My neighborhood in Eagle Rock is concrete and citrus. Other parts of L.A. have a suburban sheen, manicured and hydrated lawns, rows of politely garish bougainvillea. In my part of town, the plants, like all others, must earn their keep.
These were worker cottages once, these small, close-together houses with short vertical yards. The first sprawl of a city just finding itself in need of room. Between the genteel shade of Pasadena and the track-covered nexus of downtown, these communities formed. There were fields to be worked here then. And yet the workers had their own gardens to tend, coaxing life quickly out from sun-parched soil. The citrus trees, the sweet orange and tart lemons, now rest aging trunks against chainlink fences, push tired roots against concrete sidewalks.
Our own lemon tree it seems is in a robust middle age. It grows next to the house, inhabiting the only concrete-free patch of the backyard. Her heavy limbs rest companionably against the roof, spilling her bounty over into the landlord’s adjacent yard. The branches produce all year long but spring’s rains yield a fat summer crop of baseball-shaped fruit. We harvest as much as we can carry but we can never keep up. At night the fleshy thwack of fruit hitting concrete startles us into awakeness.
The lemons are idiosyncratic, some small, bright yellow, juicy, nearly perfect enough to be a grocer’s choice. Most are mutants, some almost as large as grapefruits with thick segments nearly devoid of juice or flavor. Some are richly fragrant, others so odorless that they seem plastic. I’m reminded again why farmers prune. Plants do their best under duress. The most richly flavored wine often comes from vines struggling to survive in rocky terrain, chilled by fog or blasted by heat. I wonder what our tree could produce if I were willing to hack off a limb or two. Would it be a blessing not to have so much fruit which just rots in the yard, going powdery with mold or drying into small dark balls.
We make lemonade, of course, and iced lemon icebox cookies that taste like another era. Lemon poppyseed bread on weekends and lemon meringue pie at parties. Lemon ginger syrup sits in the refrigerator for weeks until a generous slug of iced vodka reveals its true genius.
We put a basketful out on the street in hopes that it might disappear. Our neighbors are resourceful types who hold yard sales nearly every week but never appear to be moving. The basket they take, the lemons remain. What need would they have for fruit when the sidewalks are lined with trees? A quick reach over a fence can yield an armful of anything and lemons are at times more of an obligation than a delight, always needing sugar or another flavor to be worth anything. The basket however, appears at next week’s yard sale boldly priced at $5.
There are too many. Finally, I bring them to work, a whole paper bag full that sits companionably strapped into the passenger seat during my 40-mile commute across a wide section of Los Angeles to an office park out past the Valley. I arrive early and leave the lemons in the break room with no note. If pressed I will disavow responsibility.
The fruit is gone by noon. I see lemons on nearly every desk, a flash of golden sunshine amid gray cubicles. Their tidy neighborhoods, the ones we are supposed to aspire to inhabit, produce only ornamental things. How quick we are to cut ourselves off from that which gives us life.
The citrus trees in my neighborhood were not planted by the current residents. We will move on, the trees will gradually produce less fruit as they head into their senior years. Someday perhaps only concrete will remain, but for now at least, we have lemons.
Deidre Woollard grew up on Cape Cod and carried on a long distance on and off love affair with Los Angeles since her teen years. She finally committed to the city, eight years ago and never looked back. She worked on a series of now-defunct blogs for AOL including Luxist and Slashfood. She has a Master of Fine Arts from Spalding University and her short fiction has been published in literary magazines and anthologies. She loves Eagle Rock taco trucks, the Iliad bookstore in North Hollywood, and petting every stray cat that crosses her path.