Publisher's Note — April 17, 2014, 12:12 pm

More Irksome Than a California Quake

The taming of a once-wild state

This column originally ran in the Providence Journal on April 17, 2014.

California clichés get on my nerves — cutting edge; dream factory; innovative business culture — so when the time came to visit family and friends in Los Angeles and San Francisco last month I was prepared to be annoyed.

But I wasn’t prepared for the earthquake that shook our Santa Monica hotel room in the early morning of St. Patrick’s Day — that was altogether too real and scary. My wife compared it to the impact of a jet plane landing hard on a runway, but longer lasting.

I suppose the California culture of denial is itself a cliché, but the next day’s Los Angeles Times treated the event very seriously with its double-entendre front-page headline: “4.4 quake a wake-up call on L.A. faults.” According to the paper, the earthquake occurred on a “little-noticed fault deep under the Santa Monica Mountains,” rather than on the more famous subterranean San Andreas Fault.

I offer my deepest apologies for both the cliché and the pun, but perhaps the fault with Los Angeles lies deeper.

Thanks in part to movies like Chinatown, we know that settling millions of people in a desert climate on the shores of the Pacific Ocean is an insult to nature, and that only because of political corruption and “stolen” water from up north are Southern Californians able to survive.

Aside from earthquakes, the deadliest current threat to Los Angeles, and to most of the Southwestern United States, is severe drought, so it’s pertinent to ask what hubris permits Angelenos to so blithely continue their irrational ways of life.

One answer is that it rained for a couple of days before the Academy Awards ceremony, which must have been reassuring to the Hollywood establishment. Another answer might be that the concrete-confined Los Angeles “River” runs through CBS Television’s Studio City complex, where we visited the former set of Seinfeld.

Between the continuously rushing water and the realistic New York City streetscape, you might find yourself believing you’re not living in a West Coast desert at all.

Interestingly, our family preferred the informal tour of the CBS lot to the formal guided tour of nearby Warner Brothers in Burbank. For the garrulous guide at Warner, the Harry Potter movies commanded pride of place in the studio museum, but my daughters are not big fans of J. K. Rowling’s books or their cinematic spinoffs.

The Holy Grail was revealed only at the last stop, when the guide brought us to the perfectly preserved set of Friends. Our fellow tourists were suitably impressed, each one posing for a photograph on the couch of the show’s fictional café. When we revealed that no member of our immediate family had ever seen an episode, our guide seemed genuinely flabbergasted — he had met maybe four other people out of 4,000 visitors who could make the same claim.

Later on, at CBS, I insisted that we be photographed as a family in front of the modest suburban set of My Three Sons, the 1960s series starring Fred MacMurray as a widowed father. That impressed me.

Having suffered no earthquake aftershocks, we lit out for San Francisco on the coast highway in a sedan, not the SUV suggested by the Hertz agent. Thank God I didn’t listen to him. The first part of the journey, through Malibu and Santa Barbara, was lovely, easy driving. We skipped Hearst Castle (I’m satisfied with Orson Welles’s imaginary version in Citizen Kane), opting instead for the beach and surf across the road and a visit to the odd little general store that also houses the Hearst Ranch Winery tasting room and post office in Old San Simeon.

However, as we headed north on Route 1 into the tenth of what seemed like a hundred hairpin turns on the approach to Big Sur, I began to wonder what had possessed the rental agent to suggest a big car, and why everyone we asked in Los Angeles had downplayed the difficulty of the drive.

“No worries” is what Californians say instead of “No problem,” and I was becoming increasingly worried as one of my daughters began to complain of carsickness. Yes, it’s better to be driving north on the mountain side of the road, but I had to be very careful not to let my eyes wander.

The scenery is spectacular all right, but it’s also mercilessly steep, rugged and unfriendly in a way that’s radically different from the East Coast. A bathroom break at Nepenthe, the restaurant on the site of a cabin bought on a whim by Orson Welles and wife Rita Hayworth in 1944, saved the day.

