placeA boy growing up in the Great Central Valley didn’t hold much in the way of bragging rights. I don’t remember anyone ever calling our flatland ‘‘the Great’’ when I was a kid or thinking that we were part of some vast, shared landscape. No fine books in praise of the valley existed back then, at least not on our shelves. As for William Saroyan, he spent a whole damn novel calling my Fresno ‘‘Ithaca.’’ Overcome with a kind of booster’s pride, I sometimes felt the need to prove myself and our place. This impulse was never more keen to me than when Jean-Simon and his family would come up and over the mountain from their home in that other valley, the San Fernando.

They were French Armenians who knew my mother’s clan back in Marseilles, and their summer visits were marked by the father, Michael, in his pajamas and slippers, cooking rabbit and wine stew in our kitchen and by the big city weariness of little Jean-Simon. Growing up in L.A., he had seen and done it all. Disneyland was a big yawn. Koufax and Drysdale old hat. The Santa Monica beach was so much sand.

Nothing about my valley held any wonder for him. Every toy I brought out from the closet—skates, skateboards, a slip ’n’ slide, clackers—was something he had discovered and discarded two years before. He seemed to burn through life at triple our small town speed, and the divide between us only grew wider, and more ugly, with each year. One summer, I reached into the toy closet and brought out a pair of boxing gloves. ‘‘Ever seen these, Jean-Simon?’’ It was supposed to be a two-fight event, but my little brother got carried away in the preliminary bout. Jean-Simon’s cousin was knocked down silly in a corner of the closet when our parents rushed in. Jean Simon and I never got to duke it out. The very next summer, our friends from L.A. began making the three-hour trek up the scorching valley without their boys.

What could I have told him anyway about the place that my grandfathers had chosen after a life of genocide and exile more than 80 years ago. That we had tamed every river busting out of the Sierra and created a farm belt out of desert and marsh, agriculture at a speed and variety never before seen in civilization? It may have been a miracle, 250 crops in all, breadbasket and salad bowl and fruit bowl and creamery rolled into one, but we Araxes no longer had anything to do with it. My father’s father had sold his last vineyard in the 1950s and went into the grocery business. My father, one of the first students to major in grape growing at Fresno State, owned a bar.

Yes, almond and peach trees blossomed white and pink in our backyard, but they were suburban almond and peach trees, badly pruned and bearing meager fruits. I had no dirt under my fingernails, at least no honest farm dirt. What rolled out from mountain to mountain, 7 million acres of lush farms from Bakersfield to Redding, began just 20 minutes in either direction from our house. ‘‘The country,’’ my mother would chant, as if it were some elixir. ‘‘Let’s take a drive out in the country.’’ Out in the country was a life apart from the one we had in the suburbs, and it might as well have been a sea away, so few times we touched it.

How to capture the Central Valley’s refusal to be pinned down, its insistence on being many places at once, each with its own capacity to inspire awe or contempt?

There was a vastness I could never quite grasp as a child. I felt it in the wind at night, smelled the grapes turning to wine in Gallo’s big tanks, but the valley always eluded me in the end. My father kept a knife in the drawer that looked different than every other knife and when I asked him what it was for, he simply said, ‘‘Girdling grapes.’’ Why he kept it there, what girdling even meant, were questions that didn’t occur to me for another 20 years.

Maybe all kids are stupid to their place, but the bigness of valley agriculture only compounded the mystery and added to the distance that separated us from the farm. It seemed that we were neither urban nor rural but some fraudulent variant of the two. Fresno, like every other city along Highway 99, wasn’t so much a farm community as it was a community amid farms. What we glimpsed on our way to Disneyland or Candlestick Park wasn’t the prettified vineyards of Napa or the gentle wheat fields of the Midwest. The valley had its own rusty, gnarled, corrugated, fermented beauty. Likewise, our farmers didn’t live on the land and cultivate 40- and 80-acre homesteads like the farmers of nearby Reedley or Selma. Our farmers called themselves ‘‘growers,’’ and they lived in the suburbs and drove 45-minutes each day to their fields.

I remember feeling a spiritual distance between city and farm—so close and yet so far. Was my valley a beautiful place, an ugly place, a place where the soil was dead or never more alive, where the spirit became annealed or reborn, where the economics of industrial agriculture penciled out for a few or for many?

Sooner or later, any writer attempting to tell the story of the Central Valley must account for the gravity of its landscape. I’ve spent half my days second-guessing the brushstrokes I’ve used to show this place to the outsider who has only my words as eyes, or to the native whose eyes have failed him. My own eyes still play tricks on me.

I recall a time in the early 1970s when my father grew disillusioned with suburbia. He turned his bar into a nightclub and brought in Chuck Berry and other big acts from the city. Early one morning, I was awakened by the sound of shovels and hoes working the soil outside my bedroom window. If my father couldn’t return to the farm, he was determined to bring a little farm to North Lafayette Street. He and Grandpa had trucked in dirt from the river and cleared a quarter of the back yard. The three of us spent the day planting tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, cucumbers, watermelons, cantaloupes and squash.
Maybe because the soil was virgin or maybe because I followed so intently my Grandpa’s instructions—‘‘Irrigation is art. Not so much, not so little’’—but you should have seen that garden. From July to December, I picked baskets of red and green and purple vegetables and washed and polished each one. Grandpa said he had never seen such a bounty. Next year would be even better, he promised. Then the first frost came and the green leaves withered and my father went to work one Sunday night and was shot and killed by two men. The police called it a hit but the men were never identified, and the murder was never solved. I left Fresno for the big city.

A decade ago, I returned with my family and moved into a house not far from the old house and planted a garden with the hoe my grandfather had left me. The town has changed, and the fig orchards where I rode my mini bike and gigged frogs are now housing tracts and strip malls. As another orchard gets plowed under, I plant another apricot or persimmon tree or take out another strip of grass to add one more row of vegetables. My garden is now ample and year-round, and the dirt under my nails is honest farm dirt. The country is right outside my window.

The Place star The Last Valley star The Boy Runners of McFarland star The Ghost of Tulare Lake star The Great Ponzi Scheme of Sprawl

Highlands of Humboldt star Legend of Zankou star Stewart Resnick: The Reluctant Farmer

lastvalleyThe Last Valley

All roads that lead to California are long roads. They are journeys, migrations, myths. My grandfather’s road in the spring of 1920 covered 7,000 miles by ship and train. There was no turning back. Everything he encountered in the new world seemed so farfetched. The Statue of Liberty, the nation’s capital, the budding factories of Detroit. Not until the tracks reached the middle of California and crossed over the San Joaquin River did America come true. Outside his window, beneath the snowy caps of the Sierra, vineyards and orchards and vegetable fields, row after perfect row, shimmered in the late afternoon sun. As the train chugged into Fresno, he kept muttering the same words in Armenian. “Just like the old land.”

The old land was a lazy village beneath the mountain of mist in Bursa, Turkey. For centuries, his people had fished the waters of the Sea of Marmara and harvested the silk from the mulberry trees, and then one day in 1915 they were gone. More than one million Armenians had been killed by the Ottoman Turks in the 20th century’s first genocide. My grandfather hid in an attic in Istanbul, outlasting the death marches and mass executions by reading the poems of Baudelaire and the short stories of Maupassant. When the massacres were over, he came down from his nest to announce a bold plan to his widowed mother. He would attend the Sorbonne University, study French literature and become a writer. And so he began to write poems in the pen name of Arax, the mother river of Armenia, and caught the eye of a railroad magnate who was willing to pay his tuition and board. That’s when the letters from his uncle Ervant in Fresno, California arrived. “Watermelons as big as small boats. Grapes that hang like jade eggs.” My grandfather was 19 when he took the bait.

This is how it came to be that my father, Ara, was born on a raisin vineyard along Highway 99 and when I was eight years old, he bought a bar along Highway 99 where one Sunday evening in 1972 he was shot dead. This is how it came to be that more than thirty years later I live and write in an old fig orchard almost a perfect equidistance from that farm and bar, so that the sound that puts me to sleep at night is the train that rides the tracks along Highway 99 that brought my grandfather to this spot eighty-six years ago.

He might have been forgiven for assuming the best when Uncle Ervant drove up to the depot that day in a gleaming Model T Ford. For three days, he let my grandfather believe that all was sweet in this land of pomegranate and peach. Then on the fourth day, they headed 140 miles south on a country road and stepped off in a place called Weed Patch. There, long before the Okies and Steinbeck arrived, my grandfather did what all young poets do when they land here. He dug his knees into the ground and started picking. Up and down the valley he trailed the harvest. Potatoes, watermelons, peaches, grapes, oranges and olives. It took him four seasons working alongside his mother, sister and brother to go from fruit tramp to farmer.

My grandfather loved the idea of farming. Tilling, irrigating, harvesting, pruning--he came to each one as a romantic. But a farmer he was not, at least not the kind who could feed three children and cover his losses at the pinochle table. That poets made poor farmers should have been clear to him early on. Yet he kept growing crops again and again in the 1930s, 40s and 50s. Vine hoppers devoured one raisin harvest. Mildew ate another. If the weather was good and the pests light, his own sloth would do him in. Relatives had a one-word explanation for his failure: Politics. He was too busy reading the New Masses, the Marxist monthly, when he should have been walking the rows.

Every family lugs around a story of lost gold. That last farm along the San Joaquin River became ours. A patient man would have found a way to keep it, Grandma said. A patient man would have been around to see it subdivided into big fancy houses. By the time I was growing up, the only vineyard in the family was the one in a painting that hung from our adobe fireplace. My grandparents had moved into a house in the center of Fresno, where their distance from the farm was made plain everyday. Right outside the front door, a huge irrigation canal sliced through the neighborhood and shot Sierra snowmelt to faraway fields. I’d watch my grandfather light his pipe and walk the canal bank in the dead heat of afternoon. Sometimes he’d disappear on the other side of the oleanders and not come back for an hour. He believed until the day he died that the end of our farming life, this severing from the soil, is what led to my father’s murder.

Grandpa got even by planting vegetables in every nook and cranny in his backyard. He belonged to a legion of failed Armenian, Italian, Japanese, Swede, Slav, Volga German, Mexican and Okie farmers who were making last stands in suburbia. I was the oldest grandchild and on weekends he’d take me to visit one or another of his old country friends. Walking into their houses felt like walking into a vault. The mothballed air was hard to breathe, and the crushed velvet couches lined with doilies were too perfect to sit on. Gnarled Armenian men in slippers would bend down and look me in the eye but instead of taking my hand for a shake, they’d grab my ear and pull. For the unbearable pain of nearly getting it yanked off my head, they’d reach into their pockets and hand me a nickel or dime or quarter, depending on whether they came from Van or Bitlis or Moosh. They’d ask me who I loved better, my mother or my father, a riddle I took to mean that life itself was made up of impossible choices. Then we’d have to go in their backyards and marvel at the size of their Ace tomatoes or stare in wonder at the deep purple of their Black Beauty eggplants. After a cup of Turkish coffee, Grandpa would say goodbye and we’d climb back in the car. “Can you believe the state of that garden?” he’d ask me. “He thinks water can make up for every sin. What the esh (jackass) needs is a good hoe to break up the soil. When the soil breathes, the plants breathe.”

It was the land that brought them here. And it is the land that brings them still. Hmong, Mexicans, Sikhs. The valley sun is the Punjab sun.

The San Joaquin Valley (27,000 square miles from Bakersfield to Stockton) is a singular place in the American landscape. No other farm belt in the world produces such a variety of crops—more than 250 fruits, vegetables, grains, milk, fiber—in such staggering amounts. Each year, we bake more than 265,000 tons of raisins and pick more than 4 million tons of table grapes. From the orchards come 1.5 million tons of apricots, plums, nectarines and peaches and 614,000 tons of almonds, walnuts and pistachios. From the fields of row crops come 400,000 tons of cantaloupes, 515,000 tons of onions and six million tons of tomatoes. From the dairies we pull an astonishing 12 billion pounds of milk and cream. We have built something that no other tribe has built. This place is not replaceable.

Some of us may be tempted to read God’s intentions in this bounty. It is true that no other valley combines this valley’s size and flatness, a climate that presents almost no danger from frost and a sun whose fierceness bears down only when the vineyards and orchards need ripening, so that it takes just three weeks of late summer to blister a Thompson grape into a Sun Maid raisin. Yet it is also true that a valley that was one year desert and the next year marsh needed the considerable taming of Man.

Back in Yokut time, if winter hit the Sierra hard, the rivers swelled with snowmelt, and the valley became one great wetland in spring. Wet enough that it was possible to take a boat and navigate from present-day Bakersfield to the San Francisco Bay, hopping nothing but lakes and river. At its height, Tulare Lake, sitting at the confluence of the Kings, Tule, Kaweah and Kern rivers, stretched some 800 square miles. All the way through the mid 1800s, it existed as the most dominant feature on the California map, big enough to sustain four separate Yokut tribes. Yet in dry years, this same stretch yielded to a desert so forbidding that the Spanish could not conquer it. Their horses fell knee deep in the catacombs of gophers. No mission would ever come here.
For the early boomer, the trick then was to even out those wet and dry years, to capture the snowmelt and carve out an existence between drought and flood. My grandfather arrived amid what was arguably the greatest transformation of any valley in history. In thirty short years, we bridled every Sierra river and created the largest irrigation project the world has ever known. Billions of dollars in taxpayer money dammed the rivers, sucked dry the lakes and erected a lattice of canals, dikes and levees. Few rivers were tapped like the Kings. Today, it irrigates more farmland than any other river in the world except for the Nile and the Indus—more than one million acres of vineyards, orchards and cotton fields. Tulare Lake, a land of 10 million geese, is no more.


For all its bounty, the Great Central Valley doesn’t offer a kid much in the way of bragging rights. When I was growing up, I don’t remember anyone ever calling our flatland  “the Great” or thinking that we were part of some vast, shared landscape. No fine books in praise of the valley existed back then, at least not on our shelves. As for writer William Saroyan, our favorite son, he spent a whole damn novel calling Fresno ‘‘Ithaca.’’

Saroyan, as it happened, was a friend of the family, and as I began to show an interest in writing, Grandpa would take me to his house for chats. His garden, unlike the other Armenian gardens, was a waist high thicket of dandelion and mint. No doily adorned the couch in the living room where an old Royal typewriter sat high on a draftsman’s table. It was there, surrounded by the rocks and shards of glass and twine that Saroyan collected on his bicycle rides through town, that I learned that every writer, at least every writer in the West, must eventually confront a deep ambivalence about the place that nurtured him.

The writer does this one of two ways. He leaves and writes about his place from afar, hoping the distance gives him not only perspective but a rein on his anger and a check on his heart. Or he stays and tries to work it out from within, the past and the present knocking heads and confusing his feelings. Saroyan believed he could have it two ways, living half the year in Paris and half in Fresno, and writing about each as home. I have chosen the latter, digging my heels into native ground, and it can be a messy proposition, too much heat and too much passion. I’m still here, though, trying to get it right, trying to put my finger on this valley. And what an odd, paradoxical place it is.

Where else in America can you take a 20-minute drive and go from white suburbia with its brand new schools, football stadiums, 8,000-square foot houses and giant evangelical Christian compounds to the inner city with its gangs and drug-infested neighborhoods to the dead silence of a vineyard in winter’s hibernation?  No region produces more meth and more milk than this valley. If you want to look at the burgeoning political power of the exurbs, come here. If you want to examine the enduring poverty of rural America, come here. If you want to see more IV drug use and concentrated urban poverty than in any other city in the nation (New Orleans is #2) come to Fresno’s inner city. 

And then there is the paradox at the core of our existence.

When I pull out the annual reports from the local farm bureaus, it appears as if nothing has changed. There’s Fresno, the number one agricultural producing county in the nation, and Tulare, number two, and Kern, number four. How then to explain that the grape fields are no longer our future? That the grandchildren and great grandchildren of the raisin farmer now wait for a knock on the door from the land man telling them their acres are ready for a new planting—houses by Kaufman & Broad and Centex and Lennar? The farm bureau might as well be called “the development bureau in waiting.” Over the past few years, the bureau president in Fresno alone has sold more than $40 million worth of orchards and vineyards for tract houses. For the act of razing his farm, the local chamber of commerce named him “Agriculturalist of the Year for 2006.”

Whether this honoring of our biggest sell out reflects some deep-seated hostility about what and who we are, a collective shame about being clodhoppers in the eyes of the outside world, or is simply a cockamamie way of congratulating one farmer who had been living on the brink of financial ruin, I cannot say. It is one of the questions that keep me here, trying to understand our mad dash toward a new identity. What happened from one generation to the next? I wonder. Did farming fail? Did the dream of farming fail? Was its bottom line too brutal to survive?

Searching for context, I head to the library and pull out the old stories from the Los Angeles Times. I am not surprised to find that they read almost word for word like the stories I read in my local newspaper today. The same cries of concern, the same endless calls for studies, the same justifications and hand wringing. The valley, I calculate, is standing right where Los Angeles stood in 1956. Back then, Los Angeles County produced more farm goods than any other county in the nation. A decade later, it didn’t even rank in the top ten. A decade after that, all but a few boutique farms had been paved over.

Admittedly, the comparison to Los Angeles is not a perfect one. Los Angeles had Hollywood and a Pacific Ocean to draw its dreamers. The San Joaquin Valley is a tougher sell. And because the valley is a far bigger piece of earth than Los Angeles and Orange counties combined, it will take decades longer for agriculture to lose its supremacy here. Already, though, the forces of sprawl seem impossible to stop. Rivers of Farms are becoming Rivers of Suburbia with almost no debate. The same federal Bureau of Reclamation that captured the rivers a century ago in the name of agriculture meets in private today with real estate developers to siphon the water for houses and big box shopping centers. As for our local elected officials, they all seem pleasantly dumb to the fact that sprawl is an economic loser. City councils and boards of supervisors controlled by white men go on endlessly about the need to “preserve the farm,” but in 20 years of attending meetings I have yet to see a vote that didn’t go the developer’s way.  At least the Mexican-Americans now getting elected don’t pretend to be nagged by guilt when they turn an orchard into a Wal-Mart. Rather, they feel a sense of liberation from the fields that brought their parents and grandparents to their knees.


The San Joaquin Valley is now fully embarked on the second great transformation in its modern history. Before the shift is over, demographers and planners say, the nation’s longest chain of cities will rise here, a 280-mile megalopolis along the spine of Highway 99. We will grow twice as fast as the rest of California and our population will double to seven million by the year 2040. More than 1.5 million acres--one-third of our best irrigated farmland--will be gone. The plans to remake the valley even take in Highway 99 itself, which the boosters want to turn into a federal freeway with a new name—“Interstate 999” perhaps—that might attract a new industry.

Whenever I sound my screed about losing Eden, I think about the old Yokut watching that iron bully known as the Fresno Scraper flatten every last one of his hog wallows. I think about the cynic who hollers “so what.” One culture built on the damming of rivers, the subsidizing of crops, the exploitation of migrants is being replaced by another culture only slightly more greedy and destructive. Those of us making a case to preserve the farm must be honest about what we are trying to save. We must be honest about its low wages and seasonal employment and economies of scale that tip the balance in favor of farm giants like Boswell and Gallo and Resnick. Old farmers attached to the soil that has given them a good life might try to hang on, but their children are softened by no such love of the land. Not when they are selling plums for the same price they sold them in 1981. Not when they are facing a farmer in China who grows garlic for half their price. Nostalgia can’t compete with a land man offering $250,000 for an acre of loam in growth’s path.

So this place, it turns out, is replaceable.

For the writer, of course, all this becomes a story, perhaps the most insane and tumultuous and exhilarating story he or she will ever tell. It will be full of crimes and tragedies and bright new opportunities best told not by the writer with nostalgia fogging his eyes but by a Hmong or Sikh or Oaxacan whose grandfather took the long road to the valley in 1980 or 1990 or 2010. May their voices be added to future editions of “Highway 99,” side by side with the voices you will find here, even if that road of oleanders that runs through our heart exists by another name.

Read more in Highway 99, available on Amazon.

The Place star The Last Valley star The Boy Runners of McFarland star The Ghost of Tulare Lake star The Great Ponzi Scheme of Sprawl

Highlands of Humboldt star Legend of Zankou star Stewart Resnick: The Reluctant Farmer

The Boy Runners of McFarland


Like so many dreams that come and go here, this one began with the harvest under a brutal sky.

It was a late afternoon in August, 103 degrees outside, and the boys from the McFarland High cross country team had been at it since five in the morning. They had spent the day in long sleeves and bandannas working without words alongside their parents deep in the fields. They were spread across farms for miles around, but the toil did not vary.

They stooped and crawled. They knelt under vines powdered with sulfur and climbed high into trees. They cut, pulled and snapped. Up and down, row after row, the boys lugged the yield of the San Joaquin Valley--grapes, peaches, plums, nectarines, bell peppers and watermelons--until the crew bosses had called it a day.

And now the sun was setting and the fields were silent, and they were going back into the orchards, this time in running shoes.

They stretched their calves and hamstrings under a big hay barn at the edge of town, fifteen long-distance runners in T-shirts and shorts. Their tall, blue-eyed coach, Jim White, was spooning out drops of an herbal ``voodoo juice'' to rub away the aches.

"How long do we go, White?" one boy asked.

The group looked up from the exercises, awaiting his verdict.

He was seated atop a worn bicycle, his rickety ride through the fields, and he smiled a wicked smile.

"Until I get tired."

Summer after summer, the footprints hardly change. McFarland High's dream to bring home a state championship begins the same way: The families from rural Mexico finish another day in the fields and hand over their fleet-footed sons to Coach White, aka Blanco. And they watch as he leads the boys back through the fields, to championships and other miracles, too.

With runners drawn from farm worker families too poor to buy racing shoes, the McFarland High Cougars have won five state cross country titles in a row, a feat unmatched in any sport by any high school in California. They've beat the rich kids from Carmel Valley and the surfer kids from Laguna Beach. They've beat prep schools, suburban schools, Indian reservation schools and the big boys from L.A. 

Now a new season had come, and the campesinos were gunning for number six, running not just for their families and the coach pedaling alongside them, but for this town battered by poverty and mysterious childhood cancers.

They ran past the alfalfa and kiwis and the smelly dairy with its 300 Holsteins and the ditch silted green, first a jog and then a sprint. One mile, two miles, four, six and eight. From a distance, their stampede hardly a patter, they looked something like angels kicking up dust in the middle of the almond trees, floating on a brown cloud.

They ran 10 miles and then jogged back home. Over the next four months, through summer heat and winter fog on the road to last weekend's state championship meet, they would train 1,500 miles. They'd have run more if White had asked them.

This is the story of a season with the farm workers from McFarland High, their quest to reign once again as the unlikely champs of California cross country. It is a journey extraordinary not only for their athletic achievement but for what they had to overcome to even be in the race.

In a town where so much has changed so quickly, the team's remarkable success is one of the few things people can count on. The old McFarland, a thriving little community pierced by Highway 99 on the outskirts of Kern County, has vanished. Gone are most of the Dust Bowl refugees and the small businessmen and farmers who built Main Street and the Pentacostal churches under mulberry trees.

The new McFarland, population 8,011, is something closer to a village transplanted from south of the border. Nine out of 10 residents descend from Mexico and a third come from the village Huanusco, in the state of Zacatecas.

Families squeeze six and eight children into two-bedroom houses. Roosters peck at front porches, and laundry hangs from ropes strung tree to tree. The sons of farm workers who want no part of the fields, the Myfa Boys and Southsiders, fight over a pitiful turf.

Though it sits at the edge of America's richest farms, McFarland is one of the nation's poorest cities. And for two decades, it has been plagued by cancers striking its children. More than 20 youngsters, many the offspring of farm worker families in the same neighborhood, have been diagnosed with the disease since 1975--three times the normal rate. Seven children have died.

Government scientists have failed to link the cancers to pesticide contamination or some other culprit lurking in the fields. The mystery has left McFarland in a strange limbo, its main industry neither damned nor vindicated. To many townsfolk, the boys who work and run in the fields are seen as a kind of redemption.

"The cancer cluster ain't the only thing we're famous for," city manager Gary Johnson bristled, pointing to five California silhouettes on the side of the gym.

"This is the home of the state cross country champs. And now they're going for number six."

Until a decade or so ago, when Coach White hung his first championship banner, none of this would have been possible. The men of dirt-poor Huanusco would arrive in McFarland in April and leave for Mexico in October, after the last raisin had been turned. There was no time for the young ones to attend school most days, much less become champion runners. Before they knew it, they were gone.

Now a historic shift is remaking McFarland and other rural communities in the state's heartland. Many migrants have stopped migrating. The reasons are almost entirely economic. Over the past 10 years, despite numbing poverty, they have patched together enough earnings to buy houses, bring family from Mexico and carve out full time lives here.

The transition from illegal migrant to legal neighbor has given the children the chance to learn English, become the first in the family to graduate from any school--and play sports along the way. It has brought home the hope that the grip of the fields might one day be broken.

And yet the little these families have managed to scratch out would not be possible without the wages of their children, field workers as young as eight. So the children run in two directions, tugged by the duty to work beside their family and by their dream of breaking away.

All summer long, the team's finest runners, Jose Perezchica, 18, and Jose Arambula, 17--"the two Joses" as they are known here--worked and trained in the fields on five hours of sleep. They had grown up near each other in Huanusco and now were good friends quietly competing to be the best high school
long-distance runner in the state. For now, Perezchica was the faster one.

