I’m sitting in the backyard of my sister’s carriage house apartment in Orange, California, a circle of jolly boutique and micro brew quaintness amid the sprawling shit hole that is Orange County.
Of course nowadays, most any place in America afflicted by people is a shit hole. Indeed, even a quotient of the unpopulated spaces is beginning to emit a fecal stench, as if the human foulness emanating from the peopled portions of our nation is so strong as to waft and stain everything around it, like a halo of shimmering, homo sapiens stank.
I want it to be hotter.
After all, there are no more distinct places in the United States, or precious few at any rate. Instead, there are just types. The urban playground loaded with bars and restaurants, and kickball and skeeball leagues for childless 20- and 30-somethings; the poor and working class black and brown food deserts that gird the yuppies and empty nesters; the little towns hemorrhaging people, stragglers holding onto the local bar like shipwreck survivors grasping a buoy in the ocean; the increasingly opulent college towns full of precious students, microcosmic training yards for the urban playgrounds; the tourist spots offering up overpriced drinks and glossy nostalgia; and all of it bound together by highways, those endless concourses of fast food, gasoline, and the occasional pile of roadkill.
But all of those types are just islands scattered about the uber-type, that oceanic wasteland of suburbia and its relentless waves of roads, strip malls, and tract housing, repeating itself over and over again like the backdrop of a cheap 1970s cartoon where a boring bipedal cat, arms outstretched, chases a smarmy little mouse who’s certainly got it coming, but predictably manages to perpetually escape the fanged horror it deserves, thus prolonging the crankshaft repetition of house tree fence; house tree fence; house tree fence . . .
And all of it, every last bit of it, shot through with shitty chain outlets. Your uppers, your downers, your food in wrappers and boxes, your slave labor clothing, your mega stores, your tech shacks, and your money huts, all of them speckling the landscape like aggressive tumors mindlessly devouring their host.
No more places. Just types.
And now I’m in this type. The southern California backyard, walled off from everything but the murderous sun, several blocks from the bubbling dot of a used-to-be-an-actual-town-center-but-is-now-a-bourgeois-simulacrum-of-a-town-in-the-form-of-antique shops-and-almost-interesting-food, itself a lonely island amid the yawning expanse of ubiquitous sprawl.
And I’m wishing it were hotter.
When I’m in southern California, I prefer to do my writing outside, half-naked and sweating onto a laptop. There’s something about those cinder block privacy walls and the endless, arid sunshine that puts an even cruder bent to my degeneracy than I’m apt to feel elsewhere. Nothing matters here. That’s what everyone strives very hard to convince themselves of.
Truth be told, they’re more neurotic than a bespectacled Upper West Sider stumbling out of a therapy session. But their biggest neurosis of all is the gut wrenching need to believe they’re not neurotic. So they wear flip flops and self-medicate with weed or wine if they’re not partial to pills, with yoga and meditation of they mortally afraid of mortality, and vaguely intimate that the official street food of the West Coast, the burrito, is inherently more relaxing than the official street food of the East Coast, the slice and/or the hotdog.
They try so hard to not give a shit. But they’re failing miserably, and deep down they know it, which is why they shudder at the sight of my wiry salt and pepper maw. Yet making them twitch isn’t as much fun as it used to be, so I don naught but a pair of stained gym shorts, retreat to the walled off yard, bang on the keyboard, and occasionally pee on the fig tree.
If there’s anything to care about in Orange County, it’s the doughnuts. I’d say the Mexican food, but there are a lot of places you can get good Mexican food. However, the man tells me there are nearly 300 independent doughnut shops in this wide eyed paean to sunshine and orange juice. Why they insist on spelling it “donut” is beyond me, but either way, fried dough is the OC’s saving grace. A great doughnut can revive the soul. Hell, a merely good one is enough to ward off genital warts.
From here, I head north to the Bay area. For a long time, San Francisco was a unique spot on the map. I remember Johnny Carson making late night fag jokes about the place back when most Americans thought “a little light in the loafers,” was an inherently funny phrase. Then again, they also thought the Village People were just some theatrical young men. If ignorance is bliss, then innocence is the white, faux-suede gloves we use to hide the blood on our hands.
Before it was a gay Mecca, San Francisco helped invent the hippie subculture. Some nice things came out of that. “White Rabbit” is a helluva song, and while no on wants to admit it, those patchouli-reeking bastards were right: anti-perspirant will kill you in the end.
Then again, Raoul Duke probably hit it flush when he deemed that whole scene a failure: just another orgiastic Baby Boomer sideshow that disavowed both politics and serious art, while drugs became the goal instead of the pathway. Drifting pot heads morphed into homeless junkies; from näive and directionless to mean and chincy. All of it self-absorbed.
Before the hippies, Frisco (a name the natives detest, which is why I use it) was a crazy patchwork quilt of misfit and castoffs. The Italians, the Chinese, and various other tightrope walkers balanced themselves along the fine line and managed to cobble together a vibrant urban space despite the race riots and lynchings.
Go back far enough and the place was a 3-2-1 liftoff spot for the genocide of California’s Indigenous peoples. That level of evil, it marks you. Sets you aside as, if not unique, then goddamn special in ways too wrong to remember, which is why most Americans live in daily denial.
But that was a long time ago, before the hoary dot com bubble bloated and burst like an inflamed corpuscle. Of course that wasn’t the end of it; the puss oozed and the infection spread. During the last two decades, Silicon Valley has reshaped the entire region by flooding it with the kind of callow money that makes the con game shoot all the angles until every loser thinks he’s a winner and every winner is an insufferable boor.
Not all money’s created equal. Don’t believe me? Wait til the day comes when they throw your filthy lucre back in your face like a zoo ape flinging feces at the plexiglass.
Either way, the bottom line for the City by the Bay is the same as everywhere else. Its vast metroplex is just another melange of types, from the world class playground in the middle, to the archetypal preciousness of Berkeley, to the Oakland food deserts shrinking in the face of gentrification, and finally the aching morass of suburbia surrounding it all.
We’ll stay for two days. Maybe I’ll catch a ball game. Maybe I’ll blow my brains out. It’s all the same out here.
Living or dead, after the Bay I’ll make my way to Reno, Nevada. The Biggest Little Town in America, they like to call it. I guess that’s because they still got trains passing through downtown, hauling silver from somewhere to somewhere else, and making big choo-choo sounds in the middle of the night. But the hustlers and whores are mostly gone, the 24 hour chili dog was never that good, and the usual creep has crept through the place just like every other place. So to hell with it. One night at a locals casino, room courtesy of a local friend with points up the wazoo, and then on to the great adventure across a continent.
We’ll head east and follow a tendril of highway out to the dry void, that grand expanse of the West which, unlike Phoenix, SoCal and Vegas, isn’t raping the environment for hundreds of miles around in the quest for water so they can transform the desert into suburbs.
Somewhere in Utah we aim to find the remains of a WWII Japanese-American internment camp. A rotting reminder that while everything’s the same now, being a special little snowflake wasn’t always a good thing.
Afterwards we’ll trek on, with stops in Colorado, central Missouri, and whichever god-forsaken Midwestern motel we collapse in before finally returning to Baltimore.
It’s good to return to Baltimore. Baltimore knows what it is and what it ain’t. And while the is can sometimes leave you wanting, at least the ain’t is honest.
The essay originally appeared at 3 Quarks Daily.