We bought the lot. It’s the one next door that everyone told us to buy. I wanted to buy it ever since I started working on The Farmer and The Cook. It’s what I’ve seen smart people do. It was for sale back then for eighty-five thousand. I was broke from building the store so I told Olivia’s mother she should buy it. She owns the building where the store is located. But Ruth is too smart. She’s a self-made real estate tycoon.
She says: ” It has no building on it so how can I make money? You can not buy property that will not pay.” She speaks like Solomon with a Colombian accent. If Solomon was an 80 year old woman. But she doesn’t look nor sound 80. When she says “property” it comes out sounding like coins being counted, quickly. Or somebody rock hopping across the river to a gold mine.
That was thirteen years ago, when I first saw the ancient FOR SALE sign wagging in the breeze in the middle of the grassy lot. Even back then I thought it would be a natural progression. Not long after we opened the store a man who owns much property on El Roblar bought our lot at the corner of Padre Juan. The new owner had it surveyed. One of the survey men bragged that a two story business office was going up. I heard table saws and smelled roofing tar. But nothing happened. There was a moratorium on water meters from the Meiners Oaks Water District. I like nothing better than a good strong dose of No Growth. Coincidentally the moratorium lead me to think I was going to farm on the 33 for longer than I did, but that got finessed. I don’t think I am ever going to figure out how that gets done. I am no finesser.
The real estate man tried to sell the lot for Three Hundred and Thirty-Five. A rip tide of debt. That is four times money, honey. That’s how it’s done, son. Either you learn how to rock hop across the river or take a fancy to calluses and hierarchies. But that price was raised during the Madness, the days of the unchained mortgage writers, photocopying pictures of Ben Franklin at noon, right in front of the cops. So like plenty of lots, ours did not sell. You remember the days of crumble, when everything melted except Dick Cheney’s Halliburton stock.
When the coast was clear, many El Roblar parcels were put back on the market. Word was out that the trendy path to the horse corrals and Stoner’s Smog Check was on the official desirable list. Break out your jodhpurs, Carmen, and find the keys to your Camaro. Word was that the lot on the corner of Padre Juan would now be affordable. Trent helped me get a good price. He made sure I got it done too. You gotta sign a lot of papers, ask a lot of questions and Ask Now. The owner was glad to let it finally go. Those properties are a ball and chain. You can’t get a bank loan on empty commercial dirt. The banks already own plenty of those bummers. So we pulled a pri-fi and the owner gets to make banker’s interest unless we dig up some big nickels.
I confess, I wanted the lot primarily because I was afraid of what was going to happen to it if somebody else got it. The lot was defenseless. Olivia didn’t think it was a great idea. She said: “ Well if you’re going to invest that kind of money, you should make it pay off somehow.” I heard that before, but less diplomatically.
I just couldn’t bear the idea of having some auto repair unit installed next door, with Wally dropping wrenches and eleven air drills frumping nuts on and off all day. You know: “ Frump-frump. Shang! A shang-shang shang.” Then “Clang!”
Something like that, or maybe a careful cabinet maker, finely sanding smooth the grain while the Eagles incessantly warned about bedding down in Hotel California. Or how about a dog boarding outfit, pooching us out upwind under a warm summer sun? I know, I am the last guy you thought could be a paranoid. But I lie awake at night scaring myself to death over what will never happen.
After we bought the lot, it was like it wasn’t ours. It was almost too easy. All of a sudden, we were safe. I stared vacantly at the green grass, empty of concern. I did some mind drawings. I planted apricots, basil and rosemary in various rows, then moved them around-in my mind. I really did buy 400 mint plants from Lucio down at Suncoast, and the basil is also ordered. I knew I had to be judicious about the horticulture. This ground would not see carrots or spinach planted on it.
I am wary of the promise of Urban Agriculture. The city is dirty. The desire to plant does not merit the faith in eating. Factories once spewed where condos now gleam. The lead and asbestos linger in roadbed environs; the cadmium dust coats the geraniums at curbside. Of course, one can not defend the country because farmland has been intentionally polluted with toxic chemicals for 60 years. Want to see some lead? Check the cotton growing regions. Nonetheless, according to due diligence, our farmland at Help’s West Campus must be cleaner than El Roblar because it is 200 feet further from the river of internal combustion engines, and all they haul.
I knew flowers would be desirable because they are attractive, lucrative, and not eaten. The herbs are above ground, do not accumulate toxins as readily as winter squash or beets and serve our interest in feeding bees. The flowers and herbs would invite and hopefully better withstand the errant stompings of the toddler or unwitting adult. There would be two picnic benches, a temporary shade structure, an organic arch made of flowering beans. But nothing permanent and everything ephemeral. Nothing that would incur the coming of the badges, they of the clipboards, permittings and fees.
In advance of the rain of 19 February, I drove the smaller tractor up to the lot and began tilling it for the first time, as tentative as a sophomore attending cotillion. The sky was dark over the western peaks. The wind was up. Vandenberg radar was painting some green flecked with yellow. I had to knock that grass down. I had to lay out the ground for apricots early. I knew there might be debris in the ground because some of it was mine. Stuff wanders. And because we had utilized the perimeter as a de facto compost pile for years the border was greener. There might be forks, knives. And there might be a chunk of stabby metal lurking beneath the surface waiting to attack my tires.
The lot is one of the few wild places remaining on Mr. Meiners’ pig farm. I knew there would be gophers because they have wanted to eat my landscape. There might be moles. Earthworms no doubt have felt safe there for decades, perhaps centuries. I did find a big red snake. But it was already dead or Mack the Plumber wouldn’t have thrown it out there when he busted the handle back in ’79. I figured it was a Pro model because of its girth, and you just don’t find cables encased in industrial grade plastic like that anywhere.
There were stones and asphalt of course. Vacant lots just beg for asphalt and busted up concrete. But Meiners Oaks has been kind to our lot over the years. I found little plastic or evidence of carelessness. I did remember to haul out 30 feet of black drain pipe the county made me take out when they discovered our first tentative foray into Permaculture at the store. They caught us red handed washing beets in an outdoor sink one day, with the water draining around the corner into the landscape. Man they were hot about that. They red tagged the store on the spot and an official with a clipboard and a picture ID came the next day to check on our “open sewer”.
It was only a few years later that the county started giving out merit badges to people who had installed such gray water rigs in order to not waste so much water.