Jan/Feb 2003 Salon

View from the Left Coast: Escape from LA

by C.E. Chaffin

I was born and have spent most of my life in the Los Angeles area as a second-generation native (My father was born in San Diego).

On Halloween of 2002 my wife, myself and our dog took off in a plane for Mexico to live indefinitely.

No, no broomsticks or Quidditch. I prefer basketball anyway.

The next day we found ourselves celebrating the Mexican "Day of the Dead," when departed loved ones are remembered in sometimes elaborate shrines, topped by a photo, with offerings of their favorite foods, liquors and mementos below. As Eliot wrote (and there is a terrific science fiction novella by Robert Silverberg which borrows the title), "We are born with the dead." Thus our nativity in our new adopted land was blessed with this occasion.

Given human nature, I assume most readers are curious as to why we moved. It wasn't because of September 11, smog, a plague of molesting priests, Gale Norton in the ecological hen house, or other pressing fears or disappointments with the most powerful country on earth. No, however much I dress it up retrospectively as philosophically preferable, it was because we were house-poor. As a disabled physician on a fixed income, I could no longer afford the mortgage, taxes, and association dues for the condominium in which I had lived for ten years. Our glorious 25th floor condo overlooking the beach, with a 270-degree view of the San Gabriel Mountains and the Pacific, wrap-around balcony and external walls entirely of glass (large sliding doors) was consuming half our daily bread. We've put it up for rent now, after renovating, and if anyone is interested please contact jwprops@aol.com.

For an idea of financial scale, in Mexico one can rent a handsome, larger dwelling for only the cost of our former association dues, $409. So Mexico was the first place we thought of where our money could stretch enough to maintain our northern property until rented.

We have since discovered a plethora of other justifications in the clear light of San Miguel de Allende, so that I feel compelled to quote Eliot in order to include them:

Time present and time past are both, perhaps, contained in time future and time future in time past.


Time Past:

I was raised in an upper middle class family whose most prestigious residence was obtained in Huntington Harbor, a development for waterfront homes carved out of swamplands, although we lived in a landlocked cul de sac. To be fair, we didn't move there until my freshman year of high school, but the neighborhood was so insular that I didn't know my neighbors. I made no friends near our home save those I met through high school who coincidentally lived in the same development, and none within my immediate neighborhood, though some were within walking distance.

I remember an embroidery my sister made for my dad, complete with a picture of an impressive fortress: "My home is my castle." And it seemed to me, as one born into the hippie generation seeking community, that the ultimate American dream had become isolation—to have a home where one could slip in undetected (preferably in a luxury automobile) by means of an electric garage door opener, afterwards seeking the haven of a wet bar and television without so much as waving at a neighbor.

Individualism, as typified more positively by Thoreau, who used isolation as a means to improving himself and the idea of society, had in a little over a hundred years been turned on its head in the better suburbs of LA. Like Citizen Kane's Xanadu, it seemed most post-depression era adults were no longer fixated on keeping up with the Joneses but escaping them altogether, protected by head-high redwood fences adorned with vines and guarded by trees so tall no neighbor could peek over and shoot the breeze, unlike even the faceless neighbor in Tim Allen's "Tool Time" sitcom.

At the age of five, just before moving back to LA from near Seattle, we had a house on a quarter acre which had no fences around the backyard; we shared our land with our neighbors, and yes, it was a suburb, though our house faced an old growth forest no doubt long since paved over. I have seen such arrangements in America's heartland even today, but in the large metro regions of the U.S., life (for the upper middle class) has become no longer a continuous thread of human relationships, intimate and otherwise, but a egoistic collection of time blocks, separated like carpet swatches. Climb into the commuting pod (don't forget to close the garage door with the remote); endure the freeway module; perform the work module; back into the commuting pod; then open the garage door again, leaving no trace behind but the oil spots accumulated in the driveway, before relaxing in the hard-earned privacy of one's own world. Talk radio and television provide as much vicarious human contact as one needs, save for the imposition of a few demands from one's nuclear family.

The communal aspects of actual living had become relegated to country clubs and yacht clubs and megachurches where one could worship in comfortable anonymity, at least until the new tradition, "the giving of the peace," was inflicted during services, when you were forced to greet your fellow congregants in adjoining pews. In short, the ambitious among those who grew up in the Great Depression, excepting the enforced camaraderie of military service or the expected camaraderie of college fraternities, took it as their ultimate ambition, inasmuch as possible, to insulate themselves from all incidental human contact. Admittedly, in LA, where developments were designed with cars more than with people in mind, this trend was taken to an extreme, what with the long (time-wise, at least) commutes in wheeled isolation tanks.

Add to this the corporate slavery of coveted management jobs in which it was anathema to be oneself (unless drinking after hours with strangers), and a reverse Marxism obtained: the new executive was not only alienated from the product but from his fellows because of the public façade big business required. Beware of a loud tie; have your Florsheims shining. White collar workers by force of conformity became much less themselves in the work environment than the blue collars, who could at least jive and curse their bosses while welding a chassis to a new Ford or driving bulldozers around a construction site.

