From San Diego CityBEAT
How I Learned to Stop Worrying
by Mark Dery
Born in Boston but raised, from age six on, in Southern California, I thought of myself as a stranger in a strange land—a dark-haired E.T. in a blond world, a pale-skinned bookworm who burned and peeled but never tanned. My home planet was the East Coast, mythologized in my parents’ tall tales as a place of frozen locks, cars that wouldn’t start, endless snowstorms, and even more endless shoveling. East Coast partisans manage to get misty-eyed about white Christmases and the turning of the leaves, but only a masochist could truly love a region whose weather alternates between subzero and subtropical. In the winter, a drive to the corner store turns into a Shackleton expedition, complete with gale-force winds. In the summer, a miasma of sour sweat and foul humor hangs over cities such as New York, wrapping everything in a wet blanket. But at least the East Coast has culture, the reasoning goes.
In 1965, we migrated westward in that mid-sixties hybrid of Conestoga wagon and personal rocketship, the Volkswagen van, our worldly goods lashed to the rooftop rack. For my stepdad, a machinist, California dangled the hope of a high-paying job in the booming aeronautics and aerospace industries. On a deeper level, he was seduced by the libertarian promise that had drawn generations of easterners yearning to be free of New England’s puritan prudery, its tight-lipped Yankee reserve, its pinched provincialism. In Jean-Paul Dery’s version of our family’s founding myth, “Things were fresh and new in California, not stinted and narrow as they were in tiny cramped New England,” as he recalled, in a recent e-mail interview. “I was going to go to a land where I would never have to shovel snow again, or go without a beer because the liquor stores (they call them package stores back there in Connecticut [because] they are so tight-assed they won’t say ‘liquor’) closed at noon on Saturday and did not open again till Monday. I felt Californians were open-minded, and friendly to everybody.”
When we arrived in San Diego, Jean-Paul (“J.P.” to his friends) was delighted to discover that utopia had lived up to its advertising campaign: “California had things that Connecticut would not get for years,” he noted, chief among them a climate that was pure paradise, followed closely by beer on Sundays. Topless dancers and nude beaches left no doubt that we were “far from the puritan morés of the New Englanders.” In an e-mail interview, he rhapsodized, “Out here it was Freedom city and ‘let it all hang out.’ New, racy, exciting, and open-ended, not confining and controlling like the way I used to feel in New England.” For Californians, freedom and freeways are synonymous, and J.P. followed suit, embracing the swooping, multi-lane roads as proof of personal liberty: “No tolls on the highways—what a concept! Where I came from, you couldn’t drive five miles without hitting a toll booth.”
My mom was less sanguine about the New World. A New England Yankee, she was torn between post-traumatic memories of Boston blizzards and a Brahmin’s disdain for San Diego’s middlebrow attempts at culture, from the symphony’s Lawrence Welk repertoire of “pops” and light classics to the Museum of Art’s determinedly inoffensive, retiree-friendly fare. San Diego culture?! Quel oxymoron! It is to laugh! One might as well ask: Is there life on Mars?
Alienation was my birthright, the inevitable by-product of a bicoastal disorder that split my personality down the middle. Like my mom, I sneered at San Diego’s whoa-dude vacuity, wearing what Robert Lowell called “Massachusetts’ low-tide dolor” as a badge of honor in the land of surfers and Smiley Faces.The San Diego religion seemed to be a Stepfordian take on Zen Buddhism’s “empty mind,” a hybrid of sun worship and the cosmic mellowness of The Big Lebowski’s Dude.
At the same time, I followed my stepdad, wading hip-deep into California culture, high on the pop flotsam and manmade marvels all around me: lowriders, dune buggies, vans with bubble windows and airbrushed sunsets; futuristic freeways whose swooping flyovers made me feel as if the family wagon was engaging warp drive; Googie styling that turned drive-ins and drive-throughs into Jetsonian spaceports; Ed “Big Daddy” Roth dragster models from Revell; “Odd Rods” kustom kar trading cards; head shops that sold body oils, bootlegs, black-light posters, mentholated “cokesnuff”; and the taco stand, late-night Lourdes of stumbling-drunk gringos.
Nature, too, was worlds away from the East Coast, emblematized in my mind by my maternal grandparents’ Cape Cod town, a fog-haunted, Melvillean place of cranberry bogs and marshy beaches, weathered cottages and lobster traps. If New England’s miniaturist landscapes were Kodak-moment fodder—autumn leaves and whipped-cream snowdrifts—San Diego nature was big-screen, Sensurround stuff. La Jolla’s surreal sandstone bluffs looked like a collaboration between Yves Tanguy and Dr. Seuss. The blasted beauty of the Anza-Borrego desert was at once primordial and post-apocalyptic. And the almighty Pacific, with its majestic green billows, made a mockery of those pathetic knee-slappers East Coasters call waves.
