James M. Cain's 'Paradise'
Vintage linen postcard showing view of Meddocino Drive as it winds through Pasadena with palm trees lining both sides of the street and mountains in the distance. (Curt Teich Postcard Archives / Getty Images / December 31, 2011)
I shall attempt, in this piece, an appraisal of the civilization of Southern California, but it occurs to me that before I begin I had better give you some idea what the place looks like. If you are like myself before I came here, you have formed, from Sunkist ads, newsreels, movie magazines, railroad folders, and so on, a somewhat false picture of it, and you will have to get rid of this before you can understand what I am trying to say.
Wash out, then, the "land of sunshine, fruit, and flowers": all these are here, but not with the lush, verdant fragrance that you have probably imagined. A celebrated movie comedian is credited with the remark that "the flowers don't smell and the women do," but in my observation nothing smells. Wash out the girl with the red cheeks peeping coyly from behind a spray of orange leaves. The girl is here, but the dry air has taken the red out of her cheeks; the orange trees are here, but they don't look that way: the whole picture has too much pep, life, and moisture in it.
Wash out the palm trees, half visible beyond the tap dancing platform. Palm trees are here, but they are all phonies, planted by people bemused with the notion of a sub-tropical climate, and they are so out of harmony with their surroundings that they hardly arrest your notice. Wash out the movie palazzos, so impressive in the photographs. They are here too, at any rate in a place called Beverly Hills, not far from Hollywood; but they are like the palm trees, so implausible in their surroundings that they take on the lifelessness of movie sets. Above all, wash out the cool green that seems to be the main feature of all illustrations got out by railroads. Wash that out and keep it out.
When you have got this far, you can begin quite starkly with a desert. As to what this desert looked like before it was touched by man you can get an idea by following it across the Mexican border into Lower California, where man is feeble and touches no more than he has to. On one side you can put an ocean, a placid oily-looking ocean that laps the sand with no sign of life on it except an occasional seal squirming through the swells, and almost no color. On the other side, some hundreds of miles inland, put some mountains. Between ocean and mountains, put some high hills that look as if they were spilled out carelessly with a gigantic sugar scoop, and between the hills, wide, flat valleys. Have both hills and valleys a gray, sunbaked tan; put a few tufts of dry grass on the hills and occasional clumps of stunted trees in the valleys, but see that the naked earth shows through everything that grows on it.
You are now ready for the handiwork of man. I suggest that you put it in with water-color, for if it blurs here and there, and lacks a very clear outline, that will be so much the better. The hills you can leave just as they were. In the valleys, in addition to the stunted clumps you already have, put in some trees: a few palms, eucalyptus, orange, fig, pomegranate, and other varieties that require little water. You might smear in some patches of green lawn, with hose sprinkling them: it will remind you that bringing water in by pipeline is still the outstanding accomplishment of man in this region.
Now then, put in some houses. Most of them should be plain white stucco with red tile roofs, for the prevalent architecture is Spanish, although a mongrel Spanish that is corrupted by every style known on earth, and a few styles not hitherto known. But you can also let your fancy run at this point, and put in some structures ad lib., just to exhibit your technique. If a filling-station occurs to you, a replica of the Taj Mahal, faithfully executed in lath and plaster, put that in. If you hit on a hot-dog stand in the shape of a hot dog, prone, with portholes for windows and a sign reading "Alligator Farm," put that in. Never mind why a hot-dog stand should have portholes for windows and a new line of alligators: we are concerned here with appearances, and will get to that part later.
If you think a blacksmith shop in the shape of a gilded tea-kettle would be an agreeable nifty, put that in; by the time you get it there it will be an Automobile Laundry, Cars Washed, 50¢, but leave it in anyhow. You might throw in a few structures in the shape of lemons, oranges, pagodas, igloos, windmills, mosques, and kangaroo heads, without bothering to inquire what they are doing there; if you must have signs on them, mark them "For Sale, Cheap." For the rest, long rows of wire poles, some advertising statuary done in papier maché , and the usual bungalows and tract offices. It doesn't matter much, so you paint everything up gaudily and have it different from the place next door.
Now take your opus out in the noonday sun, tack it down on a board, and look at it. You will find that something has happened to it. In that dreadful glare, all the color you smeared on so lavishly has disappeared; your trees do not look like trees at all, but are inconsequential things reaching not .000001% of the distance to the heaven they aspire to; your green lawns are hardly visible, and the water that sprinkles them is but a misty mockery of water; your gay structures, for all their artistic incongruity, fail to apprise God of the joke: all that is left is the gray, sun-baked tan that you started with. Well, that is Southern California. The main thing to remember is the sunlight, and the immense expanse of sky and earth that it illuminates: it sucks the color out of everything that it touches, takes the green out of leaves and the sap out of twigs, makes human beings seem small and of no importance. Here there is no oppressive heat, you understand. The climate is approximately as represented: temperate in Summer, with cool evenings when you often light a fire;almost as temperate in Winter, except for the occasional night that makes you long for the steam heat of the East. It is simply that the sunlight gives everything the unmoving quality of things seen in a desert. And of course this is greatly aggravated by the similarity of the seasons, in itself. Nothing changes. Summer follows Winter without a Spring, Winter follows Summer without a Fall. The citrus trees flower and bear all at the same time: you never get a riot of blossoms as you do in Western Maryland when the apple-trees are in bloom, or a catharsis of stinking, primitive accomplishment, as you do in Delaware when the tomatoes go to the cannery. Here the oil wells flow right along, so do the orange trees, so does everything. It is terrifying.
