Brown Dirt Cowboys
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.
“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.
“And more today, because it was hot yesterday,” he says. “Is it going to be hot today?”
At 11:30, it’s nearly 100 degrees. Is it time for lunch yet?
“Maybe in 30 minutes,” says Omar, who’s been sledgehammering cinder block steps back into the sandy soil for an hour. “After lunch, work goes faster.”
Omar’s been in Los Angeles three weeks, and worked two weeks as a carpenter before hooking up with Esteban. He wears a wedding band. He’s married?
“Yes,” he says, and takes out his wallet. “I have two children.” He shows studio portraits of a 3-year-old boy, and a 1-year-old girl with fat cheeks and a bow headband. How old is Omar?
“Twenty,” he says. “I lived here [in America] from 1 until I was 7, then we went to Mexico.” How did he get to the States this time? “I took a bus, from Torreon. Twenty-eight hours to get here.” No problems at the border? “No, no problem.” He lives in Panorama City with his wife’s cousin and plans to stay a year, or until he makes enough money to buy a house.
“In Torreon, [a house] maybe, in dollars, five thousand,” he says. “Not like here. Here, a house, someone told me . . .” He does the calculation. “Two hundred eighty million?” Probably he means $280,000, I tell him. “Two hundred eighty thousand, for this one house,” he says, and widens his already wide eyes, as if fixing on a mystery.
“Omar!” calls Esteban. “Comida!”
“You have another job?” Omar asks as we walk down the hill, “besides this one?”
The crew eats — sandwiches again. Again, there’s no talking. Where does Esteban find his crew?
“José is my wife’s cousin’s son,” he says. “Omar is my wife’s sister’s nephew,” and Filemon is his wife’s cousin’s boyfriend. He did not hire them because they have landscaping experience — José had been picking fruit in Washington; Filemon did some sort of manufacturing until appendicitis got him laid off; Jorge was a manual laborer in New York — but because they asked for work.
“Before, I don’t do any landscaping, either,” he says. “I work for a company that do irrigation. Did you see my certificate?”
Esteban digs through paperwork in his truck and finds an embossed certificate from an international plumbing and pipefitting association, for 35 years of service.
“That happens three years ago,” he says. He tells the crew to go back to work. How long has Esteban been in the States?
“I come [from Mexico] when I was 13,” he says. On a piece of paper he writes: San Ignacio, Villa Hidalgo, San Luis Potosí. “That’s the city, the county and the state,” he says. “I stay in Sonora for probably six months, pick some cotton and tomato and make my money. I think I was getting paid 20 pesos in one day; that was good money. But I come over to Tijuana because I want to come over to L.A.”
In Tijuana, he slept under bridges or in alleys, and helped an old man shine shoes, 5 cents a shine. “It was in winter, cold weather,” he says. “In the nighttime I went to a restaurant, every night, to eat something, and the cooker was a lady; her name was Joséfina. I was only 13 years old, and one night the lady told me, ‘You gonna help me to wash all the pans?’ Sure. So I help her in the night, and she give me good dinner or whatever I want to eat.
“One night, a couple of girls, probably around 28 years old, they come over and eat something, and they ask me, ‘You want to come over to L.A. with us?’ Sure, why not? ‘All right, tomorrow night; look for us at this hotel.’ So I come over . . . [but] my shoes not too good. I don’t remember if I have socks or not.
“So we start walking, go under the fence, and we walk all night. We made it to San Diego, east, by the Imperial Highway. It was about 6 o’clock in the morning; my shoes have holes in the bottoms, so I can’t walk anymore . . . The [girls] ask me, ‘Do you want to stay here? Immigration can get you and take you back to Tijuana, but we gonna keep going.’”
Esteban stayed where he was, which was a green bean field. He fell asleep next to a power pole and woke up in the morning to the sound of whistling.
“It was a Mexican song. So I come out . . . It was the owner of the farm. ‘Hey, what you doing over there?’ I go to L.A. ‘To L.A.?’ he say. ‘Look at your shoes!’”
