Tuesday, February 04, 2014

A Dirty Angelena Reflects

I awoke early at Susie's house in Central Los Angeles and strapped on my ravaged hiking boots. She generously handed me a huge glass of purple strength, a blackberry-banana-flax seed smoothie made that morning. I headed across town, just six miles to Crenshaw High School, to honor a man of peace, Martin Luther King, Jr.

On that day, January 20, I joined volunteers with LA Green Grounds, among other groups, to help the school clean up their garden and prep it for the 2014 growing season. The offering of my day seemed like the purest way to participate in the National Day of Service on MLK's birthday.

But not all my intentions were pure, in fact, they were downright filthy. Over winter, I become restless and antsy for acts of gardening; not unlike a cell phone, directly plugging in to the earth is how I recharge. At long last, I was going to get dirt under my nails!

The dig was informal and joyous. Several of us rehabilitated raised beds - we moved soil around, laid down mulch, soaked the layers, and pulled out any weed roots we found. 'Twas highly satisfying to get these beauties full and ready for seeds. I noted a group of young men water the hell out of one bed and I tried, in vain, to cease the soak. "That's way too wet, " I told them. "Soil should be like a wrung-out sponge, not mud." They ignored me. 

Soon after, a mini-powerhouse woman showed up, full of spirit and knowledge, and was more persuasive. "Woah! What are you doing? No! Stop adding water! It's too wet!" They stopped immediately. Guess I need to work on my Persuasive Voice. (She explained later that she was a teacher for many years and had cultivated an effective voice of authority. "I get a lot done that way," she said.)

This delightful woman turned out to be Florence Nishida, a Master Gardner who co-founded LA Green Grounds with my personal hero (and her former student), Ron Finley. She later taught some of us how to properly prune a fruit tree for a maximum quality fruit crop. She was a research fellow at the LA's Natural History Museum and now leads veggie garden workshops there on Sunday afternoons. So, now I have another hero.

Florence, sharing her pruning wisdom.
Crenshaw High's garden sits on the school's corner lot, at 50th and 8th streets in Los Angeles. Long metal bars fence in the property though it is easy to see from the street. The surrounding neighborhood boasts small, tidy Craftsman-style homes circa 1950s and impossibly tall palm trees, lined up with military precision, that have become LA's landscape trademark. As I shoveled a pile of leaves and branches into a wheelbarrow, I saw two young boys ride by, sharing a bicycle. One hops off the handlebars, walks over and puts his face between the fence bars, taking in the whole garden scene. I shouted to him: "You guys want to come pick up a shovel and help us?"

To my astonishment and delight, he shouted back an emphatic, "Yes!" Both boys, maybe aged 9 or 10, immediately rode in to the garden and when I left hours later, they were still there, planting. I couldn't help but think of Ron Finley's simple epiphany during his famous TED talk: "When kids grow kale, kids eat kale." Could the solution to our health and nutritional challenges - especially for kids - really be as simple as getting kids to garden? Yes. Yes, it can.

Finley, a self-described "guerrilla gardener", grew tired of seeing his friends and neighbors ravaged by heart disease and diabetes, so he took action in the form of plants. Worried about "drive-bys and drive-thrus", he realized that urban food deserts were killing his people with poor nutritional choices, especially the children. His tireless efforts have resulted in a local movement to transform wasteful lawns, abandoned lots and (famously) curb strips into vibrant gardens where community involvement is the protest and fresh vegetables and better health are the rewards. No corporate sponsorship or government hand-out required, thanks very much.

My fellow volunteers included a former teacher at Crenshaw High (business) and a former student at the school. The alumna's name was Courtney and she is now a student at UC Santa Barbara, majoring in Political Science and minoring in Black Studies. While talking to this delightful young woman, I thought, 'She needs to meet that young man over there, Trustin, who is running this dig. They would make the cutest couple." And then I asked Courtney how she found out about the dig.

Ah, young garden love!
"Oh, my boyfriend over there is running it…" Yup. She was way ahead of me. How cute are they? (At left.) Trustin was teasing her during the photo, "This is my wife!" and she giggled and protested, "Oh my god, no! No! Girlfriend!" They were all smiles and love, the kind of people that instantly made me feel better about the future.

