The Americorps Experience Blog collects stories, interviews, and anecdotes from the Americorps Members working with Our City Forest. Today we talk to David Tull. David is a Lawn Buster with Our City Forest and guest blogger for our other blog. As part of the Lawn Busters team, David replaces lawns with drought-friendly, native plant-dominated xeriscapes. David is longtime resident of the Bay Area, a father and a hilarious dry wit and . In this interview we talk about his life, the Lawn Busters as the Marine Corps and whether gravity really is a mysterious carriage to offset the deficits of the mind.
Vincent: Hi Dave!
David: Hi Vince.
V: I like to start these by asking about how people found out about Our City Forest. How they found out about Americorps. How they got here. Do you have anything to say about that?
D: I went on the Americorps website, I don’t remember why exactly, it seemed like a possibility that I should check out. I looked for Bay Area opportunities and such. I found Housing for Humanity which I didn’t think I’d be qualified for but then I saw OCF and I was immediately drawn to it. Working outside. Working with plants. Doing manual labor. Sorta like working for the government, in a way.
V: So you were searching in the Bay Area, are you from around here?
D: I’ve lived here for 40 years.
V: What brought you out here.?
D: Well I grew up in Southern California, Orange County. I was born in Chicago.
V: What brought your family out here?
D: My mom wanted to be with her father who was out here, all alone. And my dad graciously conceded. No wait that doesn’t sound right. [laughs]
D: Agreed to come out here.
V: What was it like growing up in Orange County?
D: It was a great childhood. I’m from the same town (Fullerton) as Clair and actually, Vinny (we have multiple Vincents). He moved there when he was 5.
V: I didn’t know that about him. So what was Fullerton like for you growing up?
D: I was one of three kids, you know. As Kurt Vonnegut said, "I had a normal childhood, I built model airplanes and jerked off". As kids we used to play a lot of sandlot baseball. Nobody does that anymore. It (Fullerton) was a nice place for it (growing up). I’ve been back. I guess it’s been about 10 years since I went back a couple times and was really pleased.
V: Has it changed a lot?
D: Not really. But getting there on the freeway is a nightmare, now. I felt like I went through all the circles of Dante’s inferno. When you cross over into Anaheim it gets suddenly very bleak. Just stripmall after stripmall. At least that hasn’t happened yet near Cal State Fullerton. That’s where my dad taught. He got an offer at the University of Oregon and after my freshman year in high school we moved up there.
V: What did he teach?
D: Business administration, marketing, stuff like that. He was interested in survey research and was a statistician. He was, at one point, a consultant for the census. That must have been the 1990 census. We spent two years of high school in Oregon before he got another job and moved the family to Holland. He’d gotten a position in an exchange program teaching. I was a senior in high school at the time.
V: What was that like?
D: Oh my brother and I were celebrities. We were “The Americans”.
V: In the yearbook as “Most likely to be American” [laughs]
D: [laughs] I was 16-17, brother was 14-15. We were smoking, going to bars. We travelled a lot, had other interests than the tulips.
V: Where did you live in Holland?
D: Near Utrecht, 20 miles, 30 miles south of Amsterdam. There are a lot of memories of it.
V: Can you pick one?
D: The wind. I’d be wearing a sweater and a jacket and it’d just cut right through. My brother and I would go smoking, bar hopping. He’s the one who got me into it.
V: Usually it’s the older brothers who get the younger ones into bad habits.
D: It took me four or five years to get off them.
V : That’s funny because I grew up around tobacco on the farm side. I was never allowed to touch any because they didn’t want me to get addicted.
D: You can get nicotine that way?
V: Yeah if you touch tobacco it goes through your skin.
D: So you can get addicted to it?
V: Or you can overdose. They call that “green nicotine poisoning”.
So after Holland what happened? Did you move back to the US?
D: We moved back. I went to Lewis and Clarke College, in Portland, Oregon.
V: What did you study?
D: Studied English. I was good at it, interested in it and it was easy.
V: What drew you to it?
D: It was actually a professor. He was really involved. He was an older guy, a visiting professor, “Professor Michaels from Indiana”. He was eager to have us participate. He liked my answers. He was very colorful, animated. It was Renaissance Lit, we’d be reading Henry the 5th, something exciting. I was a young man and among the worst of them.
V: After Lewis and Clarke what did you end up doing?
D: Getting married.
