There are three animals to welcome me home to California: the ants, the grasshoppers and the mockingbirds. To meet them, you walk past the traffic walls to the trash desert. There’s a shortcut to RiteAid across the army-colored dirt, trails scuffed out between the Australian-colored scrub with the Safeway bags snagged on it.
Way off there, over the Fort Apache fences protecting the houses, you can see the real mountains, with a few dirty scraps of leftover snow. There ought to be nothing sadder than those few gullies of snow, but in the interim I’ve been cold and I don’t, can’t love the snow the way I did growing up here. I appreciate the warmth of the ground, could all but lie down in the warm khaki gravel where the ants have their many bloodthirsty Mayan cities.
These are huge ants, not the meek Cantonese ants I remember. These are scary fast long-legged soldiers of the city-state. When you walk to RiteAid late in the day, with the sun low, they actually cast long-legged shadows on the dirt like gunfighters in a Western poster. They jerk left, jerk right, at the wide cave entrances to their burrows, daring any varmint to trespass. Some of those burrows you could put your hand in, if you were stupid. Each one has a dike of excavated dirt around it, and off to the side a pile of tiny ant lumber salvaged from the tunnels: piles of tiny straws and woodscraps. They’re more optimistic than Mormons; it’s programmed. Always Morning in America for the ants.
The ravens take a more jaundiced view, from up on the fences and the roofs. One followed me yesterday as I went to get tea, flapping its magnificent black robe around my head and objecting to everything. I told it we were in the same business; that gave it something to think about and it perched with a few last grumbles and let me go. They have beautiful carved upper beaks, thick and whittled down to clap shut right at the end, roman-nosed black horn. There’s a dead one on the path, some kid’s lucky shot with a BB or .22, lying on its back with its wings half open, ready to serve as a standard for any Central European tribe with a death wish.
It’s the same news for me from the ants and the ravens: we’re bigger and tougher than when you were here. You better see that, take your place down in the strata there. Your little coolie ants are rubbed out, your sitcom songbirds are classic pop nostalgia. We rule.
I agree with them. I always was on their side, knew they’d be here. I knew the gentle hippie animals were doomed, even back then. So when the black pit bull halfway to RiteAid jumps head and shoulders over its fence to say hello, I’ll kill you, I approve–as long as it merely makes the point, rather than actually demonstrating it. Every dog here is a pit bull or a Paris Hilton car/lap toy. Everything has been on Darwin steroids, squeezed into pure UFC thug or twinkie. The old lab mix has gone the way of that middle class they talk about.
Is that sad? For the labs, maybe (though maybe not); for the pit bulls, no. For the Paris Hilton dogs, I don’t know; they’re outside my jurisdiction. What’s sad for any dog is that the days of wandering are over. You don’t see strays. Every dog barks in its own yard, like the proverb.
The yards are a joke when you see your first: ten square meters of Iraq-camo dirt fenced off with six-foot popsicle sticks against the incursion of the next yard. An air conditioning tower about the size of a cotton bale–the only thing that makes this place inhabitable.
After a few days though, your sense of scale adjusts. It makes as much, which is to say ‘as little’ sense as any other world. More than some, more than Quakers or Atlanta. Business as human-usual: vast armies of determined delusives are grinding out mythic childhoods here, as they were in Pleasant Hill in my day. It’s easy to imagine a world-weary Connecticut aesthete stuck in Pleasant Hill circa 1966–maybe his Lincoln blew a fan belt getting out of SF–smoking a fastidious cigarette to dispel the stink of hot motor oil at a gas station, his gorge rising at these tract homes plunked down on the hot dirt, sneering at the low-born filth living their avid, tastless lives here. But that world was Middle Earth and last stands on the walls of Constantinople, Jimi Hendrix and the Walnut Festival. So I have no doubt that the makings are here too; in fact, the makings are bigger and more dire than ours.
The gentler totems seem to be very discreet. The mockingbird, the comic of the suburbs, stays out of the ravens’ way. Those big black bowie-knife beaks would make a salad of the class clown. I’ve seen a few mockingbirds swooping from scrub to scrub, the white eyes opening on their spread wings, but the only time I’ve heard one perform was lying in bed, awake before dawn. The mocker must have found someplace safe, or maybe ravens get up late because it was doing a pre-breakfast show: “And now, let’s see if you recognize this…yes, our friend the song sparrow. And now those lazy thugs the ravens (gross parody of raven squawk)…” Then out of nowhere this disembodied bird came up with the skirl of a redwinged blackbird, the most wonderful of all the suburban birds. But where would you find one around here? The only water is in an armored, off-limits canal. Maybe it was passed down, through generations of mockingbird campfires, a memory of some softer time when old ladies watered their yards and the blackbirds skirled the sweet bagpipes on their wings.
There are signs this used to be a moister, softer world. There’s a donut place down the strip mall from RiteAid, closed now but you can see they meant it to be a nice civilized place with newspaper racks outside, a place to sit for a while: “I Heart Donuts.” I guess not enough people did. The only place to eat now is Jack in the Box.
The liquor store is popping. Two big fat Syrian brothers behind the counter. They’ve chosen to specialize: one, the bigger fatter one, speaks gross street Spanish. The big fat tough Mexican guys in the giant trucks come in and yell out to him, “Pinchy Gordo!” And he spews back, and they really seem to like each other. The other brother mutters in English, “I don’t know what he’s talkin’ about”–solidarity with the Anglophone rump.
Race doesn’t seem to be the pure, simple focus of terror and hate it was in the Bay Area in the hippe days. White is a curiosity, the color of old people. Maybe there are wars between the Hispanics and the blacks, I don’t know, but it doesn’t seem like that. It’s more like some Hollywood director wants to stage it that way and the locals aren’t going for it. That’s what it felt like when we wandered past a thriller-style confrontation between three Mexican kids coming off a dirt track just in time to run into three black kids coming down the avenue. You could all but hear the suspense soundtrack building, until they intersected and yelled some friendly nonsense to each other and scuffed on away.
And when I saw the half-dozen skateboarders on the corner, cutting me off from access to my beloved dirt path to RiteAid, it was the fact that they were male adolescents with a skate ramp that scared me, not that they were black. They looked at me in a businesslike sidelong way–no adolescent is going to give away a straight look–and one said “homebake, homebake,” which I can only guess is the name of some lowgrade mood enhancer, or perhaps a polite term of abuse for old bald white losers so poor they have to walk. It didn’t have the old Oakland Zebra seethe to it.
The only sorrow was that when I was safely past and trying to calm my heartbeat, staring at the ants, I remembered that this is why I got interested in the ground in the first place, in the ants and the grasshoppers that flew like dirt boomerangs off on gray tangents as I passed: because of the terror of the skateboarders, white ones in those days, waiting on the corner. But I was eight back then; that was a pretty good excuse. I’m fifty-three now, back home and still frightenedly staring at the ants. Nothing learned, falling down a cliff with the occasional flicker of delight at the fauna-strata on the way.
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