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California dreamin'; the trip West freed my father from the constraints of class and custom.

The trip West freed my father from the constraints of class and custom. James Fallows, a contributing editor of The Washington Monthly, reports for The Atlantic from Yokohama, Japan. This article is adapted from his book More Like Us: An American Plan for American Recovery to be published by Houghton Mifflin Co., Boston. (c)1988 by James Follows. Reprinted with permission.

In the summer of 1955, my father took the Greyhound bus from the East Coast to Michigan to buy a new can He went to the main Ford factory, in Dearborn, and put down $1,800 in cash. He left in a cream-colored Mercury station wagon with wood-look side panels and a streamlined modern shape. Then he drove nonstop back to Philadelphia, where we were waiting for him.

I was five years old that summer, impatient to turn six. There were reports that an antipolio vaccine was almost ready, available any week now. But it hadn't come out, and my mother was always sticking my arms into sweaters on summer evenings, bundling me and my sister and brother in towels the instant we stepped out of our wading pool, waiting and praying for the summer polio season to be over. I was sitting on the porch steps of my grandmother's house, kicking my feet back and forth, listening to my mother and grandmother reassure each other about the fever I'd just had-"I'm sure it's nothing"-when my father appeared, in the car, at the end of the street.

The new car was barely visible through the thick summer foliage of the trees, but as it came into view it looked impossibly glamorous. When he came to the curb I ran out to greet him, he swung me up over his head and back down to the ground, and my sister and I hung onto his hands as we walked into the house. My father had just turned 30, my mother was 27, and they were about to take their three small children off to start a new life.

By now I recognize that the essentials of our story look entirely cliched: upward mobility, a family that suffered reverses during the Depression, the postwar trek west. That they are cliched is the point: my family's story is directly connected to the classic pattern of American mobility.

People are so used to hearing that America is an "open" and "mobile" society that it can be hard to take these concepts seriously, or to imagine that openness really makes a difference in how America functions. But in fact, the constant possibility of changing your luck and starting your life over is the trait that makes America most different from other societies, especially from today's workhorse competitors around the Pacific Rim. Japan has succeeded by organizing people to do their best. Its society is strongest when everyone knows his proper place. America is strongest when people do not know their proper place and feel free to invent new roles for themselves. Other societies have ways of holding themselves together that America will always lack-most of all, the sense ofracial unity that is so pronounced in Japan and Korea and so inconceivable in the United States. Our unique advantage has been the ability to get surprising results from ordinary people by putting them in situations where old rules and limits don't apply. That's the meaning of immigration, of the frontier, of leaving the farm for the big city, of going to college or night school to make a new start. If Americans lose that sense of possibility and believe that they belong in predictable, limited, class-bound roles, we will have given up what makes us special. We'll have lost the quality that allowed this untraditional society, made of people from all over the world, to work together and flourish. The importance of American mobility is no mere abstraction to me. It's the meaning of my family's life.

The Old World

After we'd settled in California, my mother always acted as if she'd come from some sort of dignified eastern background, but she'd had a very hard life as a child. Her father, Joseph Mackenzie, owned and managed a small ceramics works in New Jersey, not far from the sign that still says TRENTON MAKES, THE WORLD TAKES. One of her uncles ran a small steel plant, producing its exclusive "Mackenite Metal." One of her maiden aunts was a schoolteacher who had been to France in the 1930s, had a grand piano in her apartment, became a naive fellow-traveler of the Communist party, and always tried to set an example of the high-toned life. My mother's father had graduated from Brown and was a dashing, handsome figure. But he was killed in a car crash in 1930 when he was 29 and my mother was 3. The family business suffered, and my mother was farmed out to relatives and shuffled around from house to house while she grew up. Her mother went through two unhappy marriages and fed the family during the Depression by selling the Volume Library, encyclopedia door to door. It took a hard-nosed character to talk people into laying out money for encyclopedias during the 1930s. My grandmother thrived in the work and retained her toughness long after the Depression ended. All the children in the family eventually went to college. My mother did well on a competitive examination and won a scholarship to Jackson College, the women's affiliate of Tufts. Both of her brothers finished graduate school, one becoming a veterinarian and the other a successful businessman.

