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Cotton Tales, Scenes From: Horrific to Homey

Cottonwood image by Cottonwood artist Erin Friedman.

Editor’s note: Although A News Cafe’s publisher is aware of the person’s identity who wrote this opinion piece, and has vetted him, we have opted to not disclose the author’s name. 

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My wife and I bought our property in Cottonwood back in the 1990s. We had been living in the San Francisco Bay Area, with kids, in a picturesque coastal hamlet. We wanted some land to expand, and that was out of the question there. We’d been coming up north for years on family holidays and long weekends, so our search for land started in Cottonwood. We found an ideal property almost immediately, bought it and by summer of that year we had all moved in.

So here begins our long and somewhat complicated survival dance with Cottonwood and its environs. We moved up here really not knowing anything about the history, people or culture of the area. We had been visitors, sojourners, only staying long enough each time to relax and have some family fun; not really investigating or involving ourselves with local folks or issues. In hindsight we might have done it differently. We, naively, had no clue how very different the people and culture were from our native area. We were unprepared, and at times rudely shocked by events that transpired.

Why were we surprised and shocked by events? Well, the wife and I grew up and spent most of our childhood and adult lives in the greater Bay Area. We were familiar with what we considered California norms and behaviors. I’ll add here, to give perhaps extra clarity to what I mean, I’m a non-descript average white guy, nothing out of the ordinary whatsoever. My wife is a minority, and it became apparent here in the north state she was an oddity, a curiosity to be poked, prodded and examined in a metaphorical sense.

Other matters of surprise we discovered include the proctologically imbedded gun culture, the self-satisfied lack of educational opportunities, the extreme homophobia, and of course, lately the vast destructive ignorance, stubbornness and self-absorption in the wake of a world-changing pandemic.

When a man moves to a new area, an area he wishes to inhabit and know better, he goes to the barber shop. So it was with me. I thought small town, friendly talk, congenial barber and customers, Mayberry-like, if you will. I was rudely shaken from my expectations. Bear in mind this was many years ago now, but still vivid in memory. No sooner had I walked in and sat down than the barber commenced what I can only describe as a hateful rant against liberals, Democrats and gays in a dialog with his half-shorn customer. I was not known to them. I could have been a new minister, doctor or teacher in town. The utter hate and disrespect emanating from this barber and his client was foreign to me, and as my turn came to be clipped I felt very odd and unsettled, as if a rug had been viciously pulled from under me. I was a stranger in a strange place in my own new town. I went back a couple of more times thinking the previous time to be an aberration, a bad day perhaps. But no, next time one of his small children was there and this did not hinder his mouth at all. Apparently this is what he did at the barber shop, no matter who was there; a priest, doctor or child. He talked to his child of daily family matters, and then would get back on that hard rail of hatred without missing a beat. It was simply too much for me to bear, and so after less than a year (I don’t get haircuts too often) I left, what I later called the Nazi barber, for good.

When my wife needed her hair done she also went to a local salon in Cottonwood. She was sitting waiting when a uniformed firefighter came in and sat down. Someone, not my wife, suggested he might like to read a magazine while waiting. The magazines were, of course, general-interest sports and pop culture types. He looked at my wife and said, with distain, “Why would I want to look at a bunch of n—–s?” This was a firefighter; could law enforcement be similar here? My wife never went back, and this episode is burned into my brain, always unforgotten.

Cottonwood photo by Cottonwood artist Erin Friedman.

I actually moved into our new home a month or so before the wife and kids came up, as they were still in school. I was alone one dusky early evening just after having arrived when there was a knock at the door. Now, my driveway is gated and about 600-feet long. The property is large, so neighbors are distant, and I had heard no car tires rolling up the gravel drive. I was surprised and unprepared. I opened the door to see two large men holding ready two big, serious rifles. They introduced themselves as neighbors. Oh CRAP. This was their little friendly way to see what was going on, and who their new neighbor was. This IS NOT how we got to know each other in the Bay Area.

Turns out my new neighbor was a retired local law enforcement officer. I found this out about the same time he learned I was from the S.F. Bay Area. Talking with him, trying to find common ground, I mentioned football and the great 49er team. He immediately spat out how much he hated ‘frisco and the 49ers because of “all the god damn fags down there. I hate the fuckin’ fags.” Over the following years I would learn in addition to hating gays, he hated liberals, Democrats, Mexicans, women’s libbers and was a troubled misogynist. Although flying the flag and claiming to be a peace officer he, apparently, hated a good percentage of America and my little town. My wife, being a non-white woman, was insulted several times by him over the years, both racially and sexually. Other than these severe personality flaws, he was an OK neighbor in that he kept mostly to himself and didn’t have loud parties. And, oh yeah, he shot his own truck full of holes one time, by mistake. Genius!

