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Behind the miniblinds hide lawn renegades

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© St. Petersburg Times, published June 16, 2000

It's Saturday. I wake up.

It's early, but my daughter has a sleep-over guest. If I'm real, real quiet, I can get in a half hour on the exercise bike before everyone is up and demanding my attention.

I tiptoe downstairs and open the door to fetch the papers.

Maybe that's when I hear it.

Or maybe it happens hours later, after Sleep-over Mom retrieves her child and I get sprung for 90 minutes of Whaley's and Home Depot and the dry cleaners. I'm lost in thought, pondering the relative costs of hanging curtains over that living room window or replacing the vertical blinds my son tore down in his toddler years.

It's a truck. A very large truck. Sounds like a trash truck, only what would a trash truck be doing here on Saturday? Only people who complain ferociously about missed service, or who book politicians into casino hotels, get their trash picked up on Saturday.

More precisely, it's a big WHITE truck. A county truck, not Waste Management.

The day progresses. At 6 o'clock the curtains are hung and I'm thinking it's cool enough to prune that hedge I no longer need to shade the living room. I'm outside, shears mid-clip when I see it again.

The big white truck.

Now I'm curious. I'm alone, it's quiet, it's (almost) cool. What is the county doing on my street at 6 p.m. on a Saturday?

If I'm not mistaken, that's a water truck. Water? What does the water department want, and have they really been here all day?

I can see the driver a few houses over. He's a big man, wearing a red T-shirt that accentuates his bigness, standing in the street, talking on a cellular phone.

He's looking in my direction.

The garden hose and sprinkler are stretched across the lawn, but you can tell with one glance that I'm watering once a week -- if that. A refreshing sensation, face to face with authority and not at all paranoid.

So then, if not me, who's he after?

That retired couple whose flowers look like Southern Living magazine? The family around the corner whose grass is like carpet? In my subdivision -- in anybody's subdivision -- there's no shortage of lawn lust. What are the odds that each of these 1,800-plus homeowners is complying with the emergency watering restrictions? Somewhere there must be an addict, a renegade, a poor obsessed soul who can't starve his St. Augustine.

And where you have a neighborhood you have neighbors. Neighbors who are mad about salsa music played too loud. About barking dogs, about a party guest in their parking spot.

That's it: My neighbors ratted each other out and one of them called The Man.

Maybe it's even juicier. Maybe it's a Peyton Place around here in the hours when I'm dutifully editing North of Tampa stories and shuttling the kids to camp. Who can imagine the wild goings-on behind the vertical blinds?

The man in the red T-shirt returns to his truck. He backs up. He returns to my street.

Then he stops, RIGHT IN FRONT OF MY HOUSE! Totally blocking my minivan. He gets out, lifts a manhole cover, gets back in.

My neighbor emerges, also curious about the noise. She asks her husband, "What is he doing here?" Her husband doesn't know. I don't share with her my dramatic theories. Instead we make small talk about PTA and my unruly hedge.

But deep down inside I'm thinking, what desperate times these are. Tuesday before 8. Or after 6, but not both. Reclaimed. Never on weekends. Can I get away with it? The drought has made us sick, conniving savages, living a kind of Waterworld in reverse.

Not only that, I realize as I return the pruning sheers to the garage, it's been weeks since I touched my mower. Or edger. Or sprinkled a teaspoon of the cancer-causing chemicals that beat back the weeds.

No wonder I'm fantasizing about trysts and vendettas and The Company in a big white truck. No wonder there's salsa music and party guests and gossip in the afternoon. No one has to cut their lawn! I used to think the suburbs were boring, but we were just busy. Civilization as we know it will surely end unless it rains before we all run out of household repairs!

Monday morning I call the county, hoping to solve the mystery of the white truck. But the operator is unable to help me. And not too long after, the rains begin. For one glorious weekend our swims are interrupted and tepid breezes rustle our parched citrus trees.

They keep telling us the drought isn't over yet, but we know different. Summer looms, with its lethargy and mosquitoes and blinding electrical storms.

And it smells beautiful.

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