Tony Tulathimutte. Photo by Lydia White.
Tony Tulathimutte is a graduate of Stanford University and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He has written for The New York Times, The New Yorker, VICE, N+1, The Atlantic, and elsewhere. His work has received an O. Henry Award and a MacDowell Fellowship. Private Citizens was published by William Morrow in 2016, and was named a best book of the year by The New Yorker, The Guardian, The Atlantic, and Buzzfeed, among others. He lives in Brooklyn.
An excerpt from Private Citizens:
Roopa stood at the stove in a capital R, a hand bracing her tailbone and one leg stretched back, with her waxy black hair tressing down like a stripe of brushed pitch, ending in a horizontal slash at midwaist. Her face was babyish and marsupial-thin. She wasn’t ravishing, but she wasn’t unattractive, but men definitely treated her as if she were ravishing. She wore a blue apron over a brown dress with the sleeves ripped off. Cast-iron pans and stew pots were stationed over all four burners.
“Oh, you should’ve told me you were home, I would’ve made more,” Roopa said. “It’s potato hash with fennel and rosemary and Niman Ranch bacon and tempeh. And TVP.”
“It’s okay, thanks,” Cory said.
“I found chèvre too. The Trader Joe’s ones are ginormous. And they throw it out fully wrapped. Think how many landfill acres are taken up just by airtight cheese. Sure you don’t want any?”
“Yeah, no, I’m good.”
“Really? You sure?”
“Thanks, I’m fine.”
Cory opened the refrigerator. It was a maddening presence—always on, drawing an eighth of their electricity, just to store food. It carried a permanent stench of chilled compost and was crammed with communal groceries; Cory spent an eternity rearranging items to get to her week-old bok choy stir-fry leftovers. It was greasy, awfully greasy. She could do radishes and hummus for fiber, soy milk for protein, liquid amino for more protein. She took out the hummus and the soy milk and put the hummus back in and borrowed a nectarine from Jinnie’s shelf, and then took the hummus out again, jogging it in her hands to ponder its mass, its lipids and carbs, though she already knew all the numbers to the tenth decimal. Also she’d heard this particular hummus had done something bad to Palestine. Her hunger stabbed her; she tossed the hummus back in the fridge and took out her Tupperware of stir-fry. She just wouldn’t eat the whole thing.
“That’s your dinner?” Roopa said, in that sympathetic/annoyed tone you used with confused foreign tourists. “Where’s the flavor? Aren’t you at least going to heat it up and plate it?”
Roopa turned to the stove and mounded a plate with a few hundred thousand calories of glistening tempeh. The odor made Cory’s saliva salty. “Try this. It’s yummy and it’s totally sanitary. Nom nom.”
“Thanks, Roop, but I gotta eat this—”
“Before it goes bad? That’s so depressing. It probably doesn’t even have any nutrients after all that refrigeration. Try my food. I know it seems gross to eat ‘garbage,’ but people have to get over that.”
Cory laid her things on the kitchen counter. When she had first moved to the city, the plan had been to recruit kindred progressives into the warehouse, maybe becoming one of those Bay Area cultural polestars. She first met Roopa at Socialize’s garden harvest potluck three months ago, and, spotting a potential girlfriend or roommate or both, Cory had approached Roopa and smoked her out. As Cory wondered how to broach Roopa’s sexual and political alignments, Roopa was already headed straight for those topics: two years at Oberlin as a sexual health advisor who practiced what she preached, a year in South America for her anthropology thesis (“Recuperating Presence: The Immediacy of Indigene Consciousness”—in lieu of Eurocentric written documents, she’d produced photo-graphs and small beaded weavings). Then she’d dropped out for culinary school in Boston, dropping out again to couch-surf California.
