James Lileks
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Can we not talk about it for a while?

It seems a strange request, because we don’t talk about it much, specifically. It’s like we’re four weeks into a situation where there’s a gorilla living in the spare room. We’re used to it, everyone’s wondering what we’re going to do about the gorilla and, of course, we’re concerned that there are 14 gorillas at the grocery store.

But it’s tiresome to talk about the gorilla all the time, so we chat about the weather. “It’ll be nice when it warms up,” someone says, “and we can open the windows!”

“Oh, yes, I can’t wait,” everyone agrees, and left unspoken is what to do about the windows in the room where the gorilla is.

So, no, I don’t want to talk about it, but even when you don’t talk about it, you are talking about. “Hey, I have to go to Target,” someone says. You think: “Get in, get out. Mask up, focus, shop like you’re a secret agent who’s broken into the Kremlin to get the secret plans — peril at every turn!”

Well, not quite like that; I didn’t wear a tux on my last Target run like James Bond. There wasn’t a moment when a security guard made a leisurely turn down the corridor, and I had to flatten myself into the empty space where the toilet paper used to be.

But I have to confess: I wandered away from my objectives to consider something in the garden department, and I felt myself lucky. Wow: seeds.

In Vermont, they’ve declared areas of Target and Walmart nonessential, and the news pictures showed the seed department roped off. Not here! We can still roam like free people and consider the possibility of nasturtiums.

I was picking up some things for Wife’s birthday, and in these diminished times I thought some seeds might be a quaint throwback gift to simpler times. Then I saw the display, and felt a small surge of quiet indignance.

Burpee. They had Burpee seeds.

So? You ask. What did you want, Belchee? Barfee? Blurtee? They’re seeds. They’re Burpee. What’s the problem?

Once upon a time, there was a vast facility in northeast Minneapolis run by the Northrup King seed company. (When you consider that the main seed companies were NorthRUP and BURPee, you wonder what the founders had for lunch.)

In the late ’70s, there was a program for rootless college students: NK would pay you a super-generous pittance to drive around a territory and pick up their display racks in grocery stores at the end of the season.

You might recall those racks — metal squares that revolved around a pole, squeaked a bit. The cost of sending people to pick them up and ship them back to Minneapolis apparently was less than the cost of throwing them away, so an army of Northrup King temps drove to every single store that carried the seeds and picked up the racks.

I signed up, got two days of training at the Kahler by the bus station and a plane ticket to my territory: border towns in Tennessee, Alabama and Mississippi. From highway to state roads to dusty capillaries to tiny burgs with one grocery store; back on the road to the big cities to the Kroger supermarkets.

Same introduction: “I’m from Northrup King, and I’m here to pick up your rack. Did you happen to keep the cardboard box it came in?”

“Bless your heart,” they’d say, and as a Northerner, I took that as a sweet sentiment. Why, bless your heart, too! That was completely the wrong response. It turns out that what they really meant was, “No, we threw the box away because — duh — it was a box.”

I’d put the wire rack in the panel truck, go to the next spot. After a week I’d have a truck full of wire racks all tangled together like skeletons that were having an orgy when Pompeii erupted. On Friday I’d have to find a shipper to send all the racks back to Minneapolis.

At the time this seemed normal — stores were full of squeaky wire racks. Seeds. Comic books. Paperbacks. It seemed a bit labor-intensive to send a kid around the South to ship the racks home, but, well, what was the alternative?

I saw the alternative one day in a store that also had a Burpee rack. Grrr. Hsssss. Muscling in, eh? Shame if someone stuck the okra packets in the collard slot.

It wasn’t a metal rack. It was a cardboard display. It could be tossed at the end of the season. I knew that repping for the big NK wasn’t a career, but if it had been, this Burpee innovation would be the end of my line of work.

You’ll note that Northrup King no longer has a big home office here. It’s now a division of Syngenta, which sounds like a species from “Star Trek.” The old massive HQ is now an arts center. The racks are probably a thin stratum in a landfill somewhere.

All this ran through my mind as I looked at the Burpee display in Target. I suppose it could have been a scene from a movie where two old foes from a bygone war meet over a beer and find common cause, now that the fighting is over and the battles forgotten. But all I did was buy some flower seeds, thought of my wife happily planting them in the dirt when the world warmed, and thought:

“I’m glad I’m not in Vermont. I’m glad I’m in Minnesota, where this packet of hope has the proper definition. Essential.”

By the way, I bought a lot of carrot seeds. I hear the gorilla likes them.

james.lileks@startribune.com • 612-673-7858 • Twitter: @Lileks