The Washington Post
I Feel Earthquakes More Often than They Happen: Coming to California in the Age of Schwarzeneggerby Amy Wilentz
From one of our most astute contemporary writers, Amy Wilentz, comes an irreverent, inventive portrait of the state of California and its unlikely governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger. The prizewinning author, a lifelong easterner and an outsider in the West, takes the reader on a picaresque journey from exclusive Hollywood soirees to a fantasy city in the Mojave desert, from the La Brea Tar Pits to celebrity-besotted Sacramento, from the tents of Skid Row to surf-drunk Malibu, from a snowbird retreat near Mexico to the hippie preserve of tide-beaten Big Sur, along the way offering up sharp observations on politics, fund-raising, the water supply, the Beach Boys, earthquake preparedness, home economics, catastrophism, movie-star politicians, political movie stars, Charlie Manson, and location scouts who want to rent your house in order to make television commercials for bathroom wall cleansers or Swedish banks.
Wilentz moved to Los Angeles from a Manhattan wounded by September 11, only to discover a paradise marred by fire, flood, and mudslides. In what seemed like a joke to her, a Democratic governor nicknamed Gumby was about to be ousted by an Austrian muscleman in a bizarre election promoted by a millionaire whose business was car alarms. Intrigued, she set out to find the essence of the quirky, trailblazing state. During her travels, she spots celebrities but can't quite place them, drops in on famous salons with habitués like Warren Beatty and Arianna Huffington, and visits the neglected office of one very special 9,000-year-old woman.
Plunging into the traffic of California, Wilentz noodles out meaning in some of the least likely of places; she sees the political in the personal and the personal in the political. By now an expert on tremors real and imagined, she offers readers on both coasts insights into where California stands today, and America as well.
The Washington Post
"I love the way Amy Wilentz pokes here and pokes there and thinks about this and contemplates that, and pretty soon you are seeing California as you have never seen it before. This is a compellingly readable book, and I want another installment!" Jane Smiley, author of Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel
"As Amy Wilentz documents in this delightful romp of a memoir, it takes true grit and a capacity for improvisation to leave the certainties of the East behind and start life all over again on the coast of dreams." Kevin Starr, author of Inventing the Dream and Coast of Dreams
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The Game of Celebrity
In my neighborhood, a couple of miles down Third Street from the Grove, Michelangelo's nineteen Davids are wearing Santa hats. So is the petite Venus de Milo who stands among them. A few years ago, the Davids also wore festive red jock straps, but that element of holiday haberdashery has been abandoned. It's December 2005. The house in front of which the Davids and Venus stand throughout the year (minus the Santa hats) is considered a local eyesore and an infringement on its neighbors' property values, but I've come to admire its outlandishness, its over-the-top tastelessness, its bad-boy nose-thumbing in my neighborhood of goody-goodies. Still, I'm glad the Davids are not my next-door neighbors.
In this season, fake snow blankets their yard; on the roof of the well-kept white-brick house are the white letters FHP, as tall as a man, with the exhortation "Feed His People" written on them in smaller type. In front of these three letters, an African American Santa -- a plump mannequin -- is balancing on the eaves, a golden saxophone at his lips. The numbers 2006, in glittering, lightbulb-encrusted white, stand on the white lawn, each digit five feet high. In a corner of the garden, visible from busy Third Street, two African American life-sized dummies of Santa and Mrs. Claus sit companionably on a love seat, wearing gilt-rimmed sunglasses.
It's one way to welcome the New Year. At night the scene is professionally lit, and every once in a while, as I drive by, I'll see a family of tourists standing in front of the white cast-iron fence, having a picture taken.
Like the redwood forests and the Santa Monica shoreline (protected by shorefront property owners like David Geffen, the record and film producer, from untoward intrusion by the public), front lawns have become a political and philosophical battlefield here in California, where the small-scale topography by now reflects all the ills of development: the suburban sprawl, the decimated forests, the dry rivers, the tangle of freeways. What is natural has been all but covered up, except for protected places like the Desert Tortoise Natural Area and those spots where it's just not feasible to build: the steep, unstable, and noninfrastructured canyons where I hike, for example.
Even what is natural here is unnatural. A tour of Cook's Meadow on the Merced River in Yosemite Valley is available now for amateur photographers and tourists who want to stand where Ansel Adams once stood and see the exact view that he put in his famous pictures. They can even try to take pictures of what was in his pictures. On the Ansel Adams Gallery Tours (nine to eleven a.m., Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays), you can take the photograph Ansel Adams took; this is a profoundly mediated way of approaching both art and nature. In fact, it's a celebrity-sighting approach to nature, the equivalent of wanting to go meet the David of those Davids, shake his hand, or meet the model for the Mona Lisa, tell her a joke. ("Yeah, I met them," you could say after.) As if that were the value of the photograph or the painting.
There is enough falseness in nature itself here; you don't need a gallery and an artist to see that. The alien palm tree again comes to mind, long a symbol of California's sybaritic, generous warmth but not indigenous (like so many Californians -- the governor being a prime example). Palms are beloved here, in spite of their alien origins, but the tamarisk, a Eurasian original that arrived in the New World in the 1800s and now grows in rich clumps and thickets in desert and dry areas, is loathed. Environmentalists put on gloves and goggles and saw down the trees, fanning out over riverbeds and into canyons, and then, quickly, they apply herbicide to the wound before the plant can begin to heal itself. (In one report in Sierra magazine, excited environmentalists are depicted shouting "Kill Tammys!" as they rush about with their saws.) Tamarisks are not only an eyesore that conceals and crushes the variety of native plants, but they also contribute to an increase in fires. According to Sierra magazine, American tamarisks use up three times more water per year than all the households in L.A. (In California, the crusade for botanical purity has uncomfortable racial and ethnic overtones.)
An ongoing -- and solemn -- controversy in Los Angeles exists in the matter of ground covers for your front or backyard. Mine and most others look like the East Coast, with grass growing peaceably, and sprinklers shooting up into the air every morning around sunrise, or in the late afternoons, as if choreographed. But my neighbors a block away have devoted themselves with painstaking attention to a backyard that is entirely native (that is to say, native to California, although of course they had to bring the plants and seeds and trees by car and truck to their sweep of suburban ground). Half the time their garden looks -- to me, the unenlightened -- like one of those neighborhood gardens in abandoned lots in Manhattan: scrubby, brown, overgrown, unwatered. The question is whether it's right to grow grass lawns like mine, alien water gobblers, or whether it's more morally and socially correct and responsible to have a cactus, rock/sand, tumbleweed-style garden that is more appropriate to a desert setting.
An American's yard is a place of dreams and ideas, and that's what's going on in California's horticultural debate: it's a discussion about American identity; about who we are versus who we'd like to be. Perversely, the whole argument disregards the fact that millions of acre-feet of water have been moved (many of them by the Project Operations Center of the State Water Project up in Sacramento) precisely so that lawns can be watered, cars washed, and industry and agriculture and workers supplied in a place where previously a very limited amount of water was available. It ignores the fact that Southern California is no longer a desert. It ignores, or dismisses, what passes for progress.
The Californian quest for botanical authenticity is the desire to reject what we've become and to return to an earlier, wilder state, a state of greater innocence, really. Those who seek plant purity call into question the kind of development and infrastructure that has permitted the creation of places like the San Fernando Valley, as well as my neighborhood, and also my neighbors' native, cactus-strewn, desert brush garden. They seem to be trying to return to a state that no longer exists. Like so many American political conversations these days, their talk about gardening and planting is preoccupied with innocence, optimism, and moral correctness. It's a romantic movement. On the East Coast, people who talk about such things will muse about what kinds of annuals to put in and what shrubs might enhance the edges of their yard in the back. Here in Southern California, the chat soon becomes an agonizing debate about your lawn's political correctness.
There's a reason for all this enthusiasm and zealousness, and that is the purity and majesty of California's original landscape, which remains etched across America's mind. The sight of the Pacific coastline at Big Sur is enough, still, to make the human imagination reel with a sense of the infinite, the eternal, the perfect. (When asked what his religion was, an early California landscape painter thought for a moment and replied, "California.") By the time California became a part of the country, so much of nature in America was already under human command that the settlers could appreciate the new state's rare natural beauty as a lover might, instead of as the conquerors they were. "Nowhere on the continent," wrote Wallace Stegner, "did Americans find a more diverse nature, a land of more impressive forms and more powerful contrasts, than in California."
