Letter from California

An archive of the weekly "Letter from Calfornia", written by Jim McCarthy.

Monday, April 26, 2004

One of the very nicest guys to make it ultra-big in Hollywood is Ron Howard. You remember him, of course, as lovable carrot-top Opie Taylor and the Fonz’s nerdy friend Richie Cunningham. He’s gone on to become the director of gigantic movies like Cocoon, Apollo 13, and Academy Award Best Picture winner A Beautiful Mind. He’s a Preferred Customer with the money truck service. Everyone loves him, and he’s now a good family man with carrot-top kids of his own now. In a town where addle-brained crazies like Oliver Stone and Woody Harrelson can live like Roman Emperors, it’s heartwarming that Ron Howard is as big as any of them.
Ron Howard makes me think of Mayberry from the Andy Griffith Show. Even city slickers think about the slow, friendly rhythm of Mayberry and imagine themselves trading fresh baked pies for jars of peach preserves with their neighbors. The Main Street is picturesque and every shopkeeper is friendly, attentive, and good at what he or she does. Alas, Mayberry has vanished in America, but it’s still nice to think back to the way it was, even if today’s big-box, mega-store world can’t measure up. Ah, the memories!
Wait a minute. Let me think about those memories for a minute. I grew up in a town that should have been like Mayberry. I was a little kid just a couple years after Andy and crew signed off for good. I don’t remember Floyd the barber or Gomer the honest mechanic in my town. Instead, there seemed to be a small string of stores that sold low-quality, overpriced stuff that people didn’t want in places they didn’t want to go. Some people say that in past, the shopkeeper would bust his buttons to make sure you got your dollar’s worth and thank you for your business on the way out the door. I can’t say that didn’t happen sometimes, but it’s not how I remember it. I remember going to the Sears catalog center (where you ordered from the catalog and came back to pick it up in a few days) and ordering the same set of toy soldiers three or four times. I saved up my $11 and waited. Time and time again and they never showed up. No explanation. No one at Sears seemed to be busting any buttons to get me my little Army so I could wage whatever campaigns of conquest I had been planning. Just a long, inconvenient wait with no payoff at the end.
I also remember people in town practically throwing a parade in 1976 when Kmart opened in town.
So in a town far from Mayberry and much closer to Ron Howard’s real-life home, right here in Southern California, the citizens recently voted on whether or not to let Wal-Mart build one of its SuperCenters in their town. The town is Inglewood, and it likes to refer to itself as a “middle-class town,” but this is no Main Street USA at Disneyland. It’s a tough place, with a higher than average level of violence and unemployment.
Here are the basics of what happened. Wal-mart wanted to build a big store in Inglewood, but the city refused to issue the permits. In response, Wal-mart got enough signatures to put the question on the ballot, letting the citizens of Inglewood decide for themselves. After spending $1 million to support the measure, Wal-mart lost big, with more than 60% of voters voting against green-lighting the gigantic store.
Are you wondering why? Celebrity protester Jesse Jackson came to the town and said that Wal-mart represented racists coming to “destroy” Inglewood. I didn’t quite follow that one, but I don’t think many people follow Jackson anymore period so I don’t think that’s the reason. On top of that insanity, labor unions, like the Grocery workers, turned out in force because Wal-marts threaten their low-skilled, high-paying jobs. Instead of just saying that, of course, the unions talk about how Wal-mart will cause bad traffic, might cause pollution, and will, you guessed it, hurt Mom and Pop stores.
What I’ve always wondered, though, when I see the acres of cars parked in front of a California Wal-mart, is how someone managed to force all those headstrong Californians to go somewhere they don’t want to go. Were they hypnotized? Is there a mysterious high tech device that took remote control of their cars as they drove to Main Street to do their shopping in all those wonderful Mom and Pop stores?
Of course they didn’t. People shop at Wal-mart because they want to.
I’m sad to report that part of the reason that some Californians hate the idea of Wal-mart coming to their town so much is that down deep they don’t like imitating towns like Mayberry. Californians expect people to want to imitate us, but it’s not comfortable the other way around. It’s much easier to pretend we’re fighting for the hard-working little guy who’s doing business the good, old-fashioned way, like they did in an earlier time.
Even if in truth they only did business that way on TV.


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