Wednesday, December 2, 2020

Two-Buck Chuck & The Marlboro Man by Frank Bergon

Source of book: Borrowed from the library


Two-Buck Chuck & The Marlboro Man first came to my attention when the author, Frank Bergon, was interviewed by our local NPR affiliate station. I found the interview fascinating and perceptive, so I put the book on the watch list, and ordered it when our library system got it in. 

I am not a native of the San Joaquin Valley - I was born and raised in the Los Angeles area. However, my family moved to Kern County in my mid teens, and I got involved in the local youth symphony. Eventually, in my last year of law school, I bought a home in Bakersfield, and have been a resident of the Valley for the last 22 years. To a large extent, this is my home, and there is a lot I love about it. 


That is why I am furious at Il Toupee for what he has done to my adopted hometown - and indeed to much of the San Joaquin Valley. This part of the world has been gloriously diverse for the better part of two centuries, with immigrants and their descendents from all around the globe. As part of the Spanish Empire, then Mexico until 1848. Many of the Mexicans stayed on after that, and took on the name of Californios. During the building of the Transcontinental Railroad, tens of thousands of Chinese came over to do the most difficult part of the work, which is why most places in California, from the big cities, to the Gold Rush ghost towns, have (or had) Chinatowns. But immigrants from other places were common back in the 1800s. Armenians, Italians, Croatians (yes, I just visited an old Croatian church and graveyard in the Gold Country), and Indians. As in, Sikhs from India. That’s right. My wife has an uncle who is the product of a marriage between a Sikh and a Mexican. They go way back in California, and immigration from India has only increased. During my morning run, I often wave at a turbaned neighbor out walking with his grandkids. 


The San Joaquin Valley is more diverse than ever. Two out of three residents are minorities, and of those, about two out of five are foreign born. We are ground zero for immigration, and have been for, well, 170 years. 


That’s why I am so pissed at Trump. While no place in the United States can claim to be free from racism - it is our national sin, after all - but California has been diverse throughout its history, and people like myself (and my kids even more) always grew up in a diverse setting. And, for the most part, we have lived in peace together. One of the three parts of this book examines the stories of a number of minorities who grew up with the author (the book is mostly about people he knows), and for the most part, they tell of integration, and a mostly good environment. Even 20 years ago, I don’t remember the level of acrimony being particularly high. It was once Obama was elected that I could see increasingly open racism, mostly as the result of the Tea Party and Fox News. Trump fanned those embers into a nasty conflagration, and people that I used to feel safe around now parade in their giant trucks with giant Trump flags, and “Fuck Your Feelings” bumper stickers. Farmers in many places have what can only be described as religious shrines to Trump on display. And that’s before you get to the Covid denialism and the harassment my wife and I have experienced as the result of mask wearing. It feels like white people in this town have gone bat-shit crazy. 


So, with that introduction, let me introduce the author. Frank Bergon is mostly known for his novels, but he decided to write a non-fiction book about the San Joaquin Valley and its inhabitants. Bergon was born in Nevada, to Basque parents, and was raised on a farm near Madera. (Basques are another old immigrant group - we have some fantastic Basque restaurants here.) Bergon personally knows most of the people he writes about, in many cases because he went to high school with them. Others are friends or employees of his friends. And, in one case, he meets a younger Korean American on a flight, who grew up in the Valley and asked that he include her story too. It is clear that Bergon loves the Valley, and has built a diverse network of relationships with its denizens. This book is therefore affectionate and gentle, even as Bergon understands the political challenges that have arisen. (The book was published in 2019, so Trump gets a few brief mentions.) 


From the start, Bergon displays his insider knowledge of California - and Valley - culture. Even such things as the fact that in rural California, you always wave at drivers you pass on back roads, whether you know them or not. But not just any wave. You flick your fingers upward on the left hand while keeping your palm on the steering wheel. That’s how it is done. (While I lived in LA, we traveled and camped and explored, so I know the back road thing since childhood.) Also, we call everything a “ranch” here. Never “farm.” It is a “cotton ranch” or “dairy ranch,” and don’t forget it. Feel free to chuckle, but it is true. 


It was also amusing to run across people in the book that I actually know professionally, from a grape grower who I called as a witness in a divorce case, to a long-time client who is quoted on a water rights issue.


