On the Road with Michael and Karen

Part II

[…] story of anarchism in Eugene, but Oregon is tolerant of “offbeat” people, so long as they are white. From what I read about Eugene in the newspapers, racism is alive and well there, as it is in the rest of Oregon. In Eugene as elsewhere, the disparity between rich and poor is evident.

The landscape begins to change dramatically continuing south along Interstate 5. Closer to the California border, the elevation increases, and the terrain becomes more rugged approaching Grant and Siskiyou passes. One of Oregon’s prettiest towns is Ashland, just fifteen miles from the border. Southern Oregon University is located there as well as a year-round Shakespeare festival. Unfortunately my computer stopped working in Ashland, and I tried to get it fixed locally. I ended up with a computer more badly broken than when I brought it to the repair shop. I bought a cheap replacement in the hot and dry town of Medford, Oregon, but this computer became immediately infected with the Sasser worm, as did my backup. It took me a week to fix them, as I frantically wrote down instructions from Microsofts’s website before the worm kicked me off the Web. Later, I mailed the broken computer from Twentynine Palms, California (“2-9” to the locals and a rather bleak desert haven for m isfits and loners) to the shop in Pittsburgh where I bought it. The Post Office promptly destroyed it, and I have been battling the postal bureaucrats now for nearly three months trying to collect the $1,000 for which I insured it.

My battles with postal authorities have been a shock. I loved the local post office when I was a boy, and I yearned to be a mail carrier. The postal clerks were friendly and exuded an air of importance. They used to save plate blocks of the new stamps for me. Postal rates were low, and the mail system was seen as an essential publicly-provided service. Now it is run as a business; the work is dangerous and constantly subjected to speed-up; there is widespread use of temporary workers; and service has deteriorated dramatically. Worker morale is low, and the clerks seem harried and alienated (for some insight into postal work, see the hilarious Post Office by Charles Bukowski). Given the circumstances, I am amazed that the clerks are as nice as they usually are. Even in a postal zoo like the enormous post office on Fourth Avenue in Manhattan, the clerks were always helpful, if a bit brusque.

[A note in passing: Besides the computer problems, we have had a number of problems on our journey: hassles with the IRS and a local taxing authority and car problems. It is surprising how these can be dealt with from a long distance if you have a little patience, a cheap phone card, and a computer. We pay our bills online when possible, use 800 numbers when available, and act aggressively when we have to. We no longer have a permanent home, and we own very few possessions. We have given away or sold cheaply everything from books to beds to cars. What we now own is in our Dodge van and a five by ten storage space. Being free of things is liberating, and I recommend it to all. Be a saint. Give your things away to those who might need them. Live as simply as you can.

For a case of a young man who did this, perhaps to an extreme degree, read Everett Reuss’s, A Vagabond for Beauty. Reuss, a talented artist and writer, (there is a good photo of him in the book by his friend Dorothea Lange) took off from his home in California at age seventeen in 1931 and traveled by foot and by burro and horse across the western and southwestern United States for nearly three years (he disappeared in the canyons of southern Utah in 1934) with almost no belongings and little money. The book contains all of his letters to family and friends, as well as journal entries, poems, and art works. It is a remarkable story. In one letter to a friend this seventeen-year old said the following:

Music has been in my heart all the time, and poetry in my thoughts. Alone on the open desert, I have made up songs of wild, poignant rejoicing and transcendent melancholy. The world has seemed more beautiful to me than ever before. I have loved the red rocks, the twisted trees, the red sand blowing in the wind, the slow sunny clouds crossing the sky, the shafts of moonlight on my bed at night. I have seemed to be at one with the world. I have rejoiced to set out, to be going somewhere, and I have felt a still sublimity, looking deep into the coals of my campfires, and seeing far beyond them. I have been happy in my work, and I have exulted in my play. I have really lived.

