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A Connecticut Yankee: Blessed to be in California

GUEST WORDS--Every fourth year, when there’s a national election, Americans contemplate our collective navel without shame or restraint.

This is done for the purpose of assigning constituencies: Blacks for Mrs. Clinton, unseasoned youth for Mr. Sanders, suburban soccer moms for Governor Kasich, rednecks for Trump, and Jesus freaks for Cruz.

Self-proclaimed sages like Chris Matthews regale us for an hour each day with the calculus—and for uncountable hours on Tuesdays in the spring—interrupting their “guests” unmercifully to give the true-blue lowdown on who’s going to support whom. Heaven help anyone who doesn’t fit neatly in the pigeonholes that Matthews and his tribe have prepared.

My wife and I are well-educated, white, home-owning, retired teachers, both pushing 70. While this package doesn’t particularly strain the pundits’ capacity to pigeonhole, California as a whole is much tougher. For some, the state’s inherent heterogeneity can be disconcerting.

Since the Dust Bowl migration, people have come to California for myriad reasons. For some, it’s forever associated with gold—the Golden State, perpetual sunshine, the chance to make it big—all that constitutes the “Go West, young man” syndrome. For others, the state is some version of the Last Chance Saloon, the End-of-the Line Café, the ultimate destiny that is yet to disappoint. But for all of us, California is the nesting ground for fowl of many feathers, for painted birds, as author Jerzy Kosinski used the term, birds of a lavish eccentricity that is at once entirely haphazard and carefully studied.

I am from Connecticut, and I first became interested in California decades ago on a six-week stint with the Lisle Fellowship in the city of Palo Alto during the summer between high school and college. Our group was intercultural, and our mission was to interact with members of host communities over a four-day timeframe and perform what was euphemistically called “sociological field work.” The work was so transparently un-sociological that on one assignment I was asked to identify buckling on the sidewalks of residential areas in the city of Pittsburgh, Calif.

Clearly, the poor clueless bastards on the City Council had no idea how to involve a bunch of late adolescents and early 20-somethings in a meaningful municipal endeavor. Far be it for them to hook us up with a civil rights group or a poverty program in the summer of ’64, the year that President Lyndon B. Johnson was just working up a head of steam.

My two best chums at our lodging, a fraternity house near the Stanford campus were Germans—named Herman and Hans—who seemed more interested in beer than in the underpinnings of urban American life (not simply an ethnic stereotype in their case, but true). The assignment that Hans Zebinger chose in Pittsburgh was to learn the operations of a sewage treatment plant. Back at Delta Tau Delta, à la Sasha Baron Cohen in “Borat,” Hans used the word “shit” quite innocently in his report to the 20 or so assembled, as he described the intricate kinetics of the plant. In my nearly seven decades of life, I can’t recall another incident of such gut-splitting, rolling-on-the-floor laughter.

Later that summer, the Lisle Fellowship went en masse to The Cow Palace in Daly City to toil on behalf of the flagging campaigns of Govs. Nelson Rockefeller and William Scranton and exercise our poor power to stop the nomination of Barry Goldwater.  Rockefeller and Scranton had formed an alliance not unlike the current Cruz-Kasich arrangement of this year’s election campaign, and their supporters seemed very familiar, hardly a stretch from the ’60’s preppies I knew back in the days of Henry Cabot Lodge and Jack Javits and ultimately Edward Brooke and Lowell Weicker—a time before the critter known as a “moderate Republican” vanished from the face of the earth.

The Goldwater delegates we met were either patently contemptuous or condescendingly smug. My tasks were every bit as menial as my sidewalk inspections in Pittsburgh had been. But I was doing the work of the Lord, I felt, my father whom I revered having been a big fan of Ike and a personal friend of Bill Scranton. I was a grieving Kennedy idolater, wary of the new president whom my father had called a diabolical charlatan. I was only too happy to serve the Republican center.

Further blue-collar toils awaited me that summer with the Lisle Fellowship, among them four days at the Marin County Shakespeare Festival, hammering spherical metal plates with seat numbers into benches. I could not have predicted then that I would attend several Shakespeare festivals, not with a hammer, but with socks and buskins. 

