Holy Power Tools, Batman!
Micah was from Moresheth, a village at the edge of the lowland through which all the armies of Assyria and Egypt were passing. He was well acquainted with the suffering and destruction of war and also with the exploitation of the peasants. One day, God called him and gave him strength, justice, and courage…and he violently denounced the injustices that were practiced everywhere.
One morning early last year, the cacophony produced by a gardener’s leaf blower woke up a disgruntled former Cat Woman Julie Newmar. Shortly thereafter, she joined other sleepyhead Westside homeowners such as Peter Graves (of Mission Impossible fame) and Tony Danza in supporting a citywide ban on this polluting machine. Quickly, our leaders passed a law that would punish concrete musicians of the lawn with a $1000.00 fine or six months in prison for using their instruments. If they would strike out getting caught three times they would have to face a life sentence. How could this useful device lead to such draconian punishment? Ironically it was the same City of Los Angeles that recommended the use of this contrivance to save water when clearing leaves in times of drought. Indeed the city bought 300 leaf blowers for use by their city workers. But the law did not applied to them, just to private gardeners.
For those unacquainted with such things, leaf blowers are those ubiquitous backpacked cannons that move fallen leaves and dust from one place to another. These industrial age power-driven fans transform former feudal peasants into space-age garden warriors. Like other gardening tools, such as weed wackers and lawn mowers, leaf blowers use a two-cycle, gasoline-powered engine that is not very efficient. Burning oil they pollute as much as old motorcycles, and are just as noisy.
Nevertheless power tools--precious commodities that supposedly enable the handyman to be fast and self-sufficient-- remain symbols of status and manhood. Like the motorcycle or jetski, leaf blowers also signify a certain freedom. Our local Cat Woman called the leaf blower “a three-foot extension of a gardener’s masculinity.” Clearly, these far too well endowed immigrant gardeners trespassing the Westside gardens of Eden had to be castrated.
In California, the art of gardening has evolved from a Zen-inspired practice embodied in the stereotype of the khaki-clad, pith-helmeted Japanese to a new era of industrial “Mow, Blow, and Go.” Baseball-cap-wearing Mexicans have mechanized gardening, making what was once reserved for the rich affordable for the average homeowner. Without the leaf blower, gardeners, must of whom work for themselves, have to do twice the work for the same pay, because their customers are reluctant to pay more. Given the new law, a decent salary and even one’s job are threatened by an endless pool of unskilled cheap labor who will broom for almost no pay.
Paradoxically, liberal politicians like Jackie Goldberg and Tom Hayden have sided against the workers in defense of the environment, although the level of pollution from all gardener’s tools put together is minute in relation to car and industry pollution, and is even offset by the oxygen produced by the gardens they tend. On the other hand, many Republican lawmakers sided with the gardeners, arguing that the consumer should dictate policy and that the law should treat small entrepreneurs as it does large companies, who are given a grace period to adapt to new standards. In order to get public attention for their desperate cause, gardeners formed the unique Association of Latin American Gardeners of Los Angeles and started protesting in non-conventional ways--marching barefoot or leaving a pile of brooms in front of City Hall. They ultimately opted for the last resort in political protest, the hunger strike. With which they attracted media coverage and brief worldwide attention.
That night, a Salvadoran immigrant named Gody Sanchez was watching the news in his modest apartment on Sherman Way in the San Fernando Valley. A Pentecostal man by faith and a car mechanic by profession, Gody relates how in his dreams he was told by God to fix the problem and save his brothers from slow starvation. The next morning Gody used a car battery to turn a gasoline-powered into an electrical one. He arrived at City Hall with the funky and ingenious relic. The media, the gardeners, and even our entrepreneurial Mayor were perplexed. The gardeners thought the machine was heavy and somewhat weak, but nothing that couldn’t be improved. Gody went back to his housing unit and to sleep. Almighty God, he believed, could do more than passing the City’s smog check with a weak prototype! Once again the Lord revealed in his creative mind the solution to the problem. The next morning Gody went to his garage/car shop/research laboratory to adapt the silencer of an automatic weapon into the exhaust pipe of a filtered gasoline-powered leaf blower, and produce a quieter, lighter and more powerful machine. (Gody claims that the condensation that forms in its exhaust pipe is holly water). Upon bringing his revamped power tool to City Hall once again, Gody finally convinced our lawmakers that this social conflict had to do with only with faulty industrial design and a lack of faith. The City compromised, and the gardeners lifted the strike.
The tale of Gody Sanchez is remarkable. A penitent refugee who was an air-force mechanic trained by Americans and Israelis. Saved by the Lord, and ended up escaping the horrors of the war in El Salvador by crossing the border and being born again. Today in the United States he seeks redemption by sharing his inventive gifts with his fellow workers (some of them fought on the opposite side during the war in their native country). Unfortunately God hasn’t yet revealed to Gody how to make a profit or market his miraculous concoction. He has tried to patent his inventions with his handmade drawings that include biblical quotes. He is improving his original designs: Some use gas and have electric starters, others incorporate gadgets like a water sprinkler that diminishes the amount of dust generated. One even incorporates a jet propeller! He has come to realize that capital and infrastructure are needed and his limited English proficiency hinders him in his efforts. In the meantime, the Department of Water and Power is spending way more money than him on a sleek-looking, cutting edge machine that is much less powerful and efficient than Gody’s humble inventions.
Gody Sanchez work exemplifies an artistic process of customization, in which a resourceful individual adapts an industrial product to his or her own practical, social, and political needs. By recycling different parts from cars, appliances, and even weapons, Gody creates funky-looking mechanical collages that alter the original form of the leaf blower while improving its function. His work juxtaposes the tradition of Californian assemblage with the functional dictums of the Bauhaus and the customization inherent of Mexican-American car culture. He is not just recodifying or recontextualizing for the purpose of a commentary or to alter a linguistic system, however, but in order to have a pragmatic effect on reality. By customizing an already existing product, he speaks through the culture at large, locating his art within a social framework rather than isolating it as the product of a singular voice.
I don’t know to what extent Mr. Sanchez’s designs will affect or influence the future of the leaf blower, but certainly they have restored his faith in God, and, more importantly, the faith of immigrant gardeners in the political process. For me, Gody has proven the feasibility of an interactive non-linear creative process, a kind of futurism where technology is not a goal in itself, but—through customization—a way to access a more democratic future for everyone.