Mike, in Memory

Dustin Hoffman once remarked that the experience of a film is like living: you don’t remember most of it; you remember moments. ‘This incident, that one, boom, boom – these vivid colours – the rest is like a blur … Banging on the taxi in Midnight Cowboy, “I’m walking here!”’

You can always go back to the movies, of course. Most of life is unrecorded; then it’s done. The moments linger, boom, boom – the colours sometimes muted, a different kind of vivid. I first met Mike Davis over the phone. He had borrowed Alex Cockburn’s 1964 Newport station wagon, I can’t remember why, but it had broken down, this great boat of steel, glass and chrome, now marooned by the side of a road. Alex was off somewhere – these were the days when anyone looking for him, from friends to bill collectors and one elderly astrologist, called The Nation with messages – but Mike had time. Maybe he was waiting for a tow. He called himself a truck driver, a former meat cutter. Prisoners of the American Dream was either just out or soon to be, but everything about that first chat suggested someone oblique to the familiar publishing world. He had a theory about what made the Newport fail, which soon gave way to stories about manoeuvring unsteady vehicles over unworthy roads, and shopfloor circumstances that contributed to this or that unreliable feature of a car. There was something riotous in his manner of speaking about things deadly serious, a quality I would notice again, later, among insurgent electricians and boilermakers and longshore workers.

For what seemed like the longest time after that, I imagined him reading at truck stops and writing in the dim light of the cab between hauls. That was a reflection of his romantic self-presentation, but maybe some of my own projection too. It was the 1980s. The working class was losing and hungry for troubadours from its ranks. Mike was a class jumper who carried the explosive tension of the class inside himself. In a statement before his death he railed against hope, yet when I think of Mike he is perched at the fulcrum between joy and dread, the point where material reality, rage and a radical hope converge. Like the LA Wobblies of the 1920s, whom he admired for their pungent analysis, ‘suicidal bravery’ and ‘gallows humor’, like the militants from Homestead who were putting up the final stand for steel-working communities at the time we first spoke, he had an eye for the absurd.  

* * *

Before there was City of Quartz, Mike pointed me to Louis Adamic’s Dynamite: The Story of Class Violence in America (1931). Later, he would extol Street Rod (1953) by Henry Gregor Felsen. Of all his many recommendations, those two stick fastest. Adamic figures in Mike’s excavation of Los Angeles for ‘his emphasis on the centrality of class violence to the construction of the city’. Replace ‘city’ with ‘country’ and the sentence is still correct, the impacts of ruling-class brutality against labour throughout American history still vastly underappreciated, including on the left. Dynamite is also a withering examination of the instrumentalization of violence by union bureaucrats to entrench their own power. Street Rod is something else, a dime novel about surly boys in small-town Iowa and their mixed-up dreams of freedom, screeching cars and manhood. It especially appealed to Mike’s enthusiasm for verbs:

Ricky Madison was going too fast to do anything but watch the highway. How good it felt to split the night like the point of a knife, pipes blasting against the road! Speed … speed … speed … Link was eating his smoke now. And it was bitter.

It ends badly for Ricky Madison. Mike was teaching writing at the time and had students read Mickey Spillane, Cormac McCarthy, a literature of tough verbs, aka a literature of tough men. Verbs were the lesson, but the rootball of beauty and violence could not have been lost on the students. In various iterations, this was always Mike’s subject: sunshine and noir.

Dynamite also represents an irony, one I recognized only later. Adamic features as a debunker of LA myth-making in Mike’s chapter ‘Sunshine or Noir?’. When Adamic moved to the East Coast, Mike writes, that role was filled by Carey McWilliams, who would go on to unmask California agribusiness in Factories in the Field (1939) and by the 1950s would become The Nation’s most courageous editor, defying the Red Scare. Thirty-some years on, I read an early manuscript for a different chapter of Mike’s ‘LA book’ – it didn’t have a title then – and asked if he’d be willing to let The Nation publish it. At the time, black and brown young men were being stopped, humiliated, rounded up and arrested by the LAPD, in large numbers, every week, their names etc. entered into an anti-gang database for future crackdown. Operation Hammer was key to Mike’s discussion of the centrality of class violence to the contemporary era’s construction of LA. This was the first piece I tried to commission for the magazine. The other editors put the kibosh on it. ‘Who’s Mike Davis?’ some asked. ‘Part of that NLR crowd’, one of their number said, sniffing at Mike’s use of the word ‘proletariat’.

* * *

When we finally met, in New York, there was dinner with a bunch of people at a corner table at The Spain, a wonderful old place, now shuttered, its high-ceilinged stucco back room ringed crazily with reproductions of Spanish nudes and landscapes. The conversation swirled, as did the dishes, borne to the table by waiters in red waistcoats. I remember shrimp in garlic sauce, and Mike talking about the moral economy of the working class. It was an idea I’d not thought about – Peter Linebaugh’s magisterial book The London Hanged (1991), about customary takings, capital punishments and imposition of the wage system, was not yet published – but I felt certain that Mike’s point, that factory workers typically take just enough from the Man to meet what they think their labour is worth beyond the official wage, did not apply to my father. He was a tool and die maker, meticulous, a by-the-books kind of guy. Really, Mike said, your father never made anything on the side at the plant? Well, he sometimes fashioned little parts for the car or the house, like a customized bracket out of brass that my mother needed for hanging a lantern. And so we all laughed and laughed.