The manglings and cruelties subsequently inflicted on that almost mythical environment have left a terrible scar on the soul of the people of California. (There's good reason why the environmental movement is so strong here, why this is the place where billionaire movie stars insist on driving hybrid cars, the place where tree protectors protest development and lumbering by sitting in high branches for years at a time.) As Kevin Starr writes in the most recent of his California history series, Coast of Dreams: "Was there not a point...at which society had the right to question the right of any individual . . . to cut down two-thousand-year-old redwood trees to make patio furniture and pay off junk bonds? . . . A tree, many Californians were recognizing, was not just a tree. . . . A tree was a living entity with a life of its own. As such, trees had standing before the law and in the minds and moral imagination of the people sharing the planet with them."
This captures the desperation of the committed environmentalists. And yet when I stood among the redwoods in Big Sur, I did feel that they were far greater beings than, say, me or Angel or the habitués of the Huffington salon, and deserving of some protection.
Anyway, the small questions -- grass or brush, hedgerow or cactus, loam or sand -- seem less important when you take into consideration the undeniable fact that each lawn, as well as each house, as well as each skyscraper, has been set down on ground that is extremely susceptible to earthquake and liquefaction. My gardener, a Japanese-born man of great age and deep resignation, has simply decided that if he can keep the grass alive, it's an achievement. He'd also like to get rid of the Chinese elm that dominates the backyard, and not because it's nonnative, but because it is deciduous. "Make a mess," he says. "Cut it down." And I have to admit, it's hard to care too much about an elm that some forward-looking homeowner planted in a backyard in L.A. sixty years ago; it's no redwood. Still, so far, I have been able to keep the tree standing in spite of the gardener's occasional emotional outbursts. I've also had to make what have seemed momentous decisions about grasses and sods: Saint Augustine or Bermuda, fescue or ryegrass or zoysia? But since the whole edifice on which we're growing our verdant squares is such a vulnerable and evanescent human construct, why worry about your sod? I'm a victim of Waldie's dystopian fatalism.
I signed a location agreement with The Family Stone a while ago. In a tough negotiating session that took place over a lengthy fifteen minutes in my living room, I managed to convince Steve, the scout for Fox, to raise our shooting fee from the high three figures into the low fours. I now felt among the professionals -- no more insects parading around my kitchen, no more insect trainers, no more Scandinavians in the backyard. We would have real actors, real directors, instead. Our house was to be "a quaint little bed-and-breakfast in New England," Steve told me.
The Family Stone had big plans for us. "Do you mind if we put up that wallpaper in the bedroom?" Steve asked. "You know, the one with scenes on it? British thing . . . toile, that's it. Would you mind? If you mind, we could tear it down after we're through and repaint . . ." They were also going to put a camera dolly on the flat roof outside the stairway landing. "We'll probably have to reinforce your roof," Steve said. Starring in the movie were Diane Keaton and Sarah Jessica Parker. Sarah Jessica Parker was going to run excitedly down our stairs and into our living room, where the production crew planned to have a lively fire burning in the hearth. This was a way to indicate, Steve told me, that the character played by Sarah Jessica Parker was happy and in love. I agreed to everything. I signed on the dotted line, expecting Steve to sign on his and return a copy of the agreement to us.
There was just one little hitch, however. The Family Stone needed that fire. However, although we had a fireplace, we couldn't have a fire in it. When we bought the house, we thought we were getting a working fireplace, since the realtor's photograph of the living room showed a fire blazing cozily in the grate. Upon closer inspection, however, we discovered that our house was one of the houses with a chimney broken by earthquake. The future Governor Schwarzenegger and his mortar-and-brick companions had not canvassed my neighborhood during their riotous adventures of chimney knockdowns and chimney repairs. The realtor's photo, our realtor explained, had been computer-enhanced. The chimney was still unusable. The exterior had been fixed but the inside was a wreck.
Sadly, it seemed that that fire burning passionately in the grate was a make-or-break element for the director, and of course by now, I was desperate: I could taste The Family Stone. I wanted to be there when Sarah Jessica Parker ran excitedly down our front stairs, and then I wanted, also, to see Sarah Jessica Parker run excitedly down our front stairs in the movie. I felt that this would be far superior to coming across what I took to be my son's orthodontist's Beverly Hills office in School of Rock. I felt it would validate my Los Angeles experience. To have my house in a movie. That was coming to California, wasn't it? So I told Steve we would forgo all fees if Fox would repair the chimney to make it usable for the film. If they would only take my offer, everyone would end up happy.
Instead, Steve told me a month after I'd signed the agreement that Fox had found a house on the East Coast and another in Altadena, north of Pasadena, not far from L.A., a place filled with historic Victorian and craftsman houses. I felt a familiar pang of disappointment. So it was never to be. After all, why would someone from Perth Amboy, a laughably old, forgotten, and unimportant part of the world, have a house anywhere that would end up in a movie? I realized that my repeated rejection by these flighty, unpredictable location people had left me feeling provincial and out of it. I had to steel myself to a fact: I was not joining the stream of cool in my new location. I was not the things that were valued in Los Angeles. Not a tall, thin, blond California Girl, not a bubbly person, not a rich person, not a hip-hop artist, not down with anything or anyone. The models of behavior I'd found here I could not duplicate for myself. After all this time, I still felt that my best California model, the example I could most closely follow, was La Brea Woman.
Half the time, I even drove a beat-up minivan (the height of uncool in Los Angeles, where the kind of car you drive is a statement of you, understandably). I kept imagining myself in different vehicles. A Mini Cooper meant a mother trying to remain young. A Prius meant a politically correct person, probably a yuppie (although the rock singer Sheryl Crow once claimed that "nothing screams 'rock star' like a Prius"). A Cadillac Escalade signified drug or record business, very cool, but a polluter. A "vintage" car meant a person trying to make it in the movies. A Bentley meant someone who had already made it in the movies. A secondhand Toyota Corolla means a recent immigrant.
An auto-industry poll taker once called me and asked me this: "If your car were a magazine, which magazine would it be?" I loved this question, because it meant that pollsters were now thinking synesthetically, like Proust. The New Yorker was a choice the pollster offered; Cosmopolitan was a choice; Playboy was on the list, Esquire also . . . but the magazine my car most resembles was not among the choices I was given. The magazine my minivan most resembles is Parade, the magazine that comes stuffed into many of the country's Sunday newspapers. It's friendly, it's useful, it's popular, it's family-oriented, and it's not too smart and not too beautiful.
I've grown tired of my minivan, though, because -- to a degree -- I've bought into the L.A. esthetic. I have intelligent friends here who say things like "I can't drive a minivan, it's sexless." Or, "If I drove a minivan, my life would be over." Others who have minivans won't park them with valet parking, because it's too embarrassing. And it's true, the valets will look down on a minivan. Crystal Valet valets may even snicker, but then, they are the crème de la crème and probably have their own Aston Martins at home. At the Grove, the valets park the best cars out in public -- the Hummers, the Ferraris, the BMWs -- and the rest are whisked away down Caruso Place into a dark anonymity. So yes, I'm a little tired of my old minivan, a little embarrassed by it; it has a very old dent on the rear driver's bumper from a tree in a parking lot in Martha's Vineyard, and another more recent concavity from the wall of the parking structure at the Einstein exhibit. A piece of red plastic from the passenger taillight is mysteriously gone. In truth, the car looks as if it needs a wheelchair to get around. I'd love to unload it. Trade it in.
But unfortunately, it's a piece of evidence in a lawsuit, and I feel I must keep it until Angel has had his day in court.
I was still trying to see the governor. He'd been very busy, according to Rob Stutzman, his spokesman. And I knew it was true. First, Schwarzenegger lost the special election; this was what he might call a "major bust." Rick Caruso and Schwarzenegger's close adviser, former governor Pete Wilson (a driving force behind the proposed initiatives that were voted on in the special election), were with the governor on the night when every last one of those proposals went down to defeat. "You know," says Caruso, "the governor wasn't depressed at all. This guy's one hell of an optimist. He was cheering everyone else up. He'll survive it."
Others weren't so sure. The governor had yet to stop his long but steady slide in the polls. And his special election had hurt him at every step along the way. Californians first of all did not want another special election. Perhaps they were just growing tired of the idea that everything about them was special. Maybe it was the tens of millions of dollars the state was spending on the thing. It also wasn't a brilliant idea on the part of Schwarzenegger and Wilson to build their campaign for what they called a "fiscally responsible" California on initiatives that threatened firemen, teachers, policemen, and public service employees. It was as if Schwarzenegger were consciously setting himself up in opposition to every character in a Norman Rockwell painting, every stereotype of American wholesomeness. As he did in the recall campaign, Schwarzenegger tried to paint his opponents as "special interests."