My father's relatives had fewer pretentions but weathered the Depression better The English branch of the family had come from Lancashire to Pennsylvania sometime in the 19th century, and the German branch-my father's mother and her family-had come over just before World War 1. All the relatives lived in the staid suburbs north and west of Philadelphia: Jenkintown, Wyncote, Abington, Willow Grove. My father's grandfather, Josiah Fallows, was a railroad engineer who stayed aboard a locomotive that had been mistracked onto a collision course with a passenger train. He directed the locomotive off the tracks and saved the passengers' lives but not his own. Josiah was the family hero.

His other grandfather, whose last name was Hoerr, opened a restaurant and acquired rental houses soon after arriving from Germany. He prospered, but during the first World War, his daughter-my father's mother-was heckled about her German name and her father's presumed Hun loyalties. That bothered her deeply, in part because she had already become pious; through the rest of her life, she tried hard to set an example of upright, community-minded behavior. In the last conversations I had with her, when she was nearly 90, I had to lie and reassure her that, yes, my wife and I were now raising our children according to all the rock-ribbed, fundamentalist values she believed in.

She married my grandfather when he returned from Tank Corps service in France. He went to work for the Atlantic Refining Company, the predecessor of today's ARCO, becoming a sales representative, and they made it through the Depression more or less undisturbed.

Most of my parents' friends from childhood seemed happy with the life in Pennsylvania, or at least didn't plan to abandon it. On a visit to my grandmother in the 1970s, I saw an item in the paper saying that Pennsylvania led the states in the percentage of current population who'd been born in the state. That is, not many people left, and even fewer moved in. That was certainly the way my parents' hometown looked to me. Most of their grade-school friends were still in the vicinity; so were their children, and so were nearly all of my relatives.

A healthy evasion

My parents were sprung loose by the aftereffects of World War 11. My father's older brother left college to serve in the Army engineers during the Battle of the Bulge and then came home to graduate. My father was in high school until 1943 and then went into the Navy's V-12 program, a kind of wartime ROTC that emphasized medical and scientific training. Through the V-12, the Navy offered him a two-year crash course in college-level sciences in return for years of service afterward as a military doctor. He went to Ursinus College in Pennsylvania, usually noticed by the outside world only during college football season, when the Ursinus-vs.-Slippery Rock score was a dependable joke item. The Navy sent him to Harvard Medical School for six months when the war ended, then his father supported him through the next three-and-a-half years. He rejoined the V-12 when the Korean war started, and was sent on six-month or one-year Navy postings to Maryland, Mississippi, California, and finally back to Pennsylvania when he was mustered out of the service. He and my mother were married while he was still in medical school, with half-a-dozen years of Navy duty ahead of him. I was born a year later, one month before my mother turned 22. By the time my mother was 25, she had three children.

Because my father doesn't like speculative conversation , I've never asked him about it directly, but I have always believed that the trip we made in 1955, across the country to our new home in California, was the crucial event in his life. Becoming a doctor, which the war made possible, eventually gave him more financial freedom than anybody else in his family. But the simple change of scene, which took him away from his roots, seemed to provide a more important, more sweeping kind of freedom.

Southern Californians spend a lot of time congratulating themselves on the good weather From September through May each year, the local TV news usually shows film clips of blizzards in Chicago or floods in Tennessee to remind the viewers of how lucky they are to look forward to another sunny day, high in the 80s. During the two-week buildup to each year's Rose Bowl game, California's weather schadenfreude gets entirely out of control, The visiting Big Ten team is always from some ice-bound Siberia of the Midwest, so the Los Angeles Times runs feature after feature about the Ohio farm boys or Detroit urban toughs who are amazed to be sitting outside in shorts on Christmas day.

I'm sure this attitude seems childish to outsiders, and it is; but it also reflects something deep in the culture that is not so absurd. When you live without a winter, you give up the timeless rhythm of the seasons and similar qualities that Easterners think they value, but you gain freedom. You don't have to put up the storm windows or get out the heavy clothes or dig out from the fall leaves or put away your basketball and tennis racket or stop doing what you want just because the seasons have changed. You are freer simply because decisions that were previously nature's to make are now yours. Because I could barely remember what a winter with snow was like, I never felt the difference as passionately as my father did, at least not until I went East to college. But I remember how cheerful he .was when he headed out to ride his bicycle or play tennis or drive his showy white Ford convertible with the top down in January. It was a fantasy life, an evasion of reality, but in a healthy, invigorating way. My father, like many other people who'd come to California, felt that he had more months of each year, and therefore more years in his life, to use as he chose.

