HOW DO YOU EAT AN ELEPHANT?
Gabriel Antonio Ramos-Rocchio
That's how many plants, trees and shrubs I had to remember for the final exam. Not only was it required that I remember the plant's common name but the Latin name as well. It didn't matter that the people I'd be working for, once I graduated from the program, would never ask for a plant's Latin name, and it was probable they wouldn't even know its common name.
But passing the final exam was a requirement, and the director of The School of Professional Horticulture warned us to start studying right away. How to hide the fact that I was raised and educated on Staten fuckin Island? I was too busy waxing my maroon Toyota Supra, cleaning my three star rims and oiling my low profile tires to study; too busy ridin around the island bumpin Wu-Tang Forever through my 12-inch subwoofers. This is all to say, I never applied myself, and now I felt inadequate. You know what I'm saying?
The final exam was more than a year away, but that was beside the point. 1094 was a big number. Daunting. It promised to take up great swathes of space in my memory. What if learning all of those plant names erased some of the profoundest memories of my childhood? For example, the memories of those times when I had panic attacks about having to eat split pea soup, my mother calming me down by singing El Elefantito, a song about a baby elephant who cried whenever he had to eat frog soup. Or the memory of when I was in elementary school and that douche bag, Lenny, looked over while we were standing at the dreaded urinal and began signing: "Elephant trunk, Elephant trunk! Ha, ha...Elephant trunk."
If I'm gonna be straight up and refrain from the dramatic (as my wife often accuses me of being), I know those memories will never be erased. I'm just trying to make a point. There was only so much I wanted to cloud my mind with. I had greater ambitions than learning a plant's fuckin name in Latin.
Prior to entering The School of Professional Horticulture I worked as a rooftop gardener.
That's a lie.
I was an assistant gardener, but always called myself a Gardener when asked. It sounded better, and, I realized, removing the word 'assistant' conserved energy, reducing the size of my carbon footprint. The point is, when I should've been paying attention to the names of the flats of annuals, pots of perennials and burlaped shrubs I carried in through the service entrance, up flights of stairs, out onto rooftops and popped into containers, I was too busy dreaming up ways of getting my poetry to a level that would earn me the kind of money these 5th Avenue and Central Park West clients sat on. I believed (up until the very end) when Mrs. Lauder came out onto her penthouse patio to speak to, not me, or the gardener, but, Phoebe, the Head Gardener, she would find me on the periphery, stooped low in a corner cleaning out her drain, and we would lock eyes and she would know that I was a Poet. I believed after Mrs. Lauder discovered me she'd announce her discovery. Mr. Lauder, tall as the paper birch I root pruned for him, would come out and offer to be my Medici. I would accept his patronage on the condition that he relinquish any idea of compromising my artistic vision.
Needless to say, neither a benefactor transpired from my year of rooftop gardening for the wealthy nor a raise from the twelve dollars an hour I earned from the company that employed me. It was because of all that daydreaming of my poetry, and the wealth it would generate, that I was unable to focus on the names of plants.
We have come full circle.
Before the director of The School of Professional Horticulture handed out the forty page final plant list he said we would be required to learn the genus, specific epithet, family and common name. I nodded my head, intensely, as if what he was saying was evident, but I had absolutely no fuckin idea what any of it meant except for 'common name', which I was smart enough to know must've meant the common name of a plant, for example, dandelion.
I observed my other classmates flick through the plant list: oohs, ahhs, hums and gasps were the noises accompanying the absorption of our future task. One classmate, whose hands reminded me of my ex-girlfriend's hands—a pair of hands I detested especially when they held sandwiches—, suggested it would be easier to group the plants into families and learn them that way.
Right, I said, in my head.
I still hadn't figured out what 'family' meant in the context of plant identification. All I kept thinking when I heard the word 'family' was calling my mother to ask her advice, but what I really wanted was to have her soothe my anxiety as she'd done over the last thirty-five years (the past three years to my wife's utter dismay and borderline disgust).
I opened the list after everyone else had done so and came across my first plant: Alocasia x amazonica Araceae orAmazon Elephant's-ear.
Yes, I thought, what irony. Bravo!
I cursed the gods, for I knew they had gathered to watch my expression after coming across Elephant ear as my introduction to the list. Indeed, the task of remembering the entire list would be elephantine.
When I arrived home later that day, I poured myself a glass of wine and called my mother. She didn't pick up. I left a message hoping she'd call before my wife returned home from work.
