A Visit to the Redwood Masada

The only thing better than owning a fabulous home in the countryside, to paraphrase Wise Johnny, is being friends with someone with a fabulous house in the country. Or in my case, friends of friends, or friend of Johnny, who generously wrangled an invitation for us to live as 1%-ers for a week, in the mountains above Santa Cruz.

If one wanted to obtain a sense of being in the world but not of it, a Berchtesgaden between Silicon Valley and the Pacific was the place do it, taking morning coffee on a veranda overlooking treetops stair-stepping to the ocean, fog dissipating under your gaze.

The Fall of Kabul and the Great ReMaskening were very far from our concerns this week. It’s an easy state of consciousness to ease into here. A feature, not a bug, of hot tubbing under the stars.

Heading north is always a little bittersweet, balancing the kindness of how I am treated by wealthier friends while knowing I can no longer afford to live in the stomping grounds of my youth, the accessibility I once took for granted.

My parents took to nature in 1973, bearing not oodles of cash, but tomes. Walden. Summerhill. The Foxfire Manual. The Whole Earth Catalog. Rural California, even the most desirable precincts, was abundant and cheap. $18000 for 80 acres of rolling meadowlands and timber, with views. Split three ways. Settled over a handshake and a joint.  They were unemployed and living on food stamps, I kid not.  A swimming pool was not part of the equation. Nor was electricity, or a running motor vehicle.

One need not have been rich to own a glorious sliver of coastal California then, just two nickels to rub together and the moxie to leave Wisconsin.

Preserving generational advantage has defined the 1973 People ever since.  Slow growth legislation. No growth. CEQA.  Nimby, thy name is Boomer.

Rural property is now very expensive and the province of people blessed with liquid grace. Tech people principally, happy to re-create Palo Alto in the woods, a weekend retreat/Zoom castle with luxury amenities to wait out the pandemic or Antifa/BLM riots, or simply make a top drawer income without the friction of proximity to others. If everything really goes to hell, there is plenty of room to lay in provisions for a siege, and who can blame wealthy Gen-Xers who paid serious money to obtain this?

It’s also –sssh- rather White up here.  Living in L.A. for twenty years one forgets just how demographically different the host region of the people really running the show in California is from the rest of the state.

Driving home, basking in the afterglow of generosity extended to me by a blameless couple I never met, my dark literary nature reasserted itself: how beautiful America is, yet how despairing, how far from the requirements of a functioning country. Enforceable borders. A sound currency. A common language. Foundational protections of speech, assembly, redress. Means of production over consumer goods. An elite that believes in America’s creedal ethos and founding documents. Incorruptible or at least high-functioning institutions. A willingness to reproduce among the native-born.

All of these things are in question at present.  I’m not sure how we can come back from the declination we have set in motion. In the meantime we backslide into a tribalism that is nominally about identity but will be enforced ruthlessly by wealth. Prediction: white areas, including the most remote and undesirable, will become unaffordable in the coming chaos. Rare is the person who practices the inclusivity he preaches.

Would John Steinbeck recognize California today? Much of the Salinas Valley would be unchanged, food producing, poor people bent over at the waist in the sun. Different people now, half of them from other countries, with the new element of vineyards, which he would appreciate.  Americans being  paid by the government to stay idle at home while replacements were bussed across the border would confound him. As would the wealth effect around Monterey Bay. Few of his characters, including the prosperous ones, could live today where he placed them in his books. Los Gatos, where he had his summer house, would be a foreign land. The vast de-personing apparatus erected by graduates of Stanford might put him in a revolutionary frame of mind.

He might retreat to the reassurance of the redwoods and take solace in the knowledge the forest will outlast our foolishness.  The trees are playing the long game, while we enjoy the shade.

Mississippi, California

Drove up to Mendocino County last week, stopping along the way in Baywood on the Central Coast to visit an old friend, a refugee from Echo Park. We went to the local alehouse for charcuterie and libation.

Here, California on a plate. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit up front how awesome this was.  The napkin is covering some truly sublime sausage. We basked in the sea breeze off the bay, chatted with the locals, scarfed the finger foods, swilled the grog and lived as the anointed for an hour.  In our munificence we forgave each other our sins and toasted the health of all.

