There was nothing but a muffled thump of music when I knocked on Cara’s door for the third time, but the door was unlocked, so hesitantly, I let myself in. “Cara?” I ventured. No response. (Really going to get myself killed one of these days.) Then the black and yellow-striped ballet flats in the hallway caught my eye. I was washing my hands in the kitchen sink when Cara walked in. “Oh, you found it!” she said jubilantly. “I was on the street looking for you.”
I met Cara at the Bee Ball a few weeks ago, where I was selling honeyed popsicles for a gala fundraiser meant to support the legalization of beekeeping in New York City. I’m writing an article about beekeeping in New York City, so I’ve been going to lots of bee-related events; plus, it was an opportunity to sell popsicles and to support a nonprofit I like. Cara, in the adorable bee costume above, came up for a popsicle, wearing the distinctive homespun shoes that allowed me to recognize her apartment when I trespassed there a few weeks later. I watched her from behind my booth as she danced all night. She was irresistible, flowing from moue to caprice to shimmy with ease. She was having a blast out there.
Given my article, it seemed legit to probe into her reasons for becoming a beekeeper. They spilled out like marbles from a pitcher, slow at first and then a flood, and before I knew it, I’d been invited to dinner.
Cara lives in Washington Heights, an hour’s worth of sweaty, uphill bike ride away. Until she got laid off few months ago, she worked as an English teacher in the Bronx. Beekeeping came knocking at her door. “Opportunity and whim collided,” she remarked poetically. That’s how she talks, bon mots slipping off the tongue (she writes that way too). The other part of her speech is hyper-colloquial, peppered with slang and cussin’. She has a really easy way with words.
To learn beekeeping, she read a few books, went to a couple of meetings, and set up a hive at her parents’ house in Connecticut. She had a lot of spare time in the months she was jobless, and indulged her interests thoroughly, though she was often bored and frustrated.
Proving that life really is made of mysterious magic, right after she unloaded her story on me, she met a guy on the dance floor who hired her to work for the rest of the summer at Added Value, an urban teaching farm in Red Hook that generates an incredible amount of produce from a couple of inches of soil dumped on top of an old concrete basketball court.
Cara loves this job. “I don’t inspire fear in teenagers,” she said, referring to her failings in the Bronx. At Added Value, she, a few gardeners and local kids grow vegetables and sell them on a farmers market. Cara spearheads the educational component to the kids’ involvement, a grand way of saying that she gardens with them. She’s much more suited to encouragement than criticism, and loves messing around with the kids.
It’s ironic that Cara’s come around to education, given that she was kicked out of four high schools in one year, including public school. After the last time, she was sent to reform school in Maine. She escaped, roughed it south, sleeping outside, and was apprehended by the cops a few days later in Springfield, Massachusetts, “a shithole if I ever saw one.” The state sent her to Idaho, where she and a few other kids with attitude problems were bundled into a van, blindfolded, and driven several hours out into the wilderness. “One of those tough love camps?” I asked. “Uh, tougher,” she responded. “It was more like a here’s-a-tarp-and-some-string, let’s-see-which-one-of-you-shitheads-is-smirking-now type of a thing.”
The school or treatment or whatever you want to call it cost $40,000, some of which was subsidized by the state if you weren’t, like Cara, “from Connecticut.” She told this story between rips off the hugest bong I’d ever seen. It looked like a spare part off a Transformer.
Eventually, Cara was diagnosed as manic-depressive. It was a relief, finally having an explanation for her behavior and feelings. Now she’s taking Wellbutrin (bupropion), along with 20 million other Americans, which still makes it only the fourth-most prescribed antidepressant in the US. She’s also on Abilify (aripiprazole), an antipsychotic often used to control bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and manic-depression, Lexapro (escitalopran), a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor approved for the treatment of panic attacks and obsessive-compulsive disorder, and occasionally, Klonopin (clonazepam), for anxiety.