Once school started in September and the season began, both boys picked and pruned only on weekends. They struggled to learn English in time for graduation, knowing it could be the difference between getting into college or not.

Arambula was ahead of Perezchica in language class. So much so that when the fancy recruiting letters came--from Stanford, Yale, Harvard, Columbia, NYU--Arambula hoped that one of the letters might really lead to something. He saved them in his dresser drawer, beneath the Mexican flag. Perezchica tossed away his letters.

Their 56-year-old coach was so committed to seeing that they had every chance at a different life that he blurred all lines between work and home. The boys were family and when they knocked on his door at all hours, White answered. He never stopped digging into his own pockets to help them. His wife,
Cheryl, and three grown daughters would have it no other way.

"White ain't white," one boy explained. "He's Mexican."

A season with the McFarland High cross country team as they trekked up and down the state in an old school bus wasn't about fanfare. There were no cheerleaders doing back flips as the team's top five runners pounded a grueling 3.1-mile course and strained to cross the finish line before the top five runners of other teams. There was no homecoming queen caught between the letterman's jackets of the two Joses.

McFarland's road to the championship was something more: The work that constantly beckoned; the herbal potions and vitamins that White administered to the weary like some shaman; the two boys from the same village 2,000 miles away who would run their last high school race not knowing where it would end--footprints in or out of the fields.

In the middle of August, a week before school started, Jose Perezchica awoke at 4:30 a.m. alongside his two younger brothers. The floor fan had been whirring all night and the window was open, but the 100-degree heat made for miserable sleep. He got maybe three hours.

He rose from his bed, a folding metal lawn chair, and wrung out the night from his powerful five-foot eight-inch frame, his lean runner's legs. He opened the drawer of a battered dresser held together with duct tape and put on a frayed long sleeve shirt, jeans and the one thing that would mark him as something special: the red and black hat with the five state championships across it.

His brothers were sound asleep. He tiptoed into the dark living room, turned on the TV and watched Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck argue whether it was duck season or wabbit season. "I understand everything they're saying," he said in Spanish, pointing to his head.

"But I just can't talk. Something is blocking. I think I came here too old. My little brothers speak a lot more."

He sat waiting for his ride to the fields, and the blue light flickered across his sharp face and tiny brow--the face of a Zacatecan, his family boasted. His team had given him the nickname ``Indio.'' Indian.

His mother, Maria, was awake a half hour already, quietly cooking in the kitchen. Last night's dinner was the starter for today's lunch and she added more pinto beans, meat and corn tortillas. His father, Jose Sr., was outside washing plastic picking tubs, scrubbing off the crusted grape juice and dirt from the previous day.

He had turned 52, and the work was taking a toll, he said. His index finger was swollen and wrapped in a piece of yellow onion. Mexican medicine, he laughed. "If the work was light, I would be able to do it for another 10 years. But it is hard work. It is a young man's work."

The Perezchicas have answered the call of America's fields for three generations--cotton in Texas, pears in Oregon, grapes in California. In winter, their mesquite and cattle village never stopped spinning, from baptism to wedding to quinceaneras, the elaborate sweet-15 parties that cost a season's wages. Come spring, Huanusco was like a war town: brides, mothers and children waiting on the return of 2,000 men gone El Norte.

"I was the oldest and when my father would leave in April, I watched over our land," Jose Sr. said.

"We had 15 acres and it was so-so dirt. Enough to grow a little corn and beans, if it rained."

By the time he came north, the U.S. Bracero program that regulated the flow of "guest workers" had ended. In 1972, he crossed the border illegally under the secret handshake of a California farmer and a Mexican labor smuggler--a coyote. He was married, and four of their eight children had been born.

"My first paycheck was $180. One week of work in the United States, you can eat for a month in Mexico. I thought it was good pay."

He said the decision to end the life of a migrant and bring his family to California for good was not easy. Like thousands of others who have left Huanusco for McFarland, he was nudged by Mexico's deep poverty and the U.S. amnesty law that granted his family legal status in 1987. The shadow of the late Cesar Chavez, whose union improved wages and conditions in the fields, helped ease the way. So, too, have a booming farm economy and new crops that extend the harvest from early spring to late autumn.

With the wages of an older married son and Jose Jr., the family scraped a small down payment and bought their rundown stucco house for $62,000. Ten family members, children and grandchildren, share quarters. They survive on $20,000 a year in minimum wages earned by the four of them.

Sitting on the couch, Jose Jr. saw the lights of an old Buick, his ride to the vineyards. His parents were picking grapes in a field closer to town. His mother handed him lunch in a plastic bag. She wouldn't see him again until that evening, after he finished work and the long run. She had overheard the conversation about his trouble grasping English and told him not to worry. School was around the corner, and he would work hard.

Deep in a dark vineyard swirling with dust, McFarland's number one runner found the row with his name on it and waited for the sun to rise. Kneeling in the powder, he parted the vine like a curtain and stepped inside. A swarm of gnats flew in his face. The blade hung from his wrist on a string of leather and
with a flick he began to cut the green-yellow bunches of Thompson grapes and drop them into his tub. When the tub was full, he spread the bunches on brown butcher paper to bake in the sun.

It took the valley sun 18 days to shrivel a grape into a raisin. It took him a minute and 20 seconds to make one tray. He had just made 17 cents. In the distance, a radio played Mexican polka and a farm worker yodeled. He tried to imagine himself running. The day went faster that way.

In the tiny one-bedroom apartment he shares with his mother, brother and sister, Rudy Ballardo got ready for his nighttime run. It was a few weeks before the start of summer training, and Coach White was expecting big things from him. Everywhere he turned in the cramped den was another race from the past, a trophy shining like sculpture under lights.

His older brother, Galvin, was the finest runner McFarland ever produced, a two-time individual state champion in 1993 and 1994. And Rudy had been blessed with the same talent, leading the team to two more state titles as a freshmen and sophomore.

But he had slipped up his junior year, and now he heading into his senior year, and he hadn't run in months. He could barely look Coach White in the eyes.

In the bedroom decorated with medals that spelled out a giant MCFARLAND, he put on his baggy pants and stuffed a marble-sized "eight ball" of crystal methamphetamine into his pocket. He was going out to meet his connection. He kissed his mother goodbye and stepped into the warm night.

Just past the school, a couple blocks from home, a cop busted Rudy. He spent the night in juvenile hall. The next morning, he sat at the kitchen table with his family and White.

Of all the ways to kick off the new season. The team was ranked 20th in the nation based on the expectation that three stars from last year, the two Joses and Rudy, would be returning.

"Don't you see that this day has been coming?" White told him.

"Slowly by slowly, first the new friends, then quitting running, drinking. Look what you're doing to your mom."

"I did it for her," Rudy said. "To earn some cash."

"I always taught you to do right and bring no shame," Juana Lopez shouted, sobbing.

"For what? A lousy $100. I will work a little harder in the fields if need be."

All through August and September, White and the boys kept dropping by Rudy's house to coax him to run. His back or leg was always hurting. Miguel Aguilar, a senior who had replaced Rudy in the No. 3 spot, vowed he wouldn't rest until Rudy rejoined the squad.

"I don't mind running fourth because we're a way better team with Rudy," he said. "Rudy is right up there with the two Joses. We could win the state easily with him. Without him, some teams are going to get close."

Coach White was losing patience. "Rudy's a talent but we have to go on. Right now, Rudy needs us more than we need him."

Jose Arambula had spent the September day picking plums beside his younger brother Juvenal, climbing 800 times up and down a ladder with a sack of fruit strapped to his belly. And now it was an hour before practice and three days before the first meet, and he stood in the backyard imagining the season
to come.

Already the tallest of the runners, he had grown taller and more muscular since last year. His legs were sore from the work, but he wasn't dreading the run through the orchards. "I look forward to the end of day. All the guys are out there. White is there."

His father was building a cinder block fence and drinking a beer, and his mother was stirring chili into a pan of pig intestines. They had worked their own full day in the fields. His little brothers chased each other through the dirt yard. They had planted corn with seed from Huanusco. It was growing
as poorly here as it did there.

"I was eight years old when we came. That was the first year I worked in the grapes. Sometimes I run better the harder I work."

He was fourth man on last year's team, but this season was different. He was challenging Perezchica for the top spot and the team speculated how it would play out.

"I told Perezchica last week that he doesn't have to worry about me. Not me. Not yet," said the shy Arambula. "At the
end of the year. State."

He sat down next to Juvenal to rest his legs but kept getting up to make sure the little ones were out of harm's way. He worked hard to put his words into English. It came easier for 16-year-old Juvenal. Juvenal was dressed like a rapper. He said he didn't like the baggy style, but to wear anything else
risked being shamed by the farm worker kids born in America.

"I used to dress that tight style but they call you a `webber,"' Juvenal said.

Webber was short for webbed feet, for crossing the border by water. And it was the case. The brothers' first race was a wade through the river and a dash across the border, holding hands. A decade in America and Jose wasn't sure what the future held. The fields?

"Probably. Maybe."

But what about the dream of college, running?

"Different world."

What about the letters from Georgetown, Brown, Navy?

"I'm not sure what's going to happen. Too many things right now."

Juvenal had heard enough. "Right now we're going to school to do better than our parents. You know it's hard work in the sun. You know what Dad says. `You are going to school to pass what I am doing.' If you're going to end up in the fields, why not quit school and start working now?"

Jose let Juvenal have the last word. Later, on the way to practice, he offered a compromise. "Maybe Fresno State or Bakersfield. If I go to college I have to be close to home to help my family in the fields."
They gathered on Jim and Cheryl White's front lawn: the two Joses and Miguel Aguilar and 15 other runners, but no Rudy.
In the driveway, leaning on White's shiny red 1959 Chevy pickup, was a handful of McFarland's past champions, now in their late 20s, a dust of gray on the sideburns and something more around their middles. They are Blanco's secret ingredient, the graduates who run each day with the team and shepherd the boys through rocky times as a way to give something back. To a man, they credit White with carving a path out of the fields and changing their lives. Amador Ayon teaches 7th grade math. Thomas Valles stands guard at a prison. Ruben Ozuna is an English teacher. David Diaz teaches at the elementary.

"This is where it all begins, guys," White said.

"The state. We've got to start focusing right now."

He spoke in a twangy voice that almost vanished in the wind. It was the closest he would come to a "Win one for the Gipper." The boys thought he was a dead ringer for Clint Eastwood in his prime, but his approach was a great deal more subtle. He was there everyday, alongside them on his three-speed bike, and he used a light hand when guiding them. So fine a touch that they often failed to detect its sway. He rarely put his good deeds on display. There was a lot of sacrifice only they and he knew about.

"The key, the base, is running in the summertime," he told them.

"And you've done that. By losing Rudy, it puts us closer to our main competition, Nordhoff of Ojai. We were a little ahead on paper. Now we're even. So let's go guys. Let's hit the road."

They had come to the season after a summer of holding tamale sales and other fund raisers. Still, the kitty was not nearly enough for the food, vitamins and gear needed for the 14-meet season. Every Saturday was another long ride out of town, and half the boys boarded the bus hungry. Some had no money for dinner after the race.

So White and the alumni handed out what they could. They drove their wives crazy buying them selves running shoes every few months, not because they were worn but because they were handing down the old pair to yet another boy.

In a single file, they jogged from White's house to the hay barn. The two-mile warmup was White's time to counsel and catch up, to teach a little without lecturing. It came natural for the 8th grade life science instructor.

"How do you feel, Salvador? I heard you threw up today. Did you throw up in the classroom or the hallway or what?"

"In the hallway. I just ran out of class. And the teacher wrote me up."

"There's a proper way to do things, Salvador. Go to the teacher and say, `Excuse me, I'm not feeling well.'"

Under the open-sided barn, they flexed their hips and raised their toes. "We're going to do segments," White announced.

"A 10 minute run, then 8, then six and three."

One boy walked over to White and motioned to the coach's pocket. He took out a tiny bottle of aromatic oils. It passed quickly from hand to hand, drops dabbed on hamstrings, calves, backs, in mouths and up noses.

"It's voodoo juice," one boy said.

"Keeps you from sucking wind."

The work day was done and the road was quiet. The fields were all theirs now.

They ran through the almond, walnut, corn, apricot, plum, alfalfa and cotton. Some of the farmers had cleared a path just for them. The grapes cooking into raisins smelled something between a bakery and a still. The sweet and the ferment mixed with the open air sewage of a nearby dairy. It was smelling salts for the weary.

White kept his promise until the end. Then, when the final three-minute segment was nearly over, when they thought they were just about home, he told them he wanted three minutes more. Some of the boys who could already taste the well water back at the barn collapsed. Jose Perezchica and Jose Arambula and Miguel Aguilar kept running, never breaking stride.

Back at the barn, when it was over, White gathered the boys who failed to finish. "What are you going to do when a guy takes off in a race all of a sudden? You didn't expect it. Two miles to go and he breaks out from nowhere. You can't say, `No I can't stay up with him. I'm tired.' You've got to stay mentally tough. It's a mind game."

Pep talk over, he rode back home, carrying on his handlebars the boy whose feet were bleeding because his shoes were too small.

They drove down to Ventura in early September and beat all the big schools except one. Their top five runners ran a combined 79.20 minutes, one second behind Saugus High. Jose Perezchica ran his heart out and came in second. Jose Arambula was fourth.

They got home near midnight and White told them to keep their heads up. They had beat the time set by last year's McFarland team by more than a minute. Five hours later, a Sunday, Perezchica rolled raisins.

The next week in San Diego, they took on 70 teams. On a hilly course, they placed second. Perezchica was dragging from all the field work. White gave him vitamins and a magnet to relieve his sore back. He came in third, Arambula right behind. They got home late, vowing that they would train harder in the hilly orange groves.

Seven hours later, Perezchica rolled raisins.

They blew away everyone at Porterville, 45 minutes down the road. The alumni were there. So were Miguel Aguilar's parents. They had left work early and, for the first time, saw their oldest son race. He gave his best performance ever. Cheryl White passed out seven dozen homemade chocolate chip and peanut butter cookies.

As the announcer read McFarland's clean sweep--varsity boys, varsity girls--Thomas Valles stood off in the distance, watching with pride. The kid who led McFarland to its first state title in 1987 was now a correctional officer and new father. He came to most every practice and meet.
"I come from a broken family," he said.

"My father was an alcoholic and he left when I was 14. My sisters got pregnant at 13 and 14. My little brother was jailed. I used to come to the meets with no money to eat with. The bus would pull up to a restaurant and I'd just shy away from everybody and say I wasn't hungry. White would find me and say, 'Come on, let's eat.'"

Late one night his parents got into a horrible fight, and he ran out the door and onto the overpass looking down on Highway 99. "I was standing there. I didn't want to go home. I can't say I was going to jump, but I was thinking about my life and why some people would jump. All of a sudden I saw these headlights and it was Mr. White in his '59 Chevy."

He paused, biting back tears. "I don't know how he found out I was there, but he did. I remember he said, `Come here, Thomas, let's talk.' I got in and I realized at that point that the Whites were the ones who were going to get me through this."

As the harvest waned and the boys worked fewer weekends in the fields, the team put together a string of impressive victories. Jose Arambula was fast closing in on Jose Perezchica. At practice and meets, Perezchica seemed even more quiet than usual, almost sullen. He stood off by himself. At school, when his algebra teacher announced free time, everyone was chatting but Indio. He was head down, lost in homework.

On a Friday before a race at Griffith Park, he confided to one of the alumni that it would be his last run.

"I'm quitting school to work in the fields," he said. "I'm bored."

It was dark, and White got on his bike and pedaled to the boy's house.

"What's wrong, Jose?" White asked.

He was leaning against his 1982 Cutlass, eyes at the ground. "I'm lost.''

The coach recalled the boy who amazed him as an 8th grader when he came out cold his first practice and ran 10 miles through sheer exhaustion to keep up with the veterans.

"You're not a quitter. You've never quit anything in your life. If you want to quit the team, that's one thing. But not school."

"How can I go to college? I hear, but I can't speak."

It was one of the rare times he had risked a sentence in English.

"You're the hardest worker I know. You can learn. You're smart. We're here to help you. You'll make it to college, and you'll make it through."

He was too embarrassed to tell White that he was flunking his English class. The next day, he ran up and down the sandy hills of Griffith Park as if he were running against no one but himself. He finished first, the only runner of 1,000 to break 15 minutes.

"When I'm running far ahead, I picture someone right in the back of me," he said after crossing the finish line. "Even when there's no one behind me, I hear the footsteps."

One of the McFarland fans who happened to drive to the meet was Linda Genel, a school board member who had worked with migrant children. She overheard someone say this was Jose's last race, and she pulled him aside and asked him to give her a chance.

"I can teach you," she said. "I'll be your tutor."

He sat on a park table beneath a pine tree, considering her offer. "If I can get the help, I will do it," he said. "I feel much better."

He would start the tutoring sessions on Monday, between his regular classes and running and working at night in a Mexican deli.

They headed for the hills in late September and early October, terraced groves of oranges east of town, a new runner in the pack. Rudy Ballardo was back, his shorts sagging and gut protruding, but he was back.

"Give him three weeks. That's all he needs," said Miguel Aguilar.

Coach White didn't know what to make of this new, more humble Rudy. "With Rudy, we've got the team that can take State. But he's got to stay focused."

They jogged to a tight little row between giant orange trees and handed their crucifixes and chains to White. He held his watch and gave them the signal and they took off, their rumble growing more faint as they reached the crest.

Some of the boys were fighting a virus and White decided to call it an early day. They piled into cars and headed home. It was seven at night and the blue-black sky had caught fire, a brilliant pink over the hillside, where the orange trees had been picked clean. White was watching the sun set when his car was stopped by three frantic runners in the middle of the road.

A car carrying five boys had blown a tire and crashed in the orange grove, a collision so violent it uprooted three stout trees and demolished the car. They flew out the back window and landed 25 feet into the grove. Four boys were cut badly and stumbling like zombies. A fifth, Erik Perez, was flat on his back, not moving.

White was on top of Perez and calmly applied pressure to two wounds, one a severed tendon in the hand.

"How did I get here, coach?"

"Let's not worry about that now. Be still. Just relax."

The boy started to shake like a frightened rabbit, and White grabbed a tennis shoe and placed it under his head. "You're going to be fine."

The ambulance took them to a Delano hospital, and Jim and Cheryl White comforted the families in the emergency waiting room. A doctor said the boys were going to be fine, though the sore bones and stitches might sideline them for weeks. Relieved but not sure where the season was headed with the team's number four and five runners injured, the Whites drove back to town exhausted.

So much had changed in the 35 years since they arrived fresh from a Christian college in Idaho. She was the daughter of a minister, and he was the son of a small home builder in Stockton. He had been a high school pitcher who never got a chance to shine, and he vowed he would treat his athletes differently.

The town was nearly all white back then. Main Street boasted a market, a bank, hotel, feed and seed, theater, newspaper and mortuary. They were long gone now, replaced by the 99-Cent Store and El Cha Cha Cha bar.

They had thought of moving back to Idaho, but they stayed and raised their girls and took over the sermon duties when the church parish dwindled to a few. They marveled at the newcomers from Mexico who worked so hard and had so little to show for it. To help the kids, they built the boys and girls running program from the ground up in 1980. An accident like this happened once before. It was in the fields in 1984. Two girls on the team were killed by a truck as they jogged across a road. The same month as this. The same hospital.

"We've had joy and heartache," he said. "Sometimes, I don't recognize the town anymore, but I'm not sure I'd change it back if I could."

"These kids and their families have become our lives," she said.

November arrives a little weary in the San Joaquin Valley. The migrants who still cross the border have gone home, their vans no longer clanking down Highway 99. Here and there, the flat four-lane road is splattered with the guts and feathers of turkeys who jumped ship on the slaughterhouse drive. The fields, having given all they can give, look dog-tired. It is pruning time.

Miguel Aguilar's father was now a U.S. citizen. Just weeks before, he had stood with 1,238 other immigrants in a Fresno convention hall, listening to a Mayflower descendant sing the national anthem. It was easy except for the end, he said, when the judge made them stand and renounce their fidelity to
any foreign state.

"It's not that I traded my coun try," Miguel Aguilar Sr. said, clutching his certificate.

"But this is where I live and this is a reality. For my children. Mexico is in my heart. It will always be there."

The team was having a hard time finding its groove. Jose Perez chica was passing English with the help of his tutor and running like a champion, but the others seemed sluggish. Jose Arambula's performance had flattened. Miguel Aguilar, nagged by injuries, started to pout. The bottom two positions remained undecided. The old Rudy just wasn't emerging. White was waiting for someone to step up.

At a meet near Pomona, they finally got a chance to face off against the state's other cross-country powerhouse, Nordhoff High School. Except for the two Joses, McFarland seemed intimi dated. The boys from Ojai trounced them.

White gave them a good chewing out after a meet in Fresno. He talked about commitment and leadership and the need to dig deeper. He recalled all his teams that came before, the runners who gave it their best and never found a way out of the fields. That night, comparing notes on the season with Cheryl and looking ahead to the state championship, he won dered if his words had gotten through. What he was trying to tell the boys, he explained, but couldn't bring himself to say, was this:

Some of you will make it out, but many of you won't. College is there but so are the fields. This season could be your ticket to a different life. But some of you will have to put your hopes on hold. You'll do what you did last summer, and you'll do it next summer, too. And pretty soon too many summers have passed and you're still in the fields. There's your life. That's the way dreams get lost here.

This may be your brightest moment. Everything seems possible and you are running, running toward a dream. This may be the finest time. Go get it.

They stepped up to the starting line in their regal red and white, a team at half strength. Rudy was not among them. He never found his runner's legs. Miguel's knee was better, but his times were so poor that his spot on the state team was taken by an underclassman.

The two Joses, despite White's infinite ministrations, were down with chest colds. The Division 4 championship would be no easy prize. Several of the 14 small schools lining up beside them for the three-mile race were every bit as talented as the big schools in other divisions.

As the sun broke through the fog Saturday at Woodward Park in Fresno, the starter's gun sounded the last race of the day. Powering uphill, Perezchica was right on the heels of the leader, a returning champ from Morro Bay. Arambula was within striking distance and so were two other Cougars.

"Go Jose! Go," White shouted, dashing from hill to valley. "Go Joe. Go Cookie. The second mile is the key."

A mile to go, the boy from Morro Bay hurtled downhill all by himself. Then came three runners from Nordhoff. Perezchica had dropped to seventh, his face twisted in pain. All season long, his teammates had used his unfaltering legs to nudge their pace. Now, taking his cue, they lagged far behind.

The home stretch offered no McFarland miracles. Not this year. Blanco's boys finished fourth, the combined placement of their top five runners behind the new state champs from Nordhoff.

White was too disappointed to muster any words. They were headed back to the bus, heads hanging, when the suburban boys from Ojai walked up, took off their crisp team shirts and handed them over. The boys from McFarland didn't know what to make of the gesture. So they peeled off their own shirts--emblazoned with their string of state titles--and traded.

They stopped to eat, but Perez chica wasn't hungry. He wasn't sure about school. He wasn't sure about ever running again. He got home and tried to sleep, but the race kept playing over in his mind.

On Sunday morning, he put on his shoes and headed to the almond orchard at the edge of town. It was raining and he took off down the muddy row, and he kept running until he hurt no more.

Next weekend would be the race to see if he could make the Western U.S.A. all-star team. The same Fresno course against some of the same top runners. After that would be track season with Coach White, and after that the summer harvest.

And after that, he didn't know.

The Place star The Last Valley star The Boy Runners of McFarland star The Ghost of Tulare Lake star The Great Ponzi Scheme of Sprawl

Highlands of Humboldt star Legend of Zankou star Stewart Resnick: The Reluctant Farmer

The Ghost of Tulare Lake

I didn’t know Tulare Lake still existed, at least not as an actual body of water. It showed up empty on my map of California , not a drop of blue anywhere. I knew a bit about its past, that it had been the biggest basin of freshwater west of the Mississippi, that it had been home to four distinct tribes of Yokut Indians, that Chinese fishermen in the late 1800s worked its water for Tulare Lake terrapin that made the finest turtle soup in the fancy restaurants of San Francisco. At its best, a century and more ago, the lake had measured 700 square miles, the most dominant feature on the California map. If you know something about the state’s interior, you understand how remarkable it is to travel from Bakersfield to the San Francisco Bay on boat, hopping rivers and lakes. This was possible as late as the 1930s, before the dams stopped cold all the Sierra rivers, before the farmers dried up Tulare Lake and carved out the richest cotton patch in the world.

And so it came as some surprise that in the spring of 1998, after a heavy winter gave way to a super snowmelt, that I got a call from a friend telling me that “Tulare Lake has come back to life.”   

A few days later, I hopped into my car and drove for miles and miles across a flat expanse of Kings County , past vineyards and almond orchards, past dairies and alfalfa fields, until the road suddenly quit at the base of a huge earthen wall. It was a dike not unlike the dikes of Holland . The air filled with the faint smell and sound of ocean. Climbing atop the muddy embankment, gaping at the lake’s big belly, I felt lost for a moment, dizzy with vertigo. Was this the heart of California cotton country or the New Jersey shore? The wind whipped whitecaps past telephone poles that displayed the high-water stains of past revivals. The lake was brown in parts and pure blue in others, and the speed with which nature had found its old self was a wonder to behold. The sun glinted off flocks of mud hens, pintail and mallard ducks, giant blue and white herons and pelicans scooping up catfish.