New arrivals, like my father, paid such attention to the weather because it stood for many other kinds of freedom they felt that they'd found in California. People who'd been born and raised there didn't go on and on about the climate; they took it for granted. I know that hard-boiled New Yorkers often view the balmy California weather, and the Californians' obsession with the weather, as signs that West Coast life is soft at the core. Maybe they're right about some of the natives, but I think that people like my father, who'd deliberately come to California, never felt for a moment that the gentle climate was an excuse to slack off. It let him do more, not less, and in that way it represented the general license he'd earned, by moving west, to invent a new life for himself.

'Hard a-lee!'

I keep saying "my father" because he was responsible for the move, back in those days of one-career families, and because my mother always had more complicated feelings about leaving the East. On the last leg of our five-day, cross-country drive in the station wagon, the three children constantly squabbling and everyone red-faced from the 100-degree heat of the Mojave desert, we roared along Route 66 to the town of Redlands, which was henceforth to be our home. The town, which then had about 20,000 people and has grown now to more than 50,000 (because stories like ours keep being repeated), lies on the edge of the desert, at the foot of imposing mountains that keep rain clouds, such as they are, from moving further inland. Compared to other nearby towns, like Fontana and San Bernardino, Redlands considered itself elegant, since wealthy eastern asthmatics and tuberculars had moved there at the turn of the century and built a few grand houses and planted stately trees. In those days the city's principal business was orangegrowing, and as we drove in we passed row after row of lovely, glossily dark-leaved trees. But the greenery was strictly confined to irrigated areas. This was still the desert's edge, where six months can pass without any rain, where without irrigation nothing but thorns and cactus will grow.

On the outskirts of Redlands, the car rolled across a "wash," a sandy river bed a hundred yards wide that for two or three weeks each decade holds a river. When my mother looked at the blasted grey hillsides and the tumbleweed growth, she thought of Philadelphia's lush Wissahickon Drive, and she broke into tears. That was more than 30 years ago, but when people ask where she is from, she still says "Philadelphia." She found the most East Coast-like house in town and made it look like something from Chestnut Hill. She kept the shutters closed, filled the house with antique furniture, and always dressed in heavy tweeds and scarves once my parents could afford to have the house air-conditioned, which was after I moved away.

That is, my mother did not value the "freedom" of California as highly as my father did, at least not consciously. On the freedom-versus-tradition issue my heart was with my father. To my mother, moving to California from Philadelphia meant saying goodbye to the old houses and the leafy parks and the established social gradations whose complexities made life so interesting. To him it meant escaping claustrophobic seaings and their offer of a predictable life: the regular canasta games, the neighborhood church, the long Sunday afternoons in some aged aunt's parlor, the summer trips to the Poconos or the Jersey Shore. When he was about to leave the Navy, my father asked doctors in Jenkintown and on the Main Line about setting up practice there. Fine-but not right here, was the regular answer The doctors in California hadn't discouraged him. They planned to grow, there was room.

As it happened, my father re-created many rituals similar to those he left behind-the regular poker game, the Redlands Rotary Club, the summer trips to Newport Beach. But they were rituals he'd chosen himself, rather than just fallen into, which made them seem (at least to me, interpreting his feelings) less confining. And they didn't take up much of his life, whereas the church and the Rotary Club had been the twin pillars of his father's life in Jenkintown. Outside work, in the early morning and late into the night, my father acted as if there was no established niche into which he was supposed to fit, no limit imposed by his background. Because of his rushed war-time education, he'd never taken a college course in liberal arts. He decided to remedy that: for a year or two he studied Greek early in the morning, then Hebrew, then a systematic empireby-empire course in ancient history, then Shakespeare. When I was in fourth or fifth grade he'd make me get up with him at 6 a.m. and watch "Sunrise Semester" lessons in calculus or Greek. Before my sister and brother and I went to bed, he'd line us up on the couch and take us through the latest set of plates in the Metropolitan Museum's "Introduction to Art" series. To people in New York, who'd actually 'seen paintings in the Met, this might have looked hopelessly mass-cult. To my father, it was what books were for. He and my mother made their first trip overseas in the early 1970s and visited my sister on her junior-year-abroad in France. My mother, who had studied French, had the educatedAmerican's proper diffidence about her flawed accent. My father plunged right ahead, phrase book in hand, putting sentences together mechanically and making huffy Frenchmen tell him what he wanted to know. When I was 13, he took me and my brother sailing, without informing us he didn't know how. He rented a 16-foot sloop, put us in the bow, and sat at the tiller, "Beginner's Guide to Sailing" open on his lap. "Ready to come about," he'd read from page 39. Then he'd flip to page 40, push the tiller, and read, "Hard a-lee!" He wanted to become a sculptor, took lessons, and eventually displayed his work in a show. He had never been on a horse before age 40 but became captain of a horseback searchand-rescue team by the time he was 50. He couldn't be abashed by anyone who was supposed to be an intellectual or upper-class because he thought he could learn to do anything if he tried. He was the original autodidact.