California cuisine: grab every tasty idea from around the world, source it locally, then serve it on a patio close to the ocean.

San Luis Obispo County is where white people and their dogs land when they leave L.A but can’t bear relocating to a red state.  You get to pretend you’re still in Venice, but at half the price.

Outside Cholame

The charcuterie plate put me in an exploratory frame of mind. In the morning I decided to make the rest of the journey to San Francisco on farm roads in the valley. The big one. The San Joaquin, where the food comes from.  I cut over on the 41, a highway much more crowded with cars than I remember it from my motorcycle days in college, then meandered off into farm roads, zig-zagging in a northerly way.

Mendota
West of Fresno
South of Turlock

It is difficult to overstate the sheer scale of industrial agriculture out there.  The vastness of the fields. The monotony of endless rows of nut trees and grapevines. You keep thinking, just up the road at the next little name on the map, the real valley will reveal itself…and it will be a charming farmstead with organic honey…and then you get to Raisin City…

Raisin City

…and the one commercial structure has bars over every window and is out of business.  You can get snacks at the gas station, and probably buy meth from the kid on his bike riding in pointless circles in the parking lot, but you can’t get a sandwich. County after county, there is really nothing but fast food trucked in, frozen, then fried, fuel for the laborers.

All is utility and practicality. The San Joaquin has no retail face. A gigantic factory of food production, charmless and unironic, it smiles at no one.  Anyone not behind the wheel of a farm implement drives 70 mph on two-lane roads.

Dairyland

When restaurants on the coast say locally sourced, this is what they’re talking about. When I worked at Whole Foods the rule was: “within five hours of L.A.”  When they say grass-fed, they mean ground up cornstalks unloaded from a feed hauler at a CAFO.

Chowchilla
Gustine
San Joaquin River

Poverty is front and center in the San Joaquin Valley. There is no avoiding the subject. It’s like pre-civil rights Mississippi out there.  No white people toil in the fields. When the anointed in the cities argue for open borders, they are speaking in favor of corporate interests. Oligarchy on a plate, in this, the bluest of states.

A permanent flow of cheap labor robs all workers of bargaining power, regardless of legal status. This extends beyond agriculture into other realms of the service economy. There is very little progressive, or just, about any of this. But it’s happening somewhere over the hill, in Uglyville, to people who know nobody and nobody knows.

Besides, the charcuterie is delicious…

Little Doelger Boxes

The Sunset district in San Francisco is a quiet beach town 15 minutes from the urban core…

…and five minutes from miles and miles of off-leash sand. I have friends who live here and it’s always fun to visit. When I stay over I take their dog for a run in the morning mist.

Many of the houses were built in vast tracts over sand dunes by Henry Doelger, much in the same vein as Henry Kaiser built Panorama City.   They have a standard template: 2-3 bedrooms/one bath over a single car garage.  As the Sunset gradually slopes toward the ocean, the elevated configuration offers every house a water view.

They may look small from the outside but are actually quite substantial:  my friends have built two additional bedrooms and baths in the undeveloped downstairs space adjacent to the garage, fully within the footprint for the foundation.  Doelger houses may not wield the aesthetic pull of the Victorian but have stood up well over the years: old-growth timber, oak doors, coved ceilings, terrazzo steps rising from the street…

Doelger went on to develop the Westlake district in Daly City, immortalized in the song “Little Boxes” by Malvina Reynolds, later by Pete Seeger, and covered by just about everybody.  Cultural condescension notwithstanding, the little boxes of ticky-tacky have become a $1.2 million proposition. Our California moment can be summarized thus: the mockery of the boomers is now the desideratum of Gen Xers, and the reason Millennials must move to Texas.

You may know the song from the TV show “Weeds”, which was about rather big boxes in the outer reaches of the San Fernando Valley  (Amazing how many pop reference points have a Valley tie-in).   Though it went off the air in 2012, the transgressive premise was a widow dealing marijuana in the suburbs to pay bills.   Sunday night, ganja in the cul de sac!   Now they sell it off of billboards next to the convenience store. You couldn’t make this show today.

