In 1990, Mike Davis published what he refers to as a “difficult, Marxist treatment” of Los Angeles called City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles. The book, in which Davis redirected the conception of the city to its ongoing and bitter struggle between competing classes and interests, all but predicted the Los Angeles riots of 1992, which, when they erupted, catapulted Mike Davis to fame. What followed was the meteoric rise of Los Angeles’s sole public intellectual: a MacArthur Fellowship Award; a Getty Fellowship; and a sundry list of speaking invitations, op-ed pieces, and great teaching gigs.
Then came Davis’s second popular work, Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster, which provoked widespread controversy because of (1) some of the incredible things he suggests with his arsenal of facts on the hazardous landscape of Southern California and (2) some of the things his detractors suggest about his arsenal of facts on the hazardous landscape of Southern California—to wit, that they aren’t exactly true. The misdirected and almost entirely irrelevant public smear campaign against Davis, spearheaded by a Malibu real estate agent who (for obvious reasons) appointed himself as Davis’s personal van Helsing, only made more people read Davis’s books: Ecology of Fear became a Los Angeles Times bestseller, and City of Quartz got a second run on the list.
Davis’s most recent project, Under the Perfect Sun: The San Diego Tourists Never See, is an anthology of essays by various writers about San Diego, the city where Davis grew up and now lives. I visited Davis at his home there, eight days after his wife had given birth to fraternal twins: a boy, named James Conway after the executed leader of the 1916 Irish uprising, and a girl he called Cassandra, “because it was Cassandra who told the stories that the men didn’t want to know.” Davis made me lunch (hummus, olives, bread, salad, Gerolsteiner), and held a sleeping Cassandra during much of the conversation, which began briskly with Davis excitedly telling me about his new series of young adult mystery novels, the second of which, Pirates, Bats, and Dragons, is set in a place called Socotra.
I. “THOSE ARE THE ELEMENTS: THE CAVES, THE PIRATES, REAL WITCHES, AND THE LOST LIZARDS”
THE BELIEVER: Never heard of Socotra. Where is it?
MIKE DAVIS: Socotra is an island off the coast of Yemen. It is the Galapagos of the Indian Ocean. It’s full of totally unique flora and fauna. In the ancient world, it was the leading source of frankincense and myrrh. It also has a vast unexplored cave system, and Marco Polo called it the most bewitched place on earth. The inhabitants were originally Nestorian Christians, and before that they worshiped the moon. There were witchcraft trials as late as the seventies. And the people who live in its limestone plateaus and granite mountains speak an ancient south Arabic language.
BLVR: It must be fairly isolated.
MD: Yes. Socotra is cut off by the seas; five months out of the year, it’s unapproachable by boat. And the rest of the year the pirates keep you away. I have the Sailing Guide to the Indian Ocean, and it warns you never to go near Socotra.
BLVR: Is that so?
MD: Yes—it’s a notorious center of modern piracy. Only the Straits of Malacca are more dangerous. Ships disappear there often. So I’ve concocted a story set on this island. That’s the second of two novels. The first one, set in Greenland, came out last November.
BLVR: What made you decide to write these stories?
MD: My son lives in Dublin, and I see him several times a year. But I still miss him so much that I’ve turned to writing these books. I use him as a character, along with his half brother and my best friend’s daughter. I’ve made them into scientists.
BLVR: What’s the audience you’re aiming for with these books?
MD: Twelve-year-olds on up to middle-age eccentrics. Or nerds, basically. The idea is—and, you know, these things may be terrible reads and fail miserably—to concoct a fantasy that is scientifically accurate and precise in all the details, so that it’s all plausible. I wanted to focus on areas and cultures that deeply appeal to the child in myself, and hopefully other people. I’ve had this image of Socotra in my mind since I was seven or eight years old. It will be interesting to see if anyone reads these books, because they will have a fair amount of technical detail. I don’t know how large the audience of kids for that is.
BLVR: Sounds like something I would have gotten from Troll Book Orders. Does the story move like a mystery?
