The other night we were driving somewhere, and we saw campaign signs for the State Assembly election, which is apparently approaching. One of the signs said, “Jim Smith [or whoever] for State Assembly: The Conservative Republican.”
That was it. That was his tagline. Not “For a Better Future” or “The People’s Choice” or something flowery like that. “The Conservative Republican.” At least you know what you’re getting. And I should be relieved that he’s “the” conservative Republican candidate; around here, I’m sort of surprised that there’s only one.
This is a really weird place to live. I’ve done an awful lot of complaining about it, but most of that has been from a consumer standpoint–no good book or record stores, no downtown area, like some sort of Zagat’s Guide to college towns. Right now I’m talking about a different kind of weirdness, one that’s shown me how atypical a lot of my experiences have been in other places I’ve lived.
For instance, there are no sirens here. I was talking to Megan on the phone (hope you’re reading this, Megan) some time ago–she lives in New Haven–and in the background I heard a police siren. It took me by surprise, because I was out of the habit of hearing them. The police cars here don’t use their sirens; twice I’ve seen one driving down the road, silently flashing its lights.
That reaction, of being surprised by something that I used to take for granted, has struck me a number of times since I moved here. One morning, about ten days after I moved here, I was walking to campus when I saw a disheveled man asleep on the grass. I was completely taken aback, even shocked; my first instinct was to make sure he was alive, and the sight kept me shaken up for the rest of the day. I come from one of the most tolerant communities in America in regards to homelessness, and therefore one with a sizable homeless population, but in just ten days I had forgotten the standard way to deal with homelessness–keep walking, let someone else worry about it. I wonder how long you could live here and never be reminded that homelessness exists.
There are no disabled people here–I’ve seen one person in a wheelchair, and it was such a rare event that I remember exactly where it was and what she looked like. There are almost no black people here, and I’m always struck by a feeling of pleasant surprise when I see a black person on or around campus. I’m not keeping some kind of PC checklist, but I grew up in decently close proximity to a race and culture that is just not represented here and it feels strange. When I went back to the Bay Area for the first time, in October, I realized how much I had taken the presence of an entire ethnic group for granted.
Now, all of the above was true about Bronxville, too, but Bronxville had a certain character and individuality that was easier to bear. I know what it is that weirds me out about Orange County: it’s not just suburban, it’s aggressively suburban, even anti-urban. Everything I associate with city life is completely absent here, both the good–a (not just ethnically) diverse population, parks, places to walk and shop and people-watch–and the bad, or more accurately the symptoms of bad–homelessness, graffiti, crime. Take all that away and what’s left is Irvine, a city defined by negatives. To be honest, I welcome the crazy Republicans, because they give the place character; everything else is people staying inside their identical houses. Mind you, I don’t come from a teeming metropolis full of dark satanic mills. I come from Berkeley, just about the most effete example of a small city there is. But Irvine makes Berkeley look positively noir.
Last quarter I was talking with a few of the Poetry MFA students, and we were complaining about all of this stuff. One of them said something that stuck with me: “I hope I never come to like it here.” That’s similar to a fear I have. I don’t think I need to worry about liking Irvine, but I am worried that I might get used to it. And that fear is mirrored by another: I’m worried that I might spend six years here without ever getting used to it.