smells like jobs

I wrote this in 1994 for the journal Bad Subjects. It was anthologized in a book in 1997. I am reprinting it here, because the Bad Subjects website has been down for what feels like years. This is slightly edited ... I never liked the ending, so I've removed the final sentence, which isn't a very good fix, since now it just seems truncated.

Smells Like Jobs

Geography made me what I am today.

I was fourteen years old during the Summer of Love, and I lived about thirty-five miles from San Francisco. I listened to the emerging hippie counterculture on something called the FM dial, where 'underground radio' was being born before my ears. My geographical proximity to San Francisco allowed me to experience this new phenomenon without leaving my house. Which was just as well, since when I left my house and entered the world of my hometown, Antioch, I couldn't have been further from the Summer of Love, Antioch's geographical proximity to San Francisco notwithstanding.

Antioch was at that time a mostly blue-collar town of around 15,000. My father's parents had moved to Antioch from Spain in the late 1910s; my father was born and raised in Antioch; when my mother was pregnant with me, the family moved into a new tract home in Antioch, where I was born and raised along with two brothers and two sisters. There were many factories in Antioch and the surrounding towns: paper mills, power plants, canneries, chemical factories, steel mills, makers of glass containers and tin cans. The air often smelled awful, thanks usually to the paper mill (I never understood why paper smelled bad) and the cannery (everyone understood about the cannery, which stunk whenever they canned tomatoes). The general opinion of the stench was simple: it smelled like jobs, and no one really objected, despite the obligatory complaining when the town reeked of rotten ketchup.

My father was a white-collar worker. After trying his hand at various enterprises he had finally found some success as a real-estate agent, working hard in his own business, becoming probably the second-largest realtor in town. We were only thirty-five miles from San Francisco; my mother, who grew up in Berkeley, I suspect had occasional visions of a life beyond Antioch; both of my parents were excellent bridge players. And so they spent many a weekend in San Francisco, staying in nice hotels, playing and sometimes winning bridge tournaments. Over the years I've had many opportunities to talk with my parents' peers about those years, and a congenial envy always enters into the reminiscing. To someone living in Antioch, my parents' lives had a touch of glamour. Nothing exciting ever happened in Antioch; our most famous residents were football Hall-of-Famer Gino Marchetti and the Mitchell Brothers, purveyors of porn. At least my parents got to visit San Francisco.

I was raised a good suburban white boy, interesting in itself since Antioch was far from suburban in those days (it has since fallen victim to suburban sprawl, simultaneously losing many of its factories and gaining tens of thousands of white-collar suburban residents). It was all geographic, of course, with various elements of the landscape conspiring to isolate Antioch from the big city. San Francisco Bay separated The City itself from the East Bay cities of Oakland and Berkeley, which had their own urban character, connected to San Francisco and yet unique. The Berkeley Hills separated these urban environments from the suburbs proper. To get to these suburbs, you drove through the Caldecott Tunnel; you could mark the relative affluence of a community on this side by simply noting how far it was from the tunnel. The richest places were the closest, and every resident of East Contra Costa County clearly understood this. People from Moraga and Orinda were richer than people from Lafayette, who were richer than the people in Walnut Creek, who were better-off than the residents of Concord. Concord was very low-rent compared to Moraga; it existed at the margins of suburbia. Then came more hills, geography once again intruding. If you were on the wrong side of those hills, you weren't suburban, no matter how close you were to San Francisco. You were blue-collar. Closer to the hills, in Pittsburg and Antioch, you lived in a mill town. Farther away from the hills, in Oakley and Brentwood and Knightsen, you lived in a rural town. Wherever you lived on the wrong side of the hills, you knew you were not suburban, which didn't stop many families from trying their best to be suburban anyway. If your father was a successful realtor and you had a newfangled FM radio, you could pretend that you had somehow risen above your station, but the smell of jobs always worked as a corrective.