MD: The first book is called Land of the Mammoths, and it takes place in Greenland. The second book involves a suitcase bomb made by the Russians that is being smuggled on board a ship as bait by the CIA to try to catch bin Laden, or a super-terrorist of that type. The ship is overtaken by pirates from Socotra, who then have this bomb. The second one is more dramatic, and has more action. In that one my son is an anarchist, and he joins the Green Party, and there are elements of Irish Socialism in there. And they end up battling the CIA.
BLVR: No kidding. How so?
MD: It comes back, naturally, to the war against terrorism. There are these evil CIA guys, and they desperately want to make Socotra into a CIA listening post.
BVLR: Could be one there in reality. That’s probably not a bad idea for them.
MD: Well, I’m sure there have been a lot of Delta Force guys on Socotra in the past couple years. Actually, during the Cold War, the CIA believed that there was a huge Soviet underground base on Socotra, which turned out to be false. So, those are the elements: the caves, the pirates, real witches, and the lost lizards—Socotra is also famous for having these giant lizards, which one of the young scientists argues are in fact salamanders.
BLVR: I love salamanders.
MD: These would be big ones.
BLVR: Does Socotra have a climate more moist than Yemen, then? Is that what enabled the frankincense cultivation?
MD: Socotra’s more directly in the path of the monsoon. It gets torrential rain in the highlands. And Socotra’s been central in the minds of every empire, all of which believed it was important to occupy the island. But nobody really lasted there more than a few years. But the final empire may be arriving: ecotourism. Socotra’s a striking place: high plateaus, out of which come bursting these ragged granite peaks. And its splendid isolation is about to be destroyed. They’re just gearing up to open the island to ecotourism. Part of the novel, actually, entails the kids teaming up with the locals to figure out a way to deal with the arrival of so many people.
BLVR: Have you been there?
MD: No. I did go to Greenland, where the first novel is set. I used some of the MacArthur money to take my son there. And that’s more like traveling in time rather than space. The East Greenlander Inuits were the last culture in Northern America to meet Europeans. They lived alone on an ice plain until 1884, when two Danish naval lieutenants managed to get up the coast. Like Socotra, this area is isolated by the sea. In this case, the ice prevents passage. And the current is so strong that it’s often impossible to make landfall. Many expedition ships were lost there. In the very southeast there is this terrifying place called Puisortoq, which is a glacier several hundred feet high that is grounded on a shelf very deep underneath the water. It has this habit of calving icebergs below the surface, which then erupt from the water very dramatically.
BLVR: Did you see that?
MD: No. It’s actually almost impossible to get to, and we didn’t try.
BVLR: This is quite a departure for you—
MD: You know, I’m probably the only person in Los Angeles who’s never wanted to write a screenplay. Or never had a fictional idea, up to now at least. But then I started imagining my kids in these fictional worlds, and it was exciting. For me the most fascinating part has been the projection of a moral personality on them as they become older. It’s been a lot of fun.
II. “THE STORM DRAINS HAVE BECOME A CONDUIT SYSTEM FOR THE RACCOONS, WHO CAN MOVE AROUND AT WILL ACROSS THE ENTIRE CITY.”
BLVR: When I was a kid, my dad was a physicist at JPL, and so I read all of his Robert Heinlein books, like The Star Beast and the one with the Nazis on the Moon—
MD: You grew up in Pasadena?
BLVR: Altadena, actually. Over near Washington and Altadena Drive, near little Armenia.
MD: I lived for years near there, at Washington and Allen. I moved there because I wanted to be as close to Eaton Canyon as possible.
BLVR: No shit. I spent a lot of time in Eaton Canyon. Caught pollywogs. Had my first kiss there. I was even closer, on Harding.
MD: In that section of presidential streets?
BLVR: Yeah—we were on Harding, and Roosevelt was a block over. And there was another one. Cleveland, maybe. No: Coolidge.
MD: Over the years, I developed this love affair with the San Gabriel Mountains, and particularly the upper Eaton Canyon area, which I think is one of the nicest spots there is.