The farmer’s wife, also named Joséfina, gave Esteban breakfast. “Joséfina say, ‘You have to stay with us until you grow up little bit more.’ They’re Mexican. They come from Michoacán. I think they was American citizens.” Esteban stayed four years and learned, he says, “everything on the farm, everything.” When the farm was sold, the farmer got Esteban his green card and gave him wages he’d been holding for him.
“I was having not too much, probably eight hundred dollars, but in that time eight hundred dollars is like eighty thousand,” he says. It was 1956. He planned to use the money to travel to Wisconsin, where he had a cousin. First he stopped in L.A.
“I come over, a hotel in L.A., and at that time there was streetcars,” he says. “For 10 cents you can travel all of L.A. and just take your chances. The day before I’m gonna go to Wisconsin, I say, well, I’m gonna take a last ride around the city.”
He wound up on San Vicente Boulevard, where he saw an old man cleaning windows. “He say to me, ‘Como está? You looking for work?’ Yeah, I looking for work. He say, ‘Come tomorrow morning, 7 o’clock.’ So I come over with a sport coat, shiny shoes, nice shirt.”
Esteban laughs. “I come 7 o’clock on the dot, and he told me, ‘You wanna work like that?’” Esteban spent the day loading galvanized pipe. “So everybody laughing about me, I work in sprinklers with nice shoes and slacks and sport shirt and all that.”
The old man offered him a job, laying more pipe. “Hand digging, pick and shovel,” he says. “It was very hard.” As was trying to fit in. On Good Friday, soon after Esteban began working, he went to a restaurant with some guys on the same crew. Esteban couldn’t read the menu, and the guys refused to help him order. “The waitress come over; I saw the picture of the steak, lemme have this,” he says. “So they laughing about me all the time, ‘Oh, you not Catholic, you eat meat on Good Friday!’” Humiliated and pissed off, Esteban told his boss he was going to quit. His boss persuaded him to stay, and put him through school. “So I go to school four nights, two for the English, and two for the plumbing,” he says. “I don’t have the time to play or to go dancing or go this or traveling. Working and school. I was 19.” Later, he worked for a company that employed gardeners. Living in Tijuana and San Diego, Esteban kept the company roster full. “I bring some people, illegals and all that,” he says. “I was making good money on that . . . In the company I was working, they have 500 gardeners, work from San Diego to Simi Valley.” Immigration was not a problem: If the gardeners were nabbed and sent back over the border, they’d simply call Esteban, who’d drive them back across. “There was no checkpoint at San Clemente at that time,” he says. “I use [the company’s] own pickups.”
He got tired of living in San Diego, and began to work on condominiums in Sun Valley. “Was a holiday, I think Fourth of July,” he says. “I come over to fix some damage, and I saw this girl come out with a white dog . . . She ask me, ‘You have work for somebody?’ And I ask, ‘For your husband or what?’ ‘No, for my brother.’”
Esteban hired the brother, and married the girl. Was her name Joséfina?
“It’s Joséfina.” He says that name is his life and has been “some luck.” She was illegal at the time. She became a housekeeper, while Esteban went to work for a company that did irrigation for the city of L.A. They own a home in North Hollywood; they have three kids.
“One life,” he says.
The ties that bind: Esteban’s
crew is mostly extended family.
Pictured top to bottom are
Filemon, Jorge and José.
His gardening career began as a case of assumed identity. “One of the ladies my wife works for, she have a big window in her house, and she have spray sprinklers,” he says. “And my wife come over one day and say, ‘Mrs. ___ ask me if you can fix the sprinklers, the window get all wet.’ So I spent two days there, and the neighbor come out, and he ask me, ‘How much you charge me to cut me one pine tree and fix my drain?’ and I say, ‘I charge you $600.’ Because I don’t want to do it, I give high price; that job is only about $200. ‘Okay,’ the man says. That is about the early ’90s. Another lady, she walks the dogs all the time in the hills, and she ask me, can you come over to my house and fix my sprinklers? So I do for her. And next week, she tell me, ‘Come over, my friend needs some work on her house, and I want you to do it; I promised to her I’m gonna bring you.’ And after her, all the neighborhood.”
