NEW YORK — Every Saturday for the last two years, Carolyn Walker, a medical researcher who lives in East Harlem, has bundled up a week's worth of kitchen scraps into a big shopping bag and lugged it to the subway for the four-mile, 20-minute trip to the Greenmarket at Union Square.
There, as she did Saturday, with shoppers swirling around her, she added her vegetable peelings and dead houseplant leaves to a bin of scraps that will be made into nutrient-rich compost. "It's part of my responsibility as a citizen of the planet to keep the Earth as clean and recyclable as possible, with the least amount of toxicity," Walker said, explaining why she would go to such seemingly considerable hassle.
New York can be a city of ultimate convenience, with seemingly everything one could desire available within one city block at all hours of the day or night. That urban handiness extends down to household garbage: Many apartment buildings have porters who will pick it up right outside the apartment door.
Nonetheless, each Saturday, thousands of New Yorkers converge on Union Square for the farmers market, many going considerably out of their way to have the full country experience in the heart of Manhattan.
Composting is just one small part of it. At this time of year, New Yorkers will even get into their cars to come here to buy winter vegetables, sip hot cider and pick from the rows of Christmas trees, wreaths, poinsettias and even pine cones -- the kind you can pick up for free on country roads -- for 25 cents each.
Patricia Brophy, dressed in high heels, pink patterned stockings, elegant costume jewelry and a fur collar, hailed a cab Saturday while trying to not get blown over as a strong wind caught the 5-foot holly branch she had just bought. A Wall Street broker, she said the market "is the place to come; it's kind of an event."
Christmas trees are available even in the wee hours of the morning on practically every block, sold by French-speaking guys from Canada; they'll even deliver. Nonetheless, the Musumeci family drove 20 blocks to the market to pick out their 8-foot tree Saturday, as they do every year. "It's more Christmasy to buy it here than in front of the supermarket," Claudia Musumeci said.
The city's privately funded Council on the Environment started the Greenmarkets program in 1976; today there are markets at more than 24 locations on varying days. Monica Bernheim, a psychotherapist, bought apples in the pouring rain Friday at her Upper West Side Greenmarket. The produce is fresh, and "it feels like an old-time village," Bernheim said of her dedication, even in bad weather.Apple vendor Chip Kent, of Locust Grove Farm in Milton, N.Y., has been selling at the Friday market since he was a teen; he's now 42. Customers can recall his various girlfriends before he married.
Jeff Bialas, at his family's neighboring stand, recently married a woman who had been a customer for several years.
Hella and Carl Ossenberg, sharing an umbrella, have been customers since the beginning. "It reminds me of small-town Russia," said Hella, a psychoanalyst, about her affinity for the market, before allowing that she's from the not-so-small Ukrainian town of Kiev.
The Saturday Union Square market (the site hosts smaller markets on Monday, Wednesday and Friday) is the biggest, with about 60 vendors per week, manager Cathy Chambers said.
The customers' dedication to the fresh produce comes easily, but the composting program demands more. Nonetheless, about 500 households bring in about 1,500 pounds of compost-ready material each week to Union Square, said Christine Datz-Romero, director of the Lower East Side Ecology Center, which runs the composting program.
"It's all about habits," she said. Making it easy for people to participate in the program, which started in 1994, the center asks them to bring their garbage in plastic bags, which are then emptied into bigger bins, as aggressive squirrels jockey unsuccessfully for a meal.
The bins are carted to a park on the East River near the Williamsburg Bridge, where the material is mixed with sawdust, then later with earthworms that turn the mess into compost over three months. The center sells the compost and uses some in a community garden.
Saturday, the composting bin had a steady stream of visitors. One woman, wearing a bright fuchsia coat and purple hat, said she shares a 450-square-foot apartment but still finds room in the bottom refrigerator shelf for her scraps. "It drives my husband crazy," she said. "He says, 'It's garbage, throw it out.' "
Her dedication is motivated by budget-driven cutbacks in the city's recycling program, which no longer picks up glass and plastic, only metal and newspapers. A program that collected discarded Christmas trees from curbside to turn them into mulch also has been abandoned.
Caspar Henselmann, a sculptor, and his wife, Evangeline, a retired city planner, bring their scraps sometimes twice weekly 10 blocks to the market. "I grew up in the country," he said, "and that's what you did."