Friday, April 9, 2010

Merced - "Nexus of All that is Strange"

This is a reply to a series of items that were prompted by my posting a piece about "Ben Weber - Matman and Joker" to the Yahoo Gay-Thinkers group.  
Doug had asked a question. I went on for a bit, as I sometimes do. 
When I'm not terse, I'm verbose.

Sit down and make yourself comfortable, as you will need knife, fork, and plate to get through the can of worms you've opened with the question: "Is the Central Valley one of those Republican parts of California?" As I am in a silly mood, I shall answer in good humor - and at length.

Unfortunately, Merced is an odd place indeed. I often describe it as "the nexus of all that is strange," and, indeed, it is.

Merced is a smallish city of 80,000, the county seat, set in the middle of the San Joaquin Valley. It's almost the very center point of the state, the "navel."

When I moved down to Orange County, I used to say that I was from "the Valley." People down there thought I meant the San Fernando or San Gabriel valley, and would twit me about ValSpeak: "Like, you know, gross me out, gag me with a spoon," and other phrases popularized by Moon Unit Zappa in the immortal song. I'd explain, "No, I mean, the San Joaquin. You know, the middle third of the state. The Big Valley - they made a TV series about it."

Merced is the "Gateway to Yosemite." I was born at Castle Air Force Base (six miles away, abutting Atwarer) and grew up literally next to a set of railroad tracks on "U" Street and later a block from John Muir school (with the other set of tracks a block or so away).

When we were transferred to South Dakota it was a shock to the system - as it was when we were shunted next to Missouri and then back to Merced.

My parents bought their first house (located between two sets of railroad tracks, at a place where the 99 and 140 highways met, underneath the Castle AFB flight path). I learned to sleep through anything.

However, all was not as I remembered it during those halcyon days of kindergarten.

I was suddenly, in mid-sixth grade, the "new kid," a target for bullies and a favorite when playing their homespun version of dodge ball: "smear the queer."

Like most California schools, Merced's were academically a year behind the rest of the U.S. Although I remarked on this, I was occupied avoiding my primary tormentors, so the school didn't take much notice of me until mandatory testing (which I'd been given in first and fourth grades in South Dakota and Missouri) was once more administered. I was discovered (yet again) to be a mentally gifted minor, and blessedly placed in MGM classes.

I moved away after high school, where I'd been thwarted in trying to take college classes while a junior in HS and labeled a plagiarist for having written an essay in an attempt to skip junior Comp/American Lit in which I'd used the word"save" in the sense of "except:"

Of all Shakespeare's villains, none (save perhaps Richard III) has been so unjustly maligned as Shylock, the tragic Jew in "The Merchant of Venice."

I'd thought it a clear opening sentence, and it set up a nice five paragraph essay (the standard form that Comp was meant to teach me). The head of the English Department was a "dread cow" (I'm quoting a friend who'd had her that year) who I wanted no part of, and who had now maligned me unjustly (without checking my records, to boot).

The situation was resolved when I wrote an impromptu five-paragraph essay for the senior Brit Lit/Brit Lit teacher, explained that I was a voracious reader currently plowing my way through the full version of "Oliver Twist" (again), had no desire to sit through a year reading the American Lit curriculum I'd already digested, and thought the Freudian analysis of "Turn of the Screw" (taught by the Comp/American Lit cow) was nonsensical (as James had written it prior to Freud's examination of phallic symbolism). The blessed Sharon Gray (Brit Lit) read over my essay and remarked, "Yes, I can see the Dickens and James influences. You have a predilection for the long, clunky, perfectly-punctuated sentence."

While I was away, Merced received the second-largest settlement of Hmong refugees, adding another flavor to its stew of Air Force Base and Bay Area retirees, farmers, ranchers, migrant labor, and Steinbeck-era immigrants. I moved back from Long Beach to discover that Merced had much the same demographic profile: not a melting-pot, but a mixed salad.

Merced's unique quality seems to arise from it having been founded after the charter of the original Merced Falls (now Snelling) was misappropriated by the town's founders for use in setting up a breakaway community next to the new rail tracks.

Some say that's why the place is odd - or even "cursed."

While it has some lovely Victorian homes, it also sits on a confluence of ley lines that form a pentagram. It's been the scene of the Steven and Carey Stayner cases, and is a mere sixteen miles from Chowchilla, site of the school bus kidnapping case.

It does have the tenth UC campus (whose first graduating class had Michelle Obama as its speaker, and is still paying off the million-dollar debt incurred by local police and other agencies), hopes to get a Wal-Mart distribution center to help alleviate its 22% unemployment rate, and is in the bidding to be a Google Ultra-High-Speed internet text site, as well as contending to be a transportation hub on the high-speed rail line, for which it was recently designated a definite stop.

It's an hour from Fresno, 45 minutes from Modesto, an hour from Mariposa and Yosemite up in the Sierra foothills, an hour-and-a-half from Stockton, San Jose, and Monterey via various passes, and two hours from San Francisco. You can get almost anywhere from here, but there's little "here" here. Perhaps that's why the locals call it "Mer-dead."

"There's nothing to do in Merced," has become a tired catchphrase, and an inaccurate one.

Our downtown is beginning to come alive after a decade of struggle. Our two-stage theater and cineplex bring crowds to restaurants and coffee houses; the Multi-Cultural Arts Center hosts plays, exhibitions, and provides space for every kind of arts instruction; the Merced Symphony plays in the old Merced Theater (being renovated to its 1930s glory); Merced ShakesspeareFest is now in its ninth year. The massive "Town and Gown" celebration for UC and Merced College graduates and community members brings people together in six downtown blocks that offer music, goods and produce of all varieties, and information from local government agencies, service organizations, schools, churches, and businesses.

The Christmas, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Veterans' Day parades throng with appreciative onlookers - and PFLAG members step along the route proudly with the rest.

Although we do have a PFLAG chapter, in which I'm active, queer night life is an hour away at best - and bar patrons are often targets for bashers and muggers.

Merced is not for the faint of heart.

Until last year, it led the area in meth lab busts. Most of the drugs coming down from Canada or flowing up from Mexico also come through Merced.

Our grey winters begin in late October, when the Valley's famed tule fogs (containing ice crystals) and clouds obscure the sun until late February, with winds and pelting rain, followed by a slow procession of leaden grey days again. Seasonal Affective Disorder abounds. 

Currently, it's dropped from fourth to seventh in the national rankings of foreclosures (with or without associated bankruptcies), although its real estate values (inflated by developer greed and over-building prior to the bond market collapse) make it a prime target for out-of-town investors and other absentee landlords, who've contributed to its quaint blend of Old World elegance, redneck gentility, and utter squalor.
Worse yet, it stolidly votes Republican, although its congressional rep is a Democrat ("blue dog" variety).

It truly is the nexus of all that is strange, but I'm proud to call it "that little garden spot in Hell that I call my hometown."

I shall now go, for I am parched, and need to hydrate well before our storied 100+ degree summer begins to approach. Perhaps I'll sip a beverage in the open air, laden as it is with particulate matter on these still spring days, in between occasional downpours that bring the tang of freshly-fertilized fields to the lounging idlers in the soon-to-be-closed homeless camps.



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