Monday, November 27, 2006

Worst Place in the World

Let me tell you something about where my sister lives.

Lancaster, California, the largest city in the Antelope Valley, lies some 80 miles Northeast of Los Angeles. It has an approximate population of 138,000. Assuming that 50% of that population is male, and that 50% of that is under 18, that leaves around 35,000 guys who are as likely as not to bust a pool cue over your head during an argument about drugs. At any given time, only 25,000 or so are available to do this, as the rest of them are in either in jail or busily working in their secluded methamphetamine labs somewhere out on the desert.

Driving into the Antelope Valley is like slowly dipping into a sensory deprivation tank. From the north, you head East out of Bakersfield on Highway 58, passing over the Tehachapi Mountains and then descending into the desert at Mojave. In front of you is endless shades of brown, broken up occasionally by dilapidated trailers and ATVs.

Highway 58 is wracked by strong winds, made all the more treacherous as you are passed, tailgated or slowed down by legions of gigantic RVs towing dirt bikes and even more ATVs. Somewhere out beyond Lancaster is a desert playground. Huge vehicles full of equally huge goateed white men are in a rush to get there, where they can ride their sanctioned off-road vehicles and sit in lawn chairs under awnings that silently scroll back into the inner workings of their gigantic RVs when the sun goes down.

78.3% of all Lancaster residents age 25 or over have a high school education. 15.8% have a bachelors degree or better. 11.2% are unemployed. For 2004, the crime index was 438.9, well above the national average of 327.2. By contrast, Newark, New Jersey had a 2004 crime index of 590.0, while Boise, Idaho, had one of 286.3.

The city of Springboro, Ohio, prior residence of my sister and her family, had a 2004 overall rate of 106.3.

There are problems with youth crime in Lancaster. Some theorize that the problems arise from the simple fact that, as more and more families flee the Los Angeles basin in search of affordable housing, children and teenagers are simply unsupervised for enormous chunks of time. As their parents commute the 160 mile round-trip into L.A., the kids are free to pursue whatever interests they have, legal or not.

There are problems with corruption in Lancaster, as there are anywhere. An epidemic of government-issued housing voucher abuses is driving up housing costs. Section 8 vouchers are bought and sold as currency, in opposition to their indended use, strictly for housing.

There is a minor league baseball team in Lancaster, the JetHawks, affiliated with the Boston Red Sox. They play at Clear Channel Stadium just off of highway 14. During the off-season, the stadium parking lot is sometimes used for firefighter training and practice. The team name is a reference to the area's proud history of aerospace accomplishments and advancements, both in the private sector and at nearby Edwards Air Force Base.

Edwards Air Force Base is where the U.S. Air Force sends its best Rocket Scientists to learn how to fly experimental aircraft, whether they want to go there or not. The U.S. space program was born at Edwards (then Muroc) Air Force Base, and the legendary Chuck Yeager became the first human to fly faster than the speed of sound there, on October 14, 1947.

My sister, Noodles Mom, has spent several of the best years of her life at Edwards Air Force Base, twenty-eight miles from the nearest town. This town is not Lancaster, but Rosamond, a place in which the feeling of anger in the air is strong enough to be obvious even to strangers passing through town.

Life on Edwards Air Force Base barely resembles the world just outside its gates. Inside the base, crime is mostly non-existent. Homes have grassy lawns, unlike the rest of the Antelope Valley, which is strewn with rocks, tumbleweed and Joshua Trees. Children ride their bikes to school and walk around unchaperoned. For Noodles Mom, a trip to one of the three mercantile centers on base (the Commisary, the BX or the "Shopette") is not complete unless she sees at least a half-dozen acquaintences or friends. It is, she sometimes says, "Like living in the 1950s."

Across the street from Clear Channel Stadium is a large movie theater complex, the Cinemark 22. Like many similar complexes across America, it has multiple screens, a few large concessions areas, and an enormous parking lot. Inside the theaters, the seats are steeply tiered, so that each one has an unobstructed view, whatever the height of the person sitting directly in front of you. The seats are large and well-padded, to provide, if not an optimum movie experience, then at least as pleasant of one as possible.

Last Saturday, somewhere on the floor of theater 10 in the Cinemark 22 complex, one of Lancaster's 134,000 residents found my wallet. And for whatever reason, perhaps because instead of teaching them values and ethic their parents were commuting into L.A., or perhaps the $11 they spent to see "Happy Feet" was the last $11 they had, forcing them into criminal acts to feed themselves, that someone took my wallet and, instead of turning it into the theater's lost and found, decided that I'd donated to them for their use.

Or maybe freaking Stater Brothers was just having a good sale, and finding some loser's wallet on the floor of the Cinemark 10 was just the kind of break they'd been looking for. Maybe the big group of kids sitting behind us saw me drop my wallet on the ground, then waited for the movie to end to see if I'd be stupid enough to leave it there. Maybe one of them thought, "We should turn that thing in. What a hassle it will be for that guy, you know, the one who was sitting there holding his little kid's hand during the movie? Maybe the benefits we might get from taking that wallet are outweighed by the pain he'll feel by its absence. Maybe we have a responsibility, as citizens of the world, nay, Lancaster, to do something good instead of doing something obvious and selfish."

And to that, his friends said, "Nah."

