WIMBLEDON, England — Don’t tell ME about strawberries and cream. I loaded the things. On a truck. At 4 in the morning. That’s right. Wimbledon strawberries. And I ripped open a box and munched a few juicy ones, too, right there, on the dock, with the sun coming up, and . . .
But wait. I’m getting ahead of myself. To understand this little tale, which I call “How I Saved Wimbledon” (a slight exaggeration), we must go to the beginning. To the bar. Late at night. Where I got this idea: Everyone talks about the strawberries and cream here, right? Why not trace those strawberries from the field to the paper cup?
OK. So it’s a bit stupid. I said I was at a bar. Besides, how often can you write about Mats Wilander? I don’t even like Mats Wilander.
“STRAWBERRIES!” I yelled at the bartender, moments before I fell off the stool. . . .
Let us skip ahead here to Sunday, at midnight, at the New Covent Garden Fruit and Vegetable Market, which is somewhere in London, and, at midnight anyhow, is very dark and very quiet and full of trucks and smells like my garbage disposal.
Why do fruit people work at midnight? Well. Let’s see. How the hell should I know? But this was where I stood, at the fruit vendor’s gate, with my friend Jimmy S., whom I persuaded to join me for the thrill and because he owes me money.
And here came a man on a forklift.
“Sir?” I began. “We’d like to do a story on the Wimbledon strawberries. .
. . “
When he stopped laughing, 20 minutes later, he was fine. Yes, he admitted, his firm handles the famous strawberries. They are grown in Kent and Hampshire
and he sells them to a distributor, who takes them to Wimbledon, and who’d be picking them up in a few hours, if we cared to wait.
Hey. Sure. Why not? We’re not busy. Getting to the bottom of it
Can I explain again why we did this? Because people have been eating strawberries and cream at Wimbledon since the day it began, 101 years ago. This is a fact. I think. And in America, most folks figure the things just dance off the trees right into the paper cup, with a little sugar on top.
But I’m a journalist. I get to the bottom.
Besides, strawberries don’t grow on trees.
We waited. And we waited. Three hours. “You the Wimbledon delivery guy?” I asked a bearded man who finally arrived at 3 a.m. He nodded. “We’d like to do a story on strawberries. . . . “
When he stopped laughing, 20 minutes later, he was fine. His name was John, a bill collector for British Gas, but for these two weeks he delivers the Wimbledon fruit, as he has the last eight years, because he loves it, and because his brother-in- law owns the company.
“Well, mate,” he said, jumping inside the truck, “if you want a chat, you can ‘elp me load ’em up, and we can chat.”
Did I mention my bad back?
And suddenly, there I was, loading crate after crate, 3,000 pounds of Wimbledon-bound strawberries. What a thrill! What tradition in my hands!
“Good batch this year?” I asked John.
“Dunno.” He ripped off the plastic wrap and popped a fistful into his mouth. “Quite tasty, actually,” he said.
What the heck? We ate a few. We ate a few more. And finally, at 4 a.m., we finished loading, which was good, because by that point we needed a bathroom desperately. And besides, a few more crates and I’d have had to join the union.
Oh. Here was good news: John would let us help deliver the strawberries to Wimbledon. John knew cheap labor when he saw it.
Here was bad news: He didn’t leave until 6 a.m.
So Jimmy and I found a tiny cafeteria near the loading docks. And we waited. And waited. I can barely describe the fun of sitting at a Formica table, for two hours, next to a British truck driver named Cheech.
Aw heck. I won’t even try. Cream of the crop is delivered
At 5 a.m., I had my fifth cup of coffee. At 5:15, my seventh. I shut my eyes for a blissful moment, taking in the sounds and smells of the market. . . .
“Wake up, you’re snoring,” said Jimmy.
OK. Back on the truck with John. Off we went. Already there were people waiting for tickets, sleeping on blankets along Church Road.
“Yup,” said John, grinning, “seen my share of underwear on this street.”
What more can I tell you? We unloaded the fruits of our labor outside the main stadium, said goodby, and stumbled back to our hotel room as the rest of London went to work.
So on Monday, I can proudly say we helped bring fruity joy to hundreds of Wimbledon patrons. I can also say when we finally made it back to the grounds,
we swore we would never bother with an investigation like this again. And we sealed that pledge with a cup of you-know-what.
I looked at the strawberries, and wondered if they were the batch we had dipped into. Then I wondered if John had washed his hands. Ah, forget it. Our journey is over. Right? Jimmy put the spoon to his lips. . . .
“I wonder where the cream comes from,” I said.