BLVR: Would you go up past the first waterfall?
MD: In those days, I was in decent shape. And I could run from the lower parking lot up Eaton Canyon to Henninger Flats and then up the old toll road. If you keep going, you can drop down into upper Eaton Canyon. And you can either camp there, or hang out, or go up even further and then hike down into Mt. Lowe and come out eventually at the top of Lake Avenue. It’s about twelve miles altogether. But if you get a good start early in the morning and run part of it, you can make it by sundown. I used to run to the top of Mt. Lowe also. And you just feel miraculous when you’ve done that.
BLVR: I bet. I could tell from parts of Ecology of Fear that you must have been intimately familiar with a lot of the landscape. How much of the fauna have you seen?
MD: The week that I left to move to New York, I saw a ring-tailed cat for the first time. Have you ever seen one of those?
MD: They’re relatives of raccoons, but much longer. Apparently common, but nocturnal. I saw one off of Rubio Canyon.
BLVR: How big are they?
MD: About this big. [Gestures with arms about two feet apart.] And they really kind of look like elongated raccoons.
BLVR: Sounds like the ring-tailed cat is shy—very unlike our raccoons.
MD: The raccoons these days in Los Angeles are getting out of control. They rule the city. I used to see raccoons coming out of the master storm drain near the 210 freeway. I asked a friend who’s a wildlife biologist about it, and he said this is true all over Southern California. The storm drains have become a conduit system for the raccoons, who can move around at will across the entire city. And if you’ve ever tried to deal with a treed raccoon or one that’s cornered or angry, you know they’re ferocious. I’d rather deal with a grizzly.
BLVR: I think there’s a similar phenomenon with the coyotes. Even as far away from the San Gabriels as South Pasadena you see coyotes on the streets at night, and they come and go as the please, through the wash that runs down from Pasadena, which is closer to the mountains. And I think they also inhabit, in force, that patch of hills just south of there in Hermon, above El Sereno. You know that little area—
BLVR: —where they’re building those condo-plex things along the ridge of Via Marisol?
BLVR: There are jacuzzis in every one of those building complexes. I used to—and still do, but less often—sneak into those jacuzzis at night. And more than once I’ve run into coyotes there, walking along Via Marisol on the side facing the valley. They almost always run away, because they’re skittish. But I did once see a true pack of coyotes—maybe a dozen of them on the prowl in tight formation, with tails low between their legs, silhouetted against the loom of the city. And I found a new admiration for them.
MD: Before I moved to Pasadena, my regular run, which I often did at night, was in Griffith Park. I’d park at the bottom, run to the top of Mt. Hollywood, or sometimes to the top of Mt. Cahuenga. There was a period—and I told this story to my friends, who thought I was taking drugs or something—but there was a period when, every day during my run, a coyote would come and lope alongside of me. He would meet me on the trail and run alongside me, like a companion.
MD: It’s true. And sometimes there’d be an owl flying overhead.
BLVR: You were attracting familiars.
MD: It was this John Muir experience out there.
BLVR: Once I wrote about looking for the local bigfoot. The premise was: there are all these regional bigfoots, Sasquatch, the bigfoot in Northern California, the Yeti, the Florida Skunk Ape, the Yowza or whatever in Australia. And so, the question is: where’s our bigfoot? Los Angeles is the wildest metropolitan area in the country. Griffith Park, which you mentioned, is the largest municipal park, a giant urban wildlife area, with its own ecology. And the entire city is built right into what are basically still half-wild areas. So if there was anywhere that you’d expect to get bigfoot sightings, it would be Los Angeles. And sure enough, I looked into it, and discovered the Southern California Bigfoot Field Research Organization—
MD: What’s that?
BLVR: It’s basically one guy out in like West Covina or somewhere. But he has a “library,” with “vocalizations” and files on sightings, which are details of accounts by hikers and so on. And the most recent one was in Altadena, at the top of Lake Avenue.
MD: By the Cobb Estate?
