By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Photos by Slobodan Dimitrov
Jorge carries a cow-size bundle of eucalyptus branches on his back. He is an anachronistic figure as he moves down a popular actor’s private drive, past the teal-and-chestnut guesthouse, around the fountain with bathing nymph, and into the shaded walkway, where his boss’s white GMC pickup is parked. Jorge dumps the load into the truck bed, hoists himself up and in, and breaks down the sticks with his feet.
“This is from Saturday,” says Esteban, owner of the truck and boss of a gardening crew that is toiling under a hot sun on this Memorial Day. He also worked Sunday, usually his one day off, because a client phoned him in a light panic and he drove from his house in North Hollywood to the Hollywood Hills to check on 150 pots of roses.
“I install a drip system for her, in each pot, and she say a few weren’t working, so I went over.” He holds his hand palm up, as if to say, Why not?
These are two of dozens of properties in the canyons below the Hollywood sign that Esteban cares for. Whatever is sawed, clipped, raked and scooped from around the homes, the 66-year-old drives at 4 a.m. to a dump in Simi Valley, in order to arrive at job sites by 7:30. For more than 40 years, Esteban has started work at 4 in the morning during his career as an irrigation specialist and now as a gardener, a position he did not seek and a title he does not claim. A courteous man, Esteban agrees to let me be on his crew for a week.
“You asked, so how can I say no?” he says, and again holds open his hand.
Monday: Esteban offers a pair of leather work gloves, though neither he nor the other gardeners wear them. In fact, handsome José, 19, looks as though he’s ready to go dancing, in white pants and a blue-and-white striped dress shirt.
It’s 7:35 a.m., and there is no tarrying around the truck, no last few minutes to finish a takeout coffee. The four men Esteban has employed today haul ladders, saws, brooms and rakes up the driveway to just below the black-bottomed swimming pool, which is surrounded by tall olive trees, their outermost branches a dull gray.
“They haven’t been cut in three years,” says Esteban, who raises a long-handled trimmer into one of the unruly trees and brings down a bough the size of a Volkswagen; no one but me blinks. Esteban tells José, in Spanish, to start climbing. The younger man throws a ladder against the trunk, grabs a handsaw and scoots up. Filemon, with a heavy gut and an easy habit of smiling, follows more slowly. Jorge shovels sand from a path into a wheelbarrow. A fourth worker, with big eyes and a baseball cap, whacks weeds by the pool. By 7:45, the hills are alive with the sound of saws, scythes and gnats, the last evidently partial to eyeballs. When Esteban asks, “Is it going to be hot today?” there’s no need to answer.
What can a person with no professional gardening experience be trusted with? A rake. I scrape leaves, twigs and one desiccated lemon from beneath a big, limp cactus, its pads corroded with white pox. On Esteban’s orders, I break off a piece the size of my arm, and another, getting into the act of destroying that which is sick and ugly — “These we will cut with a machete,” says Esteban. The machete turns out to be the Swiss Army knife of gardening tools, used to slice, whittle, eviscerate and chop. We toss the cactus casualties into a tarp, which Esteban calls “a burlap.” When the pile is shoulder-high, it gets tied.
“Like a tamale,” he says, and grabs opposite corners. He makes a slipknot, and again with the other side, until it looks like the sacks cartoon hobos carry, only the size of two shopping carts.
“Let him carry it,” says Esteban, of the big-eyed kid, who hoists the bundle onto his back and hustles down the driveway. What’s his name?
Esteban squints at the kid, who’s been with his crew for three days. “Hmm, I don’t know.” He asks Filemon. He doesn’t know; neither does José. They all crack up.
The property of the actor (who prefers not to be named) is several acres, a sweeping bowl of land with terraces chopped into the hillside, where nectarine, apple, Surinam cherry and citrus trees grow, as well as a meadow of wildflowers, and dozens of tall pines, but more palms. The landscape resembles rain forest. Cut into the bowl, too, are escalating paths no wider than goat trails, and the occasional stairway of cinder blocks that sometimes goes vertical, so it feels as though you’re climbing a ladder made of rubble. Esteban irrigated this land, a task that’s taken years. (The gardener before, says the actor, “wanted to water all by hand, which is, of course, impossible.”) Though Esteban has the bowed legs of an older man, he’s sure-footed, and repeatedly offers his hand as we climb to the crest, where a neighbor has lopped off the top of a mature tree, a tree she claimed marred her view, a tree that to replace and replant would cost several thousand dollars. Not of a mind to tussle with the neighbor, the actor has instead asked Esteban to build a fence between the properties.