West Coast Hillbillies

A long time ago, after moving from San Francisco, I bought a beautiful Labrador puppy from a woman named Brigid Blodgett, in the hills above Santa Cruz California. (I think she won’t mind the free advertising in the unlikely case that she reads Notes On Liberty or my blog.) Her house was an older conventional California so-called “ranch house,” with low roofs and a sprawling house plan. The pup she had in mind for me was playing with his ten siblings in a concrete backyard when I arrived. There was one new litter, lying with Mom on some rags in the living room, and another in the kitchen, that I could see and smell. The lady, the breeder, told me there was yet another litter in the garage.

To get my new dog, I had not gone to just anybody since most dogs last longer than most cars. I had gathered recommendations in Santa Cruz (pop. 60,000) and its suburbs. Brigid Blodgett’s name kept coming up. Other things being more or less equal, (“et cetibus…” as they say in Latin) I believe in the predictive power of redundancy. I purchased the pup, “Max” (for the German sociologist Max Weber. My previous dog was “Lenin,” another story, obviously). He was a wonderful animal, big, sturdy, healthy, smart, and with a physique that turned heads. I never saw Ms Blodgett again. She asked me once by phone to enter Max in a show but I thought it would inflate his ego and I declined. Her name came up a couple of times when perfect strangers stopped me to ask if Max was one of “Brigid’s dogs.”

The meeting with Ms Blodgett marked the first time I became aware of a minority living close by and in our midst, an invisible minority for most of us in Central California. They live mostly in the chain of hills that separates Silicon Valley from the coastal strip where Santa Cruz and Monterey are located. They are white, they speak English, they speak it without an accent; they dress normally; they attend rock concerts. They all have English names, like Ms Blodgett, or sometimes, Scottish names. They are all Protestants, mainly of the non-practicing denomination. Their children go to public school, K-12 and they are usually well behaved. If you pay a lot of attention though (retrospective attention, in my case) you might notice that the kids don’t sweat their grades all that much.

The giveaway is vacation plans. When normal white Anglos from Santa Cruz and Monterey, and from Silicon Valley, go to Italy, or to England, or even to Hawaii; those other people “fly back” to Oklahoma to see their relatives. They are the great-grandchildren of the Joads in John Steinbeck’s superbly crafted Communist propaganda The Grapes of Wrath. They are the transplanted hillbillies. They even call themselves hillbillies sometimes. Others who are annoyed at one of them for any variety of reasons call them “Oakies” under their breath, just like in Steinbeck. Incidentally, many claim American Indian ancestry. It turns out that – unlike say, Senator Elizabeth Warren’s trying to gain advantage in academia via affirmative action – those claims might be legitimate. Those people often do come from Oklahoma which, for a period in the 19th century, was officially called “Indian Territory.” During that period, Indians had easier access to land than whites which, in the great American land hunger, was a good reason to tie the knot.

The Central California hillbillies make their living in a variety of unskilled and semi-skilled occupations. In the old days, a job changing oil in a car repair shop would allow some to pick up some mechanical knowledge and, from there to work their way up to well-paid positions as car mechanics. It seems to me that road is closing fast because of young second generation Mexicans with a more a conventional work ethic. I don’t know as much about the women although it’s obvious (in a manner I may not be able to describe) that many work as restaurant waitresses and as receptionists in doctors’ offices. Many of the men and some of the women have served in the military. They don’t seem to mind working as law enforcement officers but they meet with an obstacle on that path that is closely associated with their defining feature (described below). For a few, a police career leads to political office.

The hillbillies’ defining characteristic is very hard to notice because it’s not something but the lack of something. It took me a long time to see this clearly: They never complete a four-year college degree. There was one guy I was able to observe reasonably closely for twenty years because of our children. He worked in law enforcement. He was good at it because, at first, he seemed to progress rapidly. His intelligence was obviously above average. The strange thing about that cop is that he was always taking some course or other at the community college, studying one damned thing after another. He dawned on me after several years (I am not the sharpest knife in the drawer, I admit) that the man must have accumulated many more units than a college degree at a regular university would require. I realized that he was deliberately avoiding the college degree that would have helped him significantly in his career. We were not personally close enough for me to make inquiries. His own children also did not go to college. Once I was thinking clearly about that particular man I began seeing a pattern, men like him all around me, people who could have easily achieved the modest scholarly standards honored by my own students for example.

Here you have it, an ethnic marker. Resisting with great energy something that everyone else is doing or trying to do, or claiming to want to do, is enough to keep you apart. It’s like the Jews’ avoidance of pork: It does not stop you from functioning but it puts a damper on assimilation. Or it did for the centuries when Europeans ate nearly only pig meat or no meat at all: Can’t have Sam for diner, we’re having pig knuckles tonight.

To have a conventional ethnic group, you only need to add to a systematic obstacle to assimilation the fairly faithful practice of endogamy, the practice of marrying within the group. The two facts are not completely independent of each other in this case. Those who have gone to college, are going to college, or see themselves as college bound, don’t readily marry those who do and are none of the above. I think hillbillies only marry, and divorce, and marry, and divorce one another, with one puzzling exception. Hillbillies with straightforward English names fairly often link up with people who have Portuguese last names and who are Catholic. The latter are descendants of a small but continuing immigration from the Azores. My first guess about the puzzle is this: If I looked into it, I would find that this breed of Luso-Americans don’t go to college either. Just guessing, really.

