Postcard — April 23, 2015, 8:00 am

Driving the San Joaquin Valley

An afternoon with Starbucks customers in the armpit of California.

Sunset in the San Joaquin Valley. Photo by the author.

Sunset in the San Joaquin Valley. Photo by the author.

The nearly three hundred flat miles of Interstate 5 running through California’s San Joaquin Valley are some of the most loathed in America. If travelers stop at all along this section of highway, it’s to visit the Petro stations, Starbucks, Del Tacos, and In-N-Out Burgers that dot the roadside. In the parking lots of these chain stores, drivers lean against their cars and smoke cigarettes, enjoying a moment of sunshine before quickly resuming their trip. Though the San Joaquin Valley, together with the Sacramento Valley, produces a quarter of America’s produce, many Californians refer to the area as “the armpit of California,” dismissing it as a roadside bathroom break, or joking about it being the haunt of rednecks and meth-heads.

“I don’t even know what town I’m in,” said Alex, a thirty-three-year-old Angeleno I met outside a Starbucks on I-5 between the tiny towns of Mettler and Lebec. “I just got out of the car. I’m ready to leave.” Alex chewed gum and leaned against the fence. With her black hair piled on top of her head, she wore black leggings under a long black sweater with a skeleton’s ribs printed on the front. Growing up in Los Angeles, she’d driven this stretch of highway many times but preferred to pass the time sleeping or playing cards.

Built at the center of a vast parking lot between a McDonald’s and a Mobil gas station, the Starbucks had a long line inside and a busy drive-through. When two men pulled up in a dark minivan, I asked if I could talk with them about the area. One of the men, who gave his name as René, was a German-born cameraman driving from Los Angeles to Silicon Valley to shoot a corporate film for Mercedes. He and his traveling companion, who was also a cameraman, drove through the valley a few times a year. René knew it was important as an agricultural region. But, he said, the four-year-long drought in California was a sign that farmers needed to shift gears. “You read stuff on the Internet,” he said, “and I guess it’s true, how much water is needed to raise one pound of chicken meat, or how much water is needed to grow one tomato. Those are scary numbers. I would really think that everybody would blame Los Angeles—and yes, the front lawns, that might be a problem when they water them excessively, but it’s not that bad. What we use on a daily basis, as far as drinking, showering and all that, is nothing compared to what agriculture seems to need, if you really learn about these numbers, man.”

Over 250 crops are grown in the San Joaquin Valley, including almonds, peaches, mandarins, olives, wine grapes, table grapes, raisins, nectarines, plums, pistachios, walnuts, onions, carrots, garlic, wheat, lettuce, and 84 percent of California’s dairy products. Valley agriculture grosses over $25 billion annually. The agriculture industry accounts for about 80 percent of the state’s water usage. Right now, the region is suffering one of the worst droughts in a century. In the past two years, rain and snow were scarce. Reservoirs dried up. Farmers received little to no surface water, so many drilled new wells and irrigated crops with groundwater. Now the water table is dropping and turning salty. Some growers have cut down almond and fruit trees, and others have left fields fallow. This month, the state’s governor, Jerry Brown, issued an executive order reducing water usage by 25 percent across the state.

California is the last western state to allow landowners to drill wells and extract groundwater on their land with few to no restrictions. In response to criticism over the long-term environmental effects, and the state’s rapidly drying wells, the legislature passed a law last year mandating that local agencies limit groundwater extraction by 2040. “At that pace, it will be nearly 30 years before we even know what is working,” wrote Jay Famiglietti, the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s senior water scientist, in a Los Angeles Times op-ed. “By then, there may be no groundwater left to sustain.”

A white wooden fence circled the Starbucks parking lot, as if to counteract the irritation of long drive-through lines with the illusion of the pastoral. In the surrounding flatlands, pumpjacks pulled oil from beneath the soil. But despite the ugly commercial architecture, this area can be beautiful. In the San Emigdio Mountains to the southwest, native oaks spill down ravines, breaking the golden slopes with threads of green. In fall, low clouds coat the mountaintops. In spring, rains turn the hills lush with green grasses, imparting a coastal quality as radiant as anything near Santa Barbara. At sunset any time of year, the sky casts everything a rock-rose pink.

