George the florist
Outside the curve where Second Street bleeds into L Street, there’s a sliver of dirt and gravel, hard between railroad tracks and roadway, that often resembles some sort of botanical crime scene. A mix of flowers, plants and neon plastic tape, it’s the canvas of an elderly homeless man, and one of Davis’ oddball surprises.
George Swazo, 73, is the self-appointed curator of Second and L. On this warm winter day, he’s kneeling on the asphalt shoulder, bare knees protected by an old seat cushion while his hands wrestle the soil just above the red-painted curb. Nearby, a blue bicycle rests on its kickstand, a tattered stars ’n’ stripes dangling from the top of the bike’s safety pole. Behind his bike is Swazo’s latest art installation, mostly green succulents anointed by a confusion of bright orange and pink tape. It’s an explosion of color—from the official reflective “sharp turn” arrow signs above to the man orchestrating it all below in a puffy yellow vest, stained white T-shirt and pants that have been hand-truncated into shorts. Thing is, Swazo can’t enjoy the tableau like the rest of us.
“It’s like looking through smoke,” he explains of the glaucoma that has dimmed his eyes. “Sometimes I put flowers on top of flowers. I can’t see nothing. But I can feel it!”
Years ago, Swazo says, he began tending the bike path connecting Davis and Sacramento, cleaning it up and pulling weeds. Later, he started a small garden near Eppie’s Restaurant. Donations from a few regular passersby paid for the greenery. But after 9/11, skittish motorists complained of a scruffy man with few teeth operating next to Interstate 80. “People on the highway were calling the highway patrol,” Swazo says, “thinking I was a bomber. So the highway patrolman told me, ‘I don’t want you out here because I’m getting too many phone calls.’”
Hence the move to Davis. Why Second and L?
“Because this was all weeds,” Swazo says. “Railroad ties, weeds hanging over the bike paths where the overpass is, I cleaned all that up. And then people noticed.”
He started with tulips and roses, thanks to the same three or four generous regulars, who he encourages me to mention by name.
“Oh, there’s Joanne, Professor Jim, a guy named Rodney and a guy named David who has a guitar.”
PG&E across the street allows Swazo to hook up a hose for free. Like me, he’s no horticulturalist—neither of us can figure out what he’s actually planting at the moment. Aloe? Mexican sage? We’re not sure, but the greenery makes a nondescript industrial streetscape a little more verdant. Except for the tape, that is. To me, it’s jarring, like somebody threw a ball of police tape around a garden or blasted an oasis with Silly String. But maybe I’m not ready for the shock of the new. To Swazo, the neon web is part of the show.
“Sort of like decoration,” he says. Earlier this winter, his corner was crisscrossed only with plastic tape, nary a bush or flower in sight. Swazo explains that this was his Christmas creation, calibrated for maximum color. Now, with St. Patty’s Day around the corner, he’s planting with vigor “to get green in there.”
Stop by if you can.