Un-Made in Mexico

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

The Participants were a physically attractive couple, tanned, well-muscled, athletic (she runs as if from something every day; he lifts weights and runs—I think this is metaphoric—on a treadmill). But for the brief time they lived in South Dakota, they looked like corn-fed Midwesterners. They gave birth to the Minor Participants and, feeding during long winters on a diet heavy in cobblers hot from the oven, blew up like Navy life rafts; quickly, with the simple tug of a line that connected them to every casserole and fried-meat meal they encountered, they put on weight. She began wearing overalls over blousy T-shirts; his ensemble was Dockers casual Fridays.

The bottom line: South Dakota disappointed them. They kept the South Dakota house—"building their real-estate portfolio," they said—and, following research in the local public library (see Great Places to Live, 1998) moved to San Francisco, now accompanied by the Minor Participants. San Francisco would be everything South Dakota was not, they said. South Dakotans had turned out to be provincial, stupid even, cowardly, nosy. "It was like living in a communist country without the free health care" (Male P). His parents turned out to be sedentary and judgmental. TV was at the center of all social functions—"like a fucking fireplace" (FP). "Living with his mom is like living with your superego," she said, deploying (beautifully, I thought) a Freudian term she picked up in a Cal State Long Beach psych class. The FP cited one example of small-town life: thinking she'd been discreet, the FP picked up birth-control pills in the next town over. The next day, a neighbor showed up at her front door to suggest that she not take the birth-control pills because they were not God's way. Only three men—her husband, her doctor and the pharmacist—had known about the pills. Observing their lack of entrepreneurial zeal, the FP said South Dakotans "wouldn't spend the energy to bend over and pick up a dollar." Despite the Republican impulses of this prairie clan, public assistance—farm subsidies, Medicare, public schooling—turned out to be critical to the budget of the Male Participant's family of origin. San Francisco, by contrast, was intellectual, cosmopolitan, ethnically diverse. Better than that, they said, it was the center of the dot-com boom. Billions were being made by kids barely out of high school, and with little work.

I did not point out the parallels between making billions without labor and the South Dakotans' putative refusal to pick up putatively unclaimed dollars.

But SF, they discovered, was wretched. They arrived in time to buy a house at the peak of the market and, following the rapid, helium-balloon-like deflation of the dot-com bubble, sold the three-level place just off Golden Gate Park at something approaching the market's bottom. They cursed the global economy, the panhandlers, the Internet, hippies, poetry, gays and lesbians, coffeehouses, Craigslist, Haight Street, fog, Democrats, rain in August. What's really important, they said, was family, and SF was no place to raise a family. The family that was most important was hers, in Newport Beach. Southern California, they said, was everything that San Francisco was not: sensible, pragmatic, money-motivated. The weather was great, and the land values would always be solid.

They moved back to OC and bought a second home in Newport for $600,000; rent from their first home would pay the mortgage on the second. When comps in their neighborhood hit $750,000, they sold. They looked at my little place in Costa Mesa—a home that continues, even as I write, to deconstruct itself—and encouraged me to do the same. "Pocket the equity, rent an apartment and wait for the market to collapse," they said. "And it will collapse. People will be going BK [as experts in the financial world know, the Participants' use of "BK"—i.e., "bankruptcy"—suggests their familiarity with bad financial news] all over the place. And when they do, you'll have a couple of hundred thousand to put down on some great property."

I was tempted. But in one of those rare moments when an impractical graduate degree yields very practical returns, I recalled the writing of one of the Southern Agrarian Radicals in I'll Take My Stand: a home is not a place to raise money, it's a place to raise a family. I did not offer them this insight.

Nor did I offer that their real-estate purchases—in South Dakota, San Francisco and Orange County—were effable clues (in what social scientists call the built environment) about something ineffable. No mere title document in a county courthouse could ever disclose the emptiness that, like Maxwell's demon, produces energy from a vacuum; no such document could reveal the Participants' relentless casting about for "heartland values" in a place where "family is first," or alternatively for a place where "cosmopolitan values" produced "money from nothing" in the form of electronic data, and, of course, the hunt for a killer land deal. All of that creates constant dissatisfaction—or is itself the manifestation of self-loathing.

Part of this woman's peculiar dissatisfaction or self-loathing or what-have-you manifested itself w/r/t education. Her husband matriculated at Harvard; she graduated from Cal State Long Beach, a school she called Cal State Nowhere, a school where, she complained, the students and faculty talked not about existentialism, the history of slavery or the burn rate of azodicarbonamide, but about parking. Locked now in an apartment—an apartment!—she turned (what's the best adverb) frenetically to books. Her mistake was to choose me as a teacher. She read quickly, widely—Freud, Durkheim, Milton Friedman, Foucault, Marx, Weber, Derrida, von Hayek, Tocqueville, Rousseau, Rand. I realize now that she was drowning, not in ideas but in life; she needed a plastic flotation device, and I threw her a library.

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