Author Susan Straight was born in Riverside, California and still lives in Riverside. For her, residents’ citrus trees and commeraderie are the ties that bound people in Los Angeles Metropolitan Area’s massive interior, and they’re what can sustain them through future hard times.
For Riverside native and author Susan Straight, citrus and camaraderie were once the ties that bound people in the part of southern California called the Inland Empire. This area includes the many cities east of greater Los Angeles, and west of Palm Springs, in Riverside and San Bernardino counties. New arrivals used to plant lemons, tangerines, and oranges in their yards, as well as figs, persimmons, avocados, and loquats, and they shared their bounty with friends and neighbors. For California’s public broadcasting service KCET, Straight writes an evocative essay that mixes regional history with personal history, and celebrates the way these imported fruits have shaped the social fabric and local economy. She has an 80 year old apricot tree growing on her property. Even though this arid region isn’t known for its timber, Straight calls its planted gardens “non-native woods” and sees them as paradise, because they helped provide many people what was truly a piece of the good life. “The groves are nearly gone now,” Straight writes, “housing tracts named for what they’ve erased.” But locals don’t give up these traditions.
Eliza Tibbets started the first two seedling navel orange trees. A statue of her was recently unveiled in downtown Riverside, and it seems a fitting time to remind ourselves of the woman who transformed California’s landscape, not just with daring but with generosity. (I still drive past the Parent Navel Orange Trees, at the corner of Arlington and Magnolia Avenues, every week.)
She was married three times, an abolitionist (her third husband, Mr. Tibbets, campaigned as a “Radical Republican” who tried integration in Virginia), a suffragist who tried to vote in 1871, a spiritualist who led séances in Riverside when she got here. But in 1873, she sent to Washington’s new Bureau of Agriculture for the first two seedling trees of a new variety of seedless oranges from Bahia, Brazil, and planted them in her yard in Riverside. She kept them alive with dishwater, shared the fruit and more cuttings, and changed the economy and the very look of Southern California. (Neither she, born in Cincinnati, or the seedlings, were natives.)
By 1886, entire towns like Rialto, Bloomington, Corona and Redlands were laid out around groves of Washington navel orange trees. Packing houses for Sunkist Growers and other cooperatives were built, the Santa Fe Railroad took boxcars full of fruit all over the nation, and oranges were shipped around the world. By 1895, Riverside had the highest per capita income in America, thanks to the citrus industry.
The faces of Southern California changed with citrus, too. Chinese laborers, Italians and Mexicans and Japanese and African-American southerners, Dust Bowl refugees from Oklahoma and Texas and Colorado — all picked and packed and trucked oranges. I grew up with their kids.
Morgan Jerkins | Longreads | September 2019 | 10 minutes (2,662 words)
Despite the recurring cycle of conversations on topics such as the need for fully-funded MFA programs, the financial challenges of sustaining oneself as a writer, and the lack of diversity in all levels of media, the issue of whiteness in publishing — and the privileges that come with being white in publishing — continues to justify our scrutiny. We are aware that white people hold much of the power in the literary world, but how do we assess this fact critically, understanding that whiteness is not just a factor in the economics of writing, but in the writing itself? Novelist Jess Row investigates this question in his latest book, White Flights: Race, Fiction, and the American Imagination. In his own words, “American culture has evolved a theory of the white psyche that rarely, if ever, considers racism as a direct or even proximate cause of its disorder and distress.” Read more…
To my daughters:
They never tell us about the odysseys of women. They never say about a woman: “Her passage was worthy of Homer . . . her voyage a mythic quest for new lands.” Women don’t get the Heroine’s Journey.
Men are accorded the road and the sea and the asphalt. The monsters and battles and the murders. Men get The Iliad and The Odyssey. They get Joseph Campbell. They get The Thousand Faces of the Hero. They get “the epic novel,” “the great American story,” and Ken Burns documentaries.
Brendan Fitzgerald | Longreads | March 2020 | 47 minutes (12,973 words)
I had seen Paul Curreri a few times around Charlottesville — pushing a cart around the local Wegmans grocery, drinking seltzer at the brewery, holding his young daughter and wearing a brace on one hand — before I worked up the nerve to write to him.
“I’m not sure if you know I’ve been fairly sidelined for the past five years via hand and vocal problems,” he wrote back. “I shouldn’t necessarily assume you know that. Perhaps you just thought I’ve been lazy as shit.” I told him I didn’t want much of his time; I had kids of my own now, too. “Truly,” he wrote back, “there is always time.”
Over a decade, Curreri had released a body of music that should have made him one of America’s most esteemed songwriters. “Paul Curreri gives what few songwriters can,” Matt Dellinger wrote in The New Yorker in 2002. “It hits you soon and hard that you’re hearing something exquisite.” His first albums, built on country blues foundations, shook with dexterous picking and a voice that keened and yipped and roared. A few early songs functioned like artist statements, little revelations of ethos bound up in the tension between the limits of Curreri’s body and the demands of his music. “If your work is shouting, deep-breasted, from sun-up to sundown, take care,” he sang on 2003’s Songs for Devon Sproule, named for the musician he’d marry a few years later. “In time, a shouter you’ll become.”