I was ridiculously young. I was 21 she was 29. We also had some peers who got married around that time. Most of them ended up getting divorced. We were together for 17 years. It’s amazing that I picked such a good person.
I came back down to LA to UC Irvine, which was a little too high-powered. It was very conservative; it was a social disaster. It was just toxic there, to me. Just wasn’t something I could handle.
But that was later, the first year after I graduated (from Lewis and Clark) we were living in Palo Alto which is where she was from, that’s how I ended up here. I was working at a book store. They were also literary agents for “Her Majesty’s Stationary Office” a British government press. I really liked it there but I felt really compelled to go and be a professor, like my dad.
V: So you worked for The Queen?
D: At that job my boss was this guy from Toronto. He was a Coronel Blimp kind of guy. I travelled around that time to visit my brother who was working illegally in Holland at a bulb factory and warehouse.
V: Light bulbs?
V: I understand at some point you were a writer?
D: No, not really. I’ve taken creative writing classes but I’ve never been able to get past the self consciousness of it, of what I’m doing. The pressure of writing the profound and perfect. I took these classes under the guidance of a reviewer for the Palo Alto Weekly , this guy used to work flogging books. That was a whole different story. I felt more comfortable doing more journalistic stuff.
V: Did you do a lot of that?
D: No. He (the reviewer) told me I should have, you know, written a column for the Palo Alto Weekly. While I was there I met some characters. One of the “book floggers” wrote a book about the “noble heart of males”.
V: Was that during the “Zeus Movement”? There was this male movement where you’d go into the woods banging drums and talk about “Zeus energy”.
D: Yeah it was like that. “The male hunter”. Put on warpaint. Dance around fires. Things like that. There was a lot of that in those days, books about self-actualizing, human potential, with a definite “male” thing.
V: Do you feel like you’re self-actualizing?
D: Well yeah I feel like myself.
V: I also understood you had a long career as a paralegal.
D: Yeah I came back from Europe and got a job.
V: You make it sound very exciting.
D: It was awful.
I uh, settled down. Had kids. Was working for Bell, the telephone company. When my friend got back from Vietnam, he was in the marine corps, as a boatman, I asked him which of the two organizations was more regimented. Bell. Or the Marines. He chose Bell. Awful.
Somehow during all that I became a house husband. At the time it was really unusual and made the local paper. I had 3 kids, two sons, my mom told me not to do it.
V: Why would she say that?
She said the person who works is built up in the kid’s minds. The person who stays home gets knocked down. The person who works, advances in their profession. The person who stays home talks to kids all day.
V: That’s harsh.
D: I get it. I ended up getting my CPA certification and a Master’s Degree in English Lit from Cal State Hayward. I was settling the Irvine score, you know. I felt bad that I walked away. I specialized in the 18th century English Satire.
I did my thesis on Tristram Shandy. I really fell in love with the style; it was just so gentle and satirical at the same time. He said something really profound that’s really resonated with me. He said that gravity is “Mysterious carriage of the body to cover up the defects of the mind” At the same time, I got a job selling abrasives working for a New Jersey Italian.
V: So you’ve got a master’s in Satire and you’re selling abrasives?
D: Selling sandpaper and grinders yeah. These guys would come in, swaggering, talking about tools. I never felt it at all. I was good in the office and keeping track of things. I loaded trucks, learned to drive a forklift, talked to truckers but I could never get into that stuff.
V: Well abrasives are a rough subject to get into. [laughs]
D: It’s a real grind. [laughs]
V: It just wears you down.
D: The abrasives weren’t working out so I became a paralegal. Worked with lawyers for 20 years.
V: How did that feel?
D: It was dry at first, and macho.
V: Macho lawyers?
D: Domineering. They weren’t really macho. They’re not really very interesting people. They spend all their time in briefs, binders. Not very social.
V: Was this like, contract law, trial law?
D: It was an international law firm. All set up in valley, represented EBay, Sun Microsystems, stuff like that. Cases were all related to those sorts of things, patents and contracts. Little bit of environmental. I don’t think people really know what environmental law is. It’s draining. Document intensive.
At my law firm, there were four of us in 2008. I got laid off. The firm closed. My observation of businesses is that they rarely, for anybody, end well. I couldn’t get a job. I had a ton of interviews.
I don’t want to make my Americorps experience sound like I’m here because I couldn’t do anything else, because that’s not true. I couldn’t get a permanent job. I was working as a contract paralegal for a firm in San Jose. That was insurance defense. It’s a grisly practice area because of wrongful death, lots of accidents.