Nearby, a middle-aged couple sat at an outside table, sucking drinks through straws. Don, a retired journalist, and Caroline, a fifty-five year old government worker, were headed home to Oakland after a 2,000-mile road trip that took them through Death Valley, Monument Valley, and Canyon de Chelly. From here, they would drive I-5 north and turn west to Monterey. They didn’t drive the 5 much. “Not if we can help it,” Don said with a laugh. “You want to take 101. 101’s nice.” Don sucked the last of his drink through his straw and licked his lips. “The coast, to me, is more interesting than the valley.”

Around us, blackbirds patrolled the parking lot for scraps. A lone seagull landed on a McDonald’s light pole across the parking lot. An older man in a pearl-button shirt, dark jeans, and brown cowboy boots walked inside talking on his phone. “You’re holdin’ us up,” he said, “be reasonable.” Nearby, a guy told his girlfriend, “OK, four more hours,” as they climbed into a Prius, presumably bound for San Francisco.

Two young men walked across the lot carrying Carl’s Jr. to-go bags, wearing thick black-rimmed glasses, skinny jeans, and T-shirts. They told me they worked in media and were driving home to San Diego from a conference they had attended in Oakland. “It was pretty dusty when we came this way,” one of the men, Steven, said. “Like, super dusty. I have no idea what it was. Seems like they were harvesting a bunch of shit.”

Much of the dust wasn’t from the drought; it was pollution from San Francisco. Coastal winds blow Bay Area smog east, where it gets trapped in the valley, particularly in the southern section, which is surrounded by mountains on three sides. The haze this day had come on the heels of a week of dangerously high levels of ozone and fine particle matter called PM-2.5—a hazardous mix of chemicals, microscopic soot, and assorted debris—that sometimes tasted of metal and smoke. According to the EPA, twelve micrograms of PM-2.5 in the air is a “good” rating. Over seventy-five is considered “unhealthy.” A few days earlier, PM-2.5 concentrations had spiked at 122 micrograms per cubic meter.

I made it to San Francisco the following week. In Alamo Square Park, a twenty-seven-year-old native named Adam, who worked at a startup, was watching the sunset. The sky turned orange, and wind blew across the grassy knoll. Dogs raced by. People sat on benches and blankets and exposed tree roots, watching the sun. “I’ve had this conversation recently with several people,” Adam said, “about what the future of food production looks like. A lot of people are starting companies now to, like, grow food on rooftops and make it way more efficient and that kind of stuff.” He shrugged. “That’s a very Silicon Valley–centric way of looking at things, that, like, technology can solve this problem, maybe. There are definitely some people working on that.”

In San Francisco, hummingbirds sing in the trees. Plants flower year-round in front of colorful Victorians. And if you have enough money, healthy, fresh food is easy to find. At a vegan restaurant, which served me organic ketchup sweetened with agave nectar, someone had carved the word vegan in the top of the toilet bowl. Unlike in the valley, the tap water in San Francisco tastes clean. That’s because it’s been pumped across the San Joaquin Valley from the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir in Yosemite National Park since the 1930s (though recent water conservation measures will now add local groundwater to the mix).

As the sun set, Adam told me he didn’t know much about the San Joaquin Valley. “We make fun of the fact that there’s, like, swastikas and people with guns and stuff and crosses,” he said. I asked where in the valley he saw crosses and swastikas. “On the way down through who-the-fuck-knows,” he said. “The Salinas Valley is more the Steinbeck, like, utopian vision of agriculture in California. I don’t know much about the San Joaquin.”

