In the first chapter of my California saga I recounted my childhood obsession with the Golden State and my first visits there as a teenager in April and June of 1975. A year later I graduated from high school and began attending a local university only a few miles from home in Massachusetts. Therefore, the California Dream was relegated to a back burner for awhile.
At college I studied Psychology and made a number of dear friends who have remained part of my life to this very day. When I graduated, I did apply to a couple of graduate school programs in California, but it was evidently not yet my time and I was turned down. I was left to decide between Ph.D. programs in New Hampshire and Rhode Island or a Masters program at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia.
Though it may have seemed the odd choice, I opted for Virginia, feeling that it would be good for me to move away from New England and get a taste of living in a new place. It turned out to be a good decision, as I made more wonderful friends there and benefitted from the mentorship of Dr. Kelly Shaver, who combined instilling great fear and holding very high expectations, but tempered this with a lot of humor and support. The result was some of my very best academic work. His area of expertise was the social psychology topic of Attribution, which in layperson’s terms is all about how we attempt to understand and explain the misfortunes suffered by others, as well as those we experience ourselves.
This set the stage for my long-awaited move to California. I applied to several doctoral programs in the Golden State and was accepted to an interdisciplinary program in Social Ecology at the University of California Irvine, an hour south of Los Angeles. Students in the program had to combine a “hard” science with a social science for their comprehensive exams and dissertation. I eventually ended up developing an expertise in both the geological aspects of how and why earthquakes occur and the social psychological aspects of how people view their risk and how that translates into whether they do or do not prepare or protect themselves from disasters.
The move to southern California was memorable. I spent that summer up in New England saying farewell to friends and relatives, and as August approached, it was time to begin my cross-country drive to L.A. At this time, I owned a rather beat up old Plymouth Duster. I placed a “California or Bust” banner in the back window and off I went, with perhaps only a few hundred dollars to my name. The details of how the cross -country journey went are sketchy, but I recall being equal parts terrified and excited. This was a big move, and TV buff that I am, I couldn’t help but feel that I was the star of my own sitcom, moving to California to chase my dreams. Soon I would meet a zany cast of characters who would serve as my co-stars on the show. It’s easy to daydream as your spend eight hours crossing the Great Plains.
My first misadventure occurred somewhere near Winslow, Arizona when I discovered that my transmission fluid pan was leaking badly, and faced with an untenable $500 to replace it, I bought a case of transmission fluid at a K-Mart and gave my poor car transfusions about every 10 miles for the rest of the trip into southern California. Thankfully, I had secured a teaching assistantship at Irvine that paid quite well, so once I arrived, I knew I was going to be OK.
I was both amused and unnerved by the fact that upon entry into the state I had to stop at an Agricultural inspection station to declare any fruits or plants in my vehicle. I was amused because it felt like bringing in some fresh strawberries was akin to being a drug smuggler, and unnerved because I had three African violets that I’d nurtured for years tucked away in my car. I was afraid they would be confiscated and considered keeping them hidden, but as an innocent young man who had only had to stay after school once in my entire life through no fault of my own (my mom folded a homework assignment for my woodshop class in 8th grade and put it inside a book to keep it from getting wet on a rainy day; the teacher did not want the assignments folded and ordered me to stay after school). That was traumatic enough; I could not imagine the experience of being thrown onto the hood of my car in the blazing Mojave Desert sun and handcuffed for trying to smuggle African violets. Thankfully, I was waved through the checkpoint without even being asked if I had anything in the car. “What a bizarre place this is…” I thought.
I ended up finding a room in a four-bedroom house on the Balboa Peninsula in Newport Beach. It was common for students to rent such places for the 9-month school year, after which rent soared by a few thousand dollars for the summer months. The address was 302 East Oceanfront, and I delighted in people asking whether that was Oceanfront Avenue, Drive, Street, etc. I’d respond with, “Just Oceanfront.” The place faced the beach boardwalk with a view of the Pacific and the Balboa Pier. All day there was a parade of roller skaters, skateboarders and bicyclists zooming past. I felt like a “beach dude: and for a New England kid who’d always dreamed of living in California, there could not have been a more exciting first place to call home.
