09. June 2024 · Comments Off on California Dreaming · Categories: Ain't That America?, Domestic, Memoir

My daughter and I and Wee Jamie the Wonder Grandson had to make a flying visit out to California all last week. Family reasons – my mother asked to see the three of us. She is in her nineties, bedridden and failing; this was the first time that she had asked to see us. We knew it would be the last, so we dropped everything, packed Thing the Versa and hit the road on Memorial Day for the twenty-hour-long drive, rather dreading everything that we might encounter when we got there. Not just the personal – but dreading encounters with the progressively-inclined and everything else which has come about in the nearly half-century since I upped sticks and left California behind for the military and then retirement in Texas.

I grew up in California – a nice, normal 1950s and 60’s upbringing in an outlaying fringe suburb, backed up against the wall of the San Gabriel Mountains. The first house that my parents owned there was a hill-top bungalow built shortly after WWII. On a dirt road among similarly rural properties, we had a horse and a garden, walked to school, a row of olive trees in the back yard, and watched fireworks over Hansen Dam on the 4th of July. The second house was on a paved road, but with a view and a swimming pool, bountifully producing orange and lemon trees in the back yard. We visited the grandparents regularly, went to Cotillion, confirmation class, summer camp, and Scouts … Vietnam was ongoing, but Ronald Reagan was governor, and Tom Bradley was the mayor, so California then was a sane and well-organized place, with beautiful scenery that might range from desert palms to snow in the pines in the space of half a day’s drive. Temperate weather, bountiful farming country – growing everything from rice to dates to almonds and acres and acres of citrus fruit. There was a strong industrial element, too, along with an enviable public education system, and a state-of-the-art highway network. The nutbars, fruitcakes and relatively harmless eccentrics stayed or were kept away from the levers of power. Or so it seemed, then.

I went to the military for twenty years, then spent the following thirty in Texas – increasingly happy with the chance that deposited me there, after the Air Force.

My daughter went out every year by Amtrak to spell my sister and her family, so that they could take a vacation from overseeing Mom’s constant care. Last year, she took Wee Jamie (then aged two) to introduce to my brothers, sister and Mom. She returned from every visit with discouraging stories of homeless camps lining the streets downtown by Union Station and freeway overpasses, horrifying mountains of trash and graffiti disfiguring buildings and the railway sidings, and disintegrating highways. Last year it was a deranged woman in the doorway to the local neighborhood Ald1, screaming abuse at shoppers. It was also a comatose street person on the sidewalk by a thrift store. She curtailed a visit to that shop, since she had Wee Jamie with her, and didn’t want to risk a dangerous encounter with an obviously substance-addled individual. And of course, stories of California political and social dysfunction are almost a permanent feature in the alternate media which is my regular source of information, as well as countless stories of California residents departing in droves for practically anywhere else. I was expecting – and dreading the same and perhaps worse on this trip.

But no – my sister’s neighborhood was a placid, well-kept and to all appearances a stable and secure place. The streets are lined with mature trees, shading beautifully maintained cottages and small houses of every vintage from turn-of-the-last-century to mid-century post-war, lush with well-groomed gardens and hedges of sweet-olive and mock orange. (TV series often use this neighborhood for exterior location shoots, it is that attractive.) Rows of palm trees lined some streets, and the familiar silhouette of Mount Wilson loomed up on the horizon to the east. Rose bushes in bloom were everywhere – Pasadena calls their New Year’s festival the Rose Parade for a reason.

The homeless were nowhere in evidence, much to my daughter’s mild surprise. I walked Wee Jamie every morning, pushing the cheap Cocomelon-themed folding stroller that we keep in Thing’s trunk for emergencies. The weather was cool, in comparison to late May in Texas – no need for air conditioning and closed windows and doors. We went to the LA County Arboretum with Jamie, admiring the flowers, the Queen Anne cottage, Lucky Baldwin’s bespoke stable, and the peacocks, who were in mating season, and in full voice. There were volunteers at the Arboretum, dead-heading the roses, and a well-mannered class of high-school kids from a private school, appreciating a morning of freedom from routine. We went to a nearby up-scale mall, let Jamie into the play area and let him run around with the other littles for a bit, bought lunch in the food court… the mall had about as many shoppers as one could expect at a mid-day mid-week, and there were no vacancies along the shop fronts. And it all was … good. I talked now and again with people that I met; an elderly gentleman walking his German shepherd dog, the expatriate Englishwoman tending her lovely garden at the front of a pair of cottages on a deep lot (as was the custom in that part of Pasadena – stacking two houses on a deep lot), the young woman walking her baby son in another stroller. We had one of those weird heart-to-heart conversations, in which she confessed that she and her husband really didn’t want to raise their little son there – but they had family close by and depended on them … and I looked around and realized that for most people in a comfortable situation, in a prosperous neighborhood, close to kin and friends… it’s all good.

It’s lotus-land. For now. Maybe it will continue being OK. For now.

Comments closed.