You may suppose that here an addict of dark days is voicing an aversion to sunlight, and that I exaggerate the effect which the sun has on things, particularly on the appearance of the countryside. I don't think so, and I adduce one curious scrap of evidence to bolster my position. About halfway between Los Angeles and San Diego is a small beach colony, called Balboa. It lies on a lagoon that makes in from the ocean, an inlet perhaps half a mile wide and two or three miles long. This must be fairly deep, as it is a deep, indigo blue. Now this patch of blue is the only thing for miles, nay for hundreds of miles„ that can compete with the sunlight, and nullify it, so that you see things as they really are. As a result, Balboa seems a riot of'color, although it is nothing but a collection of ordinary beach cottages when you get into it. You stop your car when you come to it, feast your eyes on it, as an Arab might feast his eyes on an oasis; think foolishly of paintings depicting Italy and other romantic places.
I think that this circumstance, the fact that one patch of blue water can make such a difference in the appearance of the landscape, shows what really ails the look of this part of the country; gives a clue, too, to why the inhabitants are so indifferent to the really appalling atrocities that they have committed. Balboa, although not pretentious, is built in some sort of harmony, for with its setting the residents had an incentive to build something to go with it; but elsewhere, it makes no difference what people do, the result is the same. If they erect a beautiful house, as many of them have, the sun robs it of all force and life; if they erect a monstrosity, it passes unnoticed, is merely one more thing along the road.
There is no reward for aesthetic virtue here, no punishment for aesthetic crime; nothing but a vast cosmic indifference, and that is the one thing the human imagination cannot stand. It withers, or else, frantic to make itself felt, goes off into feverish and idiotic excursions that have neither reason, rhyme, nor point, and that even fail in their one, purpose, which is to attract notice.
Now, in spite of the foregoing, when you come to consider the life that is encountered here, you have to admit that there is a great deal to be said for it.
First, I would list the unfailing friendliness and courtesy of the people. It is a friendliness somewhat different from what you find elsewhere, for it does not as a rule include hospitality. The man who will take all sorts of trouble to direct you to some place you are trying to find does not ordinarily invite you into his house; it is not that he has any reason for keeping you out, it is merely that it does not occur to him to do it.
Hospitality, I think, comes when people have sent down roots; it goes with pride in a home, pride in ancestors that built the home, conscious identification with a particular soil. These people, in one way or another, are all exiles. They have come here recently, and their hearts are really in the places that they left. Thus, if they do not do as much visiting with each other as you see in other parts of the country, or the gossiping that goes with visiting, they do have the quick friendliness that exiles commonly show, and I must say it is most agreeable. You may encounter many things you do not like in California, but you will go a long way before you meet a churl.
With the friendliness and courtesy, I would bracket the excellent English that is spoken here. The Easterner, when he first hears it, is likely to mistake it for the glib chatter of habitual salesmanship. I think that is because the language you hear here, even from the most casual garage mechanic, is too articulate to seem plausible. For one accustomed to the bray of Eastern Virginia, or the gargle of Second Avenue New York, or the grunts of the West Virginia foothills, or the wim, wigor, and witality of Southern Pennsylvania, it is hard to believe that the common man can express himself coherently, unless he has learned the trick somehow by rote. So that when the common man out here addresses you in easy grammar, completes his sentences, shows familiarity with good manners, and in addition gives you a pleasant smile, you are likely to resent it, and assume that he is parroting the radio, or the talkies, or else that he has been under the tutelage of a high-pressure salesman somewhere, and supplied with a suitable line of gab. In other words, even when you hear it you don't believe it; instead, you keep your ears open for the "authentic" talk of the region, uncorrupted by influences tending to neutralize its flavor.
Well, I have listened to it for more than a year now, and I believe it, and I think I am middling hard to fool about such things. The authentic talk of the region is simply good English, and you will hear it wherever you go. The intonation is not what you may have supposed from listening] to Aimee over the radio. Aimee comes from Canada, and her dreadful twang bears no relation to what is spoken here.
The actual accent, to my ear, has a somewhat pansy cast to it; it produces on me the same effect as an Englishman's accent. It is clipped, not as clipped as the New England accent, but a little clipped; in addition, there is a faint musical undertone in it: they "sing" it, which is probably why it affects me as an Englishman's English, since he also sings his stuff, although in a different key. Pronunciation is excellent. The populace seem to be on familiar terms with most of the words in the language, and you rarely hear that butchery of sonorous terms that is so common elsewhere.
With the good English goes an uncommonly high level of education. These people read, they know what is going on in the world, even if they hold some strange ideas about it, of which more later. And I might mention at this point a cleanliness hardly to be matched elsewhere. Except for the few Mexican hovels in every town, there is no squalor here, or dirt. The houses are very badly planned, but two rooms in them are built with the best of skill, and polished with the utmost care: the kitchen and the bathroom. There is no litter. As in some European cities, where even on the most crowded Sunday there is no scattering of lunch-wrappings in the parks, a homogeneous population takes pretty good care of its nest. And the sunshine, a blight in so many ways, may be due for credit here. It is a sort of general disinfectant.