The one flaw, he says, is “the insistent clamor of that disgusting god, money.”!!!] Reuss steadfastly refused to do steady wage labor. As I travel and observe and talk to grocery store employees, mall workers, farm laborers, motel clerks, room cleaners, construction workers, those who work in our national parks, barbers, gas station attendants, car mechanics, and salespersons, I sense a deep alienation. It doesn’t usually take more than a minute to get workers to start complaining about their jobs. Wage labor is the bane of humanity, and if I had one wish I would abolish it.

We drove through some mountains in Northern California and spent a night in the poor little town of Redding. We have noticed that it is not uncommon for people to be living in cheap motels. Probably folks have had to move for economic reasons, but when they get to a town to look for work, they cannot afford any other place to stay. At our motel, several obviously poor families had laundry hanging over the second-story railing.

Many small motels, and the Redding motel was one of them, are owned or managed by families from India. Invariably their name is “Patel.” We learned from the managers of a hotel in Williams, Arizona (also named Patel) that Patel is a common family name in Western India. Family members come here and use the money of an extended family to buy or lease motels, and then they send for other family members. Numerous gas stations and convenience stores in remote places are also run by immigrants from India. Sometimes, once a motel is established, the family opens an Indian restaurant. I have spoken to several Patel motel managers. They hope to make enough money to move to a larger city and make a better life for their children. It has been interesting to observe that when we first noticed this phenomenon several years ago, we found these motels to be especially clean and cheap. Such is no longer the case, as the new immigrants have quickly learned more “American” ways of doing bus iness. It is also interesting to see the hostility of some townsfolk, one mentioned by the motel manager in Williams. Large signs note tell the traveler that a particular motel is “American owned.” The Patel motels have been quick to try to assimilate and often fly U.S. flags and post pro-U.S. slogans (“We support our troops”) on their properties.

South of Redding are California’s great central valleys, which would be deserts except for irrigation. The West is chock full of dammed rivers and their accompanying reservoirs and irrigation channels, many of them monumental in size. The history of capitalism in the west is often the history of the commodification of water. A good many of Los Angeles’s early fortunes, for example, were made through various shady deals and outright thefts involving water (see the book Cadillac Desert for details). Today California’s central valleys are the breadbaskets of the nation. In the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys there is desert to the west of Interstate 5 and green irrigated files to the east. Among many other crops, we identified huge fields and groves of olives, rice (seeded by planes using laser technology to get super-straight rows planted), almonds, plums, cotton, pistachios, cashews, apricots, and wine grapes. Name the crop or food product, and chances are Califor nia produces it. Eggs, beef, wheat, mushrooms, oranges, lemons, beans, peas, carrots, lettuce (the biggest cash crop), tomatoes, avocados, brussel sprouts, all are big business in California.

It would be instructive for every person in the United States to travel in the California valleys and see how our food is produced and to learn something of modern agriculture. The late and great editor of the Nation magazine, Carey McWilliams, called the farms of California “factories in the fields.” This is an apt description. A trip through the central valleys quickly dispels any nostalgic notion of family farms. Instead of trim green plots, there are fields of many thousands of acres, so large that named roads often go through them. These fields are alive with poorly-paid and badly- treated Mexican labor during the planting and harvesting seasons, but otherwise not many workers are needed. Every manner of mechanical invention is employed to raise productivity. Shaking machines remove nuts from trees. Special seeds are developed to insure that citrus trees and grape vines grow to the same height for mechanical harvesting. New strains of tomatoes are developed and land patterns changed (larger, flatter land areas) so that tomatoes used for items such as tomato sauce can be mechanically harvested, with the tomatoes, hard so as to be resistant to bruising by the machines, moved directly from the machines to attached refrigeration cars. Much of the research for agribusiness is carried out in public universities, most notably the University of California at Davis. This research benefits mainly the big corporate growers that help fund it. In California, the growers are kings, and a politician confronts them (and anything to do with a more rational use of water) at great risk. Over the past century there have been many attempts to organize the farm laborers (read the works of John Steinbeck. I have read The Grapes of Wrath seven times. For me it is still the great American novel. In Dubious Battle is another good book. Peter Mathiesson’s Sal Si Puedes––this means “Get Out If You Can”––tells the story of Cesar Chavez and h is early struggles to organize the farm workers). Many workers have been murdered in these struggles by the growers and their hired guns and goons. Yet it is rare indeed for anyone to be prosecuted for the death of a farm worker.

