Photographs by Jane Feldman
Written by Margie Smith Holt
Hey Gary! What’s good today?
That’s the constant refrain you’ll hear if you hang around the Locust Grove Fruit Farm stand at the Tucker Square Greenmarket. In the small triangle park across from Lincoln Center, vendor Gary Piccone and his team of devoted helpers greet customers by name.
“I think it’s very important because you gain that trust. You gain more of a heart-to-heart, one-on-one interaction,” said Gary, who likes to know that his customers are not just eating well but doing well.
“It’s not just a business transaction,” he said. “It puts everything on a different level … changes the whole chemistry of people.”
“They’re so friendly. He always greets me so warmly. And we chat. That’s part of the whole feeling of it,” said regular customer Leonard Auerbach, adding, “I love the apples. The apples are my #1 fruit!”
Gary’s been a familiar face at the market for 20 years, selling fresh produce every Thursday and Saturday. Even during the pandemic, he came into the city twice a week without fail, armed with masks and gloves, hand sanitizer, and six-feet social-distancing barricades in addition to his fruits and vegetables.
“I didn’t even think twice about it,” he said. “I said to myself, you gotta do this, you know? People are relying on us … People did not want to go inside closed environments.”
During that time, What’s good, Gary? was followed up with Thank God you guys are here.
“People said that all the time: Thank God you guys are here,” Gary said. “That sends chills up your spine when you hear that because it makes you feel like you’re very essential, and very important, and very, very needed.”
It was the group’s commitment to showing up week after week during the lockdown that struck Upper West Side photographer Jane Feldman.
“They were, indeed, essential,” she said. “And I’ve watched them continue to be a vital part of the community by helping seniors carry produce to their nearby homes, by helping parents learn about nutrition and food prep, and so much more. I’ve even seen them gift flowers when someone’s had a rough day.”
Gary checks in on his regulars, like Si Spiegel, a 98-year-old war hero who flew bombing missions during WWII and now lives within walking distance of the market.
“Si and I have had a very good bond over the last 10 years,” he said. “The stories that he tells? Absolutely amazing. He’s my hero, he really is … Looking back at what this guy has been through in life, I have nothing on him.”
Since Si has a walker, Gary will grab his bag and fill it up. A couple of ears of corn. Maybe some tomatoes. Definitely the Fuji apples he likes.
“I help him out,” Gary said. “Get whatever he wants. And, of course, hear a few more stories. He’s always got some really good stories.”
(Read more about Si Spiegel in this NY Times article.)
On a recent Saturday, with a fall chill in the air, the market was packed with shoppers wanting to know what was good. (The apples. Multiple varieties.) It was back in the late spring/early summer—when the cherries and strawberries were good—that it started to feel like maybe things were getting back to normal.
“It’s good to see people back living life again,” Gary said. “You can see people starting to open up a little bit more, [get] more comfortable about coming out, rejoining society … It’s just really nice to see.”
The Locust Grove gang has praise for all their fellow vendors.
“Everybody here is super nice,” Gary said. “Everybody’s cool.”
“It’s the most friendly competition in the world,” said Anthony Bishop, one of Gary’s regular helpers, who hails from Milton, New York—the “one stoplight town” where the farm is located—but now lives in Midtown.
“We’re not Union Square. We’re not a tourist destination, like Pike Place in Seattle. We’re seeing these people all the time. We develop that trust,” Anthony said, adding a shout-out for Gary (“I like talking to this guy … If this guy didn’t come, I wouldn’t be here”), and then for his hometown: “The apples are phenomenal! Our greatest export has been apples.”
For the record, the apples were phenomenal the day WSR visited.
The Tucker Square Greenmarket is located at 66th and Broadway in Richard Tucker Park—named for the Brooklyn-born tenor who used to sing across the street at the Metropolitan Opera—and is open year-round, Thursdays and Saturdays, from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Even if you’re not buying, stop by to say hello. And don’t forget to ask Gary what’s good!