BLVR: Right. We followed the path described by this hiker, which was actually extremely detailed. We could follow it precisely, from this one bend to a big rock beneath an oak, and so on. It was a pretty tough hike actually, because there was no trail at a certain point.
MD: Is this the old water trail there? There’s a faint little trail that turns steep and goes off the main trail.
BLVR: Yeah, it kind of is like that. That may be where we started. At a certain point, we had to go off the trail—the hiker had gone right up the side of a hill, and we followed. Eventually we came out on a ridge right by the power poles, about halfway up to Mount Lowe.
MD: So this is the domain of the Hollywood bigfoot?
BLVR: Apparently so.
MD: Did you see him?
BLVR: Nothing. A couple of empty Pabst Blue Ribbon cases. But, you know, if we had run into bigfoot up there, it would surely have been a magical experience, because all bigfoot accounts always have this dim Spirituality of the Wilderness element: “He was a noble, gentle creature, and we must all learn to love him.” According to the “file,” our hiker had tried to call out to her new friend, who then ran away. Luckily for her probably, because if she really ran into an eight foot atavistic primate alone in the hills, he probably would have been even more dangerous than the mountain lions.
MD: That’s right near an area where you can see mountain lion tracks, by the way.
MD: There’s a deep canyon below Inspiration Point with water at the bottom. And nine times out of ten when you hike down there, you’ll see tracks from mountain lions. Here in San Diego county, too, there are lots of tracks. To the point where it’s made me a little nervous when I hike.
BLVR: There’s that section in Ecology of Fear about the new aggression of the mountain lions in this area.
MD: Yes. The point of that chapter was that interaction of the urban environment and wilderness is producing nonlinear behavior in animals and humans alike. And that’s why there has been a sudden shift in the incidence of mountain lion attacks, here and in Colorado. There had never been attacks on humans before, but development is changing the ecology enough to prompt unpredictable shifts in behavior. For the most part, though, it’s rare to even see a mountain lion. I saw one once when I was twelve, and next to my children being born it was the most magnificent sight. If there’s anything I’d like to see, it would be another mountain lion in the wild. I have friends who have looked for years and never seen one.
III. “I HAVE BEEN ENSLAVED TO IMAGINARY BERLINS MY WHOLE LIFE.”
BLVR: It seems like Berlin is a city made for your approach.
MD: I like Berlin. I was there just before the wall came down, the last great moment to be in Berlin. I really liked Kreuzberg then. It reminded me of what Pynchon described in Gravity’s Rainbow—it was still “The Zone,” you know, that state of extraordinary ambiguity after the war ended but before a new sovereignty came into place. There was a ruthless honesty then. Potsdamerplatz, back then when it was still empty, was the last honest place in Europe. It was the one place left unhealed. I thought it should be left exactly as it was, with a piece of the wall still there. It would have then stood as a fitting memorial to the dark twentieth century.
BLVR: Instead of letting Sony build a new temple there?
MD: Right. Of course, such an idea would have gone nowhere.
BLVR: You’re suggesting a sort of larger scale version of the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtnis-Kirche across town—you know, the bombed church that they left standing in disrepair as a war memorial? Makes sense, since the Kaiser-Wilhelm memorial is surrounded by so much of contemporary commercial West Berlin that its effect is muted.
MD: I know someone—a former architecture student—who somehow was able to get permission from the city to go down into the bunkers below Berlin. These are the World War II bunkers. What he described sounded incredible: a lot of what’s down there is intact, undisturbed, still as it was on the day they raised the red flag over the Reichstag.
BLVR: No kidding.
MD: Yes. Berlin is an interesting place. I was particularly fascinated by East Berlin. First, I was outraged because of how the workers were treated in the worker-state. And the bureaucracy was horrible. But I also sensed that there was a whole parallel universe in which people lived their lives and managed to create this humanistic space. And the movement that overthrew the government wanted to preserve that, I think. They wanted to get rid of Stalinism, but not all of socialism. But it was naïve, I suppose, to believe that would happen.