I suppose, it’s high time that I, an immigrant, describe my credentials to discourse at all about the white people who have stayed on the boundaries of American society for three hundred years straight. For thirty years, my own life intersected with theirs in two places. First, I fish in the ocean and I have a boat in the harbor to serve this purpose. Although I was a college professor for thirty years, I clean fish with my own hands. This is enough to open some doors. Boat owners don’t just go to harbor, go out to fish, return to harbor, and then go home. They fuss about their boat, they hang out; when you hang out in the harbor, people talk a little about themselves. They will open a window on their lives. Hillbillies don’t swim, don’t go to the beach, but they fish, including in the ocean.

Here is the second hillbilly intersection with my life. Over time, I purchased two houses in Santa Cruz County, both on the needy side (the houses, I mean). If you live away from California, or overseas, you should know that most Californians live in individual houses and that those houses are mostly made of wood. Now, there is nothing wrong with wood as a building material, it’s cheap, it’s forgiving, and it’s easy to fix. Yet many things go a little wrong over time with wooden houses, and even when nothing goes wrong, they must be painted every five years or so.

My second house was/is a lovely Victorian. It was built in 1906. Now, as I said, it’s lovely but there is no miracle. Almost everything goes wrong in a hundred years in a house built of wood in a maritime climate, in an area subject to earthquakes. Some of it goes wrong while you own the place and you have to fix it. Ten years ago, my water evacuation plumbing begun acting disastrously. After a little expensive digging, it was determined that the used water main leading from my house into the town sewer was made of baked clay and that it was broken. It dated back to the 1880s, according to municipal maps.

Some of the things that don’t go wrong with older houses you don’t want to live with anyway, the original heating system for example. So, you will need carpenters, electricians, plumbers, appliance installers, etc. plus painters and more. Moreover, tree branches will fall on your house in big storms and they will have to be removed. And then, things you don’t want anymore somehow accumulate and must be taken to the dump periodically. (I know, no need to tell me, I am a married man; I could do all of this myself, and I do some actually.) I have described a myriad of jobs that can be done by any healthy, reasonably intelligent person. The hillbillies often have multiple skills gleaned from doing repairs on their and on their own parents’ house. Some gained more in the military. I have hired people to do that kind of work multiple times.

Over the past thirty years though, I have seen Mexican immigrants compete more and more successfully with hillbillies, in informal carpentry, in house painting, in plumbing, in electrical and appliance repairs, even in floor installation. The locals hold fast in two areas of work: trash hauling and tree trimming. I suspect there is a good reason for this. Both supply very irregular work, you might say work that you have to look for. I think both activities are like second jobs to a person with a regular 9 to 5, or 10 to 3. Fortunately, my friends now have a main economic activity, one that puts food on the table in large amounts. I need to make a detour to persuade you of what that new occupation might be.

In the nineties, after a bad storm, I called around to find someone to finally set straight a tree problem that had been plaguing my property. The big local companies that advertised on radio were all busy. Their bids were so high anyway that accepting them would have forced me to teach at least one quarter of summer school. Somehow, I whined to my car mechanic who offered to send me somebody he knew. Sure enough, the next morning around 11 – and the time may matter – these two guys in their forties showed up in an old truck. We discussed what had to be done, trimming off some big branches, and hauling them away. They offered to do the job for a price I could live with.

One of them put on the clamps; the other guy was going to be his ground crew, sharpening the power-saw and handing it in a safe way, bringing down the cut limbs with a rope, and so forth. While I was talking to this second guy, a big beautiful pit-bull emerged from some blankets in the cab. I don’t like the breed much because they are like a loaded gun but that dog was a beaut.

I complimented the man and asked him if I could go in the house to get the dog a treat, a piece of sausage. He had this astounding response: Don’t bother, he said, he won’t take anything from you. I have trained him to be a vegetarian. A vegetarian pit-bull! Isn’t it going a little far by way of political correctness, I first thought to myself? At the time, I was pretty much surrounded by prissy middle-class vegetarians in progressive, virtue-aggressive Santa Cruz. On second thought however I realized there was no political correctness involved, not with those guys. You think about it: Why would anyone own a formidable looking, potentially dangerous guard dog that is also a vegetarian? What’s the only likely reason? So, in any case, the hillbillies always rented and bought property in the hills because, at any level of forever soaring California real estate prices, it was less expensive than either Silicon Valley or areas near the ocean.

Society having evolved as it has, now, they are finding themselves in a good situation to resume the scratchy agricultural lives of their near ancestors. Even the couple of miles from the sea insure a warmer climate than you find on the coast; many have a little bit more land that needed for a house. The population density is low. You don’t have to meet your neighbors, or strangers, unless you want to. There are few eyes in the hills. It’s easy to turn a large vegetable garden into a small plantation of anything. You just need a good dog to keep the deer away. If the animal is vegetarian, so much the better; he will also be pretty much incorruptible and he will keep away most trespassers including midnight harvesters.

Things look good again, mighty good, for the hillbilly hidden minority.

© Jacques Delacroix 2018

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