Thoughts on California

by R. Passov

When I arrived in California, when I was born, I joined 15 million inhabitants, including my parents.

They were part of a long wave of predominately eastern European descendants who came in such numbers as to pull west much of post-WWII American culture.

In the year I found California, 16 million people lived in New York State. It was the New York of West Side Story and the Bronx Bombers, the year when the Boys of Summer would play their first game in Los Angeles.

In the early 1970s my family took a cross-country road trip. For four days we drove toward our history.

I was in school with children of the East, growing in the seams of our parent’s dreams of leaving places with exotic names like Brooklyn, Hoboken and best of all, the Bronx. That’s where we aimed on that cross-country drive to visit my great grandparents, so old by then they no longer moved.

Two floors up a dark stairwell on the Grand Concourse, once the boulevard of dreams for Jews, the lights of Yankee Stadium shown in their summer windows. Sitting on their tattered sofa surrounded by their old country furnishings, wearing the same formal clothing that protecting them across the Atlantic, they were old-country old. How glad I was that my parents had come west.

In 1997 I left California’s then 32 million inhabitants to move East, thereby adding one to New York’s 18 million.

*        *        *        *

Recently I returned to California to see Jackie, a friend from my San Fernando Valley high school. While surfing the waters off San Diego Jackie turned ashen. He went straight from the surf to a hospital. The die had nowhere to go. The arteries were blocked. The scar is the aftermath of a six-way bypass.

When Facebook told me of the heart attack I said I’d be out San Diego-way. We met in the lobby of my hotel, found a down-and-out bar and drank through our backstories. Around about midnight, realizing that four weeks out of surgery is uncharted waters, Jackie called it a night.

After a late breakfast, nursing a headache, ready to leave the Disney-like downtown known as the Gaslight District, I left San Diego. My mother still lives in the Valley, about 110 freeway miles due north. I followed the instructions coming from the rental car GPS. As traffic clogged the arteries heading into LA, I was routed progressively east. Bewildered, eventually I turned north into a part of California unconstructed in my day.

Four teenagers racing south on the 405 freeway, the main north-south passageway across the LA basin and the busiest stretch of road in America, had crashed into a light pole. There were no survivors. Next, a “…black Kia Sportage, a gray Ford Pugma, a white BMW and two other vehicles that fled the scene …” all somehow crashed into each other. That’s why the GPS routed me 60 miles east. The drive lasted five hours.

After a pleasant night at my mother’s, I took side streets across the San Fernando Valley to the Burbank Airport, at one point passing students on their way to my high school.

*        *        *        *

In 1961 the boards controlling elementary schools and high schools merged into the LAUSD, creating the second largest school district in the US. The new LAUSD served 550,000 students. Peak enrollment of 750,000 would occur in 2001.

Since 2001, according to the LAUSD, the percentage of folks in the LA basin of school-age has fallen from 35% to 25%, mirroring a trend in the population at large. Better contraception and lower teenage pregnancies and a steady trickle of out of the LA basin are also factors. Combined with the rise of Charter Schools, the net result has been a steady decline in the LAUSD population back down to approximately 550,000 k-12 students.

The students I saw walking to school were Hispanic. Today, 73.4% of students in the LAUSD identify as Hispanic while 10.5% identify as White non-Hispanic.

Data for the years that I was a student has proven elusive. Statistics for California in general can proxy.



Jackie and I didn’t care about race perhaps because we were so likely to find ourselves around a familiar race. We were coasting on 60s extract. Today, as in the 1950s, race association seems once again the result of purposeful activity; likely two-parent families deciding because they have the means to live where they believe the schools are better.

Yes, California has experienced dramatic growth. And yes, the colors have changed from white and some brown to a full rainbow. And the state never misses an opportunity to brag about its place in the global economy. All that’s ok.

And yet, something very important has been lost. My California was one of tolerable traffic, oppressive smog and great public institutions of learning, all the way from elementary school through to University. Those institutions worked in the sense that the average experience was good enough to get you into a State University and then into a career.