BLVR: One of many hopeful Berlins.
MD: I have been enslaved to imaginary Berlins my whole life. Most of my heroes were Berliners at one time or another.
BLVR: I noticed the Spartakus poster over there.
MD: That’s my most prized possession.
BLVR: Is it an original?
BLVR: So was that 1918?
MD: I think it was early 1919: after the revolution was smashed but before the Spartacus League joined with the Communist Party. Rosa Luxembourg had already been killed. She, of course, is one of those heroes of mine. My daughter is named after her. Berlin has always been a brutal city. It was too optimistic to hope that Berlin wouldn’t be transformed after the wall came down. There’s almost no chance of places like this lasting in the world. Which reminds me of an interesting argument about globalization I wrote about years ago in an essay about William Gibson’s novel Virtual Light. He has this interesting thesis: as more and more power passes through international corporations, it starts to capitalize the world’s weak space. The spaces that can’t be capitalized wind up being abandoned—they wind up being nodes around which those of us who fall out of the system can gather. But I’ve wondered if this is true, or if instead capital will indeed occupy every space eventually.
BLVR: Like Socotra?
MD: Like Socotra, isolated for a couple millennia, which now may become unrecognizable in five years. I’ve thought about this a lot, especially because my wife and I were part of the conquering army when we moved to Hawaii. We lived near the Hamakua coast, an area that was once the pride of local unionized longshoremen and plantation workers. All of the kids in that neighborhood had moved to Los Angeles, or Las Vegas, or had joined the army, while at the same time the houses were slowly being bought up by wealthy people from the mainland. Living there sharpened my mind to this phenomenon. All the beautiful landscapes of the world are now fungible. They can be gentrified. The West of Ireland or Cornwall or Montana or the Hamakua Coast of Hawaii. Ultimately, there’s the question: what will remain?
BLVR: That posits a sort of capital osmosis. All the vacuums will be filled eventually. In which case, it’s inexorable.
MD: Well, the alternative is that the places bypassed by development and the interstates become the eccentric badlands. The economy doesn’t flourish, and the remnants in these places become strange. But then, I suppose, comes the second wave, which seeks out this very eccentricity. And that’s the thing: even the people who think they’re fighting mass consumption always wind up being the inadvertent pioneers for capital. The artists who move into warehouses in downtown Los Angeles, or wherever, create a place that becomes attractive for the landlords who eventually come in and price them out of their lofts.
IV. “THEY WANT SILENT INVISIBLE ARMIES OF PEONS WHO DON’T IMPOSE ANY TAX COSTS OF FISCAL BURDEN AND JUST LIVE OFF THE AIR ITSELF.”
BLVR: Many of the places you’ve written about are filling with high-end co-ops.
MD: After City of Quartz, I had Rob McGuire, the biggest developer in the city, calling me at night to chat.
MD: Yeah. It was weird. And I got the feeling his door was open. If only I had wanted to become a developer.… And it’s hard to know what’s more frustrating about the little success I’ve had: the dirty innuendo about my personal life and squabbles about the footnotes, or the bizarre reception of me as a public intellectual now. After City of Quartz, I went from a less-than-obscure Marxist writer to suddenly being invited to speak at august forums, like the Asia Foundation, the Ford Foundation, and so on. And I was always in the position of being invited to lecture at places that I denounced in my lectures. I had a Getty Fellowship—which I did not apply for—and my first instinct when thinking about the Getty is to say, “Burn it down.” Which is maybe hypocritical, because I do take their money. Second: so what? All the captive intellectuals and artists say they want to destroy the museums. Plus, you can’t be effective in isolation. To reach people, it helps to get reviews or have a New York publisher. My brief experience is that you don’t get very far unless you have an organized constituency. You can’t be a Communist without a Party.
BLVR: It’s strange that you became LA’s public intellectual from books that were widely read as attacks on the city—which, incidentally, is not how I read them.
