Smells Like Jobs
Issue #17, November 1994
Geography made me what I am today.
I was fourteen years old during the Summer of Love, and I lived about thirty-five miles from San Francisco. I listened to the emerging hippie counterculture on something called the FM dial, where 'underground radio' was being born before my ears. My geographical proximity to San Francisco allowed me to experience this new phenomenon without leaving my house. Which was just as well, since when I left my house and entered the world of my hometown, Antioch, I couldn't have been further from the Summer of Love, Antioch's geographical proximity to San Francisco notwithstanding.
Antioch was at that time a mostly blue-collar town of around 15,000. My father's parents had moved to Antioch from Spain in the late 1910s; my father was born and raised in Antioch; when my mother was pregnant with me, the family moved into a new tract home in Antioch, where I was born and raised along with two brothers and two sisters. There were many factories in Antioch and the surrounding towns: paper mills, power plants, canneries, chemical factories, steel mills, makers of glass containers and tin cans. The air often smelled awful, thanks usually to the paper mill (I never understood why paper smelled bad) and the cannery (everyone understood about the cannery, which stunk whenever they canned tomatoes). The general opinion of the stench was simple: it smelled like jobs, and no one really objected, despite the obligatory complaining when the town reeked of rotten ketchup.
My father was a white-collar worker. After trying his hand at various enterprises he had finally found some success as a real-estate agent, working hard in his own business, becoming probably the second-largest realtor in town. We were only thirty-five miles from San Francisco; my mother, who grew up in Berkeley, I suspect had occasional visions of a life beyond Antioch; both of my parents were excellent bridge players. And so they spent many a weekend in San Francisco, staying in nice hotels, playing and sometimes winning bridge tournaments. Over the years I've had many opportunities to talk with my parents' peers about those years, and a congenial envy always enters into the reminiscing. To someone living in Antioch, my parents' lives had a touch of glamour. Nothing exciting ever happened in Antioch; our most famous residents were football Hall-of-Famer Gino Marchetti and the Mitchell Brothers, purveyors of porn. At least my parents got to visit San Francisco.
I was raised a good suburban white boy, interesting in itself since Antioch was far from suburban in those days (it has since fallen victim to suburban sprawl, simultaneously losing many of its factories and gaining tens of thousands of white-collar suburban residents). It was all geographic, of course, with various elements of the landscape conspiring to isolate Antioch from the big city. San Francisco Bay separated The City itself from the East Bay cities of Oakland and Berkeley, which had their own urban character, connected to San Francisco and yet unique. The Berkeley Hills separated these urban environments from the suburbs proper. To get to these suburbs, you drove through the Caldicott Tunnel; you could mark the relative affluence of a community on this side by simply noting how far it was from the tunnel. The richest places were the closest, and every resident of East Contra Costa County clearly understood this. People from Moraga and Orinda were richer than people from Lafayette, who were richer than the people in Walnut Creek, who were better-off than the residents of Concord. Concord was very low-rent compared to Moraga; it existed at the margins of suburbia. Then came more hills, geography once again intruding. If you were on the wrong side of those hills, you weren't suburban, no matter how close you were to San Francisco. You were blue-collar. Closer to the hills, in Pittsburg and Antioch, you lived in a mill town. Farther away from the hills, in Oakley and Brentwood and Knightsen, you lived in a rural town. Wherever you lived on the wrong side of the hills, you knew you were not suburban, which didn't stop many families from trying their best to be suburban anyway. If your father was a successful realtor and you had a newfangled FM radio, you could pretend that you had somehow risen above your station, but the smell of jobs always worked as a corrective.
More geography: attached to Pittsburg, between that town and the Naval Weapons Station in Concord, was a little place called West Pittsburg. Whatever bad might have been said about Pittsburg, you always assumed it wasn't as bad as West Pittsburg. West in this case meant Worst, Worst meaning lower-class. West Pittsburg was not immune to the spread of suburbia, though, and one morning its new residents woke up and realized when they told locals that they lived in West Pittsburg, those locals assumed the Worst. And so the town changed its name; next time you're in the area, don't forget to check out Bay Point, where the Worst hides behind the Point.