More geography: attached to Pittsburg, between that town and the Naval Weapons Station in Concord, was a little place called West Pittsburg. Whatever bad might have been said about Pittsburg, you always assumed it wasn't as bad as West Pittsburg. West in this case meant Worst, Worst meaning lower-class. West Pittsburg was not immune to the spread of suburbia, though, and one morning its new residents woke up and realized when they told locals that they lived in West Pittsburg, those locals assumed the Worst. And so the town changed its name; next time you're in the area, don't forget to check out Bay Point, where the Worst hides behind the Point.

Still more geography: Pittsburg and Antioch were adjacent to each other, with a hazily-defined no man's land between. Teenagers marked this quasi-neutral zone by Hazel's Drive-In, where kids from Antioch could get a burger and maybe meet up with some of the enemies from Pittsburg. (Hazel's was on a long road called the Pittsburg-Antioch Highway, the dumpiest highway I've ever seen.) Pittsburg had a few more people than Antioch in those days, and since factory work ranked higher on the upward-mobility scale than farm labor, and since Pittsburg was almost entirely factory-oriented while Antioch was in the middle of the factories and the farms, Pittsburg was also a bit more prestigious than Antioch, although in reality those two ranges of hills separating us from San Francisco effectively eliminated any chance in those days of true prestige. (Thirty years later, the needs of suburban sprawl have finally broken down these barriers, of course.) In any event, there was little to distinguish the two small towns from each other in the 1960s, with the exception of one factor which again had a kind of geographical locus, in that it helped establish beyond a shadow of a doubt exactly where was the border between the two: there were no black people in Antioch.

Geography is everything and nothing. Antioch was less than an hour's drive from liberal, diverse cities like San Francisco, Oakland and Berkeley, yet we were as segregated as Selma, Alabama. More segregated, in fact, or rather, we weren't segregated at all; there was no need for a separate but equal rule in Antioch, because there were no black people to keep separate. Black people lived in Pittsburg, but not a single one lived in Antioch. The radio again: Pittsburg had a radio station, and late at night I could listen to broadcasts emanating from only half a dozen miles away, presenting a culture I could never hope to participate in. Pittsburg was on the chitlin circuit, and I would hear advertisements for James Brown and His Famous Flames or Little Junior Parker. The Hardest Working Man In Show Business would perform a stone's throw from my own house, and I knew I couldn't, wouldn't go, and not just because I was only twelve years old. It was simply a different world.

Antioch had Mexicans; they were 'our' minority. But we had no black people. My parents were very concerned about this, and I owe them an unpayable debt for their efforts to raise a family that wasn't inflamed with prejudice. We had black housekeepers, which wasn't that odd. Most white families in Antioch would hire a black housekeeper if they had the money. (We did, presumably because my father was a successful realtor. Eventually he was arrested for real-estate fraud and we learned where the money had come from all those years. We also lost the housekeepers.) But we also had black babysitters, and that was odd. You didn't let those people care for your children, after all. And our church had a black family as members, and they became good friends with my family, and they came to our house, and this all seems pitifully inadequate now, but at the time, it was important and necessary, and for the most part my parents did not act out of simple guilt. They lived without grandstanding (the positive morals we learned from this were interestingly contrasted to the ethics we pondered when our father went to jail).

We had no blacks, but we had Mexicans. My own place in this world was problematic, however, because while I wasn't Mexican, and while I was being raised 'white,' I was in fact half-Spanish. The meaning of being Spanish mostly eluded me as I grew up. My mother was in many ways a typical middle-class housewife of her era, and my father was most certainly traditional-minded about how a home was managed, and so it was my mother who composed and cooked the meals, and my mother was far from Spanish. She was an adventurous cook, and we ate everything from Chinese to Mexican to Italian, but we never ate Spanish food unless my grandmother sent some over. My father never spoke Spanish in the home, so there was no way to identify our heritage with the language. Outside of my grandmother's thick accent when she spoke English, and the occasional batch of Spanish rice she would cook for us, I lived the life of a whiteboy, albeit a whiteboy with 'yellow' skin (I hadn't learned the meaning of the phrase 'olive-skinned' and so spent years of my childhood comparing my color to that of the white and Mexican kids and concluding I had a life-long case of jaundice).