The book is divided into three sections. The first is about farming, the second about minorities in the Valley, and the third is devoted to “Marlboro Country.” 


Bergon starts the book with a bang, looking at Fred Franzia, creator of Charles Shaw wines, aka “Two-Buck Chuck.” Anyone with a Trader Joe’s in their town knows about this, but the back story is not as well known.


First of all, yes, Fred is related to the Franzia wine brand. Franzia was originally founded by Fred’s ancestors, and he was prepared to take up the family business. Over his protest, his father and uncles sold out to Coca-Cola, causing a huge rift in the family. Fred took the opportunity he had, and launched what is now one of the biggest wine operations in the world.


There is a lot more to the story - Bergon grew up with Fred, so we get football stories and stuff too. Bergon makes the story fascinating. Like other go-getter sorts, Fred is controversial within the industry, and in the Valley. But he also has been an advocate for the Valley and its wine production. (If you see “California” without a more specific designation on your wine bottle, chances are it was grown here.)


One incident I did find fascinating - and illustrative of the complexity of politics in the Valley - was the address Fred gave at Cal State University Fresno in 2013 to a group of growers and congressional representatives. 


“The farmworker is a viable and important part of our being in the San Joaquin Valley,” he said. He called for reform to protect their rights and prevent them from “being on the dodge and acting like they’re some criminal element.” 


On another occasion, he told reporters:


“We benefit from their labor, they benefit from our jobs. Our laws should acknowledge and reflect this reality, not deny it.” He talked about earlier “ignorant discrimination and racism,” saying, “I’m sure many of you can realted to how other ethnic groups such as Italians, Irish, and Japanese were labeled as criminals and mafioso.” He went on, “Historically, the best results have come from providing more legal ways to enter the country.”


Franzia is spot on with this. Two decades ago, I thought, based on experience, that many in the Valley understood this too. Particularly the farming sorts. And then came Trump, and WTF??? It is just bizarre. 


To be fair, the most recent election saw several Valley counties flip blue, and even Kern (a GOP bastion for the last 40 years) come close. Demographics are changing, so there is hope for a better future. 


There is a chapter devoted to Sal Arriola, who is in charge of Franzia’s vineyards. Sal is also a Dreamer - he was brought to the United States as a child by undocumented parents. As a later chapter points out, Trump wants to deport people like Sal. (A far cry from the Reagan years, when the GOP legalized millions of undocumented immigrants. As Franzia said, acknowledging and reflecting reality.) I should also mention regarding this chapter that Franzia and Bronco Wine produce more than Charles Shaw. Another one is the Green Fin line of organic wines - which I am more likely to drink than Shaw. 


Another fascinating discussion in this section is the complexities of agricultural issues in the Valley. Farm workers make less on average than they did 40 years ago, but union efforts have been stagnant, largely because of the fact that most laborers are undocumented and do not want to get deported. But, this hasn’t given farmers the upper hand either, except perhaps for some of the big players like Paramount (owned by multi-billionaire Los Angeles investors, the Resnick family - that’s a whole other story here in Kern…) And even then, most of the profit - and cost - from food sales goes to processors, distributors, and sellers rather than to growers or laborers. That is one reason why one could raise farm worker wages significantly without adding that much to the cost of food. As one activist is quoted in the book as saying, “it is increasingly apparent they [processers, distributors, sellers] must share responsibility for the wages of those who produce food products.” 


Bergon also discusses the unique makeup of California farming. There are a lot of small family farms here - average farm size is 100 acres below the national average. And, while California (and the Valley) produce a lot of food for domestic consumption, California is both a Western state and a Pacific Rim state. Most of our exports go to Pacific Rim countries, which is one reason that the Trump trade wars, waged seemingly without a strategy or objective in mind, have caused great disruption here. 


I also want to recommend the somewhat chilling chapter on the future of water in the Valley. Because of inadequate regulations, we have mined (that’s the only word for it) far too much of our available groundwater - fossil water, so to speak - and this seriously jeopardizes the future of agriculture in an era of climate change. Once an aquifer is pumped, it collapses and cannot store future water. 


