As I started to climb into the rickety Boston Public Health Commission van, the woman inside it stopped me.
‘Are you in the right place?’ she barked. ‘For Project SOAR?’
SOAR stands for sustainability, opportunity, achievement, recovery. It’s a transitional housing program for recovering victims of homelessness and substance abuse.
No, I’m not in that category, but yes, I told her, I was in the right place. SOAR is located on Long Island, in the Boston harbor, and the program includes an organic farm. Clients of the re-entry program can work at the farm to earn money and work experience.
To be honest, I contacted the farm simply because it’s the only one I can access without a car, thanks to the SOAR van.
But volunteering at Serving Ourselves Farm has given me an opportunity to learn about an aspect of life and a population of Boston with whom I would otherwise have little interaction.’ ‘ ‘
On my first trip to the farm, I rode in the van with some guys whose tattooed biceps were the size of my thighs. As the van rattled past seascapes of beaches and fishing boats in the harbor, they argued whether they preferred to be in prison, with color TV and cable, or in a re-entry program, with the possibility of repeated failure.
The farm, unlike my countryside farm in France, is an unassuming cluster of sheds, a greenhouse, and two fields nestled in a corner of the SOAR facilities. We spent that first afternoon dealing with three enormous bags of onions. I had forgotten the only farming tool I own, my Opinel knife, so they chopped off the papery tops and I sorted the rotten ones from the good ones. While we worked, they told stories’
That day I learned about Whitey Bulger and the notorious Winter Hill Gang of Somerville from one worker who grew up in Winter Hill during the gang’s peak of influence in the 1970’s. He told wild but true tales of Boston’s gangsters and mobs and Irish-Italian rivalries that sent me googling James McClean and Howie Winter as soon as I got home. While we yanked leeks out of the soil, he described his childhood when organized crime was everyday life. He remembers going to Halloween parties with his mother and seeing legendary gangsters like Bulger.
‘I didn’t realize who they were at the time,’ he said. But even as a child he knew not to mess with them.
I return weekly to the farm, and each time is an adventure, involving a different crowd in the van, a different task at the farm. Most exciting are the stories, but sometimes it’s the carrots or eggplants that I get to bring back with me to Warren Towers.
This farm is pretty different from the one in France, but like my time abroad, this farm brings with it an unanticipated dimension that’s turning out to be way more exciting than the rotten onions. It’s just a matter of convincing that lady that I really do belong on the SOAR van. ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