Tuesday, July 25, 2006

California is a poem

before I begin, let me just say that blogger sucks blue baboon ass. I'd switch to something else, but that would be like work. Which means instead of pictures, you'll just have to rely on my painterly prose.

You know what surprised me about California? The mythic quality it has. For some reason I wasn't expecting that. But I should have; California has such a unique place in the American imagination. Like everybody else, my whole life I've read about California, seen it in movies, heard songs about her cities--from 60s hippie ballads to Red Hot Chili Pepper's "Under the Bridge"--it was this strange, faraway land that was always treated with a mixture of fascination and contempt, here in the Midwest. California is hippies and psychedelics and Beat poets and Haight-Asbury; migrant workers, Okies, sailors, hitchhikers, bums, movie stars, cowboys; Chinatown parades, gay parades, barrios, bilingual schools, gangs and riots, drug addicts, oxygen bars (I really did see an oxygen bar! I always thought they were an urban legend), drag queens, self-proclaimed Emperors, gold-miners and gold-diggers. Highways, suburbs, bridges, fog, redwoods, ocean, desert, bobcats, sea otters, sand. I got to California and suddenly heard the voices of writers I'd half-forgotten, my life has been so crazy these last few years. Twain, Jack London, Bret Harte, Ferlinghetti, Ginsburg, Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammet. Writers I used to read in junior high and high school, when California was an impossible thing I believed in each morning before breakfast, no more real than Middle-Earth or Narnia, just as wild and dangerous and beautiful. We drove around Big Sur, all crashing waves and foggy beaches, rocky hills and thick redwoods and lovely sprawling highway, and I remembered my long lost love for Kerouac and my adolescent passion for the Beats (don't all bookish adolescents have a fling with the Beats?) And now I can't stop quoting On the Road, which I read when I was 15 and very quiet, and it blew my mind. The charging restless mute unvoiced road keening in a seizure of tarpaulin power. I saw my first Mexican migrant workers, in a field picking strawberries maybe, as we tooled around Monterey and Santa Cruz in our rental car. We have migrant workers here, but we like to pretend that we don't. In California, migrant workers, illegal immigrants, and under-the-table laborers are the backbone of the economy, and everybody knows it. I thought of Steinbeck. The fields were fruitful and starving men moved on the roads. The granaries were full and the children of the poor grew up rachitic. I love Steinbeck, despite The Red Pony (does anybody like The Red Pony??) I loved him so much as a teenager I performed a bit out of The Grapes of Wrath for speech team (no, not the famous "I'll be there" monologue. Nobody can follow a performance like Henry Fonda's). We went to the famed Cannery Row:
Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream. Cannery Row is the gathered and scattered, tin and iron and rust and splintered wood, chipped pavement and weedy lots and junk heaps, sardine canneries of corrugated iron, honky tonks, restaurants and whore houses, and little crowded groceries, and laboratories and flophouses.
It's not, any more; it's a glorified strip mall, which was disheartening. California may be mythic but it's not the promised land. It displays the sins of American culture rather brutally, maybe just out of sheer contrast with the beauty of the land, the greatness of its writers and artists. Still, the Monterey Aquarium is a treat, sea otters and jellyfish and all sorts of cool stuff.
After San Francisco (where I did leave part of my heart; the other bits are in Paris and Edinburgh and elsewhere), RC and I (I've decided to call RC La Chanteuse, it's more accurate and interesting) just puttered around the Monterey Bay area. Chanteuse went to UC Santa Cruz for a year, she took me on a tour of the campus. My jaw dropped so far I could have caught flies in my mouth. UCSC is like the Anti-University. It's Bizarro World. It's more nature resort than college campus. There are no sports teams, no Greek system, and the school mascot is a banana slug. Really. It's hippies and wierdo artsy types, with a few computer geeks, and during the first rain of the season everybody takes off their clothes and runs around having a big naked party. Really.
I saw my first redwood trees there, which I hugged good and tight, because it's the kind of place where you can do that and nobody blinks. They have bobcats, at night. There's a modern art sculpture nicknamed "The Flying IUD."
In Santa Cruz we met up with some old friends of Chanteuse, super friendly laid back Californian graphic designer types. We hung out on the beach having Deep Conversations about Art and Life and What's It All About. We ate pizza, read tarot cards, and watched The Breakfast Club on cable. Chanteuse, like the fine sugar mama she is, bought me Queer Astrology for Women in the Santa Cruz Bookstore, a book I swear didn't exist. We had vegetarian cheeseburgers at The Saturn, and drank fantastic wine at Bonny Doon (the first decent wine I've had since I've been back home) where they have vintages named La cigare volante (The Flying Cigar, ie a zepplin) and Cardinal Zin. We had the Best. Goddamn. Gnocci. EVER in Carmelo, and fed squirrels on the beach.
I was pissy the whole flight back, I didn't want to leave. I told Chanteuse, "Look, just tell my parents they can send me my clothes!" The rambling open highways of California have seduced me. My traveling bug is itching for more. I should get a dog and a pickup truck and just hit the road.
When I was very young and the urge to be someplace else was on me, I was assured by mature people people that maturity would cure this itch. When years described me as mature, the remedy prescribed was middle age. In middle age I was assured that greater age would calm my fever and now that I am fifty-eight perhaps senility will do the job. Nothing has worked. Steinbeck, Travels with Charley

What's your road, man?
-holyboy road, madman road, rainbow road, guppy road, any road. It's an anywhere road for anybody anyhow. On The Road


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