Un-Made in Mexico

Sex, drugs and the American flag: The true tale of an Orange County family

I arrived ingloriously (sweating, shaken from testing laws of physics on Highway 1) at the experiment, parked and stepped from the Prius into a bloom of dust.

You know the Hawthorne Effect, of course, in which workers who are watched by social scientists are suddenly more productive merely because of the presence of the watchful social scientists and despite a complete absence of new techniques or equipment. The HE takes place in social situations too, and was emanating all around the experiment like something tactual. The Participants—mother, father, daughter and son—surrounded me, hugged, pecked me on the cheek, pulled my suitcase from the Prius and demanded that I have a margarita because (FP) "that's how we do things in Baja." Hawthorne Effect.

Their project rose like a dollhouse in one corner of a lot marked out from other lots with barbed wire; the barbed wire lent my endeavor a Stanford Prison Experiment vibe I had hoped to avoid. Flags, some of them snapping from improbably tall high-grade aluminum poles (complete with the whole formal halyard-and-cleat assembly), others the sort that hang loosely from a pole rising at an angle from a small sleeve screwed to the door frame. The December sun beat down like August in a bluer-than-blue sky. The concrete-block home, now two stories tall, had been plastered sunflower yellow; the toilet (a U.S.-manufactured seat [Kohler] placed over a laundry-detergent bucket into which you urinate or defecate and then toss wood shavings collected from the construction going on all around you) was "working" in the first-floor "bathroom"; the kitchen was coming along nicely, though the participants were still dining primarily in the kitchens of American neighbors or in Bar Harbor, the expat bar on the shoulder of Highway 1.

*   *   *

Now might be the time to discuss the origins of the experiment and to acknowledge my responsibility for its deleterious effect on the Participants.

My girlfriend—now long gone—introduced me in the late 1980s to the Participants (then recently married, no kids). They struck me as wealthy; in retrospect it's clear that, from the dungeon of my graduate school program in literature, anyone who paid for a haircut seemed well-off. The couple owned a home in Newport Beach, a gift from her father. By the time I met them, in a Diedrich Coffee on 17th Street in Costa Mesa, they were already restless. They hated Newport, they said, despised what they called the "crass materialism," and particularly what she (not, notably, he) said were the signs of that crassness: enhanced breasts. It's important to note that, though their criticisms might sound Marxian, they weren't: the couple had no argument with wealth as such, just conspicuous consumption, and to them, anyhow, anything they didn't have was conspicuous. I had never had a cup of coffee more luxurious than the Folgers in the Mr. Coffee coffeemaker in my graduate department's kitchen; buying coffee at Diedrich Coffee seemed attendant with all the marks of conspicuous consumption. I didn't point this out.

My failure to point things out, to indicate by any means whatever that I saw portents of disaster, irony and simple trouble, helped, ultimately, to destroy the Participants.

The Participants declared themselves ready to move to his hometown in—get this—South Dakota. She'd been there, she said, and America—"the real America" (her words) survived there. How did she know? Because family and community were still important in this South Dakota town. How did she know? There were the semiotics of the place: homes had porches, indicating a predisposition to conviviality; the city had a main street (eponymically, Main Street); the high school football game was the social event of the week; church was a close second. "Everybody knows everybody else," she said, and I wanted to point out, but didn't (which, supra), that the same might be true of some prisons. They seriously referred to this place as "America's heartland" and insisted that the people there were more virtuous than any we could meet in Orange County. What about Orange County people who feed the poor? I asked, missing their point. I was thinking of my friends at the Catholic Worker in Santa Ana, the people at Costa Mesa's Share Our Selves or the unnamed thousands whose daily goodness (letting you merge onto the 55, etc.) produces the vibe of this place. They dismissed such goodness as either the dark spawn of a guilty conscience or simply inconsistent with the Midwestern virtue of self-sufficiency. "People around here wake up and realize they're not happy with their big houses and nannies and Mercedes-Benzes, and think throwing a few dollars around will fix it. Well, they're wrong" (Female P).

Though they intended to leave Newport Beach for South Dakota, they did not intend to sell the house. They would rent it and, anticipating another run-up in real-estate prices, would sell it one day to some "crass, materialistic mook" (Female Participant), "make a pretty penny" (Male Participant) and use it to fund their yet unborn offspring's college educations. They called this "tapping other people's greed."

I didn't point out that such a tap struck me as the furthest extreme of materialism.

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