Origin Story #2: Let It Roll (Waste)

In this version of the story, it’s actually not hot in L.A. July of 2008. In fact it’s unseasonably cool, making it possible for me to walk every day on my beloved hillside, which rises from my front door like a twisted concrete hiking trail.

It was summer and I was enjoying my July like a restful wilderness retreat in my own back yard. Every morning I woke up with the sunlight speckling through the blinds. I stretched as succulently as Snow White waking to the kiss of her pastel prince. A quick splash of water on my face and I was out the door. With a keen eye out for the beauty of nature, I took it easy and danced my way up the hill. I had no reason to run. I was in no hurry at all.

The sky glinted dark blue, a spectrum of Southern California sapphire. The breeze shuffled shades of chartreuse and forest green leaves, palm fronds flashed their silver undersides, and hill-holding vines swelled like jade beads. How lucky I was to live here! – smack in the middle of urban L.A., but feeling as free as a bee in the country. The ecstatic flora and fauna of my neighborhood even managed to distract me from the Five Freeway which ran twentyfourseven below. With a stubbornly sylvan bent, my mind turned the Five into the “babbling brook” that completed my pastoral vision.

I followed the narrow road as it corkscrewed upwards, swinging my arms and talking to the birds: what beautiful day!

Rounding the first corner, I found one of my neighbors wielding a rake. She was an elderly Filipino woman who shook her head as she worked. I didn’t really know her, although we’d exchanged smiles a few times.

“Bad,” she said to me – but not about me. She made little jabbing motions with her rake until I followed her eyes down to where I saw what she, like Sisyphus, had been raking: lemons; rotting lemons; hundreds of rotting lemons. They were all over the road, her yard, her neighbor’s yard, her driveway. They were everywhere – battered and bruised, most had been reduced to pulp. A question crossed my face.

“See,” she said pointing at the monster lemon tree growing a few houses up-slope. The tree was easily three stories high, an industrial-sized lemon making factory, absolutely burgeoning with over-ripe yellow fruit. The lemons on that tree could have fed an army, but instead they lay dead on the road. This wasn’t part of my pastoral vision.

My neighbor picked one of the black-bruised rotten blobs from the prongs of her rake and held it up to my face. “No pick,” she said, dropping the fruit. It mushed as it hit the pile. She shook her head again.

This was terrible – a massacre! Why hadn’t anyone eaten these lemons?

My neighbor and I shrugged at each other. “I don’t know” I said loudly and clearly, answering the question she hadn’t asked: “why?” We stood together looking for a moment. I shifted my weight uncomfortably. Since I had no other answers, I gave her a tight smile and waved quietly good bye.

Back on the trail, I quickened my pace. While I greatly admired my neighbor’s work ethic and particularly her great economy of speech, I had no intention of letting decomposing fruit corpses ruin my drunk-on-nature morning hike. After all, the day was still beautiful and the air was full of flowers! Magenta ones grew from tall drinking-glass-shaped trees and smelled like candy. Lacy white jasmine flowers puffed the scent of Chinatown tea. Sticky clumping blues, elegant whites, and open-handed pinks all stood together like hopeful bridesmaids.

But –

I couldn’t stop thinking about the goddamn lemons.

I felt like I’d just witnessed a crime and fled the scene. Instead of wedding-party flowers,

I pictured red siren lights and blue uniformed officers waving-off by-standers, police tape outlining the remains of each tiny, yellow body.

It really was the most wasteful display.

I mean, besides slapping nature in the face, how could anybody let perfectly usable lemons go to waste like that? I sped up, working myself into a full-metal rant – and the mess they made! That poor woman certainly had better things to do with the strength of her back and the hours of her day than to spend them cleaning up an ankle-deep citrus mess. And ugh, do rats eat lemons? Ugh; rats.

All around me hawks rode the currents and mockingbirds did professional impressions – but I’d been knocked out of my metaphors.

How much do lemons cost anyway? I wondered pragmatically, running now. Even at fifty cents a pop that meant that at least two- hundred dollars was lying out there on the road. Two-hundred dollars? Were we really so rich – that we could let good food just …die?

Waste, waste, waste, chanted each footfall as it hit the pavement.

Fully riled and out of breath, I stopped. I’d run all the way to the other side of the hill and gasped when I saw what lay on the ground. At my feet, a party of avocados had been decimated – the victims of a hit and run. Surrounding their bone-crushed pits, their creamy flesh smeared, a mess of browning green and gold oxidizing on the asphalt.

Now this was really too much. I mean lemons were one thing, but letting delicious, perfect, expensive California avocados rot and roll down the hill like this – well, it was the very definition of careless.

I’d witnessed another crime, yet where was the police tape?

I turned and ran towards home, my nature walk a thing of the past.

But what could I do to stop this waste? I supposed I could steal the fruit before it fell, if I was of a surreptitious mind… But then what would I do with it?  Even in a cooking frenzy, I wouldn’t be able to use the sheer tonnage of lemons I’d just seen on the road.

On I ran, until I realized that if I really wanted to stop the waste of food on my hill, all I had to do was all the work.

Wow. That was it.

I just had to do all the work. Just like my Filipino neighbor worked to clean up the mess…

Maybe if she’d spent her energy picking the lemons when they were ripe instead of waiting until they’d fallen on the ground, someone might have been able to use them. All I had to do was get these negligent tree owners to pick their fruit! Hell, I knew where to find them. Then we – all of us on the hill – could use this “windfall” of food to cook with, eat, and enjoy, and nothing would be wasted!

Yes, yes, I’d create a monthly swap, a collective, a cooperative! And once a month, these food-producing tree owners could bring their unwanted bounty to my house before it fell on the ground and trade it for some of someone else’s. It was the simplest idea in the world. Why hadn’t I thought of it before? Why hadn’t anyone thought of it before? Waste wasn’t garbage. Waste had value! I skipped.

As I rounded the corner for home I felt all of nature come back into focus and celebrate – trees whistled, citrus sang, and flowers clapped their multi-colored hands.

I let my idea roll over the hill via email as soon as I got home.

(read more Origin Stories)