The Wet and the Dry, and The Eye, and Other Tales of Drought

Don't park here unless your car is beautiful.

I protect my car with this glass Mati from Crete, among other evil-eye deterrents.

“Water, water, every where

And all the boards did shrink; –

Water, water every where

Nor any a drop to drink.”

-The Rime of the Ancient Mariner , 1798

I can’t help but think of Coleridge these days as I watch the lawns in my neighborhood turn into crispy jumbo Triscuit squares. Governor Jerry Brown’s mandate of a 25% reduction in water-use is stirring up an array of emotions. Some of us are racked with pious guilt. Others, like me, simply go vigilante. Hey, you there, cute little granny in terrycloth scuffs and a flowered muu-muu: don’t use that hose to wash down your pavement! Ever hear of a freekin broom? Citizen’s arrest!

The other day, one of my more optimistic friends told me she had just purchased a rain-barrel. Now, that’s what I call wishful thinking! The Prophet Isaiah said that “All flesh is grass”—and let’s remember that this author was not exactly surrounded by lush lawns and sprinkler-irrigated golf courses. As for my friend’s rain-barrel, Isaiah 34:13 comes to mind as a more likely topography:

“And thorns shall come up in her palaces,

Nettles and brambles in the fortresses thereof,

And it shall be an habitation of dragons

And a court for owls.”

Retro feel-good activism seems to dominate water-talk these days. For example, a brochure produced by Pasadena Water & Power suggests: “Turn off the faucet when shaving, brushing teeth and scrubbing dishes.” This advice has the earnest ring of the 1950s. I can’t comment on shaving habits, but an electric toothbrush and dishwasher equate to not letting the tap run (yes, sassy-pants, I realize that appliances present their own energy-usage issues, but that’s a different eco-conversation). If we were to roll back the clock to seemingly simpler times, one lifestyle habit in particular stands out: the personal water-bottle. In pursuit of those fabled eight full glasses a day, for the past three decades the water bottle has been a defining, yet contrived generational accessory—heaven forbid that we find ourselves in any setting without immediate access to glug-glug-glug hydration. And let’s have some electrolytes, too. Just carrying a water-bottle, like the wearing of expensive yoga pants, makes us feel fit, active, and somehow with-it. Relative to this topic, Nestle as a water-bottler has lately come under fire, and the disposable plastic water bottle itself now epitomizes an icon of good intentions gone bad.

We are awash, not in H2O, but in conflicting numbers and comparisons on water-use issues. Overall, sources seem to agree on one thing: that water usage inside the house is virtually nil compared with outdoor water usage for most households. Perhaps it’s feasible that Californians will forfeit their green grass for pebbles, slate and succulents. A bigger issue, I think, and a lifestyle sacrifice that ain’t gonna happen: the gleam of a clean, polished automobile.

Los Angeles is routinely criticized by haters as the place where everyone is beautiful, wants to be beautiful, or will somehow be beautiful in the future. Fine. This visual elitism also extends to the grooming of our vehicles. To own an unattractive car in Los Angeles carries much of the same stigma as, say, being 10 pounds overweight. And the consequences can be violent.

When I arrived in Los Angeles in the 1980s as a newlywed, my darling husband presented me with my first car as a gift. It was a Pontiac Executive four-door, and he bought it from a Deadhead for the asking-price of a few tickets to the show. The car had endured an engine-fire at some point, and the hood was scarred with burned-off beige paint. As transportation, the car was also a bit iffy. As I learned the freeways (well, sort of) in Didionesque meanderings, long before GPS, I kept my bicycle in the enormous back seat, as an immediately mobile spare ride.

In those years, we lived on one of the narrow, winding cul-de-sac streets that lace the hills between the Hollywood Bowl and the American Legion Hall on Highland Avenue. Housing was tight there, even then, and I often beached the Pont at the dead-end, a space which was claimed, based purely on territorial tenure, since public streets are public property and therefore belong to all, by a hard-drinking neighbor I’ll call Reuben. One midnight, we awakened to the sound of the Pont’s windshield being shattered by a baseball bat.

