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America’s Playground

August 2013 (Rant)

One crisp winter morning, after Santa Claus left his presents under the tree, the Pillars of the Community announce another miracle: the sudden appearance of some one-thousand Eastern European student worker bees.

Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, some of the Polish girls were hot.

South Lake Tahoe, California, with 22,000 residents, 30% of whom are Latinos, faced a demographic conundrum. While almost completely invisible (except in transit to work at the Casinos, restaurants and ski resorts) Latinos were becoming, well, more visible. Sometime in the mid-1990s the Pillars of the Community had a meeting about this, although the issue was subsumed within a more general topic, such as ‘labor force needs’, or ‘gangs’ or some such nonsense. As with most cities in America, there is a nagging pattern of de facto segregation in schools, work and housing, but this is not the South, nor the 1950s.

The lake had a dwindling population–no doubt because every year fewer workers could afford to live there. Those who could not afford to live in town, but must work there, are reduced to a brutal mountain-pass commute in order to make a living. Rising property values, single and multi-family structures undergoing full-scale conversions into time-share and vacation rentals–all help this trend toward population reduction.

The rich with their second or third vacation homes must like that.

A powerful, abiding myth helps to both bind together and segregate these communities. The myth rests on a lie that needs constant tending, feeding and massaging. How to break free? Cut it off at the knees with a simple, pointed question–the kind of question that poses its answer in the asking.

Why does Lake Tahoe import a thousand student workers from Eastern Europe every year, and not from somewhere nearby?

The answer is in the asking: Because they are from Eastern Europe; they are white, temporary workers with limited rights; and, what is more important, they are not black or brown. Added bonus: they are mostly women.

Americans won’t work those jobs because they are too busy spreading their generosity around the world, so the reasoning goes. With the continued expansion of global markets it appears as though labor is traipsing around the globe, as capital does, free to find its natural station in life, at times beyond national borders.

Opportunity is available to all!

But these kids are the poisoned fruit of globalization, because labor is not free to go wherever it wants. It is free to go where capital wants, and allows it to go, and under conditions it controls; and then no farther.

A labor force imported from overseas: one-thousand students a year in a city of 22,000 people. This importation carries a trace amount of cultural diversity necessary to contribute to a menagerie effect in a hospitality resort setting, but without the racial diversity so problematic for Americans since, well, Plymouth Rock, I suppose.

The fundamental challenge: How to get more Mexican workers in town without…Mexico!

The Pillars decided they couldn’t have some pasty snow baller on a chair lift seeing one too many ‘tiendas’ around. What was needed is a kind of invisible worker who embodies all of the positive attributes ascribed Mexican ‘illegals’: they’re poor with a language barrier effectively preventing their easy assimilation and they have a precarious legal status, making them ripe for super exploitation in low-wage jobs; they’ll need low or no benefits and will be crowded into slum-like housing conditions with a virtually invisible social and cultural life.

Oh, and they aren’t black.

But they can’t have too many of their bad points: they’re illegal, brown (almost black) burdened with families that have to be housed somewhere; and, one must consider the flip-side of the language barrier, their tendency to nod in agreement with whatever is being said by terrifying tourists asking for directions, often unintentionally sending said tourists somewhere other than their desired destination. Doctrinaire libertarians could construe this unfortunate bi-cultural interaction as criminal–because it interferes with commerce—that flip-side of the language barrier. Well, there’s no other group that so embodies all those positive labor attributes without many of the negative attributes.

Eastern Europeans are Wetbacks, but not Mexicans. They’re White wetbacks.

Who doesn’t love student work visas? Good old state-subsidized overseas rites of passage. If the Pillars are fortunate, some of those Eastern European women can subsidize their income with sex work and/or marriage to local men.

The Tahoe Dream does need a few of the real Latinos in town to keep the beds made, the dishes washed, and the chairlifts and pleasure boats operating. There is also the undeniable attraction of the cocaine trade, while marijuana is handled by legions of slacker snowboarders tending dozens of indoor hydroponic grows that count for, well, a  truck-load of the area economy.

But the city fathers and their corporate masters need Mexicans for the other stuff–just not too many of them. At a conservative estimate, Latinos in South Lake Tahoe were approaching 30% of the overall population. Rut Row! That’s too many! An imported white worker solves this problem, because Lake Tahoe isn’t 1950s Selma, Alabama. You can’t have a police chief standing in the casino door of history spraying down people with hoses. But you can raise rents, prevent multi-family housing from being built, convert a bunch of modest working-class homes and other inferior dwellings into vacation rentals and then ship in a bunch of white college kids from overseas.

