I Survived Orange County, California USA
Kevin P Clements
For people as sensitive as me its no mean feat to survive three days in Orange County Southern California. I felt antsy as soon as I arrived and my initial ennui remained . I went in search of its cultural and social centre, tried to discern its community, but found very little of either. I found many multi-laned highways for big cars ,hummers ,trucks and big utes . I saw lots of Harley Davidson’s with riders wearing Nazi style helmets carrying buxom pillions .
Despite the fact that over 3 million people live in Orange County. It felt barren and isolated to me. Like Woody Allen I was overcome with agoraphobia even though I was surrounded by malls , housing estates and gated communities. The houses and buildings from the outside look solid and made out of permanent materials. I realised when I passed one that had a broken window sill, ( see photograph below) that most of the so called concrete stucco/stone adornments are in fact just painted polystyrene moulds. When you bang them they are hollow. That sort of sums up a lot of my impressions of Orange County. It feels a lot like painted or planted adornment around polystyrene or desert interiors. As Gertrude Stein said many years ago about another part of California ” Is there a there, there?”
I felt overwhelmed by the traffic, by the fact that millions of people are moving North and South , East and West 24 hours a day. But so do the locals they are always complaining about the traffic jams they endure to or from Los Angeles.
I’m trying to figure out whether it’s the place or me. I know that there are many wonderful people trying to get on with life. They work,pay mortgages, drive their kids to endless sporting events, have friends over for barbecues, talk abut kids and families and school and work etc.And I am sure that there are many people who love the beaches, lifestyle and ambiance.
But it still seems a strangely worrying place to me. I don’t feel this way in lovely Dunedin NZ, or in San Francisco , or New York. I don’t feel this way in Denver or Boulder Colorado but I certainly felt a deep sense of gloom hover above me in Orange County.
In the first place every mall looks more or less the same with the same old shops and the same old goods. I much prefer idiosyncracy in shopping areas. It also feels environmentally precarious. Orange County has experienced drought conditions for the last 3 years and the authorities are now beginning to worry seriously about sustainable water supplies. Like the East and West Coasts of Australia , Californians are battling against nature to make their county bloom. As I was told endlessly, few of the trees were there a hundred years ago. They are all exotic imports and, like most deciduous imports into desert conditions, they aren’t doing well and look weary and bedraggled.
It’s a County that was built on ranching, silver and robber barons. Richard Nixon was born and ended his life here. John Wayne gave the airport its name. Diane Keaton and Kevin Costner lived here for a while but left as soon as they could.
The fact is Orange County-the most Republican County in America- is a series of relatively new nondescript cities joined by a common sewage system and two major Highways 405 and 5. Millions of cars and people travel along these highways each day. Native Orangians commune with each other on the highway as they drive to distant destinations for work or play .Its on the roads that people express their anger, their dominance, their speed , their status.
There are many exotic religious groups there all promising better lives after the final transit from OC. It’s home to fantasy worlds like Disney Land and Knottsberry Farm. Its possible to have your children fly in real combat aircraft and play with Pirates and shoot each other with paint balls. There are many beaches like Laguna, Newport ,and Irvine. You can surf and play volley ball on the beaches and pretend that you are in one of the endless Hollywood soaps about youth beach culture
But I still felt antsy. Shopping, surfing, volley ball, flying in combat aircraft , don’t hold any particular interest for me. Even people who live there aren’t sure where their Centre is and whether its holding together or capable of holding them together.
The County has been mismanaged in the past and afflicted by financial scandals, pension scandals , and all kinds of daily wheeling and dealing . This is the Republican way, you push self interest till you meet with resistance or you use public position for private advantage. Its one of the big Left-Right wing divides.
Many of the Malls, Alisio Viejo,for example, were designed around green spaces but these rapidly gave way to car parks. Car Parks are always full and are protected by the car owner, the car dealers and the public authorities. The Elderly complain about not being able to drive around slowly and respectfully and have often been the victims of road rage. One way they deal with that has been for them to buy golf carts to drive around in. The young sometimes transfer their ageist prejudice from the road to the electric golf cart.
In the 1960s there was an Orange Curtain erected against the Civil Rights Movement. Things have changed since then but OC still looks Republican, feels Republican and smells Republican to me. New migrant groups are breaking down the Orange Curtain but they are voting conservative Republican . I was told by one taxi driver that although there were a “ few bums and derelicts” hanging around OC bus stations the great bulk of the “:mental defectives and losers” slept on Santa Monica beach in Los Angeles County. They say things like this in OC without any sense of shame.
