By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
By Michael Roberts
By Melanie Asmar
"See, I turned out to be just like all social services people everywhere," Shane admits. "I disapprove of all government programs except my own."
It is a typical wintry morning in Cheyenne. Last night the temperature fell to four degrees, but it isn't just the cold that gets to people. "It's the wind," Shane explains. "We're the eighth windiest city in the nation. If you'll notice, every single tree in town has a lean. People learn to open their car doors here very carefully."
Inside the greenhouse, though, the air is still and humid. Lettuce and snow peas are thriving--enough so that any volunteers who show up today will eat a home-grown salad tonight. Shane moves around restlessly, trying out various benches, drinking in the flowery air and postponing another grant proposal. "I hate sitting in front of the computer," he says. "I need to get my hands dirtier."
At the potting bench, Claus Johnson, the gardens' only other paid employee, reviews his plan for the morning. Magic City, a local sheltered workshop, is sending over Manny, a retarded man in his mid-thirties, for some horticultural therapy. Claus consults his notes from Manny's last visit. "Planted paperwhite narcissus," they read. "Manny will work on remembering names of things."
Manny arrives and begins, as if on auto-pilot, to plant more paperwhite bulbs.
"Good," Claus tells him. "And what are those bulbs called?"
Manny thinks, then shrugs.
"Well, the blossoms feel like...?"
"Right. And the color is...?"
"White," Manny says, more definitely.
"Paperwhite narcissus, but you only have to remember the first part," Claus tells him. "Hey, look, the seeds you planted are germinating."
"Hey!" says Manny, delighted. He heads off to open some windows and weaves his way back through the plants a few minutes later, carrying a tall ladder with Don and another older man who introduces himself as an "ex-Navy swab jockey." The three discuss pick-up truck cab styles, the mediocrity of Cheyenne restaurants and life on a fixed income. Finally, they get around to deciding who should climb to the top of the water containers to apply algicide. "What about you?" the swab jockey asks Don. "Are you too old, or what?"
Before those become fighting words, Claus scampers up the ladder and does the job. The swab jockey and Manny busy themselves with fertilizing. Don disappears into the Gathering Room. "It's socialization," Claus explains. "I can't think of a single one of our clients who doesn't look forward to it."
Striking a balance between socialization and actual work is part of Claus's job, which he describes as "anything Shane doesn't feel like doing. I didn't have that much experience with this kind of thing before I came here," he admits. "I had gardened some, but mainly I worked in parks and rec."
In fact, Claus was hardly the best qualified applicant for his job. "I had guys with degrees from Cornell, which has one of the best horticulture schools around, but they didn't have the right personality," explains Shane. "You can't teach someone to like people. Claus is more of a gardening coach than administrator. He's like, okay team, get in there and garden!"
Claus came by way of Wheatland, a small Wyoming town that could afford recreation programs during the energy boom. In the mid-Eighties, though, the money dried up, and Claus ventured down to Cheyenne to undergo Shane's grueling interview process. "Even after I got the job," Claus recalls, "I wasn't sure if I was fortunate or not. As far as horticulture went, I was lost. I went through a lot of soul-searching and head-scratching. But I loved the volunteers, especially the seniors. They're real open and honest."
"Yes, and Claus is the nut of the bunch," Lillian interjects.
"They can also get a little difficult," Claus says. He is thinking about the recent massacre of forty expensive koi fish that once swam languidly in the waterfall. "One of the school kids or a mental patient poured bleach on them, because they heard it killed algae," he sighs. "It also killed the fish."
Fortunately, Claus understands the philosophy of the motto Don has just posted in the Gathering Room: "Most Folks Are Like Barbed Wire. They Have Their Good Points."
One of Don's is that he follows instructions. "I only do what I am told to do," he says. "That way there is absolutely no stress. None at all. I'm not the hobby type. I don't tie flies. I don't play golf. I volunteered for a while at the state archives, but I found myself looking out the window all the time." Here Don is outside the window looking in--and grateful enough for the experience that he donated a sundial for the outside grounds. It is engraved with the words: "The sky is the daily bread of the eyes."
"Oh, I didn't write that or anything," Don says, a touch embarrassed. "It just came with the sundial."
"Don't get the idea we're too articulate," echoes Green Thumb worker Joyce. "We are all also insane, or hadn't you noticed? Like Lillian--listen to her singing to that frog. She sings and whistles and sweetie-pies that frog to death."
In fact, the frog--an entirely white albino with red eyes, which could not survive in the wild but weathered the bleach incident--seems to be enjoying the concert. It may not be part of a normal frog-raising program, but around here, it works.