Tuesday 31 January 2012

California notebook

The future
‘As one went to Europe to see the living past, so one must visit Southern California to observe the future.’ —Alison Lurie, The Nowhere City, 8.

The slide
‘In Los Angeles, all the loose objects in the country were collected as if America had been tilted and everything that wasn't tightly screwed down had slid into Southern California.’ —Saul Bellow, Seize the Day, 12.

The night before the Rose Parade, the Oklahoma preacher makes his way slowly down Colorado street, holding above the crowded sidewalk a big yellow sign about Jesus, the Bible, and the afterlife. Ten paces in front of him, his eleven-year-old daughter keeps the same funereal march, pointing the megaphone straight ahead like a pistol and proclaiming the King James gospel at 120 decibels. I thought: One day she will write a book about all this.

The idea of home
We stayed in that big house on the hill overlooking the sea. Everything was new, clean, polished, straight off the pages of a magazine, migrainously bright. It was not so much a home as the idea of a home, just as Starbucks is the idea of coffee and The Smurfs 3D is the idea of a children’s movie.

I am a cynic, a hater, a vehemently eloquent critic of the Disneyfication of childhood. Anyone who will listen, I tell them what’s wrong with Disney. I tell them: ‘You should not always follow your heart.’ I tell them: ‘The Real You is, at times, an abomination.’ I tell them: ‘Your little girl is not a princess.’ I tell the little girls: ‘Your aim in life is not to marry a prince.’ When we agreed to take our children to Disneyland I made wry remarks from the side of my mouth, I spoke of compromises and the sacrifices we make for our children, I prepared myself for the gruelling spiritual trials of a whole day at Disneyland, though secretly I wondered whether we might persuade our children to leave a little early. Then the day arrived. We walked through the gates and we were in Disneyland. The coloured shops and houses were bathed in a soft nostalgic glow, the streets curled away lazily into the distance, a horse-drawn streetcar pulled up beside us, the music of half-forgotten childhood movies started playing from somewhere beyond the sky. Everything was Sunday and Pollyanna and homemade lemonade and America. I peered carefully at a drifting cloud to check if the sky was real. We stayed for fourteen hours, until my children had to beg me to take them home.

We were eating breakfast and I was telling him about the evils of California's penitentiary system. ‘You know, the percentage of incarcerated citizens in the United States is seven times higher than in Australia. And a seventh of all those American prisoners – mostly African Americans – are here in California. It's because the prison systems here operate just like any other corporate enterprise. The prison guards union is one of the wealthiest and most powerful political forces in California. The Three Strikes legislation, for example – one of the most unjust pieces of legislation in American history – was backed by the prison guards union. For them, it's all about keeping the prisons full, expanding the number of prisons, and expanding the number of people working in prisons. A few years back here in California, over 10 percent of the whole state budget was spent on prisons. Just compare that to schools and universities. Just compare it to rehabilitation programs. I mean, once you’ve been incarcerated in California you’ve got like a 90 percent chance of returning to prison – 90 percent! My God, do you know how much money is at stake in all this? Do you know how many new prisons have been built in California in the last twenty years? The dream of these malignant sonsofbitches is to have half of California behind bars, and the other half gainfully employed as guards in correctional facilities.’ He chewed his food thoughtfully and said, ‘Man, I hear you. It ain’t easy. Wherever I go, them police move me on. I try to sleep behind the dumpster, they move me on. I stand in front of the store with a cup, they tell me they’ll send me back to jail. Man, it hard keeping out of jail in California.’

Los Angeles
He took me hiking in the mountains and in hushed tones told me the names of the birds. When we had reached the edge of a steep ravine and all we could see were the mountains, the sky, the cool stream and the canyon, he stopped and said, ‘There it is. My favourite view of Los Angeles.’

The day I went whale watching at Newport we saw the biggest pod of killer whales that has been sighted in these parts for nearly a decade. There were fifty of them, and they swam alongside us and swam in front of us and glided underneath the boat, their white patches shimmering like immense green lights beneath the water. They were so close and so good and gleaming and so startlingly alive that it took the greatest effort not to throw myself down into the sea as a happy mad grateful gesture.

