Sadly, my parents never made it to California, not permanently. The closest they got was three months in San Jose, which was long enough to enroll me in school in the fifth grade. Two things stand out from that time: the large, paper Christmas tree I got to take home and the kid who heard I was from New York and wanted to fight me on the playground. Apparently, he was top dog. This occurred long before My Cousin Vinney.
Something else stands out. I remember becoming much better at long division. In New York, my teacher had weaponized long division by making me stand at the blackboard in humiliation until finally calling on someone else to rescue me. That changed in San Jose with a teacher who was much kinder and guided me through the scaffolding of chalked numbers until we both landed safely at the answer.
California also had something that you couldn’t find in New York: redwood chips. They were everywhere, decorating sidewalks, front yards, and public parks. They smelled so different from anything I was used to that for a while I went around with them stuffed into my pockets. That, by itself, can get you beaten up.
What prevented my parents from moving to California in the 1960s and 70s? After all, my aunt and uncle had done it along with countless others–veterans, entrepreneurs, malcontents–who made up a new class of 49ers seeking sunshine and opportunity. They, in turn, followed Dust Bowl migrants who had abandoned Oklahoma and Texas in the 1930s for the rich soil of San Joaquin Valley and the idyllic paradise that was California.
I think what prevented them from taking that California trip was ethnic neighborhoods, or, more specifically, my grandmother. She lived in an Italian neighborhood on Staten Island and, like many grandmothers, was the central figure of the family, at least as far as home and hearth were concerned.
We spent most Sunday afternoons at her house for dinner and visited with family members and friends. She and my grandfather formed the hub around which the family wheel revolved. When she died, the wheel stopped turning and fell apart. We moved to the suburbs of New Jersey, which led to the gradual unraveling of familial bonds.
That would have been a good time to make the break and hit Route 66, but by then it was too late. It fell upon me to make the move, which I did not want to do, California having as much appeal for me as sand in your bathing suit. My parents ended up moving to Las Vegas, which got them out of the harsh East but didn’t exactly land them in Bakersfield. Like Moses, they had to gaze upon the Promised Land from the other side of the Jordan.
Unlike earlier migrations to California in which people sought fame, fortune, and work, the post-War migration centered upon a utopian vision of happiness beyond apricot orchards and redwood chips. This vision promised intellectual, sexual, and existential fulfillment through the emergence of a new human being liberated from the constraints of bourgeois values. But nothing could be more alien to a working class family trying to integrate those same values. In the end, the utopian dream left my parents disillusioned and uncertain, as it had many others.
This month, I am returning to California for reasons having to do with family and career after being away for more than a decade. It is clear that the Golden State, although suffering from the effects of mismanagement and ideological extremism, has become my home. I have roots there and those roots continue to thrive despite my long absence. And, who knows, maybe I will appreciate it more for having been away all this time.
This might reflect yet another kind of California migration, one closer to Virgil’s Aeneas, who wandered the Mediterranean Sea for ten long years trying to get back home. Eventually, after battling monsters both real and imagined, he founded Rome.
I’m not looking to found a city. I just want to get reacquainted with the life I left, redwood chips and all.
Now that’s California dreamin.