THE PRICE OF GINGER
By John Davidson
“Have time for a story?” The driver looked over his shoulder.
It was after midnight. After three in the time zone where I had gotten up. It would be busy at the office tomorrow. But a no-brainer for the ride home?
“Sure,” I said.
The driver put the van into gear. “You know anything about ginger?” he said.
Ginger? The plant with the funny root? “Not much,” I said.
“Me neither.” He spoke with an accent I couldn’t place. I guessed that he was in his early thirties, although it was hard to judge in the dark.
“I came to this country ten years ago,” he continued. “I was looking for a way to get started, but I needed an income. So I went to work for an Indian restaurant.” As a dish washer? I thought. He went on. “I was their buyer.” Buyer? “I shopped the wholesalers for the food they served. For everything, the meat, the vegetables, the spices. Everything.”
LAX was always congested and tonight was no exception. I leaned back as the driver worked his way around the concourse and suddenly thought that I might have preferred to sleep.
“I enjoyed the job,” he went on. “I got to shop for bargains, negotiate prices, work with people. The owner was happy. The restaurant was doing well. But I had one problem I could never fix.”
“What was that?” I asked.
“The ginger,” he said.
“Yes,” he said. “There was no one reliable supplier. No one carried it as their main product. It was always the added-on side item or something thrown in to seal a deal. And no one carried it reliably. One supplier would have it for a while. Then another would have it. Sometimes no one would have it. Sometimes it was cheap. Sometimes it was expensive.”
We entered the freeway. In contrast to the airport, it was almost deserted. It would be an easy drive home.
“Isn’t that used a lot in Indian cooking,” I asked.
“It is,” he said. “In fact, it is used in a lot of ethnic cooking, Chinese, Thai, Indonesian, in addition to Indian.
“Do you know,” he continued, “how many pounds of ginger are consumed every day in the Los Angeles area?”
I told him I didn’t.
“About 10,000 pounds,” he said “mostly in restaurants. It was here that I saw my chance to get started on my own. I decided to become the supplier of ginger for all of Southern California.” That sounds ambitious.
“I began asking questions,” he said. “I found out where ginger came into the country. Then I found out where it came from overseas. And I got in touch with those distributers.”
“Where does it come from?” I asked.
“From a lot of places,” he said. “Mostly in Southeast Asia. I discovered that one of the primary growers of ginger was my own country.” Your own country?
Since he had raised the subject, I said, “What is that?”
“The Philippines,” he said. The Philippines! So that’s where you’re from! I was no longer sleepy.
“I contacted suppliers in the Philippines and in other countries where it was grown,” he said.
“Vietnam was another place where I found growers. I discovered they had the same problem I had.
None of their customers considered ginger their main product. Ginger was always the extra thing. Their buyers weren’t reliable and their demands varied. Business always felt insecure.
“I made deals with these people to sell me regular supplies and I began to make deals directly with restaurants in Southern California to be their everyday supplier. I was amazed at how eager all these people were to have a steady reliable buyer and supplier on either end of this chain. After a few years, I had become the supplier for about half the Indian restaurants in Southern California. A lot of others too, Chinese and others.”
“I guess you weren’t working for your old Indian Restaurant any more,” I said.
“No,” he said. “But they were happy for me and happy to have a reliable supplier for their ginger.”
“Wow,” I said. “That’s quite a story.” I leaned forward so that I could hear better. I had forgotten the late hour and the sounds of the traffic outside the van.
“I soon realized,” he went on, “that I could do even better. I contacted my brother back in the Philippines and we agreed to go in together as partners.”
“Partners in what?” I asked.
“In my business. I was going to continue the import and sales operation in the U.S. He would manage the Philippines end.”
“And what was that?” I said.
“We looked around and found some farmland that was for sale.”
“In the Philippines?” I asked?
“Yes,” he said. “It was very fertile farmland. We bought it and converted it to ginger. We hired a foreman and crew to operate it. We even built a barracks to house the workers.”
“It sounds expensive,” I said.
“It was,” he said. “But by then, I owned properties in this country. I mortgaged them to the hilt to buy the farm. Within a year, it was producing ginger and making a profit.”
“Sounds like you became your own supplier,” I said.
“Not really,” he said. “The farm provided only a small part of my supply. But we were making money at it and that was the point. And there were good prospects for expanding. We made offers on a few neighboring farms and made plans to expand our operations.”