For 10 years, he did this work on the weekends and ran the irrigation company’s office all week. “Every day for 23 years, I left at 4 o’clock in the morning,” he says. “I live in North Hollywood, the company in Orange County, the traffic is every day two hours, more than two hours; I don’t see my kids grow up, because I was working six days a week, sometimes seven.”
He retired from the company three years ago. “In the company, I make 20-some dollars an hour,” he says, “but after the deductions, gas, what I have to pay out of my pocket, bills.” He shakes his head. “[Now] I just work with cash. It’s not too far from my house. I don’t have to fight with the traffic . . . If I just collect my pension and my Social Security, I make more money [now] than I was making in the company.”
Esteban does not have his citizenship, and does not want it, “because I have properties in Mexico,” he says. “I can go over there and build a house.”
Omar says he wants to build a house, in Torreon.
“That’s great,” he says. “But some guys, especially young guys, they come over, they start drinking, this and that, and they don’t do nothing.”
But Omar has children; he has a wife. “Mmm-hmm,” says Esteban. “They get married at 12, 13 years old, some guys in Mexico. The girls, they get married twice by that time. It’s bad. Some people, they don’t understand . . . He doesn’t know, because we don’t know a lot of things in Mexico, we don’t see a big city.”
Esteban didn’t know from big cities either at 13, but says he had no choice but to cross the border, because of how hard things were for his mother: His father was working in Detroit but did not send money to his wife and four children.
“I didn’t have shoes, I didn’t have underwear, nothing,” says Esteban. “I only went to the fourth grade.”
When he started work in the States, he sent his mother money; he built her a house. “She died last year,” he says. His father went back to Mexico when he got old. “He was great, I loved him, but when he drank . . .” He gives the hum. Did he send his father money, too? “Sure,” he says. “There was no bank in the town, but there was a store in the next town . . . We had donkeys we use to bring the stuff for the week.” His father would buy a few provisions for the family, but take the bulk of the money into the cantina. While he was drinking or passed out, people would steal the packs off the donkeys. “He went home the next day with his hands like this,” says Esteban, his hands crossed over his crotch. “Some young ones, they come [to the States] for one year to make money, then they drink, and stay 20 years.”
José, Esteban and Omar bring down a towering agave stalk with a chain saw, the motor oil for which is kept in a glass Livingston Chardonnay jug. José ties a rope around the base of the agave and yanks it out of the ground. He carries the root on his shoulder; it looks like a 6-foot-long white larva.
Esteban leans over the hole where the agave was. “See, that’s a rats’ nest,” he says, and points out a square hollow lined with leaves and twigs, its walls reinforced with a tarry layer of rat excrement. Omar and I rake for an hour, filling six burlaps with agave detritus and generating great clouds of rat shit–tinged dust.
“Relax very well tonight,” says Esteban at quitting time. “Because tomorrow, we go up and down these hills.”
Wednesday: “I don’t like being a gardener, but people ask me, can you do this job for me?” says Esteban. He is driving past the Celebrity Center en route to the Hollywood Home Depot, where he will buy what he needs to build the fence: lumber, concrete, bolts. “I get one job, and get more jobs, and for more people. But,” he says, “I am not a gardener.”
Esteban pulls his truck into the lot at Home Depot, and is swarmed by Hispanic men, day laborers looking for work. Esteban ignores them.
“These guys don’t want to work cheap,” he says. “They want $12 an hour, at least. And lunch. And leave early. That’s why they stay here. They get work, but it’s only one day.
“I have one customer, he is the neighbor to Pee-wee Herman, he don’t pay me for two months,” he says, as he rolls a long dolly into the store. “He wanted me to clean off the roof, so I did. Then I ask him, you gonna pay me extra to clean the roof? He says, ‘No, no, that’s in the landscaping contract.’ I say that’s not in the contract.” The man wound up not paying anything, which meant that, at $50 a week, Esteban was out $400. “[And he’s] rich. Big, big residence,” says Esteban. “Now, his front yard looks terrible.”
Home Depot at 10 in the morning is full of contractors and laborers, most of whom are at least 20 years younger than Esteban, who does not want help when taking an 8-foot four-by-four from a high rack, or loading 10 bags of Redi-Mix concrete on the dolly. “What else?” he asks. Bolts.