It was a deflating experience. I had gone into Target on the way home because I needed toothpaste, and I stood at the checkout contemplating the infinite melancholy of big department stores, and then in one of the lines I saw a celebrity, and some of the Target staff left their checkouts to go over and shake his hand and tell him they loved him. I looked down at my tube of toothpaste, averting my eyes, and to tell you the truth I felt very sorry for the poor bastard.

‘I’m going to cycle around Europe,’ he told me as we started on our second pint. ‘I dunno, maybe stay and work there a while. Maybe learn a language. I've always wanted to learn a language.’ He had lived all his life in LA, so I asked him what about Spanish, did he know that LA has more Spanish-speaking people than any other place in the world, after Mexico City? He said, ‘No, I don’t like Spanish, I’ve never liked it. It’s just such a – an ugly language.’ I asked him which languages he liked. ‘You know, maybe French, Italian, maybe something like Polish – hell, I dunno, even German.’

Jamie and I were walking down the street and as usual Jamie was carefully stepping over the cracks in the sidewalk. When an old homeless guy shuffled past in his broken shoes, Jamie told him matter-of-factly, ‘If you step on the cracks you’ll die.’ Without stopping the man nodded his profound grizzled head and said, ‘Yeah brother, they hard rules. One false step and it’s all over. That's hard rules right there, brother.’

The mysticism of the freeway
‘The freeway experience … is the only secular communion Los Angeles has. Mere driving on the freeway is in no way the same as participating in it. Anyone can “drive” on the freeway, and many people with no vocation for it do, hesitating here and resisting there, losing the rhythm of the lane change, thinking about where they came from and where they are going. Actual participants think only about where they are. Actual participation requires a total surrender, a concentration so intense as to seem a kind of narcosis, a rapture-of-the-freeway. The mind goes clean. The rhythm takes over…. “As you acquire the special skills involved,” Reyner Banham observed in an extraordinary chapter about the freeways in his 1971 Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies, “the freeways become a special way of being alive…. The extreme concentration required in Los Angeles seems to bring on a state of heightened awareness that some locals find mystical”.’ —Joan Didion, The White Album, 83.

Venice Beach
Along the brokenhearted strip of break dancers, jugglers, bad musicians and graffitied trees and sinister-looking fortune tellers, amid the slouched huddles of storefronts peddling pipes and hotdogs and t-shirts and tattoos, the medical marijuana clinics are newly painted, clean, seedy, legitimate. A guy in dark shades and a bright green lab coat takes a drag on his reefer and calls out, ‘Step inside, ladies and gentlemen, right this way, the doctor is in. Headache, back pain, insomnia, sadness – it's good for whatever ails you.’ You peer inside doubtfully, and decide you’d rather take your chances with the guy in gangsta clothes and prison tattoos down on the corner.

I told him I was from Australia. ‘Australia? For real? It must be nice, all them animals. But you got no sidewalks in Australia – it’s an amazing place.’

When I told her I wanted to go to Mexico she said, ‘Mexico? Mexico? What you wanna go there for? Mexico – oh God, it’s so gross. You been to Sacramento? You been to Vegas?’

Dentist #1
He stumbled into the room, leaning heavily against the wall. His speech was slurred and he had to strain to keep his eyes open when I explained the details of my daughter’s accident. She had been running outside with her friends at a Mexican restaurant in Laguna Beach. There was a steel handrail. She didn’t see it and she ran right into it. One tooth out. Both front teeth broken in half. He made me repeat the part about the Mexican restaurant. I explained that we had wanted fish tacos. He slouched out of the room, bumping into the door frame and murmuring to himself as he shuffled off down the hall. It was nine in the morning, and he was either extremely drunk or (as I surmised) had been helping himself to the opiates from the medicine cabinet. Their website boasts that they have their own qualified anesthesiologist and can provide sedation upon request. When I walked out and told the receptionist that we would not be coming back because the doctor was not sober, she feigned mild surprise – ‘Really? Not sober?’ – and then whispered confidentially, ‘You could try coming back tomorrow.’ My daughter told me afterwards that she loves all dentists, but was frightened of that one.

