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Hail to the Toiling Loners

THERE exists in me a dim memory of passing by the Watts Towers in a car. I was a small boy, nose in a book, and my father was at the wheel as he drove somewhere in a different kind of Los Angeles in those days.

I glanced up at the odd, linked shapes rising out of a backyard like huge multiple masts of a fantastic ship sailing over the shallows of earth. Nothing more than a glance.

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What pleases me is that I remember my quick meeting with something extraordinary before I knew it was the work of one of the world's great loners.

I also like the fact that my memory of the Watts Towers is a fragment, like a piece of glass or stone pressed into wet cement by Simon Rodia as he built his masts higher and higher in the air.

Although Mr. Rodia is perhaps in a class by himself because his work is incomparable and complete, there are plenty of these loners around, usually old guys who lived one kind of suitable, conventional life while something bubbled inside them that was untimely and mysterious. Eventually their "mission" takes over their lives, and nothing else matters as they disconnect from the conventional and follow the siren call of lonely oddness in ways that few people enjoy.

Enjoy is the right word, it seems to me, because with enough passage of time what the loner achieves is often considered to be "art," not that he probably cares at all. What at first is mocked by other people eventually becomes regarded as extraordinary. It graduates from junk to "art."

Those who have difficulty with the accomplishments of loners breathe a sigh of relief. Somebody called the Watts Towers "art," and that puts it in a category. All is safe.

There is a man in northern California, a former Hollywood studio carpenter and location scout, who is building an old Western town on his country property, one long main street and two side streets. These are not facades going up but real buildings with windows, doors, and wooden sidewalks.

When I visited the "town" 10 years ago, the man was obsessed. He is one of those human beings who collects items from the past as well as scavenging all kinds of current odds and ends that others have thrown out.

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Add the fact that this is a carpenter, and nothing was going to stop him from building a town of his own to house all the old tools, beds, old cars, pots and pans, gas pumps, carriages, trunks, shoes, beds, and buttons he had collected over the years.

Art? It doesn't matter. He's enjoying himself.

My nominee for the most magnificent loner of all time is Baldasare Forestiere, a semiliterate Sicilian immigrant who dug a 10-acre underground town just outside of Fresno, California.

What this man did is staggering and encompasses art, architecture, gardening, science, and most of all sheer, raw human tenacity.

Armed with only a pick, shovel, and a wheelbarrow, Forestiere first dug an underground cellar in 1906 to escape the brutal summer heat in Fresno. Then something clicked in him, some wonderful possibility that bloomed in his consciousness. He saw the reality of a vast underground city waiting at the end of his shovel. For the next 40 years he dug without drawings to guide him.

He dug 50 rooms, including a chapel, a restaurant and dance hall, a parking lot, a room-sized fish aquarium, a winery, and his own home with three bedrooms, a bath, a kitchen, and tunnels connecting everything.

To bring light down into his kingdom, he included earthen skylights and atriums in which he planted fruit trees that grew underground and poked up through big holes. When Forestiere wanted to pick an orange or peach he went up to the surface and reached down for the fruit.

He built cone-shaped, open skylights that used the "Venturi concept" - narrow at the top and wider at the bottom to bring warm air up and allow the cool air to stay below the surface.

With an ingenious drainage system, he used the rainwater to water the plants and trees underground.

I spent several hours there a few years ago, escorted through the maze by a relative of Forestiere who knew all the small and remarkable decisions the man had made to create this masterpiece.

One architect said of Forestiere's accomplishment, "You look at these [rooms], and it's obvious. They almost seem to have existed before Forestiere arrived. He simply set them free."

Anytime anything profoundly simple is set "free," all of us benefit one way or another. But the catch is that one man's profundity is another man's pile of junk.

I happen to think Simon Rodia and Baldasare Forestiere, junk or not, have enriched me.

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