Nobody from California dreams about winding up in North Carolina, but plenty of girls from North Carolina dream about winding up in California. I’m one of them. On the highway where I grew up you’ll see two sorts of semi-trucks: regular semis and semis with gauged holes in their steel beds carrying the hogs to slaughter. Nobody wonders about the cargo that they can’t see in the regular semis. North Carolina is second in the nation for pork production; everybody knows where the hogs wind up, in the middle of a fast-food sandwich, and then, in your body.
The hogs cruising down I-40W in Wilmington pass by a highway sign that mocks you. It mocks you in a way only bureaucracy is capable of mocking, with concrete nouns and big-ass numbers. White day-glow capital letters chuckle the blunt, impossible signifier of: BARSTOW, CA 2,554 miles away.
When I got to California, I lived in an abode I fondly called “The HomeDepot Shack.” It was around that size. It had a bed, a compost toilet, plywood floors, and no hot water. I showered outside from a hose attached to a propane tank. I never locked my doors but really barely needed a door. The shack was behind my landlord’s house, on a dense sweep of parched chaparral and sagebrush and beyond a dried creek bed. My neighbors were Old MacDonald’s more rancorous creatures: rams, mules, llamas, mangy dogs who belonged to nobody, deranged-looking coyotes, turkeys, and ornery or afraid rescue horses. But no pigs, because I lived in Topanga, where life is good!
Before living in Topanga, in the dust, I had never heard the wooden flute in the flesh. I’d never seen women in floral dresses the size of bedsheets look flawless, or seen more spider webs worthy of a National Geographic spread. People walked around without shoes, and this was meant to signal they could afford not to, which was new to me. The sound of wild peacock maws occasionally cruised through the air. On the community bulletin boards in town, you realized that all your neighbors were shamans, healers, eastern medicine practitioners, life coaches, medicine women, dance therapy specialists, gurus, and clairvoyants — or were looking for one of these enlightened beings. There were signs and portents: peace signs festooned posh security gates. There was a yellow and black “Smile You’re on Camera” sign stapled to a tall tree behind an enormous statue of a prostrating Garuda, who is, among other things, the Buddhist symbol of the possibility of living beyond all hope or fear. Nobody seemed to think there was a disparity between peace and war.
Brave New World-type slogans like “conscious commerce,” or “high-vibration food,” or “your vibe picks your tribe,” or “you are my mirror” were also copacetic. “Paradigm shift” was the sanguine and enthusiastic answer to many questions and non-questions.
My second job in L.A. was as a nanny to the only daughter of a biodynamic chocolatier couple who had a shop in Venice Beach. The mom dressed in gauzy boho dresses like she was one of Father Yod’s wives and the dad dressed like Sonny Bono when Sonny was with Cher. I only got the job because of my first job in L.A., which was at the shop next door to the chocolatiers. It sold organic clothes, accessories, hair and skin serums, juice cleanses, geode jewelry, sex tonics, as well as various etheric potions, and it was owned by the daughter of a Hollywood heartthrob. So I was pre-approved.
The chocolatiers lived in Topanga too and the chocolates they sold were teeny-tiny. Their chocolates were part of the “edible alchemy” movement and likewise were “dedicated to healing the earth” and “opening your heart chakra.” Each chocolate cost more than a Big Mac Combo Meal but they were blessed by an Amazonian shaman, infused with ancient Ayurvedic herbs and named after their rich, famous-enough friends. No domestic beast’s blood was shed, so what do you expect? They were special. To buy two chocolates from them would take me an hour of work next door.
She never knew what it was like to ask somebody for money. They still owe me $60.
At the time, the couple lived in their guest house while their main house was being remodeled, some 25 yards away across a hand-laid stone pathway. Between the houses was a private playground surrounded not by regular sand but imported, crushed quartz crystal. The property was discreetly fenced off from a windy inclined street. From inside you overlooked the tops of many rocky green canyons. It looked all like a David Casper Fredrich painting from up there, in contrast to my Home Depot shack, which seemed to drown further in its bland cereal creek bed each day.
On the morning of my first day babysitting, I opened the gate to find the dad stood barefoot in his reg Sonny Bono gear. He turned to me and flung open his arms in what I thought to be a hug, but it turns out he just decided to fling out his arms in a gesture that can only be deemed as “all this, girl!!” He jovially screamed as he looked at me, and then to the canyon top, “Aren’t you lucky to have a job like this?!”
