By M.J. Politis
“Yes, it is a good day to grow!” Old Man Dan said to the grass as he staggered out of his house, gazing upon the wonderment of it all, the blades of freshly sprouted morning blades ticking his toes. They ticked, but he never laughed. He seldom cried either. But Dan always found a reason to smile at something. When it rained, it was a good day for the plants. When it sunshined, it was a good day for the birds. When it snowed, the owls could cooo all they wanted and be heard for miles. And when it was ‘Huntingtowning’, everyone around him was just..Huntingtown.
He gazed out on the dirt between the blades of grass on the lawn, and the weeds in the ‘garden’ which was planted, at his insistence in figure eights and curves rather than straight lines. The brown muck and dry sand between the stems of green seemed colorless to most of the world, but shiny to his eye. As if specs of brilliance lay in the ground, waiting to be discovered. With each year, and every planting. Even the dogs seemed to know it, Old Man Dan’s place being where every stray found a home, and every owned dog found refuge from its owner. The canine visitors never got a chance to dig up the garden or the garbage pits outside. Perhaps it was because Dan asked them not to, or because he provided more goodies above the ground, in the form of freshly cooked burgers, cold pizza crusts and a hand that delivered them with the grace of a Five Star chef working with a nickel and dime budget.
Dan was seventy years old, but far younger than the other people on his block. When he was a young man himself, he saved five families and twenty—two soldiers from bleeding to death way back in a place called Korea. It wasn’t bravery, he claimed. He just knew how to fix a truck, carry a body and drive all the busted bodies through machine gun bullets and mortar fire. “I decided to drive, God decided that I’d get back to the hospital alive.” But everyone around Dan now was deader than the people he couldn’t save in Korea. They were ten, twenty, forty and even fifty-five years younger than he was, but so, so much older. They never did anything that made them feel alive. They played golf, and safe sports, rode their bicycles with safety helmets that kept their eyes inside their heads, and their heads inside their sheltered lives. The Mexican workers lining the streets at six AM looking for garden work were the lucky ones, because they earned what they got paid at the end of the day. Not so good that they spent it on liquor to get drunk and knives to cut up the Puerto Ricans and Guatemalans at the end of the work day, but at least they had a day.
One of the workers was mowing the lawn next to Dan’s. “Manuel,” Dan yelled out. “That grass you’re cutting and throwing away can keep five goat alive for a month!”
“I know,” Manuel said without turning his head, or saying a word. “If these people only knew how much grass is appreciated in the desert I grew up in, they would let the blades grow up to their knees!” he continued loudly, then with a muted-collected tone silenced by the stare of Mrs. Bernstein, the ‘Lordess’ of the Manor who knew nothing about manners at all. Her husband was a stockbroker who busted a lot of people’s bank accounts to fill his own. They had everything in the house, CDs, big screen televisions, vases from Italy. But not one book.
Dan looked across the street to the Karabellis’s. True to his Greek roots, Mister Karabellis owned the pizzaria and diner in town that featured Souvlaki and Baklava on the menu, but seldom served it. The costumers wanted steaks, spaghetti and sprinkled ice cream Sundays. It was easier to ‘go with the flow’, and inexpensive to hire his nephew to cut to the grass on his lawn. Two inches high, according to town regulation. And the beautiful town of Huntingtown was filled with regulations to keep it beautiful.
Lots of ‘NO” rules. No pick up trucks allowed on the streets, or visible in the driveways after sunset. No music allowed to be played in the backyards. No dancing in the taverns in town, no matter how great the band. No more than two garbage pails to be visible. No skateboarding, bicycling, dog walking or ‘powerwalking’ on the sidewalks. No flaking paint allowed on the house walls. No ‘distasteful’ colors to be used to paint over the flaking paint. No more than three trees per house. No more than five weeds allowed per garden. And no blades of grass more than 2 inches high. And, no patches of dirt more than 2 by 2 feet amidst the lawn of cut grass. As for the manure that made the grass grow, special compartments had to be purchased.
Dan complied with the last ‘inspection’ of his ‘detritus disposer’ with a barbeque, in which he made a fire the way they did in Korea, and the Old West. It decreased his heating bill, and saved on gas, and the burgers tasted good. When they dried out, he put the doggie daples into the house, burning them in the fireplace. It saved on heating bills, and was ecologically sound. He also burnt his garbage, remembering a Korean Sage, Doctor Woo telling him ‘we can build paradises with your garbage.’ Woo didn’t go to medical school, but he knew people better than any shrink with an MD in Huntingtown did. There was a disease in Huntingtown that Doctor Woo never saw, but sensed was there. “Ihuoli’, was his latest word for it. “Dull Out Disease” was the translation to the world afflicted with it. “Lonely” was the emotion that Dan experienced every day, when one not so fair day, or maybe too ‘fair’ day, he saw the moving vans outside his door, realizing very soon afterwards that the working class neighborhood he moved into in 1955 had devolved into a ‘gentrified’ community of walking zombies. Some of them strolled around in Payless runners, others in Saks Fifth Avenue loafers and stilettos. None of them could feel the grass under their feet, or the earth in their Core.
