Melissa Chadburn | Longreads | April 2019 | 12 minutes (3,024 words)
This essay was supported by the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, a journalism nonprofit organization.
“One bad thing about me is that I don’t give a shit about the environment.” That’s what I told my smart, edgy friend when we were walking to get coffee one day. I admitted that I suck at recycling, and that what I care about is workers, “not like, being vegan and shit.”
“Yea fuck those bumper stickers with the panda on them,” she replied.
The truth is I didn’t think those worries were for me, the type of planning and research it takes to be green. That was a concern for people living a different quality of life, people who carried around large glass bottles filled with distilled water, ladies in lululemon pants who consistently applied Burt’s bees lip balm, ate cacao energy balls, and drove hybrid vehicles. No, caring about the planet was off limits for me.
What I hadn’t even considered was who I was.
Before I was born I was a mere possibility in my Pinay mother’s ovaries, made a reality with the help of a defiant Black swimmer, one of the few Black swimmers from a town called Greene, Maine, population 4000. The men in the family stepped off the sidewalk and tipped their hats to the white women who passed by. As survival had it, my swimmer made his half contribution and swam away. Before I was born I was a hope in a monsoon-riddled place, surrounded by the hiss and screech of fighting and praying, and the muffled screams of women in bushes. Men pushing their weight on them. Saving them they said. Over and over again. Smoke and too much hot sun and people who were all terribly dry-tongued and hunger and death and all the usual diseases brought over by ship to the small island of Manila.
Around February most of our nation’s bees are shipped off to California to pollinate the almonds being planted by my people. By my people I mean workers, people who struggle.
Hope led us to the Golden State of dreams — California, where my people stooped low in the hills of the Central Valley. The place where the Okies flocked, for its bounty of grapes and nuts and thick with the sharp stench of cows, it’s bone-dry highway now studded with motels and liquor stores. People always think of Chavez and the Mexicans when they think of grapes and that red flag with a black eagle, but really Seven Fingers, Larry Itliong — an excellent card player, avid cigar smoker, married six times, father to seven — led the Delano grape strike. Itliong moved to the U.S in the 1930s, when he was 14. He organized the Alaska cannery union, where he lost three fingers, hence the nickname. But my people were military people.They left behind all that kind of hard work, and praying for weather, and cigarettes smoked backwards, and huffing glue, and they lived in the valley of Salinas. And when I finally came out, when I was heart, and skull, and spine, and all that blood that Black survivalist blood, and the Pinay fighter blood pumped through me, I was given a name. Melissa.
Melissa is greek for honey bee. Around February most of our nation’s bees are shipped off to California to pollinate the almonds being planted by my people. By my people I mean workers, people who struggle. That could mean people who take three buses to get to work, or people who sit bent over and find some rhythm to picking fruits and vegetables and nuts. That could mean answering the phone and filing papers and ordering sandwiches and trying your best to be invisible and indispensable at the same time. That could mean going into a warehouse and pulling things off shelves, could mean walking dogs in a bright colored shirt that humiliates you, could mean wiping butts of people you love, or people you don’t know who try to get you to stay longer than you’re contracted for by talking to you about their relatives who never come to visit, could mean driving people around and making sure you have cool snacks in the car, and suspending anything about yourself for a period of time — your family, your children at home in need of your company, that bedtime story that you aren’t reading, those first steps you’re missing. When your Beloved is left to go through the same nightly rituals over and over again that seem tedious but in the end make up a life, while you are out being a worker. These people are the people I claim as my people.
When I was coming up nobody I knew went by their given name. We had tag names like vile, vamp, envy, kaser … and it was all about projecting a thing about yourself. Ironically, Americans project so much of ourselves onto honeybees. When we began colonizing new lands, bees showed us that nature itself endorsed colonization. Honey-hunting or getting honey from bee colonies that weren’t settled yet was an important activity for American Indian hunters and white honey hunters. They both felt that since bees didn’t belong to anyone, they had claim to them. So much so that honey-hunting influenced America’s mental and legal framework for how land got settled. The bees felt very relatable to colonists who were building new homes, having ridiculous numbers of children, then outgrowing their plots and constantly on the move. For the bees (and the colonists) it made sense for them to take claim of somewhere they weren’t from and that wasn’t for sale. As fate would have it — even though I’m named for the honeybee, I am allergic to bee stings.