However, I soon learned that I didn’t meet the qualifications for beach dude status. Despite the fact that with my hearty New England blood I was able to swim in the ocean throughout that first winter, chuckling to myself that “Real men don’t need wetsuits” as I watched surfers braving the waves dressed like seals, I did not measure up to southern California standards regarding my weight. At the local surf shop in Balboa, t shirts and bumper stickers reading, “No fat dudes!” and “No fat Chicks” adorned the front window. An unnervingly high number of cars in town had bumper stickers that read, “I don’t break for fat dudes!” or “I don’t break for fat chicks!’ I was afraid to cross the street for the first year I lived in southern California. Worse yet, when I would come home from school in the mid afternoon and sit out on the patio facing the boardwalk reading a book, many of those roller skating or skateboarding past made comments about me with welcoming words such as, “Ooh, look at the fat dude!” or simply made pig-like, oinking noises as they passed.
This constant social pressure to be thin and fit weighed heavily on me. Within my first year and a half in California, I lost almost 50 pounds, dropping from about 230 to 180. Friends and family back home were worried that I was seriously ill. I also shaved off my straggly beard for the first time since my college days, emulating the clean shaven look popular in southern California at that time. Of course, it was good for me to lose the weight, and I actually had fun doing it. Southern California has many bike trails that run along the flat coastline through various beach cities. I rode my bike from Newport Beach to Long Beach, a 40-mile round trip, a couple times a week. Once a week or so I would go farther, following more bike trails past Long Beach to Santa Monica, resulting in a nearly 100 mile round trip. I’d stop for lunch or sometimes have a swim somewhere along the way, and then ride back. With all this exercise, I was able to drop a couple of pounds a week, despite the fact that I was eating like a horse. I enjoy eating like a horse, so this was a good regimen for me! I also enjoyed walking around the peninsula or taking the tiny ferry over to Balboa Island and walking there, always taking time to visit a favorite pie shop. I don’t mind walking a mile or so when the end goal is pie.
My roommates at the beach house that first year were Jon and Steve, two stereotypically blonde and handsome California dudes. Each had a girlfriend that would spend many a night at our house. The rooms were not well insulated for sound, so unfortunately what went on behind closed doors was not exactly a secret. Jon’s girlfriend giggled loudly and incessantly as soon as their bedroom door was closed, and I was sorely tempted to burst in on them and ask what was so damned funny. I typically hung out with my third roommate, Ron, who was a kind and quiet guy from northern California who liked to cook, eat and watch TV. We spent a lot of time watching videos on television’s new craze, MTV. Even today when I hear certain songs by Tina Turner, The Pretenders, and Duran Duran, my mind takes me right back to that time of my life.
We all had to move out of the house in May and find other housing for the summer, but in August I was actually the first person to contact the landlord, so I was able to recruit the roommates for the house that year. I rounded up a fascinating cast of characters… perfect for my imaginary sitcom! There was Tom, a somewhat aggressive and flamboyant gay man, Alain, a quiet foreign exchange student from France who also turned out to be gay, and Harry, a heavy-set, long haired, jolly Oregonian who despite his painted toenails and glittered fingernail polish was entirely heterosexual. Stereotypes were being smashed at 302 East Oceanfront! By October, Tom and Alain had begun a romantic affair, despite Harry and me begging them not to. I recall saying to them, “When you break up… and you WILL break up… you are going to make life hell around here.”
My prediction came true in spades, and every time Tom and Alain would have a tiff, trouble ensued. On one occasion, when they were not speaking, Alain came home with a couple bags of groceries and a gallon of milk, which he put into the refrigerator. He retreated to his room, and soon Tom appeared. “Did Alain just come back from the grocery store? Is that his milk in the fridge? I nodded and watched with horror as Tom opened it, poured it down the sink and with an evil chuckle, returned to his room. Minutes later Alain came out to get a glass of milk, found the completely empty gallon jug in the fridge and ran down the hall screaming, “Merde!” and a few other unintelligible French curse words.