The lake, maybe 1/20th of its original size, had flooded a stretch of the San Joaquin Valley that now belonged to J.G. Boswell, the biggest farmer in America and the last of California ’s great land barons. He, and his uncle before him, had drained an inland sea and made the rivers run backward to build their cotton empire. Chased out of their native Georgia by the boll weevil, the Boswells and other Southern growers had brought the plantation to a corner of the West in the 1920s. It was a story of astonishing vision and will and the flouting of nature, not to mention a parade of hubris.

Dams and dikes not only thwarted the four rivers that fed into the basin. The rivers themselves were no longer rivers but rather precise bands of irrigation water. Along their straitjacketed banks, the cotton giants had planted massive pumps to make sure that no water flowed where they didn’t want it to flow. Even so, once every decade, and sometimes more often, a lavish snowmelt would shoot down the mountain and onto the plain, pushing past the contrivances of even Boswell. Near his hometown of Corcoran, a remnant of the old Yokut lake, a sea of ten million geese, would come back to life.

That summer, as the lake dried up once again, I heard about the old Yokut curse that went something like this: You surely drained our lake dry, but its mists will still rise up from the tule reeds and haunt you forever. That mist, the valley’s tule fog, was our curse from late November through late January, each winter causing untold accidents on the road.

Like the lake, the Yokut were gone. I found them only in books. I learned they had built tule rafts buoyant enough to carry an entire family for days at a time on the lake and haul hundreds of pounds of rainbow trout, perch, catfish, pike and salmon—caught with bare hands or speared through a hole in the bottom of the craft. The oyster-shaped sea was so shallow, two or three feet deep in many parts and never more than forty feet at its deepest, that a fierce northwest wind would whistle through the reeds and blow the waters another mile or two across the savanna. From the shore, the women would wade in, feeling with their toes as they scoured the lake bottom for clams, mussels and terrapin. It took no time at all to fill the conical baskets slung across their backs.

To describe their world, the Yokut found language in the throats of swans and the hooves of antelope. The billy owl gave out a tiny squeak when it bobbed its head, and the human imitation of this sound, peek-ook, became the world for billy owl. The word for ducks was the gabbling noise they made while feeding, wats-wats. Tulare lake was the Pah-ah-see, the pulse of its ebb and flow. It took something different, though, to capture the sound of the blue sky as it turned dark and deafening from the wings and cries of millions of native and migratory birds—Canadian geese, mallards, swans, pelicans, cranes, teal and curlews. How to mimic the sudden flight of flocks so immense they extinguished the sun? One of the first white men to camp along the lake could think of only one noise, the roar of the freight train, that compared with the takeoff of the birds. But the Native had no way of drawing on the railroad for inspiration. By the time the Southern Pacific arrived in the San Joaquin Valley, the land no longer belonged to the Yokut and their language had stopped breathing new words. So their word to describe the great honking sky of geese was no sound at all, but a number. Tow-so, tow-so. A thousand thousands.

This story can be found in the collection, "The Devil's Punchbowl: A Cultural & Geographic Map of California Today." Available on        

The Place star The Last Valley star The Boy Runners of McFarland star The Ghost of Tulare Lake star The Great Ponzi Scheme of Sprawl

Highlands of Humboldt star Legend of Zankou star Stewart Resnick: The Reluctant Farmer

The Great Ponzi Scheme of Sprawl - Town Hall Speech, March 15, 2006

I find myself standing here this morning with a mixture of delight and dread. The delight is easy to explain. I’ve been the literary equivalent of a long-distance trucker these past 15 years, hauling my story of this valley from one end of the United States to the other. So being invited to the Town Hall, to speak to the folks who matter most, the people right here at home, is a true honor. The dread stems from the fact that most of my public talks have been readings, not lectures. I am a writer of stories, not a polemicist. I try use my voice to take readers to other voices, not to deliver harangues. And yet we are standing at a place in our history, this valley, where a harangue or two is just what we need. So this morning, if things go right, this will be a town hall in the truest sense of the word. And you’ll hopefully find me somewhere between those stories and that harangue.

I find it especially satisfying to be standing in this hall—the Saroyan, as we approach this summer the 25th anniversary of Bill Saroyan’s death. He taught me that every writer who comes from the land eventually confronts a deep ambivalence about the place that nurtured him. The writer does this one of two ways. He leaves and writes about his place from afar, hoping the distance gives him not only perspective but a rein on his anger and a check on his heart. Or he stays and tries to work it out from within, the past and the present knocking heads and confusing his feelings. If he stays, his writing sometimes misses the mark. This is because the immediacy he has gained by being so close to his subject can bring too much heat and too much passion. I have chosen the latter, digging my heels into native ground, and it can be messy. But I’m still here, trying to get it right, trying to put my finger on this place. And what an odd, paradoxical place it is.

It is decidedly rural, decidedly suburban and decidedly urban. Where else in America can you take a 20-minute drive and go from white suburbia with its brand new schools and football stadiums and 8,000 square foot houses and giant evangelical Christian compounds to the inner city with its gangs and drug-infested neighborhoods to the dead silence of the vineyards and orchards in winter hibernation?  No region produces more meth and more milk than this valley. If you want to look at the burgeoning political power of the exurbs, come here. If you want to examine the enduring poverty of rural America, come here. If you want to see concentrated urban poverty and IV drug use unlike any other city in the country come to our inner city. 

By my count, there are three basic ways that humans connect to place, and each one is a way of living. The first evolves out of the idea that place is moveable, that you can take home with you or create home wherever your place might be. This becomes an easier proposition because so much of what makes a place unique has been lost in America, swallowed up by the tide of homogenization. If one place looks like the other place, then place is no big deal. And losing a place is no big tragedy. Place is not only moveable, it is disposable.

The second notion of place is the way a historian and social scientist might see place, with the disinterested eye. Place becomes your subject and as a subject it must be separate from your soul. You can live in such a place, become a student of such a place and find some measure of accord with that place because it is your home and your laboratory. But the place is never you and the changes that come to it are never taken personally. You live above the fray.

The third notion of place is one of deep roots and intimacy, a direct connection between a person and place, right down to its earth. I am bound to this place. You cannot separate me from it. As the land is being remade, where is my place? I am tied to this place and yet as it abandons itself, does it also abandon me? Does it allow a place for me to exist? I guess what I want to explore is the notion that place is not simply geography but a spiritual relationship to that geography. It is this relationship that gets lost as the land becomes transformed.

My grandfather, Aram Arax, took the long road to California in the spring of 1920, a migration that covered 7,000 miles by ship and train. There was no turning back. Everything along the way seemed so farfetched to him—the Statue of Liberty, the nation’s capital, the budding factories of Detroit. It wasn’t until the tracks reached Fresno that America came true. Outside his window, at the foot of the Sierra, the San Joaquin Valley shimmered. Vineyards and orchards and vegetable fields, row after perfect row. As the train chugged into town, my grandfather kept muttering the same words in Armenian. “Just like the old land.” The old land was a lazy village beneath the mountain of mist in Bursa, Turkey. He had survived the 1915 Genocide at the hands of the Turks not by out-braving them or outlasting their death marches. Instead, he owed his life to the great French writers, Baudelaire and Maupassant, whose poems and short stories allowed him to dream away long months hiding in an attic in Istanbul. He was among 20,000 young Armenian men, the Army of the Attics, who dodged the Turks by sitting still.

He came down after a year with plans to attend the Sorbonne University and write for a living. Then the letters from his Uncle Ervant in Fresno arrived: “Watermelons as big as small boats. Grapes like jade eggs.” My grandfather was 19 when he took the bait. He might have been forgiven for assuming the best when his uncle drove up to the depot that day in a shiny Model T Ford. This uncle let my grandfather lounge in that bath of milk and honey for three days. Then they headed three hours south on a country road and landed in Weed Patch. There, long before the Okies and Steinbeck arrived, my grandfather did what all poets do when they come to the valley. He dug his knees into the ground and started picking potatoes. Up and down the valley he trailed the harvest. Watermelons, peaches, grapes, oranges and olives. It took him four season working alongside his widowed mother, sister and brother to go from fruit tramp to farmer.

My grandfather loved the idea of farming. Tilling, irrigating, harvesting, pruning--he came to each one as a romantic. But a farmer he was not, at least not the kind who could feed three children and cover his losses at the pinochle table. That poets made poor farmers should have been clear to him early on. Yet he kept growing crops again and again in the 1930s, 40s and 50s. Vine hoppers devoured one raisin harvest. Mildew ate another. If the weather was good and the pests light, his own sloth would do him in. Relatives had a one-word explanation for his failure: Politics. He was too busy reading the New Masses, the Marxist monthly, when he should have been walking the rows.

Every family lugs around lugs around a story of lost gold. That last farm along the San Joaquin River became ours. A patient man would have found a way to keep it, Grandma said. A patient man would have been around to see it turn into big fancy houses. By the time I was growing up, the only vineyard in the family was the one in a painting that hung from our adobe fireplace. My grandfather believed, until the day he died, that the end of our farming life, this severing from the soil, is what led to my father’s murder.

It was the land, after all, that brought my grandfather and most of us here. Armenians, Japanese, Swedes, Volga Germans, Molokans, Okies white and black, Italians, Mexicans,  Hmong. Many of them traveled thousands of miles only to land smack dab on the same old line of latitude. The Punjab sun was the valley sun. Today, the grandchildren of those first immigrants are watching the land grow a final crop—houses. What happened from one generation to the next? Did farming fail? Did the dream of farming fail? Was its brutal bottom line something they could no longer survive?

My grandfather arrived amid what was arguably the greatest transformation of any valley in the history of man. In thirty short years, we would dam every river busting out the Sierra and create the largest irrigation project the world has ever known. That transformation is too big of a story to even attempt to recap here. But let me focus on one part of the valley—the Tulare Lake basin, a place I know well, a place I wrote about in the book, “The King of California.”
The year my grandfather landed in California saw the coming of a pioneer, a man who had fled the plantation South and was looking to start a new cotton patch out West. His name was Col. J.G. Boswell, and he was the son of a Georgia patrician family who had seen the boll weevil ravage the cotton fields of the South. When he arrived, Tulare Lake was already being drained by man. It sat at the confluence of four rivers—the Kings, Tule, Kaweah and Kern. In years when the Sierra snowmelt was heavy, these rivers raged, and the valley was one great marsh. You could take a boat and navigate your way from present-day Bakersfield to the San Francisco Bay using only lakes and rivers. Tulare Lake, at its height, stretched some 800 square miles across the valley plains. It was the most dominant feature on the California map, big enough to sustain four separate tribes of Yokut Indians. But in dry years, this same stretch became forbidding desert—so harsh that not even the Spanish could conquer it. No mission would ever come here.  So the trick was to even out those wet and dry years, to capture and contain the snowmelt with dams and levees. Few rivers have been tamed like the Kings River. It irrigates more farmland than any other river in the world except for the Nile and the Indus—more than one million acres of vineyards, orchards and fields.

Looking back, our first big mistake was taking all the water that coursed down from the Sierra and handing 95 percent of it over to agriculture. Imagine what this valley would look like today if our local, state and federal governments had decided that 65 percent of the water should go to farming and 35 percent remain in the river for the environment and fisheries. Had this happened, much of the marginal land now farmed would have remained fallow. It would have ensured that the water would have gone to the best farms. We would not have the surplus of crops we have today, nor would we be growing low value crops. Because we decided to give all the river to agriculture, we have created a surplus hell--too many fruits, too many raisins, too much milk, too much cotton.

None of the valley’s agricultural miracle came cheap or easy. It took decades of manpower and billions of dollars in taxpayer money to dam the rivers, suck dry the lakes and erect a system of irrigation canals that spread like lattice across the plain. Billions of dollars more in government subsidies helped prop up crops such as cotton. And what did that investment buy? The San Joaquin Valley (from Bakersfield to Stockton) is a singular place in the American landscape. It is the biggest valley--27,000 square miles--in the nation. No farm belt in the history of man has ever produced such diverse crops--250 fruits, vegetables, grains, milk, fiber—in such staggering amounts. Agriculture at a speed and variety never before seen in civilization. One of the world’s wonders--breadbasket and salad bowl and fruit bowl and creamery rolled into one. We built something that no other people on the earth built. The place is not replaceable.

So how do we regard our miracle? I’m afraid to say that we mostly treat it with contempt, with shame. We are embarrassed of its wonder. To embrace what has been accomplished here would mean we’d have to tell the outside world we are proud of our farming heritage. We would have to celebrate this miracle. And that would mean coming off like hicks and hayseeds. 

By all measures, this valley is standing right where Los Angeles stood in 1956. Back then, Los Angeles County produced more farm goods than any other county in the nation. A decade later, it didn’t even rank in the top ten. A decade after that, all but a few boutique farms had been paved over. Los Angeles lost its Eden that fast. A few months ago, I began pulling those old stories of the vanishing farmland from our archives at the Los Angeles Times. You can imagine that a paper owned by the Chandler family, which at one time owned more land than any other family in the U.S., didn’t do a whole lot of exposes on the development scandals that transformed L.A. But the stories I did find from the 1950s and 60s knocked me over. They echoed--sometimes word for word--the stories I am now reading and writing about this valley. The same themes, the same quotes, the same hand wringing from farmers and bureaucrats and elected officials. It’s all the same. Looking backward, I can see clearly forward. The same studies, the same futile calls for farmland preservation, the same talk of the need to grow what we eat.

Driving down Highway 99 the other day, I came across the billboards of a national home builder sprinkled in with the billboards promoting our local builders. I must tell you that I have become inured—practically calloused-- to their Orwellian way these builders name their project after the nature or farm they’ve paved over. Orange Creek. Heron’s Pointe. Blossom Living. But this one billboard for D.R. Horton homes really got me thinking. It pictured a kid swinging on a big fat oak tree in the middle of open country. And this is what it said,  “What grows here lasts a lifetime?” A lifetime? I thought. Just a lifetime?

Over the next 35 years, if our pattern of sprawl does not change, demographers say, the San Joaquin Valley will grow twice as fast as the rest of California and its population will double to 7 million, gobbling up 1.5 million acres or one-third of the best irrigated land.  Because the San Joaquin Valley, eight counties covering some 27,000 square miles, boasts a larger agricultural land base than Los Angeles and Orange Counties in their farming heydays, it will take decades longer for suburbia to eclipse the farm.

But the shift from farm to city has now accelerated here so that nearly 14,000 acres of farmland are being lost to urban development each year in the valley--double the average over the previous 10 years, according to state figures for 2000-2002. And this does not include figures for the most recent boom. When Southern California said goodbye to its farms, it pointed to the San Joaquin Valley as its safety valve. “We’ll just get our food from the other side of the mountain.” But what happens when this valley goes the way of Los Angeles? Where is the next valley?

I’ve begun to delve into what I call the two contradictory “pulses” of the San Joaquin Valley, each complete with its own American tragedy. There is the old pulse that still draws thousands of migrants from the depths of Mexico to work in the fields. I recently returned to that ranch in Weed Patch where my grandfather’s story began in America 85 years ago, and I found Triqui Indians from the highlands of Oaxaca digging their knees into the same earth my grandfather dug into. That pulse has not changed. And there is the new pulse that is paving over thousands of acres of the nation’s best farmland with cookie cutter housing tracts and commercial strips, turning a region from Bakersfield to Stockton into a new century’s Southern California. These two pulses will not exist side by side, in parallel worlds, forever. Guess which one will win out. Guess which one will swallow up the other. Big Ag is becoming Big Sprawl. We see it in the story of Dole, which sold out its farms to Paramount Farms but still keeps its development arm, Castle & Cooke.

The San Joaquin Valley now faces the second great transformation in its modern history. Before it is over, demographers and planners say, the nation’s longest chain of sprawling cities will rise here, a 280-mile megalopolis along the spine of Highway 99. The trend seems impossible to stop. Rivers of Farms are becoming Rivers of Suburbia with almost no debate. All this is taking place with the connivance of the federal Bureau of Reclamation, whose managers are meeting in private with real estate developers to siphon water captured a century ago in the name of agriculture.

Right now along the San Joaquin River in Madera, one of the more important legal challenges in valley history is heading to court. It will decide if the sub-dividers or the farmers will hold sway over the river’s water. Farmers such as Giffen have sold thousands of acres along the river to developers such as McCaffrey. The heart of the court case is this: When the river was dammed, the federal government allowed farmers to continue to draw the same amount of water they had always drawn—for farming purposes mostly but also for “domestic” use. Domestic use always has meant that they could use a small amount of water for their house and barn. But developers want to stretch that word “domestic.” They want the federal government to say that domestic means that water can flow not to just one farmhouse but 4,000 domestic farmhouses. So far, the federal government isn’t standing in the developers’ way. A group of farmers along the river are suing. We’ll see what happens.

City after city in the valley is trying to outdo its neighbor by being the first to plant a Super Wal Mart or Target in farm soil. Kingsburg wants to beat Selma and Visalia wants to beat Tulare. Each city competes against the other. Instead of thinking of ourselves as a region--after all, what really separates Fresno from Selma or Selma from Kingsburg—each city competes in a dog-eat-dog way. This is all very reminiscent of something called “The Tragedy of the Commons,” which took place in 18th and 19th century England. This was a time when small farms with sheep and cows shared a common area as pasture. The communal approach worked well for hundreds of years until one farmer got the idea that he could make more profit by expanding his herd and grazing them early--on the spring grass--before his neighbors could graze their herds. Pretty soon, the same idea occurred to the next farmer and the next farmer—we’d better get ours before the neighbor--until the herds grew too big and the common pasture could no longer sustain them. The grass never reached its maturity and died, the commons withered and the herds had to be slaughtered and farms uprooted. The balance had  been destroyed and with it, the community.

Am I a fool for believing that this valley’s birthright is agricultural, that if God intended a place to be something, He intended this place to be farm? Surely there were fools like me in Pasadena and Valenica and Van Nuys who believed those orange groves would always be orange groves. As the land and its ethic are being leveled, I ask myself, “What is left for me in this place?”

The cynic might holler “so what.” One culture built on the damming of rivers, the subsidizing of crops, the exploitation of migrants is being replaced by another culture only slightly more greedy and environmentally destructive. Anyone who makes a case that we must find a way to preserve the farm, anyone who argues that agriculture is the highest and best use of this land, must reckon with its downsides. Our nostalgia may be a nostalgia for a valley that brutalizes. The Mexican-Americans who now sit on city councils and boards of supervisor up and down the valley do not hold this same sentiment. When they vote to turn an orchard into a Wal-Mart, they are not nagged by guilt. Juan Arambula, in a moment of brutal honest, once told me this valley has meant but one thing to his people: exploitation.

We must be prepared for those who drive out Highway 152 toward Los Banos and see all that open land and call us Chicken Littles for jumping up and down and shouting that the farm is disappearing. We must be honest about the economics of small farming. Old farmers attached to the soil that has given them a good life try to hang on, but their children who are professionals or tradesmen are softened by no such love of the land—not when it pays them the same price for plums that they got in 1981. How do we insist that a farmer not exercise his option to sell to a developer when what he faces is a farmer in China who can grow the same crop for half the price? Look at what happened on the west side this month. The garlic processor where hundred s of people worked went out of business because he couldn’t compete with the garlic processed out of China. We keep talking about pushing farming vertically—making sure that we not only grow the strawberries but also dip those strawberries in chocolate and sell them to the world. But what happens when the garlic processor just a few miles from the garlic fields goes under? Nostalgia can’t compete with vineyards and orchards in growth’s path jumping from $20,000 an acre a few years ago to $250,000 today. We must be honest that what we are trying to preserve is a mostly industrialized form of agriculture, practiced with excellence by the Boswells and Paramount Farms and the Woolfes and Harrises. We must be honest about its wages and seasonal employments and the peasant workers it brings our way.

And yet farm gets far too much blame for our woes. Poverty here isn’t solely a function of farm. It’s a function of our being the bargain basement for California. You replace all these farms, which produce something real and bring in real dollars from the outside, with big box suburbia and see if unemployment rate goes down, see if poverty goes down, see if out of wedlock births and drug use go down? As long as we remain a cheap place, it won’t matter if it’s agriculture or a service economy that roots us. We will be the port of entry for the most desperate and needy.

A few years ago, I took this notion that “growth is good, growth is inevitable” to Eli Broad, the father of American sprawl. He had built more houses across suburbia than any other man in America, changing the face of big cities from California to New Jersey. Now, in a  second act that could not have been further removed from those days at Kaufman & Broad, he seemed to be doing penance. As we sat in his Sun America building 38 stories above Century City, his office at the very top, he made a remarkable confession. The way he paved over the landscape was wrong. The growth he and other home builders brought--cookie cutter houses with strip malls on the far fringe of town--was an economic loser. For every tax dollar generated, California sprawl costs two dollars to sustain with roads, sewers, water, parks, police and fire services. So cities take on bond debt to keep the growth going. Each new subdivision pays for the losses of the subdivision before it. It was a giant Ponzi scheme.

“The costs of urban sprawl are very expensive,” he said with a missionary’s glare. “We’ve got to build closer in, higher densities and do whatever’s necessary to save the farmland.” Broad may have seen the light in his second life as an insurance and investment tycoon and philanthropist but his creation—sprawl--was alive and well and eating its way across Los Angeles to the Mojave desert, through the grapevine and down the heart of our valley, the nation’s last great valley.

So here is the question we must face: if farmland is going to be converted into suburbia, how do we best do that? We can say with some certainty that the way we have been converting it is completely ass backwards. A way that doesn’t pencil out. A way that deadens the soul of people. A way that has created  something incredibly ugly.

Cities talk about directing growth to the core in an effort to save farmland, but planning maps show that the vast majority of subdivisions in the valley are being built on the fringe of town, where impacts to farming and costs for roads, sewers and police services are the greatest. In Fresno, for example, nearly 40,000 acres of open land sit in the city’s current sphere of influence even as Fresno is attempting to annex 9,000 acres of farmland on its southeastern flank.

Are we accommodating growth or inducing growth? This latest boom shows we are inducing it by one third. One third of the new houses sold in the past few years were bought by speculators who had no intention of living in those neighborhoods. They were simply trying to flip the land over one more time. More than a quarter of the buyers today are so-called equity refugees who trade in cramped houses in Los Angeles and the Bay Area for 3,000 sq. ft. valley models--with enough cash left over to retire.

As Fresno looks to overtake Long Beach as the fifth largest in the state, officials now project a shortfall of billions of dollars to build streets, parks, police, libraries and fire stations and other facilities to serve the city’s 470,000 residents--and the hundreds of thousands coming in the next 20 years. The reason for the shortfall is plain. In an era when state and federal dollars are tight and politicians are loath to raise local taxes, cities look to developers to pay their fair share of the infrastructure.

And Fresno happens to charge the lowest developer fees of any major city in the state, figures show, not even half of what smaller cities around it are charging.  Instead of tapping into successive growth booms to improve the way the city looks and runs, Fresno politicians have granted the building industry hundreds of millions of dollars in subsidy. 

I first told this story in the early 1990s. I found that Fresno was failing to extract anything from  developers. The conversation was completely different in other places. In San Luis Obispo, for instance, a developer wanting to rezone his land  had to sit down with officials and agree to any number of terms. He had to contribute to a pot for downtown art, say, or farmland preservation. Here, there was no such talk, no such negotiation. We continue to see ourselves as a rural outpost that must dangle goodies in front of developers to get them to honor us with their projects. It all goes back to our inferiority complex.
Even as I wrote that story and two follow-up pieces in subsequent years,  Fresno refused to charge enough developer fees to offset the costs of growth. The infrastructure was collapsing and yet successive mayors, city managers, development directors and city councils failed to raise the fees to even keep up with inflation. Such an increase is required every year under municipal code. Why such a refusal to make growth pay for itself? Because it would mean crossing people with names such as Bonadelle and McCaffrey and Wilson and Assemi and Wathen—men who have become multi millionaires at our expense.

When McCaffrey makes the argument that he can’t afford to build four small roads to serve his subdivision--that anything beyond two small roads would be an unfair burden—he sounds like he’s running a mom-and-pop operation. When he fights against putting a sprinkler in the kitchens of his new models because it will cost too much, he sounds like he’s barely making ends meet. This is the same McCaffrey who spends millions of dollars on advertising alone and builds a monumental edifice as office on the corner of Van Ness and Herndon.

In the aftermath of Operation Rezone, I came across the records of an extraordinary city council session that said everything about the failure of our leaders. Fresno decided in 1998 to finally address the issue of developer fees. Only it wasn’t to raise them. Responding to complaints from builders about too much cost and red tape, then Mayor Jim Patterson, City Manager Jeff Reid and Development Director Al Solis kicked off a campaign to make Fresno more business friendly.

