When I was a boy of 10, I got into a fight with a French kid on a playground in Paris. It started over a line dispute at a playground installation. See, France, at least in 1971, was light-years ahead of the US in playground technology and this particular attraction was about a thousand times cooler and twice as dangerous as anything you could find in America. My brother and I had finally found something we liked about that stupid country besides the street-vendors selling fifes and hot chestnuts, and I was damned if I was going to let a local cut in front of me — an American — in line.
The amusement in question was a sort of mini-roller coaster whose course was set with metal rollers and upon which a kid would race seated on a sheet of painted plywood. You would climb a ladder to a platform about 10 meters above the ground, descend rapidly at an angle of 45 degrees, and then swoop and bank and clatter around a series of turns and dips and rises until you were finally spit out at the end onto a pile of sand. It was extremely thrilling, but the real beauty of this unit was that you had to learn and master its eccentricities before you could complete a ride. It was not a matter of simply taking a seat and letting gravity take over; there were actual skills involved. On one unbanked turn, you had to cant your body sharply inward to avoid being shot over the side, and a series of dips required a forward weight distribution lest you be unseated as the nose caught air and flipped you backwards. Some might consider these challenges design flaws, but I say they were exercises in problem-solving and adaptation. It was especially fun not to apprise neophytes of the danger and watch as they tumbled off into space and onto the sand.
I was near the front of the queue when the line-crasher slid in front of me, and I was not having it. I tapped him on the shoulder. "Non way, Rene," I said. "Fond of the queue."
My French was spotty at the time, but from the few words I understood and his aggressive hand gestures, I gathered his response to be something like, "This is my playground, my ride, and fuck you and the entire US of A." And then he did it. He sneered me the famous Gallic sneer. They learn it young over there.
The stage was set and the die cast. No way was I letting this insult slide. With the confidence born of my inherent American superiority, I shoved him hard in the chest and put my guard up to give that frog a lesson in ass-kicking, American style.
Those of you of a pugilistic bent, have you ever been in a scrap in which you were so completely overmatched that you could not even construct a logical sequence of events explaining how you wound up in such an ass-kicked condition? Such was my plight. One second I'm standing there, fists up, ready to hand this rude bastard's ass to him, the next I'm on my back staring up at the leaden Parisian sky with no idea how I got there as a small Frenchman stood over me, spitting curses.
I'm no coward, but I'm no fool, either, and I know when I'm licked. I ceded ownership of the ride, the playground, and the entire city of Paris to the kid and steered clear of him from then on.
There was a lesson to be taken from this experience, but instead of taking a logical warning about making hasty assumptions, my takeaway was that the French were the baddest motherfuckers in all of Europe and maybe the world. For years I told anyone who would listen about the superior fighting skills of the French. "You do not want to tangle with these guys," I would say. "Don't let their sissy language fool you."
Eventually, of course, I learned that it was just my bad luck at having chosen the ass-kickingest kid in the entire arrondissement to fuck with and that the French were no more or less badass than anyone else in Europe. I suppose a case could be made for the Basques on the "more" side, and the good people of Luxembourg on the "less," but all in all I think it's best not to make sweeping generalizations about any group of people.
The French incident was not the last time I fell victim to this kind of biased preconception. I have held very strong opinions about the people of Southeast Texas, Dorchester, Mass., Green River, Utah, and of course, Lake County, CA. The first three with very good reason — those of you who've visited these locales, back me up on this — and the fourth position I cheerfully adopted as a newcomer to Mendocino eager to establish in-group status by joining in on the ridicule and derision heaped on Lake County and its denizens by certain sensitive and broad-minded people. I believe it was my friend Beaverhawk, who I met at Ford Street, who first hipped me to the view of the cognoscenti regarding the County of Lake.
Of course, Beaverhawk is from Willits, which may or may not be far enough away from Lake County to be completely free of its influence. The jury's out on that one. Willits is definitely geographically part of Mendocino, but spiritually and substantively, who knows? I'm no ethnographer, but if you look at regions like Mexicali or Alsace/Lorraine, you realize there's going to be some cultural bleed-through. To whose relative benefit or detriment I wouldn't venture to say, but I do know that both history and prehistory are rife with examples of coastal peoples evincing intellectual and cultural superiority relative to their inland neighbors due to their piscatorial diets, so it could well be that all of you over the hill are simmering in the same stew. Again, though, any dabbling I might do in anthropology is purely of an amateur strain so let's say that the only definitive claim to be made here is that Fort Bragg and its denizens represent the nexus of enlightenment in the county.
I suppose I would be remiss if I didn't mention Boonville and the Anderson Valley — I know which side my bread is buttered on, after all — but you all down there in the southern lowlands should know that there is an air of the mysterious and mythical about your region, along the lines of a Narnia or Erewhon. We're not sure what you're up to down there and we feel it best that we just leave you to it.
