BY SCOTT SVATOS
It was rock and desert: tall yucca with uplifted arms, diorite boulders and crumbling conglomerate.
It was wavestruck crag: the sea lions were the first to surf; riding crest to trough, searching for food or maybe just enjoying the ride.
It was home of the grizzly bear, scavenging the beach with cubs chasing gulls; and the mountain lion, males fighting tooth and nail for lioness and rock and soil.
It was uplifted peak and faulted valley, bee-line crack from slide and slip; the subterranean tug and pull, magmatic intrusion and mineral spring, from jagged coast to wind-scoured peak.
It was bronze-skinned man and woman in their yucca half dome. They stood on the beach and watched the great ship drop anchor. The visitors spoke a language deep and melodious. “Acepta Cristo como su Salvador?”
The Spaniards prefixed every cove, crag and stockpile of mouseturds with “San” or “Santa.” The natives became “Angelinos” and “Gabrielinos” and worked the mission with till and rope. The priests stalked the savanna with mustard seed and wheat grass and drove the weak-leafed, the fire-seeded, and the useless plants to the hills and the ocean.
The cavalry arrived with deed and gun. The mission became plantation; the plantation became orchard; the orchard became parking lot. Flags were hoisted and flags fell. Cannon shook the adobe walls and the earth shook everything.
It was 250 miles of pipe, sucking the liquid wealth of Sierra Nevada; then another great tube, drawing its share from the Rockies. It was land grab and high deception. And then it was picnic time: fried chicken, wine, and dynamite. But the revolt in the hills was short and the aqueduct remains undisturbed.
It was freeway -- a tangled lattice of worm-chewed wood with definite articles -- “the” 10 and “the” 405. It was six to eight lanes, unimaginable when four seemed extravagant. And six to eight could still not hold all the cars. So it was light rail from the valley to the basin until the earth trembled again and the mountain collapsed.
It was 13 million people by estimate, nuclear beach and SUV. It was gangland and Hollywood, sucked skin and implanted everything.
It was Los Angeles.
Don Sherman sunk the spade into the dirt. The black Navigator came dangerously close, toppling one of the bright orange cones which separated the workers from the traffic. Sherman raised his middle finger -- with passion.
Sherman bussed. He felt damn justified, even though it wasn't really his decision. He lost his Rabbit on the night of his arrest.
Sherman scowled in the holding tank while the police popped the hood of the Rabbit and found the contraption that Sneaky Eddie had created: windshield wiper fluid was replaced with paint thinner; the wiper tube was detached from the wipers and tucked under the hood.
Sherman had already doused half the cars of the City Council (punitive damages, justified Sherman, for 200 years of ecological incompetence). He also sprayed countless petrol monsters “on the fly” from Palos Verdes to the Ventura County line.
And that's how Sherman got his unpaid city job on the street beautification team.
Sherman hated Los Angeles. But still, he couldn't leave. Sherman loved Los Angeles -- the sea, the mountains, the deserts. It was his Hotel California -- he checked in 35 years ago (birth) and would die here someday.
Before he died, however, Sherman wanted to see Los Angeles the way it used to be -- 500 years ago.
As Sherman packed down the dirt around the newly planted eucalyptus and fertilized it with chicken shit he wondered why the city didn't use natives. The coastal live oak was the most beautiful tree ever created. It harmonized with the hills, kept its color all year, and could support the weight of birds, mountain cats, and human hands, too.
Sherman hiked the trails and gathered acorns. He gathered any seed or fruit he could identify. Sherman was not a botanist, but he knew most of the plants. He concentrated on natives -- greasewood shrubs and anything herbaceous; trees, grass, anything original that might sprout.
On Monday, Sherman fertilized the median with his mountain weed mixture.
The results: disappointing. Just a couple of dandelions that must have smuggled themselves in the mix. The imported city stuff was evidently more robust. Either that or the natives refused to seed. Maybe they needed fire. He knew fire was integral to chaparral.
