THE BODY POLITIC
John Williams thinks ladybugs can do more than save gardens from hungry aphids; he thinks they can help cure the blight of homelessness. And he’s got a plan. “As a result of the malathion spraying, many of Los Angeles’ beneficial insect populations decreased to the point of extinction,” says the former union organizer. “I figured out how to reintroduce good garden insects while putting dejected members of the work force into business.”
About once a month, Williams, 55, buys the bugs in large quantities from a Santa Barbara insectarium--7,200 for $40. Three mornings a week, he drops off cartons filled with individually packaged plastic eggs of 100 ladybugs at Hollywood, Silver Lake and Echo Park supermarkets where homeless people can pick them up; usually, a couple of dozen people participate. “They sell each egg for a dollar and they keep 100% of the profit, " says Williams. “An industrious salesperson who knows how to sell the beneficial aspects of bugs can make $60 an hour. It’s a pretty high-income job for someone who’s used to bumming change.” Chuck, who works the Hughes in Silver Lake, agrees; he makes about $40 a day.
Williams calls his venture Echo-Eco for the Echo Park area where he lives. But how can he afford to give bugs away? “I own 21 houses in the Echo Park area. Most of my tenants are low-income families. When the recession hit, a lot of them found themselves under- or unemployed so they became my initial sales force, selling bugs to make the rent.”
Williams took his bug business to the streets about six months ago. He hired an unemployed artist to paint signs and design handouts explaining how to release the insects and their ecological benefits. “Most of my customers are middle-class liberals with a few bucks in their pocket. Children love buying bugs. They don’t really understand the politics, but it’s the ecology lesson that’s important.”
Williams rejects any political classification. “I’ve always been a Welshman and a worker,” he says. In the 1960s, he was instrumental in arranging transportation for unemployed workers on Skid Row to jobs on rural citrus farms during the ‘60s. He thinks ladybugs could help save the country. “This is going to go nationwide. There’s unemployed people in every major American city and there’s people who’ll buy beneficial insects in all those cities. As for me, I just want to do something to make this a better world.”
His plan may sound crazy, but Williams has a great track record, trend-wise.
“I bought real estate to get out of a truck. I drove the Mojave Desert for 10 years delivering for Southern Wine and Spirits Distributors and my knees were failing; I was a mess. So I started jogging and making my own fresh vegetable juice. That was the early ‘70s. Everyone thought I was crazy, buying old houses and fixing them up, spending my mornings jogging up mountains,” he says with a laugh. “Selling bugs will catch on, just like jogging and renovation.”