by Richard Rodriguez
From its American beginnings, in the 1840s, California has advertised a vein of gold in its spine. Gold was luck. Most of the miners returning to San Francisco from the gold fields testified, however, that luck had abandoned them and their dreams were fool’s gold.
The perennial question about California is whose version is truer? The pessimist’s or the optimist’s? As Jerry Brown finishes his last days as governor, I have been thinking about his father, Governor Edmund G. “Pat” Brown, who was an unbridled optimist in the post-war years, in ways his son, Jerry, never was.
As the son of immigrant parents, I loved California the way Pat Brown loved California. I loved the energy building around me, as I was growing. Everyone interesting, from Willie Mays to Jonas Salk to Lucy and Desi, was arriving in California. It was when I was in high school that California became the most populous state in the union, tipping the map of America in my direction. And it cheered me.
I remember standing in line with Jerry Lafferty at the Esquire Theater in Sacramento to see Albert Finney in “Tom Jones.” Ticket holders for the next showing used to scrutinize the faces of people leaving the theater to determine their verdict on the film. Governor Pat Brown and his wife exited the lobby onto K Street. He announced to us waiting in line: “Great movie!”
About that same time, I saw a photograph of Jerry Brown in the Sacramento Bee. Jerry stood beside a Christmas tree, with his parents and sisters in the old governor’s mansion. He was a Jesuit seminarian, in a black suit and Roman collar. Black browed, solemn as a Calvinist.
In 1955, Walt Disney affixed his signature on the state that I lived in! Disney bought a parcel of land in Anaheim in order to construct a real imaginary place that he would call “the happiest place on earth.”
Nowadays, many Californians incline to pessimism, remembering that Walt Disney’s dream entailed the destruction of miles of orange groves. We notice that traffic on the 5 has slowed miles before the turnoff to Tomorrow Land. Walt Disney’s cartoonish signature now signifies a monstrous corporation that swallows up every rival for the imagination of children.
Pat Brown was as infatuated with movement as any boy in my high school. His freeways raced for miles north and south, then clover-leafed east and west. He even proposed extending the dark Embarcadero Freeway from the Ferry Building, circling the northern edge of the city, continuing over Marina Green, connecting to the Golden Gate Bridge. He thought it a wonderful prospect to look out at the Bay, as one drove to the suburbs.
During his tenure, Pat Brown presided over marvels. He channeled water from the Central Valley uphill into southern California. He developed a three-tiered “master plan” for higher education—enlisting state colleges, community colleges, and the University of California into a single vision of possibility.
By the time Ronald Reagan, defeated Pat Brown for governor in 1968 the music on the car radio had changed from California Dreamin’ to acid rock. Reagan would later run for the presidency as an affable optimist, invoking “morning in America.” As governor of California he called out the National Guard against the children of the suburbs, who were rioting on Sproul Plaza against war in Southeast Asia, racism, and a “multiversity” that reduced them to numbers.
We might imagine, in the manner of a Shakespearean history play, that when Jerry Brown succeeded Ronald Reagan as governor in 1975, the son was reclaiming his father’s fiefdom. In truth, Jerry Brown was more like Ronald Reagan in his fiscal conservatism than he was like his father.
And the image Jerry Brown wanted to project from the start was of a man not given to materialism and the giantism of post-war California. Young Brown announced himself an enthusiast of the British economist, E.F. Schumacher and his book, Small is Beautiful.
Jerry Brown had been educated in a Jesuit seminary, was acquainted with the spiritual value of physical deprivations. We read in the newspaper that he slept on a mattress in an apartment building across from the capital. He drove himself around the state in a compact Plymouth. Mike Royko, the Chicago columnist dubbed him, “Governor Moonbeam” and the name stuck.
For several weeks, after he was defeated in a run for the U.S. Senate, Jerry Brown worked with Mother Teresa in Kolkata. He was also, we heard or read, a student of Zen Buddhism. Indeed, one of Brown’s “memorable quotes” as governor—remembered by Google if not by me deserves a Zen gong: “Inaction may be the biggest form of action.”
In the interim (between Brown’s early tenure as governor, from 1975 to 1983 and his re-election in 2011 to the present) another Zen Buddhist became the most influential Californian in the world. Steve Jobs drove a Mercedes SL55 AMG between the two fantasy factories of his life—Pixar in Emeryville and Apple in Cupertino.
As a young man, Jobs had been dissuaded from becoming a monk by the Zen monastery to which he applied. In the famous late years of his life, he proceeded to clothe himself in a monkish habit of mixed metaphor—an expensive black Miyake turtleneck and worn jeans. He presented himself as a prophet of possibility. Thus, to my mind, Steve Jobs belongs to the optimistic California of Pat Brown, as does now the fascinating Elon Musk.
Even as Teslas burst into flame on freeway shoulders, Musk launched a red convertible into the stratosphere, mocking eternity. He also bored a tunnel under L.A., to rescue commuters from gridlock.
By contrast to Musk’s tunnel, Jerry Brown’s contribution to the future of California is a high-speed train between L.A. and San Francisco. The high speed train is as epic an ambition as anything his father conceived. But as he leaves office, Jerry Brown’s high speed train is grossly over budget. The built portion stands on the landscape near Fresno like a remnant Roman aqueduct.
What makes Jerry run? I don’t know. I don’t think it was Zen Buddhism or the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola. He was elected governor for two terms. Then twice he was defeated for the U.S. Senate. Then he sought his party’s nomination for the presidency, three times. He was the Mayor of Oakland. Then California Attorney General. Then Governor for another two terms.
He grew old as I grew old. I saw him once of Fillmore Street; I saw him once at a party in one of canyons of L.A. What do I think of Jerry Brown’s progress? I think he was solid. I think he was a worker. But for many years I didn’t think of him at all because the California of flamboyant creativity had opened a vein in Silicon Valley. Frat boys became billionaires selling the world games or aps or platforms or the promise of connection in exchange for privacy.
Under the guise of Silicon Valley, California is colonizing other parts of America, lately Austen and New York. And governors are thrilled by their election. Many Californians, however, increasingly sound like Jerry Brown. We know that the new tech “campus” will raise our rents and slow traffic and otherwise render our lives as less than we remember.
After Jerry Brown, the argument will continue in California, between optimism and pessimism, gold and fool’s gold. Jerry Brown predicts that, after his departure, the Democrats in Sacramento will again run up budgets that they can’t pay for.
Jerry Brown says he is retiring to a farm, as befits a long life in public service. Now and for the future, Jerry Brown’s theme is global warming. He has positioned himself stoutly against the devastation wreaked by the orange-crested Tweetie Bird in Washington. We will doubtless see Jerry Brown in coming years, at international conferences that consider melting snow.
As Brown departs, crowds of Central American peasants gather in Tijuana at the gates of California. They believe the state of drought, perched on the edge of a rising sea remains a state of desire. Many Californians want nothing to do with the illegal dreams, expecting they will only bring more taxes—welfare, over-crowded schools, traffic.
I am cheered, therefore, that Gavin Newsom has been talking about the California “dream” in recent interviews.
I remember Newsom fondly as the mayor of San Francisco, the man who looked like Disney’s Prince Charming, the man who sponsored gay marriage, years before the Supreme Court approved. Couples lined up for blocks. I watched on television as Newsom officiated at the marriage of Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin, who had been together for 51 years. In 2004, they were the first legally married same-sex couple in San Francisco.
I think of the boy that I was, with my queer sexual secret. I think, if I were that boy watching the happiness of those old women, it would seem to me I could imagine the possibility of California as a band of gold.