Dentist #2
Our next dentist was a pretty Iranian woman who pursed her lips sympathetically when my daughter explained how she had broken her teeth. We read the comic books and children’s magazines in the waiting room and we got her teeth repaired. My daughter never groaned or flinched once until it was all over and the dentist gave her a mirror so she could admire her perfect new teeth. Only then did she burst into tears, because she had grown used to those ghastly sharp cracked tomboy fangs, and she resented her smooth new unblemished American teeth.

In Balboa Park in San Diego we saw a man with no arms singing country songs and playing guitar with his toes. Jamie whispered, ‘Does that man got no arms?’ I nodded. He said, ‘Is that man really playing with his feet?’ I nodded. Then he said doubtfully, ‘Is that man real?’ The boy had been to Disneyland, he had been to Malibu, he had seen the film crews at Santa Monica and Altadena. He knew that in California you can never be quite certain whether or not a thing is really real.

Dentist #3
A few days later I heard her telling one of her friends: ‘When I grow up, I’m going to be a dentist.’


Bruce Mccormack said...

Brilliant stuff, Ben. Keep the observations coming. I'm sure I am not alone in loving your travelogue.

Jordan Acosta said...

It's always nice to know our city leaves a strong impression.

Bruce Hamill said...

Fantastic work Ben... I've been interrupting everyone in our house this evening reading out your stuff.

Glen Scrivener said...

Love the cracks story!

scottsavage said...

As a transplanted California kid in Kansas this warms my heart, except for the part about the freeways. I hope that part eventually falls into the ocean. I've paid my dues on traffic, that's for sure.

Chika Chukwujekwu said...

Just curious, any particular reason why you don't mention your daughter's name. I just noticed that you always mention Jamie and not her.

it doesn't matter either way, I like reading your blog, it just struck me while reading this.

Brandon Jones said...

You've grown a lot as a writer. Great job!

Ben Myers said...

I guess it's just because Jamie is too young to feel self-conscious about this sort of thing.

John Stamps said...

I chuckled about a proposed California bumper-sticker Peggy Noonan mentioned recently recently: "California-It's All True!"


drewworthley said...

Your writing here is wonderfully inspiring Ben. Thank you kindly for sharing. It is blogs such as yours that restore my faith in the beautiful power of language and thought where it is otherwise so often corrupted and vacant in the blogosphere. 'Cracks' was a highlight for me.

lbtallon said...

I can't believe you were right on my doorstep! Say a prayer for theologians in Southern California - taking rational trouble over the mystery in Malibu is truly a strange thing.
Thanks for sharing your reflections,

Erin said...

I am honestly shocked at how well you've captured life here so quickly.
Reminded me a lot of Life After God.
(I laughed, I cried... especially at the Sacramento comment :) )

JasonSexton said...

Fantastic observations, Ben. You've captured quite a lot, and really ought to give a paper in one of the upcoming TECC Project sessions (www.teccproject.com), giving an Australasian reading of something. Incidentally, the prison system is retracting somewhat, not just from Federal legislation, but as of 20 Dec. 2011 California’s recidivism rate fell to 65%, according to the 2011 Adult Institutions Outcome Evaluation Report from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. And since 2003, seven of the juvenile (15-25 yr old) facilities have been closed, with another one closing imminently in Norwalk, and only three remaining. All of this has major significance for a lot of what happens in the counties, and subsequently, on the streets.
And, yes, you should visit Sacramento. And everywhere else in that marvelous State.

DWLindeman said...

The quotation you've cited from Saul Bellow's "Seize the Day" appears to be a reformulation of quotes attributed variously to Frank Lloyd Wright and/or Will Rogers. The Wright quotation has several variants, including: "Tip the world over on its side and everything loose will land in Los Angeles" (see: "Yale Book of Quotations", 2006); alternately: "If you tilt the whole country sideways, Los Angeles is the place everything will fall" (see: "The Oxford Dictionary of American Quotations", 2006). Yale's book mentions Will Rogers as the possible source, While Oxfords' indicates "attributed" to Wright. Will Rogers is purported to have said: "Tilt this country on end and everything loose will slide into Los Angeles". Since Rogers died in 1935, it would seem that either Wright was quoting Rogers, or Rogers Wright (the former seems more likely to me). Wright worked in the Los Angeles area in the early 1920s, building several houses there. If Rogers is the original source of this quotation, then both Wright and Bellow "borrowed" it from him. If Bellow were the original source, then Wright would have had to borrow it in the period of 1956 (Bellow) to 1959, i.e. before he died, which seems unlikely (although not impossible). A seach for the source of this quote on the Internet, so far, has proved enormously frustrating.

