I wrote this specifically to be performed for a photography show called LA Drive Bye 24:00, which featured graduating photographers from the Art Center program. Everything and everyone there was beautiful. I only had a few hours to work on this, so I’ll probably continue revising. (below)
Last year, the city of Los Angeles recycled 211,300 tons of trash, diverting 65% of its total waste from landfills. While only 20% of all used plastic bottles are recycled, they make up a large portion of this tonnage, even though the weight of a single empty bottle is equivalent to just over 668 ladybugs.
Using the ladybugs calculation, a 16 oz. water bottle weighs between .495 oz to .661 oz. That’s anywhere between 32.32 per pound to 24.20 per pound. So, if you were to construct a healthy 5-year-old boy, or obese 3-year-old, solely from empty water bottle containers, you would need somewhere between 1,293 and 968 bottles, depending on their distribution. It is probably a good idea that Walt Disney’s buzzing story editors did not rewrite Geppetto’s story to carve Pinocchio from collected plastic water bottles, as that would make Pinocchio 377.7 feet tall at his shortest; however, amazing digital animation techniques could easily accomplish the feat today.
If you’re worried about those excess bottles out there, fret not. Aside from creative and mostly ornamental bird feeders, Girl Scout after-school projects, and air plant planters, water bottles have been put to use in myriad other ways, including what biotechnologists have coined as the new dawn of solar lighting. In developing countries, scientists have taken plastic water bottles, filled them up halfway with water, added a dollop of bleach to ward off algae, and inserted this noxious cocktail into the ceilings of homes, with the empty top half outside of the house, and the water-filled bottom half inside. During the sunny hours, light hits the water and refracts into the home, evenly distributing a warm, cozy glow. The idea is simple enough that you wonder why we haven’t been doing this all along, but, in actuality, we have.
The “technology” is harnessed from the principles of prisms, specifically deck prisms, which were multi-faceted hunks of glass, inserted into the decks of old ships, with one flat surface on the top to catch the sunlight. In the days when only tall ships docked down in Long Beach, oil was forbidden below deck because of its highly flammable qualities, so sailors devised the deck prism to provide light to those working in the darkness. We owe a great deal to the ingenuity of sailors, including coleslaw, a host of hangover cures, and Gordon Lightfoot’s epic six-minute-thirty-eight-second ballad to disasters, “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.” But the deck prism is by far their most lasting and beautiful invention, many facets of varying shapes and sizes, collecting the sun and dispersing to provide light where there was none.
Despite popular belief amongst most Angelenos, Los Angeles really does have an underground subway system, even though homebuilders are still advised not to have basements in earthquake danger zones. I ride the subway roughly ten times a month, because I don’t have a car, and when not taking the train, I walk, ride my bike, or hop on the bus, then probably hop off the bus again to hop on another bus that will actually complete its route rather than stop at the Burger King during rush hour like the first bus had.
The idea of seeing a ladybug in an underground subway station is so incredible that I was only able to find one photograph of the situation online, despite there being 80 million instagram users posting 5 million+ photos of sandwiches per day. The first time I read this essay aloud, a listener approached me afterward and said, “I have taken only one photo on Instagram, and it was of a ladybug on the Red Line with the caption, ‘What are you doing here?’ two years ago.” I had never met this stranger Angeleno who approached me with his iPhone on the ready, but the presence of the ladybug on the train that day two years ago and the idea that someone else had wondered why we seldom saw ladybugs on the train compelled him to seek me out. We are now Facebook friends.
In fact, ladybugs are often drawn to warmth and light, yet few make it down into the subway, much like Angelenos. Perhaps it has something to do with a lack of vegetation and organic substances. Ladybugs must be close to their food source, which is often the aphid, one reason why ladybugs can be in high demand for urban gardeners who have Googled “get rid of bug eating kale leaf.” As far back as the Middle Ages, ladybugs have been utilized for their aphid-removal systems, earning their name from the many prayers poor farmers gave up to Our Lady the Virgin Mary, as their crops were destroyed by pests. When the red & black beetle swooped in and ate them all up, the farmers decided this beetle was clearly a gift from God, and they called her Ladybird Beetle, which evolved in the US to its current name, the Ladybug. But not all ladybugs are good Virgin Marys.
When my boyfriend and I miraculously grew a watermelon in front of our apartment, which lay along the 101, I found a ladybug inspecting its tendrils, and I googled, “Is ladybug good for watermelon?” which led me to an article written by scientists exploring the zombie-like capabilities of ladybugs. Basically, wasps—the only evil flying things of which I am sure cannot be killed—have been known to rub up on a ladybug only to sting her and infect her with their larvae. The ladybug does not die, but is unfortunately partially paralyzed, though she’s able to fly and move about. When the wasp larvae is fully incubated, the new baby wasp will shoot out of the ladybug’s abdomen Alien-style, crawl around for a moment, and then it will unwrench its wings from its back and fly away. About 25% of zombie ladybugs survive the wasp body snatch, though they begin spontaneously bleeding from the knees in panic for a moment, before they go about their aphid-eating lives once again. It’s like a temporary stigmata of the lower extremities. There is a high likelihood that if you purchase a box of ladybugs to remove your aphids, more than one of them in the box is a wasp zombie.
