The sticks were trees, but pitifully thin, with trunks a woman could wrap her fingers around and no more than a handful of leaves. Cynical locals like myself were certain the trees would end up stolen, vandalized or turned into a homeless person's campfire.
I wasn't alone in wondering what hapless fool saw four barren lanes of L.A. asphalt and imagined a tree-shaded boulevard.
Then I met Jim Murez.
He and Melanie and their two kids were members of Mishkon Tephilo, the Venice congregation my wife was leading back then.
No one could tell me for sure what Jim did, but rumor had it he had something to do with the appearance of the sticks.
And it wasn't until three weeks ago, a few days before the holiday of Tu B'Shevat, the Jewish New Year of the Trees, that I heard the whole story.
Murez, 55, created and manages the Venice Farmers' Market, held each Friday morning by the public library. I cornered him there and made him tell me.
Like most tree stories in Los Angeles, it begins with Andy Lipkis, the founder of TreePeople, who was also a high school classmate of Murez.
"Andy came to the market one day and told me, 'Did you know you could get a half a million dollars to plant trees?'" Murez said as we stood by the itinerant latte vendor (this is the Venice Farmers' Market, after all). It was 1992. Assemblyman Richard Katz had sponsored AB 471, which provided funds for the "environmental mitigation" following the widening of the boulevard, and the funds were sitting around unused.
In two weeks Murez wrote a 60-page proposal for his community group, the Venice Action Committee. Six months later he received $492,000 to plant 1,400 trees along Venice Boulevard and in the surrounding neighborhoods, including three parks and five schools.
Murez chose indigenous varieties, mostly California sycamores. The idea was to conserve water and create a dramatic shady canopy for the wide street. He resisted a professional landscaper's idea to line the street, Hollywood-style, with palm trees.
"Telephone poles with grass skirts," he calls them.
The trees arrived, barely 1.5 inches in diameter and no taller than the curly headed Murez, who stands about 6-foot-1.
Murez turned to a Youth at Risk city-funded jobs programs to provide much of the planting labor, and local residents and school groups pitched in.
"Everybody was pleased something had happened," Murez recalled.
But few expected the trees to last. And again, they wouldn't have, unless some hapless fool hadn't spent his free time pulling a 400-gallon water tank behind his one-ton pickup. That would be Murez.
The city only guaranteed irrigation until 1999. After that, Murez took up the task. It took him a full day each week.
Over the years, Murez wet-nursed the trees. He wasn't Johnny Appleseed, spraying out seeds and hoping they'd take. He wasn't ElzÃ(c)ard Bouffier, the character in the Jean Giono story who turns a barren valley into an oak woodland by spreading acorns far and wide. Murez did what he did by sticking by his dream He cajoled the local government bureaucracy. The city, for instance, was supposed to contribute water, but never installed meters for the irrigation. So Murez got the bill, which was in the thousands, and he had to fight.
"People told the city, 'You can't bill this guy for watering your trees,'" Murez said.
He persevered, involving his neighbors, leveraging state and local funds, and standing up to the ravages of urban life.
"Basically, I have to make sure the trees don't get chopped down," he said. He still calls the city to intervene when a homeowner wrongly prunes a tree: "You don't top a big tree, you clip from the bottom," he said.
And the trees are big. Now almost 15 years old, the sycamores top out at 30 feet with thick, sturdy trunks. Their spreading canopies and wide, palmate leaves filter the sunlight and create an archway to the sea. In spring, when the sycamores leaf out in bright green, the drive down Venice is as breathtaking as the ocean itself.
Yes, Tu B'Shevat passed a while ago -- the natural time to write about Jim Murez. But a big primary election is a more recent memory -- a time when we chose a man or woman to lead us, to do the things we believe we can't do ourselves, to be, in the overused parlance of Campaign '08, the candidate of change.
Then comes Jim Murez, to remind us that, in the end, we're our own best agents of change.
All of which doesn't answer my original question: What does Jim Murez do?
I asked him, finally.
"I guess you could say I'm a computer consultant," he said. "I patented the first portable computer in the mid-70s. But that's not what I do. I've spent 20 years running the Venice Farmer's Market, but ..." Murez's voice trailed off, unhappy with any one answer. "I just do stuff," he said finally. "I'm a doer."
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