L.A.’s fall scent: Crap

DENISE HAMILTON writes the Eve Diamond mystery series set in Los Angeles. Website:

TO MANY PEOPLE, November brings the scent of fireplace logs, hot mulled cider, pumpkin pies and Thanksgiving turkeys. But I know November has arrived when I smell manure.

Each year, regular as clockwork, the gardeners of Los Angeles start spreading fertilizer on front lawns right after the trick-or-treaters put away their costumes. From Rosemead to Glendale, from Studio City to Mar Vista, the grass gets that mottled brown color and the stink of manure wafts through the air, polluting my nostrils.

In a city in which even some of the gardeners have gardeners, this phenomenon seems to cross all socioeconomic lines. With the unseasonably warm weather, the sun is really baking the crap out of the manure this year, and the fall breeze is spreading stench faster than Paris Hilton changes boyfriends. And if Beverly Hills doesn’t reek of cow patties, it’s probably only because the high walls provide some sort of barrier. Or maybe the wealthy can afford less stinky fertilizer. I wouldn’t know.


David and I are the bane of our neighborhood because we don’t even have a gardener, let alone apply fertilizer each fall. I know our lawn would look greener and perkier if we did, but seeing as we live in an arid desert city, I’ve got a problem with lawns to begin with.

When our kids were younger, I rationalized my rejection of the annual fertilizer fest by imagining how difficult it would be to keep two toddlers off the manure-mined lawn. Now they like to play badminton out front, which wouldn’t be possible if we spread manure. And there’s a new boogeyman to keep me from the gardening store this year. What if the manure I buy is laced with that particularly virulent strain of E. coli?

But back to the smell. Because it’s with us for the next two months, until the soil absorbs it and winter rains send it running off into the drains, I’ve tried to put a romantic spin on the reek. As I pick up the kids from school and run errands, I tell myself that this is what the air must have smelled like 50 years ago, when scores of working dairies dotted the Southland. (There really were lots of them, from Artesia to Altadena to Culver City, but development chased them to the hinterlands.)

If I hit a particularly virulent patch, I pretend I’m Samantha Spade, going out to interview the owners of a mom-and-pop dairy where the body of a missing starlet was dumped sometime before dawn. The men wear hats and the women wear gloves. The trolleys still clank up and down the boulevards, the inter-urban lines go to Yorba Linda and Claremont. It’s November, and as I collar bad guys, solve the crime and save innocent people, the smell of manure from L.A.’s cows rises into the air.