A Guide To The Golden State

California State Route 1 shield
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A Guide To The Golden State

Each August, we pack two shirts, shorts, swimsuits, flip-flops and a few pair of underwear and return like swallows to California to see family, dive into the emerald Pacific and run down our self esteem comparing ourselves to legions of cosmetically altered people who resemble clothing store mannequins.

As native Californians, we often hear friends planning a trip out West. It’s always good to get an insiders perspective. To help you maximize your trip and avoid unnecessary embarrassment, I offer a primer on the Golden State – it’s psychology, its citizenry and its odd etiquette.

First, a lesson in geography. California is a fractured amalgam, comprised of semi- autonomous regions similar to Spain — the country from which we initially stole California.  Its massive GDP makes the state the 9th largest economy in world with a current debt rating just above the Ukraine and Romania.  The regions are defined by geography and a maximum allowed number of Whole Foods stores.  These Baltic bastions include: Southern Cal, Central Cal, Northern Cal and all points north of Napa Valley.

Southern Cal extends from the Mexican border crossings east to Palm Desert and north to Malibu. Orange Counts and San Diegans take exception to this unilateral annexation of their regions but other than beaches, Marines, Fashion Island and a few amusement parks, Orange County and San Diego serve as Southern Cal’s pimped out basement.

LA is an area, not a place. NYC is a place but in La-La Land there is no center. Do not go to downtown LA.  There is nothing there but street urchins, Staples Center and New York restaurants. If you are going to stay in LA, stay in Westwood, Santa Monica or Manhattan Beach.  Beverly Hills is expensive and overrated.  Do not go to the San Fernando Valley – again, nothing there.

Do not go to Malibu thinking you will bump into Matthew McConnahey frolicking with his perfect body in the surf. His beach is private and the size of a postage stamp.  If you must go to Malibu, have dinner at the Saddle Peak Lodge in Malibu Canyon. It is a 1930’s hunting lodge set back in the Santa Monica Mountains. Order the bear or buffalo. Be sure to make your reservation between the annual fire and mudslide seasons.

If you must go to Venice Beach to see the orange, veiny psychotic people who roller skate while juggling chain saws, take one hour, leave the car running and then head south to Newport Beach to walk, lie out and body surf. Go to Balboa Island and the Fun Zone. Order Mexican food – this is where nachos were invented. Attend the Sawdust festival in Laguna Beach and see the Pageant of the Masters .

When you finally visit Southern California beaches, understand there is an implicit beach towel ” no fly zone” equal in length to the heighth of the largest adult in your party.  I am not sure what it is about the Coney Island syndrome where people must connect their towels in some grotesque quilt of humanity.  People from the East Coast and other countries seem to have no problem with family style sunbathing – choosing to lay their blankets within centimeters of another group of strangers.

In addition to enduring your major violation of sunbathing personal space, the offended party gets an unsolicited stereo concert of your family dysfunction as you scold your kids, talk about your sister-in-law and comment ad nauseum about the perfect weather.  This is in addition to witnessing your alabaster folds of manatee skin as you use an entire bottle of SPF 45 on your back.

Central California begins 50 miles north and inland once you descend the desolate stretch of I-5 known as the Grape Vine. The name is a misnomer as there are no grapes here, let alone flora of any kind.  It is appears that 1-5 may have been a US Army testing ground for the defoliant, Agent Orange.  In the spring these same barren hillsides of chaparral are a rolling ocean of tangerine poppies.  Think of The Wizard of Oz and the creepy wicked witch voice,” poppies, poppies..”

Inland Central California, aka the San Joaquin Valley, is the hub for earthquakes, mortgage defaults, agriculture and long, vacant stretches of interstate as uninspired and vacuous as Paris Hilton. The Central California coast between Malibu, up to Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo and ultimately Big Sur, denies even knowing its inland sibling.  It is embarrassed to admit any affiliation and stands a bit like Barcelona and the Catalans – bold and independent. In 1968, Central Coasters attempted to create their own language but the Santa Barbarians could not unlock their jaws to enunciate the pronoun “dude” and the fleeting dialect died.

