The Flower Box
"I was sure my garden was going to fail, just like everything else in my life.
To my great surprise, my garden did not fail."
In October of 2009, I finally made it back to the United States after the disastrous Music For Smart People European tour. I had to borrow money from my mom to buy a one-way ticket to Los Angeles. I was completely broken. I came back to Los Angeles and sold all my remaining possessions that were worth anything, including my iPhone for $550 in cash, which I used to buy a car.
That November, a few weeks after I'd gotten back, Red Pony Clock went on a brief tour up to Merced, CA and back. I was invited to come along, and since I had no place to live and no job, I said yes. The whole point of the tour was to get a free oil change for the van, which we did. You know when you've been miserable for so long, and you finally get a chance to have some fun, and you just feel like an entirely new person? Being in an abusive relationship isolates you from your friends and your family, and takes away everything that you love in your life. Without my codependent relationship, I was actually able to have some fun. I was able to cut loose on the dance floor without worrying if my boyfriend thought I was cheating on him. I was able to get stupidly drunk with my friends and not care what anyone said. I was able to wear what I wanted to wear, stay up as late as I wanted, and mostly, I was able to play for the first time in what felt like years. With my ex, it was all work, all work, all work, all the time. No time for fun, only time for work and arguments. I partied so hard with the people who are essentially my family now.
It was one of the best tours I've ever been on, and as we were driving through Orange County, I watched the freeway sign that said "San Diego" whiz by, and I had a feeling that I'd never had before. I felt like I was going home. Like, really going home. The drive had never felt like that before. Going to San Diego had always felt like, well, going to to San Diego. Never had it felt like going home. It was at that moment that I decided to move to San Diego. A few members in the band worked at Nordstrom at the time, and our drummer, Dave, said he could probably help find me a job. I crashed on Dave's couch for a month, or maybe six weeks, and I started working in the coffee shop at Nordstrom just in time for the holidays.
I found a place on the corner of Park and El Cajon, on Georgia Street, in University Heights. It was a tiny room with no closet, no furniture save a mat on the floor and a built-in shelf in the corner. The house had no heat, and the first night I spent there, the temperature was under 55 degrees. I moved what little possessions I had into my little room, and I started a new life for myself, from scratch.
I had nothing. I had no extra money to buy a bed, or a real dresser, or even a side table for my room. Everything I had was gifted, thrifted, or someone else's trash, grabbed from the sidewalk. I also had nothing emotionally. I was completely spent from the long years in an abusive relationship that strained every other bond in my life to the point of breaking. After so many breakups and get-back-togethers, my family seemed out of cares to give, and my friends the same. I started over. I started from scratch.
I'd never lived in a neighborhood like University Heights before. Excepting a brief month-long stay with my ex in Santa Monica, I'd never lived anywhere in my whole life where I could walk to a grocery store, several bars, a historic hotel, a piano bar, and even karaoke. I had never experienced the joys of living in a truly walkable neighborhood. It was amazing. I loved exploring my neighborhood on my days off. Every day, I'd take home tips from work. On a good day, I'd get $10-$15, on a bad day, I'd get $2-$4. My tips were my living money, and on my days off, I'd just walk around the neighborhood and do things. On good days, I'd get meals out; on bad days, I'd walk up to Cream coffeehouse (before it was Lestat's) and get an iced tea for $2.
Because the house had four rooms, and the rent was so cheap, the rest of my housemates were much younger than me. This would ultimately prove to be the reason that I would eventually move out on bad terms with everyone else. There were a lot of parties that got thrown at the house. The backyard was an absolute mess. Weeds about 3 feet high. No one cared at all about the state of the yard. There were a few pots back there, and I think the first thing I bought was a mint plant from the Hillcrest Farmer's Market, which was every Sunday morning, just over the hill from my house. I threw it in a pot, because that's what my family had told me to do, and I watched.
Surprisingly, it grew, and it grew bigger and bigger and bigger. I was thrilled. I'd always wanted to have a garden of my own, and I'd never lived anywhere in my adult life where that had been a possibility. After a particularly raucous party, I went out into the back yard to see a crumpled can of PBR in the pot with my mint plant, and something inside me completely snapped. How could someone be so insensitive? Couldn't they have thrown it on the patio with the other dozen beer cans? Why did they have to throw their trash on my plant? I noticed that a cat had pooped in the weeds, and people from the party had stepped in it and tracked the cat shit all over the yard and the brick patio. Disgusting, right? This is how these dudes in their early 20s wanted to spend their free time; tossing their trash on my plants, pissing in the alley behind the house, and getting so drunk that they didn't even notice they were tracking cat shit all over the place. Sounds like a lot of fun, right? Sounds awesome, right? Fuck those guys.
I couldn't take the backyard being treated that way. Not every house has a backyard. It's a special thing, especially when you're renting a room for under $400 a month. There was no need for it to be abused. I decided I was going to make it a nice backyard, whether the jerks that I lived with cared or not. I rolled up my sleeves and pulled every single weed in the backyard. Piles and piles of blonde straw thrown into the trash and into trash bags. The weeds were so high, that I couldn't see what was beneath. There were the skeletons of two raised beds in the backyard. Someone had started to make a garden, and stopped. I saw the beds and decided to go for it, and to make a real garden.
