California is in my blood. But—full disclosure—it got there by transfusion. I was born in New York City. Before I was two years old, the three generations of my family then living in this country made the pilgrimage out west in time to meet my father when he mustered out of the Navy, ready to buy a house on the G.I. Bill.
And now I want to leave it behind.
Traveling west, my uncle drove the lead vehicle in a small caravan of hulking 1940s automobiles. Family legend has it that my grandfather’s doctor warned he couldn’t survive another New York blizzard like 1947’s, and in the fashion of those times (and my family), this was held as a secret from no one but the patient. The women entered into a compact to keep to short days and frequent stops on the road, with an effect that was anything but salubrious: my grandfather became so incensed at the slow pace of the journey that his blood pressure skyrocketed. But they arrived, and he lived to gamble away another fifteen years.
They’re all gone now, but they taught me to adore the Golden State. I wish I could show you a picture of this strange group of refugees, exuding foreignness from every pore, basking in the sun in our little back yard, never tiring of the uncanny truth that they had arrived intact, carrying the shtetl on their backs, to recline in the sun and pluck lemons from their very own little tree. (O happy gratitude, you may be thinking, but you would be wrong—and that’s another blog altogether.)
The landscape of California is the landscape of my heart: this time of year, I am smitten with the golden hills reposing like great lions against the bluest sky. It’s been hot this week. Every afternoon the air is filled with the dry sweetness of hay, and at night a warm salty breeze drifts off the bay and through my windows. When I lived in other parts of the country, one of the pleasures of going to the movies was to glimpse the landscape of memory in so many films, the California back lots of movie studios standing in for Arizona or Mississippi or Anytown, USA. These special qualities of light, the palette of golds and soft greens, will always call to me.
My husband and I moved back here half a dozen years ago, a work thing. It has been great to reconnect with dearest old friends and make wonderful new ones, to know my way around and not be perpetually lost (as someone with my poor sense of direction must always be when away from the territory that is deeply known), to breathe in the familiar air and delight in the nearly seasonless beauty of the Bay Area, where the odd things I want to eat and the strange herbal remedies people of my ilk recommend are always close at hand, where every alternative to the done thing that can be imagined is flourishing, or perhaps already passe.
But some things have not been great. Even in the civic-minded Bay Area, where nonprofit organizations are as thick on the ground as mushrooms after a long rain, there is some missing link of active empathy that disturbs me greatly. In the Golden State, many people without children vote against school bonds, so the schools where I live are always starved, always substandard. In the Golden State, cutting property taxes—all taxes, in fact—was such a huge priority back in the 70s that without proper investment, many elements of infrastructure are now on their last legs, but the only discussion of taxes since has been the wish to cut them further. In the Golden State, a mean-spirited “Three Strikes Law” and a disinclination to take drug treatment seriously mean that prisons hold double or triple their intended population, creating conditions of unimaginable pressure and discomfort, compounding punishment and making rehabilitation a joke. What knits the me-firsts of this disparate region into a polity? People used to joke that the state’s motto was “Whatever.” The state legislature has just topped its own disgraceful record for missing the deadline to pass a budget. Who’s laughing now?
I tend to be wary of assertions about the specific character of a place. Few of the generalizations hold up: not all Southerners are hospitable, not all New Yorkers fast-talking. But to the extent that California is the last stop on the way to the Pacific Ocean, it does have something of the quality of an escape route from the bonds of civil society. Most of the newcomers settling here leave their point of departure with a resounding “Let me out of here!” The Native peoples who lived on this land before the westward migration have long been pushed to the margins, first by the Spanish fathers and troops coming up through Mexico and then by legions traveling westward-ho by wagon, ship and rail. The Golden State is full of immigrant communities following the well-worn path of their kind (my kind too): hard work, long hours, self-help and if there’s anything left over, help for one’s fellow-travelers.
Is it because California is the last stop on the road out, or because as the last stop, everything hip and cool and Other has tended to collect here for a time before washing back east? I can’t say why, but the Golden State’s sense of its own specialness is stunning—and obnoxious, tiresome and lately, unearned. I’ve spent time in just about every section of the United States, and nowhere else have I encountered such a sense of “If I don’t already know you, how could you be of consequence?”
I’ll use myself as a case in point (but I have a large collection of anecdotes involving others who feel the same creepy tendency gathering force). Public speaking is something I love, and happily, I have quite a few opportunities to do it. In the next couple of months, I have four trips planned to different regions I’ve been invited to visit. In the half-dozen years I’ve been back in California, all in all, I’ve been asked to offer fewer talks and workshops than I will give elsewhere in the next two months.
One of my Golden State gigs was at a symposium at the University of California. I was scheduled to speak in the afternoon. One of the morning speakers piqued my interest by focusing on the recent history of an organization I’d worked with decades earlier. At the break, I approached this person: “I used to work there a long time ago,” I said, launching into a brief story about the organization’s origins and early programs, which were quite different from those the speaker had described.
Two sentences in, the speaker’s eyes began to dart around the room. “Whoa!” I thought. “This person is treating me like some crank, looking for the exit.” I cut the conversation short. Later, after my talk, the same speaker approached me. “That was amazing!” this person told me. “I didn’t know who you were before.” That was such a jarring remark: so if you knew who I was, would you have treated me like a fellow human? The oddest thing was that I heard precisely the same words from another person I ran into at the same symposium. “Can you apologize to your husband for me?” the second person asked. “I ran into him at a meeting and he started talking to me about community arts and I just kind of blew him off. I thought ‘Why is this guy talking to me?’ Then later, I heard his name and realized who he was!”
One of the things I loved about living here in the Sixties was the way everyone in my milieu was willing to meet you where you were: no need for credentials, no privileges doled out to the credentialed. In those days, when I went east, every introduction featured questions coded to establish pecking-order. “What’s your background?” people would ask, and at first I needed help understanding the type of response they sought. But now these social sorting-out questions and comments have become common in the west. People take umbrage at the way they are treated, citing their status, income and accomplishments as justification for better treatment. What happened to that democratic spirit that expects humane treatment as a human right, regardless of who one is?
Snobbery is by no means restricted to the Golden State. But among artists, I’ve never heard it put so baldly, nor seen it so widely accepted as normal and rational, as I have here these last few years. This sense of exclusivity must be in some part compensation for the unbearably high cost of living, which is currently shaking up locals’ sense of economic security with even more force than the 4.0 earthquake that hit a few miles from here last night. When my husband put salary figures into an online calculator that reveals the differential spending-power money has in different parts of the country, he learned his salary was worth almost twice as much in the midwest as in San Francisco.
When we sell our beloved house, which has provided so much beauty and such excellent shelter (may the new owners arrive soon, and receive as much pleasure from the house as we have), I’m planning to join my husband in Kansas City, where he has a new job he loves and where, he tells me, everyone looks him in the eye and speaks to him as if he were somebody, even if they have no idea precisely who he might be. I’m sure I will have ample opportunity to complain about the weather and bemoan the scarcity of tofu products in the local supermarket. I know I will miss my wonderful friends. I may even have occasion to repent, along the lines of Randall Jarrell’s famous quip: “The people who live in a Golden Age usually go around complaining how yellow everything looks.” But I don’t think so. Along with that combination of style and substance that is reputed to create a distinctive regional character, places have their moments, and—just when you think they’ll last forever—moments have a way of passing.