In the 1950s and early 1960s, Manhattan’s Penn Station had thousands of daily commuters, hundreds of trains, and a machine that made orange juice.
The machine cut and compressed Florida oranges into a pitcher. The juice wasn’t cheap. As one commuter from New Jersey who was a regular costumer described, “You paid dearly for the product.”
But in the era of Tang, this machine served a drink that was 100% oranges. And you could buy it freshly-squeezed in October or February or June.
Plenty of commuters did. Grabbing a glass while passing through to somewhere else.
The thing was, the juice wasn’t quite the same from October to February to June. The color changed. It was always orange, of course. But it went from pale in the autumn to richer in the winter to bold in the spring.
It might have been easy to miss, even for a regular costumer. There were buses and trains to catch. Places to pass through to.
But that Jersey commuter noticed. Was alive enough to the moment to notice the changing color.
He’d noticed a magazine ad, too, about oranges. There were a couple oranges in the ad. All the oranges looked the same to him. But they each had a different name. What, the commuter wondered, was different about them? And why the changing juice color?
After plenty of research and plenty of drafting, John McPhee published, “Oranges,” for The New Yorker. It would go on to become a 149-page book of the same name. A classic of reporting.
A classic that grew out of one daily commuter who took notice, took interest, and took action.