No, I could not concern myself with the environment because I was too damn busy with this crisis we are in. The Crisis has always been very clear to me. It’s been known to me from when I was just born, from when the bills changed colors — first they came white, then they came yellow, then they came pink, then there was a series of frantic phone calls, and if that didn’t work, shit got shut off. The crisis here was and always will be: My People Have No Money. No duckets. No skrilla. That is a reason to hate yourself. That is a reason to die. Over the last two decades, suicide has slowly and then very suddenly announced itself as a full-blown national emergency. Its ravages accompany factory closings and the cutting of government assistance. According to a recent article in the Huffington Post’s Highline, suicides are the 10th leading cause of death.The suicide rates in the US has steadily increased by 10,000 each year over the last eight years. You have to go all the way back to the dawn of the Great Depression to find a similar increase in the suicide rate. This doesn’t surprise me at all because I’d slowly killed myself my whole garbage life — cigarettes or alcohol or choosing people who had no regard for me, or anything really.
In my first group home, a small house in Santa Monica near the Community College, I was handed a thick packet with a list of rules: NO PROFANITY, NO FIGHTING, NO FOOD IN THE DAY ROOM, NO MOM TALK (aka, no “yo mama” jokes), NO SLEEPING DURING THE DAY, QUIET AFTER LIGHTS OUT…Of all the rules, the sleeping-during-the-day rule confused me the most. Later a chola — who went by the name of Bunny but who I knew on the outs before as a white girl named Stephanie Hughes whom we called Swallow (not in reference to the bird) — told me that they didn’t want you to sleep too much because sleeping was a sign of depression. Let us fucken sleep already. This shit is depressing is what I thought. I mean, what’s more depressing than learning you’ve entered the fucking system and you have a number and a file assigned to your name? You weren’t human, you were a drain.
It wasn’t always like this. The thing about the money and the budget and the drain on society. It used to be that our mothers, when they got social services, along with cash benefits they’d get other resources like health care, nutrition, referrals for therapy. Then we were all so interested in what was happening below Bill Clinton’s desk, we were so focused on his dick, we missed the biggest rape crime there was: Welfare To Work. Suddenly women were being encouraged to get their “lazy” asses off the couch and get to work. We had to prove we were trying to get jobs. There were limitations as to how long you could receive benefits.This was the most violent thing to happen to American families, and all those safety net supports our mothers would get from department of public social services were shifted to the department of children and family services. NO MOM TALK.
Yo mama so poor when she heard about the Last Supper she thought she was running out of food stamps.
Yo mama is so poor, I saw her kicking a can down the street, and when I asked her what she was doing, she said, “Moving.”
Yo mama so poor when I went over her house and asked what’s for dinner she opened her legs and said fish sticks.
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So all the kids who needed food, who needed warmth, all the moms who needed help with the electricity bill and rent, needed to stand in line before and between the kids who were found beaten in the dark. We were all lumped together, and the social workers who saw us, their caseloads tripled, while their pay stayed the same. Us kids, we suffered. The children in the closet fell between/in/under the cracks, and the moms with no money — they hated themselves.
November thru January in Los Angeles, the National Guard Armory hosts our cold weather shelter, a big open space filled with cots, and county-issued wool blankets. The blankets are thick and itchy and they’re built to withstand the hot water in the big machine used to wash them, hot enough to kill lice and scabies. Only thing is they got picked up to be washed just once a month. I was doing an Americorps stint at a program for vets during the day and worked at the shelter at nights. From dusk to dawn I was surrounded by homeless veterans. I’d cornrow my big, unruly hair to try to keep from catching lice or scabies on the government issue wool blankets. Nights I’d don plastic gloves and set up cots and do intakes. There was almost always a line around the block of folks waiting to get in. Intakes at a homeless shelter was a strange job. You were their first point of contact. Most of the job was listening to people lie. They’d come in and tell me they were high powered real estate agents or princesses, or that they were wheeling and dealing on some big thing or another. People told me most often that this arrangement was just temporary. But every once in a blue moon, that was the truth. I’d ask people for any identifying information, and then questions they used to ask over at the welfare department. Did they need any help? Did they want to go to a program? Three times I had an interviewee say yes, and I was able to get them into transitional housing. They were vets. Others didn’t qualify for anything — men with no kids, some trying to get 100% service connected.
Service connection was a strange middling space. A loophole. It determined the stipend you received from the government. Sort of like social security disability insurance (SSDI) for veterans. If you could prove homelessness you could get 100% service connection and never have to work again. The only thing was by then you were chronically homeless. Most of these guys I saw in the winter time would never be able to sleep on a bed again and would only know privacy in single stall restrooms, I busted a guy who’d nodded out from fixing in his dick once. His pants around his ankles, his head against the wall. I did what I’d learned how to do, which was smack him hard in the face. He stirred a bit then, looked up at me and smiled a dopey smile like I was his mom with a platter of oatmeal cookies.
