Notes From A Native Daughter – Joan Didion

by awindram

My navel-gazing post on Thatcher touched upon what I termed “shadow California”, though actually known as the Central Valley. It’s something that I’ve debated with myself over whether to blog about or not (surprising as it may sound I do occasionally think about this blog and whether it’s just a glib expat blog about all the usual boring expat stuff – “you say zucchini, I say courgette” – posts that are full of reheated Bill Bryson observations, or if this blog needs to be something more personal, if more self-indulgent. You may have guessed that I’ve been leaning towards the latter). In writing about the Central Valley I was reminded of Joan Didion’s essay on her home region – “Notes From A Native Daughter” (essay can be found in “Slouching Towards Bethlehem”). As an addendum to that last post, I thought that I would include a brief extract from that essay:

Every so often along 99 between Bakersfield and Sacramento there is a town: Delano, Tulare, Fresno, Madera, Merced, Modesto, Stockton. Some of these towns are pretty big now, but they are all the same at heart, one- and two- and three-storey buildings artlessly arranged, so that what appears to be the good dress shop stands between a W. T. Grant store, so that the big Bank of America faces a Mexican movie house. Dos Peliculas, Bingo Bingo Bingo. Beyond the downtown (pronounced downtown with the Okie accent that now pervades Valley speech patterns) lie blocks of old frame houses – paint peeling, sidewalks cracking, their occasional leaded amber windows overlooking a Foster’s Freeze or a five-minute car wash or a State Farm Insurance office; beyond those spread the shopping centers and the mills of tract houses, pastel with redwood siding, the unmistakable signs of cheap building already blossoming on those houses which have survived the first rain. To a stranger driving 99 in an air-conditioned car (he would be on business, I suppose, any stranger driving 99, for 99 would never get a tourist to Big Sur or San Simeon, never get him to the California he came to see), these towns must seem so flat, so impoverished, as to drain the imagination. They hint at evenings spent hanging around gas stations, and suicide pacts sealed in drive-ins.
But remember:

Q. In what way does the Holy Land resemble the Sacramento Valley?
A. In the type and diversity of its agricultural products.

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U.S. 99 in fact passes through the richest and most intensely cultivated agricultural region in the world, a giant outdoor hothouse with a billion-dollar crop. It is when you remember the Valley’s wealth that the monochromatic flatness of its towns takes on a curious meaning, suggests a habit of mind some would consider perverse. There is something in the Valley mind that reflects a real indifference to the stranger in his air-conditioned car, a failure to perceive even his presence, let alone his thoughts or wants. An implacable insularity is the seal of these towns. I once met a woman in Dallas, a most charming and attractive woman accustomed to the hospitality and social hypersensitivity of Texas, who told me that during the four war years her husband had been stationed in Modesto, she had never once been invited inside anyone’s house. No one in Sacramento would find this story remarkable (“She probably had no relatives there,” said someone to whom I told it), for the Valley towns understand one another, share a peculiar spirit. They think alike and they look alike. I can tell Modesto from Merced, but I have visited there, gone to dances there; besides there is over the main street of Modesto an arched sign which reads:

WATER – WEALTH
CONTENTMENT – HEALTH

There is no such sign in Merced.

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