I’ve always loved California, and I still do. California-ism is matrilineal, inherited from my late mother, who was born in Oakland about a century ago. A friend of mine calls San Diego “Los Angeles for old people,” which seems harsh. There’s plenty of action here. The day I arrived, Mexican drug authorities raided a half-finished Tijuana-to-San Diego smuggling tunnel. The Drug Enforcement Administration has its own San Diego Tunnel Task Force.
“Narcos” season four fodder, to be sure.
I’ve visited California three times during the coronavirus pandemic. I just can’t stay away. It reminds me of Boston’s legendary honky-tonk Scollay Square (think Government Center, before being neutered), a place where there was “always something doing.”
When I flew to Los Angeles in February to start a cross-country drive, coronavirus cases had started to decline from a frightening January peak. Early in the year, California was rivaling New York state for the most COVID-19 deaths, with both totals over 40,000. I cowered in my hotel room for 18 hours, then sped my rental car due east, anxious to avoid real contact with L.A.
Now coronavirus is close to being an afterthought in Southern California. Los Angeles County officials are talking about reaching “herd immunity,” with 80 percent of residents 16 and older inoculated by mid-summer. That’s quite a turnaround, and the state’s improving public health numbers may be reversing the decline in the fortunes of Gavin Newsom, California’s embattled governor. Newsom, a handsome fella with a history of questionable judgment — e.g., he was once married to Kimberly Guilfoyle, the former Fox News television “personality” and Donald Trump Jr. consort — is facing a historic recall vote in the fall.
The state’s only previous successful gubernatorial recall broomed Democratic governor Gray Davis and then gifted Californians with the “Governator,” Hollywood action hero Arnold Schwarzenegger. “Ahnold” is now savoring a star turn as the Golden State’s “elderly statesman,” as he called himself in a recent New York Times interview.
Former Olympic athlete, trans celebrity, and quondam Kardashian family member Caitlyn Jenner is hoping to pull a Schwarzenegger and leverage her tabloid fame into the Sacramento governor’s mansion. The no-primary, multi-candidate recall ballot favors a candidate with statewide visibility, but Jenner’s month-old campaign already shows signs of faltering. The Kardashian endorsement (“there’s no beef,” says former stepdaughter Khloe) seems tepid, and Jenner’s build-the-wall, no-new-taxes, latter-day Trumpism isn’t polling particularly well.
Not that California isn’t lower-case-c Catholic where candidates are concerned. Successful politicians here include a senator “who can really tap his toes” (Tom Lehrer’s epithet for song-and-dance man George Murphy), “Bedtime for Bonzo” costar Ronald Reagan, and the wrong half of the singing duo Sonny and Cher.
Newsom wasn’t born yesterday, and seems eager to spread pre-electoral baksheesh from San Diego to the Oregon border. This week, sitting atop a $75 billion budget surplus, he announced an $8 billion round of cash stimulus payments, as well as $5 billion in rental assistance. Santa’s gift bag included $12 billion to fight homelessness and billions more for early childhood education.
Even the Kardashians can’t match that.
The most jarring news of the month was the state’s first reported population decline in at least 100 years. Explanations abound: Rampant wildfires, high taxes and housing costs, and dense homeless compounds in the major cities have all eroded the perceived quality of life. Demographically, immigration has declined, the state has a low birth rate, and the coronavirus deaths were statistically significant.
I’ve chosen to live someplace else, but I know I will keep coming back.
Alex Beam’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @imalexbeamyrnot.