“Yes. You get on line, I get those.”
Behind me is a chatty Mexican guy, who asks in broken English who the concrete is for, who I’m working with, where the job is. Esteban walks up; the guy looks from him to me, and asks if I’m Esteban’s boss.
Lunchtime. The crew is talkative today. José says he came from Guerrero, Jorge from Jalisco. Like Omar, they both say they took a bus to get here.
“Tres años aquí y no inglés,” says Jorge, and they all laugh. He’s single and lives alone in Canoga Park. Does handsome José have a wife?
“No!” says José, and laughs. Girlfriends? He says something. Omar translates.
“He says he has more girlfriends than Ricky Martin.” Does he go out a lot with them? ‰ 34 32 “No. He says he mostly stays in the house. He live in Pacoima with his brother.”
Do they ever go out together after work?
“No, I go home,” says Omar. “We all do. After [work], you are tired. You want to take a shower, eat, watch TV, listen to music.” He finishes a sandwich he made himself; he says he misses his wife making lunch for him.
“In Mexico, I was in college, to be a teacher, of sports,” he says. Will he go back to school? “I don’t know when. I have to make money, for my studies,” he says. “But that’s my dream, to be a teacher of little kids. I love kids — I have kids. I love them.”
But he also wants to stay and get his green card. “To work here, better,” he says. “Maybe Mexico better to live, to make a house.” When asked if he likes Los Angeles, he pauses; he cannot think of the word in English. He writes down: ACOSTÚMBRASE. “Maybe I need time to feel comfortable here,” he says.
Do any of them have green cards? They all say no.
“Now she is going to report you to Immigration,” says Esteban from inside the truck, where he finishes his cookies.
“You like to listen to music?” asks Omar. “I like Snoop Doggy Dogg, black man.” Then he suggests a Mexican group and writes down their name: RECODO.
“You are from here?” asks Jorge, in English. Yes, from New York. “New York? Brooklyn?” Yes, Brooklyn. He nods. “Coney Island, three years,” he says, tapping his chest. “I like New York. Más gentil than here.”
How old is Jorge? “Cuarenta,” he says. He looks younger, maybe 30.
“He use Dove soap!” shouts Omar. “It’s good. I use it!”
Esteban drives the bags of concrete up to the crest. How it is that Omar, José and Jorge all say they took the bus to cross the border?
“They take it, but they have somebody else’s papers, probably,” he says. “Now is not like then, when it was easy to cross the border, when it was nothing . . . now, you have a lot of people try to pass in the desert, this time of year. They pay coyotes a lot of money. You know coyotes?” Yes. “The coyotes scare them to make sure they pay a lot of money, twenty-five hundred dollars. Who’s gonna pay twenty-five hundred? A lot of girls, they get raped before they get here.”
But Omar didn’t pay any money. “Omar was here before, he knows the game,” he says. “Plus, he has relatives here, they can tell him, do this, do that. [If] you pay that money, working minimum wage, when you gonna pay that back and send money to your family? Never.”
Omar, José and Jorge (Filemon is not working today) are waiting on top. They heave the bags of concrete onto their shoulders and, trying not to wipe out on the slope, carry them to where Esteban is stabilizing the first post. I’m about as useful as a mushroom, so I go off to find my rake.
“What time is it, please?” asks Omar. It’s 3:10, and for the past half-hour, we’ve been tossing cactus pads into a plastic trash bin, and together hauling it up the hill to the pickup. It’s heavy, and the hike is tough — I think for the 30th time that I will have no cellulite after this job — and again, it’s brutally hot.
“It’s hard work,” says Omar. “You’re tired after, you want to go home, relax, watch TV.” Speaking of home, where does he go to the bathroom during the day?
“I don’t,” he says. “You don’t think about it. If you think, man, I gotta take a piss, then everybody will think that, so . . .” He shrugs. So what does he do? “I wait until I get home, and then you go, ahhhhh. And take a hot shower, it’s oohhhhh.”
Thursday: June gloom this morning, nice for working outside. The crew simultaneously tends six houses off Canyon Drive, which goes some way toward explaining how L.A. gardeners can charge, typically, between $20 and $50 a week and make a living.