Northern Cal really begins at Carmel although geographically, San Francisco marks the center of the state.  Everything about Northern California is unique. It is home to academics, inventors, militant activists, people of every sexual orientation and Nancy Pelosi. Anything one could ever desire is within a two hour drive of San Francisco – which is quite a contrast to LA where a two hour drive gets you about five miles from Westwood to Marina Del Rey on the 405 freeway.

In a 200 miles radius, one can visit Yosemite, Lake Tahoe, Pebble Beach, Muir Woods, Sequoia National Park, and Napa as well as the Gold Country and Sutter’s Mill where in 1849, the face of America changed forever with the flash of a nugget in the rippling shallows of the American River. Northern Californians do not like Southern Californians.  So Cal steals their water through a mischievous artery called the California aqueduct.  And then just to spite them, Los Angelinos flush their toilets incessantly and keep the water on while brushing their whitened teeth. Angelinos are also arsonists, ritualistically starting brush fires each October because their homes have negative equity and they want to collect insurance.

San Francisco is ground zero for militant liberalism.  It is the most inclusive city west of Amsterdam and prides itself on sniffing out discrimination wherever its insidious tendrils may be taking root.  Legislation has actually been passed to protect the ugly (who is actually going to claim being hit with the ugly stick?), the overweight and the excessively sweaty.

The City is the home of brotherly love – literally, and it is a sight to behold when the gay pride parade courses through the Castro district.  Men dressed as high school flag girls work complex routines more adroitly than any of the girls that went to my high school. In this wonderfully nutty Eden, or Gomorrah, depending on your religious views, you can call a girl a “dude” and a guy a “chick”. It is a melting pot of ideas, cultures, mores and yes, Nancy Pelosi.

If you cross the Golden Gate, you enter magnificent Marin County home of the pony tailed, Birkenstocked aging hipsters who spike their own trees and grow their own produce.  They are Dead Heads, iconoclasts and counter-culturalists. To visit Marin and hike in the shade of twisted native oaks on Mt Tamalpais is to know serenity. If someone offers to sell you marijuana, do not accept the invitation. He/ she is most likely an undercover cop.  True Marin County residents grow their own “herbs” and give it away like tomatoes and zucchini to neighbors.

Once beyond Marin and through Napa – it gets a bit, how should we say, rustic?

You still have several hours along 1-5 to get to the Oregon border.  This is the true Northern California but most do not acknowledge it as anything other than the home of Sasquatch (Bigfoot), meth labs, pot farms and Mt Shasta.

A few simple tips when visiting the Golden State:

1) Never, ever say ” Callie” when describing the state of California.  “Callie” is the name of a 14-year=old golden retriever with bad hips. She is a horse one step from the glue factory that your children ride at a Bronx petting zoo.  To castrate the Golden state’s name is to defile it and show your provincialism with the excruciating effect of nails across a blackboard. Yes, it is a stupid and parochial reaction to an innocent abbreviation but hey, we cannot help it.

2) Do not, I repeat, ever refer to the City of San Francisco as “Frisco”.  Frisco is the guy Jack Wagner played on the soap opera “General Hospital”. Frisco is the name of a down and out character trying to change his luck on “Fantasy Island.” (The plane! the plane!)To a Northern Californian, when you reference San Francisco – you acknowledge it simply as ” The City”. I know most of you believe there is really only one “City” and it is called The Big Apple. However, there are two – and the other is a jewel by the bay.

To a Southern Californian, you are free to refer to San Francisco as the Bay Area or “that screwed up place where all the liberal nut jobs live and accuse us of stealing water.”

3) Do not get your colon cleansed, your tongue pierced or model for someone who promises to introduce you to Sting if you show a tad more skin. If driving and someone flips you off, just smile and wave.  They have a gun and have probably killed three people that same day.

In the end, do not feel out of place.  Everyone is from somewhere other than California. The difference is they are trying to be someone else. You, on the other hand, don’t care that you are wearing black socks, sneakers, and shorts and possess skin whiter than a harp seal.

Have fun and if you see Sting — give him my regards.

Au Revoir Mon Enfant

Le Nôtre's central axis of the Tuileries' part...
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“On ne voit bien qu’avec le coeur.”…. (We see well only with the heart)

The Little Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

The first beams of le soleil d’été crawled up the Champs D’Elysses like an early morning tide rising along the beaches of the Cote d’Azur. The city streets were littered with debris and the fading accents of revelry that had only just melted away with the sunrise.

