Tucson Salvage

Fight For Your Right to Live and Garden

Though he personifies "gentle giant," Drew Berryhill cuts an imposing presence because he is big, gridiron big, literally; he played defensive end and tight end in high school and college. Played basketball too. The 6-foot-4 Berryhill came up inside white high-school systems often afraid of black kids, especially one like Berryhill, a giant for his age. All signs, from his coaches and contemporaries to his stats and abilities, pointed in the direction of Berryhill nailing his career goal: a pro football player. The childhood dream crushed out in painful psyche-flattening ways he didn't yet understand, and it ate him in his guts for years.

But that was then. Dude doesn't even follow sports now. Yet all the indignities of life, the maltreatments and hassles, have been made excessive in one hostile move lately that threatens the safety of his home, business and children.

The interior and exterior of his house today is metaphor for the 33-year-old Berryhill's new dreams blooming. Outside, Drutopia, his already profitable nursery, is a Tucson residential neighborhood oasis featuring all manner of desert life, which Berryhill began in earnest cultivating and growing in August last year. The nursery opened to the public in March, a week before the pandemic began to shut the world down. On a street of grown-in, mostly loved World War II-era houses in the Doolen-Fruitvale neighborhood, the Drutopia nursery is beautifully orchestrated on a couple of otherwise dusty acres. Colors explode, cobalt blues and shock yellows, mauves and lavenders. Ponytail palms and a silk floss tree fights for attention alongside hibiscus flowers and succulent arrays. The yard is separated into aesthetically pleasing spaces and breezeways, deliberate gardens and a long walk-in greenhouse tent.

On a too-hot, sun-alarm October weekday, Drutopia still smells of lilac and sarsaparilla. We take a seat on tree stumps in the nursery, heat refusing to ebb under shade netting, which affords dappled light across his plants, the rocks and crystals; even the palm-sized obsidian Halloween skulls at the outdoor register shimmer. His underarm tats spell a mix of Maya Angelou and Tupac words: "Against all odds" and "Still I will rise." He wears easy-breathe athletic wear, dark poly shorts and matching Nike top, hair tight in fetching auburn-tinted cornrows, curled out at the ends. Delicate crinkle-leaf succulents in grower pots take on a near-amatory quality behind him. Drutopia is obviously created with love and care; if religion is biologically oriented, this place is a manifestation of Berryhill's.

"There is no way this becomes a thing without [spirituality]," Berryhill says, wiping sweat from his brow, talking his relationship to the green things and animal life.

He talks of satisfaction in the discovery of learning the reverberations of plants and animals and the hunt for deeper meaning and the connection within those repetitions. He talks of the greenhouse planting, the growing shapes of a fire stick pencil cactus and the lovely intricate patterns of a shrimp flower, nuances of certain crystals. He pays attention to the patterns, "the energy that connects us to plants, animals and minerals." The wholesale plant ordering, the bookkeeping and business side are the means upon which he learns.

He reads, studies and grows life, his guide now, the gentle patterns he sees, teachings he is passing on to his two children who he co-raises with their mothers. There are bits of an agriculturist, a botanist, in his work, but he's an autodidactic. "I'm self-taught," he says. He listens to people who can teach him, had advisors.

Berryhill speaks in even tones, is eloquent and perceptive, only says what he means and means what he says, and is generous of sympathies and life around him. He credits his mother for a remarkable stamp she put upon him, her love of green things. ("She is everything that is good in me. And I'm not gassing her up because she is my mom.")

Words he uses often, like "character" and "soul," bookend names he credits for taking real interest in him over the years, provided internal and external sparks, early heroes like Sahauro High basketball legend Dick McConnell. ("He helped me a lot, was a real solid dude"). He'll talk of his love for vintage southern gospel, hip hop and rock 'n' roll.

Mostly, all day every day, Berryhill is learning those connections, which gives him a boyish innocence. He floats around the place like a peaceful goatherder.

Such connections were slow-growing, took years to manifest, he says. It wasn't easy for a big, Black kid in Tucson.

There is the story from his high-school freshman year, Berryhill as a top basketball prospect. The family had recently moved back to Tucson, after living all over, Texas, Italy, Portugal, California. Dad was an Air Force man, who split with his mother when he was in junior high. "There were things I didn't understand emotionally when my parents split up." His old man? Berryhill says dad is non-existent in his life now.

One day Berryhill cut his foot and was on crutches at school when a kid tried to trip him. Berryhill was the one held responsible. He turns emotional in recall: "I remember thinking, 'Wait. What just happened? This is so unsettling.' So, I punch a window, it breaks and I leave. I get suspended for three days. I'll take that, I lost my temper."

The teacher took out a restraining order against the freshman. Court papers were served at home and mom was livid. It made local news.

"This teacher fabricated a restraining order saying I threatened to kill him!" Berryhill says. "Man, I won't hurt anything. The nerve that someone would fabricate that against a child; I was 13 or 14. I said, 'Fine, I'll just stay away from him.'"

Mom snatched him from Sahuaro, placed him in a Tucson charter school, which they later learned wasn't properly accredited academically. It had no basketball program. Berryhill was devastated. People knew him there from basketball, he was already a high-school star.