One of Schwarzenegger's biggest problems in terms of public perception at this moment was that he had originally portrayed himself as above the usual petty corruption of politics: he was so wealthy, he said, that he couldn't be bought. And yet the rate of contributions to the permanent Schwarzenegger campaign fund was staggering. According to ArnoldWatch.org and other sources, political action groups established by the governor had raised between $72,000 and $80,000 a day, much of this going to pay for his travel (the private jet that takes him from L.A. to Sacramento and back each week), housing ($7,000 a month for his suite at the Hyatt in Sacramento: he still refused to commit to a Sacramento residence), entourage, extra security, and the Hollywood-caliber catering services and sound and light crews that advanced him at many events. Among the types of business that were funding Schwarzenegger's political agenda (in descending order of contributions) were real-estate developers (who had donated $6.6 million as of March 2005), financial institutions, entertainment, high tech, health care, agriculture, insurance, and car dealerships (who were the smallest donors at this level, with recorded gifts of $1.2 million), according to the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights. This was not the kind of list that tended to reassure the voter that his own small interests were being protected. As Schwarzenegger said during the recall campaign, "Any of those kinds of real big, powerful special interests, if you take money from them, you owe them something." (Laurence Leamer writes in his biography that this was "a man who came to Sacramento saying he was different, that he wasn't beholden to the special interests. It turned out that he was the special interest.")
On top of this came the news of how extravagantly expensive the special election was going to be. In the end, the election cost the state as much as $80 million, just to set it up and run it. This does not include the money spent opposing and supporting the ballot initiatives by the special interests concerned -- including labor unions and pharmaceutical companies -- which may well have exceeded $300 million.
It was also possible that Schwarzenegger was sinking in public esteem because, while spending profligately on his special election, he'd continued to allow the state to borrow and was trying to fix all that now by cutting back on funding for education and other services. It was also possible that Latino immigrants, who had supported him overwhelmingly in the recall, did not like the fact that he had appointed only one Latino to his cabinet, even after Los Angeles had overwhelmingly elected a Latino mayor, Antonio Villaraigosa. Or that they resented his explicit support of the bizarre, gun-club-like vigilante militias that had set themselves up to patrol the border with Mexico. "I think they've done a terrific job," the governor told a radio interviewer; he later refused to characterize the remark as a "mistake" (although he did finally admit that it had been "a learning experience" to have said he was going to kick the nurses' butts).
By June 2005, two years into his administration, only 37 percent of registered voters approved of his job performance, according to a Field Poll. He was far less popular than Gray Davis just before the recall movement began.
Still Schwarzenegger soldiered on, sticking with his plan for the unpopular special election. He didn't often let up. It's his signature, this perseverance and focus. In spite of his political and ethical failings, he still seemed to be the perfect governor for California because he appeared so well equipped to wield the special tools of California governance (initiative, referendum, recall) to his benefit. Direct democracy seemed to suit him because he was so famous that it was believed -- and he believed -- that he could manipulate the electorate with his celebrity; he was so well liked as a film persona, such a comforting presence, such a masculine protector, such a well-spread meme. He had won the recall vote convincingly, which was an achievement.
Now as the summer of 2005 wore on, Schwarzenegger was trying to use California's initiative system to go directly to the voters again and circumvent political opposition in the legislature, trying to use his enormous celebrity clout to persuade voters directly, when he had failed to persuade their elected representatives in Sacramento.
Schwarzenegger was doing what he wanted to do. (He once said about a political controversy, "Of course I can do it. I'm Arnold," as if he too had bought into the myth of his invincibility.) Everything he did was evidence of a certain kind of will and even of having become spoiled, as actors will become in Hollywood. That was why, as governor, he still lived in L.A. three or four days a week and stayed in the suite at the Hyatt when in Sacramento, as if he were visiting. As if he were on location. That was why he could go to Hawaii for extended and expensive vacations while the sad-sack legislature was still sitting in Sacramento, doing its dull job.
Schwarzenegger thought he was beyond the legislators' grasp; he knew that taking him down would demand extraordinary force and circumstance, strength he believed the Democratic legislators lacked utterly, those girlie men. Although they were in the majority in the legislature, they were also all term-limited guys with circumscribed lives, anonymous bureaucrats to whom the great movie star might grant an occasional fat cigar or a photo op, but not high livers like him. They weren't Arnold. Schwarzenegger seemed to believe this -- and others believed it, including many of the legislators themselves -- not only because of his fame but because of his character. ("In the first six months," said one legislator from Southern California, "even Democrats were running around the capitol trying to get a picture with Schwarzenegger. Normally, we would not be seen with a Republican governor.")
In the event, it would take an act of almost classical hubris, a tragic flaw, to unman Schwarzenegger -- if anything about Schwarzenegger could be considered tragic, when the public personality he has developed is essentially and profoundly comic. That prideful act was the decision to hold the special election.
"I said that if the legislature did not act on reforms this year," Schwarzenegger said, finger-waggingly, "the people of California would." He was setting up, as was his wont, a rivalry, even an enmity, between the voter and elected officials, as if it hadn't been the voters who put the elected officials into office in the first place. Schwarzenegger's biggest political weapon had always been his popularity, and he was ready to put the public's esteem for him to the test by bypassing the legislature and going to the ballot box. What this meant was that he had failed in the political game of persuading the legislature to vote his way.
The recall had clearly solidified Schwarzenegger's conservative, pro-business backers' view that in the era of mass communication, the initiative, referendum, and recall were highly amenable to a well-funded corporate agenda, even in a state as Democratic as California, and especially with an extraordinarily popular governor at the helm.
In the summer and fall of 2005, however, Schwarzenegger's celebrity appeal didn't seem to be working. There was a difference, the governor was discovering, between using your celebrity to win a recall election that was one of the purest popularity contests ever -- almost completely devoid of the consideration of real issues -- and using it to win a vote that was wedded to the particular content of specific policy concerns and powerful interest groups.
In the 2005 special election, the initiative mechanism was used to try to push into law measures that were too complicated for the average voter to understand in the average amount of time an average voter was willing to put into such things. Schwarzenegger as much as acknowledged this fact: "People don't really, uh, you know, know that much about it," he told California Connected, a PBS television news show, in the days just before the special election in the fall of 2005, referring to his redistricting proposition.
The official voter information guide for the special election was seventy-seven pages long (on letter-size paper, with the proposed laws printed in tiny, ten-pica print). It was a cheaply made, two-color affair, printed on newsprint paper, with a close-up of the state seal on the cover. Inside were arguments for and against each of the propositions. On the other hand, the Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger Ballot Proposition Guide, which also came free to the door of every registered household, was printed in full color on glossy paper, with a photo of Schwarzenegger on the cover, along with the California governor's shield, and was eight pages long, with simplistic, one-sided analyses of each initiative. Depending on the proposition, a notation near the top of each page said, "Arnold Says Vote Yes" or "Arnold Says Vote No." A pocket voter's guide was included to bring along to the polling place. It was like a children's game.
This Ballot Proposition Guide was a cheat sheet for voters who weren't expected to think about the propositions or didn't want to (and who would?). It was easier to obey the commander, instead. A measure's many sections and complicated potential effects on society require the kind of study and evaluation that legislators are elected to do, even if it bores them witless, even if they don't always do it. But in California, and in an increasingly large number of states, you can try to railroad such reforms in by direct vote after pounding the public with upbeat television advertising that dumbs the measures down; you can publicly debarb the real measures and make them palatable, even if all your ads are filled with half-truths at best. As Ethan Rarick of the Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies wrote in the Los Angeles Times, "Of all the sly tactics commanded by the backroom bosses in initiative campaigns -- elicit fear, evoke compassion, pander to greed -- one of the simplest is this: sow confusion." And both sides can play this game with such vigor that it makes the voter's head spin like a roulette wheel. In the 1950s, for example, a Republican secretary of state in California gave a Democratic Party proposition the number thirteen, and a Republican proposal the lucky number seven, according to Rarick -- no doubt in an effort to express the party's deep, abiding respect for the voter's political discernment. Later on, however, thirteen was to prove a lucky proposition number.
You can, in effect, make someone vote against his own interests, and not for reasons of altruism or idealism, but because he doesn't even know it, either because there is no opponent there with pockets deep enough to fund a television countercampaign that is really pro-citizen, or because the interests involved are so powerful and so interested that they've made it impossible to distinguish truth from lies (the worst problem in American politics today). So the voter ends up relying on whomever he trusts (if he trusts anyone) in order to make up his mind, or he doesn't vote at all, because he trusts no one, and besides, it's all too confusing. "People don't really, uh, know that much about it . . ."
Such methods are not always successful, however; you have to choose your rivals wisely. Coming well into Schwarzenegger's foreshortened term (only a three-year stint, because he was serving out the remainder of Davis's abortive term), it seemed a surprising mistake of political judgment when Schwarzenegger put under fire groups who were able to respond briskly, strongly, and professionally. Teachers and public service employees had huge organizations and full coffers behind them; the public service employees' disability and death pensions, as well as their ability to extract and use discretionary union funds to support political causes, were threatened by the governor's plans.