Yes, I know, the market did all this. Adam Smith’s Invisible Claw reached out and scooped up all those overseas students then looked inward and squished some 30 small businesses in the downtown core to make room for a mega time share development; except the development ran smack into the global financial meltdown of 2008 and was transformed instead, into a giant hole.

Bad timing, that one.

But that’s just the market culling the herd. Everything is great. Play some Blackjack.

South Lake Tahoe congregants mostly appear prostrate before Mamon: An ironic contrast considering how this small city, seemingly so close to God at 6200 feet, could embrace such a crassly materialist ethos. Set as it is on a political fault line between a ruthlessly libertarian Northern Nevada, with it’s open defiance of any social protections whatsoever and a concomitant subservience to a casino/misogyny/real estate economy that produces the social dislocation and economic hardship that plutocrats feed off of; and that of Northern California, that bastion of pot-smoking, eco-socialism, the town could not be more unlike a ‘mountain hamlet’.

The congregation only ever gathers en-masse to celebrate their conspicuous and entitled indolence, itself consecrated through empty rituals performed for the pleasure of their god: The Eternal Real Estate King. The irony is the one we are all too familiar with: the lake is ‘saved’ just in time for the recreating pleasure of the elites who despoiled it in the first place. Here the term ‘manufactured crisis’ comes to mind. Deliberately screw something up, blame it on someone else, step in to fix it, and be the hero.



I shudder, recollecting the televised dog-and-pony show that is the Resort Sports Network, a cable television program that lodges itself within a host ‘recreational community’ and proceeds to infect the broader community with its endless amateur freak parade of blonde bobble heads going on ad nausea about their recreating, the station serving as the perfect travel agent for a trip to Hell, accommodating the legions of wasted youth busy flying down the slopes, their pointless lives dissolving in a cloud of bong smoke as the snowboard tracks they leave in the snow.

I guess there is something beautiful about tens of thousands of assholes in SUVs ascending a mountain to a lake in the sky, their orgies of consumption producing the toxic runoff that besots a lake so thoroughly that it continues to lose one foot of water clarity each year, as it has for the past 30 years. Upon arriving in Lake Tahoe these militant, class conscious tourists feel free to express the worst of their inclinations—their petty, degrading demands, public tantrums and obscene displays of wealth and bad taste offered up in grotesque fashion—all of which are suddenly unleashed upon resort workers who are virtually powerless to defend themselves. I am sure there is a beautiful aspect to this that I am missing. Perhaps the enriching multicultural experience of an English wanker stiffing you on a restaurant bill because he does not ‘believe’ in tipping is of some aesthetic value. Cheers, mate! You go ahead and fill in the beautiful stuff I have neglected to include.

As most everywhere, there are pockets of civility and organic community that have not succumbed to the grinding, seemingly inexorable forces of metastasizing corporate development. A small farmers market, erected on a tiny VFW parking lot every Tuesday in spring and summer; a smattering of cafes, coffee shops, taquerias, boutique restaurants and consignment stores; a women’s center and, until recently, a bookstore. As of 2010 the bookstore is gone, having been situated too close to a black hole otherwise known as Starbucks. There are ample parks and national forests, the lake (of course), a small public library and an ice skating rink, good public schooling, a Catholic Church that hasn’t, apparently, had a pedophile scandal, a Montessori school, etc. Increasingly these valuable public/private spaces are under assault.

And such amenities are under attack from unexpected quarters: The Legions of the Clean and Green. Uttering frightful incantations evoking mutually contradictory codes and regulations that magically apply to ‘scenic corridors,’ ‘Lake Zones’ and ‘accessory uses’ the eco-brats make way for the gigantism of corporate restaurant and retail chains with all the charm of concentration camps. Think Applebees, with all those pre-fabricated walls of ‘local’ deteriorata–the framed baseball team pictures, fire station benefits, etc., produced in a remote cubicle by a techno-serf thousands of miles away.

In the neighborhood!