On the East Coast, in a city such as New York, culture was nature. I’ll never forget my first subway trip to Coney Island, on one of those sweltering summer days when the air is so humid it’s viscous. Reeling out of a packed cattle car, onto the burning sands, I took in a scene that, for a San Diegan, was positively Boschian: bodies, bodies everywhere, and not an inch of sand to spare. A tangle of sweaty flesh extending to the water’s edge—flabby, skinny, unconvincingly bronzed or white as a frog’s belly. People, people, as far as the eye could see, radios blaring, voices braying, their blankets so close they literally overlapped. The water was as crowded as a municipal pool, and about as foul; the sand was the world’s biggest ashtray, bristling with stubbed-out cigarettes. I thought, dizzily, of San Diego’s Torrey Pines beach, where a few blocks’ hike could win you a cove all your own, and sole deed and title to the limitless ocean around it. Where’s Soylent Green when you need it?
In Dery family lore, New Yorkers were the most alien of Easterners—pasty creatures who lay on the beach but never ventured into the water. Alarmingly, many of them actually smoked, not yet a capital crime in the permissive ’70s, but a serious lapse of rectitude, nonetheless. From the asthmatics, rheumatics, and wealthy hypochondriacs who flocked to San Diego’s sanitariums in the 1900s to the joggers and apostles of nutrition guru (and California immigrant) Adelle Davis in the 1970s, San Diegans have long taken healthful living (or, at least, the surgically enhanced appearance of it) as seriously as the dietary prohibitions in Leviticus.
Not only were New Yorkers unapologetically unhealthy, but they were uncouth, to boot, mangling SoCal’s Spanish place names in the dese-and-demspeak of old gangster movies. Their clothes were loud, too—tacky, synthetic-fiber get-ups better suited to a blackjack table in Atlantic City than to laid-back San Diego, where OP surfware and puka shells, guayaberas and Harachi sandals were the standard-issue uniform, accessorized with mirrored sunglasses. Even their cars were vulgar: road-hogging Cadillacs that looked like throwbacks to the Land That Time Forgot, when bada-bing hustlers in sharkskin suits and pinky rings ruled the world.
It never occurred to me, at the time, that a racist subtext lurked beneath many of these stereotypes. San Diego is a city whose prevailing attitudes have been shaped, for most of its modern history, by conservative whites: smalltown Midwesterners, bible-belt Southerners, senior citizens enjoying their golden years in San Diego’s law-abiding paradise, and retired and active-duty military personnel. Cold-war conservatism exacerbated the backwoods bigotry of the rural and smalltown whites who made up much of the city’s immigrant stock.
Little surprise, then, that the city had a disproportionately small population of blacks and Mexican-Americans, compared to other large cities. Minorities didn’t need a “no coloreds need apply” sign posted at city limits to get the message. When my family moved to Chula Vista, in 1966, San Diego was the 16th largest city in the United States, with a population of nearly 640,000. Yet, as of 1960, Mexican-Americans constituted only six-and-six-tenths percent of San Diego’s population, with blacks making up an almost equal percentage of the total. The handful of Mexican-Americans in my high school, Hilltop High, were the light-skinned fortunate sons and daughters of Tijuana’s ruling class, raised in the Chula Vista neighborhoods with the highest property values. Out of a student body of 2,000, there were maybe three blacks.
A high school friend (who prefers to remain anonymous) remembers two of them, a brother and sister whose family had moved to the area from Back East. The brother “was very popular but, as weird as it sounds, there was definitely some degree of racism in that,” she noted, in an e-mail. “He was considered our exotic. After [high school], he went right back to [the East], so that must say something. Unbelievable, isn’t it, how incredibly WHITE [Chula Vista’s] Hilltop [area] was then?”
The incredible whiteness of being San Diegan wasn’t a coincidence. The city rolled out its unwelcome mat for people of color in the form of economic and social discrimination. Politicians, developers, and real-estate barons used redlining to cordon off blacks, Mexicans, and low-income whites (codeword: white trash), quarantining them in the city’s less desirable neighborhoods, such as Logan Heights and Golden Hill. “Protection against adverse influences is obtained by the existence and enforcement of proper zoning regulations and appropriate deed restrictions,” informed the August 1, 1935 edition of the FHA Underwriting Manual. The Manual helpfully defined “adverse influences” as the “infiltration of inharmonious racial or nationality groups” (along with “the presence of smoke, odors, fog, etc.”). In the ‘30s, when eugenics was a respected science and the specter of Spenglerian racial decline haunted White America, the de-facto segregation of redlining protected “respectable” San Diegans from the degenerate underclasses. As late as 1965, San Diego was still “one of the most segregated areas in the country,” according to the Fair Employment Practices Commission.
