A Life In

Miranda July’s 15-Year Collection of Gifts from a Neighborhood Handyman Named Juan

By
Photography Richie Davis
Stylist Mel Ottenberg

Published September 18, 2020

Romper and Belt by Miu Miu. Necklace and Tights Miranda’s Own.

There’s a wall in Miranda July’s new movie, Kajillionaire, which, as with most things in the filmmaker’s universe, is so much more than a wall. As a partition meant to separate something called Bubbles, Inc. from the living quarters of the film’s three central characters (a trio of small-time crooks played by Richard Jenkins, Debra Winger, and Evan Rachel Wood), it barely justifies its own existence; at the same time each day, the family must return home to sop up the suds soaking through the plaster like a Sisyphean Ibiza rave. But as a symbol, it’s built to last. “One version of this movie is about a generation, these boomers, righteously defending their crumbling infrastructure, even though it doesn’t work at all and makes no sense, and there’s nothing you can do to change them,” says July. “All you can do is start anew.” Starting anew has become something of a calling card for July, whose pan-practice career has, in addition to her two previous feature films (2005’s Me and You and Everyone We Know and 2011’s The Future), included monologues, spoken-word albums, interactive stage performances, short-story collections, essays, interviews, a novel, public installations, online art activations, and, most recently, Instagram awards shows and scavenger hunts. Although her canvas rarely stays the same, what remains is her steadfast charge to find connection—to build community—in a digital world.

Fifteen years ago, July moved into a small home on Los Angeles’s east side. There, she met Juan, who makes money doing gardening and other odd jobs for the residents of the neighborhood. Not long after their first meeting, Juan gave July the first of many presents: a letter he had written to her in Spanish. As with most things in the filmmaker’s universe, it was so much more than that. 

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This is a selection of all the gifts that Juan has given me over the last 15 years. Juan is a neighborhood handyman/gardener/cross-pollinating forager who was already a part of the neighborhood when I moved in. He is the only person I see every single day, and on many of those days he has something to give me. On the first day of each month I leave him a consistent amount of cash in a secret hiding place.

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MASK

“I don’t speak much Spanish, and he doesn’t speak much English. There are a few key words we use, like trabajo—like, we’re both always doing our work. We used to tap elbows when we saw each other because his hands are often dirty from whatever he’s working on, but now we don’t even do that. We’re both wearing masks and keeping our distance. I remember in the first days of quarantine thinking, ‘Dear god, let Juan be wearing a mask,’ because I didn’t want to have to attempt to explain that to him, but he totally was. In fact, the most recent thing he gave me was a mask. It’s made out of polyester, and if I actually wore it my whole face would turn into one big hive, but who cares, because it’s incredibly sweet and thoughtful. He always is.

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FLORAL BAG

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PASHMINA

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PENCIL SHARPENER, MULTIPACK

“I remember giving him a Leatherman tool as a Christmas gift. I attempted to keep up with his gift-giving the first couple years and then I gave up and just focused on paying him consistently. Even though I never really voluntarily hired him, I wasn’t going to not pay him because of that. Anyways, the gift-giving started with letters, all in Spanish, and then it evolved. Some of the things came wrapped as presents, but most often they didn’t; he just kind of hands them to me and I exclaim, “Wow! Que bonita! Gracias!” A lot of times they have a quality of having fallen off the back of a truck, as if he has ten of the same purse or something. I don’t know quite the economy they come from, but I’ve always felt very moved by each gift, and I could never, ever give any of them away.

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INKA CHIPS, PLANTAIN

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BANDERITAS, ONE PIECE

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SNUGGLE PILLOW, LADYBUG

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FANNY PACK, BUTTERY SOFT LEATHER

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NEGLIGEE

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BABY CLOTHES, A MASTERPIECE

“The sweetest series of gifts were all of the baby clothes he gave me when I was pregnant. I think he has kids in Mexico. They’re probably grown now, but every single day he asks me how Gordito is. Gordito [which means “chubby” in Spanish] is his name for my child. There’s actually a character in my novel, The First Bad Man, who’s loosely based on Juan, and I also used a variation on Gordito in that book: Little Fatty.

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GLUCO BISCUITS

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SELECTION OF GREETING CARDS

“I run an electrical cord out from under my front door so that Juan can charge things. He bought me Christmas lights and decorations one year, because he likes the house to be very decorated during the holidays. People meeting me here are always like, ‘That can’t possibly be your house.’ I’m like, ‘Oh, but it is.’ He’ll ask for the lights every November and I’ll bring them out. ‘Las luces.’

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HAIRBAND

 

“The studio where I make all my work is a small house where I originally lived when I moved from Portland to Los Angeles; it’s a rental. I eventually moved in with Mike [Mills, July’s husband], a few blocks away, but I kept this little house as my studio. So I’ll be here writing and I’ll hear a knock at the door, and I always feel annoyed because I never want to be interrupted for anything, right? The whole point of being here is that I can be alone. I always know it’s going to be Juan and that after we have our chat I’m not going to be annoyed anymore. I’m going to be happier.

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PAJAMAS

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BRATZ DOLLS

“They’re such random things, now that I look at them as a collection. Opening the storage boxes the other day and looking at all of them together for the first time, was like, ‘Wow. I had no memory of the married Bratz dolls,’ you know?

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YES PLEASE

“One year, he kept bringing me these baby blankets; I have four or five of them. Eventually, I realized two women up the block made them, and that he had some sort of barter going with them. Some of the things he gives that are secondhand, like Amy Poehler’s book Yes Please, probably came from someone down the block who was getting rid of them, or from the trash. That’s really interesting to me, the way Juan pollinates us with each other. Everyone who actually has a home in this neighborhood kind of politely refuses to do that.

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BABY BLANKET

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E-SQUARED: NINE DO-IT-YOURSELF ENERGY EXPERIMENTS THAT PROVE YOUR THOUGHTS CREATE YOUR REALITY

 

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WATCH

This article appears in the September 2020 issue of Interview Magazine. Subscribe here.

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Hair: Nikki Providence using Oribe at Forward Artists

Makeup: Natasha Severino using Dermalogica  at Forward Artists

Manicure: Naoko Saita using Dior Vernis  at Opus Beauty

Fashion Assistant: Bin X. Nguyen