On the one side: weak, disorganized and distracted citizens so rooted in the grass as to be incapable of even the empty, peripatetic ritual of a street demonstration. On the other side: Free market environmentalists skilled in the Byzantine arts of deception called ‘best management practices’, ‘green spaces’ or ‘historical preservation’ administered by federally sponsored, quasi-governmental juggernauts incapable of hearing anyone other than $500.00 per-hour consultants who speak in the murky idiom insisted upon by their resident priests of preservation.

One of my favorite schadenfreude-laced memories involves a public meeting held at the local middle school following the Angora Fire of 2007. The fire, the origins of which were probably accidental, began at the south end of town and obliterated some 200+ structures, including many homes and businesses. This public meeting, held while the fire was still active, featured  then executive director of the Tahoe Regional Planning Authority (TRPA), John Singlaub (no relation to the Iran-Contra scumbag of the same name) the very embodiment of the Clean and Green/Metastasizing Corporate Development wing of the Lake Tahoe Pillars of the Community.

One middle-aged home owner who had just lost his domicile to the raging fire began blasting the TRPA for not having allowed him to clear some trees near his home prior to the fire, a problem often associated with the agency. Some of these complaints are undoubtedly self-serving, made by people who want to cash in on environmental destruction, but others are legitimate. The speaker was clearly upset–just alternately fuming and despondent–and in need of comfort. So Singlaub stepped up to the microphone and, if I remember correctly, interrupted the guy, called him a liar, belittled his loss, and defended his massive federal agency by hacking away at a guy who just lost his home.


Meanwhile, a murmur spread through the crowd and a lynch mob began to form. Local police and sheriffs had to surround the stage where Singlaub was in order to protect him from what could have been exciting vigilante violence.

On the other hand, there are plenty of voracious corporate types–free market zealots–who salivate at the notion of paving over Lake Tahoe (and its workers) to make way for a gigantic theme park or some other such monstrosity. In cases such as these, the zealot doth protest too much, methinks.

I fondly recall misbehaving at Harveys Casino with the voice of Bill Cosby rising above machine and man alike with its reassuring, familiar tone and cadence. Cosby, itinerant peddler of parental advice and trusted icon of pop child psychology, the supplicating genius behind the Fat Albert Show and the later, thoroughly domesticated Cosby Show, prodding the listener in that snide and snarky manner common with advertising that playfully preys on your insecurities: ‘Whatcha doin’ there? Got some bonus points yet? No? You haven’t signed up for Reel Rewards? You haven’t yet? What’s that? Wazza matter? You mean you don’t like FREE? You don’t like getting something for free? Ha! Ha! I knew ya did! Get on over to the VIP booth and get some FREE coupons! Sign up for Reel Rewards. Ya like free, don’t cha?’ Cosby’s disembodied voice, ubiquitous visage emblazoned on thousands of poker chips, and marquee name collectively eating away at what had long been rumored to be a gambling debt owed Harveys Casino.

However much money Cosby may have owed Harvey’s Casino was more than compensated for with that routine.

A history illiterate but acutely image conscious public relations engine churns out myths of pulp fiction; the halcyon days of the gold rush of yesteryear gently giving way to the gold mines of today, the casinos. Mark Twain is exhumed and repackaged as a grandfatherly icon of Leisure Culture, his trademark white linen suit and panama hat re-contextualized as ‘leisure wear’. I can picture him screaming, turning over in his grave, straining to throw a molotov cocktail at a casino, time share, vacation rental or Hummer.

Oh…that’s my fantasy. I’d like to think I would be by his side as we stormed the ramparts of…well, you get it.

Seeing Mark Twain, who was a brilliant satirist and anti-imperialist conjured up by some artless twit–sometimes a pair of twits in two different lakeside locations during the same day–always made me want to start burning tourist brochures.

Here’s a better allusion. Is the effect produced by the four high-rise casinos that dominate the main drag of South Lake Tahoe that of a ‘Donner Party Drive’? Is this an unintended homage to those misguided pioneers of an earlier century? Ah, the parallel is delicious and devastating.

Picture a family on their way to visit their precious childhood heroes Hoss, Lil’ Joe, Ben and the other white settlers at the Ponderosa Ranch theme park of Bonanza fame. Their SUV stalls in the Canyon of Casinos. Overstaying their welcome, they are forced to resort to cannibalism in order to survive. ‘Stay too long in this theme park, and you will eat your young’, they should have been warned.

