The thing you have to understand,” I said, feigning a wisdom that, in my mid-twenties, I had not earned, “is that you’ll spend the first ten minutes remembering why you were with her and the rest of the time remembering why you’re not anymore.” Long ago, I proffered this advice to a friend, whose ex-girlfriend had invited him to lunch after hearing about his engagement. (His fiancée, in a gambit that marked her as the rightful heir to Henry Kissinger, encouraged the meeting.) The context was different, but those words came back as I waited to meet my father at LAX’s baggage claim.
This trip was a homecoming of sorts for us. Until he decamped for Oregon shortly before his 70th birthday, my father had spent his entire life (minus a stint in the army) in California. The prospect of trying to live on a retiree’s fixed income in his native Orange County, however, proved the breaking point. I’d taken my leave of the state shortly before he did, heading to Tennessee once I realized that I could never afford to buy a home where I grew up. We thus became California-diaspora stereotypes. It’s easy to spot our kind: just go to a neighboring state (or anywhere in the Sun Belt) and look for someone bragging about how much square footage they’ve got—and for such a low price!
We California refugees want to believe that it’s all just an accounting exercise. If we’re living larger—and cheaper—in Texas, or Arizona, or North Carolina, we can point to our bank accounts for validation. And we do this with such fervor because in the back of our minds, we suspect that we’re wrong: we can’t shake the sense that, for all its artificial hardships, there’s something special about California that can’t be dismissed with a cost-benefit analysis. That seemed plausible, as we stepped out of the terminal into a perfect autumn evening in L.A., the warm winds perfuming the palm trees with ocean air. Yes, this was my equivalent of the first ten minutes—but damn, was it persuasive.
Then the ten minutes were up.
Visiting a familiar place after a long absence is a bit like seeing a friend’s child for the first time in years: you can perceive changes invisible to those who experience them incrementally. My sense of Southern California, a place known throughout the world for its dynamism? That it was in the early stages of succumbing to entropy.
Not all the signs were novel—for as long as I can remember, Los Angeles has been a city where people buy ridiculously fast cars only to drive them 8 mph on clogged freeways—but some were strikingly new. Years of drought-driven water-rationing left the landscape receding to its natural brown. A failure to build new housing yielded outrageous rents for buildings well into their senescence. Stopping into a Target in a middle-class part of Long Beach, I saw no fewer than four homeless men camped out inside the store, the clerks studiously avoiding eye contact with them. It was that little behavioral tell—the passive acceptance of decline—that unnerved me. I had seen it before, a decade earlier, in San Francisco’s notoriously disordered Tenderloin neighborhood. At least there, it came with a patina of bohemian chic. This was surrender in the suburbs.
When I recalled my California visit to right-of-center friends, they responded with a knowing smirk. California schadenfreude is a pathology among conservatives, most of whom apply H. L. Mencken’s definition of democracy—“the common people know what they want and deserve to get it good and hard”—to the Golden State. But surely something meaningful has been lost when America’s Eden goes barren. Surely malicious glee is not the proper reaction.
As the wheels pulled up on the flight out of LAX a few nights later, I looked out at the Queen’s Necklace, the luminous crescent of coastline that stretches from Malibu to the Palos Verdes Peninsula, and sighed. Maybe, I thought—many Californians tell themselves this—this is all cyclical. If something’s unsustainable, it can’t go on forever, right? Someday, things might change again.
Then another, darker thought: maybe we continue to love what shaped us, even when it can’t be fixed, just because those first ten minutes are so sweet.
Photo: Angel Di Bilio/iStock