Saturday, August 31, 2019

The Landlord's Landlord

It's been a year and a half since I posted. I have 33 tabs open on my computer, containing everything from 1920s soil reports to the latest and greatest interactive climate zone maps. I have real estate listings up. I can't afford real estate. Here, or anywhere. I make rent, food, and gas by hauling and sorting heavy boxes in the dead of night.  All those paid, I can save or spend $250 a month. I eat a lunch of caffeine at three in the morning.

I haven't shut my computer down in six days. The tabs will re-open, exactly as they are, after a restart, but... I still can't seem to shut my computer down.

My small sand and cement backyard isn't mine. It belongs to the California summer. It belongs to my landlord. And that belongs to my landlord's landlord. Because that's how things work here. My garden belongs to people who belong to other people. Everyone and everything in Los Angeles seems to belong to someone else. Gardens belong to non-gardeners. Houses belong to people who don't live in them. Job security belongs to the people who manage jobs, not the ones that work them.

When the underground pipe to the backyard faucet broke, my landlord spent a day digging it up to stop the flooding. "It was murder," he said. Then capped it off. Just like that. No more water for my garden, the garden that wasn't mine to begin with, the garden that would never be mine in the end. So I hauled water in buckets from the shower. I'll show them I'm a goddamn pirate. And maybe I am. But the game got old. So I hand watered only the essentials with an old tupperware container held under the kitchen sink. Now, I just watch. Watch the garden return to the urban wasteland it was when I found it, the patch of nutrient-less dirt with all the aesthetic and biodiversity of cracked and abandoned parking lot. 

I have 33 tabs open. I'm in a holding pattern. I'm not angry, or sad, or frustrated, or emotional. I'm not any of these things, which in of itself seems strange and eerie to me.

There are lots of little ways to garden, ways to stay a gardener in my heart. Small pots, little gems of green life kept alive by diligent watering, producing a small but loving harvest of six green beans, or two tomatoes. This is still a garden. But it doesn't feel like gardening, not anymore. Just how running circles in a 10x10 cell wouldn't feel like running. It's a band-aid, a small dose of the drug itself in hopes of lowering the addiction gradually. For a while, I fed the addiction as best I could. Now, save for three lonely potted fig cuttings, I water nothing. I watch the summer soil bake and crack before me -- the oldest movie in California history. The spiders have moved in; the yard is snowy with webs. But I haven't had a mosquito bite all year.

I named this blog Homestead Pirate because I was under no misconceptions as to the rogue nature of gardening in urban Los Angeles. In the beginning, this inspired me. Fuck 'em, just watch me.  Now, it's made me weary. Weary of the effort involved in smuggling gardens into my life, of fighting for stolen dirt, of borrowing and begging for and commandeering the space and resources that plants need to exist.

I've found I've detached myself, emotionally, from the act of gardening. There is no longer any thrill in plant hustling, in improving soil owned by my landlord's landlord, in crouching like Mendel with my scalpel and crossing peas to make new varieties, cradling that building joy, just to watch the plants shivel and die before making seeds because water is life and I ain't got any.

I have 33 tabs open and, everywhere I look, I see one thing - dirt. On breaks below the bushes by the warehouse, on the hillside by the stoplight, on the TV show set on another planet but shot in the hills of Southern California. I dream the restless daylight dreams of a night shift insomnia. And in every one of these dreams, even the good ones, I'm escaping from something.

The worst prison is the one with the doors open and nothing beyond them, the one you preserve yourself because at least it's something, and something is better than nothing. Count your blessings, they say. They're not wrong, are they? Yet counting your blessings and pursuing your dreams are conflicting ideas. 

Asleep, I dream of escape. Awake, I dream of raw land.

An easement, a well, PG&E at the property line. Northern California perhaps, cozy for figs but with enough rain magic for lichen and a dappled, seasonal creek. I'll buy a trailer, or build one. Nothing fancy. It's not about me, but about the soil, the trees older than my bones will ever be. It's about a natural place that's been left alone since time began. A bit of earth that has no idea what it's like to be owned by the landlord's landlord. How many places like this are left on earth? Many. But less everyday.

This dream life would have it's own problems. So many problems, I couldn't even count them. More problems than I could handle, probably. But that doesn't scare me. Why doesn't that scare me? Perhaps, I think, because they would be my problems. And there is joy in the struggle we choose ourselves. Because, on the other side of the struggle, is true accomplishment. There are few things more disheartening than taking someone's broken mess, cleaning it up, then handing it back for them to break again. I'm worn out trying to exist in the gaps of other people's lives, of pitching my tent under other people's precarious and half collapsed infrastructure.

I have 33 tabs open, and every one of them demands something - more research I don't have the free hours to complete, a travel commitment I can't make, a down payment that would take ten more years of living like this just to save. I can't keep living like this, I decide. But to live any other way, to remove myself from the landlord's landlord equation, requires investments I can't or don't know how to make. I wont live on someone else's dime. And my own dimes aren't numerous enough. 

When I think about it, I don't get angry or emotional. That's the strangest part to me. Here I am sipping coffee from a cracked and stained mug, looking out over my tumbleweed garden, feeling nothing. It's getting hot fast. The cat is poking around in the crispy, dehydrated stalks of what were once glorious, towering fava beans. He's stalking the one legged grasshopper he didn't finish off yesterday. The cat has no idea this life is different than the one he should be leading. But I know. I know this isn't how it should be. Not for us, for me, anyway. This is not the fulfillment of my dreams.

But I do nothing. I sip coffee in the doorway, with 33 tabs open behind me.

I work with great people for a crappy company. We throw boxes around in a bright warehouse with cargo doors belching heat out into the dark night. We sweat by the gallon, get bruised and bleed, and laugh riotously at three in the morning while the rest of the world is politely asleep. I get calls from family at 11:30am and, bleary eyed, I answer and pretend to be awake because it's not their fault and I'm lucky to have family, good family, even if I have to love them from several states away.

This is not a bad life. It is a different life. Different than the life I want to lead, different than I imagined I'd build for myself by now. It's a life I cherish, but not a life I want to keep. How does one reconcile that? The phrase "follow your dreams" thumps in my head like a panicked, second heartbeat. But I've learned that dreams are bad leaders. They will lead you off cliff faces, through busy streets, into ravines if you follow them blindly. We cannot trust our dreams. We must be skeptical of them, like everything. Our dreams are puppies, all love and joy and boundless optimism, and no understanding of the consequences of speeding vehicles.

Where does that leave me, at the end of this? Wondering about other people. Wondering about you, mostly.

What do you think about when you stand in your doorway sipping coffee from a cracked mug. What do you see out there.

Tell me what you see. Help me see.