In Cory’s stoned brain, Roopa had seemed ideal, and they moved her in ASAP. But it turned out they weren’t equally political, just equally pedantic. At first Cory had been thrilled that Roopa attended Socialize events, but Roopa would keep offering unsolicited advice (“I still think marriage equality isn’t the issue. We need to abolish marriage”). In turn, Roopa brought Cory to her anarchist “salons”—usually potlucks or homebrewed pickle tastings at other collectives, where discussions played on conspiratorial themes: 9/11 was an inside job, canned tomatoes caused Parkinson’s, etc. An urban primitive with pepperoni-size ear gauges wondered aloud if heterosexual intercourse was “inherently degrading.” Cory got through it only by pretending she was conducting an anthropological study of failed radicalism. Roopa understood Cory’s lack of enthusiasm as liberal wimpiness, which she liked taking potshots at, like now.
“I think,” Cory said, “we can divest from industrial monoculture instead of relying on its waste. You know how they say benefit is complicity.”
“The real waste would be to let food spoil for an empty gesture.”
“Couldn’t we put community pressure on supermarkets to reduce waste in the first place?”
“The fact is”—Roopa sucked a crumb that had fallen on her apron—“that the waste is there now, and it supports indigent communities.”
“Well, you’re right about that. Is it really okay for people like us to take free food we don’t need?”
“There’s plenty for everyone. Also, I’m not exactly well-off.” Roopa laughed. “I’d starve if I didn’t hit the Dumpsters. It’s not like I’m exploiting food stamps. I’m part of the working poor.”
Somehow Roopa got by, part-time and under the table, freelancing as a food photographer and botanical illustrator. Cory didn’t want to have to explain the distinction between poor and broke. Spurning the nine-to-five was fine, but Cory suspected Roopa’s work ethic was rooted in a determination to feel good about feeling good. Still, it was baffling how Roopa could afford San Francisco on freelance wages. Cory did take food stamps.
“I think you just get off on guilt,” Roopa said, closing her eyes and making cumming noises as she forked up a mouthful of hash and worked it around in her mouth without chewing.
Cory’s eyelids glitched. “I wasn’t saying Dumpster-diving is immoral. I was only thinking maybe it’d be best not to create a social institution dependent on corporate excess.”
“We’re redeeming the waste. It’s putting ideals into action on the most basic level.”
“Spending half a day making dinner, that’s ‘action’?”
“That’s the role food should play in people’s lives. Food is culture, just like songs and paintings. I’ve had meals that made me cry. Some people are visual, others are tactile, and actually I’m a synesthete so I’m kinda both, but I also get so much meaning in through my mouth.”
But so painfully little out from her mouth …“Well, air is important too. Should we spend hours every day working on breathing?”
“Doy. Ever heard of yoga? I’m only sort of kidding.”
Cory wouldn’t win. Roopa was rigid, the way free spirits often were, about the romance of naturopathy and well-being as morality. Photographing meals, food blogging, recreational fasting—all that time committed to sweeping the steps of her temple. It was at least as disordered as what Cory had. There was this spin, this indulgent spin to Roopa’s charity: when she did relief in Chile, she returned with a copper-goddess tan; if she volunteered for a bake sale, it was because she enjoyed baking. Her diet was another slick win-win rationalization of glut. Good intentions notwithstanding, that was the lemon-meringue heart of her frankly dipshit worldview: that merely observing selective austerities—abstaining from work, from money—was activism, when really it was shallow passivism …
Roopa turned off the burners and unlaced her apron. She never looked tired. “Honestly,” Roopa said, “people who shop in supermarkets should be forced to spend a day in a cage, like factory chickens. And those of us who didn’t go to Stanford don’t have the option to buy bougie farmer’s market greens.”
Like Cory was so rich! As if she lorded her diploma around! She hated that no matter what she did, her achievements redounded to a massively endowed, for-profit corporation—Stanford, Inc. But complaining about this would make her seem even more stuck-up. “Yeah, okay, Roopa? First of all, you went to Oberlin. Second, I’m just as broke as you, and my degree means nothing in the nonprofit world—well, I know privilege is invisible, but …” Cory pressed a thumb to her temple, where an éclat of migraine was about to light up a deep furrow of her brain. “Look, we both hate consumer waste. I prefer a policy approach, and you—well, you tell me.”
Roopa leaned in and seized Cory’s hand. Cory hated rhetorical touching. “All politics are spiritual issues first,” Roopa said.
Read more work from the 2017 Whiting Award winners.