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October 2018


The Printed Word in Peril·

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In February, at an event at the 92nd Street Y’s Unterberg Poetry Center in New York, while sharing the stage with my fellow British writer Martin Amis and discussing the impact of screen-based reading and bidirectional digital media on the Republic of Letters, I threw this query out to an audience that I estimate was about three hundred strong: “Have any of you been reading anything by Norman Mailer in the past year?” After a while, one hand went up, then another tentatively semi-elevated. Frankly I was surprised it was that many. Of course, there are good reasons why Mailer in particular should suffer posthumous obscurity with such alacrity: his brand of male essentialist braggadocio is arguably extraneous in the age of Trump, Weinstein, and fourth-wave feminism. Moreover, Mailer’s brilliance, such as it was, seemed, even at the time he wrote, to be sparks struck by a steely intellect against the tortuous rocks of a particular age, even though he labored tirelessly to the very end, principally as the booster of his own reputation.

It’s also true that, as J. G. Ballard sagely remarked, for a writer, death is always a career move, and for most of us the move is a demotion, as we’re simultaneously lowered into the grave and our works into the dustbin. But having noted all of the above, it remains the case that Mailer’s death coincided with another far greater extinction: that of the literary milieu in which he’d come to prominence and been sustained for decades. It’s a milieu that I hesitate to identify entirely with what’s understood by the ringing phrase “the Republic of Letters,” even though the overlap between the two was once great indeed; and I cannot be alone in wondering what will remain of the latter once the former, which not long ago seemed so very solid, has melted into air.

What I do feel isolated in—if not entirely alone in—is my determination, as a novelist, essayist, and journalist, not to rage against the dying of literature’s light, although it’s surprising how little of this there is, but merely to examine the great technological discontinuity of our era, as we pivot from the wave to the particle, the fractal to the fungible, and the mechanical to the computable. I first began consciously responding, as a literary practitioner, to the manifold impacts of ­BDDM in the early 2000s—although, being the age I am, I have been feeling its effects throughout my working life—and I first started to write and speak publicly about it around a decade ago. Initially I had the impression I was being heard out, if reluctantly, but as the years have passed, my attempts to limn the shape of this epochal transformation have been met increasingly with outrage, and even abuse, in particular from my fellow writers.

As for my attempts to express the impact of the screen on the page, on the actual pages of literary novels, I now understand that these were altogether irrelevant to the requirement of the age that everything be easier, faster, and slicker in order to compel the attention of screen viewers. It strikes me that we’re now suffering collectively from a “tyranny of the virtual,” since we find ourselves unable to look away from the screens that mediate not just print but, increasingly, reality itself.

Photograph (detail) by Ellen Cantor from her Prior Pleasures series © The artist. Courtesy dnj Gallery, Santa Monica, California
Among Britain’s Anti-Semites·

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This is the story of how the institutions of British Jewry went to war with Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour Party. Corbyn is another feather in the wind of populism and a fragmentation of the old consensus and politesse. He was elected to the leadership by the party membership in 2015, and no one was more surprised than he. Between 1997 and 2010, Corbyn voted against his own party 428 times. He existed as an ideal, a rebuke to the Blairite leadership, and the only wise man on a ship of fools. His schtick is that of a weary, kindly, socialist Father Christmas, dragged from his vegetable patch to create a utopia almost against his will. But in 2015 the ideal became, reluctantly, flesh. Satirists mock him as Jesus Christ, and this is apt. But only just. He courts sainthood, and if you are very cynical you might say that, like Christ, he shows Jews what they should be. He once sat on the floor of a crowded train, though he was offered a first-class seat, possibly as a private act of penance to those who had, at one time or another, had no seat on a train.

When Corbyn became leader of the Labour Party, the British media, who are used to punching socialists, crawled over his record and found much to alarm the tiny Jewish community of 260,000. Corbyn called Hez­bollah “friends” and said Hamas, also his “friends,” were devoted “to long-term peace and social justice.” (He later said he regretted using that language.) He invited the Islamist leader Raed Salah, who has accused Jews of killing Christian children to drink their blood, to Parliament, and opposed his extradition. Corbyn is also a patron of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and a former chair of Stop the War, at whose rallies they chant, “From the river to the sea / Palestine will be free.” (There is no rhyme for what will happen to the Jewish population in this paradise.) He was an early supporter of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement and its global campaign to delegitimize Israel and, through the right of return for Palestinians, end its existence as a Jewish state. (His office now maintains that he does not support BDS. The official Labour Party position is for a two-state solution.) In the most recent general election, only 13 percent of British Jews intended to vote Labour.

