The Disappearing `Silver' State

TRY to erase from your thought the image of California as the Golden State. Think of it as the Silver State, a description I came to when deep tarnish began appearing in the state's ineluctable culture more than two decades ago.

As a metal, silver is extremely ductile and malleable. It is also a good conductor of heat and electricity. That's the California I know, malleable with lots of heat and electricity. Gold, despite its superstar status among metals, is in reality a low-skilled, over-rated, but handsome metal.

Gold is somebody else's California image.

Silver is my California.

But I digress. The point here is the disappearance of the Silver State. As a native son who loves his homeland unreasonably, I see its wonderous cultural quintessence being flattened and disfigured by the weight of current political, social, and ideological problems. For the moment put aside earthquakes, fires, and smog, all well-known bumps on the skin of California.

You had to be there in the mid 1950s to know why so many people wanted to be there. World War II had ended a few years earlier. California was a state of great physical beauty and soft weather. Agricultural bounty and investment possibilities were bursting everywhere. California was the culmination of the great westward movement of man, all the way to Shangri-La at the edge of the blue Pacific.

You could select your opportunity, like picking an orange from a tree. If you thought certain historical traditions weren't unassailable, if you thought snow was awful, if you dreamed sunny, golden dreams of the best possible life, then you came to California.

One morning in Duarte, the small town near Los Angeles where I lived part of my boyhood, I may have realized for the first time exactly why I was there.

My family lived on Route 66, then a four-lane, paved road that cut through the orange groves, past small businesses and tract housing that were appearing almost overnight.

Behind the Swedish restaurant my mother and father owned, my two brothers and I lived in four rooms. Next door was a motel with banana trees. Across the road and up a bit was tiny Dennett's Grocery.

It was close to 5 a.m. one summer morning on a Sunday. Just as the sun was putting a pink hue to the horizon, I whirled out of bed, drawn by the joy of youth, time, and place as sometimes hits nine year olds.

In my faded, seersucker pajamas, and on bare feet, I left the house through the back door. I circled quietly to the front, past the pepper trees where the restaurant faced Route 66.

North of Duarte was a range known as the San Gabriel Mountains, beautifully contoured, camel-colored, and spotted with green underbrush and trees. South was the spread of orange and lemon groves, disappearing by the acres as new housing went up rapidly. Here and there palm trees reached above everything else.

Smog had not yet become heavy in the Los Angeles Basin. On this morning, as the light on the horizon grew brighter, the night sky just above the light was becoming a pale blue, swiftly washing away the black. In minutes there was enough clear light to see the detail of anything.

I had overheard a conversation that the only time to see Route 66 without cars was early on a Sunday morning. I stood tentatively by the side of the restaurant, then ventured across the small, empty parking lot. The tops of the mountains were pink; soft whiffs of eucalyptus from nearby trees trailed in the air. The town of Duarte and the world beyond were still asleep.

At the gravely edge of 66, I looked both ways. To the west, I could see at least a mile to a flashing red signal at an intersection; to the east and down a slope, the road narrowed and turned right.

From horizon to horizon, not a car.

I hop-skipped to the center of the road, thrilled that I was there to witness the phenomenon of silence, openness, and the cool, glowing mystery of an early California morning. I spun around in the road, the black pavement cold on my feet.

How enormously I liked it, to be there, standing secretively in the center of California, realizing that 200 years ago someone may have stood here, and that 200 years from now someone could possibly be standing here. The promise around me was also a little peek at the promise within me.

I construct the scene now probably differently than it really was. In truth I was hoping not to get caught, or be seen, or heard. But for the flash of a moment I celebrated what California has done to people for several centuries, encourage the evidence of new possibilities.

Not that it's gone, it's just much, much harder to pull from the aggregate of what California has become.

There are two basic causes as to why California is struggling and battered. Too many people and too many cars. Simple as that. Together this demographic onslaught, and all resulting consequences, has squashed the old California, flattened its spirit, and befouled its air.

Before I moved to the East Coast from California five years ago, I drove down the coast from San Francisco to San Diego on what I described as a sentimental journey. I loved it.

Driving in and out of the urban jumbles of San Francisco, San Jose, Los Angeles, and San Diego, I experienced California's wonderful mess. Here you have the West Coast version of the way native New Yorkers feel about New York City; it's a wonderful mess.

Somewhere south of San Francisco and north of Los Angeles, I drove into a small coastal town which still had the feel of the California I knew, the Silver State at its best. For what it's worth, my guess is that I could rise early on a Sunday morning and stand in the middle of this town and not see cars in either direction.

Sorry, I'm not telling the name of the town.

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