It’s hard to believe, but in a few shorts months I will have lived in California for 10 years. That’s 10 years of eternal sunshine, congested freeways, palm trees, and stolen shopping carts perched like modern day scarecrows in undeveloped dusty lots. In that time there is a lot of I have come to hate about this State (mostly the tax) and a lot of I have come to love (mostly the Inland Valley Library system ironically supported by the tax), but more than that I have come to realize there is more to California that the stratification you see on TV, it’s not just the haves and the have nots. There are the people that live the California dream of beaches and tans and the people that work the boring mindless drone of their jobs that are just like jobs in every other part of the country, just in better weather. There is the California you see from the freeway at 65 mph, when there is no traffic, but then there is also the California you don’t see from the freeway.
If I had to put where I currently live on the “have/have-not” scale, it would be somewhere in the middle, probably a tiny bit closer to the “have” side than the “have-not” side. Comfortably nestled in between cities where the average neighbor is a professional, a college graduate, or student working to become a professional or college graduate it’s not a bad place to live. The lawns are mowed regularly, the park seems to have a bunny infestation but other than that it is quite nice, and on the days when the smog hasn’t gotten too bad there is a spectacular view of the mountains. Most of the people in my neighborhood are “want to haves”. They want to have a nicer car one day, they want to have a bigger house, they want to have a better lawn, in short if we were closer to the freeway, we would definitely be the California you tend to see from the freeways. The repetitive architecture of the houses and closeness of the homes would make it seem like you could easily jump from one roof to the next if you were flying by in a car.
If where I live is the “want-to-haves” then where I work is the “mostly-haves”. Every house I drive by on my way to work has a different style, color, roofing material, landscaping, and garage door style, the unifying quality is the manicured perfection of each lawn and the wide yawning newly slurried smoothness of the roads. Mature trees aren’t the only mark that you are now in the world of the mostly haves, the street is also free of cars. Why is that streets in nicer areas are suspiciously devoid of cars parked at the curb?! This is the California that you would see in a “This Is California! Commercial” without going super high-end and showing people a “bungalow” in Malibu that makes your mouth water and pocketbook shriek and fall over dead from a heart attack. This is the other California, the more idyllic California.
A couple of weeks ago I went “off the freeway”, down the road, passed the newly fashioned ARCO stations with mini-marts and the organized chaos that immediately surrounds freeway off-ramps. As I jerkily shifted from third to fourth gear it was hard to believe the changes that took place from one stoplight to the next. How to say this without sounding racist, I don’t know, but English all but disappeared from the signage, and for a couple of blocks the only thing I recognized was the relatively clean stuccoed area of wall where a Blockbuster Video sign was obviously recently removed. This was not the California I was used to. This non-chain store, neighborhoods with un-manicured lawns California were as foreign to me as a different country. In fact I made it my usual practice to avoid areas like this. It could have been a perfectly safe neighborhood, but to me it was totally suspicious. As I pulled up to the house I was going to I looked at it with dread, my windows were up and I could already hear the loud dialogue from the television pouring out into the street and wafting into my car.
After knocking on the front door and explaining who I was and why I was there I was taken to see some trees I was supposed to look at, and my mind was in a mess. The minimalist look I love in design and the “corporate park “ like cleanliness of my work and home neighborhoods was completely missing. Instead the front entry area was a jumble of an old couch and cardboard boxes filled with toys and bric-a-brac with stains enough to prove they had been through a couple of rainstorms with no protection. Rounding the corner I was hit with a smell. I have read that your brain never forgets a smell, that smell is in fact one the strongest of the senses, and if you have ever smelled carpet left out in the rain, the dried out in the sun in an endless cycle, then you know the smell that hit me. Forcing myself to smile and keep up a light banter when all I wanted to do was run back to my car and inhale the smell of sun warmed upholstery and mint coming from my newly opened pack of gum, I pushed forward to see the trees. Walking past more rolls of carpet and down a crumbling driveway the man swung open the door and there were the trees.
In the middle of the backyard, next to a chicken coop smelling exactly like a chicken coop smells, were these branching fluffy Japanese Maple trees. Their delicate branches twisted and drooped as they formed their tell tale mushroom cap appearance. They were Zen in the middle of the chaos of a backyard that featured a broken down Barbie Hot Wheels. Trying to block out the boking chickens, and grimy pink plastic that would have never been allowed in Malibu Barbie’s neck of the woods I couldn’t help but think “where is a Viewmaster when you need one?” Here are these trees, that if they were found in the orderly confines of a Lowe’s or in an Oriental Nursery I wouldn’t have blinked at a $250 – $350 price tag. In this backyard with every single one of my senses saturated with the unfamiliar and disliked $80 seemed too steep. It was the Nordstrom effect. Put the same shirt in a Nordstrom and a Marshall’s and you get 3 times the price at Nordstrom, except this backyard wasn’t even Marshall’s, it hoped one day to be Marshall’s. I really, really needed a Viewmaster with familiar scenery loaded into it.
Saying my thank yous and heading back to the freeway I couldn’t help but think if this area tucked away from the freeway and away from major cross streets was the area of the “will never haves”. To even say it sounds un-American. After all, we are a country that still believes that everyone can be anyone. But let me know how easy it is to believe that when you are staring at apartments rented by the week and motels exclaiming “AC IN ALL ROOMS” while the motel sits in the middle of a city with summer time temps regularly climbing over 110. Maybe the freeways I so love to hate are Viewmasters in their own way. I leave one area with Starbucks on every block, apartments rented on long-term leases and when I get off the freeway Viewmaster I enter another area with Starbucks on every corner and trucks with gardeners filing in to do battle with lawns that would probably fail a drug test they are so green and perfect. But there that part of California that is not in between the want to have and the mostly haves that I like to forget. The part where HOA’s and fear of neighbor backlash isn’t a concern, the place I am willing to say I NEVER, EVER want to live or work.
I am not sure what it says about me that I want the homogeneity that is my modern “Levittown”, USA over what might be reality. Mostly I wonder what the “THIS IS CALIFORNIA!” commercial would look like if it was made by someone who rented their apartment with AC by the week.