Among their first targets was the one bureaucratic tool that showed whether growth was paying for itself and whether developer fees needed to be raised. Under their plan, developers would no longer be required to pay for economic studies that projected the costs and benefits of their projects. During the public hearing, only one city councilman, Garry Bredefeld, lodged a protest. How could we get rid of the one tool that told us whether a particular subdivision and strip mall was an economic winner or a loser? he asked. As the council voted 6 to 1 to get rid of the cost-benefit studies, Councilman Chris Mathys gave a parting shot. “It’s too expensive, it’s too cumbersome, it’s too much of a headache to do business with our planning department. People in the industry will be happy with it.”

The rationale offered up by elected officials is that high fees drive up the costs of houses. Fees are anti business, fees are hidden taxes passed on to home buyers, fees drive off builders to other cities, they argue. Never mind, that builders are leaving Fresno for Clovis, a city that charges triple Fresno’s fees. Or that the average price of a new house in Fresno has skyrocketed since 1989--without a single fee hike. Never mind that we have built a city in which the traffic lights don’t talk to each other and you hop from one red light to the other, all the while exhaust fumes fouling the air of the most polluted basin in America.

“Of all the cities I’ve worked with, Fresno faces the biggest challenge because its developers have been under funding the infrastructure for so long,” says Bob Spencer, an Oakland-based municipal finance expert recently hired by the city to update its fee program. With its patchwork services, Fresno may be consigned to the status of third-rate city, a place forever in the sights of Wal Mart but not Nordstroms.

“It’s pretty basic. Good infrastructure is what the best industries and retailers are looking for when they locate to a city,” says Walter Kieser, a Sacramento-based consultant who works with both developers and cities on fiscal issues. “In Fresno, they’ve done such a miserable job with the roads, parks, libraries and schools that they haven’t created a nice place to live. Instead, they’ve allowed developers to just maximize their profits.”

Not a single institutional reform grew out of Operation Rezone. As a result, some of the ringleaders  are now lobbying the very public bodies they were convicted of corrupting.  Jeff Roberts, who drove around town with the license plate REZONE,  has become one of the most influential players in the Fresno development scene, landing on a regional committee that decides how transportation dollars are spent and sitting as a full partner with the city as it drafts a new fee program.

Addressing the issue of sprawl means we must acknowledge the larger dynamics at work:

-- The Fresno Development Department works for the developers. Literally. Its revenues are derived from the very fees the department charges developers. Thus, there is no incentive for city bureaucrats to ask hard questions of developers. There is no incentive to act as watchdog. If the city doesn’t grow and projects don’t get approved in a timely manner, the department’s bottom line suffers. We need to change this relationship and start funding the department out of general revenues again.

-- A big part of the overall problem is you. The community’s general indifference. If you read the editorial pages of the Fresno Bee in the 1990s, you will see many letters from people protesting the paving over of farmland and the proliferation of housing projects on the outskirts of town. These same people, led by Selma Layne and others, attended council meetings and got in the face of elected officials and bureaucrats. Back then, a genuine anti-sprawl movement seemed to be gathering steam. Under such pressure, the city council did something it had never done before and hasn’t done since: it actually voted down a proposal to build houses. Now the builder came back many months later and was able to get his project through, but people were actually talking about backing a moratorium against growth. And then it all disappeared.

Today, not even a handful of citizens show up to public meetings, much less question why a project is going forward without a full assessment of its environmental and economic costs. There aren’t enough progressives to challenge the private property crowd, or so it seems. No one comes to protest. It’s as if you’ve been beaten into submission. With no countervailing force in this valley, the yahoos will always hold the day. Complacency is no better than cowardice. It leads to the same paralyzing place. Imagine all of you showing up to City Hall when the next controversial project is debated. Imagine the jaws of developers and their lapdogs on the council dropping.

-- The confusing role of the Fresno Bee  The editorial pages of the paper have worked hard to nip in the bud any talk of a moratorium on growth. When push comes to shove, the Bee doesn’t want to slow down growth. But what if we had a moratorium and said no more growth until those 40,000 acres in current sphere were built out? Or until the fees went up to level that growth pays for itself? Ask the Bee what would be so bad about that?

-- And finally there are the accusations that anyone who talks about slowing growth is an elitist. We suffer from a drawbridge mentality, they say. We are NIMBYS. My answer to them is two-fold. Do we call them elitist when the price of their houses double and triple? When the pure profit they take from each house goes from 60 grand to 120 grand, and middle class people can no longer afford to buy a house? Do we call our local builders elitist when they mine this place, squeeze it dry and pollute its air, and then build their dream house in Santa Barbara? You don’t really care about the poor, they accuse us. If you cared about the poor, Mr. And Mrs. Liberal, you’d want to drive down the costs of housing by charging lower fees and making it easier, not harder, to build. But the truth is if we build a quality community that brings in quality industry and quality jobs and parks and libraries, who does that benefit most? It benefits the poor person. The rich person can have those things with or without the community. If the wealthy hanker for clean air or nice parks, the can get their fill by vacationing in Capitola or Hawaii. So by creating a city of quality, you create a city of opportunity. And who benefits most from that opportunity? The poor and middle class. A broken down city, a city without infrastructure and amenities, hurts the poor the most. The middle and upper class can rise above the deficits of this community. The poor cannot.

There are only so many dollars in a community to invest and if those dollars are always fleeing to the fringe, the core will never be reinvented. I visited Pasadena and Glendale a few weeks ago—two cities that stopped building houses years ago. To follow the logic of our builders, you would think both cities are dying on the vine. But both are booming. And the boom is all taking place in the core. Dollars are being invested in neighborhoods that already exist. We, on the other hand, haven’t achieved a realistic value because we haven’t been charging a realistic cost. We’ve artificially cheapened this place. We’ve created a place that is undervalued. We have to insist that this valley find its real value. We have to insist that growth not hightail it to the fringe of town. If not, we will continue to boast the most concentrated poverty in the nation.

We all have a pretty good idea what our city councils and board s of sups are up to, where they stand on issues of growth and how easily they are bent toward the desires of the boomers. But there is another local agency that we pay very little attention to, and it has a lot to say about our mad dash toward prime farmland. That agency is LAFCO, the Local Agency Formation Commission. It sounds like a mouthful but it’s essentially a state agency at the local level that decides what land in each county should be annexed to cities for growth.  What people often do not realize is that LAFCO’s main purpose is to preserve farmland, to act as a brake against sprawl, to steer growth away from vineyards and orchards and open space. But in Kern, Kings, Tulare, Fresno, Madera and Merced counties, LAFCO’s are acting like rogues.

Let me take you back to a LAFCO meeting in Fresno County in January 2005. Before the commission’s board that day was a proposal by the city of Fresno to add 9,000 acres of farmland to its future growth sphere. This was one of the largest such expansions ever in California. During the hearing, the Fresno LAFCO did something that the LAFCO in Riverside, San Bernadino and Sacramento said they would never do. It failed to consider a wide range of impacts to the air, water and prime farmland protected by the Williamson Act. Then it voted unanimously to expand the growth sphere. 

So the one local commission set up by the state to act as a brake against leapfrog growth has become a consistent rubber stamp for developers. How did this happen? Well consider that no one from the general public was there when the LAFCO board voted to approve the 9,000 acre annexation. Inside the hearing room was a handful of developers and me. The Fresno Bee wasn’t there. The Farm Bureau wasn’t there. Indeed, the president of the Fresno County farm bureau happens to be one of the biggest land developers in the region. Pat Ricchiuti has sold more than 400 acres of vineyards and orchards to Cambridge Homes (Lennar Homes) for more than $60 million over the past few years.

I recently called up Ricchiuti and asked how he could sell so much farmland in Fresno and still wear the hat of the Fresno County Farm Bureau president. He hesitated only a second   “We are custodians of the land, the best custodians, but everyone has a price threshold,’’ he said. “ I do agree that some of the best land is being covered over, but that’s where people have decided to live. They didn’t put Fresno in the foothills. I was surrounded by houses. What was I going to do?”

Even though Ricchiuti has reinvested some of his profits in buying more farmland in outlying counties, it would seem that his two hats are incompatible. He should have the decency to remove the hat of farm bureau president in a county where he has chosen to sell the farm. And yet right behind him is another former president of the Fresno County Farm Bureau, who is converting his own Harlan Ranch into suburbia. The Clovis City Council has given him the green light even though he lacks water and his land was slated for industrial development.

In preparation for this lecture, I spent a few weeks talking to demographers and urban economists, as well as several old timers and natives who decided to leave the valley. What follows is a sampling of what they say about the challenges we face:

-- “You can’t save a place that doesn’t want to save itself. In some ways all you need to know about Fresno is a drive down Blackstone Avenue. It happened 40 to 50 years ago, but if a place can live with a Blackstone, allow it to happen and continue to live with such an eyesore at its heart, then why would it object to all that is happening today? Fresno doesn’t think any better of itself. It believes it deserves that ugliness.”

--About the Regional Jobs Initiative. “I applaud their efforts, but they’re not being completely honest. Most of the new jobs they’re touting are jobs that simply follow sprawl. Basically low skilled and low wage service jobs or construction jobs. It’s a function of an area going through rapid residential expansion. Maybe three out of every four of these jobs are service and retail and 25% are business and professional.” 

--“It may be fatalistic to say that the valley's role today is the same one that it's played all the way back, a way station for people coming from worse economic conditions. We remain the state’s bargain, the port of entry.”

-- “Let’s call this rush to Clovis and places north what it is: keeping one step ahead of the Hmong and the Mexican. Those evangelical compounds on Nees Avenue want nothing to do with people of color.”

My own prediction is that there will be another bust and another boom, another bust and another boom, but the end game over the next half century will not change. We will sprawl out in the manner described and the core will always be left hollow. Consider our place fully warned. What we are pursuing already has been pursued on the other side of the mountain. We have the example of Los Angeles before us. Los Angeles didn’t have Los Angeles as a case study. So we cannot plead the same ignorance. Left to its own devices, the valley will always settle for less. Left to its own devices, the valley will grow into a colossal wreck. It will be Los Angeles without the movie business, without the thriving small industries, without the west side, without the ocean, without the Getty museum and Disney Hall. It will be a place where urban planners will come to study the most stubborn case of sprawl. The air will be worse than anything else in the United States and the entire landscape will bring to mind Mexico City.

This is the worst case. I would be remiss if I didn’t offer up the possibility of another vision, one in which we manage to keep the best farmland and grow in an orderly manner that reinvents the middle. To do this, we must first accept the premise that no local or state agency will come forward with a plan to save us. It will fall to us, one by one, to join hands and declare a new day. Time is running out. Perhaps we have a decade to make this shift, to start planning regionally and stop the tragedy of our commons.

Right now in Merced County, where agrarian voices remain strong, farm advocates are launching a proposal that would have seemed radical a decade ago. Why not declare the valley’s farmland a precious resource not unlike the California coast or the Bay Delta? Such an area, they argue, cannot be protected by local politicians beholden to developers. Instead, land use decision should be handed over to permanent state commission that will be charged with protecting farmland in the name of national security and the need to feed ourselves. This commission will look over the shoulder of local agencies and be empowered to overturn premature annexations and rezones. The plan is to launch a statewide initiative and sell the idea too voters in the Bay Area and Southern California. “Save Farmer John” will be the battle cry. “Save what’s left of our rural roots.” This initiative won’t garner much support from the valley itself. The forces of greed--and those who believe private property rights reign supreme--are too strong. But it might not matter if we can muster strong support from the grassroots. It may be our last chance to save our place.

If we can find a way to honor both our old and new pulses, build a community of quality and sustainability, will might finally stop the brain drain that afflicts us. Only then might we find and keep a new generation of Lew Eatons and Roger Tatarians and Tom Kirwans and Frank Moradians. I look forward to that day……….

The Place star The Last Valley star The Boy Runners of McFarland star The Ghost of Tulare Lake star The Great Ponzi Scheme of Sprawl

Highlands of Humboldt star Legend of Zankou star Stewart Resnick: The Reluctant Farmer

highlandsHighlands of Humboldt


Back in the summer of 1994, when the marijuana growers of California were still outlaws, my mother-in-law, struck with real estate fever, invited us to spend a week in a place called Shelter Cove. Deep in the highlands of Humboldt County, something of a boom was at hand, and she had persuaded her husband, a man of considerable parsimony, to cough up twenty grand to buy three lots situated in the hills above the so-called Lost Coast. Each subdivided property had a view both north and south to the Pacific Ocean, and the sands that washed down from the rivers of the King Range were not white but black. The mountainside gave rise to the primeval glory of redwood trees twenty centuries old and thirty stories high, and the tide pools teemed with immense crabs, and the seabed held vast fields of abalone. Along the shore, the resort’s developers, a syndicate from Southern California, had built an airport with a 3,200-foot-long runway and a nine-hole golf course in the custom of a Scottish links.

My mother in law, exercising her pitchman’s neglect, did not talk about the drive there, except to inform us that it was long and best divided by a short respite in the town of Ukiah. By map, Shelter Cove sat 250 miles north of San Francisco, a straight shot up Highway 101 through the vineyards of Napa and Sonoma and then past the redwood curtain until you reached the outpost of Garberville. From there, only one road connected the world to the Lost Coast, and it appeared in the mapmaker’s pen to be almost benign. I thought much later that there might have been a way to draw that road to give some sense of the terror it would inflict upon the first-time driver. But it did not wind, it did not climb, it did not fall, at least not by the conventions of every other road from mountain to sea that wound and climbed and fell. As a kid, I needed only one ride on the roller coaster at the Santa Cruz boardwalk to know that I would never ride a roller coaster again. This was the Giant Dipper on broken asphalt. It took a full hour to cover the 25 miles from Garberville to Shelter Cove. We arrived at nightfall, too dark to see “the mighty canyons and great mountain peaks and long stretches of thundering coast” that writer Bret Harte had called “America’s uttermost west.” As we pulled up to the rental house, my father-in-law kindly advised us to not park in the weeds. Our brakes,
he said, were hot enough to start a real fire.

The next morning I looked out the window to get my bearings. Where exactly was this resort of Shelter Cove? From one side of the mountain to the other, the world’s tallest trees had been plucked clean. In stretches where the old forest wasn’t bare, a ravenous scrub had taken hold. The developer had done his work, too, platting an entire town of streets and cul-de-sacs. That afternoon, I set out on foot and traced the subdivision’s insistent path up and down the hillside. Lindley Loop. Higgins Court. Shaller Lane. No matter which way I turned, each road, each cul-de-sac, led to nothing. Thirty years before, Supervisor Elwyn Lindley and Planning Director Harvey Higgins and Public Works Director Charles Shaller had stood in the sun with the “blue suede shoe boys from Los Angeles” and imagined 4,000 cottages overlooking the ocean, the single biggest residential development in California. Thirty years later, the county men were gone and the roads bearing their names had faded into ghost trails.

The ocean down below was visible—in some cases the view quite stunning—but many of the parcels were pitched so precariously on the ledge that no house could ever be built there. For the would-be retirees in Texas and Michigan and the military men stationed overseas who had bought the lots sight unseen, Shelter Cove became an epic swindle. Not even the black sand beach was for real, unless, of course, one considered rocks and pebbles, some more crushed than others, to be sand. If the developers had made good on the 3,200-foot-long airstrip, it was only because their con job depended on it. Investors from all over the state were flown in so they might glimpse the Scottish links and Victorian houses taking shape along the beachfront and then be flown out.

This was the play on the afternoon of June 27, 1971, when a DC3 owned by the syndicate landed at the airport with two dozen real estate salesmen and potential buyers aboard. After the customary tour, which avoided all roads washed out by the last big storm, the flight departed. As it lifted off from the runway, the plane clipped the top off the sewage treatment plant and plunged into the sea, smashing into a huge rock and breaking in two. Sixteen passengers died. Shelter Cove as a resort never recovered. The following year, with the land scam as Exhibit A, the citizens of California voted to change the state’s constitution to establish a coastal commission that would place unprecedented restrictions on ocean front development.

By the summer of 1994, my in-laws were standing at the edge of a new boom. They had already pulled permits for one house and had talked their son, a framer, into leaving Alaska and moving to Humboldt County. It didn’t matter that Shelter Cove had no economy to speak of. It didn’t matter that its forty miles of chuck-holed roads led to one restaurant, one bar, one motel. The yap of hammers and saws never ceased, and it was nearly impossible to find anyone in town who wasn’t a builder, and the construction workers were not exactly hippies and not exactly hillbillies but a weird amalgam of the two, and what commerce existed was all done in cash, and the cash carried the strangest odor, something between fresh-ground coffee and skunk, although no one except the outlander seemed to be able to smell it.


After having spent the month of September examining your valleys, hills and table lands; consulting your oldest settlers, ranchers and fruit growers; examining fruits in the old orchards and vineyards that have had but little care, I am even more optimistic than I was last year when I told you that Humboldt County was the most perfect garden spot in America, and that your soil and climate under proper direction would yield millions to future generations, where your redwoods have yielded thousands to the present.  --George E. Rowe, vice president of the American Pomological Society, September, 1913 

Rumors of a massive raid on the ganja gardens of Humboldt and Mendocino counties—the famed Emerald Triangle—lit up the Internet in the early summer of 2008.  “THIS JUST IN: Up to 60 FBI agents may have recently rented houses in Eureka. No confirmation whether it’s connected to the planned DEA actions.”

Marijuana bloggers were nothing if not vigilant, a chatter that seemed to gush out of a mania that hit its stride at three in the morning. Dozens of hotlines had surfaced to share the secrets of plant breeding, hype new strains with holy properties and alert the flock to the stirrings of the drug cops. Fear that the narcs were about to pounce was pretty much a constant state, a buzz that took on more and more paranoiac adornments as summer turned to fall and the buds evolved into musty fruit. These rumors, though, weren’t tied to harvest anxiety. The whispers had begun months before the camouflaged warriors of CAMP (the state’s Campaign Against Marijuana Production) were scheduled to launch their annual raids from the whoop-whoop of military helicopters. These rumors, it turned out, concerned an action that struck a far deeper fear into a culture whose psyche had been reduced to six words on a bumper sticker: U.S. OUT OF  HUMBOLDT COUNTY.

Word had somehow leaked that an FBI agent based in the old logging town of Fortuna was tracking an unusual real estate development known as Buddhaville. A fat Filipino named Robert Juan, a.k.a. Buddha, had put together a syndicate, the Lost Paradise Land Corporation, that had amassed 2,000 acres of timber company land along the border of southern Humboldt and northern Mendocino counties. Juan’s designs, it seemed, had nothing to do with condos in the redwood forest. He had subdivided the land into dozens of smaller lots and was selling off the parcels as part of a gated community for the purposes of growing indoor and outdoor marijuana. Phase One had already broke ground. By the end of Phase Two, dozens of 50-to-100-acre gardens would be cultivating the most exotic strains in the classic ideal of a collective.

Because the feds played by different rules, no grower took the threat of a U.S. raid lightly. The DEA didn’t answer to Proposition 215, the California ballot initiative that allowed marijuana to be grown and distributed for “compassionate” medical purposes. Voters may have had in mind the ravages of cancer and AIDS when the law was enacted in 1996, but in the decade since, 215 had been stretched and pulled in so many different directions that it had lost all meaning, or rather it meant whatever folks in Garberville and Arcata wanted it to mean. It meant that comfortably half the weed grown under the license of health care wasn’t really medical marijuana at all, but the bud of choice for you, me and the world. It meant that marijuana was the single biggest cash crop in all of California, dwarfing the ten-billion-dollar-a-year agricultural bounty of Fresno and Kern—the number one and number two farm counties in the country. It meant that California from the neck up—7,081 square miles, 215,000 people, eighty five percent of them white—operated as its own separate nation. The land had been ceded to the children of the old loggers and salmon fishermen and cattle ranchers and hippies, who after the summer of ‘67 couldn’t afford the rents of San Francisco and flocked to the hills two hours north, grafting cannabis onto redwood country. It meant that nearly every standing thing in a two-hundred-mile stretch from Ukiah to McKinleyville—hydroponic stores, garden shops, irrigation supply houses, fertilizer companies, hardware stores, sushi restaurants, Toyota 4 by 4 dealers, banks, hotels, glass blowers, tee shirt makers, realtors, concert promoters—was almost wholly reliant on the unfettered cultivation of marijuana. It also meant that at any given time, the federal government, desiring a piece of the action, could shut the whole mountain down.

To the grower, the risk weighed out simply. If you furnished more than three pounds of marijuana a year to a patient—a technical violation of California law—you maybe faced a few hundred dollars fine. The very same operation, busted by the feds, could land you three years in the U.S. pen. Thus, the fear of a federal raid, even though such raids rarely occurred more than once a decade, stayed long in the air. “The D.E.A. is on its way!” a blogger blared. “Hundreds of federal agents have booked rooms at the Red Lion.”

By mid June, 2008, a state of alert had fallen upon the Emerald Triangle. Residents began calling police with reports of unusual movements in the still of night. Their neighbors—the names they did not know--were clearing out garages and hauling off irrigation pipes and box lights. Brokers, too, were heading below ground, refusing to sell their turkey-roasting bags stuffed with Purple Kush to any buyer they hadn’t done business with before. The city council in Arcata, the first town in the U.S. to hand out medical marijuana user cards, a place that routinely out-liberaled Berkeley, issued a moratorium on all new warehouses seeking to dispense medical pot.

The whispers and warnings and movements both subterranean and official continued all the way up to the early morning hours of June 24, when residents awoke to a convoy of 450 federal, state and local police—cars, trucks, all-terrain vehicles, three wheelers, mobile communication center, portable toilets—roaring up the hillside. The shock and awe of U.S. Operation Southern Sweep was in full deploy. “It was amazing,” a coffee roaster in Redway remarked. “I’ve seen some convoys go by, but never anything like that.”

Such was the timing that his first thought was the federal government had come not to raid the fields of marijuana, but to help put out the fires that were burning California.


It was late July, a full month after the federal bust, and I was sitting in a backyard in Ukiah, near midnight, surrounded by a Zinfandel vineyard and, closer in, a small orchard of marijuana. If you didn’t know better—and I didn’t—the bushes all looked the same: lush and overdosed on nitrogen and forced upright by the will of bamboo stakes. In reality, some of the plants were Maui and others were Sour Diesel, two distinct varieties that had come to cultivation after years of selective breeding. Inside the farmhouse, one of the growers and brokers I had hoped to meet was negotiating a major sell with two customers who had journeyed all the way up from Bakersfield. Understandably, the mood was jumpy, and so I waited on the porch, drinking a beer with another grower and broker named John Heath (a nom de guerre, as it turned out) who had agreed to act as my tour guide.

I had traveled north to see for myself just how brazen the culture of marijuana had become in the decade since Prop 215’s passage and, if lucky, catch the tensions that seemed to be growing between the old hippies and new hippies. The back-to-the-earth disciples who had brought marijuana to these hills in the early 1970s were now rising up against the “diesel dope” factories that were polluting the salmon rivers and ravaging what was left of the redwood forests. In the days after the federal raid, I had called Bob Ornelas, the ponytailed former mayor of Arcata who had once bragged to Time magazine that he ran his marathon races high on Humboldt bud. Ornelas was so thoroughly disgusted with the way pot had been perverted by the younger generation that he found himself applauding the federal agents as they ransacked the house across the street.

“For a while, I thought my neighbor was a high-class whore because she had so many young men coming and going at night. Then I realized she had turned the inside of her house into a pot farm, and the guys were coming to check on the lights and thin the leafs and make sure the acidity in the hydroponics was right,” he said. “Hang out here for a few days and you’ll see young people, twenty five to thirty years old, spending their marijuana riches like mad. We call them ‘The Tribe.’ They try to put a hippie spin on it, but it’s all bullshit.”

I had taken a room a few miles outside Ukiah at the Vichy Springs Resort, founded in 1854. Though the inn had served a long and distinguished line of guests, including Mark Twain, Gentleman Jim Corbett and presidents Roosevelt (Teddy), Harrison and Grant, it billed itself simply as “Jack London’s favorite resting spot.” The two guests in front of me had pulled up in a mud-caked four by four. The young man had the beak of Frank Zappa, and his dreadlocked girlfriend wore no makeup on a sunburned face. I imagined they were campers coming down from a long hike, needing a room with clean sheets and a place to shower. Angela, the front desk clerk, recognized them as something else.

“Welcome to the famous champagne baths,” she said. “This is the only place in North America where the mineral waters are both warm and carbonated. Millions of little champagne bubbles will cling to your skin.” She then ran down the list of available cabins. The boyfriend kept shaking his head until she came upon the most expensive one. He pulled out three one hundred dollar bills from his wallet and off he and his girlfriend went in the direction of Little Grizzly Creek. Angela then turned to me. “Their money always stinks, but I don’t smell it anymore.”

Now huddled outside the farmhouse with the young grower John Heath, I tried to describe the couple. Rasta Rednecks was the best I could come up with. He knew the type well, he said. More than likely, they lived up the road, north of the county line, in southern Humboldt. So Hum, he called it. A geography and a psychology that existed on the far side of Laytonville, one of California’s cultural divides.

“Laytonville is a fascinating place. It’s where the organic hippie movement with its small scale marijuana gardens meets the industrial grower,” he said. “To the south is us. Mendo. Weed is a spiritual experience here. We grow it in a sustainable way. We grow it in backyards using the sun. To the north is hill country. They do it big, out in the middle of nowhere. They build these huge indoor grow houses and use diesel generators to keep the lights burning. They’re grease monkeys. Their four-wheel drives are beat to shit because they actually use them. They’re hardcore. They listen to reggae. Their girlfriends have dreadlocks. They pride themselves on the weapons they carry and the motorcycles they ride.

