Monday, July 18, 2011

A Tale of Two Cities

I read the other day about some politician who, disgusted with liberal tax-and-spendism, wants to secede Orange County from the rest of California. This kind of thinking is not uncommon: Texas Gov. Rick Perry floated the idea of Texas quitting Team America not too long ago, and I've heard many a Lefty and Righty alike wish that we could separate the red states from the blue states.

I don't think I would go that far, but there are some pretty extreme cultural differences between the coasts and the middle of the U.S. Over the course of my life I have lived on both coasts and in the middle, and I have observed this up close. Two anecdotes leap to mind:

In the spring of 2001, my wife Jennifer and I reluctantly decided to leave our adopted hometown of San Francisco. I had moved there right after college and had been living there nearly six years, Jen almost five. We had met while working together at one of the many Internet startups that came to define the Northern California economy in the late '90s. By 2001, however, the bubble was starting to burst, and we had both found ourselves without work and without prospects right around the time of our wedding in 2000. We struggled along, I taking work as a bartender and Jen as a waitress, but the situation was unsustainable. We weren't making enough to pay our rent, and the area's insanely high property values made buying a home -- any home -- so unfeasible we discussed it like a fantasy, the way we might discuss buying a yacht or a spaceship.

So we bailed. In the absence of any kind of real career plan -- we had both spent our entire professional lives in an Internet editorial industry that appeared to be permanently capsizing -- we decided to regroup and save money in the place with the cheapest rents and cost of living that we knew of: Cincinnati, Ohio, where my parents and my brother had been living since about the time I went to California. We took an apartment in the very quaint little town of Newport, Kentucky, directly across the river from Cincinnati. (Unofficial city motto: "No shirt, no shoes, no problem.")

The Brass Ass, Newport, KY
Anyway, not too long after moving there, I needed a haircut. I had grown very fond of a Vietnamese barber shop in San Francisco that gave a great short haircut for only $12. But what really set the place apart was that the guys who worked there spoke almost no English, so there was none of the awkward chit-chat that so often defines the haircut experience. That, and they gave a neck and shoulder rub with one of those huge vibrating things you put on the back of your hand at the end of the haircut. A little touch of olde-tymey class!

So I set out to find something similar in Newport, and found a little barber shop, complete with striped pole -- where else -- on Main St. I go in and take in the scene: Two barbers working two chairs. Two guys getting haircuts, two guys waiting their turn, ESPN on the TV. As I take a seat to wait my turn, I look around for something to read while I wait. (In the dark ages of 2001, we could not read the newspaper on our cell phones.) Scattered around on the floor and in the chairs are five or six different out-of-date editions of The Sporting News, which being primarily about baseball is of little interest to me, so I keep digging and find a three-month-old Sports Illustrated and read previews of the NBA Finals that I already know the outcome of.

My hopes of no chit-chat are immediately dashed because all six guys in the room are having a very animated discussion about a NASCAR driver whose name I don't remember. I don't remember much about the discussion, except one of the barbers' repeated, drawling insistence that "he's taking chances, and he's winning races!" He said that four or five times.

I'm starting to feel like my silence is conspicuous, but I truly have nothing to contribute to the discussion, but it's not like anyone cares. Soon one of the guys' haircuts is finished and he gets up, puts his baseball cap on, and leaves; one of the guys who was waiting before me gestures to the other one that he can go ahead, and he gestures right back that the other guy can go ahead. So is he not getting a haircut? I'm puzzled. The NASCAR talk winds down and the room goes quiet, and then another guy comes into the place and sits down next to me. Nobody says anything for maybe five minutes, until suddenly the guy who just came in says, "How much is it for a concealed-carry license again?" (This, my liberal pinko friends, is a license to carry a concealed handgun. My dad has one.) Everybody in the room except for me and the guy who asked the question replies, almost in unison, "Thirty-five dollars."

At that moment I realized just how different the place I was in (Kentucky) was from the place I had come from (San Francisco). I flashed on an even shorter anecdote that may illustrate just how different:

Castro Street, San Francisco
When Jen and I met, she lived in the heart of the Castro District, the gay capital of planet Earth. One day she and I were out walking around on Castro Street, and I paused in front of a storefront display at a video store with widening eyes. There, in the window, facing out for all to see, and incidentally around the corner from an elementary school, was an 8x10 framed photo of two shaved, muscular gentlemen standing opposite each other sharing two things: a passionate, stubbley kiss, and a watermelon with holes on either end. (This practice is known as a "Gallagher," as in "Thom and Marco are going to get a case of Bud Light Lime, light some candles, and Gallagher all night.")

What is the point of this story? None, really, other than the fact that both anecdotes make me laugh. But the federal government is presently headed to a potential catastrophe, largely because of the parties' (and by extension, their constituencies') inability to understand each other both culturally and politically. But I don't think that's because the people are obstinate or stupid or wrong; it's because they're different. They grow up in different places, valuing different things.

"States' Rights" is a sort of taboo term because for a long time it was the rallying cry of opponents to integration and racial equality. But that issue is (legally) settled now, and on a whole host of issues -- marijuana, gun rights, and gay marriage leap to mind -- we are not going to have national consensus anytime soon. The notion of everyone in New York City packing heat is terrifying to people who live here, just as the notion of not being able to hunt for your dinner is idiotic to the people who are in a position to do so. Neither of those positions is going to change -- nor should they. But tensions are raised because people are wary that even if something is legal in their state, that the Federal government might decide to prosecute it anyway: California's medical marijuana dispensaries are in constant fear of being raided, and guns and ammunition fly off the shelves anytime a Democrat is elected president, for fear that they'll soon become illegal. If we had more confidence that the laws enacted in our local jurisdictions are actually the laws, and not subject to the whims of politicians unfamiliar with those jurisdictions, it might leaven the mood of red-blue relations from "mutually suspicious, generally hostile" to "bemused from a distance." If you feel strongly enough about gun rights you can move to a state that supports them, and let the hippies that don't do what they want. Wouldn't that be nice? Vive la difference!

I mean sure, I'd love to see an American Utopia where Thom and Marco powder a couple of clay pigeons mid-Gallagher. Who wouldn't? Maybe with a little more understanding, God willing, we'll get there.

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