Next, I would list the things that require an effective communal effort: schools, roads, gigantic water projects, recreation facilities, and so on. The schools, in my opinion, are the best in the country. I find three States ranked ahead of California, —Nevada, New York,and Wyoming, —in the amount of money expended per unit of attendance, or population, or whatever it is that they measure by; but I say that money is not the only thing that counts in education. My brief for the California schools rests on the simple fact that our two children did terribly in the East, whereas here they do fine. They like school, learn their lessons, take an interest in what the school does; and so they get a great deal more out of their time than I got when I was their age. Also, they are treated with the utmost consideration, not only by their teachers, but by their colleagues in bondage.
This last is a great point with me, for they are foreigners (I am their stepfather, not their father), and I had been afraid they would run into the Ku Klux aspect of the American temperament when they got into American schools. They did run into it in New York: trust a foreigner who got here in 1930 to haze a foreigner who got here in 1931. But here they don't run into it, which gets me back to the friendliness of the people, probably one reason the schools do so well. For it makes no difference how much you spend on schools, if half your juice is wasted assimilating immigrants, as it is in New York, or fighting irregular attendance, as it is in rural sections of the East, or mopping up the swamps of illiteracy, as it is in the South, you are not going to have much of a school system. Here, the effort goes into the studies, the school paper, the sports, and the other things that children ought to be doing; there is a minimum of waste, particularly on "discipline," that infallible symptom of rasping gears. There seems to be hardly any disciplinary problem in California schools. When children enjoy being there, like their teachers, and do their work, why start the bastinado?
As to higher education, I can tell you nothing, as I have had no chance to study it. I would like it better if these various institutions weren't quite so wild about football; but it is only one man's opinion, so let it pass. I shall have to pass up the water projects too, as they have a Metropolitan Water District here whose workings I can't quite get the hang of, so that it would probably be better if I just flunked out. The main point, though, is that the water is here: it is piped into houses, lawns, fields, and orchards; it is the staff of life. I doubt if any other section of the country uses as much water as this One does, and these States, as you may have heard, are quick on the spigot.
The roads are superb. They run for miles in every direction, eight tracks wide where traffic is heavy, with illumination at night, beautiful curves and easy grades, no mean feat of construction when you consider that they never get very far without having to cross a range of mountainous hills. Of course, they are not primarily ornamental: this section, to a greater extent than any other, is dependent on the automobile, as forty years ago it was dependent on the horse. The distances are so vast, the waste of time so cruel if you go by bus or street car, that you must have your own transportation, and whether she needs greasing is literally a matter of greater moment than whether the roof leaks. Everybody has some kind of second- or third- or ninth-hand flivver; even the cook comes to work in her car. Of course, she can't cook when she gets there, but anyhow she arrives in style.
As you might expect, there is a great skill in everything that pertains to the automobile, that extends much further than the roads it runs on. No, motor disease has been heard of that the local specialist can't cure, and at a reasonable price. Snagged top? A place that does 'nothing but fix tops. Crumpled fender? Another place that attends to fenders. Starter acting funny? Places everywhere that "reweld" starter teeth without removing flywheel. The markets, most of them, have smooth, flat parking areas in front of them, so you can drive right up and have the potatoes lifted into the back seat; there are lunch places that hook a tray on the side of your car, so that you can eat without so much as getting out. Of course, this gives me the colic, but it gives you an idea how far the thing goes.
Traffic control is perfect, with no endless tinkering with it as in the East; I think it moves through Los Angeles faster than through any other city on earth. This is the one section I ever heard of that did something about a place to park. Driving in New York is one long nightmare of finding a place to leave the car, as it is in most other American cities; here, there are parking places everywhere, run by brisk fellows in white smocks who whisk your car out of the way, hand you a ticket, and charge you from a nickel to twenty-five cents, depending on the location. What a load off your mind that is!
The recreation facilities are endless. Every town has its country club, or several of them, which will take in almost any presentable person who will pay the very moderate dues. But there are plenty of public places, either privately operated, or run by municipalities, where anybody can play for a small admission charge: golf courses, riding ranches, tennis courts, and so on, many of the last being free, as they are maintained by the towns chiefly for children. Plenty of them, you understand: no calling up two days in advance to reserve a court for one hour in the afternoon.
For my part, what I take most delight in is the swimming pools. Anywhere you go you can have a swim: a clean swim, a pleasant swim, a swim run by people who really know their stuff. Think what this means. In all of New York City, except for three or four hotels that have pools, and one or two small places uptown, there is not one place where the six million can get wet without going to Coney, Brighton, of some other dreadful beach. The city maintains "bath-houses," where worthy widows of dead policemen dispense towel and soap for three cents; but they are intended primarily to provide bums with a bath, and only one of them has a pool, a small, horrible affair that I should certainly hate to fall into.
