Fire makes for a good action movie, loud and beautifully terrifying. People struggling against fire are always heroic. The world as we know it is changed in a matter of hours. Three months after the Wildwood Canyon fire, Trixie and I scampered up the charred hillside…as though crossing a WW I battlefield or post nuclear Japan. You could still smell the ash everywhere.
And yet, already, green shoots sprout cheerful from the cinders, unperturbed by the ruckus, seemingly grateful for Nature’s chastisement: Thank you, ma’am, may I have another?
You want to see nature’s real horror movie? Consider the Polyphagous Shot Hole Borer, now eating the Sweetgum trees in my neighborhood.
This guy. This monster, this Godzilla of the microcosmos, no bigger than a BB pellet, tunnels its way into the trunks of trees, sowing spores. Unlike termites, it doesn’t actually eat the wood, it sows eggs which create larvae, the larvae become a fungus. The fungus devours the tree from the inside. The tree isn’t food. The tree is a host, a womb for the evil grubs to squat in while they make more evil grubs, which apparently have no purpose on this earth but to sow more larvae. Once inside the trunk, they are immune to pesticides. Apparently there is no stopping them. Parasite rex!
Half the sweetgums in our neighborhood we lost this year. Half! A magnificent colonnade rotting from within, branches dropping on cars, tipping like dominos. They won’t be replaced in three months. It’ll take 30 years.
There is so much construction and renovation going on in Los Angeles right now a 50 square foot granite job in Van Nuys qualifies as a nuisance, even if you’re waving cash like a drunken bachelor at a strip club. The normal laws of business are in abeyance when it comes to stone work.
The first contractor to visit told us he was in the middle of a 25 slab bathroom renovation in Pasadena, “but he would squeeze us in”. Our kitchen was less than a single slab.
Of course we never heard from him again. We went through a series of estimates ranging from $1100 to $3900, which meant fabricators were making up numbers and hoping suckers would bite. Mostly, though, people didn’t call us back.
After some gentle and persistent nagging we manage to prevail upon someone to pick up our slab at the yard. Then we waited for work to begin. And waited.
We were doing dishes in the bathtub. Our leverage over the stoneworkers, even as paying customers, was effectively zero.
After six weeks the call came. The countertops were arriving in the morning. The Luises, Juan Luis and Jose Luis, were standing on the porch at 8am. Our finished pieces were in the back of their truck.
Complications ensued, as they say in comedy. The biggest of the pieces, the crucial L shaped one, had an overhang 3/4 of an inch too long. The cabinet drawers couldn’t open. Phone calls were made to the shop. It was suggested I make the countertop 3/4 of an inch higher to accommodate their screw up. I nixed the idea on principle, while dreading the idea of the countertop leaving the house, to return to a nuisance pile to be dealt with by the fabricator at a future date, unknown.
After much negotiation in Spanish it was decided Luis (Jose Luis) would resolve the matter on site.
They set up a table in the driveway, and he went to work, recutting and polishing the overhang in 106 degree heat. It took four hours in the full sun. I brought him water and chatted him up while he took breaks. Turns out we were neighbors.
He lives with his wife and daughter in an apartment on Sherman Way. He came from El Salvador 14 years ago, and started out sweeping floors at the granite yard. He swept for three years before they let him use the tools.
Now he cuts and installs stone perpetually. He doesn’t mind the dust. He pays $2000 a month in rent and has a 14-year old who has to have the “good shoes”. He told me it hurts him when she speaks English when she comes home from school. He doesn’t smoke, doesn’t drink, doesn’t partake of drugs. To save money he drives a 2002 Mitsubishi. Too many Latinos blow their money on cars, and partying on the weekends. “Good for the economy, but bad for us.” Yet for all his el norte striving, he demands she speak Spanish in the house.
Sometimes other Latinos call him beaner. “Why can’t you speak English?”
In Central America he was picking cucumbers. In Los Angeles he has a trade which puts folding money in his pocket, and a daughter with a phone, surrounded by danger. “Ai, peligro! Peligro everywhere”. Spanish is his only hold on her.
Luis finished the edge detail by mid-afternoon. After a moment of suspense, our fancy new Ikea drawers opened with a perfect 1/8 inch of clearance, and with that, our upper-middle class pretentions for our working class stucco box were marginally closer to fruition, courtesy of El Salvador.
After he left I thought of the movie Breaking Away and wondered what would become of his English speaking, shoe-loving daughter.
Henceforth, all ranch houses in Los Angeles shall be vertical. That’s gonna entail a lot more dusting and mopping. What to do? Who will we find? Americans are lazy as f**k.
Look, someone left a card. There’s an App for everything.
Deep. Detailed. Delightful, like a really good massage. No tipping required. Now we’re talking.
They’ll even send a pair of blondes who look like yoga instructors.
Okay, maybe they won’t be blonde. Maybe not fit, either. But certified. As a bonus willing to labor tip-free, tidying up all the awkward social contract implications.
I wonder where they live, these non-blonde, non-yoga instructing floor scrubbers? Two to a room in a dingbat apartment in Van Nuys, probably.
Whatever happened to the old Van Nuys people? You know, those dingbat apartment dwellers? Maybe they moved to the Ozarks. They should have obtained an education if they wanted to stick around. They shouldn’t have gotten high. They shouldn’t have gotten old. How they gonna clean floors now?
Vines poke their tendrils through the soffit vents and under the doorways in the Valley. Spiders and dust slip the gap in the screen. Shade trees drop leaves like drunkards, covering the patio the day after you clean it. Rats chew their way into the walls, bed down in the insulation and gnaw on the ceiling rafters. Ants march across countertops to find the drop of maple syrup you spilled at breakfast. While you watch Game of Thrones nature is forever reaching into your house, reasserting claims.
You hear cat stories from people, how they disappear for a week and then walk back in the door as though nothing happened. That’s never happened to us.
Our deal with Memphis was he was free to wander the neighborhood as long as he reported in by dark. He rusticated under bushes. He slithered over fences and onto neighbors patios. He lolled in the middle of the street, swishing his tail, waiting for cars to come around the corner. He galumphed up and down the block greeting tradesmen and head-butting teenage slackers. The normal rules of cat tragedy were forever in abeyance. A hundred and nine lives he enjoyed. On our return from the evening walk we would hear the tinkle of his collar as he fell into step behind us. Sometimes he took sport in making Mrs. U chase him down, gather him into her arms, and carry him back to the house over her shoulder while he kneaded his claws into her shoulder.
On the second morning after Memphis didn’t report, I woke to Trixie pacing the roof. She stood at parade rest over my bedroom window, alert, staring toward the end of the block, as though sniffing his return.
It was not to be. The urban forest had extracted its claim on our house.