How an abuelo and a skateboard helped one writer understand California
On the Shelf
Inter State: Essays from California
By José Vadi
Soft Skull: 224 pages, $17
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Recent books about California have threatened to wring the subject dry of angles and premises. There’s the L.A. architecture professor with a panache for punk rock references (“City at the Edge of Forever”); the magazine-writer transplant whose adoring perspective powers a whole book (“Everything Now”); the earnest editor who wrangles a dozen friends to rethink what Joan Didion means (“Slouching Towards Los Angeles”). The latest installment presents itself as a delicate, anxious entry in this canon: “Inter State,” a collection of linked essays by Bay Area-based poet and playwright José Vadi.
So why is this gentle book worth mentioning? What distinguishes this tentative newcomer on the West Coast essayist scene? For one, a fresh approach: Vadi’s deepest purpose is to understand and retrace the footsteps of his abuelo, who picked vegetables up and down the Central Valley. He layers this important quest with a tart mixture of originality and devotion, as well as his own lens as an avid urban skateboarder. And finally, “Inter State” deserves attention for the way it pits Southern California against the Bay — which is always fun.
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The title essay is the heart: Not long after graduating from UC Berkeley, Vadi determines to create a video document of his grandfather. So tender, the act of attempting to record and make sense of an ancestor’s stories. He buys a mike at a now-shuttered Radio Shack; his abuelo is “already in his late eighties at the time of filming,” but luckily his imperfect grandson is “sober enough in my somewhat reckless twenties to know that this access, like his memory, would end sooner than later.”
Hunting for context out in the farmland, Vadi rents a car, drives up the Grapevine, plumbs the 99, gets a flat tire, interviews some well-meaning but racist volunteers at a former picking station turned museum and considers the legacy of Cesar Chavez. Did “those four years of studying history in Berkeley” teach him anything that could help in his quest, Vadi wonders. Apparently so: “In the dead of night I want to place a plaque at his [abuelo’s] former home noting, HERE STANDS A HOME FORMERLY OWNED BY A MEXICAN NATIONAL.”
A delightful essay, “Getting to Suzy’s,” memorializes Vadi’s favorite bar in San Francisco, a casualty of COVID-19 — beginning with his erstwhile Monday drinks ritual. He remembers loading the jukebox with just about four drinks’ worth of songs, and the track list alone — Brenton Woods and War and Tower of Power — is highly endearing to any reader who’s logged some solo time at a dark bar. Vadi just sounds like … well, someone you’d want to have a beer with. (The techies in SF? Not so much — with “their devices instructing them where to drink, whom to f—, and how to algorithmically get there.”)
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Some of the liveliest writing is fueled by the author’s roots as a skateboarder with a “unique, original, and destructively perceptive eye,” proving that a journey on urethane wheels can be a profound way to consider a city’s architecture. “I remember those visceral, intrinsic moments when the earth beneath our skateboards shook,” he writes in the essay “A California Inquiry,” “and we asked one another with our eyes, Did you feel it?”
Sure, some of the pieces ramble on and could have lost a few pounds. And some of Vadi’s paranoia and anxiety can grate. “Who knows,” he wonders, “I could get sucked out of my Southwest flight on the way home.” Nope. But all in all, this is a fast, slim, successful addition to the canon of books that get at something essential about a maddening, sprawling, epic state. “I will never understand Los Angeles and never want to — it’s not the point,” Vadi writes. (Advantage NorCal.) But California? “I don’t want to die anywhere else.”
Deuel is a continuing lecturer in the writing programs at UCLA.
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