Confessions Of A Petty Citrus Thief

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Art by Jim Cooke/GMG, photo: Shutterstock

Perhaps the best perk of living in California, better than proximity to robber barons or weed, is the ubiquitous presence of fruit trees. Anecdotally speaking, everyone has a dang lemon, orange, plum, or avocado tree. Even when our fair state was in the worst throes of the mega drought, one could grow healthy batches of fruit with the right gardening regimen, depending on the part of the state you populated.

When I grew up on the Sacramento River, our lemon tree would produce so many damn lemons that we would cook with them, make lemonade, give bushels away, and stock our freezer until there was no space left, no people left to pawn off our leftovers on, and all that was left to do was go smash the rotten ones into the river with baseball bats. This surplus isn’t universal, but if you have a well-producing tree, it’s not likely that you will use every fruit it produces.


Naturally, this supposed excess can lead to a, let’s call it, cavalier attitude when it comes to other people’s trees. I think my situational pilfering started in middle school, when I’d get hungry walking home from school and I’d swipe an overhanging orange from a neighbor’s tree. In high school, a similar situation played out. If your plum tree has overhanging branches that dip onto a high school campus, can’t you reasonably expect hungry teens to harvest them?

This is where a lifetime of lax attitudes about fruit property rights has led me: If I need a lemon for cooking or whatever, I will simply walk down the street and grab one off of someone’s tree (this is far easier in the East Bay, but it can be done in San Francisco). I’ll only pluck ripe or overripe lemons from overladen trees in people’s front yards, which is legal by California state law. I revealed my habit to my colleagues this week and they were aghast. “How could you swipe such a precious resource?” cried my New York-based colleagues, stunted by scurvy and years of cutthroat city living.


And so I open it up to the class: Is nature’s bounty free for the taking, or do property rights reign supreme?