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VERY FIRST PERSON

War of the Roses

Technically, He Shouldn't Have Been Harvesting the Blossoms in His Ex-Girlfriend's Garden. But Their Nurturing Had Been a Labor of Love.

June 14, 1998|MICHAEL KRIKORIAN | Michael Krikorian, who covered South-Central Los Angeles and Watts for The Times, is now a writer based in Fresno

I committed a burglary recently.

On a spring midnight, I parked my Ford pickup truck on a quiet street in Garden Grove and surveyed the neighborhood. Heart pounding, I grabbed my burglary tool and walked toward the front door of the house on Richmond Avenue.

I'll admit I wasn't the coolest thief in town--certainly not a Cary Grant. After all, I hadn't burgled in the nearly 30 years since my cousins Dave, Jeff and Richard and I broke into Uncle Popkin's house in Eagle Rock to steal shish kebab. Neighbors called the police and soon a cop chopper whirled above the hilly neighborhood searching for us--successfully. The cops let us go. Our parents weren't so kind.

But failure be damned; at age 43 I was compelled to strike again.

Just as I neared the treasures, the security lights of the beige-and-blue four-bedroom house blew my cover. No greater spotlight ever shone on any performer on Broadway or any convict scaling the wall at Folsom. I felt the eyes of the world--or at least Orange County--upon me. How could I have been so careless to forget the security lights? I had installed them myself five years ago for my former girlfriend, Carol.

But I had crossed the Rubicon. I took the tool of choice, a Swiss-made Felco hand pruner, and went to work.

Snip. Snip. Snip.

Better go. Don't push it. The cops could be on their way--and how would I explain this midnight foray on a home that Carol has rented to strangers for the past two years? I quicklyran/walked back to the truck and escaped into the night.

Two blocks away, I turned on the interior light and admired my loot. Tiffany. Paradise. Double Delight. Three breathtakingly beautiful roses.

I don't know what the courts would have ruled had I been caught. But perhaps they might have been sympathetic; I had planted these roses.

From 1989 to 1994, roses, along with dining at the world's best French restaurants, were Carol's and my No. 1 hobby. And while dinner at the Girardet restaurant in Crissier, Switzerland, and Joel Robuchon in Paris set me back a sumptuous grand, one good rosebush cost a sawbuck and, with proper care, will outlive me.

I planted 33 roses at Carol's house. At my Dad's home in Gardena, where I usually was when I wasn't at Carol's, I planted 28.

We joined the American Rose Society. We entered the Pasadena Rose Show in 1993, winning three second-place red ribbons (for Paradise, Brandy and Color Magic).

Then, after nearly six years together, Carol and I broke up. There was no court settlement. She would get custody of the roses. I would get nothing. Not even visitation rights.

Until recently, I lived in Los Feliz Village, where I had rented a small bungalow with a yard--actually a flower bed. Well, it was more like a flower cot. I had one rose in the ground, First Prize, a two-toned pink rose with little fragrance but blooms as big as dinner plates.

In a round wooden container, I raised a vermilion hybrid tea called Granada. I positioned the pot near the entrance to my place. When someone asked me about my dwelling, I sometimes said, "I can look out my front door and see Granada."

Most people are surprised when I tell them I'm into roses in such a big way. They think I'm kidding when I say I'm a member of the American Rose Society. I have to pull out my tattered card to prove it. (It's the only society I've ever belonged to.)

But I guess I can see their point. I don't come off as the typical rosarian.

I've been a street reporter covering South-Central and Watts. I've gone to housing projects late at night and sipped Olde English 800 with the homeboys. I know guys named Big Evil, Mad Dog and Snipe. I wear a lot of dark clothing. I have a couple of scars on my forehead from disastrous street battles in the '70s.

I may act like a tough guy sometimes, but if someone showed me a Double Delight in the middle of a street fight, I might stop and stare for a few seconds. God forbid any of the fellas should read this.

My mother was named Rose, and two years after she died, I started buying them. Her name helped, but I just happen to like the look of a good garden rose. I like the variety, the different names. I like working in the garden and feeding them, and I like putting the cut flowers in an old Chateau Cheval Blanc bottle, knowing I drank the wine and grew the roses.

I keep my pruners in the car, but not for purposes of theft. I have been known, while waiting for someone--anyone--to wander into a stranger's yard and prune a rosebush that hasn't been cared for since D-day. I've knocked on doors and explained the situation: "Excuse me, I'm just waiting for a friend, and I saw your rosebush could use a little pruning. Would you mind if I clipped it a bit? No charge."

Some people look at me as if I'm a serial killer. Others emerge to discuss their garden; some are ashamed and promise to take better care of their Mister Lincoln (a classic red with fragrance) or Pristine (a delicate off-white tinged with pink, sporting a high center).

The single most stunning rose I've ever grown was a Chicago Peace. I cut the flower, a more deeply colored relative of the world-famous Peace, and gave it to my sister, Jeanine. I must have looked at that rose 70 times and every time I did it made me feel almost spiritual.

I felt the same way as I drove away from Carol's house, gazing at Double Delight, a creamy white flower whose petals are thickly bordered in a brilliant red and whose fragrance is as dreamy as a bouquet of sweet peas. I don't understand guys who try to impress dolls with a dozen red roses from a florist. One Double Delight will do the trick--if the trick can be done.

Technically, I suppose, my raid at Carol's house was a burglary. But, now that I think about it, I'd have to say it was a different kind of crime. In a burglary, you take objects, not living things. No, this was more like a kidnapping.

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