Except, again, there was a geographical angle. My grandmother lived in the same house her husband had built for her when they came to Antioch in the 1910s, the same house my father and all of his brothers and sisters were born in. This house was in the 'old' section of Antioch, and it was the oddest thing: while there were times when I thought the only Spanish people in the world were the Rubio family and perhaps a few flamenco artists who showed up on the Ed Sullivan Show, when I would visit my grandmother I couldn't help noticing that her next-door neighbor, and the old folks just around the corner, and maybe three-fourths of all the older people in a two-block radius around my grandmother's house, all of these people were Spanish. There was, in this lily-white town which used Chicanos for their local color, a tiny enclave of Spanish expatriates who watched the Spanish-language television station and hung velvet paintings of bullfighters on their walls. These people all looked like my grandmother, they all talked like my grandmother ... although it wasn't nearly as obvious as the invisible geographic marker separating white Antioch from the mixture that was Pittsburg, nonetheless the geographic lines were there. Antioch had a 'Little Spain!'

I never identified with that Little Spain. I wasn't embarrassed by my Spanish heritage, although I can't take much credit for this attitude. I don't think it occurred to me that other families didn't have grandmothers who spoke with accents. But I never really associated myself with the Spanish part of me. Not that I didn't absorb things subconsciously. In an introductory Spanish class I took at Berkeley when I was in my thirties, my teacher told me early in the semester that my family was from Andalusia, an accurate conclusion he came to because it turned out I spoke Spanish with an Andalusian accent, although my father never spoke the language in our home. Geography made me, indeed.

But I didn't identify myself as Spanish when I was growing up. I was from Antioch. This, more than my ethnic background, more than my father's occupation, more than anything else about me, was what identified me to the outside world. Geography made me who I was: someone from Antioch. And I was most definitely embarrassed by this. To be from Antioch was to be from nowhere. Even worse, to be from Antioch, in the context of the San Francisco Bay Area, was to be from the wrong side of the hills. In the Summer of Love, you could go to San Francisco and smell incense in the air; 35 miles away in Antioch, all we could smell was jobs. (And later, after I married, when I went to work in a local factory, I, too, began smelling like jobs.)

A year after I married my sweetheart from Antioch High School, we moved to Berkeley, where we have lived happily for the past twenty years, with the exception of a two-year period around 1980 when a few bad breaks brought us back to Antioch, where we lived in a newish suburban enclave and smelled what was left of the jobs. It was the worst two years of our marriage, and I can't help but think it was once again a matter of geography messing with my self-esteem: for 18 of the last 20 years, I have been proud to say 'I am from Berkeley,' but for two years, I had to admit I was from Antioch, and I couldn't bear the thought, and I ended up one night standing in the middle of the street in our calm suburban enclave, screaming and crying at nothing until my wife came to take me to the hospital.

A few years later, I visited Spain for the first time. I stood on the balcony of the hostel where we spent our first night. It was dark; I couldn't see anything. But I could smell the Mediterranean Sea. And though we were in Catalonia, on the opposite end of the country from Andalusia where the Rubios once lived, I loved that smell, it didn't smell at all of jobs, it smelled of Spain, and I felt like I had come home.

A month or so after we returned from our vacation in Spain, I quit my job at the factory and returned to school. Once in awhile, my wife will get a whiff of some cleanser, and she'll say 'that's what you used to smell like. When you came home from working in the factory, you smelled like hand-cleaner.' I smelled like jobs. I haven't smelled like a job in years.

When I visit Antioch now, I feel like a tourist. I don't recall, as I type, if it still smells like jobs. I used to be from Antioch. Now I am from Berkeley. This feels too easy, somehow, as if I could wipe all traces of Antioch from my existence by merely moving away. We are, ultimately, more than our geography, which isn't to negate all I have said in this essay: geography makes me part of what I am today, all of my geographies, past, present and future.

Copyright © 1994, 2019 by Steven Rubio. All rights reserved. Permission to link to this site is granted.


music friday: frequently played albums

The question has been asked on Twitter: What 5 albums have you listened to most in your life? Be honest, not trendy. I don't know how to be honest ... I mean, if I ask Last.fm, which has been tracking my Spotify usage for a long time, the album I have listened to the most is Pink's The Truth About Love, which I'm pretty sure doesn't reach the numbers of stuff from the 60s, to begin with. So, keeping all that in mind, here is what I came up with, in no particular order.

