I came to the West Coast to get away from the election, with its increasingly ugly crowds, and the spiraling economy.
That sounds pretty good, but it isn’t quite true. I came to the West Coast because my husband is speaking here and I thought it would be an inexpensive getaway. As long as I was going to be here, I thought, maybe I could ignore all the depressing news.
So I wandered up and down the main streets of Santa Barbara, mingling with other tourists who spoke French and Spanish and the Queen’s English. Block after block, you can shop and gawk in the perfect weather, with the palm trees framing a gorgeous blue sky and the mountains hovering in the distance. It’s a placid, pristine kind of place, so calm and well-ordered that I was the only person I noticed who was in a big enough hurry to jaywalk.
“I’m getting away from the economy,” I told the woman who ran some kind of artists’ cooperative downtown. After evidently giving up on me as a customer, she turned me into an audience. “You know Nancy Pelosi?” she asked vehemently. I nodded. “She’s as dumb as a rock,” the woman said.
She went on talking and talking. I stared at the paintings — mostly of palm trees and sunsets and gorgeous, blue mountains — trying to indicate I was so soulful and moved by the artistry I couldn’t be bothered by political diatribes. It didn’t matter.
“People blame Bush,” the woman continued. “But I blame Congress. Everybody in Congress.”
I got tired of trying to appear engrossed. I started moving toward the door. The woman followed me, continuing her tirade. Finally, I made it outside to the well-ordered streets. The woman was still talking about Congress; it was still, clearly, their fault.
I came back to our hotel room to read on the Internet about economic doom and Republican crowds that booed and chanted. A relative forwarded me an email about Obama’s scurrilous associations and questionable financial ties with radical Middle Easterners. As the email ended ominously, “The enemy is always from within.”
I wrote my relative back, saying this was the work of somebody like that scumbag Karl Rove. Somebody who was posing as an ordinary citizen by his oddball capitalization of “College.” What was he, a native German speaker?
My relative wrote me back, saying Obama wouldn’t be the first African-American president; since his father had more Arab than African blood, he’d be the first Arab-American president. I guess this was supposed to interest me, but it didn’t. It just made me a little more tired and sad. I decided not to reply again. Why bother?
This morning, a friend from Santa Barbara picked us up in his car and drove us through the perfect streets on another flawless morning. Watching the mountains in the distance and the ocean glittering in the sunlight, I listened to him talk. He told us about how gang violence had moved from Los Angeles to Santa Barbara and how the gangs targeted each other and unwary passersby along the main street I’d walked the day before.
“A few stabbings and some gunplay,” he mentioned. “The last occurrence was right in the middle of the day.”
Oh, well. I guess I should have known. As the email had pointed out, the enemy was always from within. Try to escape from it if you can, but it will always catch up with you, no matter where you go. Don’t ever get distracted by the gorgeous and pristine. It’s always worse than you imagined.
(Copyright 2008 by Ruth Pennebaker)