Our street, Rue de Berri was quiet and not yet stirring.  The morning light was only tapping at the highest windows festooned with potted geraniums and midnight blue wrought iron.  A burst of wind, having wandered off the main boulevard carried the stale smell of an urban summer and brushed back our hair.

I had come to Paris with my 16-year-old daughter to suspend, even for a moment, her rapid ascent into the higher elevations of adulthood.  We had planned the trip for over a year but in such difficult times, I was tempted to cancel our journey. Yet, instinctively, I understood she was slipping away.  In time, she would become a distant speck on my horizon line as she pursued her raison d’être.

Given her increasingly independent routine, we had become passing ships. Extemporaneous engagement had been supplanted by negotiated interaction.  Our world was changing – with her universe expanding and mine contracting to supply, support and finance her inevitable departure.  It seemed my initials were slowly changing from M-A-T to A-T-M.  Paris was perhaps now, or never.

We wandered out into a magnificent, cloudless summer morning. Cafes hissed happily with the steam of espresso machines and joie d’ vivre. Sleep-deprived baristas mumbled at patrons as they laid out baskets of chocolate croissants and pastries.

The day would lead us across the Place d’ Concorde through the Tuileries Gardens and across the Seine to the Musée d’Orsay.  After studying Pissarro in art, she was amazed to see the original subject for her semester report, “Vegetable Garden and Trees in Blossom”, painted in Pontoise in the spring of 1877.  The masterpiece         hung prosaically on a wall alongside Manets, Renoirs and Matisse plein air oils.

We immediately fell into Van Gogh’s 1887 ” Starry Night Over The Rhone” with its glowing celestial swirls of starlight and the warm lights of taverns spilling across a sequined midnight blue river.

I was eager for her to see the whimsical strokes of Toulouse-Lautrec who prowled the bordellos and dancehalls of the Montmartre neighborhoods.  It was here that Paris shed any sense of morality and laid bare a world of venal feelings, colors and characters.

We finally fell out into a warm afternoon following the Seine, blown by a strong breeze and the need for motion.  We rented bikes at Vélib – the ingenuous Parisian bicycle rental kiosks and service stations strategically situated throughout the city.  We biked along the river to the Tour Eiffel, Le Trocadero and along bike paths to the Latin Quarter to explore, shop and lose ourselves in the historic, bustling alleys.

We exchanged more smiles and glances than words during our exploration.   As she slipped her arm into mine, it was worth a thousand affections and I had to resist acknowledging the moment.  I can still recall enjoying an experience with my father until he would shatter the moment with innocent enthusiasm. “Isn’t this great?” – a rhetorical question that would be rebutted with a superficial smile.  To publically memorialize any moment to a teen is to kill it – transforming it from substance to a saccharine platitude.  Formal moments were now implicit, having been explicitly left behind long ago like a discarded beanie baby or blanket.

On this night, le grand fete de la Musique- the music festival marking the first day of summer was spreading across the city center.  Our Metro screeched to a halt at Châtelet as we climbed up to a late afternoon multitude surging and straining to feel the youth and music of the June evening. In a deep caffeine and crepe blackout, we coursed through the narrows arteries of the Left Bank moving from one animated coterie of partiers and street performers. There was a sudden blood trail that led to a recently broken fight and three arrests. A young bohemian sat bloodied on the ground as police officers attempted to reconstruct the crime scene.

Across the Seine on the the Île de la Cité, steps that fell down to the quays and embankments served as an amphitheatre for hundreds of people listening to an African guitarist.  The bateau-mouches ( fly boats ) coursed silently across the slate blue water reflecting a night sky of stars and a palette of colored festival lights, lanterns and lamps in their wake.   Notre Dame’s buttresses were bathed in soft pastel light while inside, prayer candles and the gentle chants of medieval baroque music reverently beckoned passersby to sit and reflect. There was magic everywhere.