“We’re town people, the sons and daughters of the professionals and hippies. They’re hill people, the sons and daughters of the old lumbermen and fishermen.”

When it came time to do business, the town people in this case went to the vineyard people to rent a rural farmhouse, converting the backyard into a pot orchard and the den into a showroom for Mendo’s most extreme weed—up to four grand a pound. Every few minutes, the back door creaked open and out came somebody different, wearing the same “I-need-to-exhale” face. They wandered about the six-foot-tall bushes planted in giant plastic containers under a towering redwood. A few deep breaths later, they stumbled back to the drug deal inside.

John’s partner, his old high school buddy Dennis, was negotiating the transaction. He had shown up at the farmhouse that evening completely high. Instead of “couch-lock,” the paralysis that some varieties of herb were said to induce, Dennis had the opposite problem. He couldn’t stop moving or talking. His friends figured it was some strange amphetamine. Instead of closing the deal, Dennis kept digressing. The two buyers from Bakersfield, a sawed-off Mexican and a USC linebacker-sized black man, had driven up in a Camry. The reason the deal was taking so long was they were sampling each stashed pound, and Dennis was insisting they write testimonials to appear in his online promotions.

Indulging Dennis, the linebacker wrote this: “Purple smoke is no joke. Especially when it is real purple. The smell, taste and high is easily one of the best in the world. One bowl of some purple Kush, and I’m done for a couple of hours... B-man, from Central Cal.”

John was running out of patience. A straightforward dope deal that should have taken twenty minutes was dragging on for three hours. The air outside was turning chilly, but he didn’t seem to notice. He wore cargo shorts and a T-shirt and nothing on his feet. He was a tall, good-looking kid with short blonde hair, clipped goatee and a paunch that had crept up on him in his late twenties. The farmhouse where he now lived, he said, was just a few miles from the house on a fancy hill in Ukiah where he grew up. His mother was a librarian and his father a CPA who had never been a hippie but played the electric guitar and smoked a little weed and leaned in his politics to the left. Then his mother died and his dad remarried, this new wife an evangelical Christian. Now, his father was spearheading the local effort to change Mendocino’s cannabis law, slashing the legal limit of plants from 25 to six.  

“My dad thinks the loopholes in the law have been completely exploited. He’s right, of course. You ask him if he wants marijuana to be legalized and he’ll tell you ‘Yes.’ But if it can’t be legalized, he wants it controlled. The accountant in him hates that so much of it is unaccounted for.”

John was fifteen when he raised his first three plants from clones and stuck them in the backyard where the tomatoes and beans grew. By his senior year, he was farming two dozen plants that his mother watered while he studied abroad in France. The day before he came home, the cops busted a meth lab down the block, and his mom panicked. She hacked down all the plants, the flowers yet to bloom. “That was my first introduction to the heartbreak of this business,” he said. He tried to get away from it—as a college student working part-time for the U.S. Geological Survey, as the French teacher at the local high school—but the money and the rush (“It’s addictive, dude”) always brought him back.

“People have this vague understanding that the Emerald Triangle is the marijuana growing capital of the nation, if not the world. But dude, unless you live here or work in the biz, it’s hard to fathom just how big this business is.

“The lumbers mills are closing and the salmon runs have died. They kept this place running for 150 years. Now it’s weed. Easily, it’s eighty percent of the economy. How many billions, no one can really say, but it’s billions and billions, trust me.”

Come early October, this little backyard, all by itself, would employ eight to ten young women. They would trim the leaves, nip the buds off the main stalks, hang them out to dry and cure the final product in plastic containers. No worker would earn less than forty dollars an hour, very likely the highest piece rate in all of American agriculture. When it was all said and done, the twenty-two plants would yield an average of two and a half pounds each. John and Dennis would walk away with one hundred and sixty grand. And that didn’t count the three grand a month that John made brokering weed for other growers.

“We do everything local. We buy our fertilizers and soil amendments down the street. All our supplies and tools, we buy at Friedman’s. I go out to dinner, buy clothes. All local. And because we’re producing something real that sells across the country, we’re bringing in real dollars from the outside. Walk downtown, look what’s popped up. It’s amazing. That’s all pot, directly and indirectly.”

Not unlike the fruit and nut farmers of the San Joaquin Valley, a handful of growers, perhaps five percent, were making millions, they estimated. But with the higher profile of those millions came the higher risk of a raid. A much larger slice of growers, not unlike themselves, were quietly earning what good lawyers in a midsized town earned. Even so, John and his girlfriend, Annie, American consumers that they were, had no savings to lean on.     
“At one point, Annie and I had fifty thousand dollars saved up,” John said. “We tried really hard to hold on to that.” 

“We tried hard,” Annie said, in a little girl’s voice.

“And we’re not high, dude. We spend no money on drugs. Just smoke a little of our own stuff. Our biggest vacation was going to Disneyland. But shit, that fifty grand was gone in six months.”

“Paying rent, paying bills, paying insurance,” Annie said.

Sitting across from John and Annie was a grower named Kyle, who believed it was less about making money than following a dream. He had come out from Montana two years earlier, a skinny farm boy sensing his destiny wasn’t raising cattle on the Billings range but cultivating the finest Razzmatazz in Mendo.

“I fell in love with bud when I was 13,” he explained. “Going to California. Going to California.’ That’s all I thought about. When I got here, I didn’t look back. This is where I belong.”

If he still dressed in farmer’s cap and Wrangler jeans, it only enhanced his lone wolf status.

“You’re looking at one of the two or three best indoor marijuana growers in the Emerald Triangle,” John said. “The man’s got a serious case of O.C.D. Imagine walking into a grow house and there’s not a speck of dirt anywhere. Spotless. That’s Montana.”

Two students from Humboldt State, who had grown weary of the drama inside, joined us on the porch. The anthropology major said he had observed in growers an emotional stunting that might best be described as “the psychic guilt of marijuana ambivalence.” Yes, by virtue of medical cards signed by friendly doctors, you could grow pot quite freely in these parts. But the law was confused. On one hand, it allowed you to grow twenty five plants, which equated to fifty to sixty pounds of finished product. On the other hand, it was illegal to store anything more than two pounds at a time. The institutional confusion simply grew out of a much bigger societal confusion. Thus, you spent a good part of each day hiding from the cops and your neighbors what you did for a living.

“As righteous as you might feel growing and selling this as a crop,” the anthropologist said, “at the end of the day it’s not corn or cotton or grapes or almonds. You’re still a criminal, and you know it.”

“I want to view myself as a good person,” Kyle said. “I pay my share of taxes.”

“A lot of this backlash,” Annie said, “comes from pissed off people who have to work nine to five and are barely making it. They hate us.”

“My inclination,” John said, “is to be out front. But the impulse of this business is to retreat, and with that retreat comes isolation. In too many of us, it leads to depression and drug abuse. It leads to unhealthy spending habits. We spend to prove that we’re for real. But the dough can only do so much to mask the isolation.”

I wondered if any of them had found a measure of engagement in the political process,  if the war on terror and the assault on civil liberties and the surrender to a deregulated Wall Street had been seen as a call to arms?

“Look, let me tell you this,” John said. “Conceptual thinking is dead. The hippies might have done a great job of doing it themselves. But they forgot to pass that thinking on. Their children don’t know what they’re doing. They don’t know what they want to do. And whatever they’re doing, it has nothing to do with politics.”

They pointed to Dennis, still haggling inside the den with the Bakersfield duo. His parents had left New York and journeyed to California in the Sixties. They raised Dennis and three other children and then split up over different versions of what true radicalism meant. His father still lived in a nearby commune called Round Mountain. His mother had moved to Baltimore to join Father Berrigan at the collective known as Jonah House. In and out of jail, she was still trying to beat nuclear arms into ploughshares.

“If you want to understand what became of the hippies and their children, tonight probably isn’t the night,” John said. “Come back tomorrow, and I’ll take you to Dennis’ place.”


The two-story redwood chalet sat back in the woods on a clearing of meadow so sublime that air and light changed the moment we crossed the gate. The chalet looked out to a pond, grape vines, a garden of vegetables and a small orchard of fruit, so much simple beauty that my eye nearly missed the jungle-thick bushes, twenty five in all, that a man almost as perfect was watering with a hose in the dappled sunlight. “That’s Dennis,” John said. He had a flawless cut of combed back hair and wore Dior sunglasses and no shirt and his shorts slung low enough to show off the top of his green boxers. On the deck, standing in the full sun, was a tall redhead with giant breasts in a purple halter dress. In the sky, atop a tree limb for a pole, flapped the rainbow-colored peace flag of his mother’s Jonah House. “Welcome to my farm,” he said in a voice that gave each word a waver.

Whatever had happened the night before hadn’t stopped him from a full morning dressing the topsoil of his marijuana with a mocha mix of bat guano. “Weeks ago, during the vegetative stage, I used a high-nitrogen bat guano to pack on the leaves. This stuff is  more mellow, slower on release, and heavier on the potassium. Perfect for the blooming stage. You can have the fattest bush in town, but without the flowers, it’s just rank green.”

The apple, pear, cherry and walnut trees, the tomatoes, squash, cucumber and corn, the Maui erupting from one-hundred gallon nylon-mesh planters—all of it was proudly organic. He let pennyroyal run wild because it snatched nitrogen from the air and stuck it back into the soil. Whatever dropped down from the blue and valley oak, he welcomed for its microbial matter.

“It’s all about the soil. Pests, mold, poor production--it all goes back to weak soil,” he said. “I spend most of my time building up the soil’s profile. I use really strong chicken shit. And all the watering I do is by hand. Drip doesn’t work with herb. It wants too much water.”

Unlike indoor pot, where the lighting was manipulated to produce more bud than leaf, outdoor marijuana grew like koi in a pond—as big as the space you gave it. Indoor plants were harvested once every two months. Outdoor plants were harvested once a year. Indoor plants, done right, yielded one pound for every halogen light that shined upon them. Outdoor plants, using the sun, yielded two and half pounds each. As far as quality went, indoor plants produced more resin and a stronger buzz and thus sold for a premium.

For John and Dennis, the choice wasn’t theirs. The microclimates of the Emerald Triangle dictated the method of growing. If you lived in Salmon Creek or Arcata, fighting the cold mists of the coast, you grew indoors using diesel or electricity. If you lived in the hot and dry of Mendo, the garden you grew was outdoors.

“We get one shot at it,” Dennis said.

“One harvest,” John said.

“So if you get popped, you’re done for the year,” I said.

They looked at each other and snickered.

“So how much at risk are you guys really running?” I asked.

“Zero,” Dennis said.

“Zero,” John said.

“We always work within the guidelines,” Dennis said.

“We’ve got the required paperwork for two dozen plants,” John said. “But if we wanted to push the guidelines, we’re allowed five times more.”

“That’s one hundred and twenty five plants,” I said. “You’re talking more than 300 pounds a year. That’s a million dollars.”

The calculation was a long way from the commune in San Francisco where his parents took their vows against the war machine. Dennis said he and his three siblings lived in buses and in the back of a shop in Ukiah, where his father did graphic design between protests. For a long time, he tried to carry their causes. He left high school to live with peasant workers in Central America. In college, he learned how to gin up a pirate radio station from the father of Berkeley Free Radio, and he and John, pals since the eighth grade, ran the hottest station in town--102.9 FM, no commercials, uncensored tunes—until the FCC shut them down.

“My parents gave me this wider view of the world, and for that I’m grateful,” Dennis said. “I’m even glad for the experience of growing up in buses and in other illegal arrangements. But I never wanted to live my life the same way.”

He had finished watering, and we were sitting on the back porch, the sun straight up,  glinting off his Diors.

“So how do your parents feel about this?” I asked.

“I’d be lying if I said they’re happy. For them, pot is just another way of selling out. But my dad is beginning to realize that there’s more to it here. There’s a movement inside.”

“I guess one thing has stayed the same,” I said. “The feds are still big and bad.”

“Can you believe their little field trip? In the middle of the worst fires ever in California, 450 drug agents ride to the rescue.” he said. “And when the smoke clears, all they’ve got to show for it is 10,000 plants and not a single arrest?”

No one in Mendo was exactly crying over the demise of Buddhaville, the planned pot community that would sprawl across the two county lines. The project was classic So Hum—big and brazen and contemptuous of the environment. The feds did manage to seize ten million dollars in land and houses. And indictments by the federal grand jury were expected to follow.

So far, John and Dennis had managed to fly under the radar. John had designed a more efficient distribution network to increase the pounds trafficked between northern and southern California. Dennis was the grower who was taking the profits from one backyard and pouring them into another. In a matter of three seasons, he had realized his own Shangri La for the price of four hundred and fifty grand. Anywhere else in California, the meadow by itself was worth two million. This, though, was Mendo, where the living was cheap and the only economy that counted was the underground economy.

“Here we’ve got a code,” Dennis said. “You don’t get too big, you donate to political campaigns and you treat your neighbors with respect. You give back to the soil.”

His girlfriend’s parents were coming over to see the place, and he had to cut our visit short. “You’re welcome back anytime,” he said. As he headed up the garden path, he stopped and pointed at his mother’s flag flying over the Maui. “It looks beautiful up there, doesn’t it?” he said.

Only after Dennis disappeared into the lush canopy did John make a confession. Not everything in his best pal’s garden was organic. This girlfriend, the last girlfriend, the girlfriend before that. “They come to him flat and always end up with these enormous  plastic tits,” he said. “Like everything else, they’ve got marijuana to thank.”

I was headed to a meeting in So Hum, but John had a few more places he wanted to show me first. We stopped at a “grow house” called Hydro Pacific where shelf after shelf had been stacked with bone meal, fish meal, folic acid and live soil inoculants from Hawaii and Amsterdam. John and the clerk swapped cultivation tips for five minutes without ever once uttering the word “marijuana” or “pot” or “ganja” or “herb.” There wasn’t even a wink. The indoor garden display, complete with oscillating fans and exhaust ducts and CO2 emitters and lights on a motorized rail, was all set up to go. The plants serving as props were a tomato, a bell pepper and an eggplant. In the parking lot, a fork lift driver was pushing loads of soil amendment bagged in camouflage, as if destined for a war front.

“That’s for the guerilla grower in the mountains, “ John said. “They plant straight into the bag, and the bag is already camou-ed so you don’t have to worry about a CAMP helicopter spotting you from the air.”

We made our way to Friedman’s, the local hardware store. It had been built on the scale of a Home Depot but operated with a completely different sensibility. The aisles of the Home Depot in Ukiah were no different than the aisles of the Home Depot in San Diego. Friedman’s, on the other hand, knew exactly who its customers were. There likely wasn’t another hardware store on the West Coast that carried this many brands of irrigation timers, this many stacks of rigid wallboard insulation, this many bins filled with high-end trimming scissors. For Benny Friedman, who had died that month at the age of 90 and whose obituary was plastered across the front and back doors, it was all about serving a demographic.

“Friedman’s stocks oscillating fans in the middle of winter,” John said. “Who else in their right mind would do that?”

We drove through downtown and past the house on the hill where he grew his first  plants and then out on Orr Springs Road, which ran all the way from Highway 101 to the coast. In the hills of pine and oak where the asphalt turned to dust, he stopped his truck at crest and gazed into the last of the sun. “This raw beautiful territory is one of the earliest spots,” he said. We had come to the gate of the Greenfield Ranch, the first or at least the longest-running marijuana collective in California.

“This entire swath extends about ten miles. This is where the hippies from the Summer of Love came as part of the whole back-to-the-land movement. Can you believe that they bought this hillside for a hundred bucks an acre?”

“How many families?” 

“Somewhere around thirty. Think about how many of their friends came up to visit from San Francisco and latched onto this idea of a marijuana kibbutz. This is where it began. And the original settlers are still here.”

We drove back to his place in Redwood Valley and shook hands goodbye. As I got into my car, he pointed me north in the direction of So Hum.

“There’s something you need to know about where you’re going. Garberville, per capita, has the finest women in the world. Girls with facial features that are unbelievable on bodies that are unbelievable. ‘Dude, where am I? I’m in Garberville? Why is there like five of the most beautiful girls I’ve ever seen in my life working in the local coffee stop?’”

He had been an excellent tour guide, and a fine backyard sociologist and historian, to boot, and so I asked him if he had a theory to explain it. He did, of course.

“In the days before Prop 215, you could make four grand a pound for crap weed. And these guerilla growers were doing it big. They drove Ferraris and built million dollar estates. They did wild world traveling and brought home the finest trophy wives they could find. So you have all these hot looking fifty-year-old mothers and their even hotter-looking daughters. Tall and thin and super built with exotic faces and names like Chia.”


This wasn’t the California I learned as a kid. Father Junipero Serra didn’t journey this far north, not by a long shot. There were no missions here, no padres with rawhide whips, no neophyte natives planting the first vineyards and wheat fields and digging the first irrigation canals, no Spanish land grants seized through wholesale scam by the European industrialists of San Francisco, no Chinese or Japanese or Mexicans brought in to build levees and railroads and harvest vineyards and orchards and vegetable fields. This was a land too rugged for even the most rugged of the fur trappers. There was a harbor, yes, but its opening was so treacherously narrow that it frightened off the captains of the discovery ships. The approach by land was even more of a bludgeon, coastal mountains that extended some one hundred and fifty miles beyond the beach. Not until the Gold Rush, almost a century after Serra and his band of Franciscan friars began the taming of the American West, was the silence of the north broken. The first white man to colonize these parts carried timber in his blood. “Her pioneers were men of brawn, largely from Maine and Nova Scotia,” read the History of Humboldt County, California, published in 1915. “While the sturdy pioneers were carving their fortunes from the primeval forests, the red men were not strangers to the war dance and the poisoned arrow.”

Such was the state of isolation that by 1854, four years after California had joined the Union, the natives of the Whitethorn Valley still had not seen a white man. Such was the fever of conquest that by 1864, just ten years later, the entire society of Sinkyone, Yurok and Karok had been destroyed. What was the wiping clean of one culture and the planting of another if not the prosecution of an American holocaust? The execution may have been more haphazard than the genocides and Holocaust to come, but it was no less efficient for the means available at the time. “The people of the county are driven to madness by the red-skin scourge that has long been preying upon their lives and property. They are impatient to have the county rid of it,” read one of the first editions of the Humboldt Times.

They got rid of it by exacting a revenge that held to the calculus that for every white man killed by an Indian, one hundred and fifty Indians needed to die in return. This is what happened in Weaverville in 1852 and again on the night of February 25, 1860 when “a secret society of settlers” crept ashore Indian Island in Humboldt Bay and proceeded to massacre “every man, woman and child they could find,” wrote Humboldt historian Ray Raphael. They did not stop until nearly three hundred natives had been slaughtered. Bret Harte penned an angry editorial and was fast run out of town. The grand jury convened but failed to turn up a single clue identifying the offenders.

It made sense that a place so cut off would be accountable only to itself, exile begetting lawlessness. Once the settlers got accustomed to taking, it didn’t matter if it was the Indians or the U.S. government they were taking from. Out West, through the Homestead Act, land could be purchased for $2.50 an acre, as long as the buyer swore off speculating or turning over his deed to a third party. The law somehow didn’t apply to the California Redwood Company in San Francisco, controlled by a wealthy syndicate out of Edinburgh, Scotland. The company scoured the streets and signed up hobos and sailors who were paid anywhere from five to fifty dollars to file a claim for cheap land. As soon as the deed became theirs, they handed over the land to the syndicate. In this way—the same way it was being done with great stretches of farmland in the Central Valley—64,000 acres of virgin redwood timberland became the domain of a handful of robber barons.  

California had already witnessed the Forty-Niners turn its northern rivers into great scours for gold and eight thousand Chinese coolies tear through the granite of the High Sierra—some days progressing no more than ten inches with steel drills that bent like licorice—to lay the tracks of the Central Pacific. The extracting of red gold from the Humboldt mountains was no less an act of rapacity. Early on, there were no train tracks and no roads through the redwoods, and each piece of equipment for the mill towns that rose up on the Eel and Elk and Mattole rivers had to be carried in by mule. The felling of the trees was done in summer so that by early fall the riverbeds were piled high with huge timbers. To move such a mass to the mill, the loggers built dams along the rivers and waited for the autumn rains to fall. Dams brimming with water, they then lit dynamite and blew open a crater, sending an awesome wave of water and mud and timber down the canyon. To harvest the groves beyond the river, the loggers built “skidroads” out of small timbers that were then slathered with grease so the oxen, yoked and harnessed, might easier pull the haul. These miners, with their honky-tonks and stills and outhouses situated directly over the streams, lived no lighter on the land. When they wanted fish to eat, they simply drained the millponds of all but the most shallow pools of water; so many salmon and steelhead got mired in the mud that even their dogs gathered at river’s edge to feast. The few natives hired to help, men called Indian Ike and Big Charlie, had to turn away their eyes.

The industrialization of the redwood forest kept up this way for the better part of a century, small mills gobbled up by bigger mills until the mountainside was owned by Georgia Pacific and Louisiana Pacific and Sierra Pacific. Then, one by one, thanks to deforestation and poor management and tree huggers turned tree sitters, the mills began to slow and shutter, so that by the time I arrived in Garberville in late July 2008, the headline shouting from the front page told of the last day of the venerable Pacific Lumber. A contentious bankruptcy battle was sending the 150-year-old company into new hands: the Humboldt Redwood Company, owned by the Fisher family, of Gap stores fame.

“Even though the last few years have not been the best, I hope you will always be proud of having been a part of this great company,” president George A. O’Brien wrote to employees that day. “If you stay with Humboldt Redwood or the Town, I know you will give it your all, because that is what you have always done. So good luck.”

If you didn’t count the twenty year reign of Charles Hurwitz, who had leveraged the junk bonds of Michael Milken to harvest the old-growth groves, Pacific Lumber had been much loved here. Locals said the pain of its slowdown would have been more widely felt had the economy not shifted years ago. Consider Alderpoint, the tiny town outside Garberville, where thirteen mills once followed the Eel River up the canyon. The last of those mills, owned by Louisiana Pacific, had shut down in 1982. “We’ve been without a mill for 25 years,” said Ed Denson, an Alderpoint resident since 1980, when he moved his mail-order record company from the Bay Area. The former manager of Country Joe and the Fish, the opening band at Woodstock, Denson was now one of the most successful marijuana defense attorneys in the state. His one-man office, an old chicken coop, sat crooked on thirty acres of rolling hills that looked out to Pratt Mountain.

“The loggers denuded the mountain and then the cattlemen and sheep men came in behind them, and everyone who could get out got out,” he said. “That’s when the hippies moved in and started growing pot. The rednecks hated them until they figured out that they could make money, too. Then a funny thing happened. The children of the rednecks and the children of the hippies married. Now all you’ve got growing on this mountain is marijuana.”
The blending of the two was far from complete, it seemed. That evening, in the old Veteran’s Hall in downtown Garberville, residents were holding a community meeting on the growing problem of “diesel dope.” I got there early enough to meet the half dozen organizers who were setting up. The first to arrive was a man in a crème yellow 1953 Chevy pickup, sweetly restored, with a bumper sticker that read: Diesel Dope: Pollution Pot. He was in his late sixties, skinny, clad in sandals and jeans, and the locks of his blonde hair draped down to meet the immense gray of his beard. It was the head of a lion on the body of a grasshopper. I introduced myself and asked his name.

“Hardy,” he said.

“First or last?”

“Hardy Har.”

He said he had been on the run since 1971 when he was a campus leader of Students for a Democratic Society and shouted “mother fucking pig” at Gov. Ronald Reagan during a speech at Cal State Fullerton. From that moment on, the cops were on his case. Facing a stiff jail term for selling hash, he jumped bail and fled to Humboldt County, where he joined a commune of pot smokers. “Now, 37 years later, we’re rising up in protest against the industrial marijuana grower,” he said.

For a long time, Hardy and his friends couldn’t decide what, if anything, to do. Here was a collision of two of their most cherished values: the freedom to grow pot and the obligation to save the environment. The first value had led them to build a marijuana society here; the second had propelled them to fight Hurwitz and the other clear cutters of the forest. Now a series of diesel spills were contaminating Salmon Creek and other streams, and the old hippies were printing out fact sheets and bumper stickers. The time had come to confront the growers of diesel dope.

“There’s a way to grow marijuana that doesn’t degrade the drinking water and kill off the salmon,” he said. “That’s why we’re here tonight, though I’m not sure any of the diesel boys are going to show.”

A professional facilitator had written a set of admonishments on a large piece of  butcher paper: Be Respectful. Be Open to Different Points of View. Expect Unfinished Business. The lawn chairs started to fill, fifty in all, many of the men looking just like Hardy Har, many of the women wearing clogs and long skirts and clutching hemp bags. There were no Chias here.

The basic facts were quickly agreed upon:

Most of the cannabis grown in the Emerald Triangle was now produced by sophisticated indoor grow houses powered by large diesel generators.
It took seventy five gallons of fuel to produce one pound of indoor pot. That was the same as the average car making one trip from California to Texas.
The particulates in diesel exhaust were the most significant source of air toxins in California. A high percentage of rural fires were caused by indoor grow houses.

