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The Big Shakedown : THE CITY : Tragedy Comes to the Middle Class

January 23, 1994|Richard Rodriguez | Richard Rodriguez, an editor at Pacific News Service, is the author of "Days of Obligation" (Viking).

SAN FRANCISCO — Suffering does not necessarily "bring us together." The writer, W. H. Auden, remarked in a poem how, when one person is dying, "someone else's eating or opening a window or just walking dully alone." Last Mon day, when Los Angeles was screaming awake, I was asleep in a silent room. A few hours later, I was drinking coffee when I turned on the radio to hear about disaster not so many miles away.

Heroes emerge from events like Monday's earthquake. Think of the firemen risking their lives, crawling through rubble in response to a stranger's groan. The truth of it, however, is that for every hero, there was also probably a looter; for every act of neighborly kindness, there was also price-gouging at the mini-mall, and people hoarded at the supermarket to make sure they got theirs.

Driving around the city with a Canadian TV crew one day after the quake, I was part of the media circus that had come to town in search of disaster. Some of my crew had been in Armenia and Mexico City and had seen thousands dead. They were not the only ones of us who were impressed by how much of Los Angeles was back in business, back to normal.

For every neighborhood that was hard hit, there were more where one had no sense a great earthquake had hit. Even in devastated blocks in the San Fernando Valley, a damaged house often stood next to one seemingly untouched by disaster.

Suffering did not bind Los Angeles together last week. But it interested the world that California--the Golden State--was again the scene of calamity. Thus, the media circus.

True or not, the impression outsiders took from last week's earthquake was that it was fundamentally a suburban, therefore a middle-class tragedy. The race wars of 1992 attached to underclass Los Angeles, and the Malibu fires were thought by many to have devastated mainly the rich.

Last week's broken images bespoke middle-class ambition: the crumpled shopping center and attendant parking garage, the devastated apartment house that looked like every apartment house one has ever seen in the suburbs (2 br., w/w carpeting). The epic-disaster photos were of freeways cracked or crumbled.

The freeway belongs to California. Freeways are toll-free in California because we have assumed our right to the freedom they offer us. Freeways were the metaphor for minding one's own business in the Johnny Carson monologue ("I was driving along the Santa Monica Freeway the other day . . . ).

The freeway was California's gift to civic architecture, our reinvented sidewalk. But the freeway was always a middle-class construction--if you had a car, then the entire Southland was yours. If you had a car.

Freeways allowed us to buy houses far from the center, far from work, where land was cheap and we could have three bedrooms and even a pool and shade trees.

The freeway freed Californians from the inner cities; freeways also freed us from our own families. The house in the suburb had a two-car garage; mothers knew how to drive in California. At any given hour, members of the same family could be 30 or 40 miles apart.

Jan Morris, the British travel writer, once described L.A. as a city built from naive optimism and technology. But what did a fuddy-duddy like Morris know?

"You can go to the mountains and ski or you can go to the beaches on a Sunday in January." The freeway liberated us from weather.

But our greatest freedom was that the freeway separated us from one another. One could be alone on a freeway. The funeral cortege might float by, headed for Forest Lawn, but in one's own car there could be raucous music or Rush Limbaugh or French lessons on a cassette.

By week's end, people were lined up in suburban parks--lines that went on for 12 hours. At the end, there were government forms to complete in triplicate.

Talking to people in line, I was struck by how alone so many people were and how close to the edge they had been living. No savings. The credit cards up to the limit. Now there was nothing. Middle-class Californians didn't have enough money for Pampers or Coca Cola or a motel night. More telling, there were no relatives or friends to whom they could go. They were alone in California!

It is going to get worse, a policeman predicted, anticipating the impatient crowds and the possible rains and the mud. By Wednesday, the same journalists who had flattered the city for "pulling together" were remarking on how drivers were up to their old tricks of trying to get ahead of one another.

After the riots in South-Central, right-wing politicians warned against "rewarding" lawlessness with government-rebuilding funds. After the Malibu fires, left-wing environmentalists clucked that the rock stars up in the canyons had gotten what they deserved.

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