Marley Klaus, then the executive producer of public television's California Connected, analyzed the reasons behind the special election and its shockingly partisan tone:
The problem was that Schwarzenegger had two main camps inside his administration . . . the Pete Wilson folks and the more mainstream people. . . . He himself added to the mess by making a decision not to repay two billion dollars the state owed to the teachers. That was a huge mistake. He's got a debate-team argument about why he doesn't owe the money, but on his own website he ballyhooed his promise to give it back to them.
In my opinion, that decision uncorked the union's fear and anger, and . . . resulted in the Democrats in the legislature hunkering down and ceasing to deal, leaving Arnold with no one to talk to but his Wilson folks, who could now say, "See? We told you so. Take 'em down. You can do it."
Out of this rancor grew Proposition 74, a proposal to extend the time required before teachers may be given tenure; Schwarzenegger wanted to extend the current two years' probation to five years. But this quick road to job security, according to the teachers' union, is one of the few positives in a career offering little support to its practitioners in California. The state's public education system was ranked forty-third in the country in 2005. Teacher tenure is not the real reason for the poor quality of California's schools. The real reason for the drop in California's quality of education is another proposition -- Proposition 13, the property-tax rollback of 1978, which cut off billions of dollars in monies for the state's education system. In the 1970s, California was among the top five states in terms of quality of education. Since 1978, it has experienced a steady decline, and for the past two decades, California has consistently been down there among the bottom ten, along with traditionally poor, underfunded states such as Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Nevada, and New Mexico.
Schwarzenegger's teacher tenure proposition was not a creative solution to this severe statewide problem; it looked more like a propaganda attempt to divert the blame for poor state education away from Proposition 13 and onto the state's teachers. Thus the "Wilson folks" sought to avoid further funding for education while also avoiding a reexamination of Prop 13 and the political maelstrom that that would engender. Unfortunately for the school system, in a state where there is a shortage of applicants for teaching positions, extending probation time was likely to act as a disincentive to prospective candidates.
Most of the propositions in Schwarzenegger's special election were so pro-Republican and so pro-business that they made you blink. Even in his short time in public service, this was not the Arnold we'd come to know. When Schwarzenegger came to Sacramento, he made many nominations that were progressive, intelligent, and inventive. His judicial appointments were respectable and even creative (and 40 percent were Democrats). On the environment, he'd been more protective than expected. He'd managed to work with the Democrat-controlled legislature to reform California's unwieldy and insanely generous workers' compensation laws. He had even brokered a deal with the teachers' union. He had been a centrist, with a progressive bent.
Klaus, of California Connected, went on,
Arnold is not a blind, knee-jerk Republican. What he wanted to do and did when he came in was to be a much-needed correction to what had become a one-party state with all the problems that brings. The Democrats had gotten so cocky and truly out of control that they were spending money without regard to where it was coming from or the future consequences of their gifts to unions in the form of pensions. More than his talk, his initial actions showed real promise for a creative, bipartisan, problem-solving government. There were many Democrats who had been against him who really felt positive -- even excited -- about his first months.
But now, because of the new intransigence of the Democrats and the new retrenchment of the Wilson Republicans, Schwarzenegger was trying to put a new spin on California's political history. He was thinking about the same issues I'd been thinking about in the state's political history. He was attempting to reverse Governor Johnson's progressive agenda.
Anyway, that's how I chose to imagine the situation, because otherwise, it looked simply like an attack on just the people a rescuer should be saving -- widows, orphans, teachers (little ladies with buns and spectacles), nurses (pert candy stripers in white shoes) -- and the people a rescuer should be working alongside, namely firefighters and the police (although it's hard to work up a lot of sentiment on behalf of the police force if you live in Los Angeles).
There was one small bit of satisfaction in the special election campaign. The governor was forced to rethink his position on public service employees' pensions when it was found that that measure unfairly affected widows of public service employees. This is what Schwarzenegger said at the time to a group of public safety officers: "Mawning. I'm pleased to be choined here diday by owa great leadiss from local govamint and public safety. To me dare is nothing maw impawdint than public safety. Being a son of a balice officer, I falya the gontributions made by Caleefawnyah's balice, firefighters, and bublic safety officials."
Arnold was backing down. It was an impawdint moment in the life of the Schwarzenegger meme, because it conflicted with the universally understood meaning of "Arnold Schwarzenegger." And that was good.
After all of his initiatives were defeated on November 8, Schwarzenegger clearly did some rethinking. He must have looked at the results, scratched his head, and said, "Gee, this state is more liberal than I thought." Three weeks later, he appointed Susan Kennedy, a longtime Democratic activist and party operative, to be his new chief of staff. Kennedy, a forty-five-year-old lesbian who has taken marital-style vows with her partner, had been deputy chief of staff to Gray Davis, as well as running his gubernatorial campaign and the Clinton/Gore presidential campaign in California. She was also a former adviser to the liberal Democratic senator Dianne Feinstein, and a former director of the California Abortion Rights Action League.
"This makes Schwarzenegger a man without a country," Dave Gilliard, a Republican strategist who advised Schwarzenegger during the recall election, told the Associated Press. The right wing of the state's Republican Party went crazy. There is now a website called StopSusanKennedy.com that is illuminating for the profound sense of betrayal it reveals.
Many liberals hoped that the Kennedy appointment meant that Schwarzenegger was in a new frame of mind, and maybe he was. Unlike the governor, Kennedy had a long political record to stand on, one that could not easily be shrugged off, although she did claim -- as her new job was being announced -- that she had supported all of the governor's losing initiatives in the special election.
One thing Schwarzenegger doesn't relish is wallowing in defeat. Conservatives were worried that in the wake of their governor's stunning losses in the special election, this protean character, who had reinvented himself so many times professionally, might try to reinvent himself politically. In any case, it had never been quite clear where he stood on the political spectrum: the most one could say was that he tended to be a fiscal conservative and a social liberal, but even these broad brushstrokes were inaccurate in many specific cases. This political impenetrability was one of the things that kept him interesting. However, it was not necessarily a deliberate stance. As Lloyd Levine, a Democratic assemblyman from the San Fernando Valley, says, "Arnold has a chip in the back of his head, and it's always telling him to be popular. That's his main drive." Levine laughs. "Not too uncommon in a politician."
"Sometimes," another legislator told me, "you go in for a meeting with Arnold, and you're sitting in the tent and you've come with your staff people and you present your case. He has a couple of his people there, and after you're done, he'll turn to them and say, 'That sounds like a good idea, doesn't it? What's wrong with that?' As if he has no idea about the thing on his own and needs his people to tell him what to really think. And because his staff was in conflict, it was a case of whomever he spoke to last; he had no political expertise, and everyone with him was trying to mold him to their values. When things are hard, he focuses on what he can do rather than on what he should do."
For better or for worse, Schwarzenegger made a splash by appointing a very liberal Democrat as his chief of staff: he confounded his liberal critics and astounded his conservative backers. But during his autumn of pain in 2005, a year before he was to face reelection as governor, he had another hard decision to make: would he grant clemency to the convicted four-time murderer Stanley "Tookie" Williams, founder of the Crips, a famously brutal L.A. gang? Just after Schwarzenegger's defeat in the special elections, many liberals and those who oppose capital punishment thought that the governor would try to recoup by pardoning Williams. But I couldn't see it. That analysis didn't comport with Schwarzenegger's character.
One: he would never give in to what he must have seen as wimpy, feminine sentimentality -- as if the life of a cold-blooded murderer were somehow the same as the life of an innocent child, simply because it was a life. "Pussy stuff," he might call such arguments. Two: he had always supported the death penalty. Now he had a convicted murderer on his hands, all of whose appeals had failed, some with very liberal courts. In order to spare Tookie Williams, Schwarzenegger would have had to have had a change of heart on capital punishment, and that was unlikely. I didn't see him coming before the people of California, hat in hand, to discuss his newfound beliefs, as if he were Jimmy Carter or Bill Clinton. So no matter how weak he was feeling politically after losing to the liberal-minded voters of California, I didn't believe that he would let that weakness dictate something like this: a stand-firm moment, a be-a-man decision. And twelve hours after Schwarzenegger refused his appeal, Williams was executed, at midnight on December 13.
But that was not the end of the Tookie Williams story. All around the world, many people and political parties were disgusted by the execution; not only did it reconfirm America's contemporary reputation as a bully state, but it went against the grain of the European nations that have rejected capital punishment, including Schwarzenegger's homeland, Austria. In Austria, there was an uproar. The native son had committed a sin. The elders of the city of Graz, who had so cheerfully awarded Schwarzenegger the city's ring six years earlier, were now pulling on their respectable beards and considering the Williams execution. Not only did Schwarzenegger have that ring in his possession in Brentwood; in 1997, in a moment of delirious satisfaction with its favorite son, the town of Graz had put his name up on its athletic stadium, which had been known ever since as Arnold Schwarzenegger Stadion Graz-Liebenau. Ever since, when Schwarzenegger did something considered controversial, someone somewhere in Austria would threaten to have his name taken off the stadium. During the Tookie Williams case, the threats arose again, only the hubbub was louder, both because the case had received more international attention and because it was the first time Schwarzenegger had had a clemency issue before him.