At first, I thought it was just a sound I’d gotten used to, living off Camrose: the sound of shattering bottles (wine, beer, champagne?) being hurled by the hundreds into the steel dumpsters in the parking lot of the American Legion Hall, where the play “Tamara” was onstage. The sound carried up the hillside as police choppers whirled overhead at the intersection of Highland and Hollywood. But this night was different: the sound was coming from uphill, the street-level being above our bungalow.

A few minutes later, Reuben panted softly through the screen at our bedroom window, “I. Don’t. Like. It.” Blather, wince, repeat.

This wasn’t the first time something like this had happened, simply because my ride was an unwashed, flame-scarred beast. Ironically enough, one of the other incidents occurred while I worked for a non-profit “ridesharing” (the working solution, claimed the preposterously jazzy jingle) agency, and often met my partners at a collectively convenient point in the Franklin Avenue area to ride together to our offices mid-Wilshire in a single HOV. When I was dropped off one evening to find the Pont’s tires slashed, although I always was mindful of parking signs, I got the message.

The message being, of course, get a pretty new car by any means necessary, and keep it sparkling-clean and pretty for the enjoyment of other people. Current water usage literature informs us that washing your car at home on the street is an eco-no-no, based not simply on the estimated GPM (gallons per minute) used, but also because when you’re hosing down your hog or your Honda on your driveway, the runoff goes directly into the storm drain, which ultimately directs the catch into the ocean and other aquatic points in-between, sans any stops along the way at a sanitary treatment facility for filtering, purification or recycling.

Again, the numbers vary wildly. states that washing your car with an ordinary garden-hose would typically move 10 gallons per minute, and that an average home car-wash could easily use 100 gallons. By contrast, states that a professional car wash may use far less, in the 9 to 15 gallons-per-wash range; states that an average car wash uses 7.9 gallons.

Oh, don’t ask me. I’m up to my usual tricks, driving a faded, foxed, sun-freckled car that’s about 20 years old. I don’t wash it—and I never, ever wax anything in my possession, dontcha know. Given my experience, common sense might suggest that I ought to fear motoring around our town in such a raggle-taggle rig, but these days I park it on my own driveway, off the street, where passersby really must have a grudge to even take notice.

And, I protect my car with the Mati in many forms. The apotropaic eye-charm is specifically linked with water, and the drying-up of precious moisture. This makes the “evil eye” charm, classically made of blue glass, especially apropos for today’s Los Angeles. Consider the chic, modern interpretations of the ancient eye created by Alef Bet by Paula, a mother-daughter jewelry design team based in Los Angeles.

The origins of the eye-talisman as relating to water and bodily fluids are revealed in the landmark research and writing of the late Dr. Alan Dundes, leading folklorist at UC Berkeley. Dundes’ studies include an essay called “The Wet and the Dry: The Evil Eye.” Here, he discusses the idea that the evil eye is usually associated with envy, jealousy, or longing— I think of it as cottonmouth of the soul– versus evil in the contemporary Christian sense.   The “eye” was often traditionally blamed for infertility, impotence, failure of crops to germinate, problems with lactation, and of course the yearning for rain (and yes, I think of the lithe Burt Lancaster as Starbuck, banging that drum and demanding, “Gimme my hundred bucks!”)

As for the title of Dr. Dundes’ essay, he associates affliction by the evil eye with becoming parched, dried-out, and drought, true to the Middle Eastern and Mediterranean roots of the symbol, where fresh water may be more precious than rubies and pearls, then and there as now and right here.



Victoria Thomas

About Victoria Thomas

Brooklyn-born Victoria Thomas loves writing about flora and fauna, although she chooses to do so in an urban setting. If she had it all to do over again, she might have become a forensic entomologist. She lives in Los Angeles.
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