“And did you expand?” I asked.
“We did,” he answered. “We bought the adjacent farm and hired more workers. The land was fertile. The crops were good. My brother is a good manager and businessman. Things were going well.” So why are you driving a taxi?
The van passed smoothly through Downtown and past Dodger Stadium. I suddenly feared that we might reach home without hearing the end of the story.
The driver went on. “During this time, my brother met and became engaged to a woman who lived in the nearby town, about an hour’s drive from the farm. She was a fine woman and the family loved her from the start. A date was set for the wedding, a church was reserved, people were invited, all the arrangements were made. I made my own plans to be there.”
“So what happened,” I said, sensing that he was about to answer my unspoken question.
He went on. “One night a few weeks before the wedding, my brother and his fiancé were out to dinner and they got into a terrible fight. They broke off the engagement and parted angrily, vowing never to see one other again. My brother drove back to the farm in a terrible state of agitation. He went to bed, but tossed and turned and couldn’t sleep. Finally at about two in the morning, he got up and drove back to town. He felt that he and his fiancé had not finished their conversation. This turned out to be the most important decision he ever made in his life.”
“Because it saved his marriage?” I said.
“Yes,” said the driver. “But not in the way you might think. Remember, I told you the land was fertile?”
We turned north on the Glendale Freeway, ten minutes from home.
“Yes,” I said. “I remember.”
“Well,” the driver continued, “the reason it was fertile was that it was at the base of a large mountain.”
“What mountain,” I said, picturing alluvium flowing down from the Sierra Nevada to decompose and enrich California’s Central Valley.
“Mount Pinatubo,” he answered.
“Mount Pinatubo?” I sifted through my memory for a moment. “Isn’t that a volcano?”
“And didn’t it…?” My voice trailed off.
“Yes,” he said. “One hour after my brother left the farm, the mountain exploded. Everyone at the farm was killed. The farm was buried under twelve feet of ash. But by that time my brother was in town, in the arms of his fiancé.
“Did you know the people who died?” I asked.
“My brother and I knew them all. They were like family to us.”
“And the farm? Was there insurance?”
“Of course,” he said. “But insurance doesn’t cover volcanoes.”
“It must have been a disaster,” I said.
“We lost everything,” he said. “Every penny we had. Every property. In the Philippines. In America.”
We pulled up to the curb in front of my house. But I couldn’t budge.
“What will you do now?” I said. I immediately felt foolish, since in the past forty-five minutes he had shown me exactly what he was doing now. But if he was fazed by my question, he did not show it.
“We will start over,” he said in a cheerful voice. “In the mean time,” he said, gesturing at the vehicle, “I need an income.” He set my suitcase on the sidewalk and I paid him, adding a generous tip. He thanked me and got back in his van.
“Good night,” I said, as the van began to inch forward.
Suddenly, I remembered one last question. I stepped into the headlights and waved my arms. He stopped and rolled down his window.
“Yes?” he said quizzically?
“Your brother,” I said, “what happened to him?”
“Oh, he and his fiancé made up. They’re married now. They have two kids. It’s a good marriage.”
“Amazing!” I said. “Well, thanks again and good luck.”
The driver put the van into gear. As his taillights receded, I realized that I hadn’t even asked his name. I wondered briefly whether his tale might have been a fabrication, concocted to entertain passengers and bolster tips. If so, then he had missed his calling: he might have been a writer.
Then I dismissed the thought. His story was rich with nuance and detail. I believed it. And I believe that in time he settled his debts and began again. But to what end? Did he resurrect his old business? Or did he launch himself in some new direction? It was the early nineties. Perhaps he became a dot-comer and rode the boom to its crest. And was his new venture a success? Or had the magic deserted him?
The van reached the corner, turned, and was gone. I was suddenly possessed by a great desire to wake my wife and tell her the story I had just heard. I didn’t, of course. It was after one in the morning. After four in the time zone where I had gotten up. And it would be busy at the office tomorrow.
About the Author:
John Davidson has a Ph.D. in Physics (Maryland 1974) and spent the bulk of his professional career at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, CA. Between 1973 and 2011, he authored or co-authored twenty-eight articles that appeared in professional science and engineering journals. In the past year, he has changed direction, with works of creative non-fiction accepted by Still Crazy, The MacGuffin, Joyland, and The 3288 Review and works of fiction accepted by Calliope and Metonym. He lives today in retirement in La Crescenta, CA.