Lying on a couch in a transit lounge while waiting for a connection to a Third World destination is probably the perfect place to think of of Slab City, a trailer park in a California desert that describes itself as the Last Free Place in the state, “beyond the reach of electricity, running water and the law”.
They forgot to add beyond the reach of bills. For the chief attraction of this community built on the slab building foundations of an abandoned Marine base is that is cheap. It has to be since nothing is provided, including the police who have to be called in from afar whenever things get as bad as shooting.
No one would disagree that the Wild West element has its darker side. Hang around the evening campfires a while and strange stories pour out: disappearances, mysterious drownings in the mud baths, the man who showed up in camp with his finger apparently bitten off, claiming he’d been attacked by a cannibal. The border patrol keeps a visible presence, searching for illegal immigrants that ply the region. When there’s serious trouble, though, firemen must drive over from Niland, a derelict town five miles to the west that boasts the closest grocery store and post office. In 40-plus years on the job, Michael Aleksick, 63, the recently retired fire marshal, says he’s been repeatedly shot at, stabbed and gotten in too many fistfights to remember, often with people he knows. Crime has worsened. “The crystal-meth influence,” he says, “has been huge.”
“There’s the good, bad and the ugly,” says “Shotgun” Vince Neill, 38, a newcomer who got his nickname partly for stopping a man from stealing a friend’s solar panels with a blast of rock salt.
It is in consequence, somebody’s kind of town, and to hear the article tell it, some people may have chosen to live there even if they could afford to live elsewhere. Living “beyond the reach of electricity, running water and the law” — and the bill collector has attractions of its own.
Of course, I was in fact lying on a plastic couch in Taipei waiting for a connecting flight to Manila wondering if it was still a place beyond utilities and the law. Now the real object of the trip was to the funeral of my brother in law. But journeys are seldom for a single purpose and this was no exception.
Funerals are often occasions to learn that you never knew someone at all. I knew my brother-in-law was well known in his own way. But the extent and nature of that fame did not become clear until the wake and the funeral. Tycoons and moguls sat silent and unassuming in the benches. That alone would have been singular, but what gave the situation its unique characteristic was why they were there.
They were to a man — or a woman — part of larger Philippine Jesuit community; people who tried to govern their lives according to a code of conduct they had learned and earnestly imbibed in grade school, high school and college, supplemented in many cases by a stint in American graduate schools in places like Boston, New Haven or Palo Alto.
The Society of Jesus was in a sense, this group’s civic mother. And my brother in law had apparently been at the center of their intellectual life, the unofficial historian of this community. There was about them a real and self-conscious difference, a genuine shared sense of values that modified the mere economic and social status system around which Philippine society is otherwise organized. Here it was bad manners to treat others as unequals.
It would have tempting — and passing American intellectuals often did — to dismiss these people as derivative. Clearly the local Left did parroted the line that they were — though they did not really believe it — because that is what the standard narrative demanded. But they were in reality originals, who in the words of my brother in law were attracted of their own volition “by the romance of a soldier who rededicated his life to winning the world for Christ” — a reference to Ignatius of Loyola.
I should have been the last person to understand them, never having having belonged to that crowd, and had in fact arrived at the funeral home by the most pedestrian of means — shadowing the employees coming off duty from the airport to the nearby street through which the buses passed and crossing half of Manila for a dollar and fifty cents to the funeral home.
That was the world of the street, to which this Jesuitic crowd did not properly belong; and I did not remark upon it nor need to. But the juxtaposition did set up the possibility of a thought experiment and I resolved to keep a mental log on both the people of quality and the men on the sidewalk; to see what the comparison revealed; whether things had shifted from their old orbits. I wanted to see if the old dynamics still prevailed: whether the culture was still on its way to being Slab City East or on its way to forging its own viable identity.
From first impressions, a lot has changed, most markedly among the ordinary people. They’re following the rules, which are completely irrational rules, to be sure, but they are followed all the same; maybe because they are rules which they themselves have, through some unobservable process, contrived.