When I was growing up in Redlands, I'd hear people talking quite sincerely about th"Good Life" in California. Since the time I went away to college, I've heard the phrase used only facetiously. I'm aware of all the reasons for skepticism about California or America's Good Life. But I don't use the terms mockingly myself, because I know what the sense of wide-open possibility meant to my father.

In talking about possibility, I'm mainly trying to describe an idea, not a place. True, there are some objective differences between California and Pennsylvania, between the West Coast and the East, that affect their openness to new people with new plans. It's been a long time since anyone thought of Pennsylvania as part of the American frontier or talked about the "Pennsylvania Dream." The weather is different, the ethnic balance is different, the public/private balance is different. Many of the prettiest places in California and the rest of the West are public, open to anyone-beaches, mountains, lakes, redwood forests, houses designed to be seen from the street. None or next-to-none of the coastline is carved up into the private beach clubs that are more common in the East.

The inland empire

Still, what I want to emphasize is the change in my father's heart, not the physical surroundings. He felt much freer after our family moved west, and he lived a fuller life than he thought would be open to him if he'd stayed at home. (Other people have sought the same opening-up through a move in the opposite direction. The big city, east or west, has always been the promised land of opportunity for people stifled in small towns. As adults, one sister settled in Boston, I in Washington, my brother in New York. For what each of uswanted to do, the old, crowded, cast coast cities offered more opportunity and freedom than California did. Even my youngest sister, born after the move to California, ended up in San Francisco, the most traditional, staid pan of the state.)

In moving to California, then, my parents revealed a little about the West Coast and something more about themselves. But they also illustrated the American characteristic that has applied in all regions of the country and through our history. That is the belief that people can learn to do things they've never done, can take on identities they've never had, can will themselves into stations in life different from where they were born.

When this side of our national character is discussed in university courses or literary essays, the representative self-defined man is usually someone like Jay Gatsby. I am not trying to praise Gatsby, or Ivan Boesky (who used to brag that he slept only four hours per night and used the extra time to become a Shakespeare expert), or John DeLorean, or Sammy Glick, or anyone else who pretends to be something he is not. Driving to a new state or learning a new activity is not, by itself, a solution to any problem. But I know that my parents' life was transformed when they put themselves in a differnt setting and learned that they had new choices. Even my mother now concedes that she is glad they came west.

I lived for only 11 years in California. I left for college in 1966 and have never been back except to visit my parents. But I still say I am "from Southern California," and I believe it, because moving there was the decisive experience in my family's life and in my sense of how people could change their luck.

And there was something different about the place itself, which made it more 'American" in the sense of encouraging opportunity.

Ten years after my family migrated, the writer Joan Didion, whose family had been in the Central Valley of California for several generations, described the same landscape my parents found. In one of the famous magazine pieces she was writing in the 1960s, she had this to say about Redlands and the similar, nearby towns of the San Bernardino Valley, which the Chamber of Commerce preferred to call the "Inland Empire":

"The San Bernardino Valley lies only an hour east of Los Angeles by the San Bernardino Freeway but is in certain ways an alien place: not the coastal California of the subtropical twilights and the soft westerlies off the Pacific but a harsher California, haunted by the Moj ave just beyond the mountains, devastated by the hot dry Santa Ana wind that comes down through the passes at 100 miles an hour and whines through the eucalyptus windbreaks and works on the nerves. October is the bad month for the wind, the month when breathing is difficult and the hills blaze up spontaneously. There has been no rain since April. Every voice seems a scream."

That was the lead paragraph in her article in the Saturday Evening Post. When I first read it, as a stillactive Boy Scout and civic-minded student at Redlands High School, I told myself- "She's just criticizing the scenery. I can stand this." (She did have a point about the winds. When they were bad they would reach beyond the parched San Bernardino Valley toward the coastline, and there they would destroy like a blast from Hell. Still, I thought, this Miss Didion sounded unnecessarily high-strung.)