I met a guy last month who works in a weed warehouse in North Hollywood producing 100 pounds a week, all the workers with W2s. One of three jobs he had. The other gigs were downtown, tending bar. His wife worked at the swank Nomad Hotel.  A hundred hours of labor a week between them.  They were from New York.

“If you get your hustle on, you can kill it in LA,” he told me. They had a dream. The dream was to afford a condo. If they had a condo, no one could stop them from having a dog.  They loved dogs.

A little box was beyond their expectations.

How Green Was My Weinerhaus

I was contemplating this week S.B. 50, the legislative sausage of Scott Weiner (D-SF) which would grant the State of California supremacy in local zoning decisions.  If enacted,  single-family homes could be razed in favor of 4-5 story apartment buildings anywhere within a half mile of a transportation corridor.   Much of Los Angeles would qualify under its jurisdiction. Van Nuys, but for a few pockets, definitely would.   Weinerhausing would be like a reverse Prop 13 in its abrogation of property rights, only more significant in its political fallout.

Weiner is the first apostle of the YIMBY movement. As a Gen Xer, when I contemplate the gross inequality between my parent’s housing price point and my own I’m sympathetic, broadly speaking, to YIMBYism.

My parents obtained 80 acres of rolling pasture land and mixed forest in Mendocino County in the 1970s for $18,000.  Only they didn’t pay that. That would have cost them about $100 a month, which would have meant taking a day job.  In the Era of Boomer Land Abundance, this would not do.  No, no, no.  Much too much.  In lieu of labor, they recruited a relative to join them in their endeavor and an in-law to underwrite them as a silent majority partner thereby obtaining a Homestead Act portion of Hippie Splendor for …$25/month, and this is no embellishment, I assure you.

Need I mention they were living in a sprawling Victorian at the time, three blocks from Cal Poly while existing on public assistance?   That their property hunt consisted of a drive north in which they stopped on the 101 to use the bathroom, smoked a fateful joint, pointed at a random hillside and said that’s so pretty. I wonder if anything is for sale there?  There was little which wasn’t, as the timber companies and aging ranchers were unloading their inventory as fast as bandido real estate agents could subdivide it, frequently without road easements.

Many years later they would be obliged to buy out the silent partner, the dreaded $100 payment waiting for them like an appointment in Samarra,  and oh, oh, the wailing.  My mother would circle the room flailing her hands over her head in despair, as though wolves were nipping at her heels. A hundred dollars! The land payment! Lillian Gish lashed to the ice floes! I would come home from college and point out I was paying four times that sum for a cubicle in a dingy student rental and they would look at me like I was speaking Swahili. You need to get your money trip together they would reply before resuming their sorrows with renewed vigor.

Mr. and Mrs. UpintheValley…once they got their money trip together…paid more in a down payment for churro-eating Van Nuys than the entire purchase price of my parent’s extensive wine country holdings. Our monthly nut, the non-negotiables only, is greater than their annual income for much of my childhood.

And yet, how advantaged we are to own anything in California.  Our house has tripled in value in 15 years.   I could applaud myself for all the renovations I’ve done…a  super-ant amidst the grasshoppers…but sadly, this has only nudged the equity needle.  Move our house to Cleveland and it would lose value annually, no matter the effort we put in. A Zillow surveillance of Rust Belt cities shows just how little a Pinterest-worthy 1920’s two-story colonial commands in a market with inverted demography.

California home values are predicating on zoning, and for this reason we would not be able to repurchase ours today. No one we know can afford the house they are living in, which brings us to a unique inflection point in history.  Who will come after us?   What provision have we made for them to buy in?

The boomer plan was no plan but to withdraw as much land as possible from development. Protect it all! Especially the meadow right down the street from me… Then open the gates to the world…and reap the unearned generational advantage of zoning.   Theirs was a different California, white, entitled and lazy.  Grilled cheese sandwiches, Der Wienerschnitzel and Sambo’s, and the graft of other people’s labor. Wine country for me, Van Nuys 2.0 for my kids, alternative housing for the millennials: trailers, pods, tree houses, bunk beds, shipping containers…

S.B. 50. would indirectly address generational inequality. That would be the seduction, though not the intent.   In practice, it would look like this.