Hours passed and I taught myself what genus, specific epithet and family meant but still felt overwhelmed by how many I'd have to commit to memory, incensed that we weren't going to be tested on all 1094 but were still required to know them.
Sometime between my second and third glass of wine, my wife came home, unlaced her shoes, and as was the routine, asked, "How was your day?"
"Guess how many plants I have to remember before I graduate?"
"I don't know," she said, "two thousand."
"Jesus Christ," I said.
"What's wrong with you? Why'd you choose that number? So dramatic. Choosing some ridiculous number. Jesus. Two thousand."
"What's wrong with me?" she said. "What's wrong with you is more like it?"
I wanted her to say two hundred so that I could puff out my chest, and snort and say, "Ha! Two hundred. That's nothing. I have to remember one thousand and ninety-four!"
But my wife had taken it away. I couldn't spring the number on her, because her number was larger, and my measly one thousand and ninety-four would make me look feeble. I knew if I told her the number, now that she had made her guess, she'd tell me to stop moaning.
"So? How many?" she asked.
The phone rang.
"Tell me before you pick up."
"Doesn't matter," I said, then into the phone, "Hellooooo."
It was my mother.
I told her that all was well, that the third day of orientation had ended, and I would soon begin school.
"Guess how many plants I have to remember?" I asked my mother, the phone pressed hard against my face.
I saw my wife shaking her head in disappointment.
"Three hundred!" I repeated my mother's answer, pleased by the response, though my voice betrayed this feeling.
My mother knew how to play the game; she knew how to set it up so that I could whine.
After I hung up the phone with my mother, I tried not to look at my wife (a very difficult thing to do when living in a Manhattan studio). I knew if I looked at her all I would find was a grimace.
"What did she say?" my wife asked, calm, sensing that I had not been satiated by my mother's answer.
"I don't know what's wrong with that woman," I said.
"What did she say?"
"She asked me how I ate an elephant."
"What do you mean, how do you eat an elephant?"
"That's what she said."
"Didn't you hear me?"
"I wasn't paying attention."
"I told her to be serious, but she kept repeating the question until I told her to stop, because I had no idea how someone ate a damned elephant."
"She said, 'a little bit at a time'."
"A little bit at a time," repeated my wife.
"Yeah," I said. "Can you believe it?"
"Makes sense," my wife said.
"Yeah, but, that's not what I called her for."
"But that's what you get."
For Phoebe Jane Moore & Evelyn Lauder
Rest in Peace
This may sound trite, but it happened all of sudden. I'm talking about the realization that I hadn’t changed at all since the fifth grade. All the fears and insecurities I had felt in elementary school returned. Three of the major insecurities are/were:
1) Doubting my intelligence
2) Worrying about being half Puerto Rican in a predominantly white world (Staten Island/Botanical Garden)
3) My attire
I didn’t realize that I had been living in a state of ignorant bliss, until I enrolled in the two year, full-time School of Professional Horticulture. For years my sole rival had been my wife, and the banal battles we fought were almost always triggered by the desire to change a deep-rooted characteristic (flaw or quirk depending on who you ask) in the other, or, to change the way the other did something. Three of the major and recurring battles are/were:
1) Almost everything having to do with my mother (especially the lack of shame I feel when asking for money)
2) My wife’s Englishness versus my Americanness
3) Our cat’s tendency to eat too fast and vomit
Now, I had to contend with myself, my wife, my mother, my vomiting cat, a change in profession requiring retraining and eight strangers/classmates, while tending to the old wounds (listed above) reopened by a heightened sense of fear, love, envy, competition, embarrassment, friendship, betrayal...
I swear to God, the only difference between the boy in elementary school and the man enrolled in the horticulture program was an evolved sensitivity to bullshit and an acute awareness of my behavior, that is, I was as ambitious as I was self-defeating. I was true and I was false and I couldn’t help myself.
A fan of anthropomorphism, I saw myself as the parasitic 'beneficial' nematode killing the host; I saw myself as a pollinator, attracted to those flowers within my visible spectrum, spreading love and gossip; I saw myself as the black walnut whose allelopathic tendencies prevent other plants from growing in the surrounding soil. I learned more about myself than I did about the science and art of gardening.
In order to makes sense of my thoughts and behavior, I began writing Sketches from The School of Professional Horticulture. How do you Eat an Elephant? is the first sketch in the book.