I had heard about the tension in San Francisco between the old-timers and the new money from Silicon Valley, but I’m a born skeptic. I was sure that Baghdad by the Bay (as Herb Caen dubbed this most magnificent of cities) was immune from the kind of gentrification that has made Manhattan and parts of Brooklyn so dull and homogenous.

But after four days my wife and I agreed with the old-timers: the City by the Bay, home to so much of American bohemia, has lost its charm. The Mission neighborhood, once thoroughly Mexican, is giving way to boutiques and restaurants just like the upscale ones on Fillmore Street in spirit.

I’m biased because my older daughter suffered a serious allergic reaction in a trendy café called The Grove and had to be hospitalized overnight, but I couldn’t help but be irritated by the retail uniformity of Lower Pacific Heights. The hardest thing, though, was to enter a sanitized Tosca Café in North Beach, once a romantic, reckless spot where I asked my wife to marry me, and where I met the great journalist Warren Hinckle for the first time, along with other, more frightening eccentrics like the pornographer Artie Mitchell. The Tosca today, well, you could find a version of it in New York.

I did see what might well have been drunken eccentrics — in the impeccably organized and remarkably friendly UCSF hospital emergency room — but I miss the old San Francisco.

Share
Single Page

More from John R. MacArthur:

Publisher's Note October 3, 2019, 4:07 pm

The Fourth Estate

Publisher's Note August 7, 2019, 3:14 pm

Censorship

“Nor would I leave to Emmanuel Macron and Mark Zuckerberg, both of them politicians first and foremost, the job of regulating anything that has to do with words or language.”

Publisher's Note July 12, 2019, 10:47 am

American Greatness

Get access to 169 years of
Harper’s for only $23.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

November 2019

Men at Work

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

To Serve Is to Rule

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Bird Angle

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The K-12 Takeover

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The $68,000 Fish

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Men at Work·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“You’re being reborn,” the voice says. “Exiting the womb of your mother. Coming into the earth as a small baby. Everything is new.” It is a Saturday morning in mid-March, and right now I’m lying on a yoga mat in a lodge in Ohio, surrounded by fifty other men who’ve come to the Midwest for a weekend of manhood-confirming adventures. The voice in question belongs to Aaron Blaine, a facilitator for Evryman, the men’s group orchestrating this three-day retreat. All around me, men are shedding tears as Blaine leads us on a guided meditation, a kind of archetypal montage of Norman Rockwell boyhood. “You’re starting to figure things out,” he says, in somniferous baritone. “Snow, for the first time. Sunshine. Start to notice the smells, the tastes, the confusion. The fear. And you’re growing. You’re about ten years old. The world’s huge and scary.”

Even though it’s only the second day of the Evryman retreat, it’s worth noting that I’ve already been the subject of light fraternal teasing. Already I’ve been the recipient of countless unsought hugs. Already I have sat in Large Groups and Small Groups, and watched dozens of middle-aged men weep with shame and contrition. I’ve had a guy in the military tell me he wants to be “a rock for his family.” I’ve heard a guy from Ohio say that his beard “means something.” Twice I’ve hiked through the woods to “reconnect with Mother Nature,” and I have been addressed by numerous men as both “dude” and “brother.” I have performed yoga and yard drills and morning calisthenics. I’ve heard seven different men play acoustic guitar. I’ve heard a man describe his father by saying, “There wasn’t a lot of ball-tossing when I was growing up.” Three times I’ve been queried about how I’m “processing everything,” and at the urinal on Friday night, two men warned me about the upcoming “Anger Ceremony,” which is rumored to be the weekend’s “pièce de résistance.”

Article
To Serve Is to Rule·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The WASP story is personal for me. I arrived at Yale in 1971 from a thoroughly mediocre suburb in New Jersey, the second-generation hybrid of Irish and Italian stock riding the postwar boom. Those sockless people in Top-Siders, whose ancestors’ names and portraits adorned the walls, were entirely new to me. I made friends with some, but I was not free of a corrosive envy of their habitus of ease and entitlement.