Honorable Mention to Children of the Future, The Velvet Underground and Nico, Dirty Mind, Surrealistic Pillow, Beggars Banquet.

Personal note: The White Album was released on November 22, 1968. My then girlfriend/current wife gave it to me for a Xmas present.


cataracts no more

Yesterday, I had cataract surgery on both eyes. If you've ever had this done, you know how I'm feeling right now.

I'm giddy. It's not just that I can see better than I did with contacts/glasses ... it's that I can see BETTER. Colors are far more vivid, distance vision is much improved, there is no more hazy film on everything I look at. It's amazing.

And the procedure wasn't bad, either. I made them give me lots of sedatives, but when they asked halfway if I needed more, I said no, I was having too much fun. The doctor had told me what I saw would be kinda psychedelic ... guess what, he was right! It was like having an old-school light show in my eyes. I'm pretty unknowledgeable about what he did, but they give you enough local anesthetic that you can't feel a thing, and between the bright light shining in your eyes and the accompanying light show, I never once thought "ugh, they're cutting into my eyes".

Whole thing took half-an-hour ... I spent more time in prep than I did in the operating room. The difference was apparent immediately ... as they were wheeling me out of the operating room, I told the nurses, hey, I can see your faces! I've been like that pretty much ever since (closing in on 24 hours now). I can see better than I ever remember ... my vision is now 20/25 in each eye, and I don't think they are done getting better. I need reading glasses ... for 60 years I was nearsighted, now I'm farsighted. It's impressive.

And colorful.


thoughts on kentucky

A few scattered thoughts, the day after the Kentucky Derby, many of which I have written about before. First, a post from 2012:

I’m looking at the will of my great-great-great-great-great grandfather on my mom’s side of the family. John Cralle II died in Virginia in 1757. Some excerpts:

To Thomas Cralle Lamkin, son of Mary Jones, widow and relict of Charles Jones, late of Northumberland County five negoes vixt: Little Ben, Isaac, Peggs Bess, Blacka Top and Aggy. If he should die before he arrives to age or day of marriage, his mother Mary Jones to enjoy two of the said slaves that may be left at his death, she to have her choice during her natural life, then to revert to my children the remaining part

To son William Matthews Cralle nine negroes vizt: Chnce, Cate, and their daughter Bess, Frank, Alice, Stephen, Cate, Dominy, and Edmond.

Mulatto man Will, may be free at my decease.

To son Rodham Kenner Cralle three negroes vizt: Harry, George, and Nanny and my watch.

To daugher Mary Foushee my silver tankard, and negro wench Rose Anna

Rest of my estate both real and personal to be equally divided between five children Kenner, John, Rodham, William, and Mary, except Ben and Matthews whom I give to my son Kenner, son John to have Rachel, Old Ben to make choice of his master among my children.

From "How African-Americans disappeared from the Kentucky Derby", by Katherine Mooney:

When the horses enter the gate for the 145th Kentucky Derby, their jockeys will hail from Venezuela, Florida, Panama and France. None will be African-American. That’s been the norm for quite a while. When Marlon St. Julien rode the Derby in 2000, he became the first black man to get a mount since 1921.

It wasn’t always this way. The Kentucky Derby, in fact, is closely intertwined with black Americans’ struggles for equality, a history I explore in my book on race and thoroughbred racing. In the 19th century – when horse racing was America’s most popular sport – former slaves populated the ranks of jockeys and trainers, and black men won more than half of the first 25 runnings of the Kentucky Derby. But in the 1890s – as Jim Crow laws destroyed gains black people had made since emancipation – they ended up losing their jobs....

Soup Perkins, who won the Kentucky Derby at 15, drank himself to death at 31. The jockey Tom Britton couldn’t find a job and committed suicide by swallowing acid. Albert Isom bought a pistol at a pawnshop and shot himself in the head in front of the clerk.

The history of the Kentucky Derby, then, is also the history of men who were at the forefront of black life in the decades after emancipation – only to pay a terrible price for it.

