The gate across the entrance road to the park was shut and a sign said it was open on weekends and holidays. Today being neither, my dad turned the car onto a dirt road just this side of the barricade, figuring we could drive around it through the brush. This place will be swarming with cops in five minutes, I said. Good thing my skin isn’t too dark, my Iranian wife said. Our eight year old son wanted to know what we were talking about.
It took all of two minutes for the first Immigration and Customs Enforcement patrolman to arrive, standing on his all-terrain vehicle in his neat green uniform with pockets and belts, helmeted and armed, and a tough, overfed face. What are you headed off to do, he demanded of my father. We’re going up to Border Field Park, my dad said. It’s closed, the ICEman said. Nice of ICE, I thought, to be guarding parks for the state. Another one arrived on another ATV. I wondered how far dad was going to push it. He chewed on his tongue for a moment and then said okay. We headed back. The ICEmen didn’t follow. I don’t suppose they had to; they could see our dust and I’m sure they had other means of surveillance.
In the old days the cops and the military showed a certain amount of gruff courtesy when they gave you orders, a certain generosity grounded in the crude and brute force they exercise, at least with us white folks. But those were days of victory and success, when noblesse obliged, there was sometimes a little individual exercise of discretion, you could negotiate a little leniency. In these days of failure, defeat, unemployment, and cruelty and oppression sanctioned at the highest levels, that largesse is squelched. Now they’re all mean and nasty; nor do they care, or dare, to act independently.
The entire San Diego area feels like a military camp. Or maybe like an occupied territory. That is, for us peaceable civilians. It looks around here like you’re either in the military or working for it, and if you’re not, they’d like you to think they’re protecting you. From what? Mexicans for one thing, I guess. And terrorists. From yourself, maybe—if you’re a civilian, not one of them, then you can’t be totally trusted, and you’ve got to be controlled, to protect them, or you, or something—or am I being paranoid? It’s a weird place, gives me weird thoughts.
Maybe statistics would prove me wrong, but the economy feels like a military economy. The major things you see being manufactured and built are border walls and military facilities. You see battleships and carriers in the bay, bases and naval air stations along the freeways, soldiers in camouflage sitting in the backs of trucks or on gates in fences at freeway exits in the countryside with nothing around, tattoo parlors and strip joints on the main streets of National City, Imperial Beach, Chula Vista, the immense retired officers community of Coronado, jeeps and Humvees and SUVs on the highways, black with tinted windows, driven by young men with buzz cuts and wraparound sunglasses or thin young women with frizzy hair, or not so thin with a back seat full of boys with buzz cuts, kids in camouflage T-shirts.
Besides the black jeep-like vehicles driven by special forces around the world, there are pickup trucks. Note that pickups are driven by the ruggedest individuals, the cowboys, the construction workers, the men who move things, the not-sissies, the ones who don’t need to think, who despise thinking. They’re driven by single young men, occasionally by a big-breasted young woman in a tight shirt looking haughty—her boyfriend drives a pickup.
There’s a lot of testosterone in this place. Strip joints, pickup trucks, crew cuts, tattooed biceps in sleeveless T-shirts. Tough sneers. Expressionless faces. Hostility.
We saw a van that had quite a paint job: An eagle, red white and blue streamers, and some text: “For God. For the Flag. For the Marines.” Me, I pray to God and the Flag that it belonged to a Marine recruiting office and not a private individual. Bad enough for a recruiter, but if it was private, there’s a real nutcase driving around.
Aggressive driving, cutthroat, give no quarter. Two cars behind me pull into an off-ramp on my right. They both speed up at once but the one farther behind is faster and crowds the other. They just miss my bumper as they accelerate toward the red light at the end of the ramp. They must be test pilots. Lots of them on the roads here.
Mulish driving. Somebody pulls into the leftmost lane to pass someone going marginally slower in his own lane and then stays there, although he’s holding back a line of cars in the fast lane. He’s there, he’s going the speed limit, the rest of the world can damn well get over it. Further north, in LA for example, people who do this are simply oblivious or on the phone or spacing out to their iPod. But people here are ornery. If you don’t believe me, try getting around the guy by pulling into a break in the lane to the right. He speeds up to keep you there until you come up on the next car and have to slow down; then he slows down.
Poor people here are miserable and there are so many and they look beaten down. It’s depressing. They’re fat, they wear shoddy clothes, they frown. The blacks are unhappy and solitary, the Mexicans are quiet, and the whites swagger around in their fatness, feeling good that they’re the bosses, the top of the heap, the ones all the stores are for, the flags and the soldiers and the fighters in far-off Afghanistan or Syria or wherever freedom needs fighting for. You see them in the discount stores. Not the chain outlets in the malls, the ninety-nine cent grocery stores, the bulk grocery discount stores, the places that sell day old bread and canned vegetables and styrofoam containers of flavored pasta just add water, the stores that sell bad food cheap enough for these poor people to buy.