So they took my wallet, saw that it had no money, shrugged, looked at the pictures of the Jawa and maybe said to them, "Your dad's a chump. He's going to buy us some new things now," and went on over to Stater Brothers. On foot, of course, because they are poor enough to need my credit cards, and therefore must have no car, and there are few buses in Lancaster, and if they are, they are too dangerous to ride.

So to Stater Brothers they went, after waiting a day to see if I'd cancel my cards and then trying them out at a local Chevron (see, if you spend a little at first, you can see if any bells go off or anything, then just sort of shrug it off, no harm, no foul). They went gleefully up and down the aisles at Stater Brothers, which is sort of a low-class Southern California version of Safeway, buying up enough food to last a month, or maybe just a bunch of liquor.

I had been wondering how on earth you can manage to spend $430.82 at Stater Brothers on just food. I'd at first just assumed they'd bought a bunch of meat, and of course as a good San Franciscan, had felt a pang of sadness when I saw that the first place they went was Stater Brothers.

"How sad," I'd said to myself, full of paternal white liberal guilt. "They wanted only to feed themselves. They probably bought enough food for the entire extended family to eat for a month."

Whatever. That image quickly passed when I sat down at our kitchen table and began the arduous process of stopping and undoing whatever damage the thieves had already done.

Fortunately (so far), I got there early. The only charge was Stater Brothers. They hadn't yet figured out to use my ATM. I have cancelled the remaining credit cards and alerted the credit bureaus. Now I have to go to the social security office, because they got my social security card, too. Probably the first time any of them have ever seen one of those, so it should take them some time to figure out its value.

In 15 months, the Rocket Scientist, as planned, will retire from the Air Force, freeing his family from the pox that is the Antelope Valley. In the past, I have been very vocal about my dislike for Lancaster, my general creeped-outedness toward Edwards Air Force Base and the raw deal I think my sister's family has gotten by being forced to live there. Recently, I decided I would try to stay silent about this, as I figured my sister knows how awful the place is and any reinforcement of that by me would just be piling on.

But now it's personal.

My parents have made it very clear that they think I feel the greater Phoenix, Arizona metropolitan area is the worst place on earth. That I feel this offends them, as it is where they live, but after a lifetime of bad-mouthing Phoenix, dismissing it as some kind of beachless, over-cooked Orange County knockoff, never once suspecting that half of my family would eventually live there, I have been unable to muster up the diplomacy and political savvy to at least pretend that I was kidding.

But they are wrong, for it is now confirmed in my mind that Lancaster, California is the worst place on earth. For in Lancaster, California, when you drop your wallet, 48 hours later you find that you have spent $430.82 at Stater Brothers, a store which, I might add, I have been to only once in my life, and that time only because I was having a sleepover at Dave Money's house and his mom had to stop at Stater Brothers to pick up a few things for dinner.

This is the last time I will speak of this matter. The cities of Lancaster, Palmdale, Mojave, Rosamond and even picturesque Tehachapi can carry on without having to absorb my periodic bile -- literally, the cities did, indeed, absorb my bile on this last trip -- one day becoming an exit off the freeway to point and stare at while driving to Las Vegas.

And as for you, you wallet-stealing low-life criminals, I hope you enjoy that pantry full of food, because it's on me. Buy all the baking soda and nasal inhalers you need and chalk it up to start-up costs. After all, nothing tops off an animated Robin Williams feature like lifting some chump's wallet and going on a spending spree.


Anonymous Zin Gal said...

How do you really feel?
How do you really feel?

In all fairness to Lancaster, and I am sure it doesn't deserve it. I am pretty sure if you had dropped your wallet anywhere else, say for example, at the Century 20 here, it would still also be missing.

Last year I had someone charge $400.00 at a 7/11 in Cupertino on my card. They don't sell meat, but they do sell alcohol.

3:05 PM  
Anonymous Noodle's Mom said...

All these years I've told you what a hell hole this place is, but it took criminal activity to really bring the point home. The most pathetic part about it is they went to Stater Brothers, and not the upscale Vons (complete with Starbucks) just a few miles up the road...oh, wait, the Vons was held up by two guys with automatic weapons last maybe they were just being cautious.

3:12 PM  
Anonymous flush puppy said...

Time to move past the kate spade bags as a reward for living in such a place. I'm thinking international - Paris, for example. Or Tuscany.

4:46 PM  
Anonymous Noodle's Mom said...

Flush Puppy at this point I'm not sure there is a reward big enough to compensate for living here.

3:02 PM  
Anonymous flush puppy said...

Frankly, it doesn't sound like any kind of training base at all. It sounds like a giant sick social experiment. I thought rocket scientists were smarter than that. This one must be very special to warrant such a sacrifice. I hope the next 15 months are the fastest of your life.

4:44 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I lived in the Antelope Valley from 1973 to 1999 because I was stationed at Edwards AFB from '73 thru '88. In the 'early' days, Lancaster and Palmdale were wonderful places ... small, safe normal ... except for the harsh environment. Once the "LosAngelinos" started moving in, it became nothing more than a dumping ground for the worst of LA's sick society that can't afford to live in that cesspool called LA. I recently had to go back to sell the last item I owned in Mojave and was SHOCKED! to see the changes...the negativity of your article IS - therefore - appropriate. If the Antelope Valley isn't the anus of California, you can surely SEE it from there. I'm glad I'm gone.


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