“What about ‘Welcome to the O.C., b—?’” she asked, referencing the pilot for the smash early 21st century teen drama “The O.C.” (In her goodness, she edited the actual profane b-word to a pronunciation of its first letter.)
“We only say that to be ironic,” I answered. Secretly, I’d hoped for several years that an opportunity to use the phrase would present itself, but as of yet, I’ve yet to properly welcome anyone to Orange County.
What made me think of that conversation was the freeway transition from the 405 south to the 55 south on the way to my uncle’s house in Newport Beach. This would be the first Christmas Eve I’d ever celebrated anywhere besides Grandma’s house (the only exception being the Christmas I was in Canada as a missionary,) and I was looking forward to telling people I’d spend Christmas in Orange County. I sat in the front passenger seat of our rented sedan, a Nissan (“We used to shoot them down,” my grandpa commented when he heard what the make of our rental car was.) Dad drove, and Mom sat in the back with Kris. It was 4:40 in the afternoon, about an hour before sunset, and the sky’s light was beginning to turn golden. The lanes were mostly empty, exposing large patches of gray concrete which looked a bit orange from the sunlight.
And while I couldn’t see from my seat, I’m sure my mother imagined the car—the maroon 2010 Nissan AltimaI—as shining gloriously in the glow. She’d made me wash the car by hand earlier that morning. “We don’t want to embarrass your uncle by parking our car in his neighborhood, at least not more than we usually do.”
“But people are actually paid to wash these cars when we take it back,” I replied. “I have to do this manual labor, someone else’s job, so that our car looks nice while it’s parked in a neighborhood?”
“Matt,” my mom sighed, “I want it washed.”
Christmas in Newport Beach seems to mean a lot more for Californians than from anyone out of state, at least that I’ve met. Because of The O.C., most people under 23 know about Newport Beach and where it is, but no one is ever excited when I tell them where I spend my holidays. I think it’s because we’re so territorial in southern California; I don’t know about the northern half, but I’m assume they’re the same way. The key is the bumper stickers. I haven’t seen stickers that say “Rhode Island Native” or “East Alabama Mom,” but I’ve been able to recognize Californians in my cross country travels by the stickers in their back windows: “Nor-Cal” written in gothic font across the entire back windshield of a pickup truck, or “SoCal” proudly displayed across the tailgate. For a while, it was in to advertise the specific city you were from in those little white, round stickers on your back window’s lower corner. “LKWD” meant that the owners of the car were from Lakewood, and “DNY” signified Downey. At the time, I thought it was some secret gang thing (as asserted in the chain e-mails from that paranoid white lady in the ward,) but now I think it’s just a territorial thing. Californians tend to be proud of their home city or state. “Where I’m from is better than where you’re from,” we think.
These territorial standards are what we, Californians, use to affirm ourselves and feed our egos. My father told me that once, as a missionary in Germany, he explained to his Utahan companion that since the US is the most economically and politically powerful country in the world, California is the most economically and politically powerful state in the country, and Los Angeles is the most politically and economically powerful city in the state, Los Angeles was the center of the world. It wasn’t very popular at the time, and it isn’t any more popular when I explain it to people. But for some reason I feel this need to repeat the explanation. It never gets more than a chuckle.
And so, as a Californian, I validate myself from my territory. I once asked my dad if it was fair to assess an area’s population based on that area’s advertising and what cars the locals drive and what kinds of houses they live in. The idea behind the advertising is that marketing campaigns are aimed at specific demographics, and based on the advertising in an area, one can tell what kind of demographic inhabits that area. A company wouldn’t advertise an unnecessary service—we’ll say, breast augmentation, to pick a completely random example—in a neighborhood where the occupants relied on government aid to keep their kids fed. And the quality of a neighborhood’s housing compared with the vehicles lining the streets could, in theory, tell one what economic bracket its inhabitants belonged to. This works even if the inhabitants are “faking it.” For example, my north Downey neighborhood in LA county features new Acuras and Chevys parked in front of modest suburban houses; there are many more cars in front of each house than there should be for single family dwellings. The new cars say that image is more important than sound financial decisions. The modest, overcrowded houses confirm this. If the occupants were truly part of the wealthy classes, they wouldn’t be sharing a home with two other families. Thus, by my neighborhood’s cars, I come to the conclusion that the people are concerned with image, but not really doing that well. They’re superficial, and what else would they be? It’s LA.