MD: In some ways, it’s a compliment to my writing that the people I attack truly despise me. And that they never really figure it out. What I tried to explain in City of Quartz is that the dark side of the city is also part of the advertisement for Los Angeles. It ceased to be any kind of antithesis to boosterism a long time ago. The response to Ecology of Fear was stranger. Many reviews described the chapter theses as the absolute opposite of what I intended. For example, far from gloating about the fictional destruction of Los Angeles in books and films, I argue that this has become an almost fascist phenomenon.
BLVR: With political fantasies embedded in the apocalyptic vision.
MD: Yes. But that’s never how it’s understood. So I don’t know what to make of that. But I do think the readers are sovereign. I mean, I have no right to elect a new readership, so I have no right to complain. If it seems to an author that the work is misunderstood and the points are inverted, then this falls ultimately on the head of the writer. You have to take responsibility.
BLVR: About the footnote squabbles. Here’s what I think: arguing about the factuality of the footnotes misses the point. Let’s say the Decker Canyon fires weren’t the most intense conflagrations in history—that doesn’t invalidate the thesis of that section, which is that development into a fire-prone area made fires more disastrous, which then set policy in motion to fight those fires at all costs, which is an inefficient and expensive and upwardly distributive policy, particularly when at the same time there is a serious fire hazard in the city’s vast tenement districts that get almost no resources. In this way, your books remind me of Foucault, who took archival work and anecdotal historical material and used them as springboards for creative insights about how, say, social norms or ideas about criminality are shaped by and intertwined with the development of modern industrial society. Yet Discipline and Punish would probably have a tough time in front of a committee in a History PhD program for the lack of factual rigor. What the critics might miss, in his case and in yours, is that they’re looking for the standard kind of deductive scholarship: proceeding from a starting idea and examining it through research. Whereas here the idea is inductive. What’s important is not the gaps, or the erroneous citations; it’s where all those many disparate citations came from and how they were put together in a way no one had anticipated.
MD: Interesting. Except that Foucault was way off when he started talking about sexuality. But I think that the two criticisms I get is that for some my work is not empirical or rigorous enough, and for others there’s no central theory behind it.
BLVR: Here’s a question about the illegal immigration debate since we’re down here in San Diego. First: at a theoretical level, liberal neoclassical economics, whose ultimate goal is reducing economic friction as much as possible, should not want to restrict the free movement of labor. When capital can’t move to cheap labor, as with manufacturing, you have to let cheap labor go to capital, as with agriculture and the low-end service sector. That’s what neoliberal economics, a supposed mainstay of American conservatism, prefers, right? Second: as a practical matter, the conservative hotel-chain owners, developers, and agribusiness guys all need that labor force that their party spends millions to lobby against. If illegal immigration stopped tomorrow, their businesses would fail. So: what’s the deal? It makes no sense. Unless they’re really so cynical as to want illegal immigrant workers but with no amenities or social support whatsoever.
MD: That’s it. They want silent invisible armies of peons who don’t impose any tax costs of fiscal burden and just live off the air itself.
BLVR: But that fails to account for externalities—the social costs and benefits, future costs and benefits—of educating people, keeping people healthy, keeping them within the fold of society and the law. Which is actually the same thing that leads people to put homes in Malibu or build into mudslide areas or not enforce city fire codes. In fact, many of your books’ disasters arise out of an economics without externalities.
MD: This is why one of the most radical policies you could ever propose is to accurately assess social and environmental costs. Nothing would change more in politics than that. This is one area in which the Greens are going in the right direction. Because they understand it from their environmental advocacy. But the trick is to apply the same process to urban and economic policies. All the same, the Left hasn’t been able to capitalize on the dire need of people in a state where 40 percent of the population lives either in or near poverty. This is the shame of our state. The Left should make this its sole issue: save the environment while providing opportunities and social roles for poor kids. Take the California Conservation Corps. Everyone agrees it works. You take inner-city kids, put them up in the mountains, have them build trails. It changes lives. And if you could offer permanent jobs like that for those people, it would change a lot. You grew up in Altadena, so you know the difference it makes. That’s one of the few places where black kids hike in the mountains.