Schwarzenegger was sick of the whole thing, sick of the Tookie Williams case, which was over, and especially irritated with the elders of Graz, whom he felt he had always supported in spirit and economically as well -- with the use of his name and person. In a characteristically pointed move -- but revealing a part of his character that had been pretty much hidden during the course of his governorship -- Schwarzenegger composed a bitter but controlled letter in German to the mayor of Graz, Siegfried Nagl. He pointed out that he had heard that the city council was contemplating removing his name from the stadium because of his rejection of Williams's clemency bid:
In all likelihood, during my term as governor I will have to make similar and equally difficult decisions. In order to spare the responsible politicians of Graz further concern, I withdraw from them as of this day the right to use my name in association with the Liebenauer Stadium. You will receive related correspondence from my legal counsel shortly. I expect the lettering to be removed by the end of 2005, and in the future, the use of my name to advertise or promote the city of Graz in any way is no longer allowed.
I have also learned that a proposal has been proffered to rescind from me the city's ring of honor. It was a beautiful day in 1999 when I received the ring at City Hall and I assumed at the time that it would be a token of sincere friendship between my hometown and me. Since, however, the official Graz appears to no longer accept me as one of their own, this ring has lost its meaning and value to me. It is already in the mail.
Schwarzenegger was breaking up with his hometown, and you could hear the hurt feelings right through the formal language of the letter, published in the L.A. Times. Leaving things behind was not easy to do, I knew, as a freshly minted Californian. You're somewhere else, perhaps. Your back may even be turned, or you're not thinking about home. But it still can strike at your heart. It's not easy to give up those reminders of who you were, even if what you've become is an internationally famous bodybuilder, a shockingly rich actor, and a powerful politician. You want the ones at home to continue caring. Once upon a time, Schwarzenegger had been a young villager, an outsider making his name in Graz, having fun in Graz, looking up at the high walls of that stadium in the night, never dreaming, etc. (or, knowing him, maybe dreaming, etc.).
The ring "is already in the mail." Tough, very tough. But was he the kind of fellow with whom there is no recourse? Or did he want the elders of Graz to come crawling on their knees before him and beg him to relent? Tookie Williams could argue -- if he were still alive -- that relenting was not habitual behavior with Schwarzenegger.
Meanwhile, Rob Stutzman, my useless conduit to the governor, was moved out of his job as press coordinator. Had Susan Kennedy gotten rid of him? That was the word. I wondered now if I would ever get to be in the presence of the Schwarzenegger meme. I wanted to be near him, to talk to him, and yet I didn't want to. When Stutzman was moved out, I didn't feel bad. I noticed that I wasn't freaked or worried. I was relieved. No one I knew who'd interviewed the governor made me feel it would be fun, or pleasant, or normal in any way. Not like talking to Beatty, who at least had accessible emotions. Still, after having watched Schwarzenegger close up for so long during the recall election, I would have liked to see him now, see the change, if there were a change. I was still hoping: someday.
After Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in the last days of August 2005, the citizens of Los Angeles were shaken from their complacency. There hadn't been a big earthquake here since Northridge in 1994, and we're supposed to have one every decade or so. We're also always waiting for what is known -- irritatingly -- as the Big One. The damage done to New Orleans shocked people everywhere, but here, in this disaster-prone place, it seemed to take on special significance. Once again, Angelenos began filling their gas tanks religiously in case of evacuation. (The abandoned cars on the highways leaving New Orleans, and the empty gas stations, were a reminder of how bad things could get.) Once again, everyone was buying water and updating emergency supplies, checking flashlights. My son's school -- located in classrooms rented from a church -- sent out a new sheet vouching for the school's architectural soundness, even though all its rooms lie within easy reach of a tumbling steeple. "The church buildings," the memo read, "have been called 'the safest buildings in Hollywood'; they are built on bedrock and forecast to withstand the mightiest of earthquakes." This was the state of mind in L.A. a month before the catastrophic Pakistani earthquake.
Malibu was also thinking about catastrophe, but Malibu is a beach community, so its thinking is not always like the rest of the world's. Indeed, to call it "thinking" might be a stretch. Almost a year after the tsunami that destroyed a large swath of Southeast Asia, Malibu City Hall began distributing a brochure offering advice to its residents concerning earthquakes and tsunamis.
"Never go to the beach to watch for, or to surf, a tsunami wave!" the brochure advised. I was thinking about the tsunami video footage taken from the beach hotels in Phuket, where the floodwater pours in stunningly, and within a minute, the palm trees are covered with water up to their necks and debris is floating up near the ceiling of a restaurant that was dry only a few seconds before. Tsunamis, the Malibu brochure continues, "are not like regular waves, they are impossible to surf. They are much faster, higher, and can come onshore filled with debris."
When questioned about the necessity for such a warning, the emergency preparedness director for Malibu, Brad Davis, told the Los Angeles Times that "you can't overestimate the intelligence of people out there. Some people still might see it as a gigantic wave and think, 'This is going to be the ride of my life.'" Another reason not to surf a tsunami, as far as I could tell from watching the wave come ashore in Phuket, is that there's nothing to surf: this is not a wave that curls. But in the land of the Beach Boys, such details might escape you.
In California I'm constantly provided with spiritual awakenings, in all sorts of places: in yoga class, for example, where the teacher reads from the thirteenth-century poet Rumi and says things like "open yourself outward," or along the freeway, when a flock of birds rises suddenly, even if I happen to know they are either crows or pigeons. But the last place from which I expect enlightenment is the automated ticket issuer at the entrance to a parking structure, yet this is what it's come to in Car Land. One afternoon, I'm bringing my son to the orthodontist's office (the office I thought I saw in School of Rock). I turn the car off Roxbury in Beverly Hills into the AMPCO System Parking structure, and there is my inspirational quote of the day, in a special plastic cover hanging from the automated ticket giver: "When we have done our best, we should wait the result in peace. -- J. Lubbock." I looked at this quote as the machine gave me my ticket. It did not seem a particularly profound piece of advice. I thought to myself that perhaps this J. Lubbock was a member of Huffington's salon, or perhaps a contributor to her weblog. Did he call himself "Jay" in Beverly Hills circles? Was he much quoted at the ends of yoga classes, before namaste?
I looked up J. Lubbock when I got home. Hardly a Huffingtonian, Sir John Lubbock, born in 1834, was a banker as well as the first baron of Avebury. He may never even have heard of yoga, although judging by his wide reading and learned output, he may well have. He was the author of The Origin of Civilisation and the Primitive Condition of Man (1870) and of Pre-historic Times, as Illustrated by Ancient Remains and the Manners and Customs of Modern Savages, perhaps the most important archeological book of the 1800s. He is said to have coined the words "paleolithic" and "neolithic." But the real reason he's on the ticket machine at AMPCO System Parking is that someone has put two quotes from him onto different much-visited Internet quotation sites. One is the quote I saw that day. The other turned up at AMPCO a month or so later, on another visit. (This parking structure is a hub for the medical profession in Beverly Hills -- which means that even if Sir John is not one of Huffington's guests, he's probably been read by many of her invitees.) "Rest is not idleness," goes the other Internet-popularized quote from the baron of Avebury, "and to lie sometimes on the grass under trees on a summer's day listening to the murmur of water, or watching the clouds float across the sky, is by no means a waste of time."
These are the kinds of quotes that appeal to people out here. Although Sir John was a man of varied interests who shared the great Victorian curiosity of his age, the quotes he is memorialized for at AMPCO are the ones that advocate resting and waiting. People from back east are always being advised here to slow down, take it easy, shrug it off, lie back, relax, lighten up, look inside yourself, calm the inner you, go with the flow, stop thinking. The other day at rush hour, we were getting onto the 5 from the 110. My husband looked at the traffic. In the left lane -- the one designated for exiting to the 5 -- the traffic was almost at a standstill. In the lane next to it, the traffic moved a bit, but not much: it was a secondarily designated 5-exit lane. In the lane next to that one, the traffic was moving nicely.
We took the nicely moving lane, even though we were planning to exit onto the 5 very soon, and my husband explained: In the left-most exit lane were the Californians, waiting obediently in a motionless line to exit as they'd been taught. In the next lane over were people who'd lived in California a long time but were not originally from here. In the third lane, cutting across the other two at the last minute to exit onto the 5 ahead of all those who'd waited, were the people from back east, the new arrivals.
