California Screamin' - Corruption, Deception, and Disillusionment in the "Gilded" State
I've lived in California for over 30 years now. By the grace of God and by robbing Peter to pay Paul I've managed to maintain home ownership here, but I've always felt like a foster child; I've never considered that the Golden State belongs to me, I've never embraced the kelp clogged shores of the Pacific as home. Unless you are extraordinarily wealthy, California is only temporarily borrowed from the bank, never quite bought and paid for. 50 percent of "homeowners" in Southern California are so desperate that they rent out rooms to people who are not family members in order to keep themselves afloat.
My wife asks me "Why are you broke all the time? Do you have a mistress?"
"Yes I do," I confess. "Her name is California, and she's a damn demanding bitch that takes everything I have, and then some."
California is a study in contrasts and contradictions. It is the land of the endless summer that will burst into flames with a stray spark from an ill maintained power line blown over in a raging Santa Ana wind. Its sparkling ocean front boasts pristine beaches that buzz with surfers and beach blanket bingo revelers. When the tourists are gone, however, those same beaches buzz with thousands of flies feasting on the stinking piles of rotting kelp that the California current washes in. It is home to sparkling Hollywood Tinseltown glitter where spoiled stars like Justin Bieber drive at freeway speeds through their plush neighborhoods, egging their neighbor's houses, or beat up rehab clinic staffers like Lindsay Lohan.
Just a dash down the freeway from Hollywood, Los Angeles' towering skyscrapers look shiny and glitzy enough from a distance, but if you make the mistake of driving in among them it's like a scene from the zombie apocalypse; a place where the shopkeepers literally roll up their storefronts at night and leave the streets to the mercy of intimidating and belligerent vagrants. 400 miles up the coast from there lies San Jose; if you know the way, California's third largest city. This sprawling metropolitan industrial park is headquarters for brilliant Silicon Valley magnates, and also boasts one of the highest homeless populations in the country. In short, California is a solid blue state whose liberal politicians pander to the votes of the poor and dispossessed, yet those same liberal policies bilk the working man dry and siphon the life's blood of the lower classes into the greedy pockets of billionaires. It's an institutionalized system of corruption symbolized by the stern, prissy, shiny head of Governor Jerry Brown himself, who typifies everything that is wrong in this one party state - and this coming from a guy who by no means thinks Republicans are the answer either.
One night my son and I were having a conversation about this subject of the California dichotomy when, as usual, he said something incredibly wise beyond his 23 years. "it's not the Golden State," he said, "It's the Gilded State. It's not really made of gold, it's just a gold plated pile of crap." A little harsh, I admit, but it sort of captures the essence of what's been on my mind lately.
California is the third biggest state in land area, at about 163,707 square miles, although one source said 163,696 square miles. I guess one little slip of the San Andreas fault and 11 square miles drop off into the ocean just like that. California is so huge it can afford to shave a few square miles here and there, but despite this boundless space filled with inaccessible mountains, boundless forests, and remote, hostile deserts into which a disgruntled free spirit could easily disappear, California is the ultimate government controlled nanny state, with Big Brother seeming to watch everybody, everywhere.
Recently I stepped out to the drugstore at about 10:30 in the PM. As I backed into the street, I saw my neighbor across the way washing his car by the marginal light of the First Quarter moon. It seemed to me he was doing his best to be responsible and not let any of that precious H2O of our parched, drought stricken land go running down the gutter, but when he saw me he went slinking back into the darkness behind his car, from which his weak moon shadow with a condemning hose shadow held guiltily in hand was cast clearly against his garage door.
The drought has turned into a red scare in which neighbors turn upon neighbors over decimal places on the water meter, but this is just one symptom of a chronic disease known as nanny-state-itis. When they choose to be, the nannies in Sacramento are unrelenting in their enforcement of our libraries full of state laws, and a third grader can't so much as set up a lemonade stand without some politician's express permission, a few bribes, and the requisite piles of paperwork and permits. People working crappy, low wage jobs like security guard are required to pay exorbitant fees and complete seemingly endless hours of training before obtaining the privilege to work for barely above minimum wage.
The state of California is so nanny that it has created an entire industry of board certified nannies to proliferate the booming business. To cite one example that literally hits home for me, in the past few years residential day care facilities operating out of single family homes have been given legal sanction to to accept up to 14 children at a time. I enjoy the sound of kids playing as much as the next guy, but the noise from the 14 disgruntled, screaming children at the daycare next door banging plastic bats against my fence and on random metal objects is neither a pleasant or a restful one. This change in the day care laws means that my neighborhood is now zoned for business and I have to compete for a parking place with day care staff and parents zipping in and out to pick up and drop off their kiddies at all hours. Of course, the bureaucratic machine that gladly accepts the high fees to operate these facilities rarely lives up to its obligation to police them, so whether the children there are actually safer and better cared for under this new law seems a dubious proposition at best.
Do all these multiple layers of Nanny bureaucracy actually benefit the working man? Nope, here in the Golden State worker's paradise we continue to toil away for $9 an hour minimum wage, while those pot-smoking libertarians up the coast in Seattle rake in a much more generous $15.