Sherman finally got some monkeyflower growing. Ned Buttleson, beautification crew leader, grumbled at the gaping flower and jerked the plant from the ground. “Sherman, you see a weed like this and you pull it -- understand?”
Eventually, a few other natives sparked as well. But it was slow growth for oak and sumac, lupine and filaree. They did not stand a chance against the carefully nursed eucalyptus trees rows paid for by the city. Soon the natives were buried in sod. Only the accidental dandelion could resist the prefabricated landscape.
But dandelions were European and therefore not native. Still, if any plant was “naturalized,” it was the dandelion. You find them everywhere, and they are not leaving, figured Sherman. Easy to identify, pleasure to disseminate, impossible to remove.
He had something now: the dandelion, Sherman reasoned, would help unpave the way for native plants, restored beaches, free flowing drainage, large predators.
And if nothing else, the dandelion was wild. Sherman figured if nothing else the dandelion had the best chance of any plant at rewilding Los Angeles.
Sherman spent the next three weeks collecting dandelion tops. He visited gardening stores and flower shops, looking for “dandelion seed.” All he found there were the puzzled looks of shopkeepers. So he started growing dandelions in his window box at home and in his closet under lights.
He marveled at the flower and grew to love its simple design, much in the way a pathologist marvels at the construction of a virus. In the world of herbaceous plants there were annuals and perennials -- and then there were dandelions. Sherman called them “eternals.” Like the fat bugs that fed on them, Sherman found their yellowy disks irresistible. And the seeds! Ready by the hundreds, floating like tiny helicopters, nearly invisible -- dandelion seeds were the ultimate biological weapon.
Growing flowers in the apartment was slow, so Sherman hiked the trails above the city and harvested the highly visible flowers. No one seemed to care that he was stripping the slopes of dandelions. Only one park ranger appeared even mildly interested.
“I'm removing invasives for the Sierra Club,” explained Sherman. And he was never questioned again.
Sherman tested his seed at City Hall. He walked the great lawn, pushing seeds from the depths of his pockets, up through the “bomb chutes” he had torn in his pants the night before. The seeds tickled as they slipped down his legs into the pristine grass.
Sherman returned a week later to the scene of the crime. He found a couple distinctive “sprouts” in the golf-course-colored carpet.
“Excuse me, sir,” came a voice from behind.
Sherman turned and was started to see a man in a white suit and gas mask. The man carried a gun, but not an ordinary one -- more like a hose with a trigger. The hose reached from his hands into an orange cylinder in a satchel over his shoulder.
“I need to take care of that weed there,” continued the man and proceeded to squirt the prepubescent flower with some spermy white goop. Sherman listened to the silent scream of the little plant as it sopped up the poison.
The man continued along, hosing deviants -- most of which Sherman could not have told from ordinary grass. This man was a professional, Sherman reasoned. The man could not only differentiate shades of green on a molecular level, but was armed with 10,000 years' evolution of post-Pleistocene weed-killing technology -- a squirt gun and bright orange beaker of poisoned syrup. Sherman knew he would have to do more than just “seed” the lawn to get results.
The best way to get something to grow, figured Sherman, was to use good fertilizer. Chicken shit was the best. From his city job, Sherman knew that chicken shit fertilizer was the most potent and life-affirming substance to ever come out of an animal's ass -- not counting eggs. And the city had tons of it, and while they might account individually for every paper clip, sticky note, and tube of toilet paper, they bought and measured chicken shit by the truckload.
Still there was the question: Could chicken shit stand up to milk of Monsanto? Sherman thought it could.
Sherman watched the exterminator finish his round-up and join another costumed Martian in a city truck. The weed killers drove away as Sherman finalized his plan.
