“Pleasure is spread through the earth in stray gifts to be claimed by whoever shall find.”— William Wordsworth
Long ago in the Santa Cruz of 1972, I was a member of a large commune occupying a grand old abode on the edge of the sea. A former stagecoach stop, hotel, brothel, and motel, the three-story main house shared a two-acre plot with four one-room cottages and a large barn that had once been a carriage house and served us as woodshop and garage. I am convinced that my vow to plant and maintain a big vegetable and flower garden was what decided the communards to vote me in, but it may also have been that they liked me.
In any case, I did plant a big vegetable and flower garden, roughly a fifth of an acre, and I not only grew enough vegetables to feed our twelve members and myriad guests throughout the year, but I frequently traded surplus vegetables for eggs and fruit produced by other communes in the area, and I made a bit of extra money for the communal pot from passersby attracted to my Pick-Your-Own-Bouquet sign affixed to the trunk of a fallen but still-living cypress at the mouth of our driveway. Our soil was sandy loam and needed help in the way of manure, most of which we got from a horse ranch on Trout Gulch Road out of Soquel, but there was one spectacular load of manure that came to us as a most surprising gift.
I made my money in those days as a laborer and musician. The minimum wage circa 1972 paid to Santa Cruz hippies for physical labor was two dollars an hour. Being a prideful sort, I would never work for less than two-fifty, and some people paid me three. This may not seem like much by today’s standards, but when you consider that cheese in those days, good cheese, was twenty-nine cents a pound, a loaf of fantastic organic bread made at our local bakery was eighty-nine cents (and half that a day old), and a towering glass of draft beer was fifty cents, then three dollars an hour was serious money.
But even living frugally, I was always low on cash, and so when I landed a four-days-a-week job as an estate gardener at four dollars an hour, I was suddenly a wealthy man, riding my bike six miles up into the mountains to a five-hundred acre estate of redwood forest surrounding rolling hills of wild grasses and poison oak transected by a narrow asphalt road leading to a spectacular house of stone and wood perched on a bluff overlooking Santa Cruz and Monterey Bay, an eagle’s eye view of what once was surely paradise.
My employers were an exceedingly wealthy middle-aged couple, he from Boston, she from Cincinnati, with one child, a bearded man of twenty-seven who still lived at home, their fortune inherited from the wife’s predecessors who had established one of the world’s largest oil companies. The husband had an office and a townhouse in San Francisco and would go there for days at a time to venture capital, I suppose, but more probably to get away from his wife who was phenomenally bossy and intrusive and sour.
They had lived in the Philippines for many years, which is where their bearded son had developed his great passion for polo, and where they had employed legions of servants and kept dozens of polo ponies and had a mansion on the outskirts of Manila and a beach house on Puerto Galera Bay and a mountain chalet near Baguio City; and they had loved living there. However, two failed but terrifying attempts by guerillas or crime lords (they were never sure which) to kidnap the bearded son convinced them to return to America, to build a house overlooking the Pacific on one of their many landholdings, and to live in peace and safety. They missed their legions of servants and days of splendor at the polo club, and the sweet warm evenings on various verandahs, and the divine luxury of having anything they wanted at any time, but they did not miss masked gunmen trying to kidnap them.
Since returning to America, the wife had taken to raising champion Saint Bernards, which pastime was the centerpiece of her life. The sire was a massive champion weighing well over two hundred pounds, the bitch a champion, too, weighing a petite one hundred and seventy. When I began working there, the champion pair had nine yearling male pups yet to be sold, each pup destined to surpass his father in size. These enormous dogs roamed free during the day and spent their nights in a quarter-acre pen ringed by a ten-foot-high cyclone fence. They were beautiful beasts, friendly and full of fun, and God help anyone they decided to have fun with.
The first thing I did every morning when I arrived (following my strenuous forty-five minute bike ride) was to release the pups from their pen. Why, you might ask, didn’t the wife or her bearded son or the German housekeeper or the Mexican cook release the pups? Because releasing the pups was a downright dangerous and heroic act, and here’s why.
Imagine nine two-hundred pound dogs, albeit friendly and full of fun, each possessed of frightening strength, hurling themselves against a cyclone fence in a frenzy to be released to go running over the hills and through the forest, sniffing and peeing and chasing deer and all other living things. Imagine the large outward-swinging gate needing to be unlatched, the person doing the unlatching directly in the path of the nine exuberant monsters who wished to show their gratitude to their brave savior by jumping on him and breaking his bones while licking him to death.