Get up close to the border fence and look at poor people on the Mexican side—the kids are running and playing, the grownups are sitting or standing around chatting, vendors stroll up to them selling one thing or another. This side looks like a DMZ, except it isn’t demilitarized, it’s militarized. You can’t have a social life with ICEmen and military helicopters. Take a look at the fence. It looks like bars on a jail; the question is who’s in and who’s out?
Look at the fence and through it, but don’t bother crossing the border. Easy enough leaving, but coming back—hoo boy! That’s another story. Two hours standing in line or sitting in a car or a bus, waiting to show your passport. Ain’t worth it. Somebody doesn’t want us fraternizing with the enemy. Or seeing what we’re missing. Or maybe they figure we’ll pay that small price gladly for protection against the aliens.
Unfriendly people here. You can’t meet anyone. Usually poor people are less uptight than affluent ones, but here they are silent and sullen. You can’t get close to most of the affluent ones in their cars, factory outlet shopping malls, suburban houses. Now and then you will encounter someone at the zoo or a nature interpretive center, but they won’t meet your eye, they won’t return your smile, and they often won’t even acknowledge a spoken “Hello.” The friendliest among them will only smile briefly and quickly glance away. It’s worse than being in an elevator because you know at least that’s the etiquette there, it’s how you’re supposed to act. Here people don’t know how to act, and everybody in the county is shy, I guess, or they’re afraid of acting friendly first and not having the gesture reciprocated, or they’re afraid of being tricked into smiling back at a con man. Clearly, they’re afraid.
I used to dread being around other tourists because their jolly camaraderie got on my nerves. “Where are you from?” with a big smile, “Mom and me, we’re from Decatur, staying down at the beach in one of them RV campgrounds. Great place this California. Where you staying?” I hated it. But now I think it may have been better than the studied lack of contact now. People don’t meet your eye, white people, big open-hearted Americans who used to own the campgrounds of the world.
The US has a tradition of disgust with elite privilege, militarism, authoritarian rule. People could start rebelling against the twenty year old trend in this direction. It would be one of few such historical occurrences, but it might be possible given Americans’ more or less widespread training in civic activities. They could reject small-mindedness and cultivate cheerfulness, generosity, and sociability.
On the other hand, the US also has a mean streak, a tradition of immigrant hating know-nothingness, a conquer-and-take frontier attitude. It shares the human affinity for rapine and cruelty. Now, think about all the returning soldiers and contractors and depatriating allies from around the empire. These people need jobs. They know security. They know police work. They know how to obey and how to command. And it so happens there are plenty of jobs these days in immigrant control and antiterrorism and the prison system and shopping center security. And a lot of these jobs are in San Diego.
Apocalyptic me. It seems like the mean streak has won. Hostility reigns. The sky is low and heavy, there’s no space to breathe, no room for friendship with strangers. Rebellion of the good-minded isn’t going to happen around here soon.
I can just hear some of the reactions to this piece: “Go back where you came from, a**hole!” Me: “I’m from here, dude. I got nowhere else to go.” Or: “Love it or leave it.” Me: “Right. Ain’t a lot better elsewhere. Same goddamned aggressive patriotism, same aggressive religionification, same merchandizing, same lies same fraud.” Man, in the old days at least the conquerors didn’t lie. Rape and pillage was straightforward. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t yearn for the days of the Vandals and the Horde. Things are better now than ever for peaceful types like me. No question. And civilization has always been made in the corners away from the big shots and the thugs. But I do hate the abounding lies these days.
You want an example? They tell us we the people are in charge. The illusion of control: Billboards that advertise: My Television. My Rules. That is, control the channels your child can watch. Lie #1: If you own it you control it. Lie #2: Control is good. Lie #3: Ownership is good. Lie #4: Television is good. Lie #5: Influence comes from ownership, not anything like example or discussion. Lie #6: You own your children. Lie #7: You’re in control. Of your life! Of your kids! You be da boss! Big shot! You! Never mind you got no say where you work, you might even gonna lose your job you got no idea, the price of gas goes up, people buy fewer cars, you get laid off from making windshield wiper blades. Sorry, Charlie. You can get retrained at the University of Phoenix to become a middle manager. Or go home and control your TV! Not to mention the tone, self-centered, smug, bossy: Nyah, nyah, nyah, it’s my ball so you gotta play by my rules. They want you to act like the kid everyone hates.
The trouble is, you can’t talk to most people about this. They’re either naïve or complicit. You make the naïve ones uneasy, and they end up cutting you off or repeating the day’s party line at you and they commonly get hostile. The complicit ones are hostile from the get-go. These days hostility is the modus operandi of the Bushies, the neocons, our friends in the Middle East, and the others in control. In days gone by, you ignored gadflies. These days you swat them. These days are vicious. Some people, poor people especially, know this already but what can they do? What good does talking about it do? You can’t teach the naïve, can’t convert the complicit, can’t expect poor powerless saps like us to be able to do anything. I guess you talk about it so a few like-minded people know they’re not alone.