This imagery sparks a memory from the early 2000s when I was managing a restaurant in South Lake Tahoe. I had been away from the restaurant for a few hours and when I returned at 11pm or so I discovered some ‘parents’ had left their two young children at a table and proceeded to go to the casinos. They told the server they would be back in awhile. The waiter demurred and kept an eye on the kids. That was five hours ago.

I called Child Protective Services.

Lake Tahoe, as most American cities, is a cultural desert whose only sources of water are crass American white settler mythology and vacuous civic boosterism fermenting within a repressive laboratory of corporate casino, hospitality and leisure culture.

If you are looking for the corpse of the American dream, you can find it in a casino that was built next to a pristine lake at 6200 feet elevation in the mountains. I’ve been to the mountain top and…there’s a casino.

Spend your last dime to feel that momentary warmth, that space-cadet glow. The rush of the endorphins, the clanging of coins, the blinkering of multi-colored lights, the swell of breasts and the smell of money—a timeless synesthesia where you are only vaguely aware of your future slipping away into your past, a primordial, perpetual present.

The steady obliteration of civic life in America produces the effluvia upon which Casinos thrive, filling that hole in your heart while emptying out your wallet.

Earth Day is celebrated in a casino parking lot.

There is only one industry that really competes with the casinos. The competition between these two industries is a mutually beneficial, interdependent embrace built on decades of that all-too-human truism: ‘misery loves company’.

The drug trade is where everything comes together: It is arguably the only remaining vestige of democracy left in a place like Lake Tahoe, or anywhere else, for that matter. There are no longer public squares or areas to congregate freely without consuming something in a conspicuous manner, which means you need ample ducats.  Civic traditions are limited to gargantuan, environmentally devastating orgies of consumption: The Fourth of July, New Years (when the town’s population swells to something on the order of 100,000), Labor Day (that’s just brutally ironic), Cinco de Mayo, and Saint Patrick’s Day, all of which amount to all-day, city-wide drunk-fests, the latter two without even a feint to Mexico or Mexicans, Ireland or the Irish.

Alternatively, and more disturbingly, one could consider the annual Renaissance Faire as a form of civic bonding. But this is another excuse for public drunkenness and loitering, but one that involves only white people inebriated on a bizarre, fabricated pastiche of swords and beer, heraldry and wenches, vassals and titles of nobility; peasants without peonage, parties without the plague.

Tribalism is what this place celebrates; the tribe of the white leisure class.

The town’s newspaper, The Lake Tahoe Tribune, has printed on its masthead, (without a trace of irony) “The Voice of America’s Playground”, neatly implying its residents are children. This fits seamlessly into the cult of the perpetual adolescent so essential for the reproduction of social inequality and a pervasive presentism. The town is a monument to a militantly ephemeral leisure culture. In a city with no history, on streets with meaningless names, next to a lake choking on its last dying effort to accommodate millions of tons of human pollution, the only quasi public places left where the life blood of democracy—the free association of opposites, especially rich and poor, black and white—only really occurs is around the drug trade.

No drugs, no democracy.

After all, most work is so poorly remunerated, so crushes the spirit, and leaves one so empty of meaning and humiliated as to demand a shot, a spliff, or a snort just to enable one to get up again the next morning–only to have to do it all over again.

The social stigma attached to drug use is conveniently bifurcated into ‘recreational,’  and ‘abusive’. Both are illegal, and begin classified in an identical fashion, then, through the magic of legal sophistry one becomes a substance that can send you to prison for 25-life (crack cocaine) while the other (powder cocaine) will get you a stint at a Betty Ford clinic, a job in entertainment, a rehab book contract or perhaps a vapid reality program.

While this may be depraved, it is not accidental.

The opportunity to rub shoulders with the other and rediscover, in a voyeuristic way, the polis, is real and serves a valuable public function. South Shore residents would like to emulate the peculiar social isolation that goes with having the power to live in your own gated community. And they will have it, just as soon as the ‘illegals’ have been relocated–far enough to be out of sight, but close enough to do the dirty work needed to clean up the playground.

There is one undeniable benefit of living in a casino town: it is thoroughly secular. No morally righteous arbiters of virtue–no Pat Robertson, Joe Lieberman or Osama Bin Laden, here. If they are in Lake Tahoe, they are passing through, incognito, throwing their money around like William Bennett, peddling their Little Book of Virtues to cover their roulette debt.

They are too busy cocooning with a one-arm-bandit or in awe of the lake’s crepuscular entertainment to organize politically.