The engine was sputtering. He turned the key in the ignition again, but this time it just sounded like a dying possum's last choked breath. The blue American Ford was dead.
"I guess this is what it means to be a guerrilla, huh?" he laughed.
Dressed in a bright blue body suit that was either supposed to resemble flames or a water nymph, he stood by the steaming Ford's hood and pondered whether to jump ship. I wasn't sure if his getup made the scene more bizarre or just appropriate.
We were trying to catch up to the cyclists who at this point were probably spread eagle through the LA streets looking for the guerrilla gardens. To explain how the water nymph and I ended up with a steaming Ford on a sunny Sunday afternoon, I must start from the beginning.
Two years ago on a balmy summer night, close friends were gathering for the water nymph's 27th birthday party. He wanted to do something other than the cliché bar and restaurant deal.
"I thought, instead of buying me drinks, you can buy a plant and make the neighborhood look good," he said.
Rebecca, then girlfriend of the water nymph remembers, "All of us were like what? We're gardening?"
Undertaking a rather covert operation (gardening a plot of land that didn't belong to them), the party took on guerrilla aliases. Inspired from The Reservoir Dogs, the water nymph was reborn as Mr. Stamen. Rebecca became Roly Poly.
"Honestly, had I known this would've blown up like this, I wouldn't have picked such an inappropriate name … but surprisingly, people don't know plants very well," said Mr. Stamen.
For the readers who aren't botanists or biology majors, the stamen is a part of the plant anatomy. What specific part of the plant body the stamen is, I will leave to the reader's imagination.
After Mr. Stamen and his guerrilla posse successfully planted the impromptu garden, they asked, "When are we doing this again?"
"It just organically turned into this thing that we didn't expect," said Mr. Stamen.
Los Angeles Guerrilla Gardening (LAGG) now has over 900 members and planted at least 20 impromptu gardens throughout the city.
"What's intriguing is the guerrilla aspect of it. You go and find a plot of land that's available and you garden it. It makes me look at the world in a different way," said Mr. Stamen.
The first guerrilla gardener is actually Liz Christy who began Green Guerrilla in New York in 1973. Back then it was a political statement for the populace to take ownership of their city. Of course before her was Johnny Appleseed who introduced apple trees to Ohio in 1801.
For Roly Poly and Mr. Stamen, however, they guerrilla garden simply because, "it's easier to gain forgiveness than permission."
An innovative birthday party has become a city-wide organization practically overnight.
"We're just two people that weren't trying to start anything. But it just snowballed," said Roly Poly.
LAGG unintentionally has created an interesting community consisting of the otherwise marginal eclectic Angelenos.
"We love guerrilla gardening because we can own it and create community. We try to make it social, because we're in LA and people here are looking for community, which is hard to do," said Roly Poly.
One of their members is 16 years old. He was walking by, assumedly afterschool, and saw Roly Poly, Mr. Stamen and a few other guerrilla gardeners, knee deep in dirt, gardening.
"What are you doing?" he snidely asked with derision as only a 16-year-old can properly do. "Is this like your job?"
After explaining their "mission," his unexpected next question was, "Can I help?"
"It's so fascinating to think of all the different people we've encountered," said Mr. Stamen. "From two-year-old kids to people who are in their 80s to the people who stop us in the street and thank us -- the community aspect is now the thing that we like most about guerrilla gardening and what keeps us going."
Kenn, whose guerrilla gardening alias is La Fleur, which is French for flower, is a 35-year-old real estate consultant. On the last Earth Day, La Fleur helped plant eight guerrilla gardens.
"It's an exciting idea to be naughty and not go to jail for it," he said. La Fleur couldn't have spoken truer words. Guerrilla. Even the word itself is enticing like cheating on a diet. Whether it's throwing pounds of tea into the ocean, leaving a dump on a cop car just to "start shit" or push architectural rules to make the Philharmonic's walls curve, the true blue American spirit is to be a rebel. If you allow yourself to have a quiet moment - unbridled by peers, family, a job, the law – you'll recognize the innate organically animalistic desire within you to do what you want.
To be a guerrilla is actually very simple: indulge.