On another note, contra your seaside home's ultra-perfection, Wright's Millard House, also known as "La Minitura", in Pasadena is remarkable and humane in every way. Unfortunately, it is not open to the public. I did catch a glimpse of it when I was in California, when still a teenager. From the garden-gate side the prospect is truly captivating, with its lilly-pond retreat. The view from the driveway, around the block, isn't so bad either. --DWLindeman

Tyler said...

Sweet post. Enjoyed the Disney Land note especially. If you'll allow, I offer a friendly rejoinder to "the mysticism of the freeway" below.

To "the mysticism of the freeway," I can only respond with a resoundingly perplexed, Nein. What I mean is that the interstates here in the US of A need to be properly named for what they are -- namely, institutional principalities. Without a (perhaps justified) rebuttal to this interpretation through an experiential account of the despair and melancholy to which I have been subjected during interstate travel -- the incoherent violence and affliction (malheur) that perpetually haunts me as Christ the South -- I instead, anathematically to your interpretation, and following Bill Stringfellow, declare it an idolatrous principality. The interstate stands as the 20th century’s most demonic of contrivances that makes claims upon Americans as an alien commitment that is other than Christ. Zealous for time, attention, and devotion, the interstate (for clarification: by interstate, I, of course, mean freeway--it just happens to be more colloquial in these parts) is totalizing in its drive for commitment, governed as it is by the singular moral principle of survival. Everything must be sacrificed to the cause of its service, to the widening of its lanes, to the new bridges which short-circuit the old, to the re-pavement, to the midnight cleanings, to any higher tawdriness, all of which masks themselves as services to the worshipful-driver though in reality exacting liturgical tribute from its users. Indeed, the interstate is the marlin-mauling shark which even the bravery of Hemingway's old man could not stave. The interstate as institutional principality presents itself in benign form benevolently offering efficiency unrivaled in American travel yet simultaneously requiring our souls.

Ben, to liken such a power of this evil age to a secular communion or mysticism is to be allured by its Siren Song. I entreat you to return obedience to Christ and decline your invitation to bondage in the form of dirt roads, back roads (see Rodney Atkins 'Take a Back Road' for a fuller explication and cultural experience), and farm to market roads, and avert your gaze from the Sodom you leave behind, unto which God is assuredly bringin' Sodomic carnage.

Anyway, that turned out to be more than was intended. Still, really enjoyed this post of yours. Take care.

ken oakes said...

It's good to know that Mark Goffeney is still playing guitar in Balboa Park. I remember seeing him play on the Prado (think Spanish colonial architecture crossed with Disneyland Main St) back when I was at uni in SD in the early 2000s.

RyanN said...

I've been at Fuller for almost 6 months now, 'only' some 3000 miles from home (nothing compared to Australia, I guess!). These are right on. "America is hard to see" anyway... but certain parts of L.A. culture do especially funny things to one's vision.

Don Needham said...

A guest sees more in an hour than the host in a year.
- Polish proverb

Pam said...

I lived for a year in America in my early twenties. I lived in Washington DC - a great year. Didn't need to make an emergency trip to a dentist thank God.

Knitting Benedict said...

Best description of Venice Beach. I remember being so confused the first time we went there. Having heard it described as "eclectic gathering of locals," I was a bit stunned to see that it was rather a pool of forgotten people.

Sharon said...

Brother Ben, I hear ya on Disneyland. I was forced to Disney World Orlando some years ago. My Mother had just died and I was in no mood. I went to meet with friends from overseas. By the time I saw the Fantasia show I had begun to wonder if I was at times glancing heaven and where all that magic came from. Those little faerie and angel archetypes had me surrounded, you see, exactly when I in grief of Mother loss needed them. Thank God!

In fact right now Starbucks is playing, "Knock knock knocking on heaven's door."

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