When answering my question of whether it was fair to assess an area by its indicators, my father said yes, “It’s obviously okay.”
Those indicators—advertising, housing assessment, vehicle demographics, etc.—are the indicators I’d used to assess Draper, Utah. When explaining how I think that Draper is like the city of the Beverly Hillbillies, a city of tacky people who suddenly have money and spend it in ways they think rich people should with often hilarious results, my friend Alison cut me off and said that I don’t even know what Draper’s really like and I’m basing my opinion on a single person I know. In the interest of full disclosure, I really don’t like Draper. I’ve driven through it a heck of a lot; I’ve seen plenty of its neighborhoods where the homes look like failed Disney Imagineers decided to go into home design, and I’ve seen the generally low quality of driving on Draper streets where people consistently cut across right turn only lanes at the last minute so they can go straight. But Alison was right, and I don’t really know the people of that city. I know a person, and I am moderately familiar with her values, but I don’t know the individual residents.
And so I’m left thinking, Who is right? Generalizations and archetypes are what I’ve used my entire life to understand the world. The conclusions I draw make sense to me. But Alison was right in her rebuttal—individuals are often very different than the stereotypes. I don’t drive a BMW or have a father who is a business owner or wear Abercombie & Fitch apparel, but I’m a white kid from LA. Why do I see myself as the individual exception in a homogeneous population?
It might just be that it’s because I don’t drive a BMW; I never had a car until I was almost 23. The catalyst was being told by a girlfriend as we broke up that the most unattractive thing about me was my lack of a vehicle. Two weeks later, I borrowed $1500 from my sister and purchased a 1995 Ford Taurus with a dent in its side. The car has been good to me, needing some work but not too much, but it is a symbol of my true economic class. I don’t have the money to even fake it and purchase a new car I can’t really afford. When I drive my car home, it isn’t just the Idaho license plates that make it stand out in the neighborhood.
And as of a week ago, I know that because I didn’t have the cash to fix my car’s engine mounts until I took out another loan last month, the transmission is broken and due to go out anytime. It’s a $4500 repair, one which neither I nor my parents can afford. I feel like my car has terminal cancer and that I’m just helplessly waiting, watching it hack and sputter and cough and wondering if each day will be its last. When my mother found out, she apologized that she wasn’t able to buy me a better car. “I didn’t imagine that we’d end up like this,” she said.
“It’s not a huge deal. Something will work out. It’s just a car,” I replied, trying to reassure both her and myself. But the pressure is there, in the back of my soul, constantly reminding me that I can’t afford for my car to break down, and I don’t know what will happen if it does, and how will I pay for the Brit Lit tour if my mom can’t find a job and Dad might not be teaching next semester due to budget cuts?
My dad said that what I am is kind of caught in the middle of two worlds—a family whose income was under the poverty line for most of my youth but whose lifestyle has been middle class, leaving us entrenched in debt. Like my dad once explained to me, I grew up hating the rich for oppressing me and the poor for being tacky.
And so I continue to pretend, to pretend like my family is going to Newport Beach because we’ve earned it. Spending Christmas Eve in Newport Beach becomes a status symbol. I can use it to cover up the financial insecurities haunting me and pretend like I have a right to make assessments like, “Newport isn’t a tacky place like Draper is.”
As I ride in the passenger seat, my dad takes the Jamboree road exit, and our maroon, rented Nissan pulls up to a stop light next to an old lady in a Mercedes. In Draper, I think, a person might say, “Oh, yeah, I guess I’ll just drive to the store IN MY NEW CAR;” there, the money screams at you in such a tacky way. In Newport, I say to myself, the money doesn’t care that you exist, and a person would say, “Who are you? Here are my keys. Do I return for valet here?”