I used to visit one of those friends in the Hamptons, in the 1970s, when the area was about wood-paneled Ford station wagons, not Lamborghinis. There was some money in the family, but not gobs, yet they lived two blocks from the beach—prime real estate. Now, down the road from what used to be their house is the residence of Ira Rennert. It’s one of the largest private homes in the United States. The union-busting, pension-fund-looting Rennert, whose wealth comes from, among other things, chemical companies that are some of the worst polluters in the country, made his first money in the 1980s as a cog in Michael Milken’s junk-bond machine. In 2015, a court ordered him to return $215 million he had appropriated from one of his companies to pay for the house. One-hundred-car garages and twenty-one (or maybe twenty-nine) bedrooms don’t come cheap.

Article
The Bird Angle·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

I slept for a good seven hours on the overnight flight from Spain to Peru, and while I slept I dreamed that I was leading American visitors around a park in Berlin, looking for birds on a hazy, overcast day. There wasn’t much to see until we noticed a distant commotion in the sky. Large raptors were panicking, driven back and forth by something threatening them from above. The commotion moved closer. The clouds parted, an oval aperture backed with blue. In it two seraphim hovered motionless. “Those are angels,” I told the group.

They were between us and the sun, but an easy ­I.D. Size aside, no other European bird has two sets of wings. The upper wings cast their faces into shadow. Despite the glare I could make out their striking peaches-­and-­cream coloration. Ivory white predominates, hair a faint yellow, eyes blue, wings indescribably iridescent. Faces blank and expressionless, as with all birds.

Article
The K-12 Takeover·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Last May, the families of students at Cypress Academy, an independent charter school in New Orleans, received an email announcing that the school would close when classes ended the following week and that all its students would be transferred to another nearby charter for the upcoming year. Parents would have the option of entering their children in the city’s charter-enrollment lottery, but the lottery’s first round had already taken place, and the most desirable spots for the fall were filled.

Founded in 2015, a decade after New Orleans became the nation’s first city to begin replacing all its public schools with charters, Cypress was something of a rarity. Like about nine in ten of the city’s charter schools, it filled spaces by lottery rather than by selective admission. But while most of the nonselective schools in New Orleans had majority populations of low-income African-American students, Cypress mirrored the city’s demographics, drawing the children of professionals—African-American and white alike—as well as poorer students. Cypress reserved 20 percent of its seats for children with reading difficulties, and it offered a progressive education model, including “learning by doing,” rather than the strict conduct codes that dominated the city’s nonselective schools. In just three years, the school had outperformed many established charters—a particular feat given that one in four Cypress students had a disability, double the New Orleans average. Families flocked to Cypress, especially ones with children who had disabilities.

Article
Five Stories·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

how high? that high

He had his stick that was used mostly to point at your head if your head wasn’t held up proudly.

I still like that man—Holger! He had been an orphan!

He came up to me once because there was something about how I was moving my feet that wasn’t according to the regulations or his expectations.

The room was a short wide room with a short wide window with plenty of artificial light.

Cost of renting a giant panda from the Chinese government, per day:

$1,500

A recent earthquake in Chile was found to have shifted the city of Concepción ten feet to the west, shortened Earth’s days by 1.26 microseconds, and shifted the planet’s axis by nearly three inches.

The first person awarded the title of royal consort in Thailand had her title removed for trying to “elevate herself to the same state as the queen” and “disloyalty.”

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Jesus Plus Nothing

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

By

At Ivanwald, men learn to be leaders by loving their leaders. “They’re so busy loving us,” a brother once explained to me, “but who’s loving them?” We were. The brothers each paid $400 per month for room and board, but we were also the caretakers of The Cedars, cleaning its gutters, mowing its lawns, whacking weeds and blowing leaves and sanding. And we were called to serve on Tuesday mornings, when The Cedars hosted a regular prayer breakfast typically presided over by Ed Meese, the former attorney general. Each week the breakfast brought together a rotating group of ambassadors, businessmen, and American politicians. Three of Ivanwald’s brothers also attended, wearing crisp shirts starched just for the occasion; one would sit at the table while the other two poured coffee. 

Subscribe Today