Corporate agriculture exacts a heavy toll on all of us. A haze of pesticide poison hangs over the fields of the central valley. You can see it very clearly as you drive down the mountain on Route 58 west toward Bakersfield (country and western capital of California and home of Merle Haggart but also the carrot capital of the world), but it is obvious everywhere in the valleys. The growers are heavily subsidized, not just by university research but more directly through cheap use of water. Water is grossly overused from a social point of view, and everywhere in the west water tables are falling, rivers are being ruined by dams, water is evaporating from reservoirs (Lake Powell, the result of the flooding of the wondrous Glen Canyon, is rapidly filling with silt and is at record low water level), cities dependent on water diverted from the Colorado and other rivers are becoming disgusting urban sprawls polluting the landscape even further (Los Angeles, Phoenix, Tucson, Las V egas). Water woes will be one of our most serious social problems in the not too distant future. Ranchers graze cattle on public lands; cattle have everywhere in the west destroyed the natural habitat. Beef production in the west is extraordinarily inefficient from a social point of view, made efficient for the ranchers only by public subsidy.

Then there is the cost of agribusiness to the workers. The life expectancy of a farm worker in California is still not much above fifty years. Subsidized corn floods Mexico, driving peasants from the land and into the United States. At great risk to life and limb and for a large fee, they flee their homelands and sneak into the United States to work the fields. Years of stoop labor, bad food, inadequate housing, the inhaling of pesticides, injury, all take their toll. And none of this cost is counted in our measure of farm efficiency.

Surely we could produce our food differently. Let the subsidies go to smaller farmers growing organic food. Take a lesson from Cuba, which, after the Soviet subsidies ended and everyone thought the end of the revolution was near, managed to completely revamp its agriculture, reducing the scale, eliminating the use of many pesticides, using technology to conserve resources rather than wasting them as we do, making gardens in the cities, and within a few years achieving near self-sufficiency in food production. Stop the wasteful subsides which encourage more and more production of crops already in great supply, such as corn, which in turn encourage the use of calorically high corn syrup in nearly every processed food we eat (check the ingredients next time you go shopping). We produce more and more calories, and in a capitalist society, these must be consumed, unfortunately in fat and sugar-filled foods which make us ever fatter and less healthy.

In 1977 I worked for the United Farm Workers at union headquarters in the tiny town of Keene, California, high up in the Tehachapi mountains east of Bakersfield. This is where I first learned of modern agribusiness and the attempts to organize the workforce. At headquarters we had a large organic garden (with over forty kinds of chiles), and the staff helped farm it every Saturday. I have written a long essay about my experiences with the union and its leader, the late Cesar Chavez.

Here is an excerpt:

Stockton is about forty miles east of San Francisco, a shabby town, squat and dirty, like most of those in California’s central valleys. In summer the temperature reaches 110 degrees, and the air is fouled by pesticides. We had arrived in Stockton late at night after a long drive: Cesar, two bodyguards, and myself. We stayed at the house of a union supporter. Cesar knew thousands of people and, like an Indian holy man, never had to worry about a place to eat and to sleep. It was my thirty_first birthday, and I had packed a bottle of wine. We drank it after the meal and a meeting with a union lawyer. Cesar toasted me. He said that I was doing good work for the union.

My job in Stockton was to testify in an unfair labor practice hearing. Under pressure from the union, its allies, and a sympathetic governor, California’s legislature had enacted a law which gave farm workers the right to organize unions and negotiate contracts without employer interference. Most growers had reacted to the law with contempt and continued to treat their workers as peons and unions as the work of communists agitators. Once the union had organized a ranch, it had to get the employer to the bargaining table. More often than not the growers refused to go.

