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ON CALIFORNIA

The Last One Left Standing

September 22, 1993|PETER H. KING

Call me Ishi. The name is borrowed from a member of the Yahis. The Stone Age tribe was believed to have been wiped out in the 1800s. Then one August day in 1911 this fellow named Ishi wandered into Oroville, naked and emaciated. After scholars determined he was indeed the last of the Yahis, they put him on living display in a Berkeley museum.

I feel a bit like Ishi now myself I guess. I won't bore you with how I avoided the great California exodus. I will say that I am well-clothed and well-fed. You would be, too, if you had full run of the Beverly Center. My purpose here is to offer a few recollections of the last years. My hope is that someday someone will dig up my computer disc and take a peek. Hello?

The best I can figure, the exodus began with a softball player I knew named Stags. In the 1980s, at the height of the final real estate boom, Stags sold his valley rancher for a fortune and moved to Pittsburgh, using his California funny money to buy a wooded manse. Word spread. A trend was on. Within a few years, so many Californians were cashing in and moving on that the market tilted. With everybody's house for sale, there was a glut. The boom went bust.

Rather than reverse the outward stampede, the change of fortunes only accelerated it. Real estate was the engine that drove the economy; as it stalled so did everything else. Worse, peace broke out. There no longer was any need to spend billions making bombs we never intended to drop. This weakened a leg of the California economy. Recession set in. Corporations reeled. Layoffs ensued. People panicked. They started selling at a loss, flocking into Coeur d' Alene, Ida., Coos Bay, Ore., Telluride, Colo. Back then, these cities still were just little burgs. Imagine.

*

Much of what happened in those weird days of the 1990s now seems so silly. If only there had been leaders around to calm people down, to restore faith in what was still, after all, a pretty terrific place to live, things might have turned out different. Instead, the rhetoric, and the attempted remedies, went the other way. Bad idea begat bad idea. All were built on blame and framed by the premise that the state was a problem that needed fixing. No one suggested sticking out the hard times, together.

The Barbara Boxer Fence stands today as a legacy to those times. Remember her? Maybe not. She was a senator who believed, as many did, that Mexican immigrants had caused the slump. Her solution was simple: Employ idled defense workers to build a high-tech barrier around the whole state. The fence allowed anyone to leave but zapped anyone who tried to enter. In hindsight, this was a grave design error, but as a rueful Boxer herself later put it, "What did you expect from the people who brought us $7,000 toilet seats?"

Eventually, it was decided in Sacramento to surrender state government to a committee of entrepreneurs. These money types moved quickly to suspend all regulations, all taxes, all workers rights. They promised to generate profits, and did. Unfortunately, they used the profits to relocate into North Dakota, which was just then beginning to boom.

Aerospace was the first industry to vanish altogether. Next went the movie folks, who had the gall to plant the Hollywood sign in Missoula, Mont. The last to bail were the farmers. Their irrigation water had been rerouted to cities under the theory that it was better for the economy somehow to grow suburbs instead of food. Frustrated, the growers blew up the dams and evacuated to Arizona, where they promptly diverted the Colorado to service their needs. No one complained. By then, everyone was pretty hungry.

The great cities became ghost towns. In Los Angeles, gangs ruled to the ugly end. I happened to witness the last battle. An old and stooped gangbanger hobbled up and blew away another graybeard. Let history show, the Crips won. Or was it the Bloods? I can't remember.

*

And now there's just me. And I have no plans to leave. I kind of like California this way. I poke around in BMWs and Jags that became available after all parking valets were routed in the last document sweep. The owners had no clue where their cars were parked, so they chartered planes and flew out. That's how it went at the end.

Anyway, I was up in Yosemite the other day, and it's a marvel how quickly the grasses have grown through the roads. And over in Riverside, the air again is sweet and clean--except when the smog rolls over from Phoenix. The beaches are gorgeous up and down the coast. Diablo Canyon is still up and active--turning off a nuclear reactor is beyond my reach--so there's juice to power my television. I keep up with the news. I know all about the Boise race riots, Seattle's acid rain, and the rest. I find the reports about the exodus to Canada almost amusing.

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