"That school was mostly kids who couldn't hack it, and I met some great people there. I stayed away from drugs and gangs because I was committed to being an athlete. I still played where I could. He acknowledges NBA star, then a UA all-pro player, Luke Walton for taking an interest in him then. "He changed my life."

click to enlarge Drew and son Jaxon at home. - BRIAN SMITH
Brian Smith
Drew and son Jaxon at home.

He wound up at private Salpointe High School, which he says, "I didn't know the sacrifices my mom went through then to get me in. She worked hard, did whatever she could to put me in Salpointe." One of the biggest kids there, Berryhill transitioned to football too, was accomplished enough ASU offered him football and basketball scholarships.

Because of the charter school, he'd technically missed a year, and lost a petition for a fifth year of eligibility. "We traveled to see the board in Phoenix, my mom was pleading in tears. It was another bombshell."

ASU rescinded the scholarship offer and that senior year Berryhill cheered his Salpointe teammates on from the sidelines. ("Inside, I was dying.") His grades dropped, depression (which he was just learning to define) rose hard.

His Salpointe coach helped Berryhill land a full football scholarship at Eastern Arizona, and he studied criminology. He laughs, "I didn't even know what junior college was." At Eastern he earned mad interest from Pac-10 schools, and he was ready again.

His then-girlfriend became pregnant, with their son (A.J, now 14) after his freshman year. They married. His son became the priority. His football career was over. He joined the working class.

"I'm 33 now," he says. A moment of suppressed regret rises, and he shakes his head. "I was doing it. I really had to fight through the bitterness and the darkness. But I thought of the best moves I could make as a man, a father and a husband, and felt compelled toward consistency. I thought I was doing the right thing getting married, but sometimes doing the right thing is not doing the right thing."

The marriage lasted a year and a half, and he says they get along really well. "My hat's off to her. She is a good woman."

He met another woman, had a child, the now 10-year-old Jaxon. "I feel fortunate with the mothers of my sons, blessed really, but it's been a lot of work."

After Eastern he worked jobs, a nursery and call centers among them.

"I was making good money at Costco selling cell phones, but it wasn't me. I couldn't look my kids in the eye. I wasn't building anything."

He met one Jim McLain there, a former teacher well-connected in floral worlds. They hit it off. Berryhill recalls: "He said, 'Let me show you how it works. I'll do anything you need to be successful.' And he always said, 'I want to get what's in my head into yours.'

"He gave me this much information," Berryhill continues, holding his thumb and fingers apart, "and I took it head on and ran. I had a basic knowledge of growing. When you take the thinking—take yourself out of the equation—you learn the plants just want to grow. All that football, the training and suffering led to this coming to fruition."

That's when the ecological and spiritual importance of plant and animal life captivated him, and he credits McLain for helping him see it. He went to work on his property.

* * *

Like any attempt to turn dream to journey, it appears undemanding in the long view but reality shows it littered with exasperating minutiae, gnarly suckerpunches.

This guy broke free of his 40-hour work-a-day cage and moved on to the cathartic ground of dream fulfilment as a career move, a Black-owned business born of a life's second act, born of passion, which is now threatened by what Berryhill calls a hostile takeover.

On July 1, Berryhill's former advisor and supporter Jim McLain appeared at Drutopia to show the greenhouse to friends. Berryhill launched into Drutopia's vision for McLain's guests but reality soon switched to the surreal. McLain, who is white and in his 70s, tells Berryhill the purpose of this meeting is, "I'm letting Drutopia go." He produced a paper, a notice of termination effective July 31, "saying he was taking the business that I built, taking the sign and selling everything half-off."

Berryhill was shocked, hurt. Embarrassed in front of strangers, felt cheapened and accosted. Then, things soured further.

The original owners of the property, with whom Berryhill says he had a great relationship and to whom he had paid rent for five years, wanted Berryhill to take over the property, but offered McLain a below-market price, which includes a four-unit apartment complex on the land next door. The owners sold to McLain in good faith, Berryhill says, thinking it was ultimately going to Berryhill, who'd pay it off. All land deals are based on paper.

"I trusted him, he was working on my behalf, grooming me for complete ownership," he says. "I still owe him 10K on promissory note, which is due next year, for startup costs. In May, I had given him $4,728 toward the purchase of the property."

So, Berryhill phoned authorities, and made personal videos for social media that same day, in which he fervently outlined the wrongs, and logged more than 9,000 Instagram views in the first 24 hours, a number that soon ballooned to 50,000 views. Folks from in and out of state rallied in his corner, as evidenced by a GoFundMe page he started, and a change.org started petition to stop the eviction. Drutopia earned a posse and he's grateful for the word-of-mouth customers.

"This guy thought that he could toss me out and all that I built."

Meanwhile, Drutopia's business was on an uptick, and has so far turned a profit in its first year of business. Despite the pandemic, Berryhill has managed to save money. Drutopia was added to lists, including BlaxFriday, an influential Tucson directory for Black-owned businesses, which helped Drutopia "absurdly." Berryhill also retained a lawyer, Meredith Marter, who specializes in mergers and acquisitions, and who filed a cease-and-desist, and, later, offers of compromise and even for Berryhill to purchase.