Further imagine that some fifteen feet directly in front of the gate was the thick trunk of a sprawling old live oak, a trunk wide enough, and ascending at such an angle, that an agile human could run up the trunk some seven or eight feet before needing to use his or her hands to climb another ten feet up into the tree. Now imagine a person, me, using a very long pole to flip up the latch on the gate, dropping the pole, running up the tree trunk, and then climbing high into the tree while eighteen hundred pounds of Saint Bernard came crashing out of the pen, and six or eight hundred of those pounds came running up the trunk of the oak in joyful pursuit of me. Eventually the colossal pups would leave me treed and rush away and I would climb down, sorely regretting that I had taken this job, yet counting myself lucky to have it.
Oh, the stories I could tell about those crazy rich people; but this is a story about manure, so I will cut to the chase. One day the wife and I were doing what we did every afternoon after lunch, which was to sit in the dappled shade of an oak on the hillside overlooking the flower garden I was forever repairing and replanting because of the rampaging pups. There in that dappled shade we would comb the coats of the huge dogs in search of burrs and wild oats the dogs had collected while rampaging over the hills, some of those oats having corkscrewed into the flesh of the dogs which required us to unscrew the oats and pluck them out — a painful procedure eliciting growls and yips and sometimes snaps from the behemoth canines.
I hated this part of my job more than any other part because I knew that the moment I released the burr-free dog, he would wander into the high grass and invite more oats to jump on for a ride. Or he would traipse down the hill and roll around on the newly planted petunias or begin digging furiously in the just-repaired tulip bed, uprooting bulbs and plants in search of gophers that were never to be unearthed. And the wife would smile at the demolition of my morning’s work and say things like, “They certainly love to dig, don’t they?” or “Where do they get so much energy?”
And the wife confided in me. She told me everything about her life, her husband’s life, and her son’s life; and on this one day, for the first time in the many months I’d worked for her, she asked me about my life. I told her I was a writer and hoped one day to publish stories and novels.
“Well,” said the wife, arching an aristocratic eyebrow, “then you’ll be interested to know that we were good friends with William Faulkner. We visited him three times in Mississippi and the last time we saw him he sold us the desk on which he wrote The Sound and the Fury. Do remind me to show it to you next time you come to the house for your pay.”
“Wow,” I replied, feigning enthusiasm. “The actual desk,” though the idea of these obscenely wealthy people buying Faulkner’s desk ignited a rage in me that spawned the fantasy of my stealing the desk and fleeing with the blessed thing to Oregon. Why should they have Faulkner’s desk? If anyone should have Faulkner’s desk, it should be me, not them. I had, after all, read As I Lay Dying twice!
And as I was having my silly fantasy of stealing her desk, my usually brash and bossy employer said in the sweetest way, “If you could have anything in the world, what would it be?”
In retrospect, I think she may have been asking me to say “Faulkner’s desk.” But at the time, her question seemed so ridiculous and insensitive — I, the struggling artist unscrewing wild oats from her huge dogs, she the billionaire heiress unscrewing wild oats from her huge dogs — that I almost said, “If I could have anything in the world it would be for you to hire someone to install an electric gate opener you can activate from the safety of your house so I won’t have to risk my life every day,” but instead I said, “I’d like a huge truckload of well-aged horse manure delivered to my garden.”
And two days later, as I was planting lettuce in the commune garden, a big old dump truck heaped high with well-aged horse manure came backing down the drive and hissing to a halt, the driver jumping out to ask where I wanted the glorious stuff dumped.
There should probably be a moral to this story. I dunno. I quit that job a couple weeks after the manure was delivered because a woman I was crazy about started dating the bearded son and changed overnight from a sweet hippie gal who used to come to my gigs and sing along to my songs and gift me with scintillating smiles and congratulatory hugs and kisses bordering on sex, into a snazzy club-hopping fashion plate. And she and the bearded son would come zooming up in his spanking new convertible Porsche to the fabulous house of stone and wood on the bluff overlooking Monterey Bay, dressed like movie stars at an opening night gala, while I was kneeling in the dog piss dirt replanting the flower bed for the umpteenth time under the watchful eyes of gigantic dogs…and I just couldn’t handle it anymore, though the money was awfully good.
Todd’s web site is UnderTheTableBooks.com.