Letter from California

An archive of the weekly "Letter from Calfornia", written by Jim McCarthy.

Monday, April 11, 2005

Letter from California-March 28, 2005

I have a lot of respect for investigative reporters. They seek The Truth vigorously and relentlessly, like a wine-o searching for winning tickets on the ground at the racetrack, as if nothing else mattered. They’re tough-minded professionals who do what it takes and go where the story is.

The problem, of course, is that sometimes The Truth hangs out in some pretty bad neighborhoods. And a lot of times the truth is out of town or even up in the Bay Area or someplace else that would involve getting off my sofa. As much as I admire investigative journalists, I like to do my writing in the Homer Simpson pajamas that I bought at Target and that doesn’t go over big in the dive bars and dark alleys where The Truth likes to spend its free time. I consider it “field work” when I have to get up and refill my coffee. You can see the problem.

Conveniently, hard working suckers, I mean, professional journalists do all the unpleasant schlepping around getting the news, and all I have to do is walk out to my curb and pick up the paper. If that’s too far, I save a few steps and just read it on the Internet, but either way, the news comes to me, not the other way around.

So safely writing from my sanctuary, I’m free to make wisecracks about the stories of life in California they busted their hump to get. No muss, no fuss. Even better, the fruitbats, wingnuts, loons and Woody Harrelson usually live somewhere else, so there’s not much chance I’ll bump into them waiting in line at the juice bar and feel embarrassed that I called them wingnuts. Usually there’s a nice safe distance, but this week, Crazytown is my own backyard.

Well, it’s not exactly my backyard, but it is the backyard of one of my neighbors. Tim Dundon, 62 years old, living only a few blocks from me here in Altadena, California, has made the news for the 60-foot tall compost heap he has been building since 1974. I know what you’re thinking: “wow, that’s one tall compost heap.” Yes, it is. Very tall. It’s so tall Altadena should mention it on the signs marking the town limit: “Altadena, Home of California’s Tallest Backyard Compost Heap.” It sure beats the old slogan: “Altadena, Land of 10,000 Skunks.”

Dundon, also known as “Zeke the Sheikh” for his occasional wearing of a costume-store Arab Sheikh get-up, has used his compost heap to grow a spectacular tropical garden that only has one flaw: it’s next to a 60 foot compost heap. Still, he’s a good sharer. Anybody can add to or take from the big steaming pile of Sheikh for growing his or her own garden. It’s like a public library or one of those trays at the gas station where you “take a penny or leave a penny” except everything in it is rotting and potentially combustible.

But there’s trouble in this festering paradise, and it looks like Dundon’s pile is in deep dung. Starting two years ago, when L.A. County, who were afraid the pile would come to life and eat the city, tried to get him shut down, Dundon has had to battle to keep his life’s work going. Now, there’s another force on the horizon that wants to see Dundon removed and his land put to other use and it looks like this time, they’ve got the upper hand. Dundon says he’ll fight to keep his work alive and make sure the land remains a compost pile forever. The neighbors mostly believe in what he’s doing. In fact, Zeke the Sheikh has fans all over town, so what possible problem could there be?

Just one little one: the land isn’t his. It belongs to the Mountain View Cemetery, who recently got the news that the land won’t ever be allowed to be used for their creepy but necessary purposes, and so they have decided to sell it.

Naturally, Dundon had a comment, and it rhymed: “This is the tower of power that makes the people behind Katie Couric and Matt Lauer quiver and cower because it generates the power that makes a flower.” Uh huh.

Now that the property is on the market, Zeke the Sheikh has resorted to more than just nonsensical rhymes, though. He declared last Friday “Bad Friday” and started parading around the normally sane streets of Altadena with a costume-store Jesus get-up and carrying a cross. He’s also promised to add a crown of thorns on Sunday. I can’t verify that because, you know, I’m in my pajamas, but I can verify that Dundon has officially gone on my list of men who are drama queens. It’s a short list and he’s the first manual laborer on it.

One of his neighbors proposed a solution, according to the Pasadena Star-News, involving a trade of one of his other properties for the land with the heap. The attorney for the cemetery said they’d consider that but Dundon refused, saying “Are you kidding me? The place is nothing but a dump!” Ok, he didn’t really say that, but he did refuse, saying he didn’t think he should have to give anything up to keep his life’s work. Try to see the logic from the cemetery’s side: he puts 30 years worth of rotting plants on your property and you let him because you’re nice. Eventually, you decide to sell the property and he responds with his own low-budget, high-crazy-level production of “The Passion of the Zeke” with you as the murderous Romans. You offer to trade him for another property but he says he feels entitled to keep your land because…well, it’s the ‘because’ part that keeps stumping me.

Dundon says he doesn’t want to fight this fight, but “I’ve got to do it.” Oh, yes, he must. The voices in his head get angry when he doesn’t do what they say, and right now they say, “Zeke, protect the pile and make yourself look like a lunatic in the process!”

Mission accomplished, Tim. Take that, Katie Couric and Matt Lauer.


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