No state has as much diversity as California has within its borders. In the northwest, green forests of giants line the coast and fall under the axes of loggers. Cabins, nestled into hillsides, and Victorian houses remain in coastal towns as memorials to the days of great industry. Heading south, one reaches San Francisco Bay. Surrounded by cities, ports, and untouched hillsides, the Bay Area is home to high-tech firms, artists, and prestigious colleges such as U.C. Berkeley and Stanford. In the Central Valley, large farms spread out over dusty plains. The southern portion of the state contains vast urban sprawls, such as Los Angeles, built on reclaimed deserts. Independent of the state's climatic diversity, there is also great diversity among California's impoverished.
Passing down Main Street, one might be convinced that it is still 1950. The facade of an old movie theater fades away. Missing lettering announces the showing of a forgotten film. Children dressed in handed down clothes hang around outside the general store. Behind a window pane warped with age and marred by decades of B.B. guns is a display of confections. Cans of soda and bags of chips seem out of place with the store's musty air and worn floor boards. At the edge of town, the wilderness regains control. The shade of tall trees darkens the only road into and out of town. At the outskirts is a clearing packed with rows of mobile homes. Once shiny chrome rusts from many years of exposure to the elements. The screen door of one of these tiny cocoons opens and a young woman many months into pregnancy emerges with three children following closely at her heels. Her husband had once been working in the mills, but that is over now. His employers had called it "cutting costs." Even while he worked the family barely survived. Almost every penny had gone into buying food for the children. What little extra they had went into savings, hoping to pay for at least one of their children to go to college. Now that money is all gone. The children's father has been diligently looking for a job for many months, but there are no jobs to be found. The lumber companies these days seem to be laying off more workers than they are hiring. Families suffer dearly from poverty, but their suffering is invisible. Hidden in the outskirts of nameless towns or the apartments of famous cities, they live from month to month on welfare checks. Too proud to admit their destitution they may search for employment, but if none is found their children grow up hungering for food and security in a seemingly uncaring world.
As I walk down Telegraph Avenue, the smell of greasy pizza mingles along with smells of filth and marijuana smoke. All along the sidewalk, street vendors sell everything from t-shirts to silver-plated jewelry and bead necklaces. Car horns chortle along with hundreds of human voices as masses of people mill up and down the sidewalk and across the street. Some people wander aimlessly around the street while others walk with long strides, intent on rapidly reaching some destination. Since Berkeley is a college town, much of the human soup is composed of college students. However, many of those who wander along the streets of Berkeley neither go to school nor work in Berkeley. They are attracted by the atmosphere. They have come for the idea of a place where they may live free from the constraints of the "real world." A park is their bed and their dinner comes from the graciousness of passersby. One man with a tie-die shirt and flowing purple dreadlocks stands at the corner holding out a cup for change. Passersby who ignore him are tiraded with a series of vile insults. At another corner, a short man in a tattered suit stands on a milk crate and reads excerpts from a small Bible he holds in his hand. After a few minutes, another man, known only as "hate man", approaches him and the two enter into a bitter argument. It is not that these people would like to work but can't find any. They live the way they do out of choice. It is a way to escape the responsibilities and pressures of life. Without property or money, they need visibility to survive by collecting spare change from passersby.
There is an overwhelming feeling of desolation about the town. Flatness spreads out in all directions. Barns and windmills rise up from surrounding farms and the wind blows dust through the hot, dry air. A highway passes near the town. An offramp leads to the town's only establishment of note, a McDonald's which is frequented by travelers as they drive across the Central Valley. In both directions along the highway, farms hug the road and vanish off across the flatness and the occasional hills into the distance. A large group of Mexican men sit at the bus stop, waiting to be hired. Their brown faces, highlighted with neatly trimmed mustaches, blend into surrounding golden fields and the dust blowing through the air. They stand there inconspicuously. The occasional passerby doesn't give them a second glance, unless he is looking for cheap, exploitable labor for a harvest or construction project. These men came here for a chance at a better life. America was supposed to be the land of opportunity. Now that they are here, they migrate through the Valley, following harvests and plantings and searching for any jobs that might come their way. Every penny that can be saved is sent home to their beloved families. Every day they pray that one day their loved ones will be able to join them.
I sit in a warm, dark room and stare at a television screen which is the sole source of illumination. On TV, an aerial shot shows a city in flames. Thick black smoke rises up from stores, homes, and schools from horizon to horizon. As the night sets, the news cameras present apocalyptic images of an inferno. These fires are not the result of an earthquake or other natural occurrence. They are the result of pure rage. Years of repressed frustrations with a social condition have exploded into violence. What started as a demonstration against a perceived injustice in the government is being taken advantage of and is growing out of all proportion. A reporter on the ground shows a black man and a white man working together to carry a television out of store. The store's front window is smashed, its protective bars torn away, and ant-like streams of humans are pouring into and out of the store with looted goods. There are no police in sight. The TV station switches to an aerial view. A number of youths have stopped a truck and are pulling out the driver. Baseball bats, feet, and fists fly against a man who has done nothing other than be in the wrong place at the wrong time. No one comes to his aid. One of the youths looks up at the helicopter. The emotion in his face is a combination of anger and amusement. It is clear he has lost not only all respect for authority, but also for rational action.