Still more geography: Pittsburg and Antioch were adjacent to each other, with a hazily-defined no man's land between. Teenagers marked this quasi-neutral zone by Hazel's Drive-In, where kids from Antioch could get a burger and maybe meet up with some of the enemies from Pittsburg. (Hazel's was on a long road called the Pittsburg-Antioch Highway, the dumpiest highway I've ever seen.) Pittsburg had a few more people than Antioch in those days, and since factory work ranked higher on the upward-mobility scale than farm labor, and since Pittsburg was almost entirely factory-oriented while Antioch was in the middle of the factories and the farms, Pittsburg was also a bit more prestigious than Antioch, although in reality those two ranges of hills separating us from San Francisco effectively eliminated any chance in those days of true prestige. (Thirty years later, the needs of suburban sprawl have finally broken down these barriers, of course.) In any event, there was little to distinguish the two small towns from each other in the 1960s, with the exception of one factor which again had a kind of geographical locus, in that it helped establish beyond a shadow of a doubt exactly where was the border between the two: there were no black people in Antioch.
Geography is everything and nothing. Antioch was less than an hour's drive from liberal, diverse cities like San Francisco, Oakland and Berkeley, yet we were as segregated as Selma, Alabama. More segregated, in fact, or rather, we weren't segregated at all; there was no need for a separate but equal rule in Antioch, because there were no black people to keep separate. Black people lived in Pittsburg, but not a single one lived in Antioch. The radio again: Pittsburg had a radio station, and late at night I could listen to broadcasts emanating from only half a dozen miles away, presenting a culture I could never hope to participate in. Pittsburg was on the chitlin circuit, and I would hear advertisements for James Brown and His Famous Flames or Little Junior Parker. The Hardest Working Man In Show Business would perform a stone's throw from my own house, and I knew I couldn't, wouldn't go, and not just because I was only twelve years old. It was simply a different world.
Antioch had Mexicans; they were 'our' minority. But we had no black people. My parents were very concerned about this, and I owe them an unpayable debt for their efforts to raise a family that wasn't inflamed with prejudice. We had black housekeepers, which wasn't that odd. Most white families in Antioch would hire a black housekeeper if they had the money. (We did, presumably because my father was a successful realtor. Eventually he was arrested for real-estate fraud and we learned where the money had come from all those years. We also lost the housekeepers.) But we also had black babysitters, and that was odd. You didn't let those people care for your children, after all. And our church had a black family as members, and they became good friends with my family, and they came to our house, and this all seems pitifully inadequate now, but at the time, it was important and necessary, and for the most part my parents did not act out of simple guilt. They lived without grandstanding (the positive morals we learned from this were interestingly contrasted to the ethics we pondered when our father went to jail).
We had no blacks, but we had Mexicans. My own place in this world was problematic, however, because while I wasn't Mexican, and while I was being raised 'white,' I was in fact half-Spanish. The meaning of being Spanish mostly eluded me as I grew up. My mother was in many ways a typical middle-class housewife of her era, and my father was most certainly traditional-minded about how a home was managed, and so it was my mother who composed and cooked the meals, and my mother was far from Spanish. She was an adventurous cook, and we ate everything from Chinese to Mexican to Italian, but we never ate Spanish food unless my grandmother sent some over. My father never spoke Spanish in the home, so there was no way to identify our heritage with the language. Outside of my grandmother's thick accent when she spoke English, and the occasional batch of Spanish rice she would cook for us, I lived the life of a whiteboy, albeit a whiteboy with 'yellow' skin (I hadn't learned the meaning of the phrase 'olive-skinned' and so spent years of my childhood comparing my color to that of the white and Mexican kids and concluding I had a life-long case of jaundice).
