Where was Randy?
That was the burning question after I had parked at one of America’s most crowded YMCAs on a scorching-hot morning this week, and got to the narrow strip of dirt behind the building that is home to one of the most productive vegetable gardens in the region.
Two women were tending to a bounty of tomato plants, Asian eggplant, squash, asparagus, and a variety of round cucumbers once grown by Benjamin Franklin. Vegetables were bursting from 14 raised gardening beds, all wedged onto what used to be a ribbon of grass stuffed between a single-lane asphalt service road and the brick wall behind the Haverford Y.
But Randy Goldman, the genius behind it all, was nowhere to be found. And this, I was told, was headline-making.
The retired Philly criminal defense attorney all but sleeps in this nook that’s visible to just about no one except a UPS driver who makes the rounds. Seven days a week, starting in February and through the searing summer, Randy cares for the plants here, all with the goal of producing nearly 3,000 pounds of organic vegetables for three local food pantries.
He was a no-show on Tuesday morning, which never happens.
“He’ll never bail,” Catherine Corson, 50, his mentee in the garden, said while dipping freshly harvested collard greens into a bucket of water. “He could be on his deathbed, he’d still come.”
Catherine then took her hands out of the bucket and swooped them across the length of the garden: “He is everything,” she said.
Sure enough, her 71-year-old mentor in this urban garden arrived before lunchtime, joining Catherine, 50, in the blazing heat. The duo worked without exchanging many words, as a duo exquisitely obsessed with the earth would be expected to do.
Randolph Goldman is, as Catherine put it, everything on this plot of dirt.
The longtime lawyer now wears overalls instead of suits. In retirement, he waltzes full-time with Mother Nature while trying to defend against her nastier whims, such as beetles that attack his summer squash.
He may no longer be losing sleep over clients facing life in prison, but Randy’s gardening goals — which he alone has set — are not for slackers. This YMCA garden must produce, each year, more fresh vegetables than this impossibly small space has ever before managed to sprout.
This. Is. Randy’s. Mission.
While most of this YMCA’s 28,000 members are sweating on treadmills inside to beat times on their next marathon or 10K, Randy is sweating it out in the parking lot, trying to make more food out of dirt, sun and water than anyone can imagine possible. And as nothing more than a volunteer, if you can imagine.
“There’s a lot of pressure involved in this, believe it or not,” he told me. The sun was beating down mercilessly, while heat from the asphalt and the brick wall only made things more oven-like. Randy’s tools are few but crucial: a thermos with water, a hat, and suspenders from which to hang a spray bottle with organic pesticide.
“Time,” Randy said, while splashing water onto his plants with a garden hose, “does not stop for you.”
Wrestling with a garden can be more slippery than man-to-man combat. You have to prune. Water. Ward off pests or lose your crop. And because the plot is so small, you have to plant new vegetables so that they’re ready to be transplanted into the beds once early harvest varieties, such as radishes, are ready to be yanked out.
You do all this with little control over the invisible forces of nature.
Oh — and this: “We’ve got a serious groundhog problem around here, too.”
The wall-mounted security camera intended to keep thieves out of this garden cannot, unfortunately, help prosecute the voles that got to his sweet potatoes last year.
For Randy and Catherine, this exercise in madness is so fundamentally human. They do it because it provides purpose and helps them help others. Not enough people of means do enough of this, there is no denying.
Consider what so many people do with their free time each summer: They stay cool inside. They go to a pool. They decamp to Shore houses, where the greatest challenge in a place like Ocean City or Avalon can be deciding whether to eat boardwalk pizza or a fillet of fluke freshly caught off the New Jersey coast.
Randy says he would have been a teacher had he not become a lawyer. Catherine, who only started working at the Y garden last year, long ago discarded her M.B.A.-backed financial-industry career because she just felt the work was doing little to help other people.
She then spent years in Philadelphia helping women and children with AIDS. She left that work about a year ago and was recently certified as a master gardener.
Although Catherine spends only a few hours each week at the Y, it is clear that she and Randy are two of a kind.
“I talk all the time, and he either listens or I drive him crazy,” she said with a laugh.
Randy’s response: He quotes the Chinese proverb that he cited to Catherine when she first came to the garden.
“The best fertilizer,” Randy said, “is the gardener’s shadow.”
Randy began gardening after leaving the Navy around 1971. His parents had grown veggies, but he hated helping as a kid. Then, one day as a young adult, he walked into a hardware store and felt something come over him. He bought some seeds and was off.
What he knows today he has learned through experience. He’s been working at the Y garden for maybe five or so years.
“It’s an amazing place,” said Adam Hill, who runs the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society’s City Harvest program, which offers seeds, plants and technical support to 150 sites across the region, including the Haverford Y. “Super productive, and also aesthetically beautiful.”
He added: “I’m glad you’re highlighting Randy. He’s pretty awesome.”
They love Randy at St. James United Church of Christ in Havertown, where I watched grateful people pick through Randy’s beets, scallions, collards and basil at Wednesday morning’s food pantry.
Church secretary Ailene Dunlap has visited Randy on burning-hot days at the Y, disbelieving that he spends endless hours in blazing heat for what ultimately is a gift to strangers.
“We’re just grateful,” she said, “beyond measure.”