Stockton was a hotbed of grower defiance of the law, complete with terrorist vigilante groups. The alleged leader of the vigilantes was one Ernest Perry Jr., a tomato grower and labor contractor. Mr. Perry had a fearsome reputation, having once yanked a union organizer up from the ground by his mustache. He had once met the server of a labor board subpoena with a shotgun. During the organizing campaign, two of his workers, union supporters, had been savagely beaten. No one doubted that the attacker had been paid by Perry. Miraculously the union had won the election, but Perry had refused to recognize and bargain with it, forcing the union to file charges. My job was to testify as to how much money Perry refusal to bargain had cost the campesinos. Cesar would testify too, because this was the first case of its kind. A large judgment against the grower would send a strong message to others.

We arrived at the municipal building early. Our lawyers had to talk to some of the witnesses, farm workers huddled in a group at the rear of the room. They were tense and fearful, but the sight of Cesar eased them greatly. He had a bond with them difficult to describe but readily seen. He was of them but above them. He was their leader; he had asked them to be here; they were here. As he spoke with them, I thought of the Zapatistas in Orozco’s painting. Like them, these campesinos stood straight and tall in front of their commander, in sharp contrast to their stooped and suppliant bodies out in the fields.

By the start of the hearing, the small room was packed. The rows of folding chairs were separated by a narrow center aisle. We sat on the left, Carvalho and company on the right. I read a book once which said that The Grapes of Wrath was not a great novel because the growers were presented as one-dimensionally evil people. This critic should have seen this crew. Big bellied, fat-jowled, cold-eyed men dressed in jeans and boots and cowboy hats, sniggering among themselves, giving us hard stares. They looked exactly like pigs, and Perry was their pig-leader. When I glanced at him, I had an image of his strangling Cesar with his bare hands, grunting, spit dripping from his chin. I was sure that he stank no matter how many showers he took. No, these were evil people. They were capable of unprovoked violence. Had I thought about it, I would have argued that Steinbeck had been too generous. Because up and down the valleys there are men like these. They are the bedrock of California agriculture, the shock troops for the big corporate growers with their smooth-as-silk lawyers and suave manners, who wouldn’t think of beating or hitting a farm worker but wouldn’t mourn her death either.

The hearing was raucous and unruly. We petitioned to have testimony translated into Spanish, but the judge refused. He said we would never finish a bilingual hearing, but then he had to admonish us to keep quiet a dozen times as we whispered translations to the campesinos. Perry stood up and shouted that he “wasn’t gonna negotiate with no bunch of goddam comanists.” He said, “I’m just a dumb fuckin’ Portagee, but I ain’t dealin’ with no comanists.” When the judge warned him about his language, he grinned and said, “I don’t know no other words. I’m just a dumb Portagee.” His lawyer tried to calm him, but Perry shoved him away. He pointed at Cesar and taunted, “Hey Cesar. Let’s me and you settle this. Let’s go in the next room. Me and you. If you come out first, I’ll recognize your commie union. If I come out, hey, we’ll just all go home and forget this fuckin’ hearing.” Cesar sat immobile and stared ahead, but his bodyguards tensed. The judge kept pounding his gavel, but hi s power had deserted him. I turned to watch the other growers. The only thin man among them returned my stare with a grin. He made his hand into a gun and silently pulled the trigger. Perry said, “See, you’re not a man, just a fuckin’ comanist.” The judge recessed the hearing until the next morning. When the union asked for Perry’s employment records, which had been subpoenaed and which he had brought with him in a large cardboard box, Perry snapped them up and strode out of the room.

Our trip south through California ended at Joshua Tree National Park, about eighty miles east of San Bernardino. We passed the famous resort town of Palm Springs. There are 100 golf courses there, striking testimony to the complete irrationality of our economic system. In a land devoid of water, rich people ride golf carts. Not many miles west and south, future farm workers live in miserable makeshift camps, getting ready to find employment in our water-and human-wasteful agriculture.