After looking up "lasagna gardens," I took cardboard from work and laid it town to block the weeds, and then I went and got amended soil and compost from City Farmer's. I sunk every spare minute and every spare penny I had into my garden. $5 for a bag of organic compost, $2.50 for some organic starter plants from the farmer's market, $12.50 for an order of seeds from Baker Creek. I planted tomatoes, watermelon, basil, cucumbers, and Swiss chard. My neighbor noticed my garden, and popped his head over the fence to introduce himself and give advice. I woke up early to water as the days got longer and hotter, carrying water from the kitchen sink all the way outside to the back yard. I separated out the coffee grounds from other trash at my job, and brought home bag after bag of spent espresso and coffee grounds to nourish my plants, to the point where my car constantly smelled like coffee.
I had no idea what would happen with my garden. It was my first time doing this on my own, and not helping my mom or grandma with their plants. I asked tons of questions at first, and I wasn't convinced my plants were growing at all.
I was sure my garden was going to fail, just like everything else I'd ever done in my life.
To my great surprise, my garden did not fail. My garden became a success. My plants started to grow vigorously. When I was short on money for food, I was able to go to my backyard and pick some chard or have some eggplant. As I nourished my garden, it nourished me. I can't tell whether I brought the backyard to life, or whether it brought me to life, but I think it's the latter. I saw my efforts paying off, I saw the work I had done growing and bearing (literal) fruit.
The garden became a crucial part of my identity as a survivor, an artist, and a new San Diegan. It brought me back to life. It gave me hope, and showed me that not everything is doomed to fail, and that some things, when you work at them, bear wonderful fruit. It taught me that when you learn about what you're doing, you learn how to do it better and more effectively. Gardening taught me patience, and an appreciation for the hard work of farmers and all the workers who pick the food that's on our tables every night. It saved me.
I still had some of my audio equipment left over; a handful of mics, an interface, and a few cables. I had enough to record an album in my bedroom and at my friend Roy Silverstein's studio. Because Roy had known me for a while, he generously agreed to let me come to his house for $10 per day and record on his piano. He'd leave me with the key to the Habitat, and I'd lock the door and slip it through the mail slot. He allowed me to use his stereo mics, which I placed on the piano.
The album came together in a pretty haphazard way; the majority of "Love Lives in Paris" had been recorded at Roy's house at a much earlier date. "I'm Not Dead Yet" was written and recorded in a hotel room in Winsford, England while I was trying to figure out what to do with myself after my bandmate was refused entry to the UK. "Elevator" was mostly recorded using only the external mic on my MacBook at the apartment of a CouchSurfing host in Glasgow, Scotland. This guy had the sweetest old 60s organ, and I just pumped up the cheesy drum beats and went with it. The Flower Box marks the first time that I played drums on an album; something that I'd always wanted to do and never had access to the necessary equipment. I also had an old Yamaha keyboard in my room - the exact model of the first keyboard that I ever owned, which was given to me for Christmas when I was 6 - and I used only that on "Goodbye."
I was still recovering from the emotional, financial, and physical wounds of losing basically everything I had in the process of making a record. A lot of nights, I'd take my tips and go to Henry's (before it was Sprouts) and get a $4 bottle of Crane Lake Malbec or Pinot Noir. I'd get super drunk on half or three-quarters of the bottle, and stay up mixing or doing harmony vocals, or sometimes I'd skip the work altogether and just cry.
Up the street from my house was a flower shop, called Dave's Flower Box. I thought the name was ideal for a record. I wanted to make my mark in San Diego, and I wanted San Diego to make its mark on me. I wanted San Diego to know that I was here, and I wanted the world to know that I was in San Diego. I wanted everyone to know about the city where I had found peace and happiness for the first time in my adult life.
I had no money to mix the record, no money to master the record, and no money to properly press the record, so I was extremely surprised with the amount of positive press that The Flower Box received. I still am, honestly. As an artist, it's hard to go back and listen to songs you created with nothing, and before you knew any better, but I do believe the album stands the test of time, and I am still proud of it.
I did everything on this record; recorded, engineered, arranged, played every instrument. My friend Doug Snyder generously mastered the record for free, my friend Michael Vasquez took my picture in my backyard, and Megan McGaughy did the graphic design for very cheaply.
From the bottom of my heart, I really appreciate everyone who's had kind things to say about this record. And I appreciate everyone who's listened to this record and enjoyed it. The Flower Box will always mark a very special time in my life, and I am so very happy to have an aural record (haha) of that vulnerability, when I was truly at my most vulnerable as an artist and as a person. I made something from nothing, and The Flower Box is the 'something' I made from what I had at the time. It was a real turning point for me as an artist, to realize that I could make something worth listening to by myself, in my room, with limited funds and limited tools. It does me good to remember these lessons the older I get and the further along in my career I go...