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California dreaming

Thu, May 21, 2009

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Back in the 50s, my first job consisted of cleaning up messes, human and animal, at the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo. It paid $50 a week-not bad for a summer job, and wealth beyond compare for a 15 year old. I caught a ride every morning with a colorful old guy (who was probably considerably younger than I am now) named Ben Sillix. Ben chewed tobacco, and spat the juice out of the window of his battered ’49 Ford sedan, staining the driver’s side door a dull brown.

One day, Ben, who hadn’t been feeling well, told me that he had cancer.

“The Doc says I don’t have long, Johnny,” he said, “and I’ve never been anywhere. I was thinking of just going to California – got nothin’ to keep me here. What do you think?”

“Ben,” I said, full of adolescent optimism, “split for the coast! You’ll get better.”

The next day, Ben didn’t show up, and my Mom took me to work. He had left for California. I never knew what happened to him.

Like so many Americans – and Mexicans, and Vietnamese, and Chinese, and Japanese, and Hondurans, and…well, name a nation – Ben was a California dreamer.

That dream is a little frayed around the edges now. Like Governor Schwarzenegger, the golden state is not ageing gracefully, figuratively showing its sagging pecs and flabby behind.

On Tuesday, California voters resoundingly rejected half a dozen referred issues that would have allowed the state to implement a budget that the legislature, after months of argument, had finally managed to pass.

So, now, Californians are bracing (that’s newspaperspeak for “reluctantly preparing) for across-the-board cuts in every government service.

California state government is what you’d get if you asked Douglas Bruce and Ralph Nader (or Sarah Palin and Amy Goodman) to write a constitution, and accepted all of their ideas, contradictory or not. Compared to California’s, Colorado’s lunatic document is a model of rationality.

As Tim Egan wrote this morning in the New York Times, Californians hate their politicians, and their politicians despise the voters whose capricious decisions created the mess.

What’s next? Maybe a Constitutional Convention, or more chaos, or more companies moving here, or…who knows?

But California’s still California. Come November, I’ll think of Ben Sillix and wonder whether it’s not too late to jump in my battered car and split for the coast. It’s a vastly different state than it was 50 years ago – more crowded, more polluted, more dangerous, more diverse. But it’s still the land of opportunity, a place where fortune smiles upon eager castaways, and nothing’s impossible.

Maybe old Ben’s still alive, a leathery old man chewing a cigar beside his swimming pool in the Hollywood Hills. Maybe he made his fortune buying a tract of then-worthless land in the San Fernando Valley.

And if Ben did it, if he wasn’t afraid to strike out for Califas, heading west on two-lane blacktop into Kerouac’s Great American Night, so could we all.

It’s never too late for California dreaming.

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