But here all you have to do is drive up, plunk down a coin, get towel, soap, and suit, if you haven't brought one, and dive off. You can be sure the suit has been steamed and properly dried before you got it. No dirt, no noise, no slopping around a filthy dressing-room where uncouth voices yell "Hey locker!" I swam all last Summer in a high-school pool. It was the best I was ever in: the charge was fifteen cents. One curious thing about it may interest you. As it was a public pool, it took in just an ordinary run of people, about half children, half grown-ups; all clean, well-behaved, and dressed in gay suits, but just average people. Yet out of all the thousands I saw there, not five appeared during the whole Summer who could really swim. Down at the Ambassador, in Los Angeles, and at Agua Caliente, in Mexico, the idle sons of the rich dive, float, and crawl with the finest grace; but even so simple a trick, apparently, is beyond the idle sons of the poor.
Now I come to the tough part of my piece. If the foregoing is true, as it certainly is, and much more of the same that I could put in if I had space, why is it, you may well ask, that I don't break out into a decent hymn of praise at once, instead of making my bass a sour note under the twittering treble?
I wish I could, but I can't. The thing simply won't add up. When I take off the first shoe at night, and wonder what I have to show for the day, I usually know that I have nothing to show for it. I can't take a schoolhouse to bed with me, or a State road, or a swimming pool; some can, and if you can you had better come here at once, as this is the place you were born for. But not I. To me, life takes on a dreadful vacuity here, and I am going to have a hard time indicting it. Frankly, don't know exactly what it is that I miss. But if you will bear with me while I grope a little, I shall try to get it down on paper.
Let us take a fresh start, a long way off, in a place that everybody can agree on: Paris. It may seem unfair to choose a city that had its beginnings in Roman times, and compare it with a section which in its present phase is hardly fifteen years old, but let it pass: an unfair comparison is precisely what I want. What is it, now, that charms me about Paris, that gives me what I don't find here? The so-called "culture"? The yodelling of the current Violetta at the Opera, or the pirouetting of her agile assistants, as they sway and whirl to thunderous applause and then sink lightly back into their wheelchairs? The actresses along the boulevards? The paintings in the art store windows? The symphony concerts?
Nay, none of these. If I want a Violetta, I should have heard the last one in Los Angeles, probably the best in the business; when I want hoofing, I can see better hoofers in Hollywood than in Paris, and the same goes for actresses; when I want paintings, I can see the best in the world in Pasadena; when I want symphonies, I can hear excellent performances in the Hollywood Bowl, and under pleasanter circumstances than in a stinking hall in Paris.
No, what I like is a jumble of the tangible and the intangible, of beauty and ugliness, that somehow sets me a-tingle: the sinister proximity of big things, and the smokestacks on hinges, pulled down as the boats go under the bridges; the glimpse of a medieval street, the way a boy chants "Matin, le Temps, Echo de Paris!"; the glow of lights behind the awnings as the gathering dark brings out the lettering, the captain in the Café de la Paix who looks like Otto Kahn; the patina on the arch and the Etoile, the salesman who says he has led Camel, les Chesterfield, et les Licky Streak; the bronze statues in the park behind the Louvre, the fake artist painting the wrong bridge down by the river; the great façade of Notre Dame, the shiny faced nuns hawking souvenirs beneath it; the fish market, and the discovery that they tie a lobster's claws here, instead of pegging them, as we do, and an ancient peasant, bending beneath a rack that fits him with the terrible precision of a polished yoke on the neck of oxen; the meal I had in the Avenue Victor Hugo, the meal I had in the Rue de la Pepiniere, the meal I had in the Rue Royale, the meal I had—wherever it was. In other words, a perpetual invitation to explore, to linger, to enjoy.
I think this beckoning jumble, in great or small degree, is the essence of the appeal which any place has for you, and that if it isn't there, you are going to be most unhappy about it, even if at first you don't quite know what ails you. Well, it is what this place lacks. You can drive for miles, and the one thing you can be sure of is that you are not going to be rewarded by so much as one little scrap, one little unexpected bit, one hint of charm, that you can sit down with for a moment, and, as I have said, take to bed with you that night. Of course, the place does have a history, and there are many fine relics of the Spanish occupation, all preserved with an admirable regard for what is due them. But they, after all, are a closed chapter. The one now being written somehow never manages to be delightful, produces nothing but an endless succession of Rabbit Fryers, 50¢; Eggs, Guaranteed Fresh, 23¢ Doz.; Canary Birds, 50¢, Also Baby Chix, Just Hatched; Car Mart, All Makes Used Cars, Lowest Prices; Orange Drink, 5¢; Eat; Drink Goat Milk for Health, Drive Right In; Pet Cemetery 300 Yds., Turn to Right; Finest English Walnuts, 15¢ Lb.; $100 Down Buys This Lot, Improvements Installed, No Assessments; Eat; Scotty Kennels, 100 Yds.; Pure Muscat Grapejuice, 35¢ Gal., We Deliver; Eat. I have got so that if I go out for an afternoon's drive, I usually wind up at Goebel's Lion Farm, smoking a cigarette with Bert Parks, the chief attendant. God in Heaven, a cat is something to look at! I have followed all the doings out there faithfully, from the birth of the leopard cubs to the unfortunate fate of Jiggs when he strayed into a cage with two she-lions and got frightfully chewed up. I learned with great interest what happened when Paramount sent a star out there to have his picture taken feeding Caesar, as a bit of publicity for a forthcoming picture. Instead of biting the meat Caesar bit the actor. First time I knew a lion liked ham.