The chapters on Valley diversity were fascinating. The experiences differed, with some African-Americans finding the Valley to be quite racist, with others saying it wasn’t that bad. Bergon just lets the stories stand, but I think he also illuminates the way that family history affected perceptions. For Dr. Albert Wilburn, the Valley was a lot better than Texas, where he was born. He recalls his father telling him about the difference. 


“One of the things my father did after he got settled in Madera,” Albert said, “is he used to go to the courthouse park on Saturday afternoons and just sit in the park. That was his recreation. To go sit in the park after he’d worked all week. I asked him, ‘Why are you sitting in the park?’ and he responded, ‘Because I can.’”

He went on to tell Albert, “Nobody asks me to leave the park, and I can drink out of the water fountain when I get thirsty, and I can go to the bathroom when I want to.” 


Yeah, that’s a big deal. Growing up in California in the 1980s and 90s, I and others of my generation just assume that we all share public spaces, that we whites have no more or less a right to be at the park than non-whites - we all own the spaces. 


Nancy Turner Gray, in contrast, points out that back in the 1960s when she grew up, only white girls got on the cheerleading team, and all the teachers were white. She also felt that Albert (a few years ahead of her in school) got to be valedictorian because he was a sports hero - not that he hadn’t earned it, but that a non-sports hero minority wouldn’t get that chance, no matter how qualified. As I said, perceptions differ, and I think both are true. The Valley, with its Okie descendents and good ol’ boy networks can be pretty racist. But not, even in the Trump Era, in the same way as many parts of the South and Midwest. And, the sheer level of diversity means that, one way or another, we have to live together. (You can see the breakdown of the Valley demographics by race and age here.) 


A less positive chapter on the Valley’s diversity is the one on Native Americans. As of the arrival of Europeans in North America, California (the area that is now California, at least) had more Native Americans than any other state. And, believe it or not, we still do. However, the genocide in California was among the worst in the United States, with whole people and language groups exerminated completely, most native culture destroyed. And it was a developed culture. Last week, we spent time at Indian Grinding Rock State Historical Park, in the Gold Country, where the Miwok survivors still gather at a new roundhouse. The artifacts show trade networks throughout the Americas, and a culturally rich way of living. However, they stood in the way of land - and gold - that white conquerors wanted. In 1851, the governor of the new State of California announced “a war of extermination will continue to be waged between the races until the Indian race shall become extinct.” Truly, this is an appalling and sad truth of our history. Bergon pulls no punches, either with the history, or with the story of his Native American friend, writer Lewis Owens, who committed suicide in 2002. Regarding Owens, Bergon makes a perceptive observation. 


Louis knew the wound of shame that poverty in our culture can burn into a person’s heart - a felt knowledge that formed the baseline of both his great compassion and his unrest. 


Louis and Bergon used to talk at length about this, and Bergon quotes Louis throughout the chapter. Here is another good bit. 


He also experienced California as “a place of angry poverty, racism, and field labor that even at age nine I knew was too mean and hard.” He’d encountered California’s “vast meanness,” as he called it, firsthand, mainly as a child of poor fieldworkers, and found it “difficult to reconcile the plait of immense wealth and shameful poverty in California. The ambiguity of the words shameful poverty points two ways here: toward the shame of allowing such disparity in a society where people in million-dollar homes behind locked gates can drive their children in BMWs to exclusive schools past farmworkers’ shacks, and also toward the shame poor people feel because of a social code blaming fault for everything on the individual.


This is all too true. Our country is brutal to the impoverished, and not just in the physical sense. We attribute poverty to lack of moral character, just as we worship wealth as a sign of virtue. And it is so internalized that, even in “liberal” California, it is difficult to make legislative changes that would address the gross inequality. Also on the topic of our national tendencies, Bergon talks about the Okie culture that Owens grew up in, where toughness is considered a cardinal virtue. 


In American Exodus: The Dust Bowl Migration and Okie Culture, James N. Gregory devoted a section to “The Cult of Toughness,” showing how the values of toughness and courage, the ability to work and to fight, “to suffer from a bruise” without flinching or showing weakness reflected “a preoccupation with toughness that became one of the cornerstones of the Okie subculture.” In California, a prowess in fistfighting became a badge of group pride. At Depression-era migrant camps in Shafter, where Louis later lived as a child, up to five hundred people gathered to see boys of all ages and even girls in weekly boxing matches. 


