Was, like a circus rolled into town and pitched their tents next to the little house with the deplorable paint job at 1651 South Rice Road. Periwinkle and lime? The show ran for nigh on eight years, never lacked for clowns and high wire acts and hosted real drama, intrigue, jealousies, even a little intermittent light tragedy to break up the comedy. I can’t count them all but there must have been 23 actors, all told. Quite a few were no-accounts, but they racked up and were nearly all kind.
Was going to be a proper farm school when once we began, with a library and earnest talks broken with incisive question and answer, but the performers hoo-hawed and drank beer instead of drinking in those scholarly formalities because the only time to roll formal was at the end of the day and by the end of the day it’s night with not much day left to play scholastically formal. I frequently thought formal scholasticalization would heighten the value, lift us up from squalid labors. That onion box-drudgery would disappear with organization and intention, kindle purpose among dawdlers. But once that sun starts dipping down low and you’re all nasty with sweat there is not much hanker remaining for a lecture. You dream of sipping. Then you step out on Jones patrol seeking cold ones. That’s a hanker you must respect. As a teacher, I was not too doctrinaire.
We tended to cover the subject matter designed for the course while working anyway. There’s always disease to prevent. And when there’s weeds at your feet there is no better teaching moment to pontificate and over all that weeds tell, better, then, than some power point weed show. Technology’s limitations are as legendary as extension cords can be short. There’s no blurry back of the room darkness in the patch. I never saw anyone nod off holding on to a hoe. There is nothing to learn in the shade. You’ll deeply absorb what’s up with weeds when staring them right in the eye and respect them then for the lazy terror they are. I heard one so-called student say that she thought she heard the weeds growing in the row next to her while she knelt and I will defend that insanity because I have heard the roar of their roots piercing miles of soil in unison. To be humbled by their uncompromising imperative is also to have been educated about the real wild. Even our own plants have gone over to the dark side. I murdered hundreds of arugulas yesterday, just before they set seed. And few know how defiant rainbow chard can be.
One of the chief lessons taught by weeds is that there has to be some better occupation than farming. Even the lowly plumber, on hands and knees, plunging a stranger’s toilet, is paid much more handsomely than the menial dirt artisan, with her wretched pile of greens wilting away in the noon-day sun at a farmers market. Wes, who was the best farm hand not born in Mexico I ever employed, is too smart to farm. He’s best at managing his time, which is our chief existential asset, and he figures he’d rather make ample cash as a workplace mercenary than pray all day on his knees to the merciless god Vega, Lord of the Low and Buggy. Dillon “Dancer” Schepps was cut from that cloth. He’d rather assure that winsome digital starlets are found in just the right light than spray the dirt off the beets. We are talking Hollywood here, pure and supple. Don’t have to explain to that mutha twice.
Compost College attracted its measure of wandering students, rolling from campus to campus to learn the same thing. I always told them: stop practicing and get out there and start making your own mistakes. I only worked for one farmer for six months and that was enough training. Now I remember how Ken Kamiya laughed at me when I told him I thought I wanted to be a farmer. He thought it was funny not because I was not fit for it, but because Vega had scored another believer, despite all reason. I should have been more subtly dissuasive myself with the poor saps who have been drawn to the mean triviality of rodent control, pipe repair, box scavenging and the evanescence of capital. Fonteyn is chief among the doomed. I just sold him a used tractor and so sealed his fate. Wiley also has no choice, but at least promises to live up to his name while pretending to be free. Herzog shifted sideways, and for Surfrider teaches the urbans how to save the sea by keeping the dissipation of human kind out of it. Quinn wised up and sells somebody else’s seeds instead. Such decisiveness probably can’t be learned, or I would have some by now. Katy “O” is rounding the bend on her doctorate in Anthropology, making cheese in Denmark and asking hard questions about the unutterable fate of cows. Cheech is rolling back to revolutionize the ‘hood, one cilantro seed at a time. Fran”ches”ca Reynolds, who will have a banana named after her one day, is flying back to New Zealand to convert her parents to have faith in Vega. Poor Nitana seems irretrievably converted. It may be too late for an intervention.