For years, Curreri’s work had shouted, and so he became a shouter of singular beauty. Then, he went quiet — slowly, at first, then all of a sudden.
Jennifer Block | March 2020 | 32 minutes (8,025 words)
Elizabeth Catlin had just stepped out of the shower when she heard banging on the door. It was around 10 a.m. on a chilly November Wednesday in Penn Yan, New York, about an hour southeast of Rochester. She asked her youngest child, Keziah, age 9, to answer while she threw on jeans and a sweatshirt. “There’s a man at the door,” Keziah told her mom.
“He said, ‘I’d like to question you,” Caitlin tells me. A woman also stood near the steps leading up to her front door; neither were in uniform. “I said, ‘About what?’” The man flashed a badge, but she wasn’t sure who he was. “He said, ‘About you pretending to be a midwife.’”
Catlin, a home-birth midwife, was open about her increasingly busy practice. She’d send birth announcements for her Mennonite clientele to the local paper. When she was pulled over for speeding, she’d tell the cop she was on her way to a birth. “I’ve babysat half of the state troopers,” she says.
It was 30 degrees. Catlin, 53, was barefoot. Her hair was wet. “Can I get my coat?” she asked. No. Boots? She wasn’t allowed to go back inside. Her older daughter shoved an old pair of boots, two sizes too big, through the doorway; Catlin stepped into them and followed the officer and woman to the car. At the state trooper barracks, she sat on a bench with one arm chained to the wall. There were fingerprints, mug shots, a state-issue uniform, lock-up. At 7:30 p.m. she was finally arraigned in a hearing room next to the jail, her wrists and ankles in chains, on the charge of practicing midwifery without a license. Local news quoted a joint investigation by state police and the Office of Professional Discipline that Catlin had been “posing as a midwife” and “exploiting pregnant women within the Mennonite community, in and around the Penn Yan area.”
Catlin’s apparent connection with a local OB-GYN practice, through which she had opened a lab account, would prompt a second arrest in December, the Friday before Christmas, and more felony charges: identity theft, falsifying business records, and second-degree criminal possession of a forged instrument. That time, she spent the night in jail watching the Hallmark Channel. When she walked into the hearing room at 8:00 a.m., again in chains, she was met by dozens of women in grey-and-blue dresses and white bonnets. The judge set bail at $15,000 (the state had asked for $30,000). Her supporters had it: Word of her arrest had quickly passed through the tech-free community, and in 12 hours they had collected nearly $8,000 for bail; Catlin’s mother made up the difference. She was free to go, but not free to be a midwife.
Several years back, a respected senior midwife faced felony charges in Indiana, and the county prosecutor allowed that although a baby she’d recently delivered had not survived, she had done nothing medically wrong — but she needed state approval for her work. The case, the New York Times wrote, “was not unlike one against a trucker caught driving without a license.” As prosecutor R. Kent Apsley told the paper, “He may be doing an awfully fine job of driving his truck. But the state requires him to go through training, have his license and be subject to review.”
But what if the state won’t recognize the training or grant a license?
Catlin is a skilled, respected, credentialed midwife. She serves a rural, underserved, uninsured population. She’s everything the state would want in a care provider. But owing to a decades-old political fight over who can be licensed as a midwife, she’s breaking the law. Read more…
Mark Obbie | Longreads | March 2020 | 45 minutes (12,427 words)
The three young men sauntering down a city sidewalk showed no signs of alarm as a thin man in a dark hoodie hopped out of the passenger side of a gold Honda minivan. They did not flinch as the man rushed toward them on foot while the van, its windows heavily tinted, continued on past.
This neighborhood on the northeast side of Rochester, New York, has ranked among one of the poorest and most violent in the United States. But it was the trio’s home. A year earlier, one of them, Lawrence Richardson, had been jumped and knifed nearby after exchanging insults with a group of guys he didn’t know. He hadn’t looked for that trouble, and the same was true today. Richardson and Cliff Gardner, his coworker at KFC, had spent the afternoon preparing to look for better jobs. On the city’s southwest side, they stopped at the Center for Teen Empowerment, a nonprofit where Richardson had worked for a year on anti-violence and community-improvement projects, and where he still volunteered now and then. After encouraging Cliff to create a résumé, Richardson suggested they catch a bus to the northeast side, where Richardson had grown up. He wanted to introduce Cliff to Kenny Mitchell, his best friend and fellow Teen Empowerment youth organizer.
The three hung out at Mitchell’s second-story apartment, then walked to a corner store for some snacks. They were just returning to Kenny’s when they encountered the van and its passenger.