BLVR: And ride horses.
MD: And ride horses—that’s right. Have you ever heard of the “pony kids” in Dublin? Kids from the poorest parts of Dublin started buying horses a few years ago and riding them into town. And suddenly you have this poor, urban, but pastoral experience. Can you imagine that here? Kids with horses in South Central who could ride up the Los Angeles River? But you know, the solutions are always right out in the open in Los Angeles, like everything else. They’re just ignored, and banished, of course, from the pages of the LA Times.
V. “WHY READ BOOKS? GET A CASE OF BEER, JUMP IN THE CAR, AND SIX OR SEVEN HOURS LATER, YOU’LL BE THERE.”
BLVR: How has it been teaching at UC Irvine?
MD: It’s one of the best jobs I’ve ever had, and my students are all very nice people, but I might be better off somewhere else. I taught at the creative writing program at UC Irvine, and most of the students there were better writers than me. But the problem was self-referentiality.
BLVR: A lot of early memoir these days.
MD: Everyone wanted to write memoir, which I honestly don’t think is the best form for someone in his or her early twenties. It’s the same in the fine arts. When I taught a photography class at Cal Arts it was a real struggle to get the students to go out at take pictures of Los Angeles rather than themselves and each other. In these contexts, I always wind up being a champion of nineteenth-century realism. It’s not incumbent upon any individual artist to take up social causes; but when you have a place like Los Angeles, a city perfect for Zola, and you have an entire art world that ignores it, then to me that’s some kind of indictment of that art world. I’ve gotten into very public, heated arguments about this. And been accused implicitly of being a Stalinist art critic.
BLVR: Conversely, there’s the problem of exploitation.
MD: Yes. If I had written City of Quartz a few years later, after the riots, I would have changed some things, because it played too much into the luridness. That’s also one of the reasons I never did a book about the LA riots. I had wanted to write a community-level history of that episode, a constellation of many different overlapping stories. I couldn’t do it, first because I found it too emotionally demanding. The level of pain in people’s lives was too intense, and I didn’t have the emotional stamina. But I also didn’t want to invade peoples’ lives, which is why I retreated, in a sense, to Ecology of Fear. I returned to science, a topic I’d loved since I was twelve or thirteen years old. Now especially it’s very difficult not to be profiting somehow off someone else’s misery, because in the era of James Agee and Walker Evans documentary used to exploit people in return for the promise of the New Deal’s coming to the rescue. Now there’s no one coming to the rescue.
BLVR: What do you think about Sebastião Salgado, and his photographic work among workers and in refugee camps?
MD: His work is controversial, I’d say. Most on the Left conceive of Salgado as a hero, because he’s forced us to look at the relations of exploitation in the third world that underlie our society and comfort. At the same time, his work is very beautiful. He exemplifies what Walter Benjamin worried about as early as the 1930s, which was that some day rich people will hang pictures of starving children on the wall because they’ll become art objects. It’s complicated. I’d say, though, that it’s not enough just to produce the work. You have to struggle for its context, its interpretation—against the forces who’d like to pin it to the wall and call it a pretty picture.
To get back to teaching. I’ve had my best teaching experiences by getting the students to go out in the world and get some experience. I had two kids who wanted to know about the Colorado River delta. And they couldn’t find enough books about it. And I said: Why read books? Get a case of beer, jump in the car, and six or seven hours later, you’ll be there. They disappeared into Mexico for a week. And this was a radical experience for them, as it would be for many of my students, all of whom are nice people but have yet to be weaned from relying entirely on books. The problem with the academic world is that it’s mobilized entirely against experience. I say you haven’t lived until you’ve been in Gorman at two in the morning, watching the trucks going down and the trucks coming up. It’s the great drama, the world of production, and there’s nothing else like it.
VI. THE ONLY THING THAT KEPT THAT FAMILY ON THE LAND WAS THESE TWO GUYS CRISS-CROSSING THE COUNTRY FOREVER, LIKE LOST DUTCHMEN.
