When my students open the squeaky gate to our city farm, they immediately pass by shelf of mushrooms that grow from the side of a tree stump. Eye level to a seven year old, the fungi at first appear unreal and cartoonish. One can easily picture a real life Mario boinging from one pillowy cap to another, fist in the air for extra trajectory.
"Can we eat them?" is the usual question.
"They are poisonous!" cries another student.
"You will die if you eat them!" replies a third.
The once curious children take a tentative half step away from the mushrooms. I try to cool the hysteria by offering a reassuring, albeit vague lesson. Some are are poisonous, but many are not, I tell them. I admit that these particular specimens have been unidentified, so it’s best not to test our luck.
Tonight was a weird one. I waited later than usual to put Nugget and T-rex to bed. Late enough that it was getting dark when I hopped off my bike outside the farm fence. Just as I did, I heard a mumbled question just behind me. It was a quartet of twenty somethings. The one in front asked again, “What do the flowers mean?”
He was referring to some stenciled flowers on the sidewalk. Some of the folks from the surrounding community gardens had spray painted them a few weeks ago as a guide for visitors on a publicized neighborhood garden tour. I had helped in the painting. My index finger was stained yellow and orange for days.
"What do you mean, what do they mean?", I replied.
"What do they symbolize?" The tone was snarky. His Cheshire Cat teeth were shining in the dark, drawing a smile.
"I don’t understand what you’re asking me", I said. I really didn’t understand what he was getting at. I noticed that all four of them held a takeaway box of Chicago-style pizza. I absolutely abhor Chicago-style pizza. I have good reason to believe that the Chicago Italians of yesteryear invented the dish as the greatest con ever: to convince the good people of the Midwest that by consuming something without flavor or nutritional value, they are in fact proving their fortitude over those pansy lightweights on the East coast. It’s a one-up that begs to to be trumped by stunts like Cincinnati Chili, or movies staring Vin Diesel.