Corbyn freed something. The scandals bloomed, swiftly. In 2016 Naz Shah, Labour MP for Bradford West, was suspended from the party for sharing a Facebook post that suggested Israel be relocated to the United States. She apologized publicly, was reinstated, and is now a shadow women and equalities minister. Ken Livingstone, the former mayor of London and a political supporter of Corbyn, appeared on the radio to defend Shah and said, “When Hitler won his election in 1932, his policy then was that Jews should be moved to Israel. He was supporting Zionism before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews.” For this comment, Livingstone was suspended from the party.

A protest against anti-Semitism in the Labour Party in Parliament Square, London, March 26, 2018 (detail) © Yui Mok/PA Images/Getty Images
Nothing but Gifts·

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If necessity is the stern but respectable mother of invention, then perhaps desperation is the derelict father of subterfuge. That was certainly the case when I moved to Seattle in 1979.

Though I’d lived there twice during the previous five years, I wasn’t prepared for the economic boom I found upon this latest arrival. Not only had rent increased sharply in all but the most destitute neighborhoods, landlords now routinely demanded first, last, and a hefty security deposit, which meant I was short by about fifty percent. Over the first week or so, I watched with mounting anxiety as food, gas, and lodging expenses reduced the meager half I did have to a severely deficient third. To make matters even more nerve-racking, I was relocating with my nine-year-old son, Ezra. More than my well-being was at stake.

A veteran of cold, solitary starts in strange cities, I knew our best hope wasn’t the classifieds, and certainly not an agency, but the serendipity of the streets—handmade for rent signs, crowded bulletin boards in laundromats and corner grocery stores, passersby on the sidewalk; I had to exploit every opportunity that might present itself, no matter how oblique or improbable. In Eastlake, at the edge of Lake Union between downtown Seattle and the University District, I spied a shabby but vacant one-story house on the corner of a block that was obviously undergoing transition—overgrown lots and foundation remnants where other houses once stood—and that had at least one permanent feature most right-minded people would find forbidding: an elevated section of Interstate 5 just across the street, attended by the incessant roar of cars and trucks. The house needed a new roof, a couple of coats of paint, and, judging by what Ezra and I could detect during a furtive inspection, major repair work inside, including replacing damaged plaster-and-lath walls with sheetrock. All of this, from my standpoint, meant that I might have found a solution to my dilemma.

The next step was locating the owner, a roundabout process that eventually required a trip to the tax assessor’s office. I called the person listed on the rolls and made an appointment. Then came the moment of truth, or, more precisely, untruth, when dire circumstance begot strategic deception. I’d never renovated so much as a closet, but that didn’t stop me from declaring confidently that I possessed both the skills and the willingness to restore the entire place to a presentable—and, therefore, rentable—state in exchange for being able to live there for free, with the length of stay to be determined as work progressed. To my immense relief, the pretense was well received. Indeed, the owner also seemed relieved, if a bit surprised, that he’d have seemingly trustworthy tenants; homeless people who camped beneath the freeway, he explained, had repeatedly broken into the house and used it for all manner of depravity. Telling myself that inspired charlatanry is superior to mundane trespassing—especially this instance of charlatanry, which would yield some actual good—I accepted the keys from my new landlord.

Photograph (detail) © Larry Towell/Magnum Photos
Checkpoint Nation·

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Laura Sandoval threaded her way through idling taxis and men selling bottles of water toward the entrance of the Cordova International Bridge, which links Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, to El Paso, Texas. Earlier that day, a bright Saturday in December 2012, Sandoval had crossed over to Juárez to console a friend whose wife had recently died. She had brought him a few items he had requested—eye drops, the chimichangas from Allsup’s he liked—and now that her care package had been delivered, she was in a hurry to get back to the Texas side, where she’d left her car. She had a …
Checkpoint on I-35 near Encinal, Texas (detail) © Gabriella Demczuk

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Happiness Is a Worn Gun


Illustration by Stan Fellows

Illustration by Stan Fellows

“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

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