Eat. That is the measure, alas, of the cookery of the region. You can go from Santa Barbara to the border, and you will not strike one place whereyou can get a really distinguished meal. There are, to be sure, the various Biltmores, and in Los Angeles the Ambassador, a restaurant called the Victor Hugo, a hotel called the Town House, and Bernstein's sea-food place. All of them have their points, and the Town House, I must say, really knows how to put a meal together but they suffer from two circumstances. The first is that they can't sell liquor. If you want food and drink at the same meal, you have to go to a speak, and a California speak is so bad that there is nothing to say about it. The other is that they really have nothing to make a distinguished meal with. Meats are obtainable here, and vegetables, the best you can get anywhere; but when it comes to fish, and particularly shellfish, those indispensable embellishments that transform eating into dining, they are simply not to be had. Brother, God hath laid a curse on this Pacific Ocean, and decreed that nothing that comes out of it shall be fit to eat; and anybody who tells you different has simply never fished in another ocean.
The oysters are frightful. They serve what they call Eastern oysters, which means oysters that have been transplanted from the East to Puget Sound or some such place, and taken after they are grown. They are pale, watery, and fishy. Then they serve the native oyster, known as the Olympia, or Olympic —there seems to be some difference of opinion on the point. These are small, dark, and mussel-like in appearance. The taste is quite beyond the power of words to convey: I had to exercise all of my 90 hp. will to get down enough to call it a test. If you can imagine a blend of fish, seaweed, copper, and pot-washings, all smelling like low tide on a mud-flat, you will have some faint notion of what an Olympia oyster is like.
The crab is an ocean crab, smooth, without spines, and singularly coarse and tasteless. As a rule they serve it as cracked crab, which means that they steam it, chill it, and cut it up quite nicely, with the shell cracked so you can pick out the meat with an oyster fork. I think it would be better if they didn't let the ice come in contact with the crab, and thereby suck out the salt, but I hope they don't begin taking pains with it, just to please me. Any way they served it, I wouldn't like it. The only good crab I ever had out here was the other night, at a little party in Beverly Hills. It was in a salad, and I at once sought out my hostess.
"I've got to know more about this," I said. "I'm just writing a piece saying the crabs out here are lousy."
"I don't think so," she said. "I've had good crab in the Brown Derby, lots of times."
"Never mind the Brown Derby," I said. "I've got to be reliable and accurate about this thing, and what I want to know is: Where did you get this crab?"
"Well if you've got to know," she said, "that's canned crab, but I don't know why you had to be so inquisitive."
In other words, it was good old Crisfield blue-claw, and maybe it didn't taste good!
The lobster is that crustacean known in the East as a crayfish and in France as a langouste, and it's not much, any way you take it. It has eight big legs, but no giant claws, so that there is no claw meat. The fat and coral are inedible, and there is hardly any shoulder meat. The gigantic tail, when steamed and served cold, is white and of even texture, but tasteless. Broiling doesn't help any. The tail muscle of a langouste, when broiled, splits off into pieces, like a rope that has been unravelled, so that it is disagreeable to eat, and has no more taste than it had before.
But the prize monster of these parts is called an abalone. The abalone, if pulled out of the North Sea, would be a coquille, and if pulled out of Long Island Sound would be a scallop; but as it is, it is pulled out of the Pacific, which makes it different. The shell is large, some six or eight inches across, and fluted like a scallop shell, very pretty. The thing itself is a lump of muscle about the size of a small lemon, and so tough that if you tried to cut it, it would jump off the plate and hit the lady at the next table in the eye. So they operate on it with a hammer to soften it up a bit. How many outfielders they have to post, to field it home when it jumps off the block, I don't know; but when they get through with it, it is a sort of Childs pancake, and this they dip in batter and fry. You can have it. I got half of one down once: what an experience that was!
There are barracuda, salmon, halibut, swordfish, and tarpon, but I personally don't regard them very highly. Swordfish, I suppose, is as good as it is said to be; but for my part, when they begin serving fish in steaks, it doesn't seem like fish any more. The medium-size fish, like shad and bass, which go so well after the soup, don't seem to taste right: perhaps the trouble is in the cookery. The only fish I can say much for out here are the sand-dab, which looks like a small English sole and tastes like perch; the grunion, a near-smelt that is against the law for some reason, and that you have to get bootleg, and the trout. The trout all seem to come from Noah Beery's trout farm, on the road to the Mohave Desert. They are pretty good, 'anyhow at the Town House, where they know how to make a meuniire sauce.
Now then, if there are no smells to caress my nose, and no sights to delight my eye, and no food to tickle my mouth, this gets us down pretty much to what we laughingly call my intellect. God knows I am not particular here, not anything like as particular as I am about oysters. I don't ask for talk about Proust, or familiarity with the cosmic ray theory, or acute critical appraisal of the latest Japanese painter; I can take such stuff or leave it alone, and I usually feel better when I am off it. But I do ask —what shall I say? Something that pricks my imagination a little, gives me some sort of lift, makes me feel that that day I heard something. And I am the sort that is as likely to get this from the common man as his more erudite cousin, the high-brow.