Officials from the D.A. to the sheriff to the county judge to the local building inspector were turning a blind eye.  Many indoor gardens were infested with pests that had to be sprayed. Those chemicals were in your pot. Then the discussion began, a little tentative at first with several speakers looking in my direction as I took notes. A tarot card reader named Juna Berry informed me later that  the whisper working through the hall was that I was a DEA agent. Maybe this explained why a number of folks chose not to identify themselves.  

Young man with goatee and baseball hat: No one wants to talk about how we’ve been silenced by political correctness. It’s sad that I’m one of the few young people in this room. We’ve lost our voice. A lot of the old timers don’t want to speak out either because they’ll be accused of being hypocrites. “You grew, and now you don’t want us to grow.”

Middle aged man with scraggly beard: It’s not about growing marijuana. It’s about the kind of marijuana they’re growing. The problem goes back to a spiritual tear in our society. It goes back to mammon.

Francis Ford Coppola look-alike: We’re talking about preserving what’s left of the forest and watershed. Think of the great horned owl perched out there trying to listen for the sound of mice in the grass. That owl can hear nothing but the din of the diesel motor. MMMMMMMM.
Middle-aged man with ponytail: There’s a huge blaring sun outdoors. Why go inside? It boggles the mind.
Tall woman vegetarian: Because the marketplace demands indoor pot. There used to be honor among thieves, but Prop. 215 had made people mad with greed.
Woman who grew up on farm: We live in an enlightened community, and I expect we can come up with our own plan to solve this problem. I don’t want to use the word “regulation,” but we need to apply gentle peer pressure to change this behavior.
Smart lady: We need to kick around the idea of a public education campaign. Pitch stories to High Times magazine about the environmental harm this dope is doing. We need to reach the young.
Coppola look-alike: We’ve got an ecological disaster on our hands. We need to stop these greedy assholes with a lawsuit.
It was past eight when I made it back to Garberville’s main drag and finally caught the vision in John Heath’s eyes: the tall, tanned trophy wives and daughters of the O.G.’s,  flocked in front of Flavors coffeehouse. I smiled at the dead-on of his adjectives, but I was too tired to linger. I stuck a Swisher Sweet in my mouth and tried to locate the adrenaline for the long drive to Arcata. Word on the street was that the uproar over indoor dope had aroused vigilantism in the college town on the other side of the Humboldt Bay.


“They say I’m on a crusade. I’m not on a crusade. What I’m doing is fully consistent with trying to report a story. All I do is come out, takes notes and take pictures. Old fashioned community journalism.”

Kevin Hoover, editor-in-chief of the weekly Arcata Eye, was feeling a little defensive. He had been under attack from the marijuana faithful for the past six months, ever since he began compiling a list of suspected grow houses in town. “Weed Nazi,” they called him, though it wasn’t a label that exactly fit. Hoover had dope smoked his way through community college and was the kind of journalist who saw too much ambiguity to be a  genuine muckraker. His bent for irony was on full display in his local Police Log, where he took the noise complaints and hit-and-runs and public drunkenness of a small town and turned them into limerick.

But now Arcata, the town he had grown to love, was under siege. Residential tracts were being converted into factories of marijuana. Whole blocks were being industrialized. Dope growers, he believed, made for the worst of neighbors. Like opossums, they kept to themselves and moved furtively at night. Lights in their eyes, they hissed and bared their teeth. With four and five grow houses on every block, neighborhoods were being hollowed out. College students and working class families could no longer afford rents. And then the house fires. Who, if not the editor of the local rag, needed to awaken the citizenry?

“I don’t give a flying fuck that they’re growing marijuana. I’m as much a ‘U.S.-out-of-Humboldt-County’ guy as the rest of them,” he said. “But when I see neighborhoods going dead, that’s when I get riled up. Don’t grow in the middle of town. Don’t gut perfectly fine houses.”

He was an overweight man in his mid fifties who wore a cap over his balding head and beard on his double chin. He was giving me the same “grow house” tour he had given to The New York Times a month before. Every week, another neighbor or jogger or old lady walker sent him a new address to target. If the suspect house was a rental, he’d write a letter to the out-of-town owner. Your house shows the telltale marks of a marijuana grow: darkened windows, funny smell, PGE meter whirling like a Frisbee. You may want to pay a little visit to the renters. If the house was occupied by the owner, he’d knock on the door and ask a few questions—all very polite, nothing beyond the pale of journalism.

“I say, ‘Hi, I’m Kevin from the Arcata Eye. I’d like to talk to you about growing. Is this part of a medical marijuana club? Or are you selling in the open market, which the law doesn’t allow?’’’

We were headed to Beverly Drive, the epicenter. “I don’t turn them in. I’m not a cop. But the exploiters of 215 have done their best to conflate a wonderful hippie heritage and tolerance for smoking recreationally and medically with a cynical money-making enterprise. And that’s a story.”

We parked in front of a house with a detached garage and a new eight-foot-tall fence. “This is a grow house all armored up. You can make a quarter million dollars a year off a garage like this.”

In a middle-income neighborhood known as Sunny Brae, he asked me to stop the car alongside a redwood house. He dashed out, sneaked a peak at the PG&E meter and ran back. He was out of breath. “Grow house for sure. Full tilt boogie. You can smell it. You can hear the ventilation system. And the meter was spinning nuts.”

On A street, he pointed out the house that a few months earlier had been tagged by an angry citizen with the word GROW. Hoover had left his card, asking the renter to call him. A week later, the house was raided by the local drug task force. He headlined the story, Tagged Grow House Turns Out to be Just That.

“Some residents are advocating vigilante campaigns. They’re pissed off because when the cops do go inside, often they find shotguns and meth. We’re all about having a barbecue in the backyard with our neighbors, playing the Grateful Dead and sharing a joint. An armed enclave next door? What kind of shit is that?”

We drove west of town to a section called Pacific Union, the home of Sun Valley Floral Farms, the biggest industrial enterprise in Arcata if you discounted marijuana. Martha Stewart had once visited to inspect the farm’s world-famous floral bulbs.

“We’re coming up to the house that was rented out to these slob growers. Total idiots. They were knocking holes in the walls with hammers to run wires and ducting. Of course a fire started. They had 30 cases of butane inside. Lucky the whole thing didn’t blow up.”

A crew was putting the final touches on a $55,000 repair job. The contractor saw us parked out front and walked over to chat. Most of the year, he said, he worked for General Electric. During the summer months, he did carpentry.

“There’s not a construction worker in this county who hasn’t helped build an indoor grow,” he said. “I’ve helped build some of the damnedest houses. Designed to look like a home, but on the inside there was nothing. Just a shell. No floor. No sheetrock. Stand out front and you swore it was a house. They even put a swing set out front. But there were no kids inside. Just a million dollar pot garden.”

The Arcata City Council, struggling to find a way to regulate but not really regulate the mess, was holding its weekly meeting. On the way over, I stopped by the local branch of the Bank of America to deposit a check. As I stood in line, my ear began to pick up a sound I had not heard before, at least not in a bank. Ch-chut, ch-chut, ch-chut, ch-cut, ch-chut, ch-chut. From one teller’s station to the other, I could see little machines humping to keep up with a cascade of cash. Customer upon customer, satchel after satchel, the washing of redolent twenties, fifties and one hundreds. When I made it up front, the teller could see the out-of-towner’s bemused smile on my face.

“Nine thousand, nine hundred and ninety nine dollars,” he said. It was the magic number, a dollar shy of the bank having to notify the federal government of a “suspicious deposit.”

Inside the council chambers, which gave the distinct impression of being inside the belly of a whale, five council members sat in perfect embodiment of the town: all white, all well-spoken, all very liberal except for one vanilla Republican. The youngest council member, the favorite of the pro-cannabis crowd, was actually named Harmony Groves. She had grown up down south in El Monte, watching her father die an agonizing death from cancer, wondering why the palliative of pot was not an option.

“I don’t deny that indoor grow houses are a problem here,” she told me over dinner at Tomo’s Japanese Restaurant. “But if you listen to Kevin Hoover, you’d think the whole town was overrun with them. He says one in five houses are grow houses. But I’ve walked two campaigns door to door. To me, it’s more like one in fifteen.”

This didn’t mean the council was sitting on its hands, she said. She and her colleagues were seriously considering curtailing the local law that allowed one hundred square feet of marijuana plants for every medical card. Fifty square feet per card sounded like a more rational number. And she, as well as Kevin Hoover, were pinning hopes on a new marijuana dispensary in town operated by Eric Heimstadt, a drug counselor who had once served time at San Quentin.

“You ought to go see what he’s building,” she said. “It’s a state of the art dispensary that will help ensure that only true patients are getting medical marijuana.”

The next morning, I managed to finagle a tour of the facility, an old Quonset hut off the quaint main square of Arcata. Heimstadt, another child of the Summer of Love, had been  inspired by a recent reading of the King of the Castle, a history of the Bronfman dynasty. Led by ruthless Sam Bronfman, the family had risen from bootleggers to the founders of the Seagram’s empire, in part by using the cover of medical licenses to dispense illegal booze.
“Like Sam, I want to work with the authorities,” Heimstadt said. “I want to take the illicitness out of pot.”

He then outlined an audacious plan that began with him becoming an official Medi-Cal provider, a status that would allow him to build dozens of greenhouses along the Santa Barbara coast, the perfect clime to produce tens of thousands of pounds of high-grade cannabis. Then, in the tried and true of McDonalds, he would corner the distribution market by franchising hundreds of dispensaries up and down the state.

“We’d have completely transparent books,” he vowed. “The state of California could look at every inch of our operations. I’d be the good guy of pot.”
Deep in the interior of the hut, he had something to show me. Past the nurse’s office, past the patient’s room, through one door and then another, the air grew thick and began to hum. He hit a few numbers on a coded pad and opened the last door. There, in the middle of the room, under twenty shoebox-sized lights, were the lean but powerful plants of an indoor marijuana grow, a secret garden that only his closest advisors had seen. Forty eight plants produced twelve pounds of bud every eight weeks. For the time being, until the city lifted its ban on dispensaries growing their own product, it was illegal.
“This is the model I’d take from Crescent City to San Diego. I wouldn’t be a greedy bastard. With the economy of scale, I’d be able to undercut everybody else.” He stopped  there, letting the image sink it. Not of Sam of Seagram’s, but of Sam of Wal-Mart.  
“Medical marijuana would be mine. Maniacal laughter would peal across the land.”


I came to the redwood forest
    Off Highway 101
    Going to a Reggae concert
    Where all the Humboldt hippies come
    I bought some Rasta jewelry, I bought some Rasta clothes
    I even showed up this year with a ring right through my nose
    Those Reggae songs they make me cry
    The people fight and the people die
    While I just sit here and get high
    I think Bob Marley’s really grand
    I’ve got a snow cone in my hand
   And to the Reggae groove I move my feet
   Just as long as I stay out of the heat
   This revolution can’t be beat
-- Darryl Cherney

On the way down the mountain, I hustled a ticket to Reggae Rising, the biggest outdoor Reggae festival in the West, I was told. For three days, the cops locked outside, tens of thousands of redneck hippies, tie-dyed hippies, Stanford hippies, Jamaican hippies camped out along a bend in the Eel river to smoke dope and eat Greek food and listen to the four-bars-then-a-drum-snare-then-a-verse descendants of Marley. I arrived as the sun was setting on a Friday night. On the shuttle in, I sat across from one of the diesel dope growers, a giant of a young man with the face of Yurok Indian, who was too stoned, too belligerent, to give me much. “We look kind of like hippies, but we’re not. Dude, how many drugs are we going to do down here? I fucking popped a bunch of Ecstasy and puked all over the carpet.” He wore stitches over one eye and carried a pillow and sleeping bag and held hands with a girlfriend who seemed to have lost all patience. The family in front and the family in back started to cough, and then the whole bus began to cough, and I was sure we were headed to a convention of consumptives.

The colors of Jamaica were everywhere, and girls in bikinis were swaying to the music and children in dreadlocks were running from booth to booth. So much smoke was swirling up from the little round valley in the canyon that I thought it must have appeared, from high above, as one big bowl lit with Kush. I had a pass to the back stage where bartenders was serving drinks to the connected people. I sat down by myself and lit another Swisher, and up walked a woman in her late twenties, sloppy in every way. She said she was a student at Humboldt State and then asked if I believed in God.

“Here at Reggae?” I asked.

“Tell me why I should believe in him? Why shouldn’t I live as if he didn’t exist because if he existed I wouldn’t be living the way I’m living.”

It was a curious piece of logic, not so different from the self-regarding logic of the believer.

“Down the road, I’ll have a change of opinion and all this excess will be forgiven, right? Isn’t that what the Born Agains do?”

I stayed for two hours. On the shuttle back to the Benbow Inn, a Jewish hippy from New Jersey, who had flunked out of chef school and come West to find something new, saw me taking notes.

“Are you a writer?” 


“Would you mind critiquing this?”

From his backpack, he pulled out a two-page essay titled “Not Your Same Old Reading” and began to read:

“We are the robot generation. All aspects of our lives consumed by technology.” It went like that for four long paragraphs, but he stopped after the first. The next morning, as I loaded up my bags, I read the rest:

“I’m to embark on a spiritual quest tomorrow afternoon. I’m going to separate myself from society for three to four days in the woods of northern California. This is to do some very important things. First to separate myself from cigarettes and daily consumption of alcohol. Second is to disconnect from my cell phone and everything robotic. Third, and lastly, is to deepen my connection with Mother Earth. I, Daniel Leiber, do not recommend going out in the woods or any unknown territory for any period of time, if not properly prepared. But please know that I am taking the necessary precautions.”

I missed my children and thought about going to see them in Shelter Cove, where they were vacationing for two weeks, but there was that hellish drive and at the end of the drive was their mother, who didn’t want me there. I barreled down the mountain to the strains of Elvis Costello, past the Little Leaguers of Willits, past the Red Tail of Hopland, past the cellars of Healdsburg, past the Golden Gate Bridge. I thought back to a scene in Eureka a few days earlier in the basement of the sheriff’s department. I was talking to Sgt. Wayne Hanson, Mad Dog, as the growers of Humboldt knew him, and after recounting twenty years of forest battles with the guerilla white boys and now the Mexican cartels, he made a sad confession. “I hate to say this because it sounds like I’m throwing in the towel, but they need to legalize marijuana. Because we’ve lost the battle.”

I asked how he and his crew were able to keep on in the face of such futility. Easy, he said. Two years ago, they seized 130,000 plants and last year they seized 350,000 plants and this year’s helicopter raids, which would kick off the first week of August, would surely bring in another record haul. If it was never more than five percent of what was growing in the hills, if their success was its own indictment, it didn’t matter to the powers that be. They had their game to play, just like the marijuana boys. Call it risk management or bureaucracy’s need to self preserve, but the cops weren’t going anywhere. In the Highlands of Humboldt, they were stuck chasing their tails. The more pot they seized, the more pot they needed to seize.

The Place star The Last Valley star The Boy Runners of McFarland star The Ghost of Tulare Lake star The Great Ponzi Scheme of Sprawl

Highlands of Humboldt star Legend of Zankou star Stewart Resnick: The Reluctant Farmer

Legend of Zankou


In a mansion in the hills above Glendale, a man named Mardiros Iskenderian rose from bed one recent morning and put on a white silk suit he hadn’t worn in twenty years. He stuffed a 9-millimeter handgun into his waistband and a .38-caliber revolver into his coat pocket and walked step by small step down the stairs. His wife, Rita, who had fallen in love with Mardiros when she was twelve, couldn’t believe it was him. For a man who was so near death, cancer everywhere, he looked beautiful. It had been months since he had ventured outside by himself, months since he had driven one of his fancy cars, and she fretted that he was too weak to go anywhere. He told her not to worry. He was feeling much better now, and besides, he was only going to Zankou Chicken to see an old friend.

He had lived his life like one of those princes of Armenian fable, maybe Ara the Beautiful or Tigran the Great. The fable began in a tiny storefront in Beirut, where his mother wearing her apron hand-spooned the fluffy white garlic paste that would become their fortune. From Hollywood to Anaheim, he had opened a chain of fast-food rotisserie chicken restaurants that dazzled the food critics and turned customers into a cult. Poets wrote about his Zankou Chicken. Musicians sang about his Zankou Chicken. Now that he was dying, his dream of building an empire, one hundred Zankous across the land, a Zankou in every major city, would be his four sons’ to pursue. In the days before, he had pulled them aside one by one—Dikran, Steve, Ara, Vartkes—and told them he had no regrets. He was only fifty-six years old, that was true, but life had not cheated him. Everything he had ever wanted to do, he had done. He did not tell them about the one piece of business that still remained.

There was one son, the second son, Steve, who always seemed to know what was on his father’s mind. He was the son most like Mardiros--his smile, his temper, his heart. Had Steve been home that day, he might have sensed trouble or at least insisted that his father not go alone. But Mardiros had sent Steve off to the local mall to fetch him a slushy lemonade, the only thing he still had a taste for. By the time Steve got home, the lemonade still icy, his father was gone. The boy would forever question whether it was design or chance at work that January day. Was this errand a ruse, part of his father’s last plan, or had he simply failed to hurry home fast enough?

“Steve, something bad has happened,” his mother cried at the door. “There’s been a shooting. At your Aunt Dzovig’s.”

“Where’s Dad?”

“He’s gone.”

“What do you mean, he’s gone?”

“He took the car. He said he was going to Zankou. But I don’t believe him now. They heard shots at Dzovig’s.”

Dzovig was Mardiros’s younger sister, as pretty as he was handsome. She lived in a big house on the other side of the Verdugo Hills with her husband and two sons. She managed a pair of Zankous for Mardiros and had taken on the chore of caring for their mother. Of course, everyone knew this was no chore at all because the mother, Margrit Iskenderian, the creator of the garlic paste and most every dish worth tasting at Zankou, was a woman who pulled her load and the load of three others.

The drive to Aunt Dzovig’s house that winter day in 2003 was a winding seven miles. Steve ran every stop sign, racing down one side of the canyon and up the other. As he rounded the bend and the Oakmont Country Club came into view, he could see the TV news helicopters circling like vultures.
“No, Dad,” he shouted. “Please, Dad, no.”

Up the hill, where the canyon oak gave way to palm trees, neighbors were spilling out of their million-dollar estates. Police were everywhere, and his aunt’s house, front to back, had been cordoned off. He jumped out of the car and made a dash for it. He could feel himself running with the lean of a man who had every right to whatever reality existed on the other side of the yellow tape. A detective halted him short.

“Who are you?”

“I am Steve Iskenderian.”

“Who are you looking for?”

“Mardiros Iskenderian. I am his son. Is he inside?”


“Is he dead?”

The cop wasn’t sure how to tell it to the son, so he told it straight, answering only the question posed to him. “Yes,” he said. “He’s dead.”

For a moment, Steve felt a strange relief that only later would he attribute to his gratitude that his cancer-ridden father had finally found release from his suffering. Then, almost in the same instant, it occurred to him to ask the question that he already knew the answer to.

“My grandmother and aunt. Are they dead, too?”

The cop stared into his eyes and nodded. “Yes, they’re dead too.”

The police had questions, and Steve tried his best to answer them. On the drive home, he had to forgive himself for allowing his mind, at such a moment, to consider the family business. Who would take over now that his father and grandmother, the heart and soul of Zankou Chicken, were gone? His mother, Rita, by design, had never worked a single day at Zankou. His older brother, Dikran, was a born-again evangelist whose fire took him to street corners, and a younger brother Ara was addled by drugs. And no one was more lost than Steve himself. Just three years earlier, he had been charged with shooting at a prostitute and her pimp and had faced a life sentence. The case, as luck would have it, ended in a mistrial. He did have two cousins, Aunt Dzovig’s sons, who were capable enough. But how could they be expected to work beside the sons of the man who had murdered their mother and grandmother?
“My God, Dad,” he said, climbing the hillside to give his mother the news. “What have you done?”


In the weeks and months and years to follow, five years to be exact, the Armenians of Glendale, Hollywood, Montebello, and Van Nuys, and their cousins up and over the mountains in Fresno, told and retold the story. “Let’s sit crooked and talk straight,” the old ladies clucked. There was no bigger shame, no bigger ahmote, than an Armenian son taking the life of his own mother. And who could explain such a shame from a man like Mardiros Iskenderian? He was the same son who had honored his mother on Mother’s Day with lavish ceremonies at the church, celebrations in which Margrit Iskenderian, short and plump, her salt and pepper hair cut in a bob, was invariably crowned queen. Wherever they went as a family, he made his wife take a seat in the back so his mother could sit beside him. For twenty five years, she had lived with Mardiros and Rita and their children, her bedroom the master bedroom, where a single photo of her and her son, in 1950s Lebanon, graced her dresser. Each day at 6:00 p.m., when Margrit returned home from her long shift cooking at Zankou, Rita was there to greet her at the door. So why, after all those years of devotion, did Margrit Iskendarian leave her son and move in with her daughter Dzovig, a breach so complete that mother and son would share words only one more time--the words that preceded the gunshots?

The old ladies gave answers, some less cruel than others: The cancer that filled Mardiros’s body had gone to his brain. He was thinking like a crazy man. No, it wasn’t cancer, it was the scars from growing up in Lebanon with a father who was the drunkard of Bourj Hamoud and a mother filled with bitterness. No, haven’t you heard the talk about the Pepsi company offering the family $30 million for the Zankou chain and trademark? Greed, at last, split the family house in two.

Others insisted there was no sense to be made of it because life made no sense, death made no sense. Yes, we Armenians were the first people to accept Christianity as a nation, way back in 301 a.d., before the Romans, before the Greeks. But to answer this question of why Mardiros Iskenderian killed his mother and his sister and then himself, Armenians had to reach back to their pagan past, to a way of seeing older than the Bible itself. Pakht, they called it. Fate. Jagadakeer, it was muttered. Your destiny is etched into your forehead at birth. What is written no one can change.
Thus, from Turkey to Beirut to Hollywood to Glendale, from the genocide to the garlic paste to the mansion to the murders, it was all foretold.


Rita was an Armenian Catholic schoolgirl growing up in the suburbs of Beirut in the late 1960s when she first set eyes on Mardiros Iskendarian, the bad boy gunning his banana yellow 442 Oldsmobile up and down the lane. When he blew the engine, he turned up the next week with a brand-new 442 Olds, this one burgundy. The pampered son of Zankou Chicken hardly noticed Rita Hovakimian, who was seven years younger. He kept a rooftop apartment across the ally from where she lived with her family. From balcony to balcony, she spied on him. She got her money’s worth.

“There was no missing him. He always came and went with big noise,” Rita said. “His reputation as a playboy was very bad. Arab girls, Maronite Christian girls, Armenian girls, single girls, married girls. For me, he was the most beautiful guy in the world. Nobody was like him. His smile was gorgeous. His hair was gorgeous. He wore the most beautiful perfume. He was always dressed in Pierre Cardin or something. And when he would open his mouth, out came the charm. What more did a young girl want?” Her parents had forbidden her from seeing any boy, much less a man with his associations. A few years earlier, Mardiros had been implicated in a notorious jewelry store heist and murder, an inside job by three Armenians who had killed the handsome scion of one of Beirut’s wealthiest Arab families. Not knowing that his friend was one of the three robbers, Mardiros let him use his apartment. Only later did he discover the stash of jewels in the attic. His testimony ended up sending the trio to prison, and from that day on, alert to revenge, he carried two pistols wherever he went.

The gap in their ages seemed to narrow as Rita blossomed into a tall beauty with big round eyes. They began meeting on the sly, Mardiros tossing her messages in an empty cologne bottle from the roof. For three months, they kept their relationship hidden, until a nosy Armenian neighbor saw her riding in his car and told her mother. It became a big family scandal, with lots of threats back and forth. In the end, her parents knew they were deeply in love. She was nineteen; he was twenty six. Their wedding came amid the fierce fighting of Lebanon’s civil war. She wore a full white gown, but he wanted no part of a tuxedo. His Angels Flight pants touched so low to the ground you couldn’t tell if he was wearing shoes or not.

They shared a two-bedroom walk-up in the crowded Armenian quarter of Bourj Hamoud with his parents, his two sisters, and his mother’s mother, a survivor of the Armenian genocide. Right below was Zankou Chicken, the take-out they had named after a river in Armenia. There was no cash register, no table, no chairs. They used every square foot to clean and salt the chickens, roast them inside a pair of rotisserie ovens, and keep the golden brown wholes and halves piping hot. Customers parked on the one-way street, ran in, handed the cash to Mardiros’s father, and ran out with their steaming birds and dollops of pungent garlic paste.

“It was a drive-thru before there were drive-thrus,” recalled Garo Dekirmendjian, a Beiruti Armenian who befriended the family. “The mother would be standing in the mezzanine in her apron, cleaning the garlic cloves and whipping up her paste. And the father was a cash machine. All day long the same movement, his right hand stuffing wads of money into his left shirt pocket and pulling out the change. Mardiros was helping turn the chickens when he wasn’t having fun.”

Rita understood that Mardiros' position in the family--first child, only son--gave him an exalted status. The prince. The pasha. In time, it would shoulder him with a great burden. But she was confounded by the degree of devotion between mother and son. “Before we married, he told me, ‘I am going to live with my parents my whole life. I will never leave my mother.’ I figured this was my pakht. But it was too much. ‘My mother. My mother.’ She was the queen of the house, not me. Next to God, it was his mother.”