“Let’s start cooking!” she said brightly. She’d brought home a number of dirt-caked vegetables off the farm and started washing them, leaf by leaf, and chopping them slowly. The cucumbers she cut roughly and dressed with garlic, basil and yogurt; the kale and one rogue broccoli leaf she chiffonaded broadly and rubbed with lemon juice, then let marinate. She wilted collard greens in oil and garlic and topped them with black-eyed peas, red pepper flakes, salt and pepper. Once the kale had been tenderized by the lemon juice (“cevichéd,” Cara called it), she napped it with tahini, honey and lemon, and sprinkled the top with sunflower seeds.
The storm that had been looming all afternoon broke, thunderously. “You know what you should do?” said Cara. “Go sit in the red chair. Trust me.” There was a studded ruby leather armchair next to an open window in the living room, and I settled into it. The rain slapped the pavement in crumbling, shattering sheets. Spray off the windowsill misted the leather. Miserable people scampered past the fuzzy light off the corner bodega, their umbrellas blasted inside-out; pillows of rain foamed and puffed under the cast shed by that light.
James Baldwin lay among the bee books, a drum kit in the corner. The room was cluttered and lived-in and comfortable, overstuffed with overstuffed armchairs, only some of which matched. On the walls and tables were framed pictures of Cara goofing with her sisters, her best friends, her kind-smiling, rugby-playing, be-dreadlocked boyfriend, who tolerates both her manic and depressive episodes with an even-keeled patience and constant love that never cease to amaze her. There was a collection of glass jars of various sizes and pottery hand-thrown by her sister. The smell of humidity and cooking greens suffused the space and there was the tinny sound, laid over thunder and splattering rain, of Cara’s iPod tinkling through the kitchen walls, sounding that most honest of playlists, shuffle. It toggled between Billy Joel, sonatas and indie rock with an unemotional equanimity matched by Cara’s matter-of-factness. “I’m not ashamed of liking dorky music,” she said.
She wafted in, laden with plates of food held by her sister’s pottery, the iPod and holster dripping off her arm. The rain persisted, and we ate quietly the warm, wet, earthy vegetables she’d prepared. Flip-flops dangled off her dirty feet, and the strap of her salmon-colored tank top fell ingenuously off her brown shoulder. We munched. I studied her face. Her teeth looked expensive, or lucky. Her face was totally lucky, the cute snub nose and beautiful bone structure half hidden under a grubby Fidel cap.
She has a difficult relationship with medication. It screws with her metabolism, ballooning her weight, and she hates feeling numb, so she’s always tweaking the dosage, though underdoing it can lead to meltdown time. For a while she nixed the medication altogether: “I was so sick of being overanalyzed.” At the moment she’s made her tenuous peace with it.
For dessert we had Ronnybrook chocolate milk in elegant wine glasses etched with the family monogram. Cara’s boyfriend Frank had come home in the meantime and we sipped the rich sweet milk, listening still to the whiplashing winds and water outside. Cara reminisced about childhood in New Jersey and being a teenager in Connecticut, smiling sweetly at memories of hotboxing the underside of the fruit stand at which she worked with her best friend, occasionally dipping into the till for a $50 lark, the two of them entitled and insouciant, living in the moment as teenagers do. Her honesty and brusqueness was disarming; Cara just tells things like they are.
Listening to her reminded me of a book I’d recently read, an excellent anthology of essays about every state in the union written by people from each place. The New Jersey piece was a flippant fuck-off to the state hilariously narrated by Anthony Bourdain; the one on Connecticut, a moving story by a tangibly scarred Rick Moody, written in a state of tightly wound-up, sublimely controlled rage. The last sentence related to a childhood neighbor he runs into as an adult. September 11th has just happened and she’s agitated and erratic. “But no matter what she said what she seemed to mean was that she’d never gotten over Connecticut.” I thought about that phrase all 200 blocks home.