And none could feel nothing in his heart, or soul, more than Edward McBride. He walked up the street in his blue uniform, stroling with a big stride that made his small feet seem important. Actaully, impotent, which he probably was as well.
Officer McBride was once a City Councilman, till the board got smaller. He hoped to run for mayor one day, and even County Assemblyman. “One day soon” was behind every one of Officer McBride’s happy smiles that seemed so contented to those who didn’t know him. “One day soon” McBride was forty-five now, and missed out on being all those magical ages from sixteeen on up. But he looked splendid in his uniform and, but for a gun he was not allowed to carry on his hip, he looked every inch the policeman. Or, more accurately, ‘inspector’. Blonde hair neatly combed and parted with a symmetrical line on the right. A chiseled chin that made him look like a movie star, or an underdog about to become one. And green eyes that hated the sight of that color, particularly if it was too high, or odorous.
“Still too high,” McBride said to Dan as he took out his ruler, measuring the grass, being sure to not let the green color stain his white gloves. “And there are weeds in it,” he frowned. “And the smell. What is that?”
Dan smiled. “Freshness”, he said. “The most natural aroma to mankind.”
“You don’t say?” McBride said. “It does smell different, in a way that I am not sure is legal or not, according to the Quality of Life laws that I am entrusted to enforce.”
“Indeed,” Dan continued, pulling up a mound of grass, pushing it in front of McBride’s upturned nose. “This odor is therapy. It’s basic to the human condition. If there is anything that replenishes life, this is it.”
“You don’t say,” McBride said, again. “Are they a new kind of herb?”
“Indeed, yes,” Dan smiled. “The universal herb that has all number of chromosomes to it. What you smell is a byproduct of life that keeps life going. It’s been doing it for centuries.”
“You don’t say?” McBride said, again, infusing a jet of nasal spray up his allergic nose. “You think you can get rich marketing it?”
“Indeed yes,” Dan answered. “People in high places pass it down, or trickle it down, to people in low places all the time, and those people in high places are called gods by the peasants for doing so.”
“You don’t say!” McBride exclaimed, thinking about how he could co-market the magic ingredient that the inventor-chemist was boasting about. “You think I could, maybe, help you market this herb?”
“You can make it yourself!” Dan said.
Dan put his hand on McBride’s shoulder. “Well, you go to a tree. With the moss facing south.”
“Yes.” McBride took down the notes, most feverishly, in small writing that only he could see, peering around him, so that Dan’s neighbors would not know what he was thinking.
“You stoop down.”
“Unbuckle that belt which, thankfully has no gun on it.”
“Take down your trousers, Dockers or Mickey the Mountie costume and let it rip.”
Dan offered his dog for demonstration, whisteling. The hound evaculated a bolus of the brown elixer that replenishes all life on cue.
Dan smiled, patting McBride on the shoulder. As was his custom.
McBride grimaced, took out his ticket pad, and wrote out another ticket for Dan. As was his routine every time he walked down his street for inspection. “Violation 235 and 67. For the fourth time on each!”
“That the next time this happens, you’ll be taken in with handcuffs,” McBride fumed.
“I own this property. I like my grass long, and my yard, aromatic. I’m not hurting anyone.”
“You’re hurting this community!” McBride said.
“Ask ‘this community’”, Dan asserted. He took the hundred dollar and change tickets pushed into his Army Veteran’s fatigue pocket, inserted just behind his string of medals. He showed it to the ‘public’ around him. “Quality of life laws, my friends!”
But around Dan, no one answered. Maybe it was that they were too busy cutting their own lawns, or inside, or just accepted that McBride needed the job to keep him off the streets, or that the Quality of Life laws were needed to keep street people away from the hallowed roads of Huntingtown.
“The next time I see this lawn…two inches high. And no canine, or if you’re thinking about it, human fertilizer in it!” McBride warned. “Think of the safety of the children in this community.”
“I was thinking about something more important than their safety.”
“Their ‘admiration’ of you? ‘Dumspter Dan’?”
Dan knew that the golf kids and computer hipsters had talked about him behind his back, but despite the name tagged to him, he still champions the cause they were too ‘hip’ to even know about. “Maybe I don’t care about their safety as much as you do,” Dan said. “But I’m maybe the only one around here who cares about their Vitality.”
“To the safety of sterility the crowd has been refined,” Dan said, feeling the deadness in the neighborhood around him. “Phil Ochs said that in 1967.”
“Interesting,” McBride commented back, noting whatever other violations he could on Dan’s wall, garage or driveway. “What did Mister Oaks do after 1967?”
“Committed suicide,” Dan slurred out under his breath.
“Have a nice day,” McBride said, tipping his hat, handing Dan another handful of tickets. It wasn’t worth looking at what they were for. Breathing out of turn or in the wrong direction was as good as anything else, as the Quality of Life laws had escalated up to a point where they had nothing to do with life at all.