Friday, November 26, 2004

Postcard from Fresno, CA

My husband and I disappeared for a week to his hometown of Fresno for Thanksgiving.

Whenever I go to Fresno, I get transformed into the most politically incorrect whore that has ever lived - but for good reason (or so I think). It starts slowly, but suddenly the woman who can talk a blue streak about how Starbucks is ruining this country is clamoring to go there because, quite simply, have you ever tried to get a decent cup of tea in Fresno? It's just tea, after all, just hot water and a tea bag, but somehow Starbucks seems to make it just right when all other stores around it fail. Sure, in NYC or JC you can get a cup of tea made perfectly fine without ever venturing into a Starbucks, but once you leave the east coast things get a little dicey.

Whole Foods is another "gateway" for me - ok, I hit Whole Foods all the time when I'm at home, so why on earth would I need to go there when I'm on vacation? Fresno is the heart of ag country, so surely they have good veggies elsewhere, right? Surprisingly, no - I don't know what sort of sick deal with the devil Whole Foods has made (or perhaps, the other stores haven't made) that ensures that they get only the most crisp and greenest of the greens, but they do... and so off to Whole Foods we go (I think we made three trips).

And then it's all downhill from there: Soon we find ourselves wandering through the aisles of a Super Wal-Mart, gawking at the dozen eggs for a dollar, loading up on glass votive candle holders for $.57/each, and carrying out what would amount to about $50 in knitting supplies if purchased out here but works out to somehow cost under $10.

Soon, I'm feeling guilty. I've only been visiting Fresno for about seven years now, and already I can see the changes that the big block stores have brought. Stretches of highway that were once open fields have enormous, hulking stores on them, selling products at such low prices it's a wonder Fresno has any independant stores left (they do: there are small sections of the city that are just independantly-owned stores, but I find myself wondering how long they can stick around).

But here's the clincher for me; here's where things get really confusing: I looked at the Fresno craigslist (yes, Fresno has a craigslist) Rants and Raves section before we travelled out and found post after post by Fresnans clamoring for more. More big block stores ("A Pottery Barn, please!" read one post), more choices, more low, low prices. Of course there were people wondering what the future holds for the Tower District or Downtown where those independant stores are located, but they were mostly drowned out by the fretting of others over how they were going to furnish their new homes without driving to the SF-area Ikea.

So that's confusing item #1: You have your stated problem (how do I furnish my new home with cool stuff?) along with another stated problem (has anyone noticed that downtown looks a little... empty?) and the solution which seems pretty obvious to me (hey, wouldn't it be great if there was a store downtown where I could buy stuff for my new place all while keeping the downtown charm intact by being independantly owned?) doesn't seem readily apparent. I don't mean for a moment to disparage Fresnans - after all, I married one - but it's troubling to me that these two tangents don't seem to come together in any productive way.

What might shed light on why this doesn't happen leads me to confusing item #2: The employees we encountered at Wal-Mart, et al, seemed really quite happy. Like, disturbingly happy. Like, happy in a way that those of us who live out in an area where we hear nothing but how Wal-Mart is killing this country could never imagine a person working for them being happy .

Now, this is probably due in part to the general good-naturedness of the people of central California. I have come to believe it is literally impossible to linger for a moment anywhere without someone striking up a conversation with you (ok, coming from the east coast, that took some getting used to). But it also comes from years drifting by where those big block stores suddenly became the only game in town; the only jobs with benefits and security, something to do and someplace to go once your family gave up their farm and you've gotten sick of doing contractor work. I'd imagine it's either a version of Stockholm Syndrome (loving/identifying with your captor) or simply making the best with what you've got.

And so, I was thinking of all of this as we passed the stores on the highway; about how these stores used to send shivers down my spine when I first started visiting Fresno, but they don't anymore. Somehow, this time, I was less surprised by the walnut groves and vineyards and more so with the W04 stickers and the "Get fit with Jesus!" signs. I don't know if I'd forgotten that this chunk of CA is quite red, or if it just impressed me that somehow shopping at these big block stores, voting for Bush, and loving Jesus have become all one and the same. But here's one last thing that was weighing on my mind as we drove:

Fresno is a very liveable city if you're middle class. Hey, I could afford to buy nice stuff for my place - just like that Fresnan craigslist poster had wanted to do. I could finally afford to knit for fun, something I haven't been able to do for months - it's a small and petty thing, but it actually meant quite a lot to me. Extrapolate from there: I could buy groceries, furniture, clothing - all the things I need, for a fraction of the price than I can out here. It is, in short, convenient and doable and affordable for those of us who are not rich in a way that NYC and by and large much of "blue America" is not.

Suddenly, as I was thinking of all this, everything felt laid out before me. Oh, okay, the left didn't win the culture wars, after all; no one in Fresno is devastated by the election (at least, not to the extent back in NYC, what with the teeth-gnashing and wailing and all); that class-warfare I've been hoping for simply isn't going to happen.

And so, I'm tempted right now to hand down a very simple pronouncement. I'm tempted to say flat out that we're screwed, that this country has simply drifted way too far to ever find its way back. As tempting as that is, I won't - and what's holding me back are two conversations I've had in the last week which I'll write more about in the next few days. There are faint glimmers of change out on the horizon, but you have to really tilt your head and squint to see them - but they are there. At least I have to hope they're there, because if they're not - we're really in trouble.


At 11:40 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

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