I thought, He's probably right. We easterners were not the type to "lie watching the clouds float across the sky." We rushed to the head of the exit lane, we were in that lane, we were across it, we were already on the 5 and on our way to our destination by the time that first little cloud got a quarter of the way across the great big sky. This was because the people from back east, even if they were not from cities, were urban beings in some way that was more truly urbanized than Californians. Even if they'd grown up in L.A. -- which in terms of population is a denser metropolis than New York City -- Southern Californians, at least, retained something of the Iowa countryside in their spirit, something of the middle of America: something slow, something that might chew on a piece of straw or skip a stone. We backeasters didn't have that. After three years in California, I was still trying to wake up to that kind of experience here. Still trying to stifle inner laughter during the "Oms."
My thirteen-year-old son had a soccer game in Santa Monica, and I went to meet him and my husband at the Ivy restaurant near the beach. They were a few minutes late, and I waited near the door. Ever since yoga with Nicole, I have been on the alert for new celebrity sightings, and it struck me that this would be the perfect time and the perfect venue: a late weekend lunch at the Ivy in Santa Monica on a cold, clear, blustery winter day. But I saw no one I recognized. Mostly the crowd consisted of young and not-so-young well-dressed parents with small babies. There was a tall, blond Asian girl. There were two Mediterranean-style women having lunch together. Some tourists. Then my husband and son arrived and we were seated.
As I looked at the menu, my son elbowed me. In very low tones, he said, "See that woman in the corner?"
I looked. It was a redhead who seemed to be deeply Botoxed.
"She's famous," my son hissed.
"She is?" I said. I certainly had never seen her before. But she looked as if she could be in front of a camera, and she had that celebrity self-consciousness that seems to say, Everyone is secretly looking at me. Which I was.
"Yes," my son said. "She definitely is."
"Well, who is she?" I asked.
"I don't know," he said, "but I know she's famous. I've seen her before."
I took his word for it and gazed at her occasionally as she did things to make people gaze at her. Her actions were stylized, and she was physically impressive, tall, bony, white-skinned, very redheaded. She was with two girlfriends, both blond, tall, bony, white-skinned.
That night I was sitting on the sofa in my living room. My husband had given me an iPod video for the holidays. I am not the kind of person who normally has such an advanced piece of technology, but it replaced a music-playing one I had had for five years that had been broken for a long time. It was a transplendent machine, I thought. I was using it to discover television, since we do not have TiVo and I haven't managed to figure out when things are on or how to fit my schedule to the broadcast schedule, or which shows are good. But by now, I'd watched two episodes of The Office and downloaded one of Desperate Housewives and one of Monk.
My son was playing the piano in the same room when he heard me shout. For there on my tiny, tiny screen, walking across a living room that could almost have been ours (if ours had been bigger), was the single scariest redhead I'd ever seen, and it was my son's redhead. I pointed madly at the tiny screen and paused it. My son came over to look, and he nodded. He was very proud, but we still did not know her name.
After I finished watching the show, I went to Google and searched "desperate housewives redhead." Here are the first six sites that came up: "slut wives getting fucked! housewife whores and nude house wives"; "housewives in nylons! sexy redhead wife and adult wives uk"; "wife swapping! Great wife swapping and housewives with fantastic . . ."; "amateur slut wives! Amateur housewives and hot housewives"; "French sexy wives! Stories slut wives and british housewives"; "Nude wife! Outrageous fuck my wife and housewife with incredible . . ." It went on like that.
So I reentered my search as "desperate housewives redhead -slut -fuck -sexy."
That worked, and now we have a name for our latest celebrity: Marcia Cross.
Back when I visited California City, I suspected that the desert tortoise, that much put-upon creature -- so elderly, so stalwart, so slow and indefatigable -- had certain emotions. The one I saw moving like tar from shadow to shadow back in the Desert Tortoise Natural Area had feelings, I knew it. It wasn't as if I had to ask myself, Does he feel things? I knew he wanted things; he felt desire, for shade, for water. He felt fear, of cars, of ravens, of me. But I did not pause by the side of that thirsty road to argue with myself about whether he felt these things by instinct or otherwise. Now a few biologists are debating this concept, with the desert tortoise, possibly my desert tortoise, at the center of an important biological controversy. Do animals have emotions? Or is it all instinct?
Ask your dog.
At the heart of the whole discussion here in California is Desert Tortoise Number 29. I believe this must be my tortoise, the one I saw when I stopped on the side of the highway on my way to California City. U.S. Geological Survey biologist Kristin Berry believes that Number 29 Tortoise is a true individual -- just as, say, Larry David is a true individual. "[All desert tortoises] are not the same inside their shells," she told a reporter for the L.A. Times. "They are individuals interacting in complex communities. . . . There may be behavior occurring in ways we haven't yet learned to observe, or interpret. How does a tortoise exhibit joy, or play, or express frustration?"
These are good questions. Certainly what little I saw of the fellow I'd like to believe was Number 29 did not lead me to expect expressions of joy from him. Joy seemed out of his range. And perhaps I am right, at least about Number 29. What Berry, the biologist, says about him is that he is a "cad," and a "fearless kingpin." That would explain why he dared to show himself in broad daylight, with me watching.
The tortoises, who have had quite enough problems in recent years, including the slow expansion of California City and other nearby towns in the Mojave, the advent of off-road racing, as well as the appeal of their remote native habitat to methamphetamine manufacturers, are now about to encounter a new enemy: the U.S. Army. It is entirely possible that Number 29 and his extended family may end up as casualties of the war in Iraq. Fort Irwin, a Mojave site designated for army training in current engagements, is also a natural habitat for the desert tortoise. In order to avoid destroying tortoises as it expands its mock Iraq training grounds and increases the firepower of its weaponry, the military plans to relocate about fifteen hundred of the animals to safer grounds, beginning in 2006. If the desert tortoise were not protected by special state and federal laws, it's doubtful that the military would show such tenderness. Their concerns are mandated, but still, Number 29 must move.
I have to admit here that it is unlikely that Berry's Number 29 could really be my tortoise, although the animals do range widely. The tortoises of Fort Irwin live about fifty miles from the Desert Tortoise Natural Area, much to their detriment. Still, I cherish a hope that the tortoise I encountered was Number 29. He was an intrepid soul, after all. However, no matter how wily, how brave, how caddish Number 29 is, his gnarled, hundred-year-old self may not be prepared for what's coming, which is "a new generation of weapons and tactics," as the L.A. Times put it.
A friend of mine who has seen the war games up at Fort Irwin says even a wise old tortoise might be fooled by the simulations into thinking it had been transported into a war zone. When nothing is happening, my friend says, the people who have been hired by military contractors to help prospective soldiers understand and respond to the Iraqi environment are hanging out, drinking soda out of swamp coolers. Most are Kurdish and Iraqi immigrants who live down in El Cajon near San Diego. At first, you think you've been plunked down among a bunch of sandy shipping containers and cardboard minarets in the desert. It looks tacky and unreal. The women are sitting around tables playing cards and chatting in English.
But when the war scenario starts to play out, suddenly this guy you were talking to about the Lakers has a limp and a glare and is spluttering in Arabic, and the women are ululating and sobbing, and shouting slogans against the United States. Four Humvees move into the town. It looks like the television news, and worse, my friend says. You think it's over, when suddenly a sniper appears on a rooftop, an improvised explosive device goes off a block away, and all around you, people are falling to the ground, bloodied, and it's all confusing, muddled, hard to tell who's who, who's on your side, what's what, where to run.
It's Iraq in California, and it would unsettle the most entrenched of desert tortoises. These people, preparing themselves for the worst kinds of things with these war games, are also tearing up paths and tunnels that the tortoises may have built centuries ago and have used for hundreds of years. For the desert tortoise, it's as if someone had come and blithely torn up the 5 or the 101. Our freeways are not as old as the tortoises' desert paths. It is entirely possible that Number 29 was born as long ago as the Coolidge administration, and others of his clan are probably old enough to have been born even longer ago -- under Harding, Wilson, Taft, or Teddy Roosevelt.
Let's play a game. It's called celebrity. Celebrity: you take a few sheets of paper and rip them into small strips. On each strip you write the name of a different celebrity. You play in pairs. Once, my friends and I played the game of celebrity with a celebrity, making the game of a celebrity a celebrity game. It was "meta," like a joke if the joke were told by the French deconstructionist philosopher Jacques Derrida. My friends in Los Angeles love parlor games.
In the game of celebrity, everyone writes names of celebrities on paper strips and then all the names go into a central pile. The pile is then shuffled and the strips distributed equally to pairs of players. One partner looks at names scribbled on the paper strips, one after another, and -- in a certain number of seconds; we used an egg timer -- gives clues to his or her partner about who the celebrity is. The partner must guess the name. The pair who guesses the highest number of celebrities in a given period wins.
