Executive Times






2006 Book Reviews


The $64 Tomato by William Alexander








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Any reader who enjoys a hobby will empathize with the large amount of money that William Alexander has spent on gardening, as he describes in his book, The $64 Tomato. After he computed how much the costs came out to per tomato following one summer’s poor crop, he came up with the title of this book. Homeowners who are not gardeners may also enjoy reading about the surprises the Alexanders faced with their new home and land, and the reputation of the house around town. Here’s an excerpt, one of my favorite descriptions of life with tree rats, from the end of the chapter titled, “You May Be Smarter, But He’s Got More Time,” pp. 123-130:


The only animal I have seen that is more persistent than a groundhog is a squirrel. One summer day, we had some guests over for lunch. As we were sitting on our porch overlooking the orchard and admiring the serenity of a perfect summer afternoon, we saw a squirrel hop into the orchard, scamper up a tree, bite off a golf-ball-size apple, and scamper away. Cute. Our suburban guests were very amused by this quaint display of coun­try life. Five minutes later they were amused again. And five minutes later, again. And so on, like clockwork. They were hysterical. I was beside myself. I did a little math in my head: 12 apples an hour times, say, five hours a day equals 60 apples a day, equals 420 apples a week. If this kept up at even half the pace we were witnessing, the or­chard would be cleaned out in a week.

I’d had my trees for several years at this point and had never seen squirrels stealing the crop before. But the past spring and summer had been devastatingly dry. Farmers without irrigation had no crops. Towns had instituted wa­ter restrictions. I surmised that the squirrel was using the apples as a source of water.

But what to do? He might have been ready to pick the apples, but I sure wasn’t; they were still a good few weeks from maturity. I needed to get to the Agway, and fast. We were on dessert. Surely our visitors would be leaving soon.

Anne offered seconds of peach pie.

“No thanks!” I practically yelled before anyone else could answer. “Too rich!”

Anne glared at me.

“I could sit here all afternoon;’ said one guest, sighing, as Anne brought more pie. I almost choked. “And this pie is fantastic. But we’ll have to get going soon?’ That was more like it. They had stopped by on their way upstate and still had a two-hour trip ahead of them.

“How much of a drive do you figure we have from here?”

Anne started to answer, “No more than two—”

“Four hours;’ I interrupted.

Our guests exchanged a look.

“At least’ I added as I watched the squirrel out of the corner of my eye. “Traffic, you know?’ From behind the visitors, Anne grimaced and made a slashing motion across her throat, which I took to mean either “Cut it out;’ or “I’m going to kill you when this is over?’

Our guests were still waving from their car as I hopped in mine and sped down to the Agway. I told my tale to the pest expert there.

“You don’t say!” he declared. “I’ve never heard of that. Hey, Rich! “He called over another salesman. “You got to hear this?’ I had to repeat the story to Rich, which cost me at least two more apples. He asked where I lived. I started to describe the place.

“Not the Big Brown House!” he exclaimed. “You still have sheep?”


“Yeah, Kreske kept sheep so he could classify it as a farm. Cut his property taxes in half. And he didn’t have to cut the grass.”

Or fertilize, I imagine. This was a story I’d have to come back for, but minutes were passing and apples dis­appearing. 1 got Rich back to the problem at hand, and we mulled over the options. There was pepper spray. (“But I’ve got to eat the apples, too;’ I reminded them. They as­sured me it came off with soap and water.) We considered bird netting, but a net large enough to drape over an en­tire tree with enough left to secure at the base cost fifty dollars, and I had four trees to cover. Two hundred dollars would buy a lot of apples at the farm stand. I couldn’t bring myself to spend two hundred dollars to try (and pos­sibly fail) to protect trees with no more than fifty dollars’ worth of apples on them, so I left with the pepper spray for ten bucks. This stuff was supposed to be hot: “Keep from face and eyes;’ the bottle cautioned. I drenched the ap­ples in pepper spray.

Apparently the squirrel had watched me from afar, for the moment I left the orchard, he bounded in, grabbed a Mexicali apple in his mouth, and bounded off to eat it, or bury it, or whatever the hell he was doing with them. And five minutes later, he was back. And so on. Maybe he was making salsa.


The experience brought back bad memo­ries of my first battle with squirrels, years ago in our first house in Yonkers. We had purchased the house through an estate sale. The owner had passed away over a year earlier (we seem to have a habit of buying abandoned homes), and we were the first suckers to offer anything near the asking price over the course of a year. Our offer was accepted so quickly that we wanted to rescind it. (“Oh, did I say a hundred and ninety thousand? I meant a hundred and nineteen thousand. I always get those two mixed up”) But as I’ve mentioned, it was a fine house, and we loved it, cracked plaster and all.