Except, again, there was a geographical angle. My grandmother lived in the same house her husband had built for her when they came to Antioch in the 1910s, the same house my father and all of his brothers and sisters were born in. This house was in the 'old' section of Antioch, and it was the oddest thing: while there were times when I thought the only Spanish people in the world were the Rubio family and perhaps a few flamenco artists who showed up on the Ed Sullivan Show, when I would visit my grandmother I couldn't help noticing that her next-door neighbor, and the old folks just around the corner, and maybe three-fourths of all the older people in a two-block radius around my grandmother's house, all of these people were Spanish. There was, in this lily-white town which used Chicanos for their local color, a tiny enclave of Spanish expatriots who watched the Spanish-language television station and hung velvet paintings of bullfighters on their walls. These people all looked like my grandmother, they all talked like my grandmother ... although it wasn't nearly as obvious as the invisible geographic marker separating white Antioch from the mixture that was Pittsburg, nonetheless the geographic lines were there. Antioch had a 'Little Spain!'
I never identified with that Little Spain. I wasn't embarrassed by my Spanish heritage, although I can't take much credit for this attitude. I don't think it occurred to me that other families didn't have grandmothers who spoke with accents. But I never really associated myself with the Spanish part of me. Not that I didn't absorb things subconsciously. In an introductory Spanish class I took at Berkeley when I was in my thirties, my teacher told me early in the semester that my family was from Andalusia, an accurate conclusion he came to because it turned out I spoke Spanish with an Andalusian accent, although my father never spoke the language in our home. Geography made me, indeed.
But I didn't identify myself as Spanish when I was growing up. I was from Antioch. This, more than my ethnic background, more than my father's occupation, more than anything else about me, was what identified me to the outside world. Geography made me who I was: someone from Antioch. And I was most definitely embarrassed by this. To be from Antioch was to be from nowhere. Even worse, to be from Antioch, in the context of the San Francisco Bay Area, was to be from the wrong side of the hills. In the Summer of Love, you could go to San Francisco and smell incense in the air; 35 miles away in Antioch, all we could smell was jobs. (And later, after I married, when I went to work in a local factory, I, too, began smelling like jobs.)
A year after I married my sweetheart from Antioch High School, we moved to Berkeley, where we have lived happily for the past twenty years, with the exception of a two-year period around 1980 when a few bad breaks brought us back to Antioch, where we lived in a newish suburban enclave and smelled what was left of the jobs. It was the worst two years of our marriage, and I can't help but think it was once again a matter of geography messing with my self-esteem: for 18 of the last 20 years, I have been proud to say 'I am from Berkeley,' but for two years, I had to admit I was from Antioch, and I couldn't bear the thought, and I ended up one night standing in the middle of the street in our calm suburban enclave, screaming and crying at nothing until my wife came to take me to the hospital.
A few years later, I visited Spain for the first time. I stood on the balcony of the hostel where we spent our first night. It was dark; I couldn't see anything. But I could smell the Mediterranean Sea. And though we were in Catalonia, on the opposite end of the country from Andalusia where the Rubios once lived, I loved that smell, it didn't smell at all of jobs, it smelled of Spain, and I felt like I had come home.
A month or so after we returned from our vacation in Spain, I quit my job at the factory and returned to school. Once in awhile, my wife will get a whiff of some cleanser, and she'll say 'that's what you used to smell like. When you came home from working in the factory, you smelled like hand-cleaner.' I smelled like jobs. I haven't smelled like a job in years.
When I visit Antioch now, I feel like a tourist. I don't recall, as I type, if it still smells like jobs. I used to be from Antioch. Now I am from Berkeley. This feels too easy, somehow, as if I could wipe all traces of Antioch from my existence by merely moving away. We are, ultimately, more than our geography, which isn't to negate all I have said in this essay: geography makes me part of what I am today, all of my geographies, past, present and future. But while my own life of necessity must be lived at a remove from my hometown, I must also give thanks to those who have remained in Antioch, not running from their pasts, but building on that past, creating a better future for the next generation.
Steven Rubio is a member of the Bad Subjects production team. His favorite soccer team is from Wales, his favorite soccer player is from Bulgaria, and Steven can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.