The celebrity can be T. S. Eliot. For him your hints might be American, but like British; poetry; initials . . . Usually by then, your partner has guessed him. Or the celebrity can be Schwarzenegger, but he's too easy. You try to put difficult celebrities into the pile, but when I'm playing, they have to go pretty light on the movie stars and television personalities, because I don't know who they are. For example, until a week ago, if the strip had said "Marcia Cross," I would have had no idea. (In those cases, you try to act out the name itself, as in charades. "Cross" wouldn't be too hard.)
My friend the celebrity is, not surprisingly, very good at celebrity. His knowledge of the famous is wide and deep, ranging from fabled cinematographers and inventors of the 1800s to lowly soap opera actors to John Milton and the contemporaries of Charles Dickens. I personally am stronger on Dickens's contemporaries. The bad thing is to be my friend's partner, particularly if you are me. My friend the celebrity, who is usually generous and somewhat forbearing, is genuinely intolerant in this one area. If his partner can't guess a name, it's because his partner is thick. If my friend the celebrity can't guess a name, it's because his partner's clues are stupid.
No matter how thick his partner, however, my friend wins.
Soon it will be the New Year, another new year in California, for me. To mark this moment, I'm signing up for CERT training. CERT stands for Community Emergency Response Team; it's a seventeen-and-a-half-hour course. I like the sound of CERT training; it sounds like a sure thing. By the end of my training I will know how to do the following:
Manage utilities and put out small fires.
Treat the three medical killers by opening airways, controlling bleeding, and treating for shock.
Provide basic medical aid.
Search for and rescue victims safely.
Organize [ourselves] and spontaneous volunteers to be effective.
Collect disaster intelligence to support first-responder efforts.
The history of CERT in Los Angeles is instructive. The city trains volunteers in part because of lessons learned in Mexico in the 1985 Mexico City earthquake. That earthquake registered 8.1 on the Richter scale and killed ten thousand people. After it struck, Mexicans with no training went out into the streets and together rescued about eight hundred victims from wreckage, rubble, and fire. Or, as the CERT-LA website says, "large groups of volunteers organized themselves and performed light search and rescue operations." Although the volunteers rescued so many, however, about a hundred of the volunteers themselves died during the fifteen-day effort.
I was wondering whether my backpack of supplies in the pool house would be of any use during my CERT training. I do have a wrench for turning off the gas -- which I assume is what they mean when they say "manage utilities." However, I've forgotten where the gas valve is.
Tens of thousands of crows fly into L.A. every day, like commuters. They come from a few roosts a long way off, one of them at the intersection of the 60 and the 605, near Whittier Narrows, and they fly all the long way into L.A. -- maybe fifteen miles -- to infest the trees around my neighborhood and caw until the dogs here nearly split their sides barking at them. One morning I got up at four and met a friend to go see the crows begin their early-morning commute.
I passed through the Second Street tunnel downtown, where a homeless musician was sleeping next to his cello and his two violins. Farther south, the streets of Skid Row were lined at that hour with sleepers on cardboard beds, or inside cardboard boxes, like the streets of Bombay and Calcutta. Almost one out of every hundred people in L.A. County is homeless, which accounts for the density of the cardboard domiciles here where the homeless congregate. They also have tents and quilts, and garbage bins for lighting fires, and supermarket shopping carts for their possessions. There are eighty-eight hundred homeless children in L.A. County. Some sleeping spots that morning looked more like Bedouin encampments, with sheets draped down over clusters of boxes, and several carts parked nearby. On the corners at such an early, chilly hour, men were chatting in cold groups, their breath condensing in clouds. I met my friend Sue, a bird-watcher among other things, on an empty corner: I left my car and climbed into hers. Street people watched with little interest.
It was an eerie place we traveled on to, from that eerie place. Our destination was an intersection of two freeways. It should have been urban, and indeed it looked like a wasteland. But inside the crook of the two highways, you were lost: you never saw the highways from within. It was a nature preserve -- a swamp with grasses rising from the sandy dunelands and rivers crossing it. We parked at an equestrian ring. The horses were exhaling steam as we got out of the car and began our trek. We tramped through what seemed like an endless wilderness, always alert for the lifting of the birds, their awakening. That morning before the sun was truly up, we saw kestrels, woodpeckers, owls, hawks, cardinals, finches, cormorants, ospreys, egrets, and crows. The dawn turned pink above us, when suddenly I saw it: a crowd of black crows lifting off from a stand of trees in the distance.
"But it's nothing like what it used to be," Sue told me, in a voice filled with disappointment. "Before West Nile, you should have seen it. The sky was black with the birds. Now they say so many of them are dead." Still, to me, it was impressive, the way the birds seem to rise up out of the trees between the highways all at once, as if by magic. The flapping of their wings, like breath over our heads, and the place we were in, not like any place I could imagine as an avian paradise. The last time I watched birds, it was in a cloud forest in Panama, with very little sign of humanity nearby. Now I'm between highways, with electric stanchions all around us, always visible. And we're never far from the sound of rush hour.
And yet nature endures; the birds are there. The sand of the Los Angeles flood plain surrounds us. A lone bowling ball sits near a riverbed, pushed there by last year's floods. And the sky the crows fly through is pink and orange at dawn -- all evidence of nature's sheer will to continue on here, regardless of man's depredations.
Well, I know a New Year is coming, because I just received the Resnicks' 2005 holiday card. It's a masterpiece, of course. As usual. It's got a blue motif, on a watery background. There is the Resnick family at the center. Five of them are seated upon a boat in this magical sea world. Behind them, a pretty volcano is erupting, its smoke forming the numbers 2006. The little Resnick girls are wearing bathing suits, and Lynda is wearing a more modest batik shift. Lynda's daughter, a grown woman, is a mermaid lounging on a nearby rock. Stewart is a native, standing at the stern of the boat, holding a fish on a line and wearing a native headdress that looks suspiciously like a Christmas wreath. He's also got on what can only be described as a skirt, and a straw necklace around his neck.
What interests me most, however, is the Resnick boat. It is a blue boat, like my old boat that's stuck in its blue bucket up in my pool-house closet. But when I look at it more closely, I can see it turns out to be a bottle of Fiji water. The greeting card is an ad, stupid, like the Terminator billboard. And although the family is smiling broadly, there are sharks in the waters the Resnicks are paddling through.
Driving home from Irvine on the 5 one afternoon, after an exhausting stop at Costco (like Irvine, another place I never imagined visiting), I witnessed an accident. We were all going about sixty miles per hour, and everyone was tailgating, as Californians will, even at sixty or seventy miles per hour. Except for me, who kept the usual five Victorian car lengths between herself and the next car, dropping back continually as others edged in to fill the void. I was moving quite nicely, and thoughtlessly, my mind filled with cases of tomato paste, toilet paper, and one really big plastic jar of roasted cashews, when I noticed that ahead of me, a white car seemed to be not moving forward with the traffic but rather crossing perpendicular to the traffic. I noted it but didn't start to understand it, until I saw this same car coming back again across the traffic. By now people were swerving and crashing ahead of me, one blue car was pirouetting. And then, right past my windshield went the white car and through another lane of traffic, and then it sailed right off the highway through the big windbreak of pink and white azalea bushes that separates highway from service road. It left a puff of dust in its wake and was seen no more. Already, I was a thousand feet down the road, and traveling back at sixty again, dialing 911 on my cell phone, the mess of cars farther and farther behind me. I wondered what could possibly be happening on the service road on the other side of the azaleas, but by the time I thought to wonder, I was far away,
They've taken down the Ambassador Hotel. It took five months to do, but now the sweeping old place on Wilshire Boulevard, with its alleys of palm trees and art deco modernistic look, is gone. Only the Cocoanut Grove, its fabled nightclub and ballroom, remains standing. On the site, a $270 million school is to be built, which will use the Cocoanut Grove as an auditorium. Funny to think of that place as an auditorium for students, although Mickey Mouse held his second birthday there in 1930. That same year, the first Oscar statuettes were given out at the Grove -- which hosted the Academy Awards through the 1940s. There were coconut palms inside the nightclub, and backdrops of beach scenes behind the dance floor. Many early movie stars used to hang out at the Grove (for which Rick Caruso named the Grove shopping mall): Jean Harlow, Rudolph Valentino, Maureen O'Hara, Douglas Fairbanks, among others. It's said that the actress Joan Crawford won a hundred dance competitions at the Grove. Judy Garland recorded a live album there.
