Locked Down in California: Notes of a Curmudgeon in Paradise

Scott Winfield Sublett

For a lot of us, the big frustration of the pandemic is how it puts the future on hold. For me, that means freeze-drying my long-treasured dream of moving to New York, something people don’t understand because their fantasy, as was mine, is that you get to California and the rest of your life is painted by Gauguin, or at least Hockney. However, as the 1940s movie siren Rita Hayworth wisecracked about her divorces, “They go to bed with Gilda, they wake up with me.”
Let’s start with the honeymoon. Back in the 1990s, soon after I got here, Derek Guthrie, wise and august co-founder of The New Art Examiner, came to visit. We strolled the 100 feet from my sunny studio apartment (back then only 600 bucks a month) to Venice Beach, settled onto the sand, and broke out the pitcher of Manhattans I’d concocted to complement the sunset. Under an orange-gold darkening sky, we gazed at the horizon as waves crashed softly at our feet, and gulls cried, “Ha! Ha!” A squadron of pelicans winged over the water. A few feet below them, dolphins broke the surface of the teal sea in playful arcs.
A silence, as the spectacle sank in, then Derek growled: “I don’t fucking believe it — this isn’t real.” He sounded like someone who suspects he’s being conned, but underneath that, perhaps a note of regret, like a man who lost his virginity at 45 and suddenly realized what had been missed.
As usual, Derek was on to something. California has ravishing sights, but less of it is beautiful than you think, and beauty has a price. I don’t mind earthquakes (walls fall away so that apartment buildings look like dollhouses), but now forest fires turn downtown skies a blackish orange, with air that’s ‘the equivalent of smoking 10 to 20 packs of cigarettes a day,’ which makes you think, what the hell, have a cigarette, but if you did, the looks you’d get would be deadlier than fire.
Even worse are the cost of living and inconceivable homelessness, cheek-to-jowl with so much wealth. The big lucre is mostly made by the art-hating droids of tech, who even when they pull down $250,000 a year seem somehow unable to rustle up the down payment on a typical two-million-dollar bungalow.
Worse for one’s morale is when people deserve to be richer than you. For example, at my last pre-Covid19 dinner party in San Francisco, my host boasted that the goat cheese had been ranked number one in the state and was fresh off the ranch of his buddy, a prominent pediatric surgeon. OK, so Doc Wonderful spends his weekdays performing delicate operations on adorable children of all races and creeds, and on the week-end curdles up the best chèvre in the state? I’m supposed to go on living my worthless life knowing that? It makes one want a proper drink, but if you order anything but wine, or craft beer at 12 dollars a can, Californians think you’re a peasant and a lush.
My disillusionment with the Golden State probably comes down to my inability to say, “Have a nice day” to people I’d like to slap upside the head. There’s a shrewd saying in the US: ‘East Coasters are kind but not nice. West Coasters are nice but not kind.’ And when you think about it, nice-but-not-kind is a good working definition of passive-aggressive, of which California is the world capital (I would say Capital of the Universe but God’s silence is the ultimate passive aggression). California’s passive-aggression often takes the form of faintly sanctimonious retorts that subtly call into question your liberal piety. You say, ‘Nice sunny day!’ They say, ‘But what about the drought?’ You say, ‘Damn — rain again!’ They say, ‘But don’t you care about the drought?’ To all this, you might be saying, ‘Stuck in California. Isn’t yours rather a first-world problem?’ In which case, congratulations, you’re going to love California.
When I tell friends that I’m divorcing the Golden State, they ask, “Won’t you miss the sunshine?” Yes, but my theory is this: when you’re depressed, a gray sky is a tragedy, but weather doesn’t matter when you’re happy. The happiest country on Earth is Finland. So, when the lockdown is over, I’m going to New York, unless I go to England, where my drinking will seem perfectly normal.

Volume 35 no 4 March – April 2021

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