Again, the influence of Trump is fascinating on this point. Trump clearly knows how to tap into this cultural worship of toughness (more likely to display itself in giant trucks than fistfights these days) - without actually being tough himself. Trump wouldn’t last one day at manual labor, let alone a fistfight. 


The final section is divided into two chapters. The final chapter is all about Darrell Winfield, the iconic “Marlboro Man,” who was an actual cowboy. Bergon was a lifelong friend of Winfield, and the loving portrait he paints of a man who seems like a really decent sort is arguably the best part of the book. That chapter stands on its own, and is an expert portrait of a certain kind of person, mostly faded from the scene these days, but exemplifying the best of the past, rather than its worst. I won’t even attempt to quote from it - just get the book and read it yourself. 


The penultimate chapter provides a contrast to the real Marlboro Man: the wannabe tough guys who mistake individualism for true strength, privilege for virtue, and, while they look the part, actually embody the polar opposite of the values of the “cowboy code.”


In fact, Ammon Bundy and his group of thugs. 


As Bergon points out, guys like Bundy are the true “welfare queens” these days, relying strongly on government handouts and insisting on the right to rape and pillage the land in a way that the original cowboys would have found appalling. Here are a few of the most telling passages - out of many more: 


The current call to get back to ranching, mining, and logging reflects the rough economic times and angry sense of neglect many feel in the rural West, but the return to old times isn’t going to happen, and not just because of regulations. 


Federal government subsidies enabled these Old West industries to thrive in the first place. Government-supported railroads in the nineteenth century created the Texas cattle drives, and the cowboys to run them. Mining and logging on public land with minimal taxes encouraged industries crucial to the development of the West. Now the economy has shifted. 


The militant leader in the cowboy hat, Ammon Bundy, wasn’t a buckaroo. He owned an Arizona maintenance-and-repair services for commercial fleets of diesel trucks. His father, Cliven Bundy, was the Nevada rancher who’d led a weeklong armed standoff against federal law officers over grazing rights. Fees on federal land are one-tenth market value, but for twenty years Bundy refused to pay them, amounting to $1 million, because he claimed the federal government had no right to the land where he ran his cattle without a permit. [Note: that’s four times as much as the amount owed by every other rancher in America combined.]


Lost in the dispute over ranchers and land rights is that Bundy is no representative cowboy or rancher. Ninety-nine percent of the 16,000 ranchers who graze cattle on public lands haven’t fallen more than two months behind on their payments...Nobel economist Paul Krugman wrote that Bundy initially “came across as a straight-talking Marlboro Man,” but rather than a rugged individualist he’s one of the “welfare queens of the purple sage.” 


[T]he true American cowboy isn’t the self-sufficient, independent, gunslinging loner so popular in American fiction and film. The cowboy code honors cooperation as well as individual toughness and self-reliance in daily tasks. Unlike [outlaw Claude] Dallas’s actions, the most valuable cowboy trait is good judgment, along with enjoyment of hard work, nonchalance about money, indifference to fame, reluctance to whine, and love of the physical world. Too often misunderstood and invoked to justify impulsive violence and overpraise toughness, the cowboy code actually honors comradeship in a world of dangerous work and marginal survival. Even in the Old West, communal values prevailed. The brigades of mountain men trapping from the San Joaquin River to the Rockies and early cowboys on trail drives in California or Texas depended on each other, the natural world they lived in, and the government of their country for protection and economic support. The true story of the American West is not of independence but of interdependence. 


That’s a pretty good way to end this post. The American West - indeed the San Joaquin Valley - has truly been about interdependence and cooperation, not radical individualism and social darwinism. The values that Bergon holds dear, and that he sees in the true soul of the Valley, are what I too have experienced in the past. As Bergon points out, the Valley has always had a foot in the past but one in the future, and always looking ahead. The future of the Valley won’t look exactly like its past, but if it is to succeed, it will be because it re-embraces the values of interdependence and cooperation - and diversity - that have served it well throughout its history. 


While this book will certainly appeal to current and former residents of the San Joaquin Valley, I believe it is good reading for everyone. (A few of my kids borrowed it on our trip.) Bergon has a keen eye for character and an abiding love for humanity that make even the more obscure stories compelling. 


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