Blowin’ in the Wind

(Smileus/iStock/Getty Images Plus)The Leaf-Blower Man and America’s contempt for public spaces

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE O n Sundays, I get up early to hear the word. On Saturdays, I get up early to hear the leaf blower.

Traffic noise or that of a vacuum cleaner typically runs around 70 decibels. A loud alarm clock is about 80 decibels. A leaf blower, by way of comparison, punishes those nearby with about 115 decibels, midway between the noise of a car horn (110 decibels) and a jetliner taking off (120 decibels). I do not usually sleep very late, but I do not get up as early as Hortulanus americanus. The Leaf-Blower Man and his colleagues work from dawn to dusk, their almost unvaried white pickup trucks prowling and parking, sometimes four or five to a block on a busy day where I live, constricting the typically wide residential avenues of my town to practically European proportions — the nice people around here can hardly get their Audis past one another. If you do not think very hard about the legal situation (more than a fifth of the landscaping work force is composed of illegal immigrants, and there is some reason to believe that some of these outfits are less than scrupulous about payroll taxes and the like), there is much to admire about the entrepreneurial spirit and work ethic on display.

Love the hustle. Hate the noise.

An unexpected upside of the coronavirus quarantine: Many of our gardens have never looked so good. We had a fine spring that is turning into a hot summer, and with the golf courses barricaded and gyms shuttered, the bourgeoisie, who in the course of our workdays seldom lift anything heavier than money, had no place to get exercise. And so we turned to our yards and gardens. What to plant? There is a superstition that lavender repels mosquitos, so I planted two kinds. I dug up old grass and planted better grass. And, of course, there were tools to buy. I do not like noise and I do not like the smell of gasoline (my motorcycle is a relatively quiet and clean one), and if you want to avoid that unpleasantness and also want to get some exercise, then the thing is an old-fashioned reel mower, which is human-powered rather than powered by gasoline or electricity. And so I get to have some of the experience of being a kind of bipedal draft animal.

My neighbors look at me a little funny (possibly because I am the only man on the block who cuts his own grass) and in some ways the reel mower really does not work all that well, but I’d rather push that contraption over the same spot six times than get the job done with a single sweep of a gasoline lawnmower. I can let my mind wander, and then finish up with a perfectly good piece of medieval technology: a broom.

Leaf-Blower Man watches this, and smiles, and roars, and enchants into whirling motion a furious little cyclone of minced vegetation.

One of the blessings of my life is that I spend a lot of time with immigrants. Immigrants have converts’ zeal, and they are inclined to see all that’s best in America. I myself was born in these United States, and I see leaf blowers as loud, contemptuous, selfish. Immigrants see the best in America because they see their new lives through the lens of their old ones, and they left their homelands for a reason. My people are old natives, with ancestors who came here sometime after the Mayflower but before Ellis Island, the kind of people who must have been very happy to forget wherever it was they had come from and become Americans without qualification or memory. I do not know if they bothered to comply with all the terms of U.S. immigration law, but their souls were naturalized, entirely. We may make vague noises about our ancestors’ being “German” or “English” — I think those just mean white here in Texas — but in reality we do not have an old country through which to filter our impressions of America, and so we can see the thing itself, without comparison, without sentimentality, and, if we work at it a little, without the distortion of empathy or the crutch of pity.

Maybe you see the leaf blower as a nifty little invention that saves you time sweeping up grass clippings or raking leaves, just another labor-saving device — America is, if nothing else, an awfully convenient place to live. But there are some unlovely aspects of this my native land as well, and the leaf blower is a pretty good emblem for them in that it effectuates our inexplicable national contempt for public spaces.

Leaf-Blower Man is the king of his castle, and if he blows his yard waste into the street, that is somebody else’s problem. “Not My Problem” — translate that into Latin and inscribe it on the Capitol Rotunda. If Leaf-Blower Man blows his trash into the faces of passing pedestrians or bicyclists, well, walking is for poor people and bicycles are for hippies, anyway. Missing Persons had it right back in 1982’s “Walking in L.A.” — if you’re on foot, you’re nobody, “a shopping-cart pusher” or “maybe somebody who just ran out of gas.” You see him, sometimes, that guy who runs out of gas, trudging down I-20, buffeted by the backdraft of 18-wheelers, somewhere behind him (or in front of him, if he’s carrying a jerry can full of gasoline) a worn-out 1994 Ford Taurus. How did things go so wrong for him? Who is he? “Maybe someone groovy / One thing’s for sure, he isn’t starring in the movies.” Not that I stop to ask. Not in these days of violence and infection. I don’t even slow down.

Leaf-Blower Man never runs out of gas.

If our contempt for public spaces is not necessarily something that is learned, it surely is something that can be unlearned. There’s a scene in The Wire where a young woman on the edges of the Baltimore drug trade is walking across the street to her car while finishing a bag of chips, and she just tosses the empty bag onto the asphalt, right there on the streets of Baltimore. There’s a murder every six minutes in that show, but that scene stands out. If somebody walking down my block tossed an empty potato-chip bag onto the street — and, let’s be clear here, these would be quinoa chips or crispy baked kale chips or something — we’d be reading about it on Nextdoor for years. But that attitude is new. When I was growing up in the 1970s, throwing trash on the streets was what you did — you threw that Styrofoam McDonald’s container right out the window of your wood-paneled station-wagon, along with your cigarette butts and an empty can of Coors with the pop-top tab jingling around in it like a clapper in a bell. And that went on and on until that famous commercial with the fake Indian and the single tear, when we all stopped. Until then, we just whooshed on down the road, unless there was gasoline rationing because of the Arab oil embargo.

(Iron Eyes Cody was an Italian-American, born Espera Oscar de Corti, and no more an Indian than Elizabeth Warren.)

The smell of gasoline might be understood as the bouquet of our contempt for public places. Where do the homeless congregate? Under freeway overpasses, outside of gas stations, begging drivers waiting in line at drive-thru windows or jammed up at busy intersections, tattered infantry to our high-riding armored cavalry. Half of the commercial and hospitality spaces in our country, from 7-Eleven to Starbucks, serve as part-time homeless shelters and mental wards for people blown out into the street like . . . I won’t belabor the metaphor — I’ll let Dante do it for me. Standing outside the Gates of Hell, the great pilgrim sees the souls of the dead making their final procession:

As the leaves fall away in autumn, one after another, till the bough sees all its spoils upon the ground, so there the evil seed of Adam: one by one they cast themselves from that shore at signals, like a bird at its call.

When life got back to normal for a little bit, I had some accumulated things to do, some errands to run, and I started going back to the gym. I was so busy that I neglected my back yard for a few weeks. I was shocked by how quickly the weeds take over once again, if you let them.

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