Then I read further and found the parts that hurt. She described the people who'd moved to the valley and what they found when they got there:

"The Mormons settled this ominous country, and then they abandoned it, but by the time they left, the first orange tree had been planted, and for the next hundred years the San Bernardino Valley would draw a kind of people who imagined they might live among the talismanic fruit and prosper in the dry air, people who brought with them midwestern ways of building and cooking and praying, and who tried to graft those ways upon the land. The graft took in curious ways. . . .This is the California where it is easy to Dial-a-Devotion but hard to buy a book. This is the country in which a belief in the literal interpretation of Genesis has slipped imperceptibly into a belief in the literal interpretation of Double Indemnity, the country of the teased hair and the Capris and the girls for whom all life's promise comes down to a waltz-length white wedding dress and the birth of a Kimberley or Sherri or Debbi and a Tijuana divorce and a return to hairdressers' school. . . .The future always looks good in the golden land, because no one remembers the past. Here is where the hot wind blows and the old ways do not seem relevant, where the divorce rate is double the national average and where one person in every 38 lives in a trailer. Here is the last stop for all those who came from somewhere else, for all those who drifted away from the cold and the past and the old ways. Here is where they are trying to find a new life style, trying to find it in the only places they know to look: the movies and the newspapers ."

I knew how attractive this part of Southern California seemed to people like us, who had come precisely in hope of drifting away from the cold and the past and the old ways. Reading this article, so much more caustic than anything I remembered seeing in the Saturday Evening Post, was the first step toward understanding how our life might look from the outside.

Years later, I was ready to concede that Didion might have been right about some of the things she mocked. But I was also ready to make a larger defense of the starting-over life that people like my parents had made for themselves. There was a side to the no-tradition, no-taste Southern California culture that was not contemptible-that was even magnificent-because it went a long way toward freeing people of the constraints of class.

Blue Milk and Harvard Yard

I had a lot of occasions to wonder about the effects of my Southern California background in the months after Didion's article appeared, because I was heading off to college, at Harvard. I had gotten to Harvard the same way my mother got to Tufts and my father got into the Navy's doctor-training program: by scoring well on standardized tests that let me measure up against people from more impressive-seeming schools. I also had the "advantage" of coming from a small, out-of-the-way town on the West Coast, which added to the freshman class's geographical mix. It's easy to overestimate how much of an advantage the small-town background really is. It is a milder version of being black in the era of affirmative action: other things being equal, it gives you an edge, but usually you never reach the point where other things are equal.

At college I soon discovered that things really weren't equal. Despite my father's contagious, selfdirected scholarship, I was more ignorant of more things than the hotshots I met from Groton and Dalton and Great Neck South. My high school had no advanced-placement courses; I'd never been out of the country, except to Tij uana; my parents got Scientific American and the Atlantic, but I'd never heard of the Partisan Review or the New York Review or even once read The New York Times.

In time I recovered. But, mainly because of the contrast between Redlands and Cambridge, I found myself trying to figure out what class I belonged to-and wondering why questions of class seemed so much more powerful in Massachusetts than California, The explanation for this preoccupation, I think, involved something more than the typical eagerness to theorize during the college years.

The class-placement question might not seem all that challenging. My father was a medical doctor; therefore, I was from the professional or uppermiddle class. Moreover, my mother had always pumped the children full of a sense of noblesse oblige that had no obvious basis in reality. "With privilege comes responsibility," she would say when my brother or I acted like the common folk by sneaking beer into a high school dance. Perhaps she was carried away by the near coincidenceof my birth and that of Prince Charles. Maybe she dreamed up a fancier-seeming heritage for the Mackenzie family to compensate for the real hardship in which she was raised. In any case it was an act of will, more than accurate social observation, to make us think we were among the privileged few.

Since I was born while my father still had internship and residency ahead of him, I absorbed the atmosphere of the scrimping early stage of medical training, which leaves many doctors, though not my father, feeling that they're entitled to rake in everything they can later on. When we made the cross-country drive, we ate sandwiches out of a big box. When my father went to medical meetings in San Francisco, he took a room in the YMCA. When we finally started buying milk from the milkman, it was a cause for celebration, which all the children cheered with heartless mockery. Until that point, when I was in fourth or fifth grade, my mother had mixed a vile, bluish, weak-flavored mixture from powdered milk, trying to convince us that if it was icy cold it tasted fine.