The Parisian summer night fell slowly – hesitating, and lingering like the gangly silhouettes of teens with their tangerine glow of cigarettes and faces occasionally illuminated with the paparazzi burst of light from a passing car.  Three AM.  It was the realm of these young vampires – sinewy, sartorial and invincible.  They possess a élan for life and belief that tomorrow only happens to other people.  While they wait for life to happen at night, la vie is invisibly passing them by day.  Their restless migration along narrow cobbled streets and across abandoned gardens is occasionally punctuated with a wild yell or pitched outburst. With the dawn, they vanish –presumably undead in some tiny garret apartment awaiting another twilight.

The following day, we travelled to Versailles – my daughter not much older than the Austrian Princess, Marie Antoinette who would marry Louis, Dauphin of France.  He would ascend the throne in 1774 to become Louis XVI.  Marie would reside at Versailles and at the Palace of the Tuileries until 1791 when the reign of terror ushered in France’s First Republic.

As we entered Versailles halcyon gardens, the clouds moved across a brilliant aquamarine sky – great man-o-wars casting shadows across fields of rolled hay and poplar trees. Against a backdrop of shimmering fountains, we descended into the gilded age of opulence and patrician consumption. The gardens of Versailles cover over 800 acres.  A mathematician’s dream, the property was perfectly symmetrical dominated by manicured 30′ high boxwood bosquets that formed intricate passages and mazes.  Alabaster sentinels – statues of mythological heroes frozen in perpetual triumph and tragedy, guarded each path’s junction.

We followed La Croix – The Grand Canal, a crucifix shaped lake edged with footpaths that skirted in and out of the shade of massive horse chestnut trees.  Magnificent swans patrolled the shallows for snails and rudely turned their tails and bottoms at us as they scanned the emerald lake for breakfast.

We stopped and lay across the rough grass staring up at the sky. A middle aged French couple descended the mild sloping hill to our left and sat to picnic.  Within minutes they were rolling across their blankets like mating water buffalo, indifferent to the great risk to one another or their violent public display of affection. We assigned them names and circumstances that seemed to only heighten our amusement. When “Monique’s” blouse started to hike up her alabaster trunk, we agreed that our lunch would be spoiled if we persisted on spying on this amorous wild kingdom encounter.

We returned to Central Paris and retraced the footsteps of Hemmingway, Pound, Sartre, Camus, Picasso, Stein and Fitzgerald.  We tossed back espressos at Les Deux Magots in the Saint-Germain-des-Prés area.  I imagined them to be the opaque green absinthe liquors that fueled the conversations of great writers in Hemmingway’s A Moveable Feast.  We moved on to shadow artists in Montmartre and peruse the Quai booksellers that sat rigidly next to their long green coffins of artifacts.

On our last evening, we crawled up on to the roof of our hotel and watched the golden lights of the Tour Eiffel.  Off in the opposite direction, The Sacre Coeur shined like Camelot at Montmartre. We sat silent drinking in the history and elegance.

Just as suddenly as we had stumbled on to Rue d’ Berri, we were descending into a hazy east coast evening, falling back into old patterns – texting friends, emailing and checking the blackberry. As the car crunched across the gravel of our front driveway, my daughter turned to hug me.  “Daddy, that was the greatest trip.  I will remember it forever.” Just then, her phone rang and her face lit up recognizing a friend’s voice.  She ran upstairs as I lugged in our pregnant suitcases.

Tickets to De Gaulle? Expensive. Hotel Lancaster? Very expensive.  Sitting on the roof of a hotel looking across the City of Lights through the eyes of your own daughter?

Priceless….

How To Make An Italian Chef Smile

How To Make An Italian Chef Smile

 

It had been a rough first six months since our move to England. Each child was showing the strain of change and unfamiliar circumstances.  I arrived home one evening from a business trip to find my wife striking the washing machine in complete frustration. 

“This stupid thing is so small I can only wash one sheet at a time.”  It seemed as though it would never stop raining. The fickle sun would appear at odd and inconvenient times like an unreliable friend.  While intellectually invigorated by our European move, we underestimated the emotional trauma of being cast adrift from friends, family and the familiar rhythm of our Northern California lifestyle.