Unraveling the family dynamic was not easy. Her father-in-law, a smart and generous man, disappeared on long bouts drinking. Day and night, from bottom floor to top floor, her mother-in-law worked. Even if she was compensating for her husband, her capacity for labor bordered on the maniacal. Rita wondered if Mardiros simply felt sorry for his mother and sought to honor her service. Or maybe deep down he understood that no one who worked so hard did so for free. He had watched her punish his father with the guilt of indebtedness. Maybe Mardiros feared that his own debt would be turned against him if he didn’t pay her back with absolute allegiance. Whatever it was, Rita felt swallowed up by their world.

Stuck inside the apartment with baby Dikran, she could smell the aroma of Zankou floating through the cracks. This was as close as she would come to the business. Her job, set down by custom, was to raise her children and tend to her mother-in-law’s mother. So each day, without complaint, Rita finished rocking the baby and listened as the old lady told her story of survival, of the Turks rounding up all the Armenians in her village of Hajin in the spring of 1915, and herding them on a death march to the Syrian desert. Was it jagadakeer? Her mother-in-law said she came upon the skull of a dead Armenian and picked it up. She looked at the forehead to see if any words had been written there, but there weren’t any. “She said she learned that day that there were no words to read. For her, the only words were God’s words.”

The survivors had streamed into Beirut by the thousands and formed a new Armenia in the “Paris of the Middle East.” They built sixty Armenian schools and published ten Armenian-language newspapers and held sway far beyond their numbers. Without them, the Muslim Arabs would have ruled the country. With them, the Christian Arabs kept a narrow edge. It stayed that way until 1975, when the civil war upended everything. The Iskenderians, like so many other Armenian merchants, didn’t want to leave. Zankou was a gold mine, and they poured the profits into rental properties throughout the city.
Then one evening in 1979, the war struck home. Mardiros was sitting outside one of their empty storefronts, not a block from Zankou, when two men on motorcycles sped by. He had no reason to suspect that a dispute over rent with an Armenian tenant, a man connected to a political party, would turn violent. But the motorcycle drivers, wearing masks and clutching AK-47s circled back around. They fired dozens of rounds, hitting Mardiros with bullet after bullet, sixteen shots in all. They say it was a miracle he didn’t die right there.


Mardiros had always been a student of maps, but what he found when he came to America was something else. “Rita,” he shouted from a back room. “These Thomas brothers. What geniuses!” They had taken a city that made no sense to itself and given it a structure, a syntax, that even foreigners like him could fathom. Here was a whole bound guide of maps that divided up the sprawl of Southern California into perfect little squares with numbers that corresponded to pages inside. Turn to any page and you had the landscape of L. A. in bird’s eye: parks in green, malls in yellow, cemeteries in olive, and freeways, the lifeblood, in red. He pored over the maps at night, reviewed them again in the morning, and then took off to find his new city. By car and foot, he logged hundreds of miles that first week, close to a thousand the next. He was looking for the right business in the right location and wasn’t in any particular hurry. They had come with plenty of cash.

One thing was certain. His parents, looking for something easier, wanted no part of the food business. There would be no Zankous in America. They settled instead on a dry cleaning shop, only to find out that the chemicals made Mardiros sick. Father and son traveled to Hong Kong to explore the trade of men’s suits, then decided the business wasn’t practical. The deeper Mardiros journeyed into Los Angeles, the more he bumped up against the growing pockets of immigrants fresh from the Middle East. No restaurant seemed to be dedicated to their cuisine, at least none that served it fast and delicious and at a price that would bring customers back. So in 1983 he went to his parents and pitched the idea. His father resisted. His mother cried. They threatened to return to Beirut. In the end, sensing their son’s resolve, they consented.

He picked a tiny place next to a laundromat on the corner of Sunset and Normandie—could there have been an uglier minimall in all of Hollywood?—and erected a sign with block letters in blue and red. ZANKOU CHICKEN. Before long, the Arabs and Persian Jews and Armenians found it. So did Mexican gang bangers and nurses from Kaiser Permanente and the flock from L. Ron Hubbard’s church, who methodically polished off their plates of chicken shawarma, hummus, and pickled turnips and returned to their e-meters with a clearness that only Margrit’s paste could bring.

This wasn’t Beirut. Mardiros put in long hours. He tweaked the menu; his mother tinkered with the spices. It took a full year to find a groove. The first crowd of regulars brought in a second crowd, and a buzz began to grow among the network of foodies. How did they make the chicken so tender and juicy? The answer was a simple rub of salt and not trusting the rotisserie to do all the work but raising and lowering the heat and shifting each bird as it cooked. What made the garlic paste so fluffy and white and piercing? This was a secret the family intended to keep. Some customers swore it was potatoes, others mayonnaise. One fanatic stuck his container in the freezer and examined each part as it congealed. He pronounced the secret ingredient a special kind of olive oil. None guessed right. The ingredients were simple and fresh, Mardiros pledged, no shortcuts. The magic was in his mother’s right hand.
Word of a new kind of fare, fast and tasty and light, spread to the critics. The L. A. Times called it “the best roast chicken in town at any price.” Zagat anointed Zankou one of “America’s best meal deals.” No one was more breathless in his praise than Jonathan Gold, the guerrilla warrior of city chowhounds. Gold called the chicken “superb, golden, crispy skinned and juicy,” but declared that nothing in heaven or on earth compared with the garlic paste. “A fierce, blinding-white paste that sears the back of your throat, and whose powerful aroma can stay in your head—also your car—for days. Go ahead, Ultra Brite; go ahead, Lavoris; go ahead, Car Freshener. My money’s on the sauce.”

The hole-in-the-wall was raking in $2 million a year, half of it pure profit. In Mardiros’s mind, the family was growing and the business needed to grow with it. This is America, he told his parents. We’ve got something good. Let’s duplicate our success. His parents, hands full with one Zankou, were dead set against an expansion. Mardiros kept pushing, though, and in 1991 the family agreed to a split. Mardiros would take the Zankou concept and build a chain across the region. Any new restaurants he opened, success or failure, would belong to him. In return, he would sign over his stake in Hollywood to his parents and two sisters. The split was hardly a parting. The garlic paste still would be prepared by his mother and used by all the Zankous. And as a favor to sister Dzovig, he would pay her a salary to manage some of his new stores. Nothing, he assured them, would change at home.

After so many years playing the pampered son, Mardiros now saw himself as the patriarch, a role that became official after his father’s death. Over and over, he preached the same: success means nothing if we don’t stay as one. Greed must never rear its head. There is plenty for all of us. He loved Dzovig’s two boys like his own, and he knew she felt the same way about his sons. The boys were more like brothers than cousins. They lived only a few minutes apart in Glendale and attended the same private Armenian school. Dzovig would take them each morning, and Rita would pick them up. A gang of six, they climbed the hills, rode bikes, played video games. They had the coolest toys, the latest gadgets. If they were spoiled, and they were, it came with the turf. As the grandchildren of Margrit, each one was something of a food snob. No one’s cooking could measure up to hers. She made the best lentil soups, the best raw meat and bulgur che kufta. She wasn’t big on hugs or kisses; she could be downright stern, but she wanted her grandchildren to know what good food tasted like. When they turned up their noses at her sheep’s brain soup, she bribed them with $20 bills just to get them to take one sip.

Mardiros didn’t need to travel far to find his next spot. Glendale was a city made new by three successive waves of Armenian refugees, first from Iran, then from Beirut, and now from Armenia itself. He picked a less grimy minimall squeezed behind a gas station for Zankou number 2. As soon as it began turning a profit, he found a spot in Van Nuys for Zankou number 3. Then came Zankou number 4 in Anaheim and Zankou number 5 in Pasadena. His white house, way up in the Verdugo Hills, was now known as the home of the rotisserie chicken mogul. It sat higher than the mansions of doctors, lawyers, and investment bankers. Only a porn king looked down on him. He and Rita drove a Jaguar and a black Mercedes-Benz. They had live-in servants. Yet it wasn’t the kind of wealth that let them lounge around playing golf or tennis. When Rita wasn’t tending the boys, she was feeding and bathing Mardiros’ ninety-seven-year-old grandmother. As for Mardiros’s mother, Margrit, it was true she had high tastes and wasn’t afraid to indulge them. She had her own seamstress and dressed in the finest silks and wools. But more often than not, Margrit’s tailored clothes were covered by the apron she put on each morning at 7:30 sharp. When she finished preparing dishes for the customers, she began cooking delicacies for the employees.

As for Mardiros, he spent his days hopping from Zankou to Zankou. He did the payroll, made sure the food tasted right, and timed the customers from the second they walked in to the second they were served. When he wasn’t working, he was catting around with his gang of rich buddies. He went to Vegas with them, to Cabo with them. Every so often, he’d pile Rita and the kids into the Mercedes and take them to his favorite Chinese restaurant. This is what passed for family time. If he felt bad about neglecting his wife and children, he tried to make up for it by giving to the Armenian community. He gave to schools, dance troupes, and starving artists. He gave to orphans and widows and soup kitchens back in Armenia. He gave so often that a cartoon in one Armenian-American newspaper showed two doors leading into Zankou. One was for food, the other for philanthropy. All in all, he had done what he had set out to do. At night, out on the balcony, he sat in his chair and could see all the way to Catalina Island. He’d take his telescope and look up at the stars and then look back down at the twinkling lights of Los Angeles. He belonged here. This was his place now. He and his Zankous had become part of the map.


He could feel the pain down below growing worse. He figured something terrible afflicted him. Next week, he told himself, next week. By the time he got to the doctor, he was told it was too late. The cancer in his bladder had spread to his rectum. Chemotherapy would buy only a little time. He broke the news to Rita and the boys the best he could, and then he gathered his mother and sisters in the living room to tell them. He was going to fight it, he said, but if he died, he wanted them to know this: his sons—Dikran, 25, Steve, 23, Ara, 18, and Vartkes, 17—would be taking over his Zankous. The room fell silent. His sisters, Dzovig and Haygan, seemed tongue-tied. His mother sat stone-faced. She didn’t ask what kind of cancer he had or what kind of prognosis the doctors had given him. Instead, as she put down her demitasse of Turkish coffee, she blurted out in Armenian , “Your sons. The shadow they cast is not yours.” Then she rose, walked up the stairs to her bedroom, and shut the door.

Each one of his boys, it was true, was struggling to find his place. Vartkes, the youngest and perhaps the brightest, was using his allowance to buy marijuana. Ara, pent up and quirky, was addicted to painkillers. Dikran, the oldest, had found the Lord and was preaching salvation during the day and telling his brothers at night, in bed, that they were all headed to hell. He had become a born-again after a scandal in 1997 that cost him his dream of being a lawyer. A top student at Woodbury University, Dikran had been caught in an elaborate scheme to cheat on the law school entrance exam. He paid a fine and served probation, but no credentialed law school would ever accept him.

For Steve, it was a different weakness. He had gone to the 777 motel in Sherman Oaks on a winter night in 2000 to meet a call girl. He didn’t know she had a listening device broadcasting to a pimp, who then stole his money. Steve gave chase down a freeway, and shots were fired at the pimp and the prostitute, hitting their car. Steve was charged with two counts of attempted murder and bail was set at $1.4 million. If the verdict didn’t go his way, he faced life in prison. As it turned out, the prosecutor made a small blunder during the trial, telling the jury about a prior crime that Steve had committed when, in fact, it was his brother Dikran. His attorney, Mark Geragos, objected, and the judge declared a mistrial. Steve pleaded guilty to a lesser crime, did a year of work furlough, and was let go.

In days that followed the news of his cancer, Mardiros couldn’t help but notice that his mother’s behavior toward him had changed. She would come home from work, Rita would greet her as usual at the front door, and she would walk right past him and into the kitchen without a word. No “How do you feel today? No “Are your treatments working?” She would pour a glass of water from the refrigerator, turn around, and walk upstairs to her room. He wouldn’t see her again until the next day, when she would stage her silence all over again. His hair fell out, he lost sixty pounds, but not once did she seem to notice. It didn’t occur to Rita that her mother-in-law might be miffed about Mardiros’s desire for his sons to take over the business. After all, Margrit had opposed the expansion from day one, and Mardiros alone owned Zankous 2, 3, 4, and 5.

This went on for more than a year, not a word spoken between mother and son. Mardiros might have taken it upon himself to ask what offense he had committed to deserve such treatment. But all he had left was his pride. Then one day, while his mother was away at work, he walked into her bedroom and reached atop the dresser and grabbed the photo of him and her when he was a child back in Lebanon. He could see that she had the faintest smile on her lips as she was leaning over to hug him. Her prince. Her pasha. He took the photo out of its frame, tore off the side depicting his mother, lit a match, and watched it burn. Then he folded up his side of the photo and threw it away. A day or so later, as it happened, the house caught fire. Flames shot up from the maid’s bedroom downstairs. He and Rita were stuck on the balcony, choking on smoke, when the fire fighters finally rescued them. They packed what they could and went to live at a hotel in Glendale while the house was being refurbished. It was the next to last time he would see his mother. She had taken all her possessions and moved in with Dzovig.

Over the following year, as he lay dying, his mother never once called him. Neither did his sisters or his nephews. His treatments had caused fluid to build up in his brain, and he was thinking all kinds of crazy thoughts. He told Steve about setting the image of his mother on fire, and how that image had come back to light the blaze that had burned the house. In more rational moments, he thought that a mother capable of disowning her son in the hour of his greatest need, a son who had dedicated his life to her, was capable of engineering great mischief when he was gone. Yes, the Zankous he had built belonged to him alone, and he believed the trademark was his, too. But how could he be certain that his mother and sisters wouldn’t challenge the inheritance of his wife and sons?

His head began to throb, the pain so severe that his sons had to take turns rubbing his skull with their knuckles. He told Steve he was certain that his mother and sisters were plotting against him. He could barely stand up, but each week he made Steve drive him to the two Zankous that Dzovig managed and open the safe so he could count the receipts. Steve, conflicted by his love for his grandmother, asked his father if he could ever find it in his heart to forgive her. “God will forgive the devil before I can forgive my mother,” he said. “Because this is a mother, not the devil.”


He rose from his bed on the morning of January 14, 2003, took a shower, and got dressed. His wife would recall his putting on a white silk suit that hadn’t fit him in years. Only now, after losing so much weight, could he wear it again. He reached into the closet for his .38-caliber revolver and stuck it into his coat pocket. Then he jammed his 9-millimeter semiautomatic Browning into his waistband, next to his diaper. The gun held eleven rounds, and he scooped up nine extra bullets just in case. As he walked down the stairs and said good-bye to Rita, he had no intention of going to Zankou Chicken to see an old friend. He had telephoned his sister at work and arranged a meeting with her and his mother to discuss family affairs.

He maneuvered his black BMW down the steep canyon, looped along La Crescenta Avenue, and climbed the backside of the mountain until he reached the split-level brick and stucco house on Ayars Canyon Way. He parked out front, walked up to the tall entrance past two sago palms, and knocked on the door. He was now wearing a dark brown jacket with gray pants. Perhaps he had changed clothes on the way over, or maybe his wife’s memory had played a trick, dressing him for a last time in white silk. The housekeeper led him into the dining room where his forty-five-year-old sister, Dzovig Marjik, was standing. She was wearing blue jeans and a long-sleeved brown sweater. Her hair was curly like his, as if she had just gotten out of the shower, and it was tinted an odd red. She asked him to take a seat at the dining table and poured him a glass of lemonade.

He chatted pleasantly with her for a half hour as he waited for their seventy-six-year-old mother to come home from work. When Margrit Iskendarian walked in a little after 2:00 p.m., she was carrying a big box of food. She set it down on the kitchen table, put on her white slippers, and greeted his sister and then him. The housekeeper poured his mother a glass of lemonade and topped off his glass and the glass of his sister. Then she walked downstairs to her bedroom to let the three of them—mother, son, and daughter—talk.

His sister sat across from him, and his mother to his right. His voice was calm. Their voices were calm. He waited about five minutes, for the conversation to go from nothing to something, and then he reached for the gun in his waistband. He grabbed the handle, put his finger on the trigger and extended his arm across the table and over the pitcher of lemonade. He fired once into his sister’s brain. The bullet knocked her off the chair, and she fell face down on the granite floor. He then turned to his mother. She was screaming and running toward the door. He chased her down about fifteen feet short of it and stood in front of her. He raised the gun and waited long enough to hear her plead for her life. “Don’t shoot. Please,” she said in Armenian. “Please don’t shoot.” He fired once into her chest, and she staggered backward, falling flat and face-up on the floor. He stood over her, straddling her body. She looked up at him and raised her right hand. He fired a second bullet, a third bullet, a fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, and eighth. Each one he aimed straight into her heart. She was wearing a beautiful silk top, the color of eggplant, but he couldn’t tell. She had died with her apron on.

As he looked around the room, he could see his twenty-three-year-old nephew, Hagop, trembling halfway up the stairs. He didn’t say a word to the young man he had once regarded as his fifth son. He turned away and walked a dozen paces to the leather couch in the living room. Then he sat down, pointed the gun at his right temple, and fired one time.


On an early winter afternoon not long ago, five years after that day, the widow of Zankou Chicken sat in her little office in the back of the Pasadena restaurant and stared into her computer screen. Live images from each Zankou, the four her husband had built and the two she had opened since, popped up with a mouse click. Every car in the parking lot, every customer standing in line, every worker taking an order or manning a spit of meat, from Burbank to Anaheim, came under her gaze.

She studied the movements the way she imagined her husband had scrutinized them from his perch inside each store, looking for signs that the service wasn’t fast enough, or the food good enough, or that a employee, God forbid, might be stealing. She had her cell phone at the ready in case her sons needed to reach her to discuss business or some difficulty in their lives. This had become Rita Iskenderian’s vigil, watching her stores and bird-dogging her sons for any sign of trouble. A life-size photo of Mardiros, mustache drooping, middle-aged body thick in a suit, handsome still, kept watch on her. She looked up and shook her head.

“I didn’t have time to cry. I had to get out of bed. I buried him and fifteen days later I was running this business. I was not a working woman. I had no position. No ground. But I know how important this business is. That is what my husband built. I have to be on top of it. I am doing for him. Everything for him.” Her English was broken by the backward phrasing and accent of a woman who carried Syria and Lebanon in her past. The smoke from two packs of cigarettes a day had turned her voice husky, and her whole manner had the weight of weariness. When a smile did come, she’d catch herself and put it away before anyone could notice. And yet she had managed to keep a sense of humor, a kind of gallows giggle, that life, luck, had turned out the way it had. Only when you got to know her well enough did she betray a hint of the anger she felt toward Mardiros. Her disquiet was not only for what he had done to her and her children and the rest of the family but also for what he had done to himself, the stain across his name.

“It’s a shame that a man of this value has left behind this thing. Because he was a man who gave all his soul. He never said no to anybody. What his mother did to him, I cannot explain. What his sister did to him, I cannot explain. Can jealousy explain this? Can foolish pride? Five years later, it is still a mystery to me.”

She regretted not putting aside her own pride back then and visiting his mother and sister. Maybe she could have helped broker a peace and kept the whole thing from happening. What had taken place in those years since was its own crime. She and Mardiros’s surviving sister, Haygan, had been best friends since childhood. After the deaths, they had met and consoled each other, and Rita continued to make gestures of reconciliation. But then the lawyers marched in, and a war between the two sides broke out. If Mardiros had intended to erase family entanglements and leave the business to the next generation, he had left behind an even bigger mess.

His registration of the Zankou trademark had lapsed in 2000. Rita believed the chain’s good name belonged to her as part of the 1991 split. But during probate, she received a letter from lawyers representing Dzovig’s two sons who intended to challenge her claim. She filed suit and the matter went to trial. In late 2006, to the displeasure of everyone involved, the appellate court ruled that the trademark belonged to both sides. Rita’s in-laws and one of her nephews then countered with a lawsuit of their own, alleging wrongful death and seeking tens of millions of dollars from Mardiros’s estate. Their lawyers, however, had failed to file within the statute of limitations, and it was dismissed.

Rita didn’t discourage her sons when they talked about the love they still felt for their cousins and the desire to be one family again. But she was sure the other side was thinking up ways to take the Zankous from them. Indeed, her two nephews and sister-in-law, who would not speak publicly about the matter, were preparing a new lawsuit to not only take full control of the trademark but to wrest away one of the two houses owned by Rita and her sons. “It never ends,” she said. “It never ends.”

She opened her office door and walked down a long hall to the front of the restaurant. A giant map of Los Angeles, lifted from the pages of a Thomas Bros. guide, shouted a welcome to customers. Two Armenian cashiers, smiles from the old Soviet Union, took orders. Rita poured herself a soda, parted the black plastic curtain, and entered the main kitchen for all six of her Zankous.

Mexican men in yellow T-shirts with ZANKOU written in red were cleaning chickens, slicing chickens, marinating chickens, skewering chickens. They sent to the ovens 48,000 pounds of Foster Farms roasters and fryers each week, 2.5 million pounds a year. Blood dripped off their knives, down a gutter, and into a drain. On a big black stove, twenty stainless steel pots filled with garbanzo beans—next week’s hummus—bubbled on the fire. Bins brimmed with tahini, the sesame seed paste, and mutabbal, the creamy roasted eggplant dip, and tourshe, the long thin slices of pickled purple turnips. The skewers, both horizontal and vertical, were piled thick with beef and chicken. From the inside out, the fat sizzled, dripped down, and coated the meat, turning the exterior into a delicate caramel. This was the dish that Mardiros had invented, the best-seller they called tarna.

Against the far wall, a Formica table and chairs had been set up gin rummy style. Four ladies, two from Mexico and two from Armenia, sat all day performing a kind of circumcision. They took every clove of garlic that came whole and peeled from Gilroy and excised the tiny stem at the tip. Bud by bud, they cleaned 1,500 pounds of garlic each week. “You would think they stink of garlic," Rita said, gesturing toward the women. “But get close and all you smell is soap.”

Of all the possibilities, no one had thought that the widow who had never worked a day at Zankou would be the one to step into her husband’s shadow. Her sons didn’t think she could do it. She wasn’t sure herself. Together, they had grown the chain by adding a store in west L.A. and one in Burbank, the fanciest of the bunch. For the most part, though, it was still a mom-and-pop. She took her workers into her extended family, for better and for worse. She paid them more than the minimum wage and provided free food for lunch. Many had stuck around for years; only a handful had left disgruntled.
She didn’t apologize for being a hard driver, a stickler for quality. Indeed, her insistence on using only the best and freshest ingredients, and cooking everything from scratch, was cutting into profits. The cost of tahini alone had doubled in the past year. Back in Mardiros’s time, profits from one store opened the next. In the case of Burbank and west L.A., Rita had to take out large loans on her house. She had no choice but to raise prices, so that a plate of chicken tarna now ran close to $10—the danger zone for fast food.

“Everybody thinks we are making millions,” she said. “Would you believe it if I told you that the one Zankou in Beirut was making more money back then than all of the Zankous put together today?” At age twenty-four four, Zankou was a survivor. Fending off challengers, some of them shameless in their imitation of Zankou, was nothing new. The Internet droned with foodies debating the chain’s “overrated” chicken or lamenting how the garlic paste had somehow lost its zest. “Zankou Chicken, I don’t get the hype,” one wrote. Another declared, “Arax is the best falafel stand in Hollywood. The only reason I go to Zankou now is when Arax is closed.” Zankou defenders shouted back: “What do you mean overrated? It’s better than ever.”

Rita quieted down talk by sons Dikran and Steve about bringing in outside investors to triple the chain, or about selling Zankou nationwide as a franchise. Look around, she told them. Koo Koo Roo, Boston Market, Kenny Rogers—the street was littered with small chains that grew into bigger chains and imploded because they forgot what good food tastes like.

“They are smart boys and in many ways they know this business much better than me. But when they say, ‘Mom, look at Starbucks. Mom, look at In and Out,’ I tell them, ‘Sure, okay. But these are places that are selling one basic item.’ It’s coffee. It’s frozen meat and potatoes. We are not those places.”
Dikran, the marketer who handled everything from menus to charity, seemed to understand. Steve took it personally. He was twenty-eight now and knew more about the food operations than any of them. He had Mardiros’instinct for the business, Rita agreed, and his taste buds too. He could take one bite of food and know immediately which spice was too much or too little. But he also had the curse of his father’s temper. Rita worried that he might get into trouble again. And when it came to managing people, she did not trust his judgment.

Five months earlier, Steve had insisted on hiring a supervisor for the Pasadena Zankou, a woman who had a long career managing fast-food franchises such as McDonald’s. After much discussion, Rita gave in. The new manager wasted no time making small changes (name tags) and big ones (hour-by-hour sales tracking). Steve saw an operation evolving from unprofessional to professional. Rita saw it going from friendly to sterile. It was a classic battle, pitting the virtues of smallness against the efficiencies of bigness. It turned ugly. The manager was fired.

Steve became furious with his aunt, Rita’s sister, who worked at the Pasadena Zankou and had complained bitterly about the manager. He confronted her. She was ten years older than his mother and blind in one eye. His mother wouldn’t speak of the details, but it was clear that Steve had gotten physical with his aunt. Rita felt she had no choice but to fire him and kick him out of the house.