More important, before I went to college I really hadn't worried whether I was supposed to fit in at any particular level on the social pyramid. I was a teenager and had other things to worry about, but another reason was that the social environment in Redlands did not encourage such speculation.

I remember feeling as if I had crossed some permanent divide the afternoon I first showed up in Harvard Yard. It was not the change in my life that impressed me, it was the change in the surroundings. The narrow road that ran through the Yard was jammed with station wagons and big sedans, belonging to families who had driven their sons to college-like most students from the West Coast, I'd flown out by myself. The looks of the cars, the parents, even the gear being lugged into the dorms suddenly hinted at a vastly greater range of social stations than I'd even guessed existed. Lacrosse sticks, skis, and squash rackets came out of the trunks. Car windows, even then, bore stickers from prep schools. Fathers wearing sweaters and hornrimmed glasses showed their sons where they'd stayed as freshmen in the Yard, before the war. Mothers greeted friends they'd known for years, from private schools and summer clubs, speaking in accents I'd never heard.

It wasn't that I resented this whole, dense world in which I had no place. On the contrary, I had a perverse pride in what I started to think of as a logcabin upbringing. The surprise was how settled and permanent it all seemed, how comfortable these families appeared in their social station. Arrival at Harvard, which left me abashed, seemed part of their entitlement. Hope in a pink jump suit

This takes us back to Joan Didion. Much as it initially galled me to admit it, she had seen something important about the civilization of the Inland Empire. Her characters were pathetic, out of control, because they were carried away by fantasies of becoming something more glamorous than what they really were. They had thought that everything would be better when they drove to California from their midwestern farm town or dreary East Coast home. The central figure in her article was a woman who became caught up in a lurid love triangle, came to think that her husband would never be sufficiently successful, and got rid of him by planting a firebomb in his Volkswagen. Didion introduced her this way: "Of course she came from somewhere else, came off the prairie in search of something she had seen in a movie or heard on the radio, for this is a Southern California story'" (The murder trial was by far the most exciting public event of my childhood. The jury found her guilty.)

If the California dream always came true, the typical California story would be like Ronald Reagan's: midwestern boy comes west, escapes troubled childhood, finds happiness and success. But many times ale dream didn't come true, Didion said. She was not the first person to make this point-in fact, the California-migration school of literature is generally depressing. Consider The Grapes of Wrath, The Day of the Locust, The Postman Always Rings Twice, The Loved One. But Didion showed how hard it was for people to stop pretending, stop dreaming, face the reality of cramped, inelegant, lower-middle-class lives.

I found myself resisting her portrayal, but not because it was inaccurate. The flight from reality among first-generation Southern Californians could be even deeper than her article showed. The grocery stores were full of old ladies wearing rouge and pink jump suits and batting their eyes at the checkout boys, pretending they were still comely and 25. An elderly patient of my father's had made his house into a shrine to his accordion-playing career; the walls were covered with kinescope photos of his one appearance on the old Jack Paar show, and he kept talking about his big comeback that would happen any day now. One of my high-school classmates became a blackjack dealer in Las Vegas and tried to impress everybody at the tenth class reunion by saying that he knew Wayne Newton really well. In junior high school, the desire to slip the bonds of reality was so strong that several of my friends started a club, the members of which promised each other to emigrate to Australia when they were old enough. If things were going wrong even in California, where everything was supposed to be great but where race riots and crime waves kept breaking out, perhaps Australia was the last "unspoiled" place left.

But this escapist view had another side. Southern California would seem to have a higher proportion of dashed hopes than anyplace else in the country, since so many people were yearning for so much. But it has never been described as a depressed or downcast society, precisely because of the fantasies and impermanence that Didion described. You haven't lived Ronald Reagan's life so far, but your life isn't over-who knows what will happen tomorrow? There is always a chance of becoming someone different, finally getting the big break. Reagan himself seemed washed-up when he was in his late forties, when his movie career had peaked and he hadn't yet switched to politics. This, I think, was a part of Reagan's appeal rarely discussed but deeply felt. Even more than Jimmy Carter or Jesse Jackson, Reagan embodied die American promise of a second chance. His example was more impressive since he managed to start over so much later in life.