Large landowners and financial interests undermining and gobbling up their smaller neighbors is a huge part of American farming lore. Because it happens.
Most of them were afraid of a shower. I didn’t blame them. The vulnerability of nudity. To see your flesh that had been covered for so long. To map the changes that were beyond your control, the change of an arrangement that was maybe just supposed to last one day that became one week that become one month that became 10 years, and that’s 10 years without a pillow, unless of course you went to the hospital on a code 5150, the one that put you on a 72-hour hold in a mental health institution or hospital. It was the game.
When it got truly cold, which in L.A. meant below 60 degrees, and we were all filled up, or it was about to be the end of that shelter, there were always the people who’d come to me saying, “I’m hearing voices. I want to kill myself.” I’d call the Psychiatric Evaluation Team and the EMTs would come, and if it was the firefighters, they’d come, and all the ladies would stand up and whistle because they thought they were hot, and they did look a little bit like The Village People or strippers walking into a big open metal warehouse armory with fluorescent flood lights on the ceiling. And if the person who wanted to kill themself, or wanted a pillow, or wanted some decent food was lucky, they’d wind up getting taken out on a stretcher. Only their sad, desperate, left-behind stench remained. Cause for us, death isn’t a cry for help. When you’re poor, death is the answer to a problem. The problem of costing money, and taking up space.
Which brings me back to the world that my people are from — those small farms in the belly of California, the fat central part, that’s turned into a wasteland, everything raisins, a place where the only thing that thrives beyond white supremacy are large corporate-owned farms. Each of our farms, those owned and run by small brown people, went away. One by one, we went away. It’s the story of American farms and every small town since the latter half of the 20th century: we went away. And farmers of color are targeted with a special fury. Large landowners and financial interests undermining and gobbling up their smaller neighbors is a huge part of American farming lore. Because it happens. A lot. Most folks like the woman I performed, the woman who doesn’t give a shit about the environment, don’t realize that all these government subsidies don’t go to the people growing the crops, our people. They go to the few people who own the land that it grows on. The big hustle in agriculture isn’t the food. It’s the real estate. The worst landlords are farm landlords. They’ve been grinding our people for thousands of years. We’re up here talking about GMOs and saying we’re worried about shit like antibiotics in our milk. (There aren’t any antibiotics in your milk. That makes zero sense.) And meanwhile, there are land barons out here collecting rent and subsidies on millions of acres of land we are sweating over. Most rural counties are run by 2-3 families that quietly own a huge slice of the land. The landlords. They are the worst kind of beast. They are invisible, distant, and quiet, and none of us are bothering to understand the way it works.
When I was in elementary school, I was put in an accelerated program, Gifted And Talented Education. They’d pull me out of class for a couple of hours a week and a gaggle of dorks and I would do stuff to supplement our course work. One of our projects was to make cameras out of shoeboxes. A pinhole camera they called it. This is how I hoped to view the world. But no matter how long I looked through that little hole to block out the street signs and the cars and the buildings and to just focus on that one fat velvet squirrel, I kept not waking up in a different hell than I’d fell asleep in. The same apartment with the same small fold-up bed, the same janky black and white TV with the same hanger on top, the same stain on the ceiling, the same loud neighbors, the same cardboard dresser, that nagging shallow ache for something more. I’ve been looking through that tiny little pinhole my whole life. Afraid to want. The pinhole says you can’t care about the environment, that’s not for you. That’s not your concern. The truth is my world is so much bigger than that. Life is a forest, it is mountains, with trees and leaves and sap and foxes, and coyotes and snakes and bears and the dirt below that leads to the desert, and succulents and lizards and Joshua trees and rams and squirrels — there are always squirrels — and the ocean and beaches and whales and seashells and crabs, and stuff that was once spiky and angry and is now smoothed over from water, and the fog, and miles and miles of open road, and wind and snow and stuff I have not yet seen. And it belongs to us, all of us, not just the people who own the papers with the title but the people like you and me who take from it and turn it and sleep on it. We are in and of it, and my people — we are the best part of it. We are, none of us, on restriction because our mothers did not know how to love us, or our government did not know how to love us. This world is just as much ours as it is the property of the people who stake their flag in it. We are free to love the shit out of it. We are all — you and me — honeybees.
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Melissa Chadburn manages economic justice fellows at Community Change. Her work has appeared in The LA Times, NYT Book Review, NYRB, longreads, and dozens other places. Her debut novel, A Tiny Upward Shove, is forthcoming with Farrar, Straus, & Giroux.
Editor: Sari Botton