What would be exempt from upzoning? Marin County, home of the silent partner.  Two miles from SF and to this day mostly rural.  Santa Cruz, where I went to college, where the $400 student rental is now $1200.   All the coastal counties …but LA, SF, Orange, and Ventura.  Cities with a population less than 50,000, exempt.  Historic Preservation Zones.  Neighborhoods with low-frequency transit.

See where this is going? The most privileged precincts would extend their zoning advantages, and their monoculture, by manipulating transit routes and schedules, subdividing, creating protections for favored neighborhoods.  They would down-zone themselves out of the very societal obligation S.B. 50 was intended to enact.  The regulatory burden would fall, as it always does, on those regions divided by language, class, and culture.

It’s not really about housing. It’s about making the little people ride the bus.

California is nothing if not an experiment the wealthy perform on everyone else. And I was so ready to buy Scott a beer…

*Bart Housing illustration by Alfred Twu

The Over/Under

Who cleans the floors?

“The Over/Under in Monterey is $150,000”, announces Reese Witherspoon in Big Little Lies, while driving from her beachfront house to a school cleansed of non-white children. By Monterey, she means Carmel.

Nobody works in Big Little Lies, except for Laura Dern, who does something in finance. Axiomatically she is the villain.  People manage to live without exertion in a world of wall-sized refrigerators, walk in closets with backlit three-tiered shoe racks, and terraced lots descending to the sand.  Because, $150,000.

He designs websites, she does community theater
He designs websites, or something

No, seriously. This is the number HBO inserted into the script for American consumption: see, this is how we live in California. P.S., everyone here is white.   (Except for Zoe Kravitz, who is there to provide Otter Bay elementary with a single mixed race child and a deus ex machina plot device)  Apparently Reese’s husband manages to support the immense architecture of her life doing digital piecework, part time, in the living room, I kid you not.

Being Poor, HBO-style
The Poor, HBO-style

There is no class struggle on HBO.   There is a single mother character, Jane, who is seen, briefly, soliciting bookkeeping work for a local coffee house (again, piecework) but we never discover whether she gets the gig. She’s altogether indifferent to money because she’s contending with issues from her past, which trumps any need to pay bills. We know she’s “poor” because she’s consigned to live in a Craftsman bungalow without landscaping.

Her parlous state does not prove inhibitive to friendships with women who could park her entire house inside their family room, and elicits not the slightest glimmer of envy of her part, (nor condescension on theirs) when she enters their lives.

So if no one is working, how does anything get done?

hattie-mcdaniel-38433-1-402

Hattie McDaniel, really?  Oh c’mon, that’s not the world we’re living in any more.   Too far. 

53-41138-alice-on-brady-bunch-getty-1493740719

No? Okay, how about her?  This make you feel more comfortable?

Coastal California runs on Third World labor, full stop. For every canyon-tucked, cliffside household a small army of floor scrubbers, hedge-trimmers, diaper-changers, maintenance people and tradesmen emerge from their dingbat apartments, climb into their beater cars and make the long schlep from distant communities to Brentwood and Carmel.  Miraculously, they leave no carbon footprint on anyone’s ledger, least of all Mamacita’s.

Not a single Latino appears in Big Little Lies, which is set in Monterey County, which is 55% Latino.

Look to any Bette Davis-era drawing room drama, and you see thankless Mammy/servant roles filling in the background, mute, but for demeaning dialogue, but nevertheless present in the frame.    Old Hollywood in its most propagandistic depictions of American life was not so far gone it dared deny the existence of working class people and their place in the structure of things.

When you do a Google search for “maids, Monterey” you get images like this:

Maid woman with cleaning tools.

And this:

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None dare call them servants.  Our liberal self-conception precludes it. We’d rather think of them as animated pictograms or portrayed by white models than glimpse a truthful mirror which suggests California is moving closer to Jackson, Mississippi, 1964…

Spencer1

…but with none of the noblesse oblige of that earlier time.

Reciprocal obligations in millennial California take comical forms. Reese Witherspoon’s teenage daughter threatens to auction her virginity on the internet to raise money for exploited women around the world. Her parents counsel against this, but commend her for her social consciousness.

They don’t tell her to clean her room.