 

My parents had joined us in London for the children’s October break and like most Brits, we immediately fled the damp emerald isle for the warmer embrace of Southern Italy.   We landed in Rome and were immediately serenaded by the whimsical strings of a city wired on life and caffeine.  Rome was a marching band with no conductor.  Every Italian seemed to move without regard for traffic lanes, lights or legal parking.  The classically laissez faire Italian police were more intent on staking out single women than suspicious characters. Vespas buzzed like mosquitoes while autumn starlings banked and rose in an aerial ballet. With each hour, we regained our warm weather equilibrium and sense of adventure.  After three days of fountains, forums and fusilli, we escaped north to explore Florence and the surrounding ancient hill towns of Tuscany resting like unsteady siena crowns on the crests of hills forested with beech, oak and chestnut trees. 

 

We arrived at our hotel, Villa La Massa, on October 31st. The chrome morning mist rose slowly, taking its time to shake off low gray clouds.  A wet chill loitered in the ravines and hollows and in between the villa’s main house and the guesthouses that peered over the southern banks above the Arno. There were no black cats, pumpkins or dark effigies of witches and goblins.  The long, pebbled driveway guarded by columned cypress trees and an ancient wrought iron gate, showed no signs of imminent pagan celebrations.  Our children, ages 7, 4 and 2, were only mildly interested that it was All Hallows Eve.  Back in America, giggling adrenaline-fueled goblins would be racing in and out of the shadows and light cast by houses a thousand grinning jack-o-lanterns.  It would be a night of sugar, ghouls and mayhem.  I sighed.  At our old home, we would be wandering our neighborhood – – faceless flashlights inching along dark streets and cul de sacs greeting the silhouettes and voices of our friends. Halloween was America and an essential milestone in the life of a young family and we were missing it.   

 

On this warm, windy day, I volunteered to take the children to the Etruscan hill town of Fiesole while my parents and wife wandered the back alleys of Florence. We spent a glorious morning chasing and playing among the ancient amphitheatres, roman baths and ruins.  A local restaurant owner adopted us, treating us to lunch at his local café where we were overwhelmed with freshly baked foccacia, homemade pastas and pizza. As the sun’s arc dropped toward the West, we descended into the valley of the Arno, navigating a patchwork quilt of vineyards and farms.  As we followed the narrow road back to our hotel, I could see the Duomo and the medieval skyline of the city that was once the cradle of the Italian city-states.  For all the enthusiasm I felt for being in this special place, I was suffering from a parochial melancholy wondering whether my decision to work overseas had been a mistake.  Was I denying my children a quintessentially American childhood?  Would they one day ask me, “Dad, what’s Halloween?”

 

European interest in the celebration of Halloween was mixed.  Given the more reverent traditions surrounding festivals like The Day of The Dead, Italians resisted the secular commercialism of monsters and Milky Ways.  Yet, there were signs of Catholic unrest.  In Milan, Halloween festivities were held by American schools and often spilled over into local communities.  In Bologna, the Miss Strega” (Miss Witch) beauty contest was held to identify the most enchanting sorceress.  A few Roman novelty shops had displayed masks, monster memorabilia and treats.  Yet, the Villa La Massa showed no signs of western infestation. It was just another sleepy Tuesday.

 

Unbeknownst to me, my clever spouse had packed a Donald Duck mask, a spider man outfit and all the accessories that a Hawaiian dancer would ever require.  Prior to departing that day for Florence, she had approached the charming concierge, Sylvia, explaining that the children were far from home and missing an important holiday; would she allow them to come down to the foyer that evening to trick or treat – knocking on the office and storage room doors of the sparsely occupied hotel where we might give them candy?  She left uncertain if our polished patron understood her request.

 

Once home, my wife whipped the kids into a happy lather explaining the significance of Halloween, their apparel and trick or treating.  Dusk brought frenetic preparation and squealing enthusiasm as the children donned their costumes.  I walked down the narrow hallway where a sinister suit of armor looked disapprovingly on my waddling two year old Donald Duck who would not stop making sounds like a dying Merganser.  A serious super hero and a seven-year-old hula girl bolted past the wobbly toddler.   We fell down the elegant staircase like a spilled bucket of tennis balls, crashing across the cobblestone breezeway toward the main house.  There were signs of movement inside the lobby as shadows darted across the row of equal-sized, closely placed windows. Soft light spilled out into the courtyard from the prominent portico.