But what do I get? Nothing. For when a gentleman appears at my door, orange peeler in hand, bows gracefully at my halting invitation to come in, removes his hat with the utmost aplomb, enters, sits down easily, and explains in accents that would do credit to a Harvard man that this particular article is manufactured by the O'Peelo Company, and bears the signed guarantee of that firm, handsomely engraved with one extra blade all for ten cents —when that happens, it is hard for me to escape the reflection that what this wight has his mind on is an orange peeler.
Now, right there, I think, I finally get into words my main squawk against this section: the piddling occupations to which the people dedicate their lives. Bear in mind my disclaimer of high-brow leanings, which is honest, and the earthy nature of the intellectual fodder that I ask. I am greatly stimulated by a trapper boy in a West Virginia coal-mine, or a puddler in a Pennsylvania steel-mill, or a hand on a Nebraska corn-farm. These people, although they usually talk a dreadful jargon, are frequently morons, and sometimes anything but admirable personally, all take part in vast human dramas, and I find it impossible to disregard the stature which their occupations confer on them. If they are prosperous, it is big news; if they are hungry, it is tragic; and no matter what their condition is, they share some of the electric importance of the stages they tread
But what electric importance can be felt in a peddler of orange peelers? Or of a dozen ripe avocados, just plucked that morning? Or a confector of Bar-B-Q? Or the proprietor of a goldfish farm? Or a breeder of rabbit fryers? They give me no kick at all. They give themselves no kick. The whole place is overrun with nutty religions, which are merely the effort of these people to inject some sort of point into their lives; if not on earth, then in the stars, in numbers, in vibrations, or whatever their fancy hits on. They are not, as I have hinted, and as I shall show more clearly in a moment, inferior people. Rather the other way around. But they suffer from the cruel feebleness of the play which the economy of the region compels them to take part in.
If it were only possible to create for them a suitable play ar-tificially, as it is possible to fashion a play for childhood, where libraries, schoolhouses, athletic fields, and a few leagues and debating clubs are all that is needed to set things humming —the thing would have been done long ago. But with grown-ups it is not as simple as that. The yarn has to be there. There can be no build-up, as they say in the movies, for the main situation; it cannot be evoked at will, and it cannot be faked. If the voltage cannot be felt, the whole piece falls flat, and it will throw off no jumble of delightful sparks, of the kind we were talking about in connection with Paris.
They not only give themselves no kick, but they have developed, out of the things they do, a curious slant on life, particularly on Labor, which you have no doubt read about and probably misunderstood. For these occupations are not only piddling, but also fly-by-night; none of them seem to pay, and it is unusual to find a man who is doing the same thing now as he did last year. If he has a poultry farm, a few months ago he fixed flats and a few months before that had a news-stand.
This makes for the most incredible incompetence at those routine things that you have always taken for granted. The paperhanger takes five days to do a job that a good man would finish in one; the restaurant has its lights so placed that your head casts a shadow on your plate, making it impossible to see your food; a house, well-defigned otherwise, has one corner of the living-room gouged out to let in a trick stairway, the result being that you cannot lay a rug; the salesman has a persuasive line of talk about the merits of the article, and then has to look on the icebox door to find out the price; the telephone clerk reports that somebody called, but hasn't taken his number so you can call back; the waiter clamps a fork over the spoon when he serves peas, in the elegant manner of an Italian serving asparagus, not noticing that when it is peas he is serving, and not asparagus, this makes them bounce all over the table like shot; the bookstore is sorry, sir, but would have to know the publisher before it could order that book for you, apparently not knowing that the United States Index, which is lying open on the counter, was invented specifically to solve this problem; the apartment-house has it drawers built exactly three inches too short to hold a shirt; the movie impresario wires frantically to New York for a certain writer, only to discover that for a year he has had the varlet on his own lot.
You may think I overstate the case, in a strained effort to be comical. I assure you I do not. It is not only my observation. It is the observation of every Easterner who comes out here: I have talked with dozens of them on the subject, and all of them make the same report, most of them with much fancier illustrations than those I have given.
Now, this kind of thing, together with the state of affairs that lies back of it, has bred a fear of good, honest, well-paid craftsmanship that is at the bottom of the very genuine anti-union sentiment that you find here. This sentiment, no doubt, had its origin in the disturbances that led to the dynamiting of the Los Angeles Times' office some years ago, and Big Business certainly had a hand in that fight.
But Big Business, so far as I have had a chance to observe it, is pretty sensible now. The core of the anti-union feeling here these days is not so much Big Business as Little Labor; and how this works out I can best show by quoting a man I talked with shortly after I came here.
"This is how it is," he said. "Your dirt farmer from Iowa, or wherever it is, gets here with a little pile, just about enough to keep him, and at first, after freezing his face in those blizzards for forty years, it's great. He has a swell time, sees the Mt. Wilson Observatory, the Pacific Ocean, the millionaires' houses in Pasadena, the Huntington Museum, and Hollywood; he's never seen anything like that before, and he loves it. But then what? There ain't no more. After six months he's so sick of doing nothing that he'll take fifteen dollars a week, or ten dollars a week, or three dollars a week; or he'll start any kind of cock-eyed business, he'll do anything, just to keep busy. And boy, maybe you think that baby can't hate union labor! Because union labor, anyhow the way he figures it, means that pretty soon he's out of a job, and there's nothing for him to do but water the grass."