I am not entirely without sympathy for such an approach. In my years as a practicing family doctor, after seeing 30 patients in a day, making hospital rounds, attending committees, and finishing up my paperwork and call-backs by 6 or 7 P.M., my overexposure to fellow humans rendered me "people toxic" by day's end to such an extent that I could not face my own nuclear family without a respite first. The last thing I wanted to hear once home was some incident involving my children at school or the intricacies of a festering pot roast. So perhaps I was slightly more entitled to my Xanadu than those in other professions. And how I hated being on call, when patients could invade my hard-earned sanctuary and riddle me with trivial questions all hours of the night, such as why their infants burped up too much curdled milk from simple overfeedings.

From such an isolated perspective, even the vision of heroic individualism espoused by Ayn Rand, in which elite entrepreneurs held up society like the pillars of Atlas, had degenerated by the late '60s to a society where such "indispensable individuals" sought to escape rubbing shoulders with the great unwashed—the very leaders Rand considered responsible for society at large, however unappreciated. Where is John Gault today?

A much neglected Swiss psychoanalyst, Paul Tournier, in The Meaning of Persons and other works, advocated a philosophy of Personalism, an approach more often associated with Carl Rogers in the American history of therapeutic psychology. I recommend Dr. Tournier to those who haven't read him, as he cherished the meaning of the individual beyond anything casual friends in a metropolis can imagine. He even advocated personalizing cars and other objects by naming them. Taking him at his word, I named my old Ford LTD "Bob," my 1969 VW camper "Fred," and my convertible Chrysler "Rex." But I have neither the time nor space to do the good doctor justice here, though I think him an excellent antidote for the despair of Existentialism.


Now for a different picture:

We've settled in a peripheral barrio of an old Spanish Colonial town in central Mexico with a population of approximately 80,000, of which some ten percent are North American expatriates. Dogs, chickens, ducks and pigs wander the dirt and cobblestone streets in our neighborhood, none with identifying tags. They can all smell their way home (or in the case of fowls, see their way). Each dusty street seems to have its own butcher shop, bakery, beauty shop, and at least three small markets featuring necessities like milk, bread and beer. We cannot help but meet our neighbors, who often live in extended families above or behind their respective stores.

Tonight, in my elementary Spanish, I had a long discussion with the father of a retarded adolescent under a streetlight. His son exhibited signs of autism: preoccupation with cars, reading glasses, and repetitive motions. The father had moved from Spain because he thought the climate too cold there for his son, Alberto Luis. First, however, he had taken him to many specialists in the U.S., which yielded a two-page discussion indicating a likely prenatal hypoxic insult, and though he could not remember the name of his son's disability, "cerebral palsy" rang a bell with him. Yet the boy exhibited no signs of it to my medical eye. He was more social than most autistics, and his father told me Alberto had improved a great deal in Mexico. "I spend all day with him," he said. "We are amigos."

I watched the boy tap at the windows of a blue Chevy, circling it repeatedly. With all the different cars here, ancient and otherwise (we saw a rare, completely restored 1951 Austin-Justin—my wife swears it was not an Austin-Jensen), the boy could hardly ask for a more stimulating environment. Moreover, his tapping doesn't set off any car alarms. And he likes to make "Vroom, vroom!" sounds that pass quite well for incidental conversation.

Yet one thing is clear: in Mexico it wasn't just the weather that rendered Alberto more definitively human. It was the love and devotion of his father combined with a society tolerant enough to accept benign public deviance, which extends to drunks strolling through outdoor markets attempting to play and sing for a few pesos.

In America (a word too provincial to employ here), Alberto would likely be isolated in a special school, unexposed to the daily rhythm of life. But here all the shopkeepers know him and are not alarmed if he touches their merchandise, and neither he nor his expatriate father seem in the least bit unhappy.

In short, in our new Mexican neighborhood, even with my beginner's Spanish, it is near impossible to isolate oneself from one's fellows. I've cooed over the two-month-old granddaughter of the proprietress of our nearest little market and watched grandma beam. We walk to a church where the Bible is read in Spanish and English, and Spanish hymns are included, though the vast majority of congregants are North American. The priest has added material from a brightly striped Mexican blanket to his vestments. My wife has been invited to lunch three times, and after just three weeks the alderwoman asked me to join the choir (to be fair, like most small choirs, they are in need of a baritone).

Cab drivers are neither sullen nor in a hurry. "Time is money" doesn't seem to apply as in Manhattan. They charge by the distance, rarely exceeding 20 mph while cautiously avoiding pedestrians and dogs in a town without a single traffic light. Perhaps the most amazing example of community I've witnessed here (in the face of technology) was a paraplegic woman who sat in her wheelchair in the middle of the busiest street in town, holding a box for contributions while employing a friend as a runner to collect pesos from passing cars. Buses and cars parted around her like the Red Sea, as if it were her right to block the center of this artery of commerce. She obviously considered herself in no danger. Aghast, I told her that if she'd get out of the street I'd be happy to contribute to her cause. But she was not about to give up her profitable space to obtain a little money from a gringo. She smiled at me as if I were a child who didn't understand the basics of community tolerance. The traffic police merely ignore her. In the U.S. she would have been summarily arrested after one citation.