 

Sylvia gasped with sheer delight as my youngest child quacked, announcing his arrival.  To my surprise, the entire hotel staff lined the foyer like an honor guard.  Each employee – waiters, maids, porters, groundskeepers and drivers – was holding a basket filled with homemade Italian treats.  Throughout the day, the Italians had baked and wrapped homemade cookies and chocolates.  The children were instructed to close their eyes as their hosts darted off to the first floor rooms. As each child approached a guest room door, it would swing open with an Italian feigning surprise and raising their hands in disbelief.  Sylvia suddenly had an idea and motioned us to follow her toward the restaurant kitchen.  She was explaining in broken English that she wanted to have the children trick or treat the head chef.  This spontaneous suggestion elicited disapproving looks from several of her male colleagues.  As a gourmet hotel, the chef was the mercurial lord of the manor.  Yet, Sylvia seemed determined to enter Hell’s kitchen.  My older children sensed the reticence of the staff and held back while our youngest recklessly burst through the cucina’s swinging doors clucking like a hen heavy with eggs.  There was silence, followed by a sudden burst of baritone laughter. The doorway suddenly filled with a large, handle bar mustached Italian chef holding my son and pinching his cheeks. The staff applauded.  Sylvia leaned in victorious and whispered, “they are terrified of him.  They have never seen him smile.”  We lingered in the hotel for some time forging a primitive bridge out of ragged Italian and English words as the children unwrapped candies and explored the living room.

 

We later walked slowly across the empty grounds and into the guesthouse, climbing past a not so malevolent suit of armor to our rooms. My anxiety had melted away.  It was clear that I had been wrong.  We were not missing anything back in America.  Our best Halloween will forever be remembered as a magical blend of cypress trees, ancient ruins, laughing chefs and doting Italians.

 

Meraviglioso! 

 

 

An Affair To Remember

A high-occupancy vehicle lane on Ontario Highw...
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An Affair To Remember

The car as we know it is on the way out. To a large extent, I deplore its passing, for as a basically old-fashioned machine, it enshrines a basically old-fashioned idea: freedom. In terms of pollution, noise and human life, the price of that freedom may be high, but perhaps the car, by the very muddle and confusion it causes, may be holding back the remorseless spread of the regimented, electronic society. ~ J. G. Ballard, “The Car, The Future”, Drive, 1971.

In 1960’s Southern California, rapid transit was considered ill conceived, inefficient and in many places, nonexistent.  Public transportation was considered by many Los Angelinos to be a painful, high risk last resort – – the bone marrow transplant of travel.  Unlike the great train and subway societies of the east coast, the new cities of the West had less infrastructure and little inspiration to replicate their past lives.  Voters shuddered at the thought of being one of many “trapped in the belly of a great iron beast” commuter train.    Private transportation meant independence. Self reliance was a value coveted by those who had emigrated west in search of escape from what Thoreau described as “lives of quiet desperation”.

 

The American West was now a more mature version its former self.  In the 1860’s, the horse was a prized possession. In the latter part of the 20th century, it was the automobile that defined the individual.   The car not only afforded us freedom but it transformed society.  With the advent of the freeway, suburban flight accelerated.  The person who once lived, worked and served as a strong thread in the fabric of an urban area would now labor all day in a metropolis and conveniently flee the chaos and social obligation for the bucolic white fences of a distant commuter town. Suburbia thrived and urban America began its decline.

 

Los Angeles was hardly a destination, it had no real center. It was a sprawling, ever-expanding ocean of houses, apartments and condominiums.  As residential prices soared, people would increasingly travel great distances to find affordable housing, choosing to comute vast distances to jobs in the aerospace and entertainment industries.  Years later, Southern California would spawn a new term, “super commuter” to describe the poor pilgrim who travelled at least two hours each way to work.  This led to millions leading double lives – – content in the bosom of their family each weekend and then reluctantly returning to the clutches of their automobiles each work week. 

