California had always been sort of a mysterious place to me. I was born and raised on the eastern coast of the United States, and only up until a few days ago, I could only say that the furthest west I’d ever been was Tennessee, which really isn’t that west at all.
When my parents first informed me that we would be visiting California, I was ecstatic. In American culture, California has always reigned supreme in terms of pop culture, drama, and showcasing the best of what the American Dream can bring to those who work hard to earn everything that can be made possible in the nation founded on individuality. It was an El Dorado of sorts; different from anywhere else in the nation, and perhaps even the world as a whole. I felt like I was finally getting out to see somewhere that so many had only dreamed to see; the city of dreams, fame, and fortune.
Yet, when my wheels touched down in LAX, and I was finally able to tour some of the Golden State for the first time, I came to realize there was a lot more to a city built on dreams then just the fantasy of the flashing lights of Hollywood.
There is something about fame and fortune that makes people desire it so badly, and it does not pertain only to the wealth that can be amassed or the power that comes with having a band of people that love you for all that you are and what you’ve brought to their lives. Fame and fortune are valued because not everyone can have them. If everyone was rich, there would be no Upper Class. If everyone was famous, there wouldn’t be a reality TV show for a family “famous for being famous.”
California is a place where the successful live in the lap of fame and fortune. The expensive cars and mansions are only matched by the egos that establish themselves when you spend your time around crowds that scream your name and the flashing of camera lights brings not only blindness, but more potential posts for your powerhouse Instagram. That is the side of California that is shown off.
And why wouldn’t you? Like with social media and magazines, the public is nearly always shown a highlight reel of the best of the best. If we are groomed to believe that someone or somewhere has the best, we will ignore all that is flawed or damaged standing behind the plastic caste.
In fact, upon even first entering the state, you are bombarded with the racing LA traffic, crowded with expensive cars on the vast highways. The streets are littered with signs advertising new beauty products or special diets and treatments to enhance one’s appearance. I was astonished. After coming to the realization that America was an image obsessed nation, and seeing the actions made to create a persona of perfection, I didn’t believe it could be any further proven outside of national media and dramatized public affairs. California proved me wrong. California proved to be a hub for a world so many are exposed to, yet, so few truly experience it in all of it’s truth.
Yet, while the observing of the rich in this city of opportunity and prosperity, we ignore the vast poverty that exists among those who live in a city that when fame fails, so do you. With a single photograph of a “perfect” woman, we disregard those who spend their whole lives living and dying over and over again to be something that they simply cannot. With the tabloids pasted with celebrities, we disregard the bleached skyline when the sun goes down and the real stars we can no longer see. With the filming of an elegant mansion on a lush green hillside, we ignore the drying rivers or halfway houses standing on a crooked foundation, saturated with graffiti and burdened by the weight of a dream not obtained.
There is something magical and desolate about a city of dreams and nightmares. When a hierarchy exists between the lucky and the lost, the dynamic is unlike anything else in the world. It will only be when we choose to look at something besides a pretty picture that we can reform a state plagued by the oligarchy of the have and have nots.
As a nation, we were established on the idea that “all men are created equal” and rejected the government that had oppressed us for all of our time as a royal colony. Now, though there is no formal crown, in California, it as if there is still a kingship that has built themselves a ruling class over a population that did not request it. Fame is based on luck perhaps more than any other potential aspect of the human existence. Making something of yourself is what all of us strive for on a daily basis, and when fame fails, we are left with living in the pieces we can hold on to and sometimes that means grasping at the ashes of who we once were.
Pretty pictures are beautiful, yes. We all like to see the occasional yellow flower on a canvas with bright color and saturated hues of blue and pink. However, pictures with depth and grit, splattered with blacks and greys, foggy greens and stripes of red, are those that create something that is real and something with all of the teeth that bite in the true human experience. California is a land of yellow, but with that yellow there is just as much black. We can observe the beautiful, but we cannot forget the ugly side just the same. Without recognizing these gritty undersides, we will continue to make a world where people shoot so high for the yellow they know of, that they lose themselves in an oversaturated canvas of the world of pretend and plastic that is only doomed to melt.
With what I know now about this city of flashing lights, I realize that we cannot judge a place on it’s photographs. There is more to dreams than simply jumping and hoping that your sheer faith will push you to where you need to be. Hierarchies will only exist if we allow ourselves to fall into the trap of the starlit caste system. There is no such thing as a perfect El Dorado and sometimes there is beauty in seeing the real as opposed to just the artificial.
California may be a place of flashing lights, but I think I prefer the real stars better.
Poulson is an editor for The Millennial Times.