SAN FRANCISCO — Mexican kids stand on Sunset Boulevard in Beverly Hills beside sandwich boards advertising "STAR MAPS." They stare patiently toward private horizons as cars whiz past them.
There are two futures in California. There is the glamorous, the famous, the gaudy telling of time in California as possibility. There is also a tragic way of telling the future in California as limitation.
One future describes California as a series of problems--pesticide contamination; drugs; bad air--a future mired in the past. Tomorrow, when the new freeway opens, it will already be obsolete. In five years, the small farming towns in the Central Valley will be one suburban blur. By the end of the century, Californians will not be able to barbecue.
If California now entertains tragic possibilities, such was not always our way. For generations, since its American beginnings, California denied inevitability. The point of this place was that it represented an escape from certainty. Go to California and find gold. Go to California and find yourself a new life.
America seems the least tangible of countries in the world because it is built on expectation. You can start all over here. That is why people come to America--to become something new. Immigrant Americans put up with tenements and sweat shops and stoop labor not in resignation to tragedy, but in the name of the future (". . . something better for my kids").
At the edge of geographic possibility and under a paradisaical sun, California traditionally has played America's wild child, America's America. To people in Tulsa or Como, Miss., as much as to pilgrims from Vietnam or from Ireland, California has been the most extreme version of America.
Who can be surprised that the world came to California and still wants to come? Most immigrants in the world head for America, and more choose California. Or would. And not only foreigners; the restless come also from Pennsylvania and Michigan.
Californians are not in the mood to be flattered. Californians, like many other Americans, are troubled by the suspicion that something is dying. Call it the American Century.
Americans have seen Japanese economic and scientific ascendancy. When the Japanese came to town a few weeks ago and bought up Universal Pictures, the American response was worry, not flattery.
What on earth do the Japanese think they are buying when they buy up a Hollywood studio?
What the Japanese businessman knows is that the world goes to American movies. No one else in the world makes movies the world wants to see. The Italian businessman and the British mogul know this, too--they also have recently purchased Hollywood studios.
Did America invent the movies? It doesn't matter. The movies invented America for the world. The movies have been our best advertisement. And, not coincidentally, the home of the movies was California.
The French make films about couples who go on picnics. And the British make movies about detectives in cardigans. Bombay has her elephantine soaps. But only the Americans seem to have understood the implications of the size of the movie screen.
The Japanese are famous for their skill at reduction and miniaturization, whether in horticulture or in the size of the TV screen or in the thrift of automobiles. Tokyo may well serve as a prophetic example to Los Angeles and San Francisco as urban life in California grows more crowded and space becomes the valued commodity.
It was the Jewish immigrants to America from Eastern Europe who established the scale of the movies and thereby taught us that our lives could aspire to scope and grandeur. Neal Gabler was too modest in his recent and excellent book, "An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood." The haberdasher's son and the tobacconist's son in fact invented America at the movies. They gave the democratic yearnings of Americans adequate range on the screen. A chandelier and a long car in every life, yes. But lips that were 10 feet long and faces that were 40 feet high became our best metaphors of democracy. The exaggeration flattered our private ambitions.
Who needed kings in such a world? Movies belonged to their own palaces. And the people on the screen, the "stars," belonged uniquely to a place where you could become anything you wanted to be.
The divorcee on "Wheel of Fortune" who tells Pat Sajak that she's "originally" from North Carolina came last year to California to get away from the past, as did the Joad family before her and as the Guatemalans are doing today. Their lives define California; restless lives are the point of California.
The newcomers embarrass those of us who are born here with that knowledge. For we are not the point of California. They are. John Sutter and Lucille Ball, John Fremont and Walt Disney--they are the famous Californians. They came here from some place else. They recreated themselves.