 

In age of Aquarius, affluence was a luxury automobile.  One could airbrush their circumstances with the purchase of a Cadillac or full sized sedan.  Fathers drove the “nice” car and would occasionally allow their spouses to drive their vehicle but only under strict supervision.  The matriarch got stuck with a rolling landfill, “ the second car”  that often looked and smelled like a refugee camp.  Like so many of his generation, my father adored his car and maintained it with a pathological zeal.  He scrupulously recorded his mileage and changed the oil more often then he changed his children’s diapers.  He required his sons to clean his rolling palace once a week with a special chamois, “shammy”, cloth made from animal skin no larger than a handkerchief.   Washing the car with the shammy was the equivalent to cleaning the Meadowlands with a toothbrush. He countered that the factory paint job was rubbish and only the soft shammy could preserve the color. Nothing was too good for his four wheeled girlfriend. 

 

Dad preached that how one maintained their car spoke volumes about their self discipline, respect and personal hygiene. An unattended dent or scratch was a sign of moral and financial decline. We did not realize it but we were at the tail end of a golden age of transportation where cheap gasoline and an endless horizon line of superhighways, freeways and expressways beckoned Americans to drive everywhere.  We were a society of open spaces and vast distances.  The long scenic stretches of American interstate such as Route 66 and the Pacific Coast Highway symbolized the unrealized potential of a nation still growing into itself.  To a Southern Californian there was nothing more satisfying than driving one’s car – – to the store, to work or just down the driveway to get the mail.  Everything was accomplished with one’s motor vehicle. 

 

Our passion for automobiles may have been brought on by excessive exposure to the sun, lack of rain or attending one too many Burt Reynolds’ Smokey and The Bandit movies.  Our need to drive everywhere and often by ourselves, was seen as a birthright and a necessity given the vast distances one needed to travel between planned communities and urban centers.  My theory on our obsession was simple – – half of us may well have been conceived in the back seat of a ‘59 Dodge Lancer.  Whatever the impetus for our relentless preoccupation, we were initiated at an early age to believe that four wheels trumped two legs. At birth, we were handed a pacifier and a Match Box or Hot Wheels racing car.  Those infants that did not choke on the toys, graduated to watching Speed Racer cartoons and riding go-carts.  We had more bootleg copies of Motor Trend than Playboy and spent hours debating the superiority of Mustangs over Cameros. Yet, our amorous obsession eventually became an unhealthy addiction.

 

The energy crises of the 1970’s shocked us and confirmed our deep dependence on our cars and the dark, narcotic sold by exotic sheiks that fueled them.  We drove, drove and drove more.  We jammed our roads so much that we created pollution called “smog“( smoke and fog) which when inhaled made you feel like you had smoked five packs of filterless Camel cigarettes.  We had “smog alerts” at school and were told to stay indoors because of poor air quality. We determined that we must wean ourselves from our transportation habit.  We promised to abandon this destructive affair with cars for the honor of energy conservation and the environment.  We grudgingly got rid of our two ton concubines and launched a generation of economy cars that consumed less gasoline.  We watched as HOV lanes condemned the solo driver to sluggish traffic.  Secretly, we despised these changes longed for our beloved Rubenesque, full figured vehicles who were now transforming into waif-like, Twiggy compacts.  We loathed taking Amtrak and Greyhound. We convulsed under automotive abstinence.  We walked, took the train and carpooled.  It was a dark time in the Force for the motor headed Jedi.

In the 90s and into the new millennium, we quietly rekindled our affair of consumption. As with all serial recidivists, we could not stay away.  We did not want to think about the consequences of fossil fuels.  We ignored the signs of global warming.  We rejected the Kyoto treaty. We tolerated what we felt were egregious pump prices of $ 1.75.  We denied that we were actually undermining ourselves.  We went back to purchasing massive gas guzzlers and rationalized that tougher emission standards and engineering advances had again made the affair possible.   

But suddenly, the jig was up.  The world went sideways and we were caught en flagrante dilecto with big cars and no protection.  Most of us can no longer even fill our car at the gas station as the pump is programmed to cap out at $75.  There’s no avoiding the truth.  We are going to have to leave her for good this time and return to tin cans and public transportation.  We may even lose GM and a few other enablers along the way. For this reformed Californian, it’s still all a little inconvenient.  Yet, I know it’s only a matter of time before there is standing room only on every train and I am cramming my oversized body into an undersized Mini, Prius or hybrid.

It’s finally over but we had some good times, didn’t we?  It was an affair to remember…..