The next time I recall seeing Mike the subject was heartbreak. Carousing on the streets of New York, who remembers maudlin talk about lost loves? Alcohol-fuelled, probably embarrassing, certainly amusing. One of our stops was a bar decorated with tiles, whose workmanship we appreciated, maybe overmuch, as distraction from the details of our separate woes. I walk past that bar nearly every day in New York, its tiles and associated thoughts of the anonymous souls who laid them a mnemonic.

* * *

The last time I saw Mike he was in San Diego with Alessandra and the twins, James and Cassandra, along with his son Jack, then living with his girlfriend. His eldest child, Roisin, and he kept in steady touch. The pater familias, Mike called himself, with enjoyment. He couldn’t hear so well and joked about getting a horn, but that evening when he held his little girl in his arms as she recounted her day, he seemed keen to every word and emotional note.

I had been driving along the southern border since Brownsville, Texas, and was headed north. Aware of my interest in things coming apart, Mike traced what he deemed the ideal route on a map of California’s fault lines. It would take me along the San Andreas to where it meets the Walker Lane near China Lake, up through Death Valley and so on. His finger followed faint lines, small roads, dirt roads and washes ­– no Escondido, San Bernardino, Barstow freeway in this plan. He conceded it would be a challenge for my 1963 Valiant, but interesting; you’re allowed to sleep in your car on some of Death Valley’s dirt roads.

He took me for a lightning tour of El Cajon, now a bedroom community to San Diego, once a farm town and later, during Mike’s youth, a noir-ish crossroads where one local bully was a psychopath and another a secret philosopher. He once said that growing up he was terrifically patriotic until about the age of 15 but that in rehearsing the wonders of the US he’d always falter when it came to describing El Cajon: ‘the unspoken thing – the sound of somebody being beaten, the religious intolerance and, above all, the sheer stupidity of it … in the depth of the ’50s cold-war culture.’ Here was the Hell’s Angels clubhouse; there had been the elegant movie theatre, demolished in the name of development; these were the streets of teenage drinking and danger and longing, the boulevard that 3,000 youths commandeered one summer night in 1960 for a protest drag race that culminated in a police riot and paddywagons. Street Rod suddenly took on another dimension.

This wasn’t primarily a tour of the used-to-be, though. It was an encounter with the sacred and the profane. About five miles north of El Cajon, between Bostonia and Winter Gardens, where Mike’s parents had once lived, the town of Santee boasts the Creation and Earth History Museum, which derides evolution but also says humbug to the consolations of blind faith, appropriating science to justify the Bible and ultimately concluding where creationism usually does, with politics: to wit, Marx was a Satanist, and Hitler was the dramatic, though far less lethal, precursor to godless women who say abortion is a matter of choice. The Unarius Academy in El Cajon is more congenial, beginning with science – the cosmos and humankind’s ever-expanding technology for understanding it – and concluding with a hearty embrace of ‘our Space Brothers’, with whom Unarians say they have been in mental and spiritual contact since 1973. Airy matrons in the lobby greeted Mike like a familiar. And he, eyes twinkling, directed me to a sprawling 3D model: the Unarians’ utopian city, its roads and fantastic structures radiating from a centrepiece Tesla tower. I bought a small badge of a spaceship with coloured glass chips and pinned it to my jacket. Wear it all the time, the matrons urged; when they come, the Space Brothers will recognize you as a friend.

* * *

I never captured Mike on tape, his clipped, rapid commentary and acute detail, his stories, his jagged mirth. I don’t remember much of what he said as we drove along, don’t recall how it happened that, on the return leg of the tour, we were climbing up a rough road to the top of a mountain. I remember the Border Patrol truck that passed us, the way we reflexively tensed but ultimately knew better than to fear that a white-haired, white-moustachioed white man confidently steering a four-wheel-drive vehicle up a restricted road would be stopped. I remember the view from the top, Mexico, the purplish array of mountains and the remnants left by people who had crossed them to just that point: a few empty cans of tinned fish, a disposable razor, a cracked mirror. I remember the feeling of sorrow and fury.

And then we drove down another path, in a kind of wilderness, to the bottom, where just ahead, maybe a hundred yards, stood a fence, and beyond it a toll road, virtually empty in the late afternoon because the people of San Diego hated it, baulked at the toll, resented the abuse of public dollars and public space. We’d found ourselves in territory that was uncharted to Mike though not to some previous travellers, because in an instant Mike noticed a spot where the fence had been nearly flattened. He was racing to it now, and quick, quick, he said, jump out and hold that part of the fence down over the ditch on the other side. The vehicle’s weight did the rest, I hopped back in, and in a flash we were clambering over dirt, careening round a cement block, finally onto the shoulder and thence to the toll road proper, sprinting alone to the nearest exit. Mike whooped like an old-time outlaw.

Read on: Mike Davis, ‘Why the US Working Class is Different’, NLR I/123.