A customer decked out in leather and ripped jeans stood on line at McCarren Greenmarket’s Far Out Cactus, between a yuppie couple with a purebred dog and a hippie in Buddhist prayer beads carrying a yoga mat.“He’s definitely the succulent guy,” she said. “I wanted to get a present for my grandmother, and what could be cooler than this weird cactus?”
I first noticed the succulent stand about a year ago, while composting at the Greenmarket. Since then, whenever I’ve needed an interesting and affordable gift, or get a hankering for a bit more greenery myself, this stand is my go-to. And I’m not alone: the stand is a meeting point for tiny plant fiends from all walks of life.
Richard Lenatsky is the owner and sole proprietor of the succulent stand, and has been working professionally with arid plants for decades. May 1st will mark his 45th year in the business — including a brief stint selling peyote. After I bought my last succulent from him — and spent 20 minutes learning about it — I couldn’t stop wondering about the man who deftly handled the needles on a cactus with his bare hands, without wincing.
“I’m pretty used to it now,” Lenatsky, who drives to Brooklyn from Pennsylvania at 4am every Saturday told Brokelyn. “[But] my wife still spends every night removing all the needles I can’t reach with a pair of tweezers.”
Though his face doesn’t betray his age, Lenatsky’s expertise becomes clear whenever he rattles off the Latin names of every plant on his stand, and I became curious about what kind of person could manage to make a name for himself in so many North Brooklyn social and apartment-decorating circles.
Lenatsky bought his first cactus at a Greenwich Village Woolworth’s in 1966. By May Day 1971, he had grown enough cacti to take a pushcart out to a street corner downtown in his native Philadelphia and start selling them.
“Every day some freaky looking guy would come walking by me and would see me standing there with my full beard,” Lenatsky said. “He would stop dead in his tracks, do a double take, and say ‘Farrrrr outtttt’.”
Lenatsky recounted how these burnout flower children would ask him if he had any peyote. And he usually did, until he checked with local authorities who said “in the most emphatic terms” that peyote cactus was a controlled substance. From then on, Lenatsky’s cart bore legal succulents only and his long-running business, Far Out Cactus, was born.
Sarah, a vendor for Baker’s Bounty across the Greenmarket road, excuses herself into our conversation to share photos of her new succulent arrangement. I’m told this is a common practice: Lenatsky’s clientele often bring him iPhone photos of the succulents he sold them. His fellow purveyors bring him goods from their shops and he, in turn, gifts them some of his most beautiful specimens. He’s the darling of the market.
“You can’t truly experience what I do without seeing my greenhouse,” beamed Lenatsky. “I have 12,000 square feet of succulents. It’s the cactus-growing capital of Eastern Pennsylvania.”
At this point and as far as he knows, it’s the only cactus-specific greenhouse in all of Pennsylvania. Lenatsky spends most of his days alone there working on his plants. His only visitor is a boarding Carolina wren who “does his little dance” before settling down for the night. Lenatsky painted me a verdant picture of his greenhouse, saying it has become so overgrown that he “can’t walk down the center aisle without getting legs full of cactus spines.”
Lenatsky spent decades distributing Far Out Cactus wares to various supermarkets and Home Depots, but after the recession hit, he needed a change. His son was the one to recommend that he start selling his plants at the McCarren Park Greenmarket.
“That changed the course of my life,” Lenatsky said. “I didn’t know there was a place for plants here. I thought it was only things to eat.”
Lenatsky leaves his house in West Chester, Pennsylvania at 4am every Saturday morning — so long as the weather is warm enough to support his desert plant — and drives two hours to Brooklyn. It’s a trip he’s been making for about six years now.
David, a resident of Brooklyn who buys succulents “at least once a month,” spoke of Lenatsky like an old friend. “I don’t buy from anyone else, just him. He takes care of his plants. We have a chat and it’s cool to hang out.”
Though the market at McCarren is open year-round, Far Out Cactus isn’t. Lenatsky doesn’t have much of an online presence. An Internet search yields only one mention in a Tweet from the Greenmarket in 2014:
Far out cactus is back! Come say hi to Richard and pick up some lovely succulents! @ McCarren Park… http://t.co/GC6JTaYTAw
— Greenmarket Staff (@NYCGreenmarkets) April 26, 2014
Nevertheless, more than one person addressed him by his first name while I was there, and Lenatsky responded in kind. His personality shone through alongside his passion as he cracked jokes and imparted welcomed wisdom on plant longevity to every patron who asked what each plant needed or where it was from.
“It’s not a home without a plant,” said Emile Tusk, who’d just moved to Brooklyn from Austin the evening beforehand. “It’s so impressive to buy from someone who knows so much.”
Between sales, Lenatsky sings. He has a Yiddish music concert coming up on April 20 at Haverford College outside Philadelphia. Lenatsky taught himself to sing using a “full Italian opera from my father’s album.” He was 10. Now, he performs for pleasure in public venues — and every Saturday, behind his counter.
“My wife said I talk too much,” joked Lenatsky. “She’s right. I’m getting hoarse from talking and from vocalizing so much today.”
With a resiliency matching that of the plants themselves, Far Out Cactus has survived decades of changing fashions. Succulents are somehow… trendy. Maybe it’s because they can survive weeks of neglect, or because they fits in nicely with the micro movement. Either way, everybody wants to get their hands on Lenatsky’s greens. And with a rotating cast of North Brooklynites who seem increasingly nouveau as the years go by, the succulent stand has made for a kind of informal census of Williamsburg’s residents over the past six years.
Before I left, David bought a few more succulents. Lenatsky responded, “I thought you were out of room.”
“I’ve moved and I’m moving again,” said David.
Follow Giacinta on Instagram of more pics of cacti: @greycatwhite.