What is most shocking, perhaps, to my first world preconceptions of technology's impact elsewhere, is that technology does not necessarily affect community or culture. Most families have televisions and access to phones. There are internet café's and video arcades. CDs are more prevalent than cassettes. Yet despite these technological pleasures, the essential threads that bind people together persist—the chattering line at the local tortilleria, where we wait together for tortillas freshly pressed from a mountain of maize paste. The woman from the local butcher shop smiles at me whether I buy anything that day or not. And legends abound.

Everyone knows of a certain woman who owns a pharmacy and half the real estate in town. Fortyish, she has buried five or six husbands already, depending on who tells the story. Yet no one regards her as a miscreant black widow or a Lucretia Borgia, even if they don't know the exact circumstances of her husbands' deaths, despite the fact she has free access to all manner of prescription drugs. She is simply referred to by her first name, a powerful and successful woman, and cab drivers have confessed to me they would be happy to take their chances and marry her for her money.

We visited a steak house last night with no resemblance to The Sizzler. The meat was fresh and the pork and bean soup delicious. When I remarked on the soup the proprietor brought us another bowl for free. And when an old beggar approached our patio table, the proprietor diverted him with food—the same soup he fed us along with tortillas and some beef.

I can't imagine such behavior in LA. There are fine restaurants on Pine Avenue in my home town of Long Beach with outdoor patios fenced in by railings, and panhandlers sometimes lean over to beg. If they become a nuisance, the owners call the police. But I have never seen a restaurateur offer them food! Nor have I seen ten American boys riding through the streets on the assorted precarious perches of a small truck. Nor in LA does one often witness three generations of a family functioning in concert, all supporting each other in the business of family and the family business.

Even a haircut here turned into a social occasion. My wife and I patronized our first estetica (beauty shop) where we each had our hair cut and I obtained a manicure for the purpose of my guitar playing. She must have taken three hours with us. Two of her best friends came to visit during the session, and our cuts and my manicure were frequently interrupted by laughter and conversation in which I was a central participant. Afterwards she showed us her dogs and her collection of birds, one white cockatoo named Elvis for its white jumpsuit of feathers and prominent crest. She even invited us to name two new birds. We have since dubbed the larger Octavio for Octavio Paz, and the smaller Jose' for Jose Luis Borges. Afterwards she showed us a charming rental on the third story of her building, in the process of renovation, and invited us to live there for a very modest price, since we were animal lovers and I was a musician. Our whole day had been taken up by the socialization involved in a simple haircut.

No one seems to go hungry here or worry much about pesos. Bargaining is accepted, though not widespread, as prices for tourists are static. Yet haggling is not done in bad humor; it is part of taking the measure of your prospective partner in trade.

If Libertarianism fills Americans with nightmares of anarchy, here it is simply a given. I have seen no violence but know it exists, as Mexico leads the world in burglaries per capita, yet I doubt many involve violence. Yet no one seems to rely on the government or police to protect them. Even the poorest houses have high walls to discourage prowlers, sometimes topped by broken glass set in concrete, while junkyard dogs lurk menacingly behind locked gates. And all vulnerable windows are protected by iron grillwork.

There are no cookie-cutter suburbs or planned gated communities insofar as I can tell. Mansions abut humble houses; the rich and poor live on the same street. The politics of envy seem entirely absent, and the natives are much friendlier and forthcoming than the North Americans who have moved here.

No one seems interested in buying insurance for anything. Health insurance is universal for Mexican citizens in any case, while I have yet to hear of anyone involved in a case of litigation. What better insurance is there, anyway, than the safety net of one's community, one's tribe?

Finally, no one asks what you do for a living here, a habit I had already rejected in L.A. because of its insidious assignment of status by economic stratification, a dehumanizing approach if ever there was one. What does money matter in regard to character, honor, or family loyalty? If anything, in America, I have found wealth and character more often inversely proportional. In our new neighborhood, where and to whom you belong is more important than what you've achieved. Putting on airs is for North Americans. Speaking of which, thinking of my daughters and infant grandson, I would feel much safer had they grown up here than in the U.S. And making friends would have been a breeze for them. My wife and I have already had more intimate contact with intelligent adults in less than one month here than in our last two years in California. Our friends were always "too busy." Now I wonder with what? Likely no more than the trivialities of a success-driven, insurance and litigation dominated society.

I've always loved the proverb, "God dwells with the poor." Yet I can't think of my new neighbors, whatever their station, as poor at all. The American professional, the rising yuppie striving toward a personal Xanadu, seems much poorer in comparison.

"Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also."



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