Precisely because everything and every role was so impermanent, people could avoid being discouraged by circumstances that would depress others. Things could always change. After returning to Los Angeles, a friend of mine from Boston said, "The difference is the car wash. The people could work there without feeling like they'd always work there, so they weren't so angry." Put just that way, it might sound as if he were reporting on oppressed-but-cheerful peasants, but I knew that he meant something more. A kinder term for selfdelusion is hope, and there was a hopefulness to the dreary small-town California life that taught many people to expect second and third chances-even if that meant going to Australia as, for our parents, it had once meant going to California.

The orange-packing plant

The idea of an impermanent social structure, in which people could keep trying out new identities, affected the way people carried themselves and dealt with one another. Life was fairer there, more democratic, than it would have been in a setting that taught people not to expect anything different. There were assorted status games and bouts of oneupmanship just like anyplace else, but most people could not display or use permanent marks of class, since nothing seemed to be permanent. Apart from those Mexican-Americans who had not learned standard English and a few very recent arrivals from Pennsylvania or the South, people's accents did not vary. You usually couldn't tell, just by listening or looking, who was going to college and who was going to work at the orange-packing plant,

Starting that first afternoon inHarvard Yard, I realized that in other places you could tell. You could see a stranger on the bus or in a coffeeshop, and the instant he opened his mouth you knew a lot about his life story In England, where I went to graduate school, the mouth itself was a giveaway, since, even as teenagers, working-class people had lost a lot of teeth. In Boston you could hear townie accents and "lockjaw" accents and tell someone's fortune without even seeing his face.

The leveling of manners, I still believe, made it easier for people in California to imagine that many possibilities were open to them. You could imagine that no one was so different from anyone else. In reality, people were different and had different chances, based mainly on family circumstance. It was always in the cards for the children in my family to go to college, and for some of my friends not to. But even the fiction of equality was useful. By encouraging people to behave as if everyone had a chance, this transient society gave more people more hope. Because it seemed more fair, it was more fair-not entirely open to talent and energy, but more than it would have been if people continually had their noses rubbed into the inborn differences in social standing.

I am not ignoring the ugly sides of this transient culture or defending them, in themselves. It is no accident that Southern California is the home of so many wacko religious cults and political movements. Cookie-cutter tract houses endless shopping malls lives centered on cars and suntans and MTV-these are not necessarily the ideal expressions of the human spirit.

What I do claim about these blemishes on my homeland's complexion is that they were closely connected to its most admirable trait-the sense of possibility-and that they are America's story in miniature.

California dreamin'

Outside descriptions of our society have usually stressed a mixture of good and bad similar to what I have tried to describe about Southern California. America has always been vulgar, untraditional, naive, short on refined culture and behavior (these parts to the bad); and (to the good) democratic in its manners, relatively unhampered by class distinctions like those in Europe, more optimistic, readier to change. The two sides, good and bad, were connected: the society was open to so many new people because it was relatively unaffected by tradition and the culture that was nursed by tradition. Or maybe the "because" worked the other way-in either case, openness and unculturedness bore a relation w each other. "America has a high standard of living of low average quality," the critic Paul Goodman wrote in Growing Up Absurd. That is, America leads the world in the proportion of people who can afford to own cars or get college degrees, but the average car on the street is newer and classier in Japan, and the average college graduate in England or Germany has been more rigorously educated. This kind of "democratic abundance" is part of America's industrial problem-the Japanese and Germans and Koreans, with lower overall production but higher quality piece by piece, have been overtaking us. But it also is part of this society's wonderful openness. America has always offered so much to so many because the cultural threshold has been low. Anyone could join in.

"Among democratic peoples new families continually rise from nothing while others fall, and nobody's position is quite stable," Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in Democracy in America. "The woof of time is broken and the track of past generations lost. Those who have gone before are easily forgotten, and no one gives a thought to those who will follow. . . .There is nothing of tradition, family feeling, or example to restrain them."

Not everyone has to like California, or want to move there. My mother never would have if she'd married someone else. But the open, changing spirit of its society was similar to what Tocqueville described. It is still what makes America go. "World Press Review offers a magical, painless operation for curingthe tunnel vision of those of us who read the newspapers of one city, watch the evening news of one network, and take in the magazines of our own country." --Alistair Cooke
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Title Annotation:excerpt from "More Like Us: An American Plan for American Recovery"
Author:Fallows, James
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Oct 1, 1988
Words:6815
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