Welcome to the first installment of In the Belly of America, a new series in which Canadian Ivy Knight explores the United States through profiles of average (and not-so-average) Americans, finding a common ground with them through food.
The first time I met JC Iamurri he was mashing up a perfectly ripe Hass avocado to give himself a facial. I was working on a Canadian food show and we were visiting his grove for an episode about avocados.
JC doesn't eat avocadoes much anymore. He's retired now, and he leases out his groves.
"What about your avocado facials?" I ask him during a recent visit.
"That?" he laughs. "That was just showing off!"
JC has been an engineer, a Marine, a competitive arm wrestler, a bodyguard, avocado farmer, and a beat cop. He and his wife Phora live at the top of a very tall hill ringed by their 800-tree avocado grove in De Luz, California. He has pure white hair and looks like a movie star, like Gregory Peck in the The Boys from Brazil. In fact, I have to keep reminding myself that he's talking about real life and not roles he's played.
JC and Phora met in 1973. He was a patrol cop with South Pasadena PD; she worked dispatch there before moving to the lab at the LAPD to work as a Forensic Document Examiner.
"He was married to somebody and I was married to somebody," says Phora.
"Plus I was wild and crazy," he laughs.
"Then he got a divorce and married someone else," she adds. "I'm his fourth."
JC serves toast, bacon, scrambled eggs—from chickens his son-in-law raises down the hill—and orange juice squeezed that morning from their trees. Last night when I arrived he cooked up a mess of pasta alla puttanesca and served it with garlic bread and salad. Today's breakfast is served out on the patio in the sun. From here we can look down the hill, covered in golden orange California poppies.
As for the avocados, working in the groves on that steep hill was hell on his knees. He and Phora had only put it in to provide a little income. "I'm glad we didn't need it!" he laughs.
He used to eat avocados all the time. "Mostly straight up, I'd eat one a day for lunch, just sprinkle it with some sulfur salt. I'm a minimalist, I just want to cut it open and eat it."
He loves sulfur salt, it smells like the bowels of hell. He shakes it over his eggs and grins, offering it around the table. No takers.
I notice a frame full of ribbons and medals. "Oh those are from arm wrestling," JC says. "The secret is in the grip."
One time, he was down in Santa Ana at a competition, waiting to go on. "All of a sudden, I hear this 'POW!' Someone broke his arm."
He takes my arm and mimics the arm wrestling move. "When you start twisting, this bone in here starts to twist. It sounded just like a .22 going off. Then I had to wrestle that guy that broke the other guy's arm."
I ask if he ended up beating him.
"Oh, yeah. I don't think he was into it. He didn't want to break any more arms."
That evening, we head to JC and Phora's favourite restaurant, Oink and Moo, a barbecue joint run by Jennifer and Jonathan Arbel. They tell me that they're also fans of Thai Thai and a Japanese place called Yama in Fallbrook. They often shop at the Northgate Market, picking up tamales for dinner. There is a woman who sells tamales out of the trunk of her car sometimes, but JC hasn't seen her in awhile.
On the drive to dinner, we talk about cop life. I ask if they were on the force during the LA riots.
"Rodney King. Yeah, I was with LAPD," Phora nods.
"I went to the discussions on the tactics," says JC.
"But see, he was in Pasadena," she says. "That had nothing to do with Los Angeles."
"So you weren't on the street when the craziness was happening?" I ask him.
"I was on the streets in Pasadena," he insists.
"There was no craziness there," says Phora, dismissively.
I ask about guns. Do they have any at home? They do. I ask why.
That might not seem like an obvious question, but to me it is. I live in Toronto, and I don't know many people who have guns in their homes. In high school I went skeet shooting with a bunch of Summerville boys and a bottle of Canadian Club. Scott Shaw gave me his 12-gauge, a camouflage Mossberg pump that was adorable. I say adorable because it was the smallest of the bunch on hand that day. It kicked like a motherfucker, though, and I woke up the next day with a dinner plate-sized bruise on my shoulder and chest. That's all I know about guns.
"Why do I have guns?" asks JC, surprised by the question. "I like guns."
Later, back at their place, JC shows me his four rifles and seven handguns. Phora laughs out loud when I tell her I've never held a handgun before.
I ask JC if he's ever shot someone.
"No, no. I've pointed a gun at them, but I've never shot one."
"Do you think that would haunt you?"
"No," he says, very matter-of-fact.
I ask him about keeping a gun by the bed. "If someone came into your bedroom when you were asleep…"
"They'd probably kill me at my age," he says with a laugh.
I press on. "But because of your police training would you be able to like wake up and pull the gun and shoot them in the kneecap or do something?
He shakes his head at this clearly ridiculous attempt to deal with a robber in one's bedroom. There's only one way to deal with that.
"Single shot to the head," he says.
And that's when it finally hits home that JC wasn't playing a cop on some dreamy California TV show. He actually was one, and he's lived in America his whole life. He's been watching Ferguson, Sandy Hook, and hundreds other shootings on the big screen in his living room.
"What do you think about all these kids that cops are shooting all over the US?" I ask.
He takes his time before he answers—so long that I'm unsure if he will answer. But then he does.
"It's unfortunate, and I can't say they were right or they were wrong. You've got to analyze each situation. But I think some of the stuff I've seen on TV I would question. I would question the use of force that took place."
JC believes that much of it comes down to training.
"You've got to treat people as if they're people, not as if they're suspects or killers, because once you do that, you're already setting yourself up for confrontation. It's to protect and serve."
We go into the living room where Phora is watching Judge Judy. There are Girl Scout cookies on the counter. JC offers me one—I've never had them before. "You don't have Girl Scouts in Canada?"
I assure him we do have those in Canada. "They're called 'Girl Guides,' though."
He looks skeptical. I help myself to a Samoa and ask him about his tattoos.
He pulls up his pant leg and points to one on his calf. "I gave this one to myself when I was seven years old."
"That looks like a stick," I note.
"It's supposed to be a dagger with blood on it," he laughs and laughs.