The work today is peaceful, methodical: sweeping, pruning, deadheading flowers, the sort of gardening one imagines ladies in sun hats do. Except for the blower, which Filemon has strapped to his back and uses to clear bamboo leaves and bougainvillea blossoms from driveways. From the shame of being attached to a small generator and blowing around dirt, to the 1998 City Council ban on gas blowers (which spurred the Association of Latin American Gardeners of Los Angeles to stage a protest and hunger strike and which now goes largely unenforced), the leaf blower is an object that inspires disdain. Esteban’s clients aren’t crazy about them, either.
“The dust, the gas fumes,” he says. “We used to blow all around the pool and around the house [of one client], but she tell me, ‘I don’t like the blower.’ Okay. You’re the boss. What, I can say, ‘No, I’m gonna blow?’” Another woman asked that he not use the blower because she “likes the sound of the rake.” But romanticism goes out the window as I watch Filemon do in five minutes with the blower what would otherwise take 40. The blower is miraculous; it marshals the debris.
By 9, the cloud cover has burned off, replaced by the kind of direct sunlight that feels unhealthy. José and I work from opposite ends of a backyard, sweeping up geranium petals, grass, a brown eagle’s feather, and a bundle of lavender one might buy at a gift shop for $75. It all goes into the green recycling bin.
“We call Esteban the brain surgeon of gardeners,” says the client. “I’m not putting down other gardeners, but they mowed and blowed. These guys really care. And Esteban is so smart he could be a landscape architect. And he works harder than any man I know; he shows up at 7 — and he understands. This weekend is my son’s bar mitzvah, and I said, Esteban, can you make sure there’s no poop around on the patio? And he says, don’t worry, I take care.”
It gets hotter still. We move to the client next door. “What’s that?” asks Esteban, and points to a welt halfway up my arm. I don’t know: Scratch? Bee sting?
“No, fleas,” he says. “You get them from garbage and leaves where the rats are.”
I rake jacaranda buds from a lawn, a Sisyphean task, as they fall from the tree at a rate of two for every 10 swept up, and then keep falling. Filemon hands me some clippers and indicates a large bed of peppermint geraniums that need pruning. Again, I experience the joy of killing things that are already dead, and a job that might have taken Filemon 10 minutes takes 60, and there’s still more to do . . .
“You look pale,” says a client.
“You eat your lunch?” Esteban asks. Not yet. “Eat your lunch,” he says.
Yes, maybe. I don’t feel . . . so good.
“It’s too hard for you,” he says, and, with a look pitched between mirth and concern, extracts a splinter from my flea-bitten arm.
“You know, you’ve picked the best gardener,” says the client, who sits me in her kitchen and gives me Gatorade. “If I’m not here, I give him the key to the house, tell him to let the dog out a few times. He’s no spring chicken, but I tell him, ‘Esteban, you can’t stop working.’ I had another gardener for years, and he always called me ‘Lady.’ After about three years, I said, ‘You don’t know my name, do you?’ He said, ‘No.’ I thought, okay, that’s not what I want.” She brings me another Gatorade. “You’re not going to publish his phone number, are you?”
“You go home early, if you want,” says Esteban, as the rest of the crew get in the truck; they’ll spend the afternoon working other properties, high on the ridge. As I drive down the hill, I pass three white pickups full of gardeners, going up.
Friday: “Yesterday. Sick. Head?” asks Filemon. Yes, sick head. Does he get this way? “No, no,” he says, and gives a head-nodding laugh. “Me, más forte.”
He and I work alone, clipping small plants from around an infinity pool, its “edge” a western view of Hollywood out to the Pacific.
“You like?” asks Filemon. Yes, I like. “You want to go . . .” and he makes a swimming motion, and again bobs his head and laughs. He’s 42, single, and came from Guadalajara City 10 years ago. “No más México,” he says, “only here.”
