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American Diary: California

Crossing the California
state line, the first place in which we set foot is Jacumba, a virtual ghost
town located a couple of miles off Highway 8 and barely a couple of hundred
yards from the border with Mexico.  The population is listed as 400 – though on
this day we don’t see a blessed soul. 

Apparently Jacumba once had 5000 residents, and in the
years between the World Wars attracted many visitors – including Clark Gable, it’s
said – to its hot spring and hiking trails. 
Now it has a derelict and deserted air, like one of those weird off-highway
places depicted in Hollywood scare movies –
the ones with tumbleweed skidding up the main street; dangling shingles
creaking in the wind; and mysterious figures, perhaps aliens, peering through
broken windows at the doomed couple whose car has broken down a mile up the

We haven’t broken down.  We’re just looking for a gas station and a
place to buy a sandwich.  Jacumba no
doubt has both, but after driving to the ramshackle, windswept intersection
that masquerades as downtown – and oppressed by an irrational feeling that
we’re somehow intruding – we turn round and head back to the highway. 

The road out of town runs parallel with a section of
the infamous fence erected by the US Border Agency.  America will deal with its
‘illegals’ as it sees fit.  All I can say
is that every fence or wall ever designed to confine people to where they don’t
want to be has always provoked as much as it deterred.  No less than the one in Berlin Wall, and all
the other barriers erected for similar purposes, this one is at once an
expression of fear and an admission of defeat.

Off we head for the long haul up to Los Angeles, where
we have a dinner date, which means we have to bypass San Diego, a city I’ve
never visited, but which comes highly recommended.   It
looks delightful, and I’m sorry it’s not on our itinerary.

After hundreds of miles on open desert roads we now
find ourselves in traffic that reduces the four-lane coastal freeway to a crawl
for scores of miles.  It’s a fitting, or
at least a typical, welcome to a city, the common perception of which is that
of a sprawling, over-populated, highway-veined, smog-stifled and vaguely
apocalyptic urban nightmare.

Thomas Pynchon described a typical LA suburb as “less
an identifiable place than a grouping of concepts … all overlaid with access
roads to its own freeway”.  I like Saul
Bellow’s whimsical description: “In LA, the loose objects in the country were
collected as if America had
been tilted and everything that wasn’t tightly screwed down had slid into
southern California.”

It’s easy to attack LA residents as unhinged, as East
Coast Americans do regularly – and easier still after meeting a few of them. 

One of our dinner companions, a devoted adherent of
the Tea Party, warns us that America
will soon be engulfed, and the Anglo community destroyed, by the hordes of Latinos
invading from the south.  He’s just
warming up.  The purpose of President
Obama’s upcoming visit to Israel, he claims with the confidence of a man with
inside knowledge, is to give Benjamin Netanyahu the green light to lob a couple
of tactical nuclear weapons into Iran.  A
global war with ‘the ragheads’ is inevitable, anyway, “so we might as well get
it started as soon as possible”.

And since Washington
has of late “fallen into the hands” of the same Marxists “whose asses we
whipped a few years back,” California and a
few neighbouring states may have to secede from the Union.  Yes, that’s right, a new Confederacy, western

Saturday Night Live has trouble lampooning such views.  (He may read this and recognize himself, for
which I make no apology, and which he probably wouldn’t consider necessary from
a hopeless Limey Pinko.)

Deserting LA for San
Francisco, the last stop on our journey, is somehow
liberating.  We’ve decided to take the
slow coastal road instead of the highway, a delightful journey I reckon I last
made some 40 years ago, then as now with a delightful female companion.  It’s a series of scenic wonders, spectacular
even when fingers of ocean-borne fog drift inland – as they do for the next
three days.  Our first lodging, in a
small town called Cambria, is aptly named the
Fogcatcher Inn.  There’s no central
heating, just an open (gas-generated) fire, and it’s needed as, maintaining our
knack for attracting unseasonal chilly weather, a cold front sweeps in from the
Pacific.  “We’ve offended the Gods,” says
M, shivering by the fire.

On my previous visit to these parts I didn’t bother to
go to San Simeon, William Randolph Heart’s famous baroque hill-top mansion.  This time I suggest we make the diversion,
and I’m glad we do, if only to authenticate the last scenes of Orson Welles’ American
film masterwork Citizen Kane.  Welles always claimed that he didn’t set out
to make a biography of Hearst, but so thinly-veiled are the references to
Hearst’s life – the film ends with the broken newspaper magnate and would-be
politician, Charles Foster Kane, abandoned by his mistress, a Hollywood
starlet, going mad in his deserted castle – that Hearst spared no effort in
trying to sabotage the movie’s commercial prospects.  In this he largely succeeded.   

The penultimate sojourn on our trip, a few miles
farther up the coast, is Carmel, a charming little
town most often associated with Clint Eastwood, who was elected mayor some
years back, and the renowned, and perhaps overrated, Pebble Beach
golf course.   Carmel’s charm is in danger of being undermined
by tourism, the town centre dominated by art galleries, jewelers and tea shops.
 Everything seems to be reduced by 50
percent – a sign of the times, perhaps – and still prices are out of

But there are still the unchanging perfections of the
famous 17-mile drive round Pebble Beach. 
The timeless breakers still crash against the rugged shoreline.  Seals bask on the same immutable rocks.  Squadrons of pelicans tirelessly patrol the
coastline.  Perfection defies adequate

San Francisco is by now almost a second home.  We have friends there and M has relatives, notably
her 92-year old Uncle Lar, whose birthday we celebrate with a visit that’s
suffused with anxiety that it may be the last. 
Mind you, that was true on the three previous occasions.

He lives in Redwood City,
not far from Stanford
University, and we drive
over to the campus to see the late B. Gerald Cantor’s collection of Rodin
statues, which include the remarkable Gates of Hell.  This side-trip, too, has something of a
nostalgic quality, as both M and I worked for Cantor’s securities firm in the
late-1970s and knew him well.  We’re
reminded, as we tour the statues, that one of the incidental consequences of
the 2001 attack on the World Trade Centre, where we both worked for many years,
was the loss of two dozen pieces in the Rodin collection housed in the Cantor
Fitzgerald offices on the 105th floor of the north tower.

Back in the city the mood lightens with a dinner at
Perry’s, on Union Street, a bar and grill I’ve patronized, usually in the
company of my friend and former colleague Bill Best, for forty-odd years – and
we’ve a colourful tale to tell for each visit. 
I don’t intend to relate any of them here, for reasons of discretion,
not to mention self-defence, but if you’d really like to know the unexpurgated
details, call Bill, who loves to spill the beans.  He’s in the telephone book. 

And be sure to ask about the nuns and the marijuana


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