I’m very happy to be here. Being on Lawn Busters in the community has been especially gratifying for me because it’s as good of a team as I’ve ever been on. I’ve never quite had an experience like it.
V: What’s it like xeriscaping? Replacing lawns?
D: Oh I don’t know, as Vinny said, “It’s kinda deadening,” [laughs]
D: I mean we’re not only killing (and replacing) a lawn but it’s “stupid work”, you know. But I like the labor part of it and I really like the people, the report that we have, the camaraderie and the way my own personality fits in with the others.
V: You guys are kinda like The Marines of Our City Forest.
D: Exactly! Did I mention that to you before?
V: I don’t think so?
D: I said to somebody once that we (the Lawn Busters) are The Elite, The Marines.
V: You guys are out there all the time, literally in the trenches, digging trenches, around lawns. [laughs]
V: How would you say you fit into your team?
D: You know, people say that Jon and I feed off each other because of our prankish personalities.
V: So you’d say your sense of humor was coming into play here, at Americorps?
D: Oh yeah. Eddie is funny. In fact Emily has said that he has less credibility than I do.
D: He has no credibility, is what she said.
V: What does that mean? [laughs]
D: We tell lies, I call it recreational lying.
V: Isn’t that just joking or being sarcastic.
D: [Nods] I’ve told her I’d cut down on the recreational lying. Emily, she’s, kind of, our leader, she has a really strong work ethic, a real sense of obligation. At the nursery yesterday, the canopy had blown over and all this stuff had fallen down. She didn’t want to leave them (the nursery team) in the lurch.
V: So you’ve met good people here?
D: Oh yeah, I mean, I’ve met you.
V: [laughs] Flatterer.
D: Gabby has this encyclopedic knowledge of plants and things. I have a report with Steve, he taught me to play “Jackie Chan”. It’s a game where you have to name five related things but if you get stumped you have to say “Jackie Chan”.
V: So like, say it’s appliances. I’d have to say “Toaster, Fridge, Stove… Jackie Chan?”
D: Yeah [laughs]. I also like working with Jocelyn. She has nice smiles and is very meticulous.
V: Would you say you’ve had rewarding experiences here?
D: [nods] Surviving the first week was hell for all of us. Nobody really asked me too much about my age. A couple of the newer people do. Joey called me over and said “I wanna ask you something.” So I said “Is it about what happened in 1968?”
D: Nobody on Lawn Busters (talks about my age) really. I see it more as personalities fitting together. I mean obviously I have a lot more experience than you do, divorces, parents dying. For a while I felt irreparably damaged, raising three sons. They’re doing well, by the way, it just kinda wore me out.
V: I hope that you’re feeling good here.
D: Yeah I feel good here.
V: So busting lawns in good company. You’re in the pseudo-Marines...
D: [laughs] The Macho Division
V: The Macho Division of the Urban Foresters. You guys have a cast of characters. I sometimes see you guys as a low-key sitcom that’s happening under our noses.
D: When we got the new people we were concerned they would upset the dynamic. That they’d be too loud.
V: You guys work quietly?
D: Pretty much.
V: Yeah? I guess that makes me super loud.
D: Yeah. Well. Jon does stuff though, you know those pickup sticks we had? It would be a disaster. He’d tickle Em’s ear, Mel’s ear. Or he’d pick stuff off somebody’s plate.
Jon’s a really hard worker. I’d love to introduce a Juicy J (Jon) Award for Dirtiest at the End of the Day.
V: He does come back covered in a layer of dust.
D: So does Nikki. She’s quiet but she’s a good soul.
V: She seems pretty cool. I know that she’s an archer, like I am.
D: Have you seen her throw a softball? I thought I was watching somebody from the As or something. She’s really impressive. I don’t think any of us could take her in a fight.
V: You know, I’ve never thought about who I could take in a fight at OCF, because I would lose. To like, everybody, let’s be real. I’m just not a violent person.
D: I don’t think I’d be good in a fight. I think that neither you, nor I can generate that kind of violence.
V: So winding down, I always ask offbeat questions. If you could have any super power, what would you have?
D: Super power… I don’t know I always wanted to be a bassist in a rock band.
V: That’s not so much a super power, but it is a power. [laughs] Thank you so much for doing this Dave.
D: No problem. [laughs]