Take the new high-speed rail project, whose first link is designated to zoom not far from my house. An empiricist would note there is already an Amtrak (money-losing) line from Fresno to Corcoran (home of Charles Manson). There is now no demand to use another lateral (getting nowhere more quickly?). There is no proof that California public agencies — from universities to the DMV — can fulfill their present responsibilities in such a way that we would have confidence that new unionized state workers could run such a dangerous thing as high-speed rail (e.g., if we can’t keep sofas and washing machines out of the local irrigation ponds, why do we think we could keep them off high-speed rail tracks? Do we think we are French?).
If one were to drive on the 99, the main interior north-south “highway” from the Grapevine to Sacramento, one would find places, like south of Kingsburg, where two poorly paved, potholed, and crowded lanes ensure lots of weekly accidents. Can a state that has not improved its ancestors’ highway in 50 years be entrusted to build high-speed mass transit? Can a state presently $16 billion in arrears be expected to finance a $100 billion new project? Can a state that ranks 48th in math field the necessary personnel to build and operate such a postmodern link?
We Are Scary
One of the strangest things about Road Warrior was the ubiquity of tattooed, skin-pierced tribal people with shaved heads and strange clothes. At least the cast and sets seemed shocking some thirty years ago. If I now sound like a reactionary then so be it: but when I go to the store, I expect to see not just the clientele, but often some of the workers, with “sleeves” — a sort of throwback to red-figure Athenian vase painting where the ink provides the background and the few patches of natural skin denote the silhouetted image. And stranger still is the aging Road Warrior: these are folks in their forties who years ago got pierced and tattooed and aged with their sagging tribal insignia, some of them now denoting defunct gangs and obsolete popular icons.
I am not naïve enough (as Horace’s laudator temporis acti ) to wish to return to the world of my grandfather (my aunt was crippled for life with polio, my grandmother hobbled with the scars and adhesions from an unoperated-on, ruptured appendix, my grandfather battled glaucoma each morning with vials of eye drops), when around 1960, in tie and straw hat, he escorted me to the barber. The latter trimmed my hair in his white smock and bowtie, calling me at eight years old Mr. Hanson.
Like Road Warrior, again, what frightens is this mish-mash of violence with foppish culture, of official platitudes and real-life chaos: the illiterate and supposedly impoverished nonetheless fishing through the discounted video game barrel at Wal-Mart; the much-heralded free public transit bus zooming around on electrical or natural gas power absolutely empty of riders, as the impoverished prefer their Camrys and Civics; ads encouraging new food stamp users as local fast-food franchises have lines of cars blocking traffic on the days when government cards are electronically recharged; the politician assuring us that California is preeminent as he hurries home to his Bay Area cocoon.
On the Frontier
I find myself insidiously adopting the Road Warrior survival code. Without any systematic design, I notice that in the last two years I have put a hand pump on my grandfather’s abandoned well in the yard and can pump fresh water without electricity. I put in an outdoor kitchen, tied into a 300-gallon propane tank, that can fuel a year of cooking. I am getting more dogs (all vaccinated and caged); for the first time in my life I inventoried all my ancestors’ guns in all the closets and found shotguns, deer rifles, .22s etc.
I have an extra used pickup I chose not to sell always gassed in the garage. For all sorts of scrapes and minor injuries, sprains, simple finger fractures, etc., I self-treat — anything to avoid going into the local emergency room (reader, you will too, when Obamacare kicks in). And the more I talk to neighbors, the more I notice that those who stayed around are sort of ready for our Road Warrior world. At night if I happen to hear Barack Obama on the news or read the latest communiqué from Jerry Brown, the world they pontificate about in no way resembles the world I see: not the freeways, not the medical system, not the educational establishment, not law enforcement, not the “diversity,” not anything.
Hope and Change
Yet I am confident of better days to come. Sometimes I dream of the booming agricultural export market. Sometimes hopes arise with reports of gargantuan new finds of gas and oil in California. At other times, it is news of closing borders, and some progress in the assimilation of our various tribes. Sometimes a lone brave teacher makes the news for insisting that her students read Shakespeare. On occasion, I think the people silently seethe and resent their kingdom of lies, and so may prove their anger at the polls, perhaps this November.
One looks for hope where one can find it.