Decay, Part II: 
Wendy Tokuda and the Substitute T

by Jeff Lewis

A few years ago, KNTV outbid rival station KRON to become the NBC affiliate for the San Francisco Bay Area.  Without ties to once-powerful NBC, KRON withered away, relying on a staple of paid programming, local news, Dr. Phil and Fear Factor syndication to pay the bills.  Despite its demise, it still boasts a handful of quality Bay Area-themed shows, including Henry’s Garden, a pleasant gardening show that takes place in the backyard of its host, Henry Tenenbaum, one of KRON’s newscasters.

The show addresses gardening problems that are common in the Bay Area and interviews experts around the region on subjects as diverse as orchid care, ornamental footpaths and falconry, making sure to mix in some yuks and hijinks.  Mega-channel cable and satellite packages surely have made times difficult for local niche shows like Henry’s Garden, so part of the appeal of supporting this underdog is a hope that the Tivo people will use our viewing data to get the word out that someone is watching the show.

There’s something endearing about watching a low budget local gardening show that I don’t experience when watching a nationally-broadcast program, sterilely packaged by the DIY network.  I feel nostalgia for the days when Herb Caen was in his prime, making up words and throwing his dots around.  I even feel wistfulness for the mystical America of Rockwell, when puns were more valuable currency over the airwaves than outrage, although thankfully this longing for the good old days doesn’t entice me to vote for “Three Strikes” legislation or make generalized demands for accountability.

As you can imagine from my description, Henry’s Garden doesn’t typically get my heart racing.  After all, one of its selling points for Lynn and me is that with Tivo we can skip the weekly floral display segments and see an entire episode in fifteen minutes.  It’s akin to watching televised golf:  it is soothing.  About a year ago, however, during Henry’s visit to the garden of fellow KRON newscaster Wendy Tokuda, I got a little fired up.  Tokuda has put her broadcaster’s wages to good use, creating the finest backyard vegetable garden I’ve seen.  Multi-tiered in form, with edibles of many textures, it was worthy of a French chateau, a New Age retreat or the grounds of a restaurant boasting a Michelin star.

Tokuda attributed her green thumb to a number of factors, but the most tangible was her two expensive drum composters.  Each was perhaps five feet long and six feet tall, with a handle that turned the large steel drums to mix air into the decaying matter.  As she cranked, she spoke of the thrill of composting, which drove her to steal bags of leaves from her neighbors—as well as perfect strangers in her community—so that she could feed the hungry drums.

Tokuda didn’t divulge much about her magnificent composters, so after the show aired I scoured the internet for more details.  With only a little difficulty, I found her model—the Mantis ComposT-Twin, which isn’t much of a name for the gold standard composter.  Unfortunately, after about an hour of research on Mantis’s website and a few composting sites, I found it hard to justify the purchase.  On the upside, I learned that the ComposT-Twin is rat-proof and designed to turn leaves into compost in a couple of weeks—in contrast to lower-tech methods that can take up to a year.  On the negative side of the ledger, though, was the undeniable fact that it is too large for our yard, unless I could persuade Lynn to let me decommission our patio.  Also, they’re just too heavy to maneuver up steps, arrive unassembled and cost over $400 if you factor in shipping.  Plus, some disgruntled clients complained that the enclosed nature of the ComposT-Twin—I like to pronounce it Compos Tee Twin—kills off too many beneficial insects.

My fears of owning an expensive steel albatross won the day, but didn’t squelch my dreams of eventually owning a fancy composter, so during our summer vacation, on our dashes between the West’s national parks, the ComposT-Twin was an occasional topic of discussion.

In mid-summer, long stretches of the I-90 in Montana and the I-80 in Wyoming appear to the road weary visitor to be a monochromatic blur, with only occasional small towns and their adjoining strip mines to break the uniformity.  To be fair, these are both beautiful states, but after a few hours I felt numb like “Mad” Max Rockatansky hurtling through the haze emanating from the heated blacktop.  I differed from the Road Warrior, though, in the sense that I don’t have a damaged psyche, crippled by the graphic death of loved ones at the hands of a motorcycle gang.  Nor do I have to eat uncooked, canned dog food or fill up our tank from gasoline collected in a dead man’s hardhat, as it spills from a ruptured tanker truck.  Things in Montana and Wyoming have not gotten to that stage, although the remnants of the waning oil industry—still derricks, stark refineries with penitentiary fencing—pay a visual homage to the Mad Max series.

Instead of pining like Max, I was content to pass time recreating each meal of our trip in my mind in chronological order.  Though recent meals had disappointed, there were plenty from our week in British Columbia to savor.  Often, Lynn and I would perform this exercise together, bemoaning the poor quality produce that we’d recently eaten, which inevitably would swing the conversation to the prolific tomato hedgerow in our backyard and how we couldn’t wait to harvest it.  Of course, I would throw in my two cents about the benefits of an expensive drum composter.

“A Home Away From Home For Liberal Elitist Swine”

Shortly before our trip, we read an account of a cross-country trip by our favorite columnist, Jon Carroll, with whom we happen to share a zip code and 99% of a worldview.  He gave some good advice for the road:  steer clear of the fanciest restaurant in town and hit as many a college town as possible en route.  The former is a breeding ground for overpriced disappointments; the later a haven for the multi-cultural palate.

Like many urban Californians, we’ve been spoiled by the diversity of the state’s food and the quality and availability of its produce.  As uninitiated visitors to small-town America, we failed to consistently make the right restaurant choice, so we ate a number of meals in Wyoming and Montana that lacked zest, not to mention nutritional value.

In support of Carroll’s advice, we found Boulder—home of the University of Colorado—to be the mother lode.  It is Berkeley on a mountain bike.

There are multiple Mediterranean restaurants.  The local alcohol emporium displays the French wine sold by the Californian winemaker Bonny Doon in the French section, not the California section.   When we were there, an independent bookshop hosted a lecture by the translator of a 12th century mystic Muslim scholar.  Street performers prowl the auto-free shopping district, contorting themselves, juggling on unicycles and showing an encyclopedic knowledge of our nation’s zip codes.  Perhaps most tellingly, you can find an overpriced microgreen salad without difficulty.

Above all, the Boulderdashers are athletic.  A walk through downtown reminded me of a vacation in Italy where I was constantly embarrassed about being underdressed.  In Boulder, I was underfit (as well as conspicuously lacking in windburn and Patagonia attire).

While in Boulder, I happened upon another mother lode that I either fortunately or unfortunately couldn’t indulge in.  Our friends Dave and Diane took us shopping at McGuckin Hardware Store, a Boulder institution for the wealthy, the struggling grad student, the handyman, interior designer, computer enthusiast or gardener.  Prominently displayed next to some handsome glazed pots was my dream composter—compact, light, rat proof and a mere $150.  Now that I have a little distance, I can tell you that $150 is too much for roughly the equivalent of a beer cooler that’s skewered to an aluminum stand, but at the time I felt regret that I couldn’t purchase it because our car was stuffed to the gills.  I considered it, but there was no way I could justify that purchase.  Mingling with the regret, though, was a little relief because now I could yearn for, dream of, and talk about the tomato-growing benefits of this new composter during the upcoming drive through the flatlands of Utah and Nevada.

To be continued…

Copyright © 2005 by Jeff Lewis