Chi Lives: the pumpkin man's weird heart | Calendar | Chicago Reader

Chi Lives: the pumpkin man's weird heart 

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If Larry Andrews were a pumpkin, he would be a pumpkin that never stopped rolling. He's lived on the road for most of the last 20 years, has spent the last four springs and summers doing carnival work, and shows no sign of settling. Currently, he lives in a ramshackle, sparsely equipped trailer that's covered with Halloween decorations and sitting at the back of a parking lot near Clark and Granville, which for the season is doubling as a pumpkin patch.

Andrews is in charge of four tons of pumpkins as well as numerous bales of hay, assorted gourds, ears of Indian corn, and various other fruits of the earth. His patch is owned by a Wisconsinite who also operates four other north-side patches, including a popular one at Clybourn and Webster. Andrews was assigned to the lowest-income neighborhood of the five, which doesn't bother him because he likes the challenge. On a good day a pumpkin-patch worker should bring in at least $100, or, as Andrews says, "three digits."

Unfortunately, three-digit days are rare at Clark and Granville. Pumpkins that would be $12 on Clybourn go for 6 or 7 here. Pumpkins that would be 6 or 7 go for 3. Andrews is always cutting deals: gourds for a quarter instead of a dollar, three for two dollars, five for three. The pumpkin business, he admits, is a hard sell. "I'm not a shrewd businessman," he admits. "I have a heart. A businessman don't have a heart. Somebody's gotta be there for people. If everyone was shrewd, ain't nothing that would get done."

Andrews was born 40 years ago and grew up in a house between Old Town and Cabrini-Green. His father is a retired postal worker, and his mother directs a family-services clinic. He has four siblings, all college educated. He stopped his formal education after high school, in 1974. "My family, they all professionals but me," he says. "I'm a professional road dog, I guess."

The patch will be here until November 1, when Andrews will go up to Wisconsin and start cutting down trees. On November 15, it will reopen as a Christmas-tree lot. His trailer contains all his necessities, except for running water. He has a propane gas stove, heat, and electricity from an overhead power line, which he uses to operate a ten-inch black-and-white television and a clock radio. Every day he gets two buckets of water from the Italian restaurant next door. In the morning, after making a run to a pumpkin farm in Kenosha, he takes a shower in his boss's hotel room. He keeps 10 percent of his earnings at the patch and receives a daily food allowance. "This type of life ain't for everyone," he says. "You look at your lot, and say, this is what I need, and then make it. I don't worship material things. That helps a lot. I call it more daring than the average. Well, I don't call it daring, people call it daring. I could do the humdrum thing, work nine to five, get an apartment, watch television, hang out with my buddies. I done that already. People say, 'Man, I don't got the guts to do what you do.' It ain't about guts. It's about heart. I guess I got a weird heart."

A recent weekday is typical for Andrews. At 2:30 PM the elementary school next door lets out. He is immediately swarmed by dozens of children who tug at the legs of his pants, attempt to stuff gourds into their backpacks, and pound on his mascot--a pumpkin-headed, straw-stuffed, denim-wearing scarecrow named Harvey, who sits on a throne of hay bales in the middle of the lot. "Monday was Columbus Day," he says. "No kids. I was so happy I didn't know what to do." The children are followed by an old Polish woman named Carol, who buys five gourds for a dollar, and an Australian couple, who pick up six small pumpkins, a big fat one, and a tall skinny one, all for $20.

A guy pulls up in a Jeep and refuses to pay more than $5 for a big pumpkin. Andrews tells him that you should never buy a pumpkin based on weight, because heavy pumpkins are just retaining extra water. He also tells him that if the pumpkin starts to rot, soak it in cold water for 24 hours and it will be rejuvenated. 95 percent of his customers return. "They price my pumpkins and they come back."

Later, Andrews sits in his trailer watching a rerun of Home Improvement, his favorite show. He looks out over his patch, cleansed by an afternoon thunderstorm.

"Those are God's products out there," he says. "There ain't no perfect pumpkin. The only thing perfect is God. A lady came here the other day and told me that these weren't the pumpkins she wanted. I said, 'Come now, you look at a pumpkin, and you tell me what one should look like. If he look like a cat, carve a cat. If he look like a monster, carve a monster. There ain't no such thing as a perfect pumpkin.' So she bought two."

Andrews's patch is at 6223 N. Clark. It's open from 9 AM to 10 PM seven days a week.

--Neal Pollack

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Nathan Mandell.

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