Letter From California
02/05/05 0454.51 pst
San Jose, California
Flying over the Salinas Valley in early February, as I did three weeks ago, yields an odd sight: strawberry fields encased in plastic that, when viewed from 20,000 feet, gives the impression that some playful young giant had recently exited the scene and left grey plastic Legos ™ scattered all over the land. The reflected light made the soil between plastic rows invisible, giving the earth a disconcerting, flat, petroleum-product look.
The fields are strange when seen close-up, too, raised rows a foot high, three feet wide and tightly encased in green or gray plastic, perforated at the top so one or two-year-old plants can eventually bring forth riches of fruit. The frozen strawberry market has greatly expanded in the last twenty years, improved shipping spreads the fresh market ever further, and every year more coastal California fields are planted with sustainable gold fields.
Sharecropping is going in the Salinas Valley right now. Already at least 5,000 migrant laborers are around Monterey, Watsonville, and Salinas working the fields with thousands more to come in the next eight weeks as the harvest starts. Brutal work for poverty wages stooped over the wide rows with small low carts to hold the flats while the picker chooses unripe, hard fruit, tasteless but tough for shipping. Frozen berries get picked riper.
They used to pump the fields with methyl bromide, the same gas used to kill termites in tented houses. $60,000 tractors manicure the fields with gps so jets can fly the berries to New York, but the actual humans toiling expensive technology-stuffed world of the strawberry are trapped in a feudal, grossly exploitive, often illegal hell of grinding, painful poverty. Californians like to think they live in a modern, progressive, civilized society, but the reality is quite different. We have a long, long way to go.
Alleged salvation can arrive in many guises to this rich, contradictory land. Last week the Governor arrived in Sacramento driving a huge Hummer with plates proclaiming REFORM 1, the gas-guzzling beast of his tawdry entertainment persona fouling the big image splashed across the front page of the San Jose Mercury News.
[My wife changed her mind and said she wanted the paper for the local education news, so I just shut up and paid the bill. Sure I’d proclaimed to the world just ninety days ago why I was never subscribing the whoring Republican rag again, but I’m married. A happy wife holds the keys to rapture I had not thought possible in this world, so the Mercury still gets chucked into the driveway every morning.]
Arnie and his Hummer threatened to end-run the legislature again so he could screw teachers and education, blow off his duty to propose a stable, progressive, adequate tax base, take gobs of money at an even greater rate than Gray Davis, and simply chuck the idea of modern government out the window.
If the legislature won’t cooperate with your legislation and one tries an end-run with a public initiative, what happens if the initiative is voted down? The legislature has done nothing, the initiative can do nothing and government simply fails. They ran this risk last year with the budget and got away with it, but again, the mere arrival of the 21st century has fooled most Californians into thinking they live an advanced, mature society.
Cloaking Arnie’s nauseating “reform” is a truly good idea: stripping the legislature of the ability to set district boundaries for elections and giving it to a three judge panel. California Democrats have shamefully wussed out and drawn themselves safe districts, so the incumbents almost always win. Real advanced Democracy demands fair 50-50 districts, so I’ll vote for an initiative once again, a practice that always gives me a serious case of the creeps in a land where the public initiative has wreaked so much havoc and pain.
Growers, gardeners and baseball fans anxiously watch the sky, hoping for signs of longer days and dry, clear heat that crisp the Golden State to its named color. Our famed sunshine fuels the crops and the hope that this place, so rich and full of potential, can continue to give all of our children--and their children—a good opportunity at a happy, productive life in an sustainable environment. Arnie and his Hummer aren’t going to get us there, but real Democracy in competitive districts gives us a better chance. Faint hopes, maybe, but a lot better than nothing.