We had brought with us from the Bay Area a departing gift of a pair of African geese. How nice, we thought, and brought them up with us. Turns out they are very aggressive birds and we soon decided to part with them. Meeting someone at the feed store I mentioned the geese and he said he would take them. He came over later with his young son; maybe 8 years old. He liked the deal (free), walked to his car and came back with a sturdy 3-foot-long piece of a pole. I’m wondering, now what’s the plan, for the guy says nothing, asks nothing. He corners the geese, grabs one and beats it to death with his stick. I’m stunned into silence as he grabs the now panicked remaining goose and repeats the bloody, violent execution. I cannot move, my mouth is agape, and I’m watching the boy watch his dad. From the boy there was no reaction, none at all. No horror, no shrinking back, no sliver of empathy, no indication he had witnessed anything out of the ordinary. Without a word the man and boy got back in their car and drove off. Lessons learned- 1) never give away animals and 2) there are psychopaths/sociopaths among us raising children. In a way I’m still recovering from witnessing this years ago.

Then more recently, there was the Cottonwood rodeo held in 2020, despite a raging pandemic and pleas from heath officials to cancel, or at least wear/mandate masks. The show of hubristic stubbornness, crass selfishness, and wanton lack of respect for the well-being of others convinced me never to shop in Cottonwood again. I will not patronize businesses that clearly do not respect me. I hate that this has happened, because I really love my home, and the natural beauty of our north state area, including rustic Cottonwood.

To you local pandemic-doubters and horse-wormer imbibers, there are unintended consequences for your decisions.

A few years ago I had a part-time holiday job making parcel deliveries. My area was Cottonwood. I learned how physically large Cottonwood is. It actually straddles two counties, and you could easily drive 100 miles and rarely cover the same road twice and never leave Cottonwood. I saw lovely million-dollar estates on rolling oak-studded hillsides, and middle-class tract homes aplenty, but I also saw the most appalling poverty imaginable. I had no idea, here in my town, this kind of situation existed; more naiveté on my part. The most dire and unforgettable vignette to me was a delivery into what I called Third World Cottonwood. Pulling up a long, badly rutted dirt road I saw a shambolic yard containing an old trailer home. The front door was cracked open, and as I approached I spied a small child peering out of the darkness at me. Climbing the two steps to the door I asked if his Mom was home. He disappeared wordlessly, leaving the door open revealing the misery within. Shortly a young woman appeared. She was mostly naked, disheveled, and emaciated with dull, long brown hair. I made the delivery and turned to leave, inwardly shaken and alarmed for that little boy. That scene has never left my mind. I am still troubled by what I saw. I imagine that little boy today.

Cottonwood is Shasta County triple distilled into one beautiful, homey, small-town black dot of the human condition and its special dysfunction. And one of the most apparent and obvious dysfunctions exists still today in the local newspaper. While not strictly a Cottonwood-only issue, it’s still relevant. Here’s when I gave up on the paper: The powers that were at the paper then decided having local guest editorials was a good idea. I agreed with that and thought how progressive and thoughtful. They asked for submissions and we [the readers] waited. Finally the very first editorial/opinion piece appeared, written by a woman who will remain nameless. It was a straight up homophobic, anti-LGBT screed of epic proportions. I contacted the publisher to complain of her lack of judgment (?!!) explaining surely she would not have published this piece if every gay slur and degradation (and there were many) had been replaced with a racial one. She mumbled and prevaricated by saying she had 1st Amendment issues to think about. Talk about profiles in cowardice. I canceled my subscription immediately and have never read another word of it.

And so Cottonwood, my Cottonwood, I love my home here and never plan on leaving. I can see Mt. Shasta and Lassen Peak and their world-class beauty from my front porch. The awesome giver of life, the Sacramento River, is nearby. I can find deer, fox, beaver, otter, egret, ducks, geese and eagles on my property, or very nearby. My neighborhood is slow, mostly peaceful, and mostly wonderful. I am content, but uneasy today. The plagues of COVID and ignorance are intertwined here strongly.

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