Leaving San Diego for New York City, as I did after college, was like emigrating to Mars. Racially and ethnically diverse, delirious New York (to borrow the architect Rem Koolhaas’s felicitous phrase) is brash and brutal yet urbane, European in its sophistication but exuberantly American in its appetite for cheap thrills and lurid sensation, its Weegee-esque embrace of the naked city: Lower East Side kids playing in gushing hydrants, murder victims faceplanted on the pavement, rubbernecking crowds, stumbling drunks, grotesques, a dwarf in diapers on New Year’s Eve. Where San Diego is hidebound, ingrown, New York is omnivorously inclusive—-the proverbial “mongrel metropolis.” San Diego’s vision of the City Beautiful is, in a word, Disneyland: a microbe- and minority-free theme park, underwritten by military-industrial contractors. New York’s idea of a syncopated city is Times Square: the devil’s playground (before Disney and Giuliani sterilized it), with its porn shops, pentecostal preachers, girls in glass booths, three-card monte dealers, and clip joints selling nunchuks and throwing stars and “genuine” jade tchotchkes. San Diego, in Gore Vidal’s memorable epithet, is the “Vatican of the John Birch Society.” New York, in the words of Chula Vista homeboy (and, briefly, New York resident) Tom Waits, is “like a ship full of rats, and the water’s on fire.”
Now, two decades after moving to New York, I think of it as my home planet. Every year or two, I fly west to visit my sister, who lives in Eastlake, on the frontlines of suburban Chula Vista’s assault on what used to be canyon country. The McMansions in her master-planned community quote Old-World vernacular and vintage American styles from the developer’s pattern book, some of which would look right at home on Disney’s Main Street or in the 1926 Illinois town in The Martian Chronicles: “Further up on the green stood a tall brown Victorian house, quiet in the sunlight, all covered with scrolls and rococo, its windows made of blue and pink and yellow and green colored glass...”xv The names of other developments, posted on a shiny sign—-Chambord, Old Creek, Alexandria, Fairhaven—-trumpet a parvenu craving for the weight of European history, for antebellum elegance, for a manor-born assurance about one’s place in the social order. Chambord features Maison, Provence, Chateau, and Versailles models; Fairhaven offers Oxford, Essex, Chelsea, and Windsor styles. Even the nearby golf club is named “Auld Course,” the Scots dialect summoning visions of gentry in knickers, selecting just the right iron for that treacherous bunker while their caddies look on worshipfully.
Of course, there’s nothing Auld about the club, or any of these developments, but nothing salves the sting of class envy like a name mossy with European history, perfumed by old money. Propelled by “class flight,” middle-class and upper middle-class Chula Vistans like my sister and her family are pointing their personal rockets eastward, abandoning the city’s increasingly low-income, relatively high-crime downtown neighborhoods for upscale space colonies in what used to be canyon country—an eastward expansion halted, for the moment, by San Miguel Mountain. As recently as 1998, my sister recalled, in an e-mail interview, “new houses in CV...[were] more affordable. [...] As time progressed, older parts of CV became influxed [sic] with more crimes, and the working middle are trying to move up the economic ladder by establishing developments in suburbs outside, but in close proximity to, the city. So, to put it in plain English, we are all living beyond our means: driving our SUVs that get six-to-17 mpg (eight people on our street now own [Hummers]), buying homes large enough for your entire extended family to live with you, trying to outdo the Joneses next door in every aspect—-house decor, clothes, cars, and pushing your kids to their limits with education and extracurricular activities.”
Sometimes, when I’m visiting, I do something only a New Yorker would do, something a Southern Californian would find deeply suspicious: I go for a walk. Strolling the deserted streets (so un-New York!) of my sister’s development, I look for signs of life—-little gestures of dissent, or eccentricity, even. I’ve never seen any, which is hardly surprising, given that, on my sister’s street alone, there are six police officers, one retired cop, two firefighters, one retired firefighter, six military personnel, and one retired member of the armed services, by my sister’s count. If there are any Democrats in the ‘hood, they’re keeping their politically incorrect thoughts to themselves.
As I walk, I feel eyes on my back, from behind the drawn blinds, and wonder if I’m inviting the suspicions of the Neighborhood Watch. Maybe I’ll be arrested, like the protagonist of “The Pedestrian,” Bradbury’s slyly mocking tale of a man taken away, in 2052, for the crime of walking his neighborhood streets. Though it’s unnamed, his city can only be L.A.: “The street was silent and long and empty, with only his shadow moving like the shadow of a hawk in mid-country.”
True to my sister’s words, an SUV hulks in nearly every driveway, sporting the mandatory yellow-ribbon decal or “Support Our Troops” bumper sticker or sometimes both. Patriotic bunting fringes the balcony of one house; on another, a placard over the door reads, “God Bless Our Home.” According to my sister, the woman who lives there cast her vote for George W. Bush because of his opposition to abortion, stem-cell research, and gay marriage. She knows, in her heart, that Darwinian theory is a rotting heap of secular-humanist falsehoods. She believes she may live to see the Rapture, when time shall be no more.
I make my way down the eerily empty streets, shadowless in the apocalyptic sun.
I am the man who fell to Earth.
Copyright © 2005 City Works Press. All rights reserved.