That sums it up very simply, and it certainly takes the wind out of your indignation, makes all your fine theories about collective bargaining seem as silly as your theories about civil rights seem in Mexico. For indignation, particularly in this controversy, rests on some sort of sporting sympathy for the under-dog; but when you find out that the under-dog has a couple of mice under him yet, in great danger of being mashed flat, what are you going to do? Begin feeling sorry for the mice, I suppose. There they are, and they certainly confuse the issue quite thoroughly. Just the same, I greatly prefer a dog-fight to a mouse-fight; and the fact that these are worthy mice, down there through no fault of their own, doesn't relieve their doings of a certain what-of-it quality that I find very hard to get excited about.
What I would like to see here, to make an end of my carping, would be a vast increase in what might be called economic vitality. The whole place would be pepped up, I think, by big, slashing
industries, industries that bind men together, make them feel their competence as workmen, fill them with the vanity that demands adequate recompense; industries that afford an afflatus of the ego that is requited only by fine food and drink; industries that produce pep, bustle, enjoyment of life. They are really what throw off the jumble of sparks, cover a country with things that appeal to the imagination. But so far there are not anything like enough of them.
Some, you understand. Oil production is enormous: I must say that a trip through the well forests, for all their dreadful reek, hands you something. Movie production is also important: I believe oil and movies account for nearly 25% of the revenues of the place from the outside. Furniture, Hollywood garments, and various other manufactures are growing. But still, not enough of these to go around. The typical Southern Californian is still the Middle Westerner who was a crack sidewalk contractor in Sioux City, and a punk rabbit breeder here. Nobody told him that many Southern California streets don't have sidewalks: no walking done, you know. So he is out of luck. So his talents are wasted. So it is not his fault. But he is terribly dull company.
A word about the nutty religions. They don't cut anything like as much ice as you might think from reading about them. They are here, and practically everybody polices his discourse with "pass on," instead of "die:" he can't be quite sure what cult you may belong to. Even so, they are more like pastimes than the religions you are probably accustomed to. People find in them a relief from boredom, give them the zealous attention that a fad might command elsewhere; but they change off pretty easily from one to the other, and apparently don't care about them very deeply.
Aimee doesn't seem to cut any ice at all. The newspapers treat her with the amiable levity that New York reserves for the Metropolitan Opera House, and I personally have never met a Californian who has even seen her. I am an object of curiosity, in fact, when I let it be known that I have seen her, and a great disappointment when I have to admit that this was before she reduced and changed the color of her hair.
I wish now to do a little speculating about the future of this place. From what I have said, you may think it is pretty dark, but I wouldn't bet on it; there are a number of favorable factors, and I should like to check them over briefly.
First, let me emphasize again the distinctly superior human material that is on hand. Circumstances, particularly the fact that at the moment there are no very stimulating things for them to do, may have condemned these people to the kind of activity I was describing a moment ago, but they are capable of bucking stiffer winds, and when stiffer winds begin to blow they will acquit themselves impressively. I remind you that a selective process has affected the settlement here that has not gone on in many other American localities. In general, I think it can be said that most sections of the United States were first populated by failures. They are usually referred to as "pioneers," but that euphemism doesn't dispose of the fact that they were doing very badly where they were, and pulled up stakes to see if they couldn't do better somewhere else.
But that hasn't been the case here. Making all allowance for the automobile tramp and others of his kind who have come here, the person who has unpacked and stayed usually has had a pile. Sometimes it has been a big pile, for a great deal of wealth is visible: I hope I haven't given you the idea that everybody here is just one jump ahead of the sheriff. Oftener it has been a little pile, but anyhow it has been some kind of pile. The typical settler here has made what some walk of life regards as a success, and is here to enjoy the climate; that means that he is a person of some substance. Whatever he does after he gets here, the original ability is there; it is trans-mitted to his children, and it is something to be reckoned with.
Next, I shall surprise you by citing as a favorable factor the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, which with various affiliated organizations pretty much controls the commercial development of the region. It seems to me that the economic situation out here has forced it, perhaps unconsciously, to acquire a profounder notion of its responsibilities than you will find in most organizations of its kind. The average American chamber of commerce, in my experience with it, is a noisy, tiresome, and exceedingly childish booster affair, with no maturer idea of its function than to bring as many factories'to town as possible, in order that merchants will have more customers, realtors more prospects for their lots, and property more benefit from the unearned increment. That, and a running wrangle with the Interstate Commerce Commission, carried on by the traffic department, over some freight differential enjoyed by a nearby city, is about the extent of its activity. As to whether the factories are desirable, as to whether abolishment of the differential would throw several railroads into bankruptcy, they seldom give a thought; and sometimes, as when one Eastern city proudly announced the advent of a soap factory that had stunk so badly it was run out of another city, you wonder whether they are quite bright.
But here the basic situation is different, and you can see what it is from the phrape you hear so often around the Los Angeles chamber: "We know lwe can't go on selling climate forever. People have got to have something to do after they get here." In other words, the boom is over. People fell for the climate all right, and bought lots, and settled down. But piles, whether big or little, have a distressing tendency to melt, so that the section faces the necessity of becoming an economic unit that can run under its own steam, piles or no piles. To that exceedingly difficult problem, which is after all the problem I have been stating in a roundabout way, the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce is addressing itself with a sobriety which I must confess impresses me.