“What Steve did to his aunt, I am too ashamed to talk about,” she said. “He is a good boy, and he’s got a big heart. But he has given me no choice. He has to learn how to control his temper. His anger, we will not accept.”


Steve knew the back streets of Los Angeles every bit as well as his father had. Tooling from Glendale to Hollywood, cranking the wheel from freeway to road, he could tell his global positioning system a thing or two about the best way to get there. He had been blaring Bob Marley for two days, ever since his mother had given him the boot. Now it was time to continue his education on “The 48 Laws of Power.” He slipped the CD into his player, and a voice, eerily disembodied, began to intone:

"Power ower is more God-like than anything in the natural world. Power’s crucial foundation is the ability to master your emotions . . . If you are trying to destroy an enemy who has hurt you, far better to keep him off guard by feigning friendliness than showing anger . . . Make your face as malleable as an actor’s. Practice luring people into traps. Mastering arts of deception are among the aesthetic pleasures of lying. They are also key components in the acquisition of power."

Law 1 seemed easy enough: “Never outshine the master.” He was having more difficulty with Law 15: “Crush your enemy totally.” It didn’t occur to him that the tape, like his favorite movie, Scarface, was so over-the-top that another listener might find it comical. He wanted to believe in the message. Whether that message came down from Sun Tzu or Donald Trump or Tony Montana, he was willing to hand over his whole being to it. He saw himself as putty going in, a rich and beloved American tycoon coming out.

“My goal in life,” he said, “is to have as many people at my funeral, to have affected as many lives in a good way, as I can. I want to live a great life. I want to be a great person. I really enjoy hanging out with different people, intellectual people, important people. I know I really can’t do that unless I have power.”
He seemed, in some fundamental way, far too sweet a kid to become truly adept in the art of ruthlessness. Among Armenians and beyond, people were awed by his generosity in the same way they had admired his father’s. Zankou didn’t deliver, but there was Steve, bags of spit-roasted goodies loaded in his Lexus, heading to a school or charity that needed free food for its function. He was paying the monthly rent on a building in Ontario that a black preacher, a friend, had converted into his first church. Steve was the one friends called when they were nearing bottom and needed a push into rehab. He drove them there, nursed them through the cold turkey, and then monitored their recoveries like a hawk.

As for his own life, it was a mess. He had dark circles under his eyes and was thirty pounds overweight. His younger brother Ara, whose addiction to Vicodin had morphed into an addiction to exercise, thanks in part to Steve, was trying to work him back into shape. He kept skipping sessions at the gym to gorge on lobster and crab at the Mariscos Colima restaurant in North Hollywood. After one monumental meal, he caressed his belly. “Bro,” he said, eyes twinkling. “You wouldn’t know it, but underneath these pounds I used to catch a lot of ladies.” He was sure he was paying a price for all that softness. People saw him as an easy mark. The world played him for a sucker. No wonder his mother discounted his vision. “She thought the manager I hired was pulling the wool over my eyes. But she doesn’t know what it takes to move this business forward. Don’t get me wrong. My mother’s been awesome. She surprised all of us with her work ethic. But she doesn’t understand this business the way I understand it.”

He had been at his father’s side, watching and learning, since he was a kid. If only he were calling the shots now, the next move would be big. “I believe we can open a Zankou in every major city in America. But she doesn’t want to hear it. I have to sugarcoat everything. I have to walk on eggshells.”
Walk on eggshells? Had he been walking on eggshells a few days earlier, with his aunt?

“My aunt was totally provoking me the whole way,” he said. “They are making it like I beat her up, but I didn’t. They are insisting that I hurt her. And I didn’t hurt her. I lost—I lost my control, bro. I was mad. You know?”

So he hit her?

“I slapped her on the hand. It didn’t hurt, though, bro. I know it didn’t hurt.”

Now Steve wasn’t sure what to do. Should he stay with friends? Get a place of his own? Leave town? He packed his bags and headed north, past Santa Clarita and Bakersfield, straight up Highway 99. The grape fields all around him were in winter slumber, and he felt his mind begin to race. One image after the other, his life over the past ten years, came back to him. He saw Dikran, the older brother he so admired, walk into the bedroom they shared and whisper at night. “Steve, you’re going to hell if you don’t change your ways.” He saw the 777 motel and the call girl and her pimp. He saw the courtroom in Van Nuys and the prosecutor making the tiniest of blunders. He saw his father lying on the couch, a hat covering his bald head, and his grandmother home from work, walking past him as if he were already dead. He saw his father burning the photo and telling him he would never forgive her. “God will forgive the devil before I can forgive my mother. Because this is a mother, not the devil.” He saw his father asking him for one of those slushy lemonades from the Muscle Beach shop at the Glendale Galleria. He saw himself coming back home, the lemonade still icy, his father gone.

He kept driving through the California farm fields until he reached Fresno. That night, sitting in a friend’s backyard, he heard the story about the Armenian kid who had stolen a crate of raisins in the 1920s. Fifty years later, at the church picnic, the old ladies sitting in their lawn chairs pointed to a boy standing in the shish kebab line. “See that young man,” one old lady said. “That’s the raisin stealer’s grandson.” No one needed to tell him the moral. He was the son of the Zankou Chicken mogul who had murdered his mother and sister and then had the decency to kill himself. What struck him wasn’t the story’s lesson—that you can never escape the past—but what the storyteller had left out. Did those whispers reach the ears of the raisin stealer’s grandson? Or was he lucky enough to be standing just outside their reach? Did he manage to live his life never knowing the peculiar bent of his patrimony? Steve wasn’t so lucky. He had heard the whispers, and it made him think about the son he might have one day. Would the whispers follow him? Or would his son know the story because Steve had chosen to tell it from his own mouth?

For three days, Steve ate white bean and lamb stew, drank whiskey, and imagined living in a place such as Fresno, the land of Saroyan, far from Zankou, far from family. On the fourth day, he climbed back into his car and headed home.

This time, as the highway opened up, his mind fixed on a different image from the past. It was 2005, two years after the murders, and the grieving was finished. The family had decided it was time to honor Mardiros and open a new store in west L.A. Because he was the son most like his father, the job was given to him. You find the location, his mother told him. You find the contractor. One day, the store half done, he found himself unable to get out of bed. For ninety days, he lingered in a state of deep depression. Doctors prescribed pills, but he wouldn’t take them. Nothing could reach him. Not food or drink or sex. His mother didn’t know what to do. She was paying $15,000 a month in rent for a restaurant with no opening in sight. She finally persuaded him to see a psychiatrist, a Greek doctor who heard the story and could see where the problem was buried.

All his life, he had been told he was Mardiros’s son. And all his life, good and bad, he had done his best to make that true. The girls, the outbursts, the devotion to business, the loyalty to family, it became his way of honoring the father. But what it meant to be Mardiros Iskenderian’s son had changed irrevocably that day. It was one thing to be second coming of a patriarch beloved by family and community. It was another to know that all this legacy had been washed over by one act. Who was the father? Who was the son? How could Steve ever be expected to build a new Zankou in his father’s name, without ever owning up to what his father had done?

Usually he did not plan his visits to Forest Lawn. He went only when the impulse seized him, and that was rare. Truth be known, he wasn’t sure if he was strong enough. But that December day in 2007, as he barreled into Los Angeles, he decided he would do something different. Inside the cemetery gates, he visited the grave of his father, and then he headed to the opposite end of the grounds to locate the graves of his grandmother and aunt. He hadn’t gone to their funerals. He had never said a proper good-bye. “I know it sounds stupid, but it wasn’t until I was standing there, staring into their headstones, that it hit me for the first time. That my father had killed them. I never really looked at it like that before. He took two lives. He was going to die anyway, so I don’t count his life. But he took two lives with him. And those lives belonged to my grandmother and my aunt. There was no turning away from it. This is what my father chose to do as his final deed.”

He wanted to believe that none of it was truly planned, that his father, racked by rage and cancer, was not of sound mind. He wanted to believe that in the living room of his aunt’s house, his father awoke to his crime and felt immense sadness. He could only hope that his father had asked for forgiveness as he sat down on the couch and raised the gun to his head. What he didn’t know was that the coroner had checked for traces of salt beneath his father’s eyes and found none. Mardiros Iskenderian had shed no tears.

The son left the cemetery that day with the same questions he had been lugging around for five years. They were questions, he now knew, that had no answers. How could a woman who cooked with such love disown her son on his deathbed? How could a man so intent on passing to his sons the good name of his life’s work hand them this name, this act?

He drove up the canyon to the mansion that sat on a ledge in the Verdugo Hills. He parked his car and walked up the driveway past the koi pond in the entrance and knocked on the door. His mother and three brothers were waiting for him inside. There was Ara, who struck an impressive bodybuilder’s pose, and Vartkes, the university student who was still trying to finish a condolence letter he had been writing to Dzovig’s sons for five years. And there was Dikran, the uneasy patriarch, who felt the need to speak for them all.

“Dad wanted us brothers to love each other and always support each other no matter what. We are different, each of us, but we are one. We love each other, and we will die for each other. As his sons, we can never let money or outsiders tear us apart. To do less would be to dishonor Dad’s memory.”
Steve sat down on the couch next to his mother, leaned back, and closed his eyes. Rita took a puff of her cigarette and smiled. Her prince. Her pasha. Then she opened the family scrapbook to a page from Beirut, the year 1975, and she began to narrate. “To this day, I never see anybody as beautiful as your father was. I met him when I was twelve. Roof to roof, we passed each other notes. It was forbidden, but we fell in love.”

This story can be found in West of the West, available on

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Highlands of Humboldt star Legend of Zankou star Stewart Resnick: The Reluctant Farmer

Stewart Resnick: The Reluctant Farmer


From Valley Boulevard , it was a short drive to downtown Los Angeles . I circled past the skyscrapers and looked for the big beam of light that used to shine down on the Times Mirror building. Another seventy-five of my old colleagues, prize winners who had made the paper one of the world’s best, had been told that their services were no longer needed. In a matter of three years, a newsroom of 1,300 had been slashed in half by a succession of publishers who were convinced that readers wanted their morning paper to mimic the quick and dirty of the Internet. What counted in the Digital Age wasn’t news written in a compelling style or hard-hitting investigative reports or absorbing narratives. What counted were the hits that landed on a newspaper’s website. It hardly mattered that the thousands of hits prompted by a small feature story on “shaved” ice, for instance, had nothing to do with snow cones and everything to do with the “shaved” pubis of Britney Spears. The carpetbaggers from Chicago who now owned the paper, and the underwhelming editor they had chosen to run it, were determined to usher in nothing short of a remaking. If it meant giving up the qualities that made us unique, the very service we did best that hundreds of thousands of readers relied on us to do, it was a necessary shedding to attract a new generation of information consumers. A few among us argued that it was a theory of desperation, a violation of the principle that you waltz with the one who brought you to the dance. The fact that it was being imposed by the Tribune Company, a second-rate media chain that wanted nothing more than to see the haughty L.A. Times knocked down a few pegs, made it all the more difficult to swallow. Of course, if we were looking for someone easy to blame, they were right here in the San Marino suburbs of Los Angeles . All those blue-blooded Chandler cousins who ached for John Birch to return had finally gotten even with Otis for turning their rag into a newspaper. In the months following his 2006 death, their years of scheming to see that none of Otis’s sons would ever become his successor had come to this: the paper was now owned by a midget on a Harley who had made his fortune raising rents on the poor.

Maybe no one family could have held on forever. Bloodlines thin, dynasties are genetically geared to implode. The city, as cities are wont to do, had unfolded along an arc of power that had moved inexorably outward. There was that early epoch of boomers, speculators and wheat farmers, growers of citrus and herders of goats. They gave way to a long run of clubby white capitalists who, one generation removed from the goat glands their fathers harvested to bring back their virility, liked to think of themselves as “old money.” They were the latter-day corporate elites whose moment was crowned with the 1984 Olympics they sponsored. Finally the power splintered off into many pieces, with no single node of control but rather a diffusion of union Latinos, Hollywood Jews, Armenian entrepreneurs, and Asians who were building satellites of Tokyo, Seoul, and Hong Kong. Otis Chandler had foreseen the challenges to a newspaper whose model of growth was predicated on the continuing expansion of white suburbia. What would happen when hundreds of thousands of Third World Latinos and Asians began migrating to those suburbs, driving whites to Orange County and San Diego and Phoenix and Las Vegas —places beyond the pale of the L.A. Times? Should he open new bureaus to serve them and become the paper of record for the entire West? Or should he redouble his efforts to reach the children of the immigrants and make them his new readers? The paper had attempted to do both with varying degrees of commitment, and mostly failed. I didn’t know of a single Chinese patriarch in the San Gabriel Valley who subscribed to the Times.

A handful of billionaire industrialists and philanthropists did their best to influence civic affairs in the fashion of the Chandlers . But L.A. had become too flattened out, too inclined to dispute, for any beneficent rule. Of the forty-one billionaires who called the city home, I found myself most fascinated by Stewart Resnick who, like Harry Chandler a century before, had leveraged his wealth to buy vast stretches of California farmland and stockpile hundreds of millions of dollars worth of river water. In less than two decades, Resnick had purchased 120,000 acres and planted the largest groves of almonds, pistachios, pomegranates, and citrus under the control of any one man in the world. Only the footprint of J.G. Boswell, whose family came west from Georgia in the 1920s and dried up Tulare Lake to carve out the world’s richest cotton fields, was bigger. Boswell boasted 140,000 acres and controlled a full 15 percent of the Kings River, which irrigated more farmland (one million-plus acres) than any other river except the Nile and Indus. But when it came to the sheer dollars that one man’s crops brought in—and the marketing of those products to the world—Resnick was clearly the new king of California .

Both men were the sons of terrible drunks. Both ran their empires from headquarters in Los Angeles and hired the best college-trained agriculturalists to watch over their distant fields. Both men extended their reach around the world. Boswell was hardly a dirt-under-the-nails farmer, but cotton at least ran deep in his plantation past. Resnick, by contrast, was the son of Jewish bar owner in Highland Park, New Jersey, who headed west in 1956 after his dad gambled away everything. He made his first million while still in law school at UCLA, waxing floors and cleaning carpets under the business name of Clean Time Building Maintenance. (“When it’s time to clean, it’s Clean Time.”) Then he took those same commercial buildings and began watching over them with security guards and alarm systems. By the 1970s, Resnick controlled half the commercial alarm accounts in Los Angeles , a $100 million business.

This became a springboard to Teleflora, the giant flower-delivery service that his second wife, Lynda, revolutionized with the concept of a “flower in a gift.” Roses were short-lived, she reasoned, but the teapot or watering can that the flowers arrived in was a keepsake. Experts in knickknacks, the Resnicks then bought the ultimate house of knickknacks—the Franklin Mint—for the sum of $167.5 million. Lynda shoved aside the commemorative coins and medallions that were the mint’s stock-in-trade and introduced a Scarlett O’Hara doll that, all by itself, generated $35 million in sales. From there, it was the John Wayne collector plate and the precise replica, scaled down, of the beaded gown and matching bolero jacket—a là Elvis—worn by Princess Di. By the year 2000, annual sales at the Franklin Mint approached $1 billion.

Looking for a hedge against inflation, Resnick got the idea of dabbling in real dirt. In the late 1970s, he traveled to Delano , the farm town where Cesar Chavez and his union had made so much history, and purchased his first grove—2,500 acres of citrus with a packing plant. Soon after, the Kern County oil companies, looking to unload their farms, approached him with chunks of twenty and forty thousand acres. They were practically giving the land away. That his nearest field in Lost Hills sat more than a hundred miles from his gilded palace in Beverly Hills made for some easy incongruity. But Resnick was only following in the tradition of the late-nineteenth-century industrial tycoons who had developed from afar the first farms in California ’s interior. What made him different from them and all their progeny was his belief that the city and the farm are part of the same possibility. He had taken the Big Middle culture of co-ops and farmers and wedded it to the L.A. culture of marketing and celebrity, turning his crops into heart-friendly snacks and antioxidant elixirs and chi-chi potions.

I had been trying to get Resnick to tell me his story since the early 2000s, but I could never maneuver past his farm managers or succession of personal secretaries (during one six-month period, three different women held the title). He and Lynda had plucked the nearly forgotten pomegranate and squeezed its ancient, bittersweet fruit into POMWonderful, the ruby-colored juice in the figure-eight bottle (two pomegranates making love) that fought heart disease and prostate troubles. If these claims seemed familiar, the Resnicks had hired some of the world’s best medical scientists—to the tune of $25 million in research—to bear them out. Single-handedly they turned the fruit into a rage. On Oscar night, the gift bags handed to the stars carried POMWonderful. Bartenders were mixing Pom martinis, and cosmetologists were giving Pom facials.

On every floor of their high-rise that overlooked West Olympic Boulevard, employees were engaged in the far-flung operations of Roll International—from Paramount Farms to Fiji Water to Teleflora. Yet there was no one in the building that a reporter with a simple question could turn to. Resnick had no office of media relations for the simple reason that he had no media relations. The first time I called looking for a comment, I was working on a story about how Resnick had wrested control of a Kern County water bank built with $74 million in public funds. I explained to the secretary that this private grab didn’t put her boss in the best light, and I needed his version of events. “We don’t talk to the press,” she said. “Good-bye.” Click.

My persistence had won over Boswell, and he was a man who abided by the family motto that “As long as the whale never surfaces, it is never harpooned.” So I kept trying with Resnick. Then one day in 2008, after reading the Boswell book, he returned my phone call. “I’ve never given an interview before,” he explained. “Forbes, Business Week, Fortune, the New York Times, I’ve told them all no. When you’re making the kind of money we’re making, what’s the upside? I’d rather be unknown than known.

“On the other hand, I’m not going to live forever, even with the massive amounts of pomegranate juice I’m drinking. It might be nice if my kids and grandkids could turn to a book someday and read about what we’ve built.”

With that, he invited me to his 25,000-square-foot mansion on Sunset Boulevard, described by a harpist who had performed there as “something akin to Versailles , only grander.” That first Saturday, the massive gates opened and I was greeted on the front steps by the Chinese housekeeper and two identical, blow-dried dogs of some high breed. They led me to the rear parlor where Resnick, fresh from a ride on his stationary bike, was expected any moment. I tried to eye the marble statues of Napoleon and the Eighteenth-century paintings of Jean-Honore Fragonard, but there was too much show in the way. Either that or I was on the wrong floor.

He was a short man, right around five foot five, with thin gray hair and a fit build. He wore a Paramount Farms shirt tucked neatly into blue jeans and the most stunning pair of pink, purple, and turquoise socks. “I tell my children no birthday gifts. Just give me real wild socks.” A piece of red string was tied around his wrist, part of his flirtation, I had been told, with kabbalah, the occult rituals of the old-world rabbis.

“My life is about California ,” he said. “I didn’t grow up here, but if it wasn’t for California , its openness and opportunities, I wouldn’t be sitting where I’m sitting. When I arrived in the mid 1950s, it was real simple. You work hard, you get ahead. It was a great time. Everything was like ‘wow.’ We’ll never see those times again.”

He recalled his first entrepreneurial inspiration as a thirteen-year-old in Highland Park : selling Christmas to the Christian families of east Jersey . “People didn’t have cameras in those days so after a snow, I’d take a picture of their house with the Christmas displays all lit up and sell it to them. I had good technique, but not much artistry.”

His pals were all Jewish kids from middle- and upper-class families. It wasn’t easy being the poorest one, he said, knowing his father was capable at any moment of losing the few comforts they had. “I remember one time in high school, the car was gone. He lost it in a bet. He was very tough, bull-like, and didn’t take crap off of anyone. But inside he had these weaknesses. Compulsive gambler and alcoholic.”

I wondered, as I wondered with all wealthy men, what accounted for his ambition. Was it the financial insecurity he knew as a child? The insecurity of the small ethnic outsider? Or was money just a grand game?

“Not a game. My father was a great negative role model. The lessons I got from him were all what not to do. About the only positive he taught me was to never let anyone push me around. So, yes, I had this drive that came from the financial insecurity I saw as a child . My idea was never to go backward. Always live below my means, so it would give me the flexibility to take risks.”

“Living below your means?” I said, smiling.

“Well, none of this is my idea. If I had my way, I’d probably still be living in Culver City in a little ranch house. This is my wife. This is Lynda.”

She had recently posed for a photograph in The New Yorker to accompany a profile entitled the “Pomegranate Princess.” It was a classic shot, a background of heavy-legged gold furniture and paintings in thick gold frames and gold-leafed carpet and gold-fringed drapes. There she stood in the foreground in a black pants suit with open-toed silver pumps and a single piece of jewelry around her neck. In case you mistook her for a woman of understatement, her short auburn hair was teased big and her thin eyebrows arched high. In the distant background, under the gaze of a ten-foot-tall marble goddess, sat husband Stewart in a gold-skirted chair. He was head down in an orbit of paperwork.

“She wanted to tell the story of the pomegranate,” he said. “For a long time, she got no credit. Now she’s getting lots of credit.”

“You kind of got left out of the piece.”

“I’m sort of back there signing checks,” he said, chuckling. “She’s the face. Fine. I’m good with it. But when I decided to plant that first 640 acres of pomegranates, about half the pomegranates in the country at the time, there was absolutely zero market. My farm manager thought I was nuts. ‘At worst,’ I told him, ‘we can make some juice out of it.’”

He said he was looking for a modest return, maybe $500 an acre. But like every other crop he bet on—almonds, pistachios, Clementine “Cutie” tangerines—pomegranates hit big. “I’ve never had a bum investment in my life. While I’d like to take all the credit, I’d have to say that fully half of my success has been luck. Now in farming we’re in a unique position. The crops we grow can only be grown in a few places in the world. But none of it would have happened without luck.”

He had caught each crop at the front end of a boom that still showed no signs of abating. Almond sales were rising 10 percent a year in the United States and 25 percent overseas. From one year to the next, the number of almond-bearing trees in California had jumped by 50,000 acres. This wasn’t competition because Resnick, in addition to being a grower, sat as a full processor and pusher of nuts. No other farmer, not even Gallo, had cornered a market the way Resnick had, controlling the growing, buying, and selling of pistachios. Of the 400 million pounds produced each year in the United States , 120 million pounds came off Resnick’s perfectly groomed fields. Another 140 million pounds were grown by farmers who took their pistachios to Paramount to process and market. Thus Resnick had his hands on 65 percent of the nation’s harvest.

“If you want to buy a half million pounds of pistachios anywhere in the world, you have to come to us,” he said.

All by himself (with a little help from his lawyers) he had killed the venerable California Pistachio Commission. Here he was, funding the lion’s share of the commission’s marketing, and not a single Paramount employee was on its board. Worse yet, he claimed, the programs were all geared to helping the small guy. “We were underwriting the costs of programs that were actually doing harm to Paramount . That’s not a situation we could tolerate for very long.”
To his critics, Resnick represented one of the more evil forces in California agriculture, a behemoth willing to employ teams of lawyers and tens of millions of dollars to shove his agenda down the throats of growers who dared to be independent. A member of the pistachio commission, on the eve of its demise, had told me, “Stewart wants to be a benevolent dictator. But if he thinks you’re defying him, he’ll start with ‘Nobody respects me. Nobody realizes the good I’ve done for agriculture.’ Then he’ll move on to, ‘Do you know who I am? Do you know what I am? I’m a billionaire.’ He’s got an awful temper that he’s trying to control through kabbalah. That little red string is supposed to remind him to count to ten. But his ego, there’s no controlling that. And Lynda, well, she’s just over the top. A TV reality show waiting to be discovered.”

Resnick had heard it all before. He was the bad guy in agriculture for no bigger offense than he was big. “Look, these farmers go back two, three, and sometimes four generations. Me, I’m the carpetbagger from Beverly Hills . I’ve never driven a tractor. I’ve never turned on an irrigation pump. But you ask the growers we process and they’ll tell you that year in and year out, no one offers a better price. No one pushes their product harder.”

I had one last question I wanted to ask. I told Resnick I had never stopped admiring writer Carey McWilliams for his undying commitment to the agrarian ideal. But more than seventy years after his “Factories in the Fields,” we had to be honest about the economics of small farming. Old farmers attached to the soil try to hang on, but their children—professionals and tradesmen—are softened by no such nostalgia. Not when they’re getting the same price for a box of plums that their fathers got in 1981. So who could blame the small guy for selling out to a developer for one hundred grand an acre?

I wondered if this meant that our best hope for keeping the valley’s farmland from becoming a new century’s Los Angeles rested with the Resnicks of agriculture, their economies of scale and marketing genius.

“Are you truly a farmer?” I asked. “Or just another developer in waiting?”

“The valley is the most fertile area for farming that I know of in the world,” he said, dodging. “And there’s an awful lot of acres.”

“The reason I ask is because you’ve already begun selling farm water, at least on paper, to other big agricultural concerns—Newhall Ranch, Castle & Cook—so they can turn their fields into suburbs.”

“We’re not talking about taking water and committing it forever to these projects. We’re just saying we believe we have enough water to occasionally pump some for them. Our first loyalty is to our trees.”

“For how long?” I asked. His answer was the answer of a billionaire. “If there’s some big opportunity for us to take a couple thousand acres and build a nice industrial park out there, we’re going to do it. I don’t see it as ‘Oh my God, we’re paving over farmland.’ That’s just life. But on balance, unless there’s a really big opportunity, there’s a continuity to farming that I like.”

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