Buttleson gagged on his chaw when Sherman asked him if he could make the fertilizer run. “You want shit detail, you got it,” said Buttleson, and Sherman hit the road in the city truck. Apparently Buttleson forgot that Sherman had no driver's license, or maybe just didn't care.
Sherman had the truck filled with shit in Ventura and dumped the load on Sneaky Eddie. Sneaky Eddie owned a junkyard in El Monte that was already half-capped with shit from six or seven mutant guard dogs. “What the hell are you dumping that here for?”
“I gotta fertilize my dandelion seeds.”
“How you gonna do that? You ain't got no seeder.”
“Help me figure out something. I gotta get the truck back before I get arrested.”
The problem was in good hands with Sneaky Eddie. Sneaky Eddie was a moral schizophrenic torn between wanting to deconstruct (in the most literal sense) all technology, while at the same time helplessly drawn to anything with more than four cylinders and a carburetor. He made his own gin and seldom shaved. If anyone could distribute a half ton of crud, it was Sneaky Eddie.
“Sounds like you need a truck with a high-powered shit cannon,” Eddie suggested. “Or maybe some kind of excrement catapult.
Sherman liked the idea of a catapult -- the more medieval the better. But the problem was obvious: “I can't just drive up to City Hall launching shit at the castle wall. That will make it look like a protest. I don't want to protest. I want results. I want my flowers to grow.”
Buttleson cleaned the chew from his mouth with a cold swig of beer. He spit the brackish goop on the ground and dismissed the crew for the weekend. But Sherman was already long gone, back of the bus, caught in traffic, halfway to El Monte.
When Sherman walked into the dusty parking lot, Eddie already had the balloon half filled. It was half alive and half asleep, lazily thinking with its balloon mind about lifting itself into the air.
The balloon took shape as the sun vanished. It was not a pretty balloon like the ones used to sell real estate or to give joyrides at county fairs. It was more like a used rubber -- patched up with band aids and electrical tape. “I made it myself,” said Eddie. “It's all recycled shit.”
Sure enough, Sherman could see the distinct triangular icon, painted on the side of the swelling surface. The recycle symbol was accompanied by hundreds of other signs -- all shapes and sizes, skulls and smileys, peace signs and dogs of war, Free Tibet and Free Willy. Only one symbol truly made Sherman uncomfortable. “What's the target sign for?” he asked.
“That's Chumash,” replied Eddie. “Concentric circles represent the layers of the universe.
“Still looks like a target sign to me.”
Sherman manned the balloon. “The winds are just right,” said Eddie, “for a due west float to the sea.” The course would take Sherman right over City Hall -- not to mention several parks, museums, and other proud, grassy public spaces.
Eddie gave Sherman a quick lesson on navigation and wished him luck. Sherman wanted Eddie to join him, but the balloon was already weighed down with sacks of seed and buckets of shit.
Sherman floated on the night air. Controlling the balloon was easy, as long as the wind remained calm. Any gust, no matter how gentle, would cause the balloon to shift direction. Sherman aimed for the downtown skyline straight ahead.
The silent balloon floated over the primary target.
Sherman grinned at the sleek, aerodynamic section of carpet, uniformly level and monochromatically green. With Euclidean precision the demonic lawn butted against the sandy limestone of the municipal temple with all of its assorted curbs and walkways. The combination of crisp, quarried lines and obedient flora spoke of a public style rivaled in Nuremberg and exported to city halls, public schools, tennis courts, and backyards across the nation. Only the Japanese were more rigorous in their maintenance of organic-domestic space.
Sherman wanted to make City Hall sprout. He dumped a sack of seed and a bucket of shit. He was careful with the payload, but only seconds after hitting City Hall, he was over Bunker Hill, and then East Hollywood. He realized the wind had picked up, and not just an ordinary wind -- but the seasonal Santa Anna currents that blow hot and hard from the desert.
With the Santa Annas gusting, Sherman could no longer pick and choose his targets. He was heading towards the ocean and would be floating over the Pacific in less than a half and hour. He was hoping to visit the library, maybe make his way up to Griffith Park, but now he was limited to targets in his direct line of travel.