And then there was Harry. Perhaps my most vivid memory of this time was when Tom came in one evening from school looking visibly shaken. I asked what was up and he said that as he was walking home from the bus stop, a strange person was skipping down the street wearing a dress and singing We’re Off to See the Wizard from The Wizard of Oz. Tom had quickly crossed the street to avoid any interaction with this deranged person, but when he got closer he realized who it was. “It was Harry!”, Tom huffed as he dramatically stormed off to his room. That episode of my sitcom could have won an Emmy!
This was the time in my life when I was finally ready to deal with the fact that I was gay and wanted to be more open about it. I joined a gay support group, made a few gay friends, and then became my own version of an “activist”. UC Irvine had a gay newspaper produced by students. It was called Outside, and featured a masthead of barbed wire and catchy headlines like, “Ten Reasons to Hate Heterosexuals.” I hated this paper, as did some of my other gay friends, feeling that it did nothing to reach out to people and only to create divisiveness. I decided to take on the paper as its new editor; I renamed it, The Phoenix, and the new masthead featured a beautiful bird rising from the flames. My politically moderate gay friends wrote articles and worked on the paper with me, and straight friends contributed articles too. My goal was to make the paper accessible to everyone and it worked. Though we did have to contend with vandals who ripped stacks of the paper out of the dispensers on campus and tossed them into dumpsters, local businesses like card shops, restaurants, and gay bars purchased advertising in the paper (a first for this student newspaper) and we had a successful two or three year run until I finally had to focus my attention on getting my dissertation finished.
Still, this was a difficult journey for me. One of the most memorable moments, perhaps in my entire life, happened when I joined a couple of new acquaintances and went to the “gay section” of Laguna Beach one weekend. I did not really have much in common with these new friends, but was trying to fit in. At one point the people I was with went to an adjacent blanket to chat with some of their friends, and I overheard one of them ask my companions, “What are you doing with that fat thing over there?” When my companions did not defend me, I got up and took a walk down the beach knowing that I would never feel like part of the “gay community” of Laguna. There was a breakwater down the beach a bit and on the other side there was a family oriented beach. I watched the couples and their kids for awhile and realized that I did not really feel that I belonged there either. I walked out onto the breakwater and sat at the end of it, the family beach on one side, the gay beach on the other, and felt as though I had a foot in each world, but belonged to neither. It was a feeling I would have many, many times during the rest of my tenure in California.
Overall, I liked southern California, but even in the early to mid-1980s I saw the writing on the wall regarding what was happening to the state. There was a beautiful drive I would take inland toward Saddleback Mountain. In the late autumn there was fall foliage, and in the spring and summer there were strawberry fields where I’d pick fresh berries. I’d return the next season to find a three-story office building where the berry field had been, and miles of open spaces replaced by new housing developments. It was sickening, and I kept thinking how all of the beautiful aspects of the state were slowly disappearing due to the constant development.
The city of Irvine and the campus of UC were also an interesting phenomenon. The city was a “planned community”, and some of the faculty in my program had even helped design it based on cutting edge research from the field of Environmental Psychology. But Irvine was a sterile place, where the color of your home, your roof, your shutters and your doors was all regulated. One of my professors who lived in faculty housing near campus lamented the fact that she’d actually put her housekey into the wrong door more than once because her cul-de-sac was indistinguishable from every other one. On the campus itself, a beautiful park with meandering trails was the centerpiece, encircled by the classroom and administrative buildings. However, given that students had a mere 10 minutes to go from one class to the next, they had no time for a leisurely and circuitous stroll through the park, so the lawns had been torn up by well-worn footpaths that went across the park in a beeline from one building to another. So much for understanding and anticipating human behavior!