Ordinary people now line up, drive their cars or not according to the day of the week; address customers with standard commercial courtesy and enforce it by social pressure. That is what is new: the social pressure. Gone is the casual slovenliness. In its place is the touching, but somewhat odd sight of seeing fast food personnel actually wear their uniforms with pride or security guards attempting a kind of professional dignity because it’s a job they take seriously. It is all ridiculous, and all perfectly earnest.
It was no more earnest than the liturgy of the mourners at the funeral home, who were celebrating the passing of one of their own as they had done for many generations. This I was certain, was how they mourned their warriors in World War 2. This was, I was told by someone who had been there, how they had buried Ninoy and Corazon Aquino. In the Faith; according to the customs of those who loved them; and that needed no elaboration.
But the change I had observed in the street was not caused by these Filipino elites finally reaching down to the “masses”. It was the result of the “masses” coming to the West in their own way. They had rediscovered the Western aspects of their roots independently. The result is that the old reflexive hostility toward “colonialism” of the last generation, which was nothing but fear of the unfamiliar among the poor on the one hand, and leftist claptrap among the educated on the other hand, had largely gone.
This was effect of the overseas worker phenomenon. The poor had worked in their tens of millions abroad and returned home, their new experience fertilized by the information revolution. In strange lands where everything was unfamiliar they rediscovered their identities; how next to their own native dialects they preferred to speak in English and that they were mostly Christians — not by compulsion, but preference.
The poor had compounded their own modern culture and it was not surprising that they used the materials nearest at hand; the most familiar references; the experience of America and the Church. This mass cultural revolution was accompanied by the decline in influence of the academic Left, whose teachings had no relevance to normal life. But if the overseas worker experience diminished the relative prestige of the local elite, in that ideas now sprang independently of them; it completely destroyed the aura of the Revolutionary Left. People had discovered in their travels that nobody in the outside word had heard of Jose Maria Sison and his Communists nor had anyone use for his teachings outside the precincts of the left Filipino academe.
So the street people remade themselves; they learned English — even if they had to pay Koreans to teach them — even if the leftist educators would not. They learned what they needed to in order to get jobs in call centers, as programmers, technicians or managers because they wanted nice cell phones, neat clothes and self-respect. The easiest way to do that was not to dream of some socialist utopia, but to blaze their own way, as they did overseas, to make their own crazy rules and live according to them.
Five years ago the dirty sidewalks were thronged with vendors selling DVDs. Now the much cleaner sidewalks are lined with people selling Chinese phone chargers, cell phone accessory packs and similar items.
Before leaving for the funeral I believed that Chinese expansion in Asia might find its weakest link in the Philippines. But now for the first time, I think there’s a chance that it might actually avoid the fate of becoming a failed state. Things are noticeably cleaner and people are more purposeful; that is not proof of anything in the strictest sense. But things seem to have changed in some fundamental way; but to what end only time would tell.
What really drives societies is culture. Perhaps the reason why Slab City has featured in novels, books, movies, radio dramas, fantasy stories, reality shows, stage plays and televisions is not because of anything it physically is, but by what cultural ideas it suggests. In the main the RV City probably represents an attempt at escape from the Californian Utopia. Whatever paradise the Golden State has come to be, clearly some want no part of it. And as such, Slab City is something of a portent; but of what, who can tell?
But maybe things will turn out all right for California, despite whatever Slab City augurs — or promises — as you wish; but not in the way we imagine. Events have their own way of unfolding.
When my brother in law and his classmates left their high school classes to join the crowds at EDSA in 1986, they were making a bet on the future. And for a long while that bet seemed misplaced. Now, as they wheeled the coffin out of the funeral home and the mourners broke out into I Am the Bread of Life, I knew that I was wrong; the game was not lost. Hope may fail, but it is never ultimately out of place, if it gives us the fortitude to go on.