"What's great with guerrilla gardening is that it's this gray area. Technically it is vandalism, but who's going to bust us for gardening?" asked Mr. Stamen.
It's like playing hop scotch next to a cliff. It's a hop, skip and a step away from jumping.
Mr. Stamen confidently asserts, however, that he is a "law-abiding citizen" ... up to that gray line, of course.
Members range from those who've been gardeners their whole life to those who've never before deigned to pick up a shovel -- but all identify themselves as a rebel with a cause, the cause being to beautify their neighborhood with a plant or two.
Santa Monica College student, Pablo, 19, is one of those who has never gardened before, but figured, "I should do alright."
He used to be part of a group of cyclists who called themselves the Ruthless Riders.
"I'm into the adrenaline rush. Go out with me, I'll take you through the streets - full speed - and I'll get rid of that fear," he said.
The group of cyclists gathered today, however, had a different mission: to search for nine guerrilla gardens and find a way to water them.
"All I have is Perrier water. Plants like Perrier right?" asked Todd, 34.
"Definitely," responded Mr. Stamen. "The fancier the plant, the fancier the water."
Emily, 27, hands her bike over to Todd to hold onto while she sat on the curb to roll a cigarette.
"I'm for sure a rebel. I feel like I can think for myself. You gotta stick to the rhythm, but you also gotta improvise a little -- like jazz. It's all about the next rebellious act," she said.
Unsurprisingly, Emily is a heavy supporter of LAGG.
"I'm impressed with the guerrilla gardening concept. It's a super solid one."
Then she tucked the hand-rolled cigarette between her lips and rode off.
After calling Roly Poly to bring her car around, Mr. Stamen, Roly Poly, a couple of his compatriots and I spent a few minutes trying to jumpstart the Ford. The battery refused to charge. It was an automatic and wouldn't even open so that we could charge it manually. Mr. Stamen decided to try the ignition one last time when a wonderfully victorious roar erupted from the car.
A little later, we arrived at La Cita bar, the finish line for the bike race. After a few rounds of Bloody Marys, awarding prizes to the winners and cutting cake, Pablo still hadn't shown up. Just as we were ready to pronounce Pablo as dead, the Ruthless Rider arrived.
His bike chain had snapped while going down Sunset Boulevard.
"It was a bitch going down the hill, but I still walked to Spaceland [a guerrilla garden location] and was like, okay, let me water this plant."
After watering, Pablo found some construction workers nearby that were working on a house. The conversation took place in Spanish, but to give the reader an idea, it went something like this:
Pablo: Excuse me?
Construction Workers: What happened?
Pablo: Do you have a pair of pliers that you may lend me? I'm in a race and I broke my bike chain.
Construction Workers: Of course! We would love to help a friend so that he'll win for us!
While he did fix his chain with their pliers, Pablo, unfortunately, did not win the race for himself or his naza. And though he was nearly an hour behind the rest of the cyclists, he still dutifully searched out and watered the remaining eight guerrilla gardens printed on the race's manifest. He had a rough Sunday afternoon, but when asked if he would participate in the next LAGG mission Pablo responded, "Oh hell yeah! That's for sure."
It's safe to say that Mr. Stamen and Roly Poly had succeeded in their mission.
"The whole idea is to get other people to do it. A lot of people are intimidated by guerrilla gardening, but really, if you can just plant one plant, one seed in one area and concentrate on something small, it makes a big impact. The biggest impact that we've had is not on gardens, but on people," said Mr. Stamen.
And though what they do is an act of vandalism, LAGG is hardly considered an enemy of the state.
"We get a lot of support from the city," said Roly Poly. "Even city councilman Tom LeBonge came by and gave everybody high fives. One time he bought us ice cream."
Each guerrilla garden is a battle won -- a small one perhaps, but one that will hopefully prompt a ripple of guerrilla gardeners everywhere. And if not gardeners, then perhaps at least a guerrilla.
Mr. Stamen asks for the reader to search within saying, "You might be a guerrilla gardener and not even know it."
* No last names were used in this article so as to maintain the guerrillas' identities.