A few months after demolition began, methane gas was discovered under the site, no surprise to those who've visited the tar pits down the street. The discovery might have put an end to plans for the school, but instead, it seems that construction crews will now include an impermeable tarp of some kind to line the ground beneath the new school buildings, as well as pipes for venting the gas, and methane alarms in the classrooms and hallways. No doubt there will be warning plaques from the state of California.
Another stop on the Manson tour: the jury in the case stayed at the Ambassador Hotel during deliberations. In 1971, after nine days, Manson and his associates were found guilty and given the death penalty, but in 1972, California revoked capital punishment, and Manson and more than a hundred other death row prisoners were resentenced. Five years later, California reinstated the death penalty. Today, after the execution of Tookie Williams, there is a bill in the legislature to impose a moratorium on executions, but it is expected that the governor will quash it, in part to counter the new perception on the right that he is moving leftward.
The Cocoanut Grove was not the only structure of interest within the Ambassador Hotel complex. There was also a pantry. This is the room Robert F. Kennedy was walking through, after winning the 1968 California primary, when he was shot and killed by Sirhan B. Sirhan. Anyone alive at the time will recall the startling television footage of the senator lying on the pantry floor after he was wounded, with staff half-kneeling all around him. Out of deference to history -- a dainty feeling that does not often touch Los Angeles developers and the demolition crews who work with them -- the pantry has been spared.
According to the L.A. Times, the pantry is in storage. It awaits a decision by "a panel of experts" on its fate. If only there were still a Franklin Mint Museum, it could go there.
Oliver Stone is building the World Trade Center in Los Angeles, out in Playa Vista near the hangar where Howard Hughes used to house his military folly, the Spruce Goose, a ridiculous, unwieldy, enormous wooden hydroplane that flew little more than one mile during its entire existence; it's now on display at an aviation museum. The huge airplane hangar where the Spruce Goose was built was turned into a soundstage in the 1990s (parts of Titanic were filmed there), and that's where Oliver Stone is shooting a movie provisionally titled World Trade Center. It's supposed to be a feel-good movie about the attack; I like the concept. It's about rescue. Two Port Authority police officers are buried in the rubble; a former marine who is now an accountant finds them there, and after hours of terrible suspense and arduous work by teams of rescuers, the two men are saved.
It's a weird idea for a movie, but it means that the debris of the buildings had to be rebuilt. There were the end shards of the North and South Towers, ghostly, rising up near the water in Playa Vista near Marina del Rey. It was odd enough that the citizens of California City felt it necessary to reconstruct the Twin Towers on the municipal lawn, but to rebuild the rubble is another kind of memorial entirely. Stone is that kind of director, though, always courting controversy and even straightforward aversion. Many say this will be his attempt to come back into the fold and to show that he too can play the Hollywood game: the heartwarming, PG-13, family-fare game. Also, the game of making a lot of money -- the blockbuster game. It's a funny subject to choose in order to play that game.
Standing by the artificial rubble, you can see that the ruin is utterly false; it looks more like stacking crates and pallets than it does like steel and cement construction wreckage. On the surrounding hills are palm trees, grassy lawns, retaining walls, and the roofs of the developments behind them. But if you look at Stone's pile from a middle distance (and block the background from your mind), it's otherworldly, and completely accurate. It's what we all saw on the television news in the days after September 11 -- an indelible recapturing of that angular, twisted heap. In 2001, a week after the attack, my family and I tried to visit what had already come to be called ground zero, but it was roped off from many blocks away, and all we could do was have the boys give cards and fresh pairs of socks to the firefighters there. I suppose Stone's movie will evoke similar sentiments -- of pity, charity, and hope.
For me, Stone's set evokes nausea, a queasy feeling: better to have it over with, be finished with it. No more reconstructing, no more reliving. Walk away. As my California friends say, Shrug it off. Get over it. That's what I'm doing here in L.A.: I'm getting over it. We're all trying to take a little pleasure from things. Right? I can find pleasure and amusement here in California -- pure sensual, esthetic pleasure. I get it from the black palm trees against the dark blue sky at nightfall, for example. From the domes and towers and flat roofs of the sprawl, outlined against the sunset. From the big sign on Pico that reminds me of my Angel and says CrashLand; they do auto bodies. From the secret, fabulous, romantic alleyways that run behind strip malls and gas stations and warehouses and that give you access to every little building in L.A. From the Cambodian temple in bright yellows and ochers on Beverly as you head toward downtown. From the names of places: Studio City -- irresistible. Echo Park, Eagle Rock, Silver Lake, like "cellar door," one of the most beautiful phrases in the English language. El Monte and Alhambra (where Phil Spector lives), Bellflower and Cypress, Seal Beach, and Haggerties and Swamies, the last two beach towns memorialized in the Beach Boys' song "Surfin' U.S.A."
And the nice man who plays the steel drum in what they call the Village near my house -- a strip of stores -- he's providing everyone with so much pure pleasure that he must be bringing peace, as no doubt the poet Rumi would say if he walked among us still. The teachers up at Esalen would agree: self-delight leads to world delight. The man in the baseball cap with the supermarket cart full of red roses wrapped in cellophane, down by the Crenshaw exit: he's selling, sure; he may just be out making a living, but he's bringing peace too. And the people of Watts: thank you for writing WATTS in that brief snow. Snow should be memorialized here. Everything is beautiful, a rose, a word written in snow, dark buildings at night with interiors lit by fluorescent bulbs. Inside those interiors you see, on a deserted second floor, a metal desk, a black file cabinet, a water cooler, and a column of office machines, lit up blue as if for filming. Piñatas line one full block, in the shape of stars and Santas. Pupusas are for sale here, and fish tacos at the Cactus taquería, also empañadas and Guatemalan pasteles, all the sweet things: self-delight begets world delight.
Still, I wonder: how it can be that when my friend emerges from her yoga class zonked out and blissed out, floating down the pretty little street on brown moccasins to meet me at Peet's, and the drummer is playing on his metal drum while girls in Sunday trousers and babies in strollers glide by, I wonder how can it be that at almost the very same moment when my friend sits down and smiles, and I bring her a double tall percent latte, and a baby in pink who's passing by pats a dog lying under a table outside the door, how can it be that in Baghdad, a suicide bomber is busy blowing a hundred people up into ashes?
The world is sitting on top of Paramount Studios. There is a great blue globe balancing precariously up on top of the corner of one of the studio buildings, where Melrose meets Gower, near Lucy's El Adobe and just a few long blocks from El Coyote on Beverly, where Sharon Tate and her friends ate dinner before going back up the canyon that last night. On August 8, the anniversary of the murders, tourists go to El Coyote to have dinner there, just like Sharon. Over at the corner of Highland and Franklin, red bougainvillea is spilling down the hill behind the Chevrolet billboard. Stands of cypress put quotes around the neighborhoods near Runyon Canyon, in among the houses of Hollywood.
But where are all the people who -- in any normal town -- would be walking down the streets in these places? It's Sunday, after all. Only my "village" seems peopled. Nathanael West wrote about the vacant-eyed crowds that walk the streets of Hollywood. Where are they? I suppose that everybody's off driving somewhere. Or maybe everybody's gone surfing. Even the Resnicks are waterborne. Arianna Huffington's been seen on The Nation magazine's cruise to Mexico. Up at Carrie Fisher's in Coldwater Canyon, someone's bound to be in the heated pool. On the side of Paramount, at the North Gower Gate near the studio where Dr. Phil's show shoots, huge whales cavort on an enormous blue backdrop.
We finish our Sunday morning coffee, and I go to my car. The rains are late this year, but they are coming. Clouds are piling up, dusting the canyons with their faint wisps. I can't see the Hollywood sign. The Santa Ana winds have died down; fire season is over. In its Surf & Sea column today, the paper reported strong rip currents in all areas and twelve minutes to sunburn for sensitive people. Right now, a stormy northwesterly swell is bearing down on the coast. The California buoy, 357 nautical miles west of San Francisco, is checking in at 19 feet, with 12-second periods. "Reminder," the surf-watchers warn us: "There is a risk of increased bacteria levels . . . following the end of any measurable rain event." It's partly cloudy and cool now, at 1:20 in the afternoon, and it's beginning to drizzle here in the sunny Southland; it's drizzling in the Inland Empire, drizzling in the Imperial Valley. It's a measurable rain event.
I'm using my windshield wipers.
And when the rains come down again, what will they destroy, what will they carry away? I'm waiting.
Copyright © 2006 by Amy Wilentz
Meet the Author
Amy Wilentz is the author of The Rainy Season, Martyrs’ Crossing, and I Feel Earthquakes More Often Than They Happen. She has won the Whiting Writers Award, the PEN/Martha Albrand Non-Fiction Award, and the American Academy of Arts and Letters Rosenthal Award. She writes for The New Yorker and The Nation and teaches in the Literary Journalism program at UC Irvine.
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