It is winter again in Southern California, the start of another New Year, and across the land we look back and ask: Was it this month last year, or was only yesterday, that the Trial of the Century was the talk of the town?
This is how it is here in the land of recurring Armageddon. Things run together. You lose track. O.C. and O.J., downsizing and disaster, immigration and exploitation and affirmative action and budget crises. . . .
Kinda tuckers you out, doesn't it? Kinda makes you want to go tend the shrubbery. Quick now: What was the date of the Los Angeles riots? The Calabasas/Malibu brush fire? The Northridge earthquake? The Orange County bankruptcy?
See what we mean?
Actually, none of the aforementioned calamities occurred this year, and that alone is probably the big news of 1995. This year, with a few exceptions, fate finally gave this punch-drunk metropolis some breathing room. Unbelievable as it may sound, there were no "worst ever" civil disturbances in Southern California, no "biggest ever" quakes, no "most devastating in modern memory" acts of nature or suburban mankind. Even the courthouse peep show that took up most of the year came to feel vaguely like background noise--at least until its gripping end.
For a change (O.J. Simpson notwithstanding), most of the biggest news in our news-weary backyard was of a less visceral variety, like learning that tectonic plates are shifting underfoot as opposed to than having a rug pulled out from under you. This year--between the county budget cutting and the affirmative action debate, between the timeworn push of immigration and the tug of the recessionary belt--this year, for a change, Southern California actually was graced with opportunities not just to react, but to reflect.
In Orange County, voters reeling from the news that their sleek municipality had, fiscally speaking, gone belly up had the chance to ask themselves how far they were willing to go to restore their municipal government. The answer: Not particularly far, thank you very much, and certainly not so far as to raise taxes.
In Los Angeles County, supervisors who had beaten back years of post-Proposition 13 tax shortages finally got to ask themselves how far they would go to keep their budget out of the tank. That answer: Far enough to lay off county workers, to threaten to dismantle the public health care safety net--and to make enough noise for President Clinton to step in with a bailout to save the day.
In El Monte, a raid on a sweatshop exposed a colony of Thai immigrants who had been kept in near-slavery conditions--with government knowledge--for years. That revelation forced us all to acknowledge the exploitation endemic to the garment trade, dashing the cherished myth that "Made in the U.S.A." was any guarantee of fair labor practices.
And in the state university system, roiling debate over racial preferences--and the allure of a juicy platform for a White House wannabe--prompted the California Board of Regents and Gov. Pete Wilson to raise the explosive question of affirmative action just in time to make it a cornerstone of Wilson's short-lived presidential campaign. The upshot of that gambit was an unprecedented vote to halt affirmative action on all nine University of California campuses and a mobilization of marchers, pro and con, across the state.
There were other realizations as well. We realized that hell would not freeze over if Los Angeles was left without a football team. We realized that a railroad to nowhere could cost a billion dollars and still get built. We realized that three years of nonstop crises could leave us with the unexpected power to roll our eyes and laugh at a terrorist who, say, threatens to blow up a plane in our airport on the Fourth of July.
And we realized that this curse of interesting times need not rob us of our humanity, of our ability to act as compassionate individuals, even as our politicians chanted the mantra "lean and mean." For every weak moment and urban tragedy--and there were, as ever, so many of those--there were examples of unbridled heroism as well.
This may have been the year that gang assassins ambushed a family's car and murdered a baby girl, the year a San Fernando Valley man won plaudits for punishing a teenage tagger with point-blank death after the youth threatened him and demanded his wallet. But it was also the year that strangers risked their lives to rescue victims of winter flooding and fiery auto accidents, the year that businessmen came forward to help shepherd their struggling municipalities through hard times and the year we reached out to console the suffering elsewhere, be they in Oklahoma City or Bosnia or Japan.
Was it this time last year, or only yesterday that we were celebrating the resilience of this fault-riddled paradise?
Remembering that, yes, we have our scandals and movie stars, but that we are so much more?
Things run together.
You lose track.
This is how it is in Los Angeles.