The statistics of today’s LAUSD imply that the public schools are educating those who can’t vote with their feet. The statistics seem to indicate that the civic structure that I did well by and at the same time took for granted, is struggling. This was the structure that tried to bring us together when we were young, fill us with myth, then send us into the world, believing more or less that we were all Americans.

*        *        *        *

From the Burbank airport I flew to San Francisco. For the past many years, I’ve sat court-side watching the Warriors win their titles. Eddie is the oldest son in a family that, in the early 1970s, immigrated to San Francisco from Hong Kong. His father worked as a janitor for the local phone company, scrimping all of his adult life to provide education for his children. Eddie’s wife tells a similar story. Her father, also a laborer, left Hong Kong around the same time, determined to find opportunities to educate his daughters.

Eddie and Jenny met in the lawless flat lands of Oakland, Ca. During their courtship, they cautiously strolled toward the hills above McArthur Boulevard, silently wondering whether one day they too would live in a big house, above it all.

Now they do.

After the game, Eddie treated me to a bottle of wine from his cellar. He has a thousand bottles; all the right year from the right vintage, a collection worth more than the average American home.

A few glasses in we got around to pushing each other’s buttons. What are friends for? He wanted to take me to a firing range so that I could work through his vast collection of firearms. I managed my way out of the invitation but at the cost of politics.

My parents voted for Trump, Eddie offered. So did my wife’s, he want on. And so did my wife.

Ok, I said, and you?

I did, he said and then offered a host of stock reasons.

Hillary, the debt, guns, Immigration? How could that be it? Your father once saved for six months to take you to the worst seat in the Warrior’s arena. And for the past twenty-five years, as you’ve advanced in your career, you’ve worked your way down and now sit on the floor in the finals, next to your father. You are the poster child of an immigrant family.

You know, Eddie said, when Jeremy Lin (first Asian American in the NBA, reserve point guard for the title-winning Toronto Raptors) made it into the NBA, I cried. But, he added, no one cried before that. Do you know, he said, that the Chinese are the only group to have been explicitly prohibited from working in this country.

Eddie was referring to the Chinese Exclusion Act, signed in 1882 by President Chester Arthur. The act built upon predecessor acts, passed in California, all designed to halt further Chinese immigration. After the Gold Rush Chinese labor, no longer needed, was blamed for the usual ills: Strained state finances from the demands of a growing population combined with downward pressure on wages as pools of labor once dedicated to mining searched for new opportunities.

Did you ever hear of a Chinese person complaining about those acts? Eddie asked.  Did you ever hear one of us asking for restitution? No. But what you do hear is that too many of us are getting into Berkeley. Yes, we want to get ahead. And for all of these years, Eddie said, from his beautiful home in the Oakland Hills, where did it get us?

Yes, we voted for Trump. Because we worked hard, we did well and now everyone in California wants to take care of everyone else and at the same time stop us from moving ahead. So we’re forced to play identity politics. That’s what it boils down to.

I know how hard Eddie worked. How he put aside for his family. What he wants for his next generation.

I know Eddie is a good person, that if I were to work for him again we’d be successful again.

Eddie wants the veneration that his and his brethren’s journeys command. Thank us for our efforts, celebrate our achievements, lionize our success as you’ve done with the other immigrants who came here. Make our stories your stories. When you do that we’ll invest in a common future. Until then, it’s identity politics all the way.

*        *        *        *

I had been to Eddie’s house once before when my son was one year old and Eddie and Jenny had a Chinese cook who ventured down the hill to the live markets in Chinatown to find our dinner.

The salt baked chicken was fantastic, the first full meal my son had. He ate with both hands.

But along with the good memories comes a different feeling. Eddie bought that house from a progressive, dual income gay couple. They had fashioned it, one taste on top of the other, achieving a divine minimalism. A luxurious, modern white villa pile riding a steep hillside with, between the kitchen and the living room, an indoor pool.

It was as though the home were a high-rise apartment; the outside a distant view of San Francisco or the way to get to the car.

On that first visit I saw the new California, where each home is an island. I remember thinking this way of living wasn’t for me.

*        *        *        *

Today, California has about 40 million residents. New York, 19 million, of which I am one.