The man seated behind us on the Sunset Boulevard bus is smoking cannabis, sending great clouds of smoke billowing from his bench, which is perhaps the only way he can deal with his reality. If you have to take the bus in a city whose mistress is the car, you might as well be high.
What madness, though, to take your own vehicle, to sit cursing in traffic, when for $1.50 you can be driven the length of America’s most famous street, from Dodger Stadium to the bright blue Pacific. As long as you don’t mind the pot, or the occasional eruption of violence, or sharing your seat, as we did, with an elderly woman wearing an electronic-surveillance tag.
Out the window lies the great tapestry of 21st-century America: A disturbed man screams and spits at the bus, and vagrants sleep on benches below signs warning of the spread of venereal disease. Meanwhile, farther along, well-kneaded women leave their Escalades with valets and totter into the lobbies of famous hotels. Here are all the extremes and disparities of the Obama era, pushed to their maximum saturation.
California’s vote is safely Democratic, so it’s not at the centre of this election – its airwaves are not saturated with political advertising, the candidates seldom drop in, and it’s out of the eye of the national media.
Yet it is also the most populous of the 50 states. It has the highest proportion of wealthy people. And as the west coast’s visionary frontier, it has long foreshadowed America’s future trends.
It is the place where the policy battles and grand themes of this political era are etched most starkly, and where you can see the most vivid face of the country’s current paradox: Is it, as Mitt Romney suggested this summer, a state akin to Greece or Spain, foundering in debt and about to go under? Or is it, like the nation around it, “on the mend,” as Governor Jerry Brown thundered in a fierce rebuttal to the declinists?
The two of us left the state 10 years ago, after a tumultuous term in The Globe and Mail’s Los Angeles bureau. Wealth has changed the place: Facebook and Twitter, those amorphous California products, manifest themselves up the coast as utopian office complexes for their 4,000 combined employees. High-end electric cars are being churned out at the advanced factories of Fisker Automotive down in Orange County and Tesla Motors in the Bay Area, each of them supported by half a billion dollars in President Barack Obama’s controversial stimulus loans.
And even as hundreds of thousands have suffered mortgage foreclosures, the monster homes are more monstrous than ever before.
A decade ago, however, the state government was awash in cash. Now, a deficit of $15-billion is crushing the state’s spine.
This simultaneous flood of wealth and ruin has washed over our old haunt: Our local seedy burger joint All-American Burger (“Fresh meat daily,”) where Hugh Grant sought the favours of Divine Brown, is now a shiny new outlet of the Chipotle chain, and cheque-cashing shops have become Starbucks. Ashton Kutcher has an office around the corner from our old apartment. The Russian restaurants where they barbecued whole lambs in oil drums are nowhere to be seen. Dog hotels proliferate. The old neighbourhood has had its teeth whitened.
But the streets are cracked, the schools are broken and the elderly see their services shrink as the fiscal jaws close around them.
As always, it is tempting to see California through the lens of its most famous industry – an aging star, crumbling on the inside, held together with cosmetics and willpower.
The bus crawls through traffic past Hollywood High, where Laurence Fishburne and Judy Garland once sat bored in class. Our Canadian-born friend Karen Evans and her husband, Vito, quintessential public-education-supporting Hollywood liberals, send their 11-year-old son Leo to soccer practice here; he attends classes at a school with better facilities on the other side of the hills.
Every September, the school sends them an “annual giving” notice, which tells them how much was slashed that year out of the school budget (in 2011, for instance, $220,000). They are expected to cough up several hundred dollars, not for frivolities like school trips, but to help pay teachers’ salaries.