The Naked Empire

What stands out now and what will stand out in the future is what stood out at the time, which has been summed up repetitively in my mind during these years by one phrase: the emperor has no clothes.
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California Dreaming

Motorists shoot each other on the 580. They shoot each other on the 880 and the 680. Children swarm Bart trains in Oakland to mug the commuters. Cops shoot unarmed women in the back, killing them on their front porches.  They assassinate unarmed Black kids on subway platforms. Fires are set to tent cities and RVs to drive out the homeless. They're set to developments to drive out the gentrifiers. Strangers break into cars, break into homes, and shit on the stoop; they break empty Dark Eyes bottles on the faces of passersby. Strangers squat in the foyer of apartment buildings to smoke meth out of the rain.  Tent cities dominate the space under every bridge, and every empty lot.  This is the San Francisco Bay Area. This is life in the Bay Area. Road rage, crime, disaffected youth, fear, addiction, extrajudicial killings, homelessness, violence against the homeless. Violence. This is California. 

Other than knowing I had a great-uncle living in San Francisco, I did not think much about California until the events there put it squarely in the news week after week seemingly all through the 90s. It was where the Menendez Brothers had killed their parents. It was where the rolling black outs, Neverland Ranch, and the LA riots were. California was earthquakes and wildfires. California was slashed window screens and missing children. It was pedophiles and pollution. It was the land of Jim Jones and the People's Temple, Ronald and Nancy Reagan, Richard Nixon, Bloods and Crips. California was traffic, Hollywood and PG&E. It was military bases and the Manson Family. California was, in a word, scary.

It is not that kidnappings, rape and cults don't exist in the rest of the country - it is only that for some reason they seem amplified in California. Part of that, I'm sure, is the setting. You cannot have so much sunlight without the attending pathos. You cannot endure the Santa Anas, the fires, the fog, the earthquakes, the traffic and cost of living and not sometimes consider buying a gun or running someone off the road. You cannot endure the relentless of it all and not ponder the limits of your own decency or, as others might call it, the limits of your restraint. Another facet of this sunlit nightmare must be the consistent waves of immigrants who have come here seeking their fortune, every wave arriving like the last - eyes on the long vanished “final frontier”. Despite the fact that the days of panning for gold are over, most of us arriving here continue to show up with the idealistic "Westward, Ho!", here for our fortune mentality that drove the Donner Party. Many of us are of course looking for our Mother Lode in Silicon Valley or Hollywood, and many find it. Still, most do not. Fortune is limited, opportunity even more so, and there are no more frontiers, not even the digital landscape lauded by the innovators in tech. After failing to find your fortune in the Golden West, what choice is left but to embrace the chaos and become another California Phantom?

As a kid it is this macabre element that caught my attention during the endless hours California unfolded on the nightly news and the television magazines, whether it was kidnappings or scams or OJ Simpson's white SUV being "chased" by cops following the murder of his ex-wife, or the streets of LA lit up in flames following the acquittal of the racist police officers who terrorized Rodney King. California seemed primed for insanity, perhaps fueled by it. That all the stories were happening in broad daylight against a backdrop of palm trees, sun-bleached bungalows and the HOLLYWOOD sign seemed further evidence that the whole state was unhinged and somehow complicit. By the time I saw the film "Helter Skelter", I was fairly certain that something about the California desert drove people mad, and that perhaps the only people who wanted to go there were either ignorant of the fact, or counting on it.


The first time I moved to California I came by train. I boarded Amtrak in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania transferring in Chicago to the California Zephyr, which, as it crossed the Heartland and spent half a day behind a broken down train ahead of us on the Nebraska-Colorado border, had already taken me further west than I'd ever been. I had no idea what California was, and no notions at all about San Francisco other than a general sense that it was hilly. I only knew that a friend from New York who was now living in San Francisco’s ChinaTown wrote to me and said she thought I would like it. I saw that friend only once in the three years I lived there - but she was right, I liked it. The second time I came to California I came for a job that, as I was informed upon arrival, had been given to someone else. Had I not been still somewhat young at the time and still enchanted by the ocean and the sunlight, I do not know that I would have stayed for five years, as I did, or that I would have had the courage to find work, a home, a new community and ultimately, a husband. California is for the young, the rich or the reckless, and while the west coast likes to see New York City in particular, and the north-east in general as the embodiment of inhospitality, New York and its own excesses do not begin to compare to those of the Golden State.  From this land of milk and honey, this land of the eternal dream where history does not exist, the vagaries of life in New York seem almost quaint.

While I was never groomed to believe in fame and fortune or that I could find anything comparable to it, especially by boarding a train with two duffle bags and a guitar and moving to a city where I had no one and nothing, I am and always have been a dreamer. I have a deep longing to see all the places I’ve only ever heard about, and so it did not seem at all unusual to me to pack my bags as I had done numerous times already and set out for the next destination equipped only with the vaguest idea of what I was doing. I knew when I came to San Francisco the first time that I intended to continue working in the theater, and the rest (a job, a home, etc), I would figure out when I arrived. I did figure it out when I arrived, and for three years I continued to figure it out. I worked in a book bindery, selling handmade photo albums to tourists; I worked for various theater companies, reviewing stacks of unreadable scripts and stage managing productions; I worked in a second hand bookstore and then on a Congressional Campaign; I made friends and acquaintances and occasionally met my great-uncle for coffee. I walked nearly every inch of San Francisco alone, and always with a sketchpad and a spliff in my pocket.  I had intended to stay no longer than five years and when the economy began to crumble, I fought like so many others to stay, if only for another year, another two years, just until I was ready for the next duffle-bag and guitar adventure. I wrote endless cover letters, went to endless interviews, scrabbled and starved and struggled and came to the sad conclusion after a year and a half of losing weight I did not have to lose that my time in California had come to an end. While I had not anticipated finding fame and fortune in the Golden State, I had not expected to be left jobless, twenty pounds lighter, and leaving before I felt my time had come.  That was what happened in places like New York.  It is in reflecting on these experiences of my younger self that I am confronted with my own naïveté, and must therefore class myself as one of those people ignorant of what California was when I made the decision to move there.

It remained, during the six years I lived in New Mexico and Colorado, an enigma.  A golden land edged with fog and smelling of Incense Cedars and salt spray; it was a place where the hills of San Francisco and Berkeley and Oakland led, by various turns, to the Redwoods.  It remained a place I longed for, even while I felt certain that I could never again afford to live there, and even more certain that I would never have the courage to attempt such a thing.  Had I not been offered a job, I would never have made the second move (again with two duffle bags, though this time, no guitar), nor, I think, would I have even visited California.  Had I not arrived in the California Republic a second time, my notion of it would likely have remained a set of frozen memories, gathering more light and brilliance with time in the same manner that old photographs grow bright as they fade, while the harsh realities just out of frame would have been erased entirely.  California this second time has lost its golden airs, and seems no longer an enigma but a known quantity where the traceable lines between American expansion (read, imperialism), the Gold Rushes, the Barbary Coast, the wagon trains, the Okies and migrants, Hollywood and the damning of the rivers and the subsidizing of the California experiment are everywhere present and apparent.  California now seems to me perhaps the most quintessentially American state of the nine states in which I have lived, despite the image California has of itself as somehow separate from the rest of the country, or, perhaps more accurately, a country and culture unto itself.  This self-image of separateness is a defining facet of California culture, and coupled with the belief in and desire for a limitless frontier, a lack of historical memory, and a propensity for being easily triggered, one that enables the impulse to shoot another motorist while doing seventy-five miles per hour on the 580.