Moments later, three calls hit 911 operators in quick succession. Callers described a chaotic scene with two bodies crumpled on the ground while a third, trailing blood up the stairs to Mitchell’s apartment, lay at the feet of his panicked father.
Susan Shapiro | Longreads | February 2020 | 28 minutes (7,036 words)
Rushing to see him that Friday evening in August, I turned the corner and was shocked to catch Haley leaving his brownstone. What the hell was she doing here? I prayed my eyes were wrong and it was another tall redhead, not my favorite student. Inching closer, I saw it definitely was her — in skinny jeans, heels and a pink blouse, her unmistakable auburn hair flapping down her back as she flounced away. I froze, so crushed I couldn’t breathe.
Darting inside, I shrieked, “I just saw Haley walk out of here. You lied to me!”
“I never lied to you,” he insisted, quickly closing his door.
“Don’t tell me you’re sleeping with her?”
“Of course not.” He looked horrified.
He wasn’t my lover, cheating with a younger woman. He was the long-term therapist who’d saved me from decades of drugs, alcohol, and self-destruction. I couldn’t believe that right before our session, Dr. Winters had met with my protégée, whom I’d loved like a daughter. For the past three years, she’d sat in my classroom, living room, beside me at literary events, and speed walking around the park. She was the only person I’d ever asked him not to see, and vice versa. I felt betrayed from both sides.
Earlier that day, Haley had emailed to see if I’d recommend my gynecologist, housekeeper and literary agency. “Want my husband too?” I’d joked. In the spring, when I’d first sensed she was ransacking my address book and life, I’d asked Dr. Winters about the eerie All About Eve aura.
“She sounds nuts,” he’d said.
“That’s your clinical assessment?” I asked, adding “Don’t be flippant. She’s important to me.”
He’d sworn he wouldn’t treat her, laughing off my paranoia.
Now I could barely speak as I realized she’d broken her vow. And he’d let her in, giving her the slot directly before mine, then ran late, as if he wanted me to catch her. Perched at the edge of his leather couch, I imagined Haley sitting right where I was, leaning on the embroidered cushions, spilling secrets she’d previously shared only with me to my confidante. His plush work space morphed from my safest haven for 15 years into the creepy crawly Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.
“Then why was she here?” I couldn’t process her so out of context.
“That woman is not my patient,” he insisted.
His technical wordplay sounded like Bill denying Monica. I craved a drink, joint, and cigarette.
Nicole Walker | Longreads | January 2020 | 21 minutes (5,273 words)
Life will break you. Nobody can protect you from that, and living alone won’t either, for solitude will also break you with its yearning. You have to love. You have to feel. It is the reason you are here on earth. You are here to risk your heart. You are here to be swallowed up. And when it happens that you are broken, or betrayed, or left, or hurt, or death brushes near, let yourself sit by an apple tree and listen to the apples falling all around you in heaps, wasting their sweetness. Tell yourself you tasted as many as you could. — Louise Erdrich
Like white settlers did in the 1800s, the trees are moving west. Unlike the pioneers/white settlers, they’re not going very fast. About 10 miles a decade. It will take a long time for the trees to decimate buffalo populations, turn prairie into wheat, kill indigenous populations, and establish Walmart as the largest employer. Still. They’re coming. Thirsty, trees of the east move westward, as, due to climate change, the rain in the east is drying up. Fortunately, rains in the Midwest grow heavier. The trees, tempted by this, send their seeds a little further to the left. It’s mainly broadleaf, deciduous plants like the Scarlet Oak that want to move. Beware Gambel Oak, you scrubbier version. The big trees are coming for your rain.
Salt Lake City had once been the home of the Ute People. Utah gets its name from the Utes, but no one really talks about them. They had escaped white settling for longer than other Native Americans — mainly because of the time it took to bring first trees, then backhoes, then politics to the Salt Lake Valley.
In the 1600s, they were among the first to procure horses from the Spanish and they traded with Hispanic settlers, but remained unmolested until 1847 when the Mormons arrived. Before that, the Utes and some bands of Shoshone people had lived among the rivers and the lakes, catching fish and organizing plants alongside the banks. The rivers were everyone’s and no one had fences, but then the Mormons came and, although the Mormons didn’t kill the Utes straightaway, they pushed the Utes toward the Uintah Basin where there are few rivers and few fish. After moving Utes to a reservation and then taking that reservation back, they forced them into allotments where, even with irrigation, the ground was too salty and sandy to be of much agricultural use. The Mormons shrugged their shoulders and went back to plan their Days of ’47 Parade. The Ute children were sent to Indian Boarding Schools like Albuquerque High, from where half of them never returned home. Move out, the white settlers said as they pulled lines from the Book of Mormon to claim this as their one true home, where God himself told them to come in, make yourself comfortable.