By Tom Demerly.
I survived the collapse of Detroit, the Middle East after 9/11 and watched East Germans through binoculars while dodging spies. I’ve never had a sense of looming change like California. The ground beneath your feet is unstable, and it’s not just geology.
California is ruled by silent fear. The culture is collectively grasping the dead image of the California dream.
It must be similar to sailing on the RMS Titanic in 1912 or being on Wall Street on 9/10. Everything seems fine, but there is a tectonic uneasiness. Consider that both the Titanic tragedy and the 9/11 attacks happened by the slightest of circumstances. California is vulnerable to a similar flutter of the butterfly’s wings. It is a culture perched on the fulcrum of the American dream, or nightmare. It can so easily go either way.
I lived in Mission Viejo, California for a year. The neighborhood was idyllic with soaring palms, manicured landscaping, and artificial lakes. Traffic jams of BMW’s delivered perfectly coiffed teenagers to the local high school in what looked like a cattle call for an Abercrombie catalog shoot. If nothing else, Californians are beautiful.
When I arrived in California I walked around a corner to discover two 40-ish females hefting their breasts in comparison. “Oh!” The woman remarked when she noticed me, “We’re sorry… we just got these.” Californians eat natural foods but have artificial breasts. They are afraid of the inevitability of aging and spend enormous amounts in a losing battle to avoid it. There is a cultural aversion to dressing your age in California.
California is crowded. So crowded that I lived inside a massive, sprawling strip mall. The expanse of strip malls is like a skin-eating disease on the terrain. The lesions have connected with each other across the tissue of the landscape to engulf the corporate housing boxes of consumers. We were caged there between purchases and labor shifts. It resembled an above ground ant nest with nice landscaping. The ants drove Benzs instead of following scent trails.
My cell between the strip malls in California had 2 windows, 2 rooms and cost about $1600 a month. Now I live in a house with 17 windows, 9 rooms and it is $800 a month. I also have a massive yard. In California I slept with my head 9 feet from the front bumpers of cars parked outside. And their constantly bleating alarms. I did have a nice pool though.
Southern California is fragile. One morning on my five-mile commute to work a traffic light went out. One traffic light. The ripple effect throughout Orange County was bizarre. Nearly the entire distance of my five-mile route was delayed or stopped because of one traffic light failure. One. What would happen if there were power failures here like the East Coast power failure of 2003?
California works (now) because of a little known but real principle of space management called the “chicken coop” theory: When there are too many chickens in the coop to all sit on the floor at once you must continually bang on the side of the coop to keep some chickens in the air. The result is an unsustainable society of increasingly collective fatigue. If every Californian had to drive somewhere at once the roads could not handle the number of vehicles. If too many Californians flush their toilets at once…
You may ask, “What about the authentic surf culture? The liberal, progressive attitude and the tolerant society?” Those are the depictions of California we see in themed mall stores, music videos and media. The reality has shifted to an industry of depicting those things. Instead of being California, California is in the business of selling California to the rest of the world, or at least what they think California is. Or was.
What was most embarrassing is that many Californians were very up-tight about being laid-back. They were incapable of poking fun at themselves. When they made fun of me for calling a carbonated beverage “pop” I would reply, “Sorry dude, it’s totally soda man, that was so lame of me…” they would stare at me blankly, as if I had just taken the laid back Dude-God’s name in vein. The reality is that the California surfer dude is simply a hillbilly with a trust fund. Sorry to totally harsh on your scene dudes.
Mostly, Californians are lonely and afraid, and I was one of them. I asked a close friend who was moving if he needed help. He said, in all seriousness, “I don’t want you to help me because you might need me to help you.” That was California in a nutshell.
I went to the same pretty little check out girl at the grocery store every time for a year. The last week I lived there the girl asked, “Why do you always come through my line?”
“I think you are pretty.” I told her. She told me she was taking her break at six and asked if I wanted to have coffee with her next door at Starbucks.
“No,” I said. “I am moving back to Detroit tomorrow.”