And finally, an anecdote I have told many times. When my maternal grandmother was alive, she always looked forward to the Kentucky Derby. She was born in Kentucky in 1903, although it appears she had moved to California by the time she was 7 years old. Each year, when they played "My Old Kentucky Home" at the Derby, she would cry. I don't actually remember this happening, but I definitely remember her telling me about it on several occasions. It mattered to her.

Her name, before she later married, was Georgia Catherine Cralle. She was descended from the aforementioned John Cralle II.

As in my earlier mentions, I don't know what to make of all of the above.


jury duty

Been busy around here in a mundane way, which explains the lack of posts. Friday night, my daughter and I went to Fireworks Night at the Giants game. Game lasted 18 innings ... we bolted after 13 so we didn't miss our BART train, got home an hour later and were able to catch the end of the game on TV. Followed, a few minutes later, by the sound of fireworks (we live maybe 10 miles from the park, although on the other side of the Bay). Since then, I've mostly been waiting to see if I would get jury duty, and sure enough, I had to report yesterday morning. Nothing much happened, and they sent us home until today. I returned this morning, and was one of the 18 selected for voir dire. I predicted in advance that I would not be selected, and told my wife I even knew the reason why, although I wouldn't talk about it ... you know how it is, you can't discuss a case and all that.

Well, I'm home now, having been thanked and excused, for what I am sure is the very reason I expected. I'll be vague ... I don't know when you are allowed to talk, but really, the story doesn't need too many details. I usually decide in advance if I want to serve or not ... I have lots of honest answers that can make me seem like a better or worse jury member ... I've been known to pull the old "my dad was an embezzler", and once even said I didn't like cops because one of them gut shot a friend. When I worked in a factory, I liked jury duty, because we got paid full time (thank you, union) and didn't have to go to work. That one lasted six days. I was on one other jury ... I should have been asked to leave, but I kept my mouth shut ... it was a case of one guy getting his face smashed in by another guy in a pickup basketball game, and I couldn't quit wondering why we were wasting our time ... but the second day, they settled, with the puncher agreeing to pay the punchee's dental bills. And I've been excused once.

This time, I was happy to serve, although transportation was a bit of a problem, and in a few hours we're going to see Pink in San Jose and I didn't want that to be a problem. But as I say, I knew I wouldn't be chosen.

You see, this was a civil case involving a wrongful death (apologies if I get the legal terms wrong) where the family of the deceased was suing the landlords of the building where the death occurred. I knew if I said anything about my opinion of landlords, I'd be gone. I wasn't going to volunteer the information ... I wasn't sure how relevant it was, and I felt I could overcome my hatred of landlords if it was necessary to help decide a case. But one of the attorneys asked a general question about people who either were landlords or who had negative experiences with landlords, and I felt I should say something. So I said I hesitated to bring it up, and I meant no disrespect to the landlords sitting in the courtroom, but I don't like landlords, and I've lived in Berkeley for 45+ years, and we make Landlord Hating into a religion.

Sure enough, the lawyers for the landlords used a peremptory challenge to thank me and excuse me.

Next stop, Pink. At one point today, a lawyer asked us if we had any things we were passionate about. I happened to be sitting directly in front of him, so he looked at his chart and asked, "Mr. Rubio?" I said, well, I'm going to see Pink tonight!


cataracts

I'm going to have cataract surgery.

Saw an ophthalmologist today. I can skip most of the details because 1) I don't really understand them, and 2) he dilated my eyes and my computer monitor is still too bright for me to look at for more than a second or two. I know very little about my physical self, and when I looked up cataract surgery, I just wanted to know if I would be put to sleep or not. (The answer is no.) Now I know that the doctor is going to replace a part of my eyes, and when he is done, I not only won't have cataracts any longer but my vision will be changed ... in a good way. I may not need contacts or glasses any more, or I may need glasses but a much weaker prescription. I have worn glasses for more than 50 years, and contacts for almost 40. I've always been extremely near-sighted. The notion that I'll be able to see "normally" was unexpected. And given that, according to my wife, for the last several years I say "I can't see" about ten times a day, the difference should be interesting.

So watch this space. I might even look at it myself, once it quits blinding me with its light.