As for the Social Ecology Program, I did not feel I was getting a good education there. Many of the faculty were big name researchers, but the reality was that many of them were horrible teachers or were too busy to even bother trying to teach, leaving most of their duties to be completed by graduate assistants. There was truly no mentorship from the faculty and no pressure for us to progress in the program. Some of my peers were referred to as “tenured graduate students” because they had languished in the program for 10+ years, longer than many of the faculty had been there, and had still not finished their degree. As it turned out, although I came in with a Master’s Degree already, I still spent 8.5 years trying to finish the Ph.D. I made up a parody of the Eagles’ song, Hotel California: “Welcome to the U. of California… such an ugly place, by the San Andreas…” And of course, the line, “You can check in any time you like… but you can never leave” didn’t even need to be changed.
Students in the program were extremely whiny, competitive and back-stabbing, and after all the time I spent there, I made only one true friend, Jonie, with whom I am still in contact. Worse yet, I actually had to “fire” my first faculty advisor. One day he asked me at least 50 questions concerning my research project and I was so excited by his uncharacteristic interest in what I was doing. The following day I saw him on the local TV news talking about MY research and not even mentioning my name.
I did have a lot of laughs with one of my professors. Dr. Elaine Vaughan was a young, very funny African American woman, originally from L.A. but she had lived in San Francisco for years prior to coming to Irvine. She took the bus or I gave her rides because she’d never learned to drive. She was also a strict vegan, and only shopped in health food stores for her groceries. We became good friends during my time at Irvine. She often had me in hysterics of laughter with her tales of being perhaps the only black woman for 20 square miles in ultra-white, 1980s Irvine. While waiting at bus stops, people would pull up in their BMWs and Mercedes and ask her if she needed a house cleaning job, their faces falling when she introduced herself as “Dr. Vaughan from the university.” One day she was on a tirade about political correctness, saying, and I quote, “I can’t even remember what I’m supposed to call myself this week. Ten years ago we were ‘colored people’. Now we want to be called ‘people of color’? What is the difference?! This has to stop!”
One day she told the story of going to her favorite health food store when a “Big old, Orange County woman with a beehive hairdo” approached her in the checkout line and asked her if she was familiar with Buckwheat. Placing her hand on her hip and throwing some attitude she asked, “What did you say to me?” She was ready to go off on a tirade and start a major race war, asking why she, in particular, should be familiar with the character Buckwheat from the old Little Rascals YV show. Suddenly she realized that the woman was asking if she’d ever cooked with buckwheat flour. “Matt, I think I’m getting overly sensitive living in this county!” she confided. And whenever I ‘d share some crazy news about what was going on in the gay community, she’d look at me, shake her head and exclaim, “Mmm, mmm, mmm. And you people REALLY think you’re gonna get rights?” Elaine would have been a great character for my sitcom; they probably would have offered her her own spinoff by Season 2.
Sadly, Elaine died of breast cancer before the age of 50. I miss her friendship and humor and would have loved to have been able to talk to her about all the senseless racial hatred and violence that’s happening today. I firmly believe we’d have been on the same page.
Against this backdrop of distractions, emotional growth, turmoil and some fun times, I was slowly plugging away at my dissertation project, which focused on how people living on some of California’s active earthquake faults see their risk from a major quake and whether we can find ways to increase their earthquake preparedness. I got to visit the San Andreas Fault several times while helping a professor do geological research there; we took core samples of ancient oak trees growing along the fault and were able to detect when major earthquakes had occurred in the past by studying the tree rings. The growth rings were noticeably thinner during years following major historical quakes due to broken roots and branches, and we could then extrapolate and count back to find older quake and study the intervals between them. It was fascinating!
I got hired to give disaster preparedness presentations at local businesses, and I got my first part-time teaching jobs at local colleges and at El Toro Marine Base, which brought in much needed money, but kept me further from the goal of finishing my dissertation. Meanwhile, I was awakened by the almost weekly minor earthquakes we were having in the mid-1980s in southern California. and would try to guess the epicenter and magnitude of them.
It was an exciting time for me, and in many ways, I did feel as if I was living the California Dream. But even better times were waiting just around the corner, as I left Irvine and moved first to Long Beach and then to San Francisco, and my love affair with the Golden State grew deeper. But I’ll save that for the next installment. Please stay tuned.