Then there were the vagabond WWOOFERS, mostly barking up the wrong tree. I told you once about Frenchy, Tex and The Apache. But I can’t tell you how I got rid of Frenchy. I did it out of chivalry, I swear. I never knew I was capable of such devious subterfuge. But I got him on a plane to Paris and he never came back. Never even Facebooked us, and that’s the real measure of private-sector deportation. Unctuous Ray, that bicycle poet who never rode and never typed, disappeared into the Texan haze. He was so good at being good for nuthin’ that it made him admirable. He was so cake-taking weird he had no friends but few detractors because he roled like Shakespeare’s Puck, albeit with with fangs. Abraham Ruiz crushed Ray’s tent one morning with the tractor and it was no accident, but Ray just moved under the oak trees. Eventually I figured Ray was just pretending to want to date girls but was instead infatuated with me.
If you’re straight, ever had a gay person lust after you? Have you been on a job site surrounded by Phillips head screws and all you got is a pair of pliers? Ever surfed with your fin broke clean off? Tried to sleep in a wet sleeping bag? How about a wet sleeping bag filled with ground squirrels? Picked up an expensive book in a foreign country and on the airplane flying home discovered you bought the domestic version printed in Vietnamese instead? It’s kind of like that time when your friend’s wife took your jacket by mistake and when you put her’s on you realized you were not a size 6 and you felt so weird just before you split the thing right down the back? Take no offense, it’s just strange head space.
The doors will close at Compost College in just a few days and nobody has been physically harmed, poisoned, electrocuted or sued in a court of law. We’re closing her down and giving the keys back to the landlord. Except there are no keys. Not much ever got stolen except a few hours, a Milwaukee Saws-All, two of Wes’ real good surfboards and some two by fours that I probably told Chris he could have but then I forgot. Gotta pull Brian’s old trailer out of the bushes and throw out all my receipts from 1999. Abraham Ruiz’ nephew is going to come get his uncle’s Ford pick up. I don’t see how Abraham can come back up now without risking his life and/or around seven thousand dollars, so maybe we should just start another farm in Mexico. I saw water down there last month.
The monthlies on the house never panned out. I was paying around 18 hundy with a good bit of it subsidizing the indigent who traded “work” for rent, counting that time as lab hours toward their degree in Vegology. I didn’t have to be told that I’d be better off with real field workers, but I thought I could get by. Mostly I didn’t. You start out with a nice foundation of menial, a layer of sublime sensuality, throw in some heat and a little text messaging distraction and you’ll have an overseer’s nightmare out there on the fourth fairway, Tiger, any way you bake it. And I do mean bake.
And then there is fried: For eight years I paid property tax on property I don’t even own to the County of Ventura, who is the property owner. Sounds like Cantinflas wrote the lease. But have you ever wanted something so much that you were willing to convince yourself things would work out and they did sort of but when you got rid of that ball and chain you could stand up straight and say whew! (?)
Being an incorrigible novice, I was happy to enable the poorly conceived plans of others. Few plan on farming unless their 1000-acre folks sent them to Cal Poly to authenticate their capability. Many took the Lettuce Boulevard off-ramp, mistaking it for the well-considered pursuits found on Architecture Avenue, or even Carpentry Court. When the girls came back from the ECOFARM all dazzled by the prospect of baking bread with their own wheat I blithely gave them spare dirt to experiment on. I warned them about the harvest, but could do nothing in the end to keep them from cutting the wheat from the straw with hand scissors. What mattered was their gumption. Better to stand back when gumption looms in the driveway, bold as a cloudless dawn. I am glad no one shoved reality in my path when my own gumption took hold.
You can’t forget about Corinne! She was one of those Wheaties. She seemed like any other slick-talking lass from The East, mixing gumption with sociology and spunk. She rolled out into the dewy fields bright and early on harvest days under her Baltimore Orioles baseball cap, snagging radishes on the hot corner like Brooks Robinson in his prime. She had a steady chugging patter, almost always about food and who needed it, keeping us rapt and bent at the waist over those radishes until the last bunch was boxed. She was a formidable beguiler with sass and wit. When she went off to chase her boy I thought that was the end. She’d played the dilettante farm girl with the dirt bags and hicks, now she’d wait tables in Bel Air and try to transfer to UCLA. But no, she’d maintained her gumption, I learned not long ago, still trying to untangle the urban farming scene in Los Angeles while managing an orchard in Topanga. I’ll send her Cheech and oh what a collision of intention that will be. Stay tuned for graduate tales from downtown.