The watermelon I grew was delicious, despite its proximity to the 101. For the most part, our apartment is quiet, most of the highway sounds blocked out by good engineering of sound dampeners, but there are moments when I set a glass of water on my coffee table, and the surface of the water ripples like when the T-Rex was coming in Jurassic Park. Jurassic Park, by the way, is a great film, but it doesn’t need to be released in 3-D. In fact, it doesn’t need sequels. Most films do not need sequels if the original was good enough. About fifty yards from my apartment, they just finished filming the next installment of Fast & Furious, starring both Vin Diesel and Paul William Walker, and most of the original cast from the first Fast & Furious. The movie studio decided to go back to that original formula with the same location, because they’d felt they lost something in those Tokyo drifts away from Angeleno Heights. When a friend drove me home two nights ago, there were rubber burns all over the road. Over 200 cars are built and destroyed for a Fast & Furious film, making that at least 800 tires burned into the road, then disposed of (possibly in the recently drained Echo Park Lake).
The process of recycling rubber is an extremely time and labor-intensive curing procedure called Vulcanization. Rubber’s complex chemistry and the variety of formulations in use make recycling slow and expensive and the resultant material inferior to virgin rubber. There is actually a substance called virgin rubber that has very little to do with the little expandable discs you keep in your wallet. Condoms, by the way, are around 15,000 years old, but were not widely used by sailors until FDR mandated the distribution of the contraceptive to the Navy between 1913 and 1920.
Despite many sailors from the past indeed having carried diseases from sexual relations, they were some of the world’s most refined recyclers. Of course rotten meat and human waste were dumped starboard into the ocean, but all that was dumped was organic matter, substances to be broken down and dispersed by the current into the sand at the ocean’s floor, and when they ate and drank, their food and water was held in metal and ceramic mugs. There were no plastic water bottles. Had there been, it seems very possible that sailors of the past would have recognized the prismatic qualities of the multidimensional clear plastic and utilized the substance for light, anyway. Modern sailors…not so much.
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch swirls in the ocean between Japan and the California coast and is said to be roughly twice the size of the continental US. Plastic water bottles abound in that patch, and while I can talk about the decimation of the albatross population because of partially digested plastics, and the neurological disorders found in sea creatures who reside near the floating trash island, and the toxic effects on jellyfish when the plastics are mistaken for sex hormones by the endocrine system, wildly fluctuating the mating patterns of the species (AND DOES THIS HAPPEN TO US, TOO???), what I want to talk about is prisms.
There is smog in Los Angeles. Yes, we hate smog. We know it is bad. We know what it does to our health, to the health of future generations. This is a given. And while our smog is a detestable feature, often a hindrance to enjoying the very sunshine we may have moved here for, please let me offer you one consolation. When the perennial and constant sunlight beams down on the city of Los Angeles, when the orb rises on Pasadena and descends into the ocean, the people of Los Angeles will never ever ever see the same dull colors as the rest of the country.
Because of the simplest and most mechanically diverse functions of our least favorable trait, the oppressively beautiful prism of smog that hovers above us collects light from a single source, the same as every other city in the world, yet ours is dispersed in a manner like snowflakes and fingerprints. When the director of photography for Fast & Furious set up his camera to capture the principal frames of his next great sequel two days ago, he must have been surprised to see that for roughly 30% of that day, it was raining, and no one shot’s light could have matched the one before. The light here is as diverse as the myriad species residing on the ocean floor. And imagine how beautiful the light is down there, below those miles of plastic prisms swirling in the Pacific, with rainbows and shadows cast in kaleidoscopes from the surface, where sailors a hundred years ago traversed, where someone or something was always harnessing light, diffusing or dispersing the sun for beauty or purpose or both or even, like the patch, on accident.
If I weren’t such an environmentalist myself, an avid recycler, composter, and user of ladybugs, I might think of our own steady sunlight in southern California and our prismatic blanket above and how the light must refract below that trash heap of plastic bottles adrift between here and there, shedding light on marine life like tall ship sailors rocking back and forth in their bunks before sleep, just waiting for the natural light to dwindle, even though they would never ever be dozing for longer than an hour. I might think of all this, and I might adapt a quote from The Goonies—when the police officer sees that tall ship sailing improbably across the ocean—and say, “Holy Mary, Mother of God,” because in that moment, as your human eyes looked up to the wayward shards of light above, you might actually think to yourself, What a way to fucking die.
The Goonies, by the way, did not have a sequel.