It is not content to get a new factory, although it has got plenty of these in the last few years. It has been forced to do what most Chambers of Commerce do not do: undertake an exhaustive study of the possibilities of the region, that takes into account the needs of the population as a whole, and that is much broader in its scope than the leather-bound "presentation" got up for some particular manufacturer.
Now, if this profounder attitude is real, and not something that I thought I detected and didn't, you would expect it to give some tangible evidence of its presence, something you could put your finger on and say, "There, that's what I mean." And so, in fact, you find it. The offices are quiet and run with swift efficiency. There are no signs telling you to "Smile, Damn You, Smile." There is an atmosphere not unlike what you associate with the research departments of a big university, with the difference that this research has a purpose, a smell of dealing with live, important things, that most university research plainly lacks.
.And there is something that I pay a great deal of attention to when I try to estimate a man's integrity, which is a healthy respect for a fact. It amounts almost to a religion in this place. You hear frequently the rueful admission that "we've got a reputation to live down, all right": they seem terrified lest old mistakes will be repeated and come home to roost. So that you are no sooner handed a table of figures than you get the footnote: "Now listen: This is not any of our hooey. This comes right out of the United States Census Reports, and you can bank on it to the last decimal point." Well, I buy that. I am a sucker for the man who is worried about the last decimal point.
In other words, out of the Gethsemane of its woe these last few years, this Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce bids fair to emerge as what a chamber of commerce ought to be, and so seldom is. It is very powerful, much more so than the chambers of commerce you are probably accustomed to. It is a sort of government outside the government, bearing about the same relation to the body politic as the Communist party does in Russia. (I suppose I put that in out of pure malice.) And, like the Communist party in Russia, it is most intolerant of all schemes for monkeying with the gears. Radicalism of any kind is anathema to it. I suspect that the big fellows enrolled in it are not anything like so hot on this subject as they are thought to be; but big fellows are not the only ones it must satisfy: the very fact that it has a large membership, has to study the problems of even the littlest fellows, and is the repository of a highly concentrated leadership, has forced it in this matter to go along with the crowd.
This, I must say, I find deplorable. I never feel that a city is really in the Big Time unless it has soap boxers damning the government in the parks, and parades that occasionally result in cracked heads. Why I regard such things as cosmopolitan I don't know, but I do. Yet it would be foolish to maintain that I miss them out here as much as I would if they were absent, say, in New York. Again like Russia, this section is not ready for that kind of thing yet. You have to get the gears turning before you can throw left-handed monkey wrenches into them. And, of course, the basic realities take some of the sting out, too.
The one basic reality that can dignify. Red goings-on is hunger, and there is very little of it here. Ten cents will buy an incredible amount of food, and hardly anybody lacks ten cents; if somebody does lack it, the genuinely humane treatment he gets here alters somewhat the circumstance that he can't put up a general squawk. What I am trying to say is that the air, the sun, the lay of the land, the feel of what is going on here, make the inalienable right of man to talk, wrangle, and fight himself out of his daily bread seem somewhat beside the point; that may be what other sections have their mind on, but not this one. It has its mind on something else, and it is only sensib e to judge it by what it is trying to do, and not by what you think i ought to be trying to do.
Which brings me to my final point, which is the idea held by everybody here that some sort of destiny awaits the place. Of recent years, the implications of a destiny have bemused me greatly; and I believe that one of the troubles of the United States as a whole is that it no longer has one. In the beginning, its destiny was to reduce a continent, and that destiny, as long as it lasted, made everything hum; transformed the most shiftless bacon-and-beaner into a pioneer, placed an epic frame around our wars, gave the most trivial episode the stature of history. But the continent has been reduced, alas, so that destiny has blown up.
Now what? If you know, you are a wiser man than I am. We have a great deal of running around about it, visionaries providing us with a lot of pat destinies: one set trying to make us the most cultured nation on earth, and demanding that we pile novel on top of symphony on top of skyscraper until we claim our place in the aesthetic sun; another set trying to make us the most moral nation on earth, piling Prohibition laws on top of cigarette laws on top of anti-Evolution laws on top of blue laws; another set trying to make us the most prosperous nation on earth, piling tariffs on top of R.F.C.'s on top of apostrophes to the Forgotten Man. But all these stars, unfortunately, begin to look a great deal like fish-scales, and where we are actually headed, if anywhere, it is pretty hard, for me at least, to see.
So that when you come to a place that not only thinks it has a destiny, but knows it has a destiny, you cannot but be arrested. Where this place is headed is to be the leader in commerce, art, citrus production, music, rabbit breeding, oil production, furniture manufacture, walnut growing, literature, olive bottling, short- and long-distance hauling, clay modelling, msthetic criticism, fish export, canary-bird culture, playwrighting, shipping, cinematic creativeness, and drawing-room manners. In short, it is going to be a paradise on earth. And, with such vaulting ambitions, it might pull off something: you can't tell. It is keenly aware of the Orient, and also of Mexico; streams are meeting here that ought to churn up some exciting whirlpools. I, personally, even if the first act hasn't been so hot, am not going to walk out on the show. One thing it is going to be, within the twelve-month, is the wine center of the New World. I guess you think I'm going to walk out on that, do you? That will make a lot of things different.
No, I stay. The climate suits me fine.