Fat City Journal

My brother and I leave the hospital at seven in the morning to pick up Robotussin and coffee. From the passenger seat, I see a man with his pants around his ankles, his legs off the curb in psychosis or the high of his life or both.

We return from Walmart and he’s still there, but now lying dead center of the empty boulevard. He’s surrounded by patrol cars, lights flashing, the cops standing around ignoring him.

Papa breaks down. It’s like tearing out a hunk of flesh, he says.

The family is packing up and Papa says he’d really love a lock of her hair. I walk down the hall to get a pair of blunt scissors from the nurses’ station.

Aunt Alisa has already pulled a box cutter from her purse. Uncle Rick waves around a pen knife from his pocket.

Now everyone is grasping at the hair, dancing around her ears dancing with knives and box cutters and blunt scissors.

She always wanted a Mohawk, Noah says. Mom sweeps her white hair up into a plume like a cockatoo. She ties a rubber band, chops it off ,and puts the lock into a sandwich baggie.

January 4, 2020

Stockton, California

* * *

The state of California is marked by stark contrasts. The Pacific Ocean gives way to the arid Central Valley. Unfettered wealth turns a blind eye to pervasive poverty. Changes in economy and infrastructure have caused unprecedented ripples across the state, altering the arrangement and psychology of cities and towns. Alongside arterial freeways, new housing developments sprout, seemingly overnight, between almond orchards and orange groves.

Over the course of her adult life, my grandmother, Maia, continuously moved along the Central Valley corridor—from La Canada to Bakersfield to Fresno to Clovis to to Manteca, just south of Stockton (after an early misspelling by the railroad the city came to be known by the Spanish word for lard). After the boom of the Gold Rush, Stockton was dubbed Fat City, a reference to the its prosperous inland port.

I moved home in 2018 when my grandmother became sick with a host of autoimmune diseases. The Central Valley has some of the worst air pollution in the country; the breadbasket of California has a phenomenon known as Valley Fever linked to the use of pesticides and other industrial agricultural chemicals. My grandparents’ home in Manteca had recently been completed and I was interested in the dissonance between unchecked development and and its effects on the natural world and our fragile human bodies.

Upon seeing these pictures, a friend remarked that they were not simply about loss but about romance—an effort to reconcile the sublime. For me, this work has been about contending with the death of Maia, our family matriarch, and my kinship to California, the land, and the people.

© Max Gavrich - Sunset Model Home (Under Construction), 2017

Sunset Model Home (Under Construction), 2017

© Max Gavrich - Maia and Papa (Construction Complete), 2018

Maia and Papa (Construction Complete), 2018

© Max Gavrich - Maia's Hair (Wig Stand), 2018

Maia's Hair (Wig Stand), 2018

© Max Gavrich - Paper Angel, 2018

Paper Angel, 2018

© Max Gavrich - Hells Angel, 2018

Hells Angel, 2018

© Max Gavrich - Grazing Land (Transmission Tower), 2020

Grazing Land (Transmission Tower), 2020

© Max Gavrich - Papa (Foot Surgery), 2019

Papa (Foot Surgery), 2019

© Max Gavrich - Home (after Fire), 2020

Home (after Fire), 2020

© Max Gavrich - Maia (at the Pool), 2017

Maia (at the Pool), 2017

© Max Gavrich - Medical Center, 2020

Medical Center, 2020

© Max Gavrich - Boy with Bicycle, 2018

Boy with Bicycle, 2018

© Max Gavrich - Altamont Pass II, 2018

Altamont Pass II, 2018

© Max Gavrich - Maia (Strenth Test), 2018

Maia (Strenth Test), 2018

© Max Gavrich - Parking Lot Geyser, 2020

Parking Lot Geyser, 2020

© Max Gavrich - Encampment (Abandoned), 2020

Encampment (Abandoned), 2020

© Max Gavrich - Noah Asleep, 2020

Noah Asleep, 2020

© Max Gavrich - 101 Hills, 2020

101 Hills, 2020

© Max Gavrich - Water, 2020

Water, 2020

© Max Gavrich - Grove (After Fire), 2020

Grove (After Fire), 2020

Sign up to our weekly newsletter

Stay in the loop