would have 300 baby chicks in their living room or an oyster mushroom growing in their bathroom?” Bill says.
He tells me about a gal he recently dated. Things did not go in his favor. After the fifth date, he invited her over for dinner. Everything he cooked was from the nursery, including the chicken.
“Halfway through dinner, she told me the chicken was the best she’d ever eaten, so I told her I’d just butchered it an hour before. She put her fork down and said, ‘I don’t think we’re going to be a good match.’ I just wanted her to know that it was a really fresh chicken — free range and organically grown. I mean, what more could you ask for?”
It was their last date.
“The way I see it,” Bill says, “you have your kids that you create, and then you have your parents and relatives that you are stuck with. Your spouse is the one person in this world that you choose. Why not go out of your way to make that person happy?”
He shrugs in the same humble way my dad used to do.
Without thinking, I blurt, “You should date my mom.”