The Men Who Patrol the Parasols : Christo: When crowds leave and night falls, tough-talking guards protect the umbrellas from the mischief of humans and nature.


Like thousands of other people in Southern California, Fred Paredez has seen the 1,760 giant yellow umbrellas displayed by the artist Christo along Interstate 5 in Tejon Pass.

But Paredez watches them only at night.

"It's not the prettiest time to see the umbrellas, but some strange things happen here at night," said Paredez, head of the night security team for the Umbrellas Project.

Paredez oversees about 80 employees who guard the umbrellas from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. daily. Of those, about 72 stand guard near clusters of umbrellas while others, including Paredez, patrol the area in four-wheel-drive vehicles. They stay in contact via walkie-talkies.

The project is paying nearly $1 million for security, including about $214,000 in overtime costs for the California Highway Patrol, as well as about $100,000 each to the sheriff's departments of Los Angeles and Kern counties for traffic and crowd control, said Tom Golden, director of the American half of the Umbrellas Project.

The rest of the project is in Japan, where no security is needed, Golden said.

During the day, the umbrellas are guarded by 75 to 100 monitors, many of whom are artists, students and professionals who may have taken time off from better-paying jobs to aid Christo for a few weeks.

"They are more like docents in a museum," Golden said. The monitors were hard-pressed Sunday as the largest crowds since the opening of the exhibition jammed roads in the area, causing a five-mile backup on Interstate 5.

But by night, the crowds have disappeared and the monitors are replaced by Paredez and his crew, tough-talking men who work for Christo because the pay is better than harvesting almonds and the construction industry is slow.

The night crew fields few questions about art. Instead they deal with everything from vandals and thieves to fires and wind. In the wee hours of Sunday morning, for instance, when winds were gusting to 55 m.p.h., they quickly cranked about 100 umbrellas closed near Grapevine and in the hills above Gorman.

That same morning, Ray Geniessee of Bakersfield found a couple having sex under an umbrella near Lebec Road.

"They didn't notice me so I walked away and waited until they were done and then I asked them to leave," said Geniessee, 26. "They were pretty embarrassed. They weren't doing any harm. But I was afraid they were going to have a cigarette afterwards and start a fire."

Armed only with shovels and flashlights, the guards are trained to avoid confrontation.

"A drunk began waving a pistol after I told him to move his pickup truck" from private property near Grapevine, said Vincent Blanco, 50, a weathered construction worker from Brownsville, Tex.

"He didn't point it at me. I think he just wanted to show it off," Blanco said, laughing. "I walked away calmly and then called for help. But he took off fast. I think he just wanted his girlfriend to think he was bad."

Despite the extensive security, there has been minor vandalism. People have scratched their names and initials on umbrella posts. Another time, someone pasted beer labels on the fabric of an umbrella.

Several men tried unsuccessfully to tear down an umbrella near Grapevine and put it in a flatbed truck, Paredez said. But they got nervous and fled before police came, he said.

"We had seen them hanging around there, acting suspiciously. The CHP were already on their way," Paredez said.

In addition to human mischief, monitors must also deal with coyotes, rattlesnakes and nature itself.

"Vandals may only damage a couple of umbrellas, but a fire could take out hundreds," Paredez said.

Night monitors, who joke that the only violent confrontations involve rattlesnakes, try to outdo one another with snake stories.

Ruben Carillo, 35, proudly boasted of killing a 3 1/2-foot rattlesnake with a shovel Friday. "It was a big one, as thick as a man's leg," he said in Spanish.

His friend, Pablo Gomez, 51, plans to make the carcass into a belt, he said, "after I eat all the meat."

Times staff writer Tracey Kaplan contributed to this article.

Umbrella Update

Artist Christo's latest temporary outdoor art project, "The Umbrellas," is on display through Oct. 30. Here is some help in viewing:

Where: Along Interstate 5 for 18 miles north from intersection of California 138 to the bottom of the Grapevine in the San Joaquin Valley.

Directions: Take Interstate 5 north from Los Angeles, about 60 miles from downtown.

Turn-arounds: At Quail Lake Road, Gorman, Frazier Park, Lebec and Ft. Tejon exits.

Viewing areas: Designated along the freeway and on Gorman Post, Lebec, Digier and Grapevine roads.

Best viewing times: Daylight hours, although a few umbrellas along the highway and at rest stops--especially in Gorman--are lit well enough to be viewed at night. The sun rises today at 6:54 a.m. and sets at 6:25 p.m.

Traffic report: Traffic volume was 150% above normal along Interstate 5 through the Grapevine on Sunday. During the peak about 2 p.m., cars were backed up about five miles at the northbound exits at Gorman and Frazier Park, state Department of Transportation officials said. Traffic along county roads in the area was also congested with tourists, according to the California Highway Patrol. Traffic is expected to return to normal levels on the freeway and side roads today. No reports of slowing on alternative routes.

Alternative routes: To avoid traffic delays caused by the project, take U. S. 101 north or California 14 to California 58 to Bakersfield.

Lodging: None available. All motel and hotel rooms are booked for duration of the event. Some campsites may be available.

Hints: Wear comfortable walking shoes, sunscreen and a hat. Carry food and water.

Additional details: Available at an information center in Gorman.

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