These Are the Neighbors You Always Wanted

On this California block, help and hope are always free of charge.

By Susan Straight from The Sun
Also in Reader's Digest Magazine July 2014

sweetness of orangesGracia Lam for Reader’s Digest

For 25 years, I have lived on this dead-end street, where the bluff drops off into the Santa Ana River floodplain, 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 (all names have been changed to protect people’s privacy) 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 Anthony 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 69 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 30. (He is 68.) 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 lawn has turned to straw, the roses to potpourri on their stems.

Sandra is a seamstress, so I ask her to repair the hem on my favorite dress, which I bought 12 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 her to purchase a uniform with her own money.

The discussion of the economy at the top levels is all about cliffs, 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 24 years ago, and for two decades, he has brought us oranges. 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, and she goes home to her son and her father.

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 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 son and daughter are selling for their school fund-raisers: 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 99-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 25 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 which my ex-husband rescued from the backyard of someone who was losing her house.

We are not underwater. That is a false metaphor. We are treading water while those above us—corporations and even federal and state officials—seem to be heaving paperwork at us or tossing down invective about food stamps (some people on the block had to resort to them briefly, secretly, and 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 $15, 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 that will come up from the river much later and the raccoons and possums that will nose around for the sweet, dimpled peels of citrus on the sidewalks.

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