Sherman floated over the lawnless, concrete landscapes of Hollywood. On the street, Friday night clubbers were too absorbed in terrestrial matters to notice the motley battleship above. Sherman watched them in their convertibles and SUVs, lined up for miles but waiting for nothing in particular -- lined up to just to line up, really, and see one another in the line. A waste of time, a waste of fuel, a wasted cult of waxed surfaces and implants.
Now he felt the old anger rise again. He tried to restrain himself, but could not. He reminded himself of his original mission: dandelion power! But Sherman could not stop himself. He lifted a bucket of fertilizer to the lip of the basket and dumped chicken shit on the people below.
The pellet-like turds rained from sky, bouncing like brown hail on the windshields and hoods of cars, cascading off the sleek heads of the nouveau-cool and silky shoulders of supermodels. Sherman laughed at the screams and guffaws. He watched with horror as a hundred cell phones were simultaneously raised.
Somewhere downtown, a dandelion seed cracked open and thrust its thirsty tendril into a moist pellet of chicken shit. Somewhere else downtown the phone rang and the police answered.
Sherman dumped another load of shit, browning the mechanical line. Now the whole street was paying attention. Shots rang out and Sherman heard the hiss of the punctured balloon.
But as quickly as he arrived, Sherman left Hollywood and sailed over the stately streets of Beverly Hills. These were the lawns he was looking for -- exotic and restrained, each one serviced by its own private army of weeders, mowers, pullers, choppers, edgers, cutters, blowers.
Sherman seeded Beverly Hills, then Bel Air. When he finally saw the green rectangles of UCLA, Sherman wished he had more goodies for such a large and promising job.
UCLA passed below. He managed two buckets, but the balloon was really cruising fast now. He sailed above Memorial Cemetery and Veteran's Hospital -- two other greens in need of yellows. Sherman stared at the uniform stones of the cemetery and hoped they never buried him in such a sterile plot. He wanted something more reckless, where his skull had half a chance of being dug up and licked out by a cat or a badger. Sherman dumped another bucket of dandelion power.
Now his seed was almost gone. And suddenly Sherman realized he had other problems.
The light hit him from behind. It was brighter than the sun and reached him even before the chopping sound of the blades. “This is the Los Angeles Police Department,” came the mechanical voice from inside the helicopter. “You are in violation of public airspace and ordered to land immediately.”
Below too was a train of police cars, threatening him with orange suits and new medians for all eternity.
Sherman floated over Brentwood and remembered how the nation was hypnotized by O.J. while forests disappeared, wetlands were filled, and endangered species vanished. “This one's for you, O.J.,” Sherman said, and dumped his last bucket of shit.
“Land your aircraft immediately or we will be forced to shoot you down.”
Sherman looked down with horror at the network of electrical lines, traffic clogged streets, and yawning eucalyptus. There was nowhere to land here -- he couldn't even slow down! Better to crash land her in the ocean. His only chance of escape.
Sherman tried to buy more time for himself. He would land the balloon in a moment, he told them with sweeping motions of his hands and forearms.
The helicopter banged with its guns. Sherman ducked in the basket. Warning rounds, or was he sinking?
The helicopter held its distance for a block or two, then charged the balloon. Another round of fire and a hundred tiny holes ripped the motley fabric. Bullseye. Eccentric flames sizzled plastic and the tiny holes became one big gaping one. “Damn that Chumash sign!” yelled Sherman. The balloon was losing altitude, just as the ocean came into range.
