New person I meet: “Are you from around here?”
Me: “Yes, I am. I was born in Santa Rosa General Hospital, that little place west of the mall that’s now a shelter.”
That other person: “Wow, a real local. You must have seen a lot of changes around here.”
Me: “You have no idea.”
Why does being a local matter? I’m never sure, but I get asked it a lot, and I’ve been reflecting on it lately. My life in the 1950s and 1960s was very different than now, and I like now better.
In the old days in Sonoma County, we drove old pickups, maybe a Rambler wagon or a Galaxy that belched smoke any time you jammed on the gas pedal. Everyone knew how to change a spark plug, patch a tire and clean a carburetor. Now, I haven’t changed my own oil in my last three cars, and that doesn’t bother me a bit.
In the old days in Sonoma County, no one we knew had air conditioning. When our neighbor got a swamp cooler, it was a miracle of modern technology. I used to invite myself over and stand in front of the moist air exhaust until it chilled me and I had a sneezing fit. Now, I live in a house with two air conditioners and two air purifiers (hello, fire country), and I run the AC in my car just to marvel that a budget sedan can provide a blast of cool air on demand.
In the old days in Sonoma County, we never showered, unless it was by accident while we played with the hose. We had one bathtub in the house, and we never used it unless we were forced to by our elders. Now, I shower every day, gladly.
In the old days in Sonoma County, we always had a dirt driveway and a septic tank. The floors in our houses always had a collection of dirt, animal hair, spilled food and whatever the baby just spit up. Now, I rarely wear shoes in my house and I hunt down and Dyson-up every morsel of outdoors that tracks or blows in.
With no AC, dirty houses and few baths, we were filthy. We’d work or play outside all day, grime would settle on our sweaty skin, and pretty soon we were dirty little ragamuffins. My teachers would scuff me for my dirty neck and send me to the boys’ room to wash, while the kids who bathed every day snorted and giggled.
Every store was family-owned and everyone I knew shoplifted constantly. I tried pocketing a few trinkets, but I was lucky — I got caught. I gave up a life of petty crime when I realized that the price of getting caught was having to sweep out the back room of the store, or scrub floors or unload a truck.
Still, there was a foundation of trust in local commerce. You could buy almost anything on layaway, stopping by the store every week with your dollar or two, which the clerk would record in a little ledger and encourage you to keep coming back.
Sonoma County was so poor that urban renewal almost left us behind. If the 1969 quake hadn’t damaged a lot of downtown Santa Rosa buildings, we might still have the White House department store (my first elevator ride), the Roxy and California movie palaces (instead of that ridiculous mall), and the old hotels, where you could always find a guy loitering out front who would give you a cigarette.
Our smaller towns were passed by completely by urban renewal – many of the classic building facades and sleepy squares are still there because they weren’t worth demolishing.
Why is Sonoma County so great now, so precious? Why do people who have the means to live anywhere in the world clamor to live here?
It was partly an accident, and we locals aren’t responsible for visionary forethought or planning. We were just trying to live our lives.
Ray Holley is in the here and now. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org