Saul Kaufman's grin widens after he tells me he's 94 years old. That's because he loves to watch jaws drop when he reveals his age.
He looks 20 years younger and gives hope to everyone who wonders what old age will bring. But there's something else which makes him smile -- an enclosed balcony filled from floor to ceiling with deep green plants.
Sitting in his North Oakland apartment next to a dashing photo of him as a soldier in World War II, he explains what inspired him to create this indoor garden paradise. "I think I got it from my mother. What she did rubbed off on me."
For years, he ran Kaufman Mattress Outlet on Butler Street in Lawrenceville, and his mother would bring some of her plants down to the shop and sell them. There's an old black-and-white photo of Mary Kaufman taped to the brick wall of his plant room. It shows her with the wide smile he inherited next to a table of potted plants. She seemingly watches over the plants when Mr. Kaufman is out.
He can barely work his way through the room as there are a variety of cacti and houseplants growing into the center. There's a red cordyline, giant leopard plant, huge money plant and lots more. In fact, the balcony is so crowded he's started moving plants into his apartment. For the most part, the only way a new plant gets added is if another dies, which doesn't happen often. The garden is thriving with beautiful gray green succulents blooming with brilliant orange flowers. Some of the plants are indestructible; others take a gentle touch to make them happy.
"This is a shrimp plant," he says. "It's very delicate. You just touch a leaf and it will fall off."
It all began with a 6-foot tall cactus plant 10 years ago. Before that he never grew anything. When asked why, he pondered for a minute and said, "I guess it's something I had in my mind for a long time. I never had the time."
The garden balcony on the 12th floor of the Dithridge House offers a panoramic view of the city to the north and Schenley High School, where Mr. Kaufman graduated from and swam competitively in the 1940s.
He's led an interesting life. In the war he was a mess sergeant, eventually becoming personal chef to Major Gen. Philip Hayes. He loves to bowl and even plays a few songs on the piano.
Mr. Kaufman enjoys nurturing his garden and other things, too. "I like to be able to take care of something, not only plants, even some people who need assistance."
He spends time at the Jewish Community Center befriending people who might be struggling with illnesses or other problems.
On his garden balcony, Mr. Kaufman flips a switch, which starts a small fountain and illuminates the spotlights. "At night time, it's the most romantic thing you've ever seen," he says with a smile.
At every turn there's another interesting plant. Standards such as philodendrons and snake plant are interspersed with tilansia, lucky bamboo and "Old Man of the Andes" cactus, which produces bright red flowers annually. There's also one he calls a Florida plant. "It looks like one of those palm trees. I don't know the name of it," he says, laughing.
As he squeezes through his beloved plants, he looks down at one his tropical beauties. "My biggest challenge is keeping after this, making sure they are all thriving. It's a pleasure to see things grow."
He also shared his secret to a healthy life. "I try to be careful with what I eat. Boil, broiled or baked, the three B's, and lots of walking."
Mother would certainly be proud of that.