By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
“I don’t know,” says Esteban, and shakes his head as he surveys the boundary line, which is set at a 45-degree pitch and densely overgrown. He gives a low, raspy hum, walks a piece of twine until he’s got a 90-foot line, and hums again. Then he picks his way back down, past a trellis of ripe raspberries he does not sample. He pauses at a vista so prime, it might as well have sparkling green dollar signs hovering in the air.
“They like to keep it natural, but the fire department requires these be cut down,” says Esteban, and points below at three agaves, each with a flower — the tall, woody stalk that grows from the center of the plant — 20 feet tall. How many years does it take for them to get that big?
“Three months,” he says.
Lunch is at 11:30. The crew sits on a stone wall in the shade and drinks cold cans of Coke that Esteban keeps in a cooler. The men eat what they’ve brought from home: Filemon and José have soft-shell tacos; Omar — the name of the nameless kid — a chicken-cutlet sandwich; Jorge has some other kind of sandwich. There is almost no conversation. Esteban eats alone in the pickup’s cab. Though he usually works this property once a week, this week it’ll be three days, because the actor wants a lot done before he and his family leave for the summer.
“Maybe we work Saturday, too,” he says, and eats several vanilla crème sandwich cookies from a pack he keeps on the dashboard. No one else gets cookies.
There are no breaks for the next three hours, not even to drink water. There is no talking except the brief instruction from Esteban, who works alongside each of his men in turn. Between raking shifts, I’m on woodpile patrol, dragging 6-foot-long logs up a hill. An oddly sleek squirrel runs past my shoe. Then I see the tail.
“How big was it?” asks Esteban. Mm, about 10 inches. “I see one here this big,” he says, and holds his hands 14 inches apart. “In China, they eat rats. In parts of Mexico, we eat them.” In Louisiana, they call them nutria, when they’re eating them. “We probably eat them here and don’t know it,” he says. “We probably eat them with chopsticks.”
Rake. Rake. Bundle. Dump. “Almost done,” says Esteban, as I carry my 10th load to the pickup; the debris is now piled 6 feet above the bed. Esteban secures it all with dowels and a tarp. It’s 4 o’clock, quitting time.
“Get good rest tonight,” he says. “You are going to be sore tomorrow.”
Yes. And my eyeballs feel as though they’ve been rolled in flour. When I blow my nose I get a tissue full of dirt.
“You can’t find men to work the way Esteban and his crew work,” says the actor, who mentions that when he visits the rust-belt town where he was raised, “All the men there, who used to work blue collar, who used to work hard outside, want to get on disability. They don’t want to do this type of work anymore.”
There are plenty of folks who want to do this kind of work here, though. According to Adrian Alvarez, president of the Association of Latino Gardeners of Los Angeles, there are at least 50,000 gardeners in Los Angeles County, the overwhelming majority of whom are Latino. Alvarez says gardeners, many of whom work in family operations, earn $50 to $100 a day and work up to seven days a week, 12 hours a day.
Tuesday: There is no hallowed ground to gardeners. Agave spears are whacked because they’re in the way of where the actor’s wife walks the dogs. Sapling? Machete. And what about the cyclones of lantana blocking the view of the roses?
“Pull them,” says Esteban. Ripped by the roots, the vines give off a smell of urine mixed with gasoline.
But familiarity also breeds perception. “You see the bees?” asks Esteban, and with a stick pokes at a dime-size depression in the dirt. I don’t see anything. “[The hive] is about this big,” he says, and holds his hands around an imaginary basketball. “And inside, they have little bags of miel.” One more poke, and a bee wriggles from beneath the ground; others follow; it’s mesmerizing. “Careful,” says Esteban, right before one flies in my ear.
Rake. Rake. Bundle. Dump. Learn it’s easier to tie bundles if you straddle them. Notice Jorge’s bundles are elegant, symmetrical. Watch José manually clip the limbs of a Eugenia tree with the ease and efficiency of a TV chef dicing onions. Notice Esteban smells like shaving cream. Mention to him that the nectarine tree behind the guesthouse was full of ripe fruit yesterday.
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