Walter Mencken 2:37 p.m., March 1
Gone With the Wind Leads to High Noon on the Mean Streets of Del Mar
If chaos theorists truly believe the flapping of a butterfly’s wings caused Hurricane Katrina, they must have been snorting the dust off a north-bound Colombian Monarch.
They clearly have never interviewed anyone ignorant or unfortunate enough to spend their daylight hours in a suburban neighborhood. Had they stepped out of their concrete labs and ivory towers, they would have quickly discovered the far more obvious source of Katrina and every other hurricane and cyclone of the last 30 years.
From sunrise to sunset, suburban air is filled with the sound, fury and dust storms fomented by millions of unmuffled 2-stroke engines spinning impellers that blast air out of black plastic tubes at speeds approaching 200 miles per hour. Yes, I’m talking about 1970s Japan’s high-tech answer to the broom--the leaf blower.
I’m painfully aware no one forced me to spend my daylight hours here. I’m the one who agreed we could afford to move from our two-bedroom apartment and rent a four-bedroom house in Del Mar Heights if I gave up my Miramar office and we didn’t have to pay for storage for all the useless and rarely-used crap that now lines our two-car garage. But accepting responsibity is a long way from surrender and peaceful co-existence.
Since it’s Friday, I’ve just slammed shut all my west-facing windows to keep out the leaf blower exhaust fumes, dust and detritis billowing across the street from my neighbor’s lawn, sidewalks and driveway. As I write this, I glance at the thermostat rising toward and beyond 80 degrees even though it’s barely 70 outside. I do my best to convert my spiking cortisol levels into homicidal reveries toward the inventor, manufacturers, and users of every last leaf blower on earth. My mind drifts to the scene in ‘The Mask’ where Jim Carrey’s alter ego exacts revenge on the two thieving auto repairmen.
His alter ego picks up two exhaust pipes (mufflers attached) and declares with a malicious smile, “It’s time for an overhaul!” The police and ambulances arrive to find a proctologist’s nightmare. Substitute leaf blowers--whining at full-throttle--for the embedded exhaust systems and you’ll have an inkling of my idea of vengeance. The lowest level of hell is reserved for the inventor. The next lowest is for the gardener whom I watched--and listened to--wrangle a single liquid amber leaf down 70 feet of sidewalk rather than bend over and pick the damn thing up.
And, before my desire to turn all leaf blowers into rectal or penile implants for their users elicits charges of racism, classism, reverse sexism or being a Luddite, let me point out research that’s been done on the effectiviness of a broom versus a leaf blower. Go to http://www.nonoise.org/quietnet/cqs/leafblow.htm#grandma and you can see that, in a series of 3 different “clean up tasks” conducted by L.A.’s Department of Water and Power, a 60-year-old grandmother using a rake and broom out-performed both gas and electric leaf blowers wielded by professional gardeners. (And on the same site you can view all the health hazards from asthma to digestive problems to spreading flower-killing fungi that slower-than-a-broom leaf blowers cause.)
Back to Katrina . . . . About a month before that F-3 hurricane revealed the true levels of competence and compassion of the Bush Family, FEMA, and Xe (the mercenary army formerly known as Blackwater), my Rumble in the Jungle, my Thrilla from Manila, ‘my High Noon’ with a leaf blower-armed neighbor, presented itself.
His machine was so large and generating so great a volume of dust and noise that, in hindsight, I’m almost certain the manufacturer required that a bottle of Viagra and human growth hormone be mixed with each tank of oil and gasoline. At full throttle, it could have filled the Goodyear blimp in two minutes, and popped it in two and a half.
But, like Gary Cooper trying to please his Quaker bride in the beginning of High Noon, because my diplomatic and confrontation-averse spouse (who’s also a mental health counselor) walked beside me, I just squinted into the cloud of dust and kept moving. However, I couldn’t help but turn my acid gaze toward the offending neighbor as we passed along the opposite sidewalk as far away from the blower as we could get.
To my surprise, he suddenly acted as if he were the offended party. “What?! You got a problem with me cleaning my yard?!” As his eyes drilled into my mine, I could feel my wife’s burning into the back of my head as she grabbed my hand and tried to keep me moving forward. “Sorry,” I said in as sarcastic a tone as I could muster, “I didn’t know you owned the whole damn street.”
I half-expected him to charge me, but, probably because my wife was with me, he just slowly turned away and went back to creating the vortex, that I believe in retrospect, most probably caused Hurricane Katrina. I knew my wife was relieved. But I was still in adrenaline overload for the next five minutes. My wife, good counselor that she is, calmly let me rant in anti-leaf blower mode for awhile. Then when she sensed I had spent most of my ire, she calmly said, “You know, I think something was already bothering him before he yelled at us.” I looked at her incredulously. But I knew that because of her hypervigilance, legacy of a less-than-idyllic childhood, she had probably caught something I had totally missed. “I’ll bet he just had a run-in with one of his neighbors, and you just happened to give him the evil eye when he was ruminating about it. It was just a shame-provoked response.”
“So what are you going to do,” I asked, “go back and offer to take him on as a client?”
“No. I just feel he wasn’t even aware of what he was doing. I don’t think he realized that the wind was blowing his dust toward us. He really wasn’t aiming at us.” We walked on in silence the last five minutes till we made it home.
Much as I hated to admit it, especially due to the nature of the “weapon” involved, there was a better-than-even chance my good-natured bride was right. Then I thought of that guy’s house being along our favorite walking route. If I let things stand as they were, I’d either have to gird myself into fight-or-flight mode every time I walked by, or choose another route. Neither option appealed to me.
So, letting out a deep sigh, I grabbed my backpack and went to the fridge. I stuck in two bottles of Beck’s and one of organic root beer (just in case the guy was on a 12-step program). I jumped on my bike, and less than three minutes later pulled up to his front door. I hesitated a second, then knocked. A pretty blonde opened the door, and waited patiently for me to explain my presence.
“Well, your husband and I had a little misunderstanding out in the street about 20 minutes ago, and I was kind of hoping we could try and straighten it out.”
Her eyes narrowed a little, but she left the door ajar as she went to fetch him. Two minutes later, Ted and I were sitting in his living room, opening the beers I’d brought. “Beck’s is my favorite,” he told me. Then he went on to confirm my wife’s theory, by telling me that he’d gotten into it with his neighbor earlier that day over his speedboat in the driveway. Turned out he was a general contractor with a fondness for internal combustion engines.
When he asked me why I had looked so angry, I told him it was nothing personal, I just hated leaf blowers on principle. He apologized and said he usually didn’t use his blower much, but he had just trimmed back a lot of shrubs so he could re-stucco and paint the outside of his house.
Fifteen minutes later, I was pedaling home feeling almost Ghandi-like. Ted and I have never had another beer together. But four years later, we always smile and say hi to each other whenever my wife and I pass by.
But, if there were a magic button I could push to morph every last leaf blower into a copy of “Gone With the Wind,” I’d do it in a heartbeat.
[Post script: The City of Del Mar is the only city in San Diego County with an ordinance banning the use of leaf blowers within its city limits:
“It shall be unlawful for any person to use or operate within the City, any portable machine, powered with a gasoline engine or electric motor, to blow leaves, dirt and other debris off sidewalks, driveways, lawns, and other surfaces.”]