Tuesday, February 26, 2002

Abajo Sur

Submitted by Melinda Murphy

I have lived in Reno, Nevada, for about twelve years, off and on. And it has been more on than off. There was the reporter gig in Bishop and Mammoth Lakes, California, hacking for a newspaper chain nobody has ever heard of and then the stint as a wild land firefighter up in Plumas County, California in 1996, but aside from that, there were endless summers working menial jobs and costly winters getting a half-assed schooling at the University of Nevada, Reno - my almost alma mater. I'm the most daring sort of writer. I'm a college dropout.

A few years prior to getting the gypsy itch to blow this truck stop, I'd taken up the futile hobby of spec script writing. Between all the weekends I'd blown on rewrites, the contest entry fees, the on-line screaming matches with other wannabes, and trying to explain to an office supply store clerk just exactly what a brad was (no, not Mr. Pitt), I gave it all up for Lent.

I had been chewing the scenery in this burg telling all my patient friends, "Screw these pod people! I want out!"

Then, one night, ensconced on my friend Sarina's couch (she had cable television, I didn't) I'd watched as the winner of HBO's Project Greenlight huffed and stomped like an angry twelve year-old runner up in a spelling bee. He wrote a script about an Irish Catholic kid who decides to convert a kosher friend - and this won? And then it hit me. Why not just move to LaLa Land? Oh yes, I could live out the fantasy so beautifully envisioned in Kevin Smith's Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back. I would find the three So Cal twits who had critiqued my script during the Project Greenlight fiasco with astute comments like "I no likey u story" and "Man, I just don't get it" and BEAT THE CRAP OUT OF THEM!

I didn't really have second thoughts on the scouting around trip down south until I neared the exit for Whittier on Interstate 5 and realized there's no air here and I didn't bring any.

Metropolitan Los Angeles and Orange County combined is massive, like an angry three-hundred pound hooker sprawled out on a curb, dead drunk. Her right fist is Long Beach, her left hand is Pasadena, her head - covered in a dirty wig - is Hollywood, her sagging breasts include the downtown banking district with its pompous high rises and her ass and thighs enclose Inglewood, Anaheim, Carson, and all things in between. Los Angeles County counts some eleven million souls as its residents and Orange County ups the ante another two to five million, making Southern California a humbling metropolis.

Cruising on Katella Avenue, Pacific Coast Highway, and then Santa Monica Boulevard, I felt like a hillbilly ant in a dilapidated Hyundai, alone in a sea of angry legal secretaries and other impatient locals gunning their sleek BMW's and Acura's for the next stoplight. Everyone knew where he or she was going and I didn't have a clue. The smog from eleven million cars and the typical California flat-as-a-pancake geography makes it impossible to see the downtown skyline. There was a Ramada Inn in Torrance. It was expensive, it was safe, and it was quiet. When you are a guppy in an ocean of humanity, you stick to what you know, you stick to the reefs, to places like Trader Joe's, El Pollo Loco, and the nearest well-lit parking lot of an AMC movie theater.

In my plush motel room, I channel surfed and watched the evening news. Most of the random violence occurred in Long Beach, which was also one of the most racially and economically mixed areas. There was another shoot out between a black gang and a chollo gang and a Brinks security guard got shot in the face in a full parking lot in Anaheim at five in the evening and nobody saw anything. Outside the motel, I watched tiny grade-school kids get off city buses in the their daily journey home from public schools on the other side of the concrete jungle.

The next morning, I made a quick shot up Crenshaw through Torrance and then back on to the Pacific Coast Highway and Redondo Beach. Perusing the endless strip malls, taquerios, and coffee shops, I thought this ain't so bad.

I stop at the Redondo Beach Pier. The dewy mid-morning air was somewhere between phosphorescent and bronze. I kept taking my shades off and putting them back on. The light in this place of endless contradictions cast everyone in a soft movie star glow. It was about sixty-five degrees Fahrenheit and it bumped all the way to seventy-three before I left the valley. Three hours away, in the southern Sierra Nevada, the wind is howling and the snow is blinding. At the pier, everything was polluted. It was heartbreaking. This would have been such a nice place to live if people would just turn off their cars and never flush their toilets again. And this was the same crowd of blancos who point the finger of accusation at the mining on the Baja coast.

And what was up with the whites and the Chicanos in Los Angeles? I try and ask several of my friends in Reno, who are ex-Angelinos, but they all change the subject. Racism in Los Angeles is like the giant, cervasa swilling, cheeseburger-sucking elephant in the middle of the living room nobody wants to talk about. Reno is more than thirty percent Hispanic and, yeah, we have issues, but generally we take after Rodney King and get along.
In Los Angeles, the Spanish-English divide was wider than the Grand Canyon, it was a gaping wound that leached life out of the arts and culture scene and made for cold stares at intersections. When I was in Orange at a convenience store, the clerk, a Latina, made a point of helping several Hispanics in line behind me, before she helped me. Later, in downtown Beverly Hills, near Wiltshire and Santa Monica I sat in a Starbuck's and watched a middle-aged Hispanic woman try vainly for ten minutes to get anybody to give her directions to some mansion where she had an interview. I would have helped her but I couldn't even remember where I parked my car.
All the way home from my foray to the Southland, I kept thinking back on the Hispanic friends and foes I'd had. Nevada, like California, has been drawing Spanish speakers, especially campesinos and vaqueros, for centuries. There were a lot of Spanish Basques where I grew up, along with actual Spanish immigrants and Mexicans, and Dias help you on the playground if you confused the three.

Back in high school, a friend of mine, who was Italian-American, once stood overlooking the parking lot of our high school and said, "There's way too many spicks in our school." She was and still is, regularly mistaken for a Latina with her black hair, olive skin, and green eyes. Mexicans come up to her on the streets of Stockton, California, (where she now lives) and start speaking Spanish. In her defense, she has since taken a few Spanish classes and now tries to mumble a response. She wants to go back to the Mother Church, wants to become a confirmed Catholic, but the services are rarely held in English and so she leans toward Protestantism and her family leans perilously towards white supremacy.

A few years back, in the midst of a day job, I asked a co-worker - who was a young California dude from tiny Grass Valley - why he was so determined to finish his minor in Spanish literature and go back to Peru. He said, "If you ever make it to San Diego and you look south over the border, just remember, for as far as you can see, for as far as the land mass extends all the way to Antarctica, the whole world is Spanish."

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