Gates Close at Dusk

At about dusk, I close two large metal gates to my driveways. The security lights come on, and I enjoy intramural life. I am not protecting my dogs from coyotes, although there are many in the vineyard, but rather the farmhouse from the odd array of visitors, the lost, and criminals that can make up the now normal nighttime world of central California. If you doubt me, just peruse the Fresno Bee for the sort of things that occur nightly.

From the past year I offer the following catalogue of those who have visited the farm from dusk to dawn outside the walls: A half-dozen noble caballeros riding down the road on magnificent steeds, outfitted in satin and silver with majestic sombreros, who unfortunately timed their ride a bit late and found themselves in the dark, and in need of stables (my lawn had to do). Some female text-messagers sitting in the car presumably giving directions to thieves — perhaps those who on three occasions last year stole copper wire from pumps. A decent enough soul, presumably from Mexico, broke and out of gas, who spoke neither English nor Spanish; a would-be “scavenger” who had all sorts of stolen items in his new truck, seeking cash customers for his wares; and dozens more. A sort of California Canterbury Tales of nocturnal pilgrims, interesting in retrospect, a bit scarifying at 11 p.m. honking or yelling at the closed gate. Sorry, folks, the compound gates close at 9 p.m.

The surrounding landscape was once a checkerboard of small 60-200 acre family farms. The house I live in never had a lock for its seven outside doors. Weeknights were spent in local get-togethers — the Walnut Improvement Club, Eastern Star, the Odd Fellows, the Masons, the Grange, Farm Bureau — exotic names long gone with the breezes. In most cases, the children of the neighboring dead yeomen have long left, and the parcels conglomerated by larger corporations or purchased by absentee owners, or leased. The old farmhouses are mostly rented out to immigrants. Agriculture is booming; but farming is long dead. The land grows food as never before, but no longer families.

The Feudal Pyramid

A medieval society can be defined in a variety of ways. In terms of class, there is more a pyramidal culture. A vast peasantry sits below an elite of clergy and lords above — but with little or no independent middle class in-between.

I think California is getting there quickly — with the U.S. soon to follow.

For our version of the clergy, think public employees, whose salary and benefits are anywhere from 30-40% higher than their counterparts in the private sector. In California, the security guard in the symphony parking lot makes minimum wage and has no pension, even as he faces as much danger as his counterpart in the state police. And like medieval churchmen, our public-employee clergy positions are often nepotic. Families focus on getting the next generation a coveted spot at the DMV, the county assessor’s office, or the local high school. Like the vast tax-free estate of the clergy that both nearly broke feudalism and yet was beyond reproach, so too California’s half-trillion-dollar unfunded pensions and bond liabilities are considered sacrosanct. To question the pay or the performance of a California teacher or prison guard is to win the same scorn that was once earned from ridiculing the local friar. If suggesting that the man of god who was too rotund as a result of living freely on his tax-exempt church land was worthy of stoning, then so too suggesting that our teachers or highway-patrol officers are paid incommensurately with the quality of students in our schools or the safety on our roads is likewise politically incorrect right-wing heresy.

The aristocracy is, of course, our coastal elite, the five or six million high earners who live near the Pacific Ocean from the Bay Area to San Diego. They are more likely to administer both our inherited and natural wealth, symbolized by everything from top universities, Hollywood, and state government to Silicon Valley, Napa Valley, and California finance and natural resources. Their children, if industrious and motivated, are prepped at Stanford and Berkeley, interned at proper law firms and government bureaus, and usually inherit enough of their patrimony and early enough to afford the $1,000 per square foot price that a Newport or Atherton keep costs — along with its flocks of attendant nannies, gardeners, neighborhood security guards, and maintenance people.