So did a pair of squirrels we came to call Chip and Dale. On our very first morning—very early morning— we learned two things without leaving our bed: (1) the New York State Thruway was a lot closer than we realized: we could hear the trucks shifting gears in the predawn; and (2) we were not alone. The pitter-patter of little feet directly overhead was our first clue that Chip and Dale were well established in the attic and, for all I knew (as­suming that unlike their Disney namesakes, Dale was a female), planning on starting a family. Time to evict.

I settled on an absolutely foolproof strategic approach. First I found where I thought they were getting in and out: a small gap in a valley on the roof. I brought in plaster and chicken wire but did not seal the hole up yet. I wanted to catch and remove the squirrels and then quickly seal up the opening. I bought my first Havahart trap (the “squir­rel model”), baited it with peanuts, and waited. And waited. A week later, we were still waking to the sound of highway and squirrels.

And then, one Saturday morning, we awoke to a new sound: the rattle of a cage. Victory! This was the first crea­ture I had ever trapped, and I hadn’t yet learned to drive it two counties away, so I took it to a small park a few blocks away and released it. Back at the house, I in­spected the attic. Empty. This is what I had hoped for and expected, for we rarely heard the squirrels during the middle of the day, when I presume they were out gather­ing nuts or stealing apples. I worked the chicken wire into the gap, slathered the whole thing in plaster, and opened a beer. Well, that wasn’t so bad.

Sunday morning, we woke to the sounds of eighteen-wheeler transmissions . . . and pitter-patter above our heads. We still had a squirrel in the attic. I’ll venture a guess and say it was Dale. Why? Because I heard another sound: the sound of a squirrel scratching on glass. I went outside and looked up. Chip, the gallant fellow, had found his way back from the park (probably before I had) and was desperately trying to rescue Dale. Now, it’s quite pos­sible I have this backward, but because I was raised on notions of classical chivalry, I’m going to stick to the as­sumption that the female was stuck inside, and the male was trying to claw his way back in. And he didn’t work on the glass for long. He soon moved to the window frame it­self and started to eat his way through it. Now, this was truly alarming. We had owned this house less than two weeks, and a lovesick squirrel was eating it up. It was in­teresting that he had chosen the frame to break through, not some other weak point in the roof (and I’m sure there were plenty). Did he choose the window because he could see his beloved on the other side as he gnawed? Years later it seems quite touching, actually, and I wish I could have reunited them, but at the time it was nothing short of terrifying. We were afraid to open the front door, for fear he would shoot through and make for the attic. It was like living Hitchcock’s The Birds, only with squirrels.

I set up the trap in the attic again, now in a race against time. Dale, however, was lying low. Each day, meanwhile, Chip got a little farther into the frame as I watched help­lessly. So this is home ownership, I thought ruefully. I wanted to call the landlord, to yell at the super. But they were both me.

Eventually, after a few tense days, Dale got hungry enough to overcome her reservations and ventured into the trap. I released her far, far away, and the instant she was removed, Chip stopped gnawing. I examined the frame. He was only another day from breaking through, and I faced a considerable repair job. Amazing.

The most valuable lesson I learned from this experi­ence came not from the squirrels but from a work col­league, a thoughtful Irishman with wire-rimmed glasses and a snow-white mane and beard. Jim is only a hundred pounds removed from being Santa Claus. My co-workers during this period were receiving daily updates on Squir­rel Wars, much to their delight. Most of them considered it all a real hoot, some demonstrating their sympathy and wit by whistling the Rocky and Bullwinkle theme each time I passed them in the hail. On the day that Chip was within a half inch of reaching Dale, I sat in Jim’s office, de­spondent, looking for an answer. Jim listened to me for a while, stroking his beard thoughtfully and staring at the ceiling.

“The problem is’ he finally said, pushing his glasses up on his nose, “you may be smarter, but he’s got more time.”

Truer words were never spoken.


After watching my current peppery-apple-loving squirrel make a couple of more raids on my apples, I couldn’t stand it anymore. I settled on a compromise so­lution: netting two of the trees and preemptively picking all the apples off the others. We made several apple pies with the tiny, tart apples. Then, predictably, the squirrel got hung up in the netting. I was able to untangle him without harm to either man or beast, and I guess he learned his lesson, because on his next trip back he chose to go for the apples in—believe it or not—the Havahart. I took him far, far away, but I know he—or his kin—will be back.


Next Saturday, go to your local Farmers Market, buy a few pounds of heirloom tomatoes for a few bucks, then come home and read The $64 Tomato.


Steve Hopkins, July 26, 2006



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The recommendation rating for this book appeared

 in the August 2006 issue of Executive Times


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