In the alley behind Esplanade, there's an oblong oasis. Tomato plants, beans, squash and tall purple-flowered amaranth rustle behind a chain link fence.
Summer evenings I used to see the silver-haired gardener move along the rows, tending his plants. One time I stopped and stared.
"Are those lemons?" Large fruits hung from the branches of a potted tree on the patio.
"Those are lemons, these are grapefruit," he said, gesturing to another tree. Casual about it. As if that stuff grows on trees around here.
Years ago, in Spain, I traveled on an old train with wooden seats and open windows, through lemon groves. The sight of citrus trees in the alley is like magic, a sudden secret passageway to the Mediterranean, a quick ticket to the Limón Express. I carry around with me the image of luminous fruit growing here. When I finally go back to tell him how much his trees mean to me, I arrive too late.
I find a young couple out in the garden. George Moumouris tells me that his father, Spyridon Moumouris, the keeper of the lemon tree, died in 2008.
"When I was growing up, he was out here until it was so dark you couldn't see anymore," George remembers. "My mom would be inside, yelling: 'Come in! Come eat with us!' "I didn't used to get it," George confesses. "But now I do."
Weekend mornings he's out in the gardens, front and back, with the watering can. "My dad is all around me," he says.
Spyridon Moumouris, or Spiros, as he was known, was born on Corfu moved to Mile End from Athens in 1969. He worked at a chemical factory and later switched to construction. In 1986, he bought the fourplex on Esplanade and hired neighbourhood kids to help him break up the pavement in back. His garden was born.
In the front yard, George notices the first ripe fig of the season and picks it to share with his wife. The branches of the beautiful pear tree are laden with fruit although he says it's no good this year, too much rain. The grape arbour, thick-leafed and studded with bunches of grapes shades a bench and a table on the patio, a cool place to sit. It reminds me of another shady grape-arbour haven up the street, north of Latina. I discover that Spiros helped plant it.
It seems there are traces of Spiros all along the block; stories of things he grew or helped along. Derek Reade, who lives near the corner, with a garden full of black-eyed Susans and dahlias, says he once asked Spiros for advice on a fig tree. 'In the winter, put it in the closet. Just don't forget to water it!' Spiros, fig oracle, instructed.
Reade followed this directive and to his surprise, the tree produced actual figs that summer. But the second winter, once the tree was relegated to the closet, the watering was forgotten. In the spring, when he discovered the dried up fruit tree, Spiros' words came back to him.
Linda Morrison remembers Spiros parading up and down the street with a giant zucchini from his garden. "It was an amazing conversation piece-- like a new puppy or something. He was so proud...He gave me a pear once," she adds. "It was delicious."
Jane Churchill used to live across the street from Spiros, who renovated her house. "He could do anything, but his specialty was plaster," she says. "Curved walls, straight walls, ceilings." He enjoyed the work, because from her place, he could look out on his home and front garden.
"He was like the king of the neighbourhood," Jane says. "Everyone stopped to talk. He loved telling stories. He'd stand in front of his house with his little cup of coffee, a swirl of citrus around him."
He shared heirloom tomatoes and armloads of basil with her. "He was always out there in his garden or his front yard, keeping an eye on all his growing things. He'd squish bugs with his fingers," she recalls. "He hated people leaving dog poop in the alley and graffiti made him crazy. He'd be out there trying to scrub it off."
One of Spiros' famous passions was his olive tree. "Fruit-bearing olive tree beats odds: Esplanade Ave. man puts his heart and soul into sapling from Greece," ran the story in the Gazette in 1997. It described him hugging the tree, and admitting "sometimes I'm crazy and I talk to her."
"That was the first thing I noticed," Linda remembers. "His little olive tree. He built what looked like a phone booth to protect it during the winter."
"He brought it over from Greece as a cutting in his pocket," says Jane.
"The olive tree got sick when he did," recalls George, pointing out a planter at the side of the front garden, with a skeleton of branches in it. "It was weird."
The olive has faltered. But the rest of Spiros' grove goes on – the fig, pear, grapefruit and lemon trees; the vegetable garden that Spiros started when George was a kid; and the grapevines –the ones with the actual grapes, and the kind made up of stories that neighbours tell each other about him. They continue to thrive.
I missed the chance to seek his counsel myself but I can still see him in his oasis, king of the neighbourhood, grower of lemons.