He heard nothing from the landlord's side, no desire to negotiate or sell, much less any show of empathy toward him or his children.

(I reached out to Jim McLain to comment on this story but got no reply.)

"Why was there nothing from this guy?" Berryhill says. "He's been my friend, he knows my family, we shared Thanksgiving. I understand he thinks I don't know how to run a business, but he has no idea what I am doing."

Incredibly, in early July, Berryhill says that an unlawful flyer was circulated by McLain stating Berryhill's home was available for free to anyone who could take care of the land in exchange for learning how to work a greenhouse and to grow. Berryhill shakes his head, intimates indentured servitude, classic white Colonialism. "McLain is an ardent Trump supporter, and I think Trump brought out his worst."

click to enlarge Berryhill at his Drutopia: "I won't let anyone take this from me." - BRIAN SMITH
Brian Smith
Berryhill at his Drutopia: "I won't let anyone take this from me."

Gov. Doug Ducey's Arizona moratorium on evictions helped Berryhill on the legal side, and ultimately, through Pima County Constable processes and Berryhill's attorney, held any kind of eviction or property seizure off, at least until Oct. 31, but the situation was fraught with more subterfuge.

A way to get a tenant tossed out during the moratorium is if he commits a criminal act, like, say, he or she threatens to kill a property owner. Which McLain claimed Berryhill did.

"Yeah, so dude made something up. Here we go again. Treating me like a dumb, big black football player." Sheriffs came by to hear Berryhill's side, and Berryhill says every aspect of the injunction can be proven wrong.

Another pattern inside of Berryhill's life.

In August, a Pima County Constable, Joe Ferguson, arrived to serve the order of protection on behalf of McLain. Ferguson, who Berryhill describes as "a savior" in his fairness, explained to him these sorts of things happen, and there are ways to dispute it, and that no type of eviction would go through unjustly.

Constable Ferguson shares my thoughts on Berryhill. "I talked to Berryhill a lot when he was in different emotional states," Ferguson says. "He's never appeared angry. Even when sheriffs arrived, he was calm. This is something happening to a good person, who turned his life around, who started a business during the pandemic, who has children. A landlord is doing everything to get him out of there."

Two hearings later, Berryhill had to pay McLain's court costs, attorney fees and two month's rent. The court decided any eviction was left to the constables.

"After I learned I had until Oct. 31 before I start fighting this again, a sheriff shows up, again telling me McLain is ordering me out." Turns out McLain circumvented the constable's office and went to the county sheriff.

Berryhill called Ferguson, who contacted the sheriff's office and within hours the papers were reversed.

This month, another motion was filed and the judge decided, unusually in chambers, to compel the constables to evict. Berryhill's side countered with a reconsideration motion. It looks grim to me, but Berryhill doesn't see it that way.

"As a black man in this country I've been working toward ownership and it means everything, not just for me but others going through similar things," Berryhill says. "I actually feel bad for the dude. With all this going on in the country, this is what he focuses on? That original piece of paper said I had until July 31, and I'm still here. I'm still here with reason to have hope. Things are good, I'm running the business. This thing with McLain is the best thing that happened to me since the birth of my children. Seriously. The hottest summer on record in Tucson, a pandemic, and I've been standing in the fire. You can't take this away from me, what I've created and established, that is the point. I seriously hope McLain lives a long and fruitful life, but this will be part of his legacy."

Berryhill learned one vital lesson: Everything from now on will be in writing.

* * *

The interior of his Tucson cinderblock-and beamed-ceiling home is alight with life, shelved books and movies. Various plants, and all manner of creatures: fish, bunnies, snakes, guinea pigs, tortoises, possums ("sugar gliders are best, gentle and kind") and lizards. Aquariums and terrariums and stacked wooden cages blend into a well-kept, homey décor accented by glimmering amethyst geodes, several knee-high, and crystals, a large angled black couch dominates the living room.

This place is me, he says, relaxing back on said couch. His handsome, curly mopped son Jaxon sits nearby, kills his video game out of respect for dad, and settles into a quiet, observant demeanor.

"I'm a reasonable guy. Character is all that matters to me," dad says, relating to the constant story of our lives, and that bleary idea of what freedom from despotism should look like. "Trump is a direct result of our country losing our character and soul and whatever is going on politically is not going to get in the way of me taking care of my boys or my business. This will pass. My boys will better for the things I'm going through, and so too my community. When George Floyd happened, that's always been my reality. I'm glad non-Black people are waking up to the accountability."

Adds, "Drutopia is who I am. This is what I was made to do."

At some point Berryhill might be forced to leave, and Drutopia, where it stands, on top of everything else, may be in violation of residential zoning codes.

If so, give him some time to relocate home and business, even in this climate, and he'll know the patterns.

Brian Smith's collection of essays and stories, Tucson Salvage: Tales and Recollections of La Frontera, based on this column, is available now on Eyewear Press UK. Buy the collection in Tucson at Antigone Books, 411 N. Fourth Ave.

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