Car-less and Friendless
A couple of weeks ago my Honda Civic finally gave up the ghost, the water pump blowing up in a spray of rust colored rain. Because I've either been taking the bus or hoofing it since then, I'm discovering the cruel implications of car-lessness in Southern California. In SoCal without a car, distances between civilized outposts are as vast as the empty expanses between waterholes in the Sahara, so I'm thinking about getting a camel to save on gas. Bedroom community suburbs are deliberately built dozens of miles away from the sketchy warehouse and office districts where people work, and for this reason being without a car in Southern California is a lonely as being exiled to Elba. Commuters dominate the polling places and politics, meaning that public transportation remains underfunded, expensive, inefficient, and shuts down way too early. Furthermore, there is a serious social stigma associated with being "afoot" here. Telling people you have no car is like telling people you have a contagious disease; folks immediately shuffle off to the other side of the room, lest your dangerous toxins drift their way. Even the suggestion to go for a walk in California gets you strange looks, like farting in an elevator. Carpooling is viewed as an embarrassing temporary expediency at best. The narcissism that characterizes Socal-ites who ceaselessly flood Facebook with selfies from about the age of three up dictate that I must be alone in my isolated metal and glass shell with my best friend (me) as I drive to work. So there I sit in my backyard on a Sunday afternoon, a lonely Socal castaway mumbling to a volleyball as others cruise the freeways in search of the fun in the sun that is mandated by the California Constitution, zipping along in sparkling automobiles that are more an extension of one's narcissistic aura than efficient transportation devices.
Jam to the Chili Peppers to ease your pain at the pump
Of course, even if I had fellow California resident Jay Leno's fleet of cars at my disposal I wouldn't get far if I couldn't afford gas to put in them. While the rest of the country basks in the blessing of low gas prices sparked by oil per barrel costs that have dipped below $40, California's residents continue to be financially strangled by gas prices that are still only slightly less than four dollars per gallon.
The answers given for this disparity are clever and varied, but basically amount to the unpleasant reality that in a state where the long distance commute is a fact of life, the oil companies squeeze us hard because they know we have no choice but to pay. In this quest to gouge California residents big oil seems to be joined in unholy alliance with a corrupt state government that pretends to protect the consumer, but in reality has created an intricate, unbreakable web of regulation, collusion, and taxes that ensures the price at our pump will never drop significantly, no matter how much oil the Saudis pump.
Californians perpetually wince in pain at the friendly neighborhood fillin' station as the heinous compact between nanny bureaucrats and billionaire oil barons squeezes them harder than a Kung Fu grip on a gas pump handle. In the 1990s oil company tycoons reduced the state's petroleum processing capacity from 30 to 11 refineries. Many accused them of doing this deliberately to keep gas prices inflated, but quite conveniently no collusion could ever be proven. The end result, however, is that Chevron and Tesoro Corp now control over half of the state's refining capacity and can pretty much fix prices where they want to, with no significant competition from any of those pesky little guys.
Just as California's legendary Napa valley offers a range of vintages ranging from two buck chuck whino rotgut to pricey premium grape, so California mandates a "summer blend" of gasoline that is ostensibly designed to reduce evaporation, but I suspect was really created to reduce the net worth of those of us forced to purchase it during the annual "switchover," when pump prices soar so high they produce nosebleed. Another factor responsible for California commuter gas pump hemorrhaging is the pompous isolation that this state has sealed itself off with when it comes to petroleum imports. Although California won't be an actual geographical island for another 60 million years, it has curiously behaved like one in the realm of gas production by severing all oil pipelines to other states. Therefore, when oil is scarce in the "gilded" state it has to be trucked in from afar at a much higher price than a pipeline system would entail. And oh yeah, silly me, I almost forgot to mention another important reason for high gas prices, which is that Californians also pay the highest gasoline tax of any state. At one point New York passed us but the state legislators got busy passing more laws to retain the top spot, as a point of California pride.
Do you think that California's inhabitants deserve their fate as the consequence of their unbounded hubris?
The Price of Sunshine
If I sound jaded and cynical, it's because I am. My California dreaming has become a nightmare. The cooling layer of the California current is too expensive, and I can't afford it anymore. Besides that, the cold ocean waters that give Southern California its legendary mild climate have been warming up over the past several years and they are not worth the money anymore. Last autumn historic high temperatures, 5 to 6 degrees above average, were reported along the coast. One scientist said that the refrigerator has broken and nobody knows why. The busted fridge means that tropical ocean species such as sea butterflies and hammerhead sharks have been spotted in the ocean. To sum it up, we are turning into Florida. All this, and real estate prices and rents are still ridiculous and unobtainable for many, which is probably why 3 out of the top 5 largest homeless populations in the United States belong to California cities.
I've been your Palm Tree Postman reporting from the boot heel of Southern California, and to tell you the truth I've felt pretty damn smug about it. But unless I decide that working until I am 80 and then dropping dead sounds like a good idea, I probably won't be staying in California. There will never be any hope of paying off my mortgage unless I rent out all of the spare rooms in my house, and then the level of peace I have within the four walls of my home will be no greater than that of the madhouse daycare next door when the kiddies are bouncing off the walls at high tide blood sugar. Your Palm Tree Postman may be moving out to slightly warmer climes in the near future, depending which way the fickle whims of fate turn. Like that ocean breeze that cools me every evening, my California smugness is also too expensive a commodity for me to afford.
In this article I've been talking about the clashing contrasts between pristine Golden State beauty and defiled Gilded State ugliness. Although I've been in this state for 31 years now, I think there is somebody better qualified to speak on the subject than I am, and this is the quintessential Californian, Nobel Prize winner John Steinbeck. I've been quoting his novel Cannery Row quite a bit lately, but I'll leave you with another gilded nugget from that book. It speaks specifically of the town of Monterey, California, but the contrasts of Gilded State life that it paints can be extrapolated to the state as a whole without too much of a stretch of the imagination. So now here's Johnny.
"[Cannery Row's] inhabitants are, as the man once said, 'whores, pimps, gamblers, and sons of bitches,' by which he meant everybody. Had the man looked through another peephole he might have said, 'saints and angels and martyrs and holy men,' and he would have meant the same thing.”— John Steinbeck - Cannery Row