For twenty-five years I have lived on this dead-end street, where the bluff drops off into the Santa Ana River flood plain, where garages have been turned into mother-in-law flats or apartments for recent immigrants. A few of my neighbors have been here even longer, but we lost three of them during the Great Recession that everyone thinks is over now. Diane lost her job at a heating-and-air-conditioning company and then lost her house; Anthony’s wife left him for someone else, and then he lost his house; and Rick took his family to central California, because he lost the business he’d been running in his garage making tire-pressure gauges.
Lemons are sixty-nine cents each at the grocery store, and my daughter needs ten of them for a recipe, but we put them back. All ten.
We go over to Sandra’s house, where her Meyer-lemon tree is loaded with the sweetest, thin-skinned fruit, better than the store’s anyway. Sandra’s husband has decided to leave her and their autistic son to pursue his new love, who is thirty. (He is sixty-eight.) Sandra’s house is “underwater,” a term no one had ever heard of until this new Dust Bowl of mortgage fraud. Sandra’s husband went for one of those aggressive home loans from a company that’s being sued by the federal government. But the suing won’t help Sandra. When we hear news of “settlements” that happen years after someone has lost a house, we often talk about who gets the money, now that the sprinklers have been turned off and the lawn has turned to straw and the roses to potpourri on their stems.
Since Sandra is a seamstress, I ask her to repair the hem on my favorite dress, which I bought twelve years ago. We pick a bag of lemons, and then, while we talk at the curb, my daughter takes the fruit inside our house. A van pulls up — it’s our neighbor Julia from down the street. She was laid off from her last job, then hired as a waitress at a new restaurant that will open in two months. Two months is a long time with no income, especially when her employer required she purchase a uniform with her own money, which she had to borrow.
The national discussion of the economy, at the top levels, is all about cliffs and ceilings, sequesters and bargaining chips. At the level of curb and neighbor and fence, it is about chicken-noodle soup and beef ravioli, which I know are on sale — less than a dollar per can.
On my porch are eight bags of the best navel oranges in my city here in southern California, just picked by Mr. Gordon from his own trees a few blocks away. His son was my student at the local college twenty-four years ago, and for two decades he has brought my family oranges during this month. The smell fills the air near my front door. I divide them every year among family and friends — that’s why he brings them. I hand one bag to Julia through the van window because the door is broken, and she goes home to her young son and her father. She’s six months behind on her rent, and her ex-husband hasn’t brought her child support yet this month.
It is January, and there’s snow on the ground in many other places, but my house is full of bounty. This is why my mother’s family moved to this region from Switzerland, and my stepfather’s parents from Canada: the promise of fruit on the trees even while the mountains are dusted in white, the sun not punishing, as it is in August, but gentle and nourishing.
In my kitchen are huge avocados picked by Karla, who lives nearby. Her daughter brings me a bag every week. Since her third husband left, Karla is barely making her rent payments. She is a surgical technician, hired part time by local hospitals when they need her; she is also a surrogate mother, for the third time, carrying a pregnancy for a wealthy couple, and that employment is beyond full time. I bring her a bag of oranges, and eggs from my chickens, and I always buy whatever her daughter and son are selling for school fundraisers — candles and candy and raffle tickets. (She has five children and three grandchildren.)
I have tangerines from my best friend, who lives a few blocks away. She is a widow and, like me, has three kids. We met when her husband was ill with cancer and my husband had his midlife crisis and moved out, and I began to cook dinner for us both.
And then my ex-husband stops by for his bag of oranges, but he also drops off a box of tea and a carton of half-and-half he got at the ninety-nine-cent store. I am wearing a cashmere sweater handed down by my daughter’s best friend’s mother — she gave me four sweaters in the fall.
This is how it works when times are hard, and even when times are better, if we’re lucky. We women stand on the sidewalk and rest our backs against fences and lean into open car windows to see who needs what. In my twenty-five years living on this block, there have been recessions before, but this one has lasted the longest.
So all week my daughter and I have eaten avocados that slice like butter, and scrambled eggs from our chickens, three of whom my ex-husband rescued from the backyard of someone who was losing her house and who couldn’t feed them anymore.
We are not underwater. That is a false metaphor. We are treading water while those above us — corporations and big business, and even our own federal and state officials — seem to be heaving bags of paperwork at us, or tossing down invective about food stamps (some people on the block had to resort to them briefly, secretly, and then told me they were relieved to stop) and health benefits (Sandra’s autistic son’s assistance for dental work, glasses, and in-home care has been slashed).
We have tea and oranges and tangerines, which we can only hope is enough for now. We have each other, which is what people had in the 1930s and during the other recessions. I have a beautiful gray cashmere sweater on my shoulders. Lemons in the old juicer on the counter. I have saved so much during my life on this street. Today, I figure, Sandra saved me at least fifteen dollars, with the lemons and my dress hem. At dusk, I head to the store and get ten cans of chicken-noodle soup, ten cans of beef ravioli, and five frozen pizzas, all on sale — because that’s what a boy down the block likes to eat. And then I sit on my own front porch, waiting for the coyotes who will come up from the river much later, and the raccoons and possums who will nose around for the sweet, dimpled peels of citrus on the sidewalks.