I live in a small suburb on the east side of LA. All the money, power, crime, influence, fashion, culture, art, media, creativity, drug abuse, new technology, homelessness, celebrity, and fame of LA? Yeah, that’s not my city. We’re a few minutes east of everything.

Which is not to dis my city. Monterey Park probably has the best dim sum in America. And dim sum is probably the only reason any Angelino who doesn’t already live in Monterey Park, ever comes here.

I’m telling you all this because I think my neighbors are performance artists. The only thing is, I’ve checked the county records, and there is no listing of any performance artist ever having lived east of Downtown LA. So, I’m not sure.

I’ve never seen fliers for their performances. For sure there’s no celebrity crowd buzzing around outside their house. Which is good, because I live on a dead-end street. There’d only be room for about five cars. Then we’d need to call in a valet service.

Maybe these performance artist neighbors of mine are just too dedicated to their craft. No time to boast about their latest performance on Instagram or TikTok. No time to spend on late-night talk shows pimping their brand. They’re too busy working. My neighbors, the performance artists, or let’s call them “The Gardeners,” never do anything but work. No social media. No late-night appearances on any of The Jimmy’s. 100% dedication to their craft. Who in superficial, unemployed LA wouldn’t be jealous of these senior-citizen pros who never pander and get to practice their craft at the highest level every single day?

Since the pandemic started I’ve been walking as much as possible. The pandemic gave me a big life insight: driving in LA sucks. I stopped being pretentious and driving 26 miles to take classes at Santa Monica College. I got practical and started walking one mile to take classes at East LA College. And so, I now walk past my neighbors’ performance art every day.

Not gonna lie, I didn’t get it at first. When I walked past two elderly people gardening in their front yard all day every day, I just thought they had dementia. When I say “gardening” I mean that they swing pick axes at weeds and dirt. So that every day the weeds and dirt in their yard are in a slightly different configuration than they were the day before.

Seniors with dementia. It happens. A lot. My mom. My next-door neighbor on the other side. Most of the politicians in Washington. Maybe one day me. You’d have to be brain-damaged not to see the dementia everywhere.

So it was an easy mistake. Me, thinking I know something about art, seeing a brilliant piece of performance art, and not realizing it. Thinking it’s just two seniors with dementia.

If only they’d had a cool flier on Instagram that they were performing all of the rings of hell from Dante’s Inferno.

You know the Joshua Bell in the subway thing? In 2007 classical music star Joshua Bell goes to a metro plaza in Washington DC and plays for 43 minutes. He performs six classical pieces, compositions from Bach, Massenet, Schubert, and Ponce. 1,097 people walk past him. 27 give money. Seven stop and listen. At the end of his performance, there’s $52.17 in his violin case. Later he performs at Carnegie Hall for $200 a seat.

That’s me. I’m one of those subway riders walking past a great piece of performance art and not knowing it.

Still, I wonder? Are you allowed to do performance art in Monterey Park? If this was West Hollywood, West LA, Santa Monica, Venice, what they were doing would be obvious. Their brilliant critique of the way we live our lives would be reviewed in the LA Times and dozens of other regional outlets.

But Monterey Park? Are they performance artists? Or just seniors with dementia? How do you tell?

All those times I walked past The Gardeners and felt sorry for them. I was blissfully ignorant of their blistering critique of my life. Their work seems so innocent. So slow and steady. Nothing remotely like spitting in my face. And yet they were.

Now that I know that they’re performance artists, I realize that by spending their days reshuffling dirt and weeds they are making a scathing critique of everything I’ve ever done with my life.

The annual holiday card you manufacture to prove to yourself that your life has meaning? To prove to your friends that your life is better than theirs? Your Academy Awards acceptance speech? Has anything any of us have ever done truly amounted to more than reshuffling dirt and weeds?

The Gardeners tear all of our vanity, our narcissism, our attempts to create some identity that matters, to shreds.

And they do it with total authenticity. No social media posts. No celebrity appearances. They don’t need 100 million Twitter followers. They don’t need $40 billion to buy Twitter and rename it X. They simply practice their art. Day after day. With total dedication.

The Stonebreakers, Gustave Courbet, 1849, Oil-on-canvas, 4.9 ft × 8.5 ft, destroyed by the Allied bombing of Dresden, Feb.-April, 1945.

Unlike my performance art neighbors, I don’t think Courbet painted The Stonebreakers as a critique of self-aggrandizement and the futility of mortal existence. Rather, he brought to the high art of the Paris Salon an “inappropriate” subject: poverty. In The Stonebreakers Courbet captures something of the feeling I experience when I walk past The Gardeners.

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