One of Esteban’s workers, Rudolfo, did go back a few months ago. His plane arrived in Mexico City at dawn, and he set out by car with his brother-in-law for their hometown, about eight hours away. They were stopped a short time later by men who said they were cops. Rudolfo and his brother-in-law were forced out of their car and robbed at gunpoint of everything: luggage, gifts for Rudolfo’s kids, their shoes. The cops threatened to shoot them, but Rudolfo and his brother-in-law pleaded for their lives. Before the cops took off in both cars, one of the men walked over to the Rudolfo, who was face-down in the dirt, and took the cowboy hat off his head. Rudolfo told Esteban this story when he called from Mexico, to say he’d soon be back in L.A.
Filemon holds open the passenger door of Esteban’s wife’s minivan. It has a statuette of the Virgin Mary mounted in the dash and the radio tuned to La Raza 97.9.
“Sometime, two or three days a week, school, for English,” he says, as he drives us to the next job. “Sometime.”
José pulls clients’ trash bins up from the curb, as Esteban follows in the pickup.
“This is [the house of] the lady who walk her dog in the hills who ask to me how much I charge to do the gardening for her house,” he says. The one he said yes to, even though he wasn’t a gardener?
“Yes, because this lady, she lives alone, her husband died two months before I come over.” He points to another house. “This is the [house of the] first lady. She is old now, about 97 years old. She don’t know nothing, she’s like a little baby.”
Does he know his clients claim he does more than just garden? “Yes, because they ask me,” he says. “These people, all of them, they’re very nice, everybody. Very nice.” He pauses. “Now, some of these days, I am going to say, no más.”
The clients also say he can’t retire. “Why not?” He laughs. “There are a lot of people, a lot of gardeners, here. Probably I teach one of my sons, or José, or somebody.”
So why was the work too hard for me yesterday? “Because this is men’s job,” he says. “Women so delicate . . . [But] this is nothing; in the big constructions, it is terrible. Construction is for animals, the labor, the Mexican people, the guys work like donkeys, pick and shovel all day, grading, move some rocks, cement; it’s very hard . . . You work for somebody, you can’t tell the boss, ‘I don’t feel good.’ You can’t say, ‘I’m gonna have five minutes; I’m gonna get a sandwich.’ Nuh-uh.”
He’s nice to his crew. “Yes, but I have to stay with them all the time, because I want to make sure everything is done the right way,” he says. “If I send them out, when I come back next day, they don’t do this, they don’t do that; sometimes they don’t water the plants, they do something wrong. So that’s why I stay with them.”
We drive down to where the crew is working, sweeping up petals and hosing out trash cans in front of the bar mitzvah boy’s house. Esteban parks. If I’d been working for cash this week, how much would he have paid me?
“All depends,” he says, and looks at me sideways. “You have to ask me first in the beginning, because I never gonna hire a guy before I ask, how much you wanna make? If he asks for too much, I don’t [hire him]. I tell [him], look; I collect my Social Security, I am not a contractor; I just work for cash. If you accept that, it’s fine; I pay you cash, and I can pay you this much.”
Okay, let’s say I’d asked for $200. “Two hundred dollars?” He looks out the windshield. “How many days?”
Five days. “Yeah, okay,” he says. “That’s good money. When we trim trees or more hard work, then I give a little more. Like over with [the actor’s]; you know how hard they working; all those branches and cement and cactus and all that. That’s hard work. Nobody want that kind of job. They do it.”
They don’t have a lot of options. Filemon, for instance, has been here 10 years and speaks no English.
Esteban makes the raspy hum again. “I told them all the time, I told everybody: You guys are young, you have to join the electrician union, apprentice, or go to school and learn something.”
Do they do it?
“I don’t think so,” he says. “After work, they go to house, sit down and watch television and all that; that’s what they do, drink some beer. That’s it. And I never have time for that. I work very, very hard; after work I go to school, come back 9 or 10 o’clock, take a shower.”
Your client says you’re the hardest-working man she’s ever met.
“Probably,” he says. “They’re very nice people. Wonderful.”
I thank him for letting me work. “You’re a good worker, and I’m very happy that you stay with us all this week,” he says. “It has been my pleasure.”
As I make a U-turn down the hill, a BMW passes the other way, and parks. Esteban opens the driver’s-side door and offers his client his hand.
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