BLVR: So academia doesn’t compare to truck driving.
MD: There’s just no thrill like coming down the Grapevine in the dead of night. That’s why I tried to return to trucking late in life. After coming back from England and the New Left Review, I was tired of intellectuals, so a friend and I made a deal where we took over another guy’s truck and we tried to make a go of it for about six months.
BLVR: And what happened?
MD: I had this whole fantasy that I would get my own truck with my wife at the time, but I couldn’t make any money at it.
BLVR: Why not?
MD: For one thing, conditions in trucking have returned to what they were in the 1930s. It’s terrible out there. The incident that finally did me in was up at the Gilroy scales. There was a woman CHP inspector, who had undoubtedly had a hard day dealing with all the chauvinist asshole truck drivers. I was driving this beat-up, dangerous Mack cab, which she told me to shut down. I said I had to idle down the engine rather than shut it off, and she became livid and wrote me up for $600 in violations. I got back from that run, two days of the hardest work I’d ever done in my life, and it ended up costing me money. I realized that I could teach a class in urban planning somewhere, and say any bullshit thing that came to my mind, and earn two to three times as much money. The calculus quickly became overwhelming, and that’s what prevented me from returning to the honest working class.
BLVR: Is that a nice run, by the way?
MD: Oh, it’s beautiful. Getting the truck at night down the 101, coming right along the ocean.
BLVR: What had changed about the working conditions in trucking since the sixties and seventies?
MD: What had been a heavily unionized industry with high wages was destroyed by deregulation and union-busting. The second time around, I worked with immigrants from Central America, and these guys were the hardest working guys I have ever seen. It’s very complicated to load and pack trucks, and they could do it at the speed of light. I thought I used to be good at it.
BLVR: You have to load and unload the truck yourself?
MD: Yes. At dog’s wages. And the people who do it are incredible. I was up at Buttonwillow one day, and I met two black guys. The older one asks me, “Son, what state are we in?” “California,” I say. “What stop?” “Buttonwillow.” I asked him how long he’d been on the road, and he said, “Son, we haven’t stopped for six weeks.” And then he unloaded this whole story about how he and his son drove their truck to support their family, which was one of the last black farming families in their part of Mississippi. They only thing that kept that family on the land was these two guys crisscrossing the country forever, like Lost Dutchmen. These are the day-to-day stories you hear out there. “Sharecropping the interstate,” they call it.
BLVR: Yet, you’d have returned to trucking if you could have.
MD: My greatest fantasy would be to start Davis & Son Trucking. After that, my second greatest fantasy would be an idea that I actually pitched to the BBC: eighteen-wheeling around the world. I wanted to make a documentary by crossing every continent in trucks. There’s trucking everywhere. I met truckers who would go from Europe and Russia all the way into Central Asia, even Afghanistan. Some got as far as India. I don’t know what the hell they were hauling. But you can pretty much truck across the entire land surface of the earth now. The routes are possible. And there’s a unity of labor in trucking. It’s like sailors. There’s a deep, profound solidarity between long-distance truck drivers across the world. It’s too bad it didn’t work out. It would have been a lot of fun.
BLVR: Are you into the trucks themselves?
MD: Growing up in El Cajon, you had to know how to work on an engine. There was a strong hot-rodding culture at the time, which I talk about in one my books, Dead Cities. I still like being in trucks. I remember in the late eighties there was a whole aesthetic revolution in trucking when Kenworth introduced a new model, the T600: the Anteater. It was a modified conventional with the sloped nose, one of the prettiest trucks on the road. When these came out, guys would drive them for almost nothing, just because they liked to be in them.
BLVR: What are some of the routes you drove?
MD: Last time around, I used to go to Las Vegas to deliver furniture. And up to San Francisco, also with furniture. My problem with trucking was that I enjoyed being on the road too much. To make a living at trucking you have to be ruthless. You can’t be interested in romance or adventure. You have to keep moving from one place to the next, and not pay attention to the places. But I always pay attention.