Then, in the middle of it all, the mayor of Los Angeles, Eric Garcetti, showed up. In crisp black dress pants and a pristine white button-down shirt, he was not dressed for the task. I couldn't resist ribbing him about it.

"Nice of you to drop by, Mayor, but next time, bring some gloves and an old t-shirt or something so you can help out."

His sheepish response seemed genuine. "I know! I just came from the MLK parade so this is what I was wearing. I would love to help. Really! My wife and I had a garden but we couldn't keep one during the campaign. I really loved it. My family always had a garden growing up. We grew tomatoes, lettuce, beans, peas, corn, peppers…."

Hizzoner kept listing vegetables until someone (likely a PR person) tugged at his crisp, white sleeve, and pointed to their watch. Then, Garcetti gave me an impressively firm handshake and thanked me for my time at the school. All the dirty volunteers were then carefully arranged for a group photo (see below) with the very clean civic leader and, after a few goodbye hugs, he was off to the next event.

I'm in the back row, second from left. (Image credit: Jake Camarena, LA GreenGrounds.)
Since I don't live in Los Angeles full time, I didn't know much about Garcetti, other than his slight, handsome face greeting me upon arrival at LAX. After asking around, I discovered that the man was well liked. His last name is familiar to anyone who grew up here. (His father, Gil, was a former LA County DA, frequently quoted in the news.) Amazingly, Garcetti is also the city's first elected Jewish mayor and, at age 42, the youngest in more than a century. I liked him.

But the afternoon hours brought us the real celebrity. I was carrying plants when I overheard a woman exclaim, "You're the reason I'm here!" and I recognized Ron Finley immediately. A few of us girls gathered around him, gushing, and he seemed overwhelmed by the attention. I asked if I could take his picture and said, "As long as you don't say Ron Finley from LA Green Grounds." He explained that though the effort was something he'd helped start, he was heading up the Ron Finley Project and that's what he wanted to be linked to. "I hear a lot from people who say, 'I went to a Green Grounds dig but you weren't there. Why not?'" He can't make it to all the digs and didn't appreciate obligations put upon him. He worried aloud that people kept making the connection anyway and he wasn't sure why.
Ron "Plant some shit!" Finley with his gardening groupies.
"Well, you know your wildly successful TED talk that a gazillion people have seen?," I explained. "It's got the link to Green Grounds next to your bio. That's how I found out about it and yes, it's why I'm here. But I didn't really expect you to be here. No offense, but it's not why I came." He laughed.

Post-dig, I returned to Susie's, enjoyed yet another excellent Oscar screener ("Nebraska", which made me homesick for the Midwest) and then chatted with Susie's friend and temporary roommate, Roseanne, a successful costume director for the film industry. Evidently, she'd just wrapped up production on a fresh batch of Capital One commercials with Alec Baldwin. In professional gratitude, Baldwin sent Roseanne one of those famously decadent foodie gift baskets and we three spent the evening drinking wine, discussing men and feasting on truffle cheese, dried fruits, salted almonds, dark chocolates, olives and the most amazing caramel I have ever put into my mouth. It all tasted like celebrity money - heavenly.

I then drove back to Long Beach - 5 South, 10 West, 605 South - and luxuriated in zero traffic, just 29.2 miles of pure uninterrupted neon bliss under a glowing white bellied-moon. Fondly, I recalled my nights as a limousine chauffeur, back in college, when I ruled these freeways like Captain Cadillac over the high seas. Once rid of the night's batch of drunks, I cherished that drive back to the limo lot, usually around 2:30 or 3 a.m., when the bars closed. At that time, Los Angeles was velvet dark, fast and lovely and almost entirely mine. Certainly, it's when I love her best, when the commuters are sleeping or watching a screen at home.

In no time at all, I was back in Long Beach, my hometown. As the nightly helicopters chopped up the sky, I fell into bed, exhausted, and smiled - it was the most perfect LA day.


Unknown said...

Is there anything you don't do..... You are my hero! An amazing writer, farmer, runner, humanitarian and friend.

Jaime Casmano said...

I love everything about this!

Heather Clisby said...

Wow! Thanks for the kind words, guys. Much appreciated.

Susan Ludwig said...

I read all the way through AND watched the Ron Finley TED talk! He's my hero too now! And thanks for the magical - and the dirty - images.

Heather Clisby said...

My pleasure, Susan! Thanks so much for taking the time. Glad to spread that video around.