I didn't visit Lake County for years, enjoying instead a preconceived image of barefoot banjo-picking yokels operating moonshine stills and meth labs and wading around in a shallow, stagnant gene pool.
When I did finally go there, to visit my girlfriend's sister in Lakeport, I found it a charming little community and the people I met seemed more-or-less normal and no more hill-billious than the folks at home. I figured it was just another example of neighbors being neighbors, each asserting their superiority and dominance. No doubt the native Lakers had jokes aplenty about Mendocino, they just probably weren't that funny. Like for instance: "How many Mendonians do it take to screw in one a them glow-balls? Not but one, it ain't that hard and anyone could do it."
On my second night in Lake County we went to the Konocti Vista casino. At some point during the evening, I met some of my tweaker brethren and went out to their car to get high. What began as a brief interlude became, as so many meth-fueled incidences do, an hours-long mission of many miles and a great deal of conversation. When I was returned, wild-eyed and walking dirty, to the casino, my
girlfriend and her sister were gone. Eh, what the hell, I thought. I'll hang out, do some gambling, hook back up with them later.
Forty bucks into the penny machines and several dozen Arnold Palmers later, I walked out into bright sunshine and elected to walk back into Lakeport. I was completely unfamiliar with the area but relied on my infallible sense of direction and abundant energy to get me back. I set out in what I later learned was the opposite direction to where I needed to go, and after an hour of walking along a lonely country road I began to wonder if I'd erred in my calculations. I came upon a large, ramshackle house whose big backyard faced the road I was on. In the yard were several shirtless tattooed men standing around a smoking barbecue pit, drinking beer and tending to grilling meat. On the back porch a knot of haltered and Daisy-Duked women passed around a bottle of tequila as they cackled and smoked. A swastika banner hung from the eaves of the house, and homemade signs posted on the wire fence circumscribing the property warned "Trespassers Will Be Gassed" and "Whites Only".
In one corner of the yard, a group of children played Spin the Bottle. Their uniformly pale, freckled skin and gingery hair marked them as related, and I think one pair may have been twins. I stood there in awe for several moments, joyfully taking in the tableau. This was it! I'd found the real Lake County! It was beautiful. I pulled out my phone and started taking pictures. One of the kids noticed me and yelled, "Daddy! There's a dadgum stranger at the wire!" One of the men turned to look at me. "What the hell are you doing?" he roared.
"Just trying to get a signal. Heil Hitler! I'll be moving on now." I pocketed my phone and began walking quickly away from there, but the entire barbecue contingent was coming toward me, followed closely by the kids. Bringing up the rear was the ladies auxiliary, cursing volubly and unlimbering weapons secreted about their ample persons. Exit, I said to myself, stage left, and took off at a dead run. The entire pack followed me down the road for maybe 100 yards before they ran out of steam and stood there puffing and cursing and throwing rocks at me. The presumed paterfamilias stood at the vanguard, shaking his fist and promising all manner of violence should he ever encounter me again. I continued jogging down the road until they were out of eye- and ear-shot.
Slowing my pace, I relaxed a bit until I heard branches cracking in the woods to my left. I stiffened, ready to take flight once again, when out of the trees came a woman dressed in a filthy print dress and unlaced construction boots. In one hand she held up a crank pipe on top of her head, bowl pointing outward, and turned it from side to side like a periscope. "Excuse me," she said. "Have you seen the moon?"
"Not since last night," I answered.
"Well, I guess I'll have to keep looking, then," she said, and headed back into the forest.
This was getting weird, and I started to feel a little panicky. What if the Nazis all got in the truck and decided to have a good ol' fashioned lynching? What if the moon lady was a witch?
I called up Christine. "Honey, I don't know where the hell I am, but you gotta come get me."
After talking to her sister for awhile, we were able to recreate my journey from the casino and determine my whereabouts. I was rescued shortly after and transported back to the relative civilization of Lakeport, breathlessly recounting my near-demise at the hands of the Nazi-billies. "Oh, they were savages," I said. "But I'll tell you something, I really feel like I can identify with Holocaust survivors now. Maybe I should join a support group." My crazy girlfriend and her crazy sister exchanged a look and remained silent.
I have since returned several times to the county by the lake, and while I have seen things direct from the pages of an Erskine Caldwell novel, I have also met many interesting and worthwhile people. I have sampled some very decent wines and enjoyed the exquisite irony of them dubbing their lakeside toilets Nice and Lucerne and dubbing it the California Riviera. You go, Lake County. And don’t let nobody tell you otherwise.
My current living sich is in a dorm of 80-odd people, most of whom are from LA and Riverside counties. There is one person from Mendocino (moi) and one from Lake County. I, of course, am the suave and urbane man about town you've come to know and love. Bill from the Lake? Well, it's true that he hasn't a tooth in his head, but he does have dentures. He loves him some NASCAR, but he does know how to read. Like us all, a man of parts.
Au revoir, mes amis. Attention les Francais!