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A produce man for all seasons

From a dusty, well-used truck on the side of the road, he dispensed smiles, advice and even kind gestures along with fresh produce.

The sad news I've suspected all year is true. My tomato man is dead.

I'm embarrassed to call him that. In the first place, calling him "mine" is condescending; beyond that, it's flat not true. The whole neighborhood depended on his sitting in his truck out in the sun in an empty parking lot every weekend.

"Our tomato man" isn't right, either. We were lucky to be his, as anyone who buys supermarket tomatoes knows. Almost every weekend for four or five years, the people who walked over from the mobile home park and the folks who pulled their new Explorers up next to his dirty silver pickup got the best tomatoes he could find, set out to ripen on the hood of the truck, never more than $2 a basket.

Sometimes he got out to the produce market at 4 or 5 a.m. to find good tomatoes from Ruskin or Immokalee and make the best deal he could. In season, however, he was in the fields picking his inventory himself. His cost and profit margin fluctuated, but the price never changed. "I don't like to do people that way," he would say.

He tried to be there whenever decent tomatoes were available, almost all fall and spring. Occasionally he found room on the hood for green peppers or strawberries or hauled watermelon or corn in the truck bed, but always he had the tomatoes. "I've got my people here. They expect me."

Over the past couple of years, he missed more weekends than he made. Sometimes the truck just wouldn't make the trip from Plant City into our corner of south Tampa, and sometimes a son-in-law or niece would come in his stead.

Although he was a big man _ 6 feet, in his 60s _ his body was as rusty and dusty as the truck; his teeth broken and knuckles busted by hard work and maybe a fight or two; his skin stained by sun, dirt and sweat. Those things alone never prompted complaints.

It was the cancer. Not all the time, but sometimes after an absence, he'd allow that "the chemo got me down last week" or that he'd been in for tests or that he'd driven up to the Carolinas to see his sister in case he wouldn't make another Christmas.

That's why I'm most ashamed that I just called him "Chief" and never knew his name. He gave it to me once when I told him that a friend was having trouble with her chemotherapy. He rooted around among the papers in his glove compartment and gave me his latest paperwork from the VA showing his newest medication. It was a lot better, he said; might help her, too.

It was a kind gesture and the only clue I had to his identity: that he had served his country, maybe in Vietnam, probably in Korea, and then had come back to the farm.

All this year, tomatoes came in steadily, first from Homestead and then on up the state into his territory _ but he didn't, and the corner remained empty.

Last week I finally went to the florist who'd let him park behind her store on Gandy Boulevard and asked what happened.

Leukemia finally, she'd heard. She missed him, too.

We got more from him than good tomatoes or good prices, as did anyone else who had good sense. For starters, you usually got a smile, a crop report straight from the farm and a field hand's wisdom about when and where to get the best produce. City folks who paid more attention and respect were reminded that the hard country life so distant from our own is not so far away. For all the mechanical pickers and sophisticated hybridizing, we owe our good food to someone else's sweat and backache.

I've since found another source for tomatoes, a courtly gentleman with a bigger stand at another abandoned gas station. He has zipper peas in season and never runs out of corn pone jokes, even though his years are many and his wife's health isn't what it was.

If you want vegetables that are riper and fresher, pull off the road, even now when Florida's crops are slim. Get to know the vendors on your daily route, whether they're farm workers with rickety trucks bringing their pickings straight from the field to make an extra buck or folks who have hammered together a year-round stand filled with the produce they buy before dawn.

Stop often and give them your business and your thanks. Even if you never learn their names.