By Hank De Zutter

As miracles go, it was small, even silly. It brought a giggle, not a gasp. And yet it was miraculous that somehow on a cold November morning both a tomato plant and a sunflower were blooming out of a sidewalk in downtown Chicago.

With no visible source of sustenance–not even dirt–both plants had crawled out of a narrow crevice between a streetlight and the surrounding concrete on the busy northeast corner of Balbo and Wabash.

Hundreds passed by every hour, seemingly unaware of the miracle. The impatient, snarling traffic–with grumbling drivers always pressing to turn on red–had made this an inhospitable place. Except for the drunks and beggars, few dawdled on that corner.

Surely some prankster was at work here, some mischievous gardener. Perhaps a student was videotaping it for an art project. Tomato seeds surely don’t drift in on the wind, slide down streetlight poles, and plant themselves in sidewalk cracks, like some sturdy, unwanted weed. And a five-foot sunflower certainly couldn’t grow out of a seed dropped from a cellophane package, someone’s errant snack–or could it?

I wondered about this every day after I first noticed the plants a few months ago. I encouraged my friends and fellow pedestrians to pause and wonder at the silly miracle in our midst. I longed to lead a brief seminar on that corner, circling the strange phenomenon as each member of our group tried to explain how it got there and why it continued to grow.

I was overwhelmed on that cold November morning. The plants were not only alive–they were growing, bursting into bloom! I babbled, I pointed, I tried to get others to notice. Some nodded, but most hurried past, looking away, convinced I was just another street corner crazy. I wanted to pull them over by their lapels. A tomato plant, a fragile tomato plant with blooms, in November! And on the other side of the steetlamp, a sunflower dropping its yellow head over its stem. One guy listened to my stuttering enthusiasm; he got my drift. “So?” he asked.

“So!” I replied, perhaps a bit too aggressively.

I had to get a camera. I knew no snapshot would do this justice, but for my sake I had to get a photograph. My office partner lent me his camera, and I hurried back to the corner. It was raining now, a windy, chilling drizzle. Winter was invading. The election was still undecided; passing motorists and pedestrians seemed to be snapping at each other; everyone and everything had a sharp, unpleasant edge.

I squatted on the corner trying to get a picture of what now remained of my garden. Someone had snapped off the sunflower, leaving an empty broken stalk. At least someone else had noticed, I thought. Why couldn’t they have waited until I got the picture?

And now I couldn’t get the picture. No angle captured my delight. I was convinced the photos would end up sitting in my desk drawer, documenting something but not revealing it. There was no explanation–it could only be imagined.

Two hours after taking the photos, I passed the corner again, pausing to point out the garden to my companion. But there was no longer a garden; even the crevice holding the plants appeared to close up. I saw no evidence of the plants, no stalks, no leaves–just a streetlight in the sidewalk.

My friend seemed troubled by my intensity. All I could say was, “Wow, I’m glad I have pictures.”

I have not stopped thinking about the plants, the late blooms, my growing attachment and frenzied need to explain the unexplainable. I guess I am now ready for winter. It is colder, isn’t it?

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Hank De Zutter.