Sherman still had a slight amount of control and figured there were a few places he could crash land the balloon. If he veered to the left, he just might hit water. The police would be waiting for him on the beach and he would be planting roses on Monday. A little bit to the right, and he might be able to hang himself in a palm tree. He once had a friend that lived a week in a palm tree while protesting the expansion of an orange juice plantation in Florida. Sherman figured the police would get on the horn to the fire department, snatch him like a stranded cat, and have him dodging cars by Tuesday,
And then there was the ferris wheel, straight ahead. The Santa Monica pier was bustling with people, already turned on to the flaming balloon rushing towards them. The ferris wheel stood on top of the pier, along with the rollercoaster, arcade, restaurants, and a hundred other distractions. Sherman figured if he could take out the ferris wheel, he might create enough chaos to escape in the crowd.
The police were already storming the pier. They muscled the crowd, preparing a landing strip for Sherman. The crowd did not want to move -- more excited by an impending balloon disaster than law and order. The crowd was further steeled by cotton candy and alcohol -- a homeboy pushed an hombre, a surfer slugged a cop. Perfect, thought Sherman.
The police broke flares on the pier. A couple of cops waved flashlights in their hands, giving directions to crash land the balloon on the beach. Someone babbled incomprehensibly through a bullhorn. The helicopter continued to ride his ass like a slug in a swamp.
Sherman coasted towards the landing strip -- but at the last minute, fired up the heater. The balloon made a last, desperate climb. Officers drew their weapons and fired on the basket. The helicopter moved in for the kill.
Sherman lined up the center of the ferris wheel with the center of the balloon. A stoned carny ran for cover.
Sherman knew even less about ferris wheel construction than he did about balloon aviation. Sherman knew enough about physics, however, to realize he was about to die. The balloon smacked into the ferris wheel and came to a sudden stop. The heater shot like a rocket from the balloon and sizzled the roof of the arcade. The helicopter clipped its blade on the ferris wheel and crash landed on the beach.
The ferris wheel continued to turn with the balloon in its scissoring grip. It squeezed the remaining air of the balloon into an intact corner of the plastic membrane. The corner puffed up until it was almost the size of original balloon, and finally exploded.
Sherman flashed back to his childhood, blowing up and releasing birthday party balloons when he was a kid. Their flight path was unpredictable, their sound was flatulent, and they scared the hell out of cats and granny.
Sherman was the now the passenger of such a balloon. He looped through the air, bounced off the arcade wall, clipped a couple from Ohio, bowled over a bicycle cop, and finally plunged into the sea. He tried to swim, but his muscles failed.
Then Sherman watched his brain leave his body -- or vice versa.
He watched from above as the surf tossed his body on the beach and he was dragged onto the sand by two lifeguards and six police. One of the lifeguards was pushing on his chest and the other was breathing into his mouth. One of the cops seemed to feel that this was a waste of time and belted Sherman across the jaw.
Suddenly, brain and body came back together. Sherman sat coughing on the beach.
Sherman was now a full-time city employee. His position was still unpaid.
Sherman wore orange every day but Sunday. Sherman always liked the color orange. Orange flowers were his favorite (he considered the dandelion an orange flower).
He finally moved out of the old apartment. He lived with the city now and even had a gated entrance.
The city fed him three meals per day. They even accommodated his vegetarian diet -- although he never could trust the soup broth.
Buttleson, however, refused to have Sherman back -- not after he discovered Sherman was a good for nothing shit stealer.
So Sherman was placed on a crew downtown, taking care of City Hall. The police never figured out the seed thing. They figured Sherman was just out to make a public spectacle, dumping chicken shit on Friday night yuppies. As to the outbreak of dandelions; you never know where those come from anyway.
So the crew leader had complete confidence in Sherman when he took him to the garage and decked him out with gas mask and spray gun. He even showed him the proper ratio of chemical to water.
“Don't hold back with the stuff,” he said. “We got a real problem with dandelions out there.”
“Yes, sir,” said Sherman.
“Seems like the more we spray those things, the more they grow. I just don't understand it.”
“Well, at least they're kind of pretty, I suppose.”
First published in The Bear Deluxe, Summer 2000