Not to be outdone by the politicos and my German friends, the actors at Marin seemed further California exemplars of all that strayed from the beaten path.  I recall so vividly the awkwardness of fending off amorous overtures from two male performers at a social gathering that included Lisle. This was 1964. I returned home somewhat relieved that the crash course I’d had on the land of El Dorado would be suspended for a time.

Three years later came The Summer of Love in the Haight-Asbury district of San Francisco. From a safe distance I retrained my sights on the city, which resoundingly claimed its place as the prime habitat for strange American fowl. 

But I’d been through some changes too. I had lost my virginity to a prostitute in Amsterdam, smoked dope for the first time, and watched the CBS Evening News every single night. The Siege at Khe Sanh would be called—so eloquently by Michael Herr—“the love object at the heart of the Command.” And in the apocalyptic spring of 1968, Dr. King was killed, the Tet Offensive took the war on a relentless southward roll clear to Saigon, and after Eugene McCarthy had run interference for him, Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in Los Angeles. The following winter Charlie Manson went on a dreadful rampage. In Los Angeles.

Why I came to settle in Pasadena—a city in the county of Los Angeles—with that imagery in my head, I don’t know. The parents of the adolescents in the English and drama classes I taught resembled the Goldwater delegates of years before, rather than my father and his centrist friends. I had found a place where a football stadium was named after a flower and the strangest place around was the British pub just off Colorado Boulevard.

Berkeley quickly became my refuge. Its hive of academics, unreconstructed hippies, old Commies, politically involved African-Americans, heroin addicts, loose women, lefties of every stripe, I found endlessly intriguing. Chris Matthews would have loved charting their voting patterns. He’d have wondered what percentage of them would even consider Hillary. My sister had come to the East Bay for graduate school and never left. She’d become something of a young Gertrude Stein, and the flock of Bohemians who passed through her door and attended her dinner parties was a motley lot indeed. Pasadena might have felt to me like an island of sanity had Santa Anita not been a few miles down the road. I grew captivated by track announcer Trevor Denman’s South African vowels, often to my sorrow, now and then to my profit.

During this perfervid period of the early ’80’s, I frequented the watering holes of Main Street Santa Monica and developed a major fondness for the place altogether, a fondness that still abides. I found Santa Monica somehow funkier than the other towns in the region. Last week, sitting over an incomparable spaghetti carbonara on the patio at Trastevere, a marvelous eatery on the Promenade, I had the feeling I wasn’t even in America. It was a feeling I’ve not had in Cambridge, Mass., or New Orleans or Seattle or Ann Arbor, Mich.

Construction in Santa Monica has gone rabid recently, and the ersatz contemporary architecture could have been from anywhere. I suddenly thought about the Armenian auto repairmen, the Persian pharmacists, the Lebanese dentists, the Russian haircutters, the Filipino health workers, the Chinese astrophysicists that inhabit the area I had blindly chosen.

I have always hated the term, “melting pot.” It brings to mind cheese fondue. But I guess it’s a perfectly serviceable metaphor for the international flavor of our city. The fact is that Los Angeles is the quintessential America. And damn the TV talkers who want to put us all in little hoppers.

The Latino population of Los Angeles entirely defies being categorized. But if any generalizations are ever useful—and some can be—its people tend to possess a devotion to family and a work ethic that no others exceed. For 23 years, it was my privilege to learn about Mexican, Guatemalan cultures as a high school teacher in the Los Angeles Unified School District. And having done so, I am convinced that the massive Latin American presence in California is a stabilizing influence for everyone in the state. In this heterogeneous environment, the bedrock values of many LA’s Latino communities set a predominant tone.

Having retired from teaching and long since settled in the mother of all valleys, my palate for excitement doesn’t often exceed treading the boards of a classical stage now and then and watching the Red Sox on a near nightly basis. But seldom does a day ever pass when I don’t feel blessed to be in California.

(John Ogden is a retired teacher. At Collegiate School in New York and Westridge School in Pasadena, he taught English and directed the drama programs. Joining the faculty of Los Angeles High School in 1986, he was co-founder and artistic director of The Rimpau Players, a student-faculty theatre group. He was raised in New Canaan, Conn., and now lives with his wife, Patti, in Valley Village, Calif. This piece was posted most recently at TruthDig.) 

-cw