It's a brisk morning and the sky is gray-white and overcast. I'm staying at the River Inn in Monte Rio, a small, sleepy town along the Russian River, enjoying a brief vacation between semesters in graduate school. The River Inn, nestled among dark-green trees, is a comfortable ochre European-style house, with a dining room heated by a potbelly iron stove and wide windows facing out onto the river, and small, unheated bedrooms on the second floor. I'm sitting in one of the armchairs in the living room, while Ezekiel, one of the genial owners, builds a fire in the stone fireplace.
The river is moving slowly. At twilight a blue smoke haze hovers over a bend where the river winds into a cave of redwoods and firs; the glittering reflection of lights on the surface is lovely.
This morning we had a breakfast of sour-cream waffles, coffee and orange juice. I feel content.
Evening. For dinner we had chicken tostada--a bland adaptation of the authentic, but the white wine was good. G. and I went for a short walk in the woods and talked with Howard, a lean, bearded dilettante who teaches science in one of the local elementary schools. He affects a weary disdain, a cigarette and a bottle of Heineken his props. G. told me later that he was criticizing teachers who had been hired under affirmative action and confessed to having been a "scab" during the Third World student strike at San Francisco State. We will give him the silent treatment the rest of our holiday.
Outside on the porch I sketch the river-view with colored pencils, a rather dull scene. When I show it to G., she says the sketch is "Cezanne-like." I think not. It's wonderful, though, not to be required to do anything, critique composition textbooks, study physics or write correspondence--simply to sit before the glowing fire and read The World of Apples, by John Cheever, stories of exurban disquiet. But having heard some locals express redneck attitudes, I stay on the alert. There are few places in this country where people of color can feel at ease.
(From Robert Altman's film, "McCabe and Mrs. Miller")
Yesterday we went into Guerneville and had lunch at a crowded restaurant whose walls were ornamented with saws and other lumberjack paraphernalia. As soon as we sat down a white couple at a nearby table loudly remarked that the "Chinese always use fresh vegetables." By the time the waitress brought our turkey sandwiches and soup I had assumed a combative stance: back hunched, elbows firm on the table, mouth sealed and stomach churning complaints. We got through the meal all right, but my mood had changed.
I've seen a handful of blacks and Latinos in Guerneville, but they seem profoundly isolated. It's as though people of color exist on the edges of territory, dim figures menacing the periphery of vision. What was it like for the Issei farmers who lived in these remote towns, the Chinese workers who built the Transcontinental Railroad, the Pilipinos who toiled in the fishing canneries? While I've enjoyed my vacation, I wouldn't want to live here all year around.
I'm reading Zero Hour by Ernesto Cardenal, an astonishing sequence of long poems by the poet-priest about the Sandinista Revolution.
Fog spilling over the heights. Tall somber redwoods summon the ghosts of the Old West. Seedy, bearded, dark-eyed men who lurk around town do nothing to dispel that image. There has been an influx of gay and lesbian people into the Russian River, which must create at best a clash of sensibilities. Probably homophobia has increased as more gay couples flock here to live and open businesses. These rural towns fear change that threatens their fragile sense of stability.
Underneath a steel bridge the river runs smooth and translucent over a large black rock that barely breaks the surface. Like whirlpools in paintings by Hiroshige, green water swirls in rivulets under the bridge. A couple of hardy souls fish on a half-moon sandbar.
On the underside of the concrete bridge supports are scrawled names of rock groups and this declaration: "God has declared this area a bird sanc . . ." Apparently the anonymous scribe never had time to complete the message. At times the messages we transmit to one another--even our knowledge of ourselves--is equally partial and incomplete. Aside from the dogs' cautionary barks the houses are unnaturally silent.
At dinner we overhear some guests remarking that they "dislike Oriental women." I drink my glass of wine and determinedly set upon my lime chicken. Except for outright racists many whites prefer to talk around the "problem of colored folks" as though we were some dark, nagging impediment their minds must somehow circumvent if they're to experience psychic innocence. When a person of color enters their field of vision something is flicked on neurally in their brains that opens the floodgates to release the abundant mass of misinformation freely at hand in this culture. No matter how often it happens it's always an astonishing phenomenon to witness.
The sidelong looks, the openly hostile stares, the way shopkeepers in Guerneville direct their questions at G., who is Anglo, the resolute refusal to acknowledge one's existence--this all comes with the territory. Ellison's invisibility remains in force.
It's no surprise to find racism pervasive and well in America. But the fact that so many think it's acceptable to express such attitudes signals how the buried fear and hatred of people of color has surfaced again with a vengeance. Probably nothing less than a massive educational program on unlearning racism would be necessary in the media and the schools to eradicate such destructive attitudes. But given the priorities in our institutions how likely is that to occur?
Traveling by bus from the still, motionless town of Monte Rio out of the redwood shadows into the city of Santa Rosa, through the tawny wine country, the apple orchards and the featureless towns, into Marin County and at last back to San Francisco. At the Civic Center Station we haul our backpacks onto the N-Judah streetcar. I felt as if I had been a time traveller, spiralling forward toward a "civilized consciousness."
This is another sort of deception.
(This piece was originally published in The San Francisco Bay Guardian during Reagan's ascendancy in the early Eighties).