Plus ça change



The team at the Anderson Valley Advertiser dug up this little excerpt from Kenneth Rexroth's An Autobiographical Novel and reprinted it in last week's issue.

This would have taken place sometime in the 1920s.

At last we came to the California border and the first day into the state we took a detour away from the coast onto the highway. We got a ride from a traveling salesman and stopped for lunch at a roadside restaurant above a river mouth, possibly the Klamath. We weren't hungry so we each had a piece of apple pie and a cup of coffee. The salesman wanted to treat us but I insisted on paying for it. When I went up to the case register the proprietor said, "Three dollars." I thought he was kidding. "Thirty cents?" I said. "You mean sixty cents, don't you? We had two pieces of pie and two cups of coffee." "No," he said. "I don't mean thirty cents. I mean three dollars. A dollar apiece for the pie and fifty cents for the coffee." "Go on," I said, "stop kidding. How much is it?" I stood there with my wallet in my hand, putting on my heavy pack and slightly off balance. "Listen, you son of a bitch," he said. "We don't want bastards like you in this country." He came around the counter and hit me full in the mouth and knocked me down. As I went down I kicked him in the nuts and as he fell backwards Andree hit him over the head with a bottle of ketchup. The salesman grabbed us, threw us into the car, and tore off down the road. At the first gas station we asked where we could find a sheriff. "Down the road half a mile, the first house on the left." He was sitting on the porch, muddy logger's boots up on the railing, reading a newspaper and spitting tobacco, a star pinned to his greasy vest. We went up and made a complaint. He didn't even take down his feet, but drew a pistol and said to the salesman, "Get off down the highway and get those sons of bitches out of the country or I'll lock you all up." We had arrived in California.

Episodes like this were the common thing in the northern three counties of California in those days, and now anybody conspicuously foreign finds it almost impossible to get service or accomodations. No colored person of any race is served at all. No Negro, Chinese, Japanese or Filipino is allowed to settle in the country. I don't know what happens to them nowadays if they try. Thirty years ago they never tried, or if they did they simply vanished. In Crescent City and Eureka we met the same kind of hostility, although not so extreme. However we found it almost impossible to camp out. We would stop on the beach with no habitation in sight, build a fire, and in a few minutes up would come somebody on a horse and drive us off with a gun. For the next couple of days we lived largely on cold food out of grocery stores. I have been all over the Southern mountains, northern Maine, and French Canada, regions where outlanders are traditionally not welcome, but I have never met anyone like the malignant native sons of far northern California.


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