I was told at breakfast one day that even though Orange County is , full of “Little Boxes on the hillside, little boxes made of ticky tacky” there are some wonderful places to go and meditate and reflect on the world and all its ways. I didn’t see them cos I was largely stuck at the Ayres Hotel in Laguna Woods which had a gas fire burning in the vestibule even though it was 90 degress outside. I could meditate beside the Hotel pool, however, as long I was prepared to ignore a warning from the State authorities that there might be carcinogens in the walls from those who smoked outside!
Someone asked me whether I felt isolated living in Dunedin New Zealand and I said isolated from where? “Los Angeles, New York, London” was the answer. When I asked why these were considered Centres I was told that “they set the pace for the rest of the world.” Mmmmm I thought if this really is the vision for the rest of the world I don’t want a bar of it.
The fact is, normally, wherever I happen to be, is the centre of things for me.Its odd that I didn’t feel that in Orange County . There I felt quite peripheral and marginalised. I knew my internal Centre was being challenged and my external Centre lay elsewhere. I was there three days and still didn’t get it but then again OC probably didn’t get me and my whole perspective might have been different if I were there longer and participating in normal day to day activities. But there was still something indefinable and disquieting about the whole experience.
Not only did I not feel centred, there didn’t seem to me to be any clear centre and the action that does takes place seems to generate some of the highest rates of loneliness, alcoholism and drug addiction in the country. I cant’ vouch for that but that’s what I was told.
Anyway , unusually for me, I couldn’t wait to leave Orange County. I met some lovely people but most of the ones I met and liked came from somewhere else. I’ve saw a lot of overweight, obese people and worried about their health and the amount of food that they were consuming.
I think that if I had to live in Orange County I might drink a lot of alcohol and eat a lot of food.
Anyway every time I ventured out for a walk there was no where much to walk to. It was hot (over 90 degrees each day which was supposed to be unusual for October!) and no one else was walking. Most people drove in air conditioned splendour . There hasn’t been any rain here for a very long time and water supplies are running low. People seem to be running low too….
On my last day there I went to Laguna Beach. My local contacts said this is where I would find, art, culture and fine food. I took a taxi down and found some art galleries but the art wasn’t as adventurous as in Dunedin. I found some restaurants but the food was pretty ho hum and then when I tried to get a taxi back to the hotel I was told that Laguna Beach didn’t have its own taxi company. So I called the company of the driver who drove me down and booked a cab which they said would be there in 30 minutes. So I waited in temperatures of 93 degrees. But no taxi came. I called and was told that the dispatcher couldn’t find any one to venture forth to Laguna Beach on a Saturday afternoon. So I asked him what he suggested for getting back to the Hotel and he didn’t know.
He suggested I might rent a car! This would be for a ten mile trip! Then he told me that he wasn’t sure about my order because I was calling with an out of state number from a NZ phone and then he put his phone down.
I made an emergency call to the wonderful Clare Lorenzo from SUA and she came and rescued me. If she hadn’t arrived I probably wouldn’t have survived Orange County. I probably would have died of thirst outside the Arts Festival Theatre Complex. I was parched with thirst (even under the shade) while I waited for the taxi that never came . When I asked a woman staffing the booking office if there were any way she could get me a glass of water she said to me “ If I gave a drink to everyone who was thirsty I would be overwhelmed by thirsty people. There are shops down the road.”.
But I protested if I go down the road and the taxi comes I will have missed my ride. She said “That’s your problem “ . But this is what its like in Orange County. It’s the survival of the fittest. If you don’t have a car you have to get one. If you want a drink from the woman in the booking office, forget it, cos her business is selling tickets not giving water to parched travellers.
I asked a cyclist about buses and he shook his head and said he wouldn’t recommend it because of all the homeless and derelicts hanging around the bus station!
Whew, I’m pleased I was rescued by Clare and can share this story with you about surviving Orange County . It might have turned out differently. I might have ended up as a well dressed derelict with a NZ passport waiting for a bus or a taxi or any kind of lift back to Laguna Woods. Although well before then I’m sure I would have realised how stupid I was not to have bought a car at the airport three days ago.!!!
Some Pictures from the Centre of Culture -Laguna Beach!Note polystyrene window sill!!!