Nobody discussed money. Flaunted money, yes. But discussion, no. It’s considered brazen and many other disagreeable social constructs. I assumed that the couple made their money from the frou-frou chocolates, because why else would you own a shop like that. I learned later that the mother was born rich. They didn’t tell me that. They spoke to me like they lived inside a Rumi poem hijacked by Jefferson Airplane while emphatically pointing at some nature. Somebody else, like a regular person, told me that.
Their daughter was named after the process by which a magician turns one of the shittier metals into gold and so obviously she wasn’t allowed any media: no computers, no phone, no magazines, no books you could find at a Barnes & Noble, no music that wasn’t The Beatles, no television. She only ate organic, duh. When I was around she bossed me. She bossed me while we played barefoot in the crystal playground, bossed me while we strummed a ukulele and sang, or bossed me when we played with delicate toys that looked like they were made pre-Industrial Revolution. The mother wanted me to engage the kid in oral storytelling because it was “an ancestral, primitive tradition” handed down from the grandmothers and would help her daughter’s imagination, so mostly me and the kid did that: I’d start a story, and she’d jump in, tell a little bit, and then I’d jump in, she’d jump in, and it’d go on like that until it didn’t.
They paid me $20 an hour in cash, and it was nice to not have taxes taken out, but they usually ended up paying me later than I expected, if they paid me at all. At the shop, I made $15 an hour through a regular paycheck. With taxes taken out, I usually felt doom when I got my paycheck, ready to cry tears, very private tears, that I’d cry when nobody was around. It was a terrible feeling knowing that I had $20?, $7?...$2.70??, or at a high point $130 in my bank account when I was owed money from extremely wealthy people.
It was “bad vibes” to question what you made, even though currently nobody is exempt from living without money. After working at the shop for a couple months and being the only employee there, I asked my boss for a raise so I wouldn’t worry so much about affording to eat or rent. She said she knew what I meant about wanting more money. She wanted to take more vacations, too.
Sometimes, I’d remind the mom that they owed me, and she’d shrug it off with “next time” and an insouciant look on her face. You might think that of the two of us, she would be the one embarrassed by this situation, but it was just me. She never knew what it was like to ask somebody for money. They still owe me $60.
The other shops near my work in Venice Beach looked like Disney’s version of the wicked witch’s laboratory. Likewise, products looked like they were packaged by practitioners of the occult. Sumptuous, arcane signifiers. They were for consumers who ate expensive, pristine food and loved nature. Well-traveled, never-benighted women. With a fondness for a luxurious minimalist style in design, some dressed like they were trapped in an Agnes Martin painting. Some thought it was Burning Man every damned day. They shopped often, they shopped sacredly, and when they weren’t shopping they were showing the world what they had been shopping for — they were mother evangelists of a better cosmic order. Their social media images looked like Better Homes and Gardens for Adi Shakti, or an advertisement to the big yoni, Mother Gaia.
They all made great decisions because they made decisions with their hearts. So great that I got sick of hearing about all the good decisions that everybody was making when a couple of blocks away men laid out groaning like the living dead on the sidewalk, and not in the real-estate worthy geography of their hearts. They had more superior names than mine, names so unique I was left questioning: but for real, who’s your mama?
A common theology that wasn’t called a theology but a “spiritual law” seemed evangelical, narcissistic, and down-right cold to me: you are what you manifest. There were various versions of this. But basically, you are what you possess. Being from the South, I understood this kind of mission statement from your creator. I heard it enough to understand that this mantra was their one commandment, even if the implications seemed dumb and sadistic, to me. I got it, though. It was a warm idea to snuggle if you were somebody rich’s daughter, or wound up successful, and not so cute of an idea if you were nobody’s daughter-failure.
The shop owners didn’t come from nothing to get something. They shared the #blessed quality of being heirs to mega-money. They were born of money. None of them had to work if they didn’t want to. Which brought up some important questions, in my mind, mainly like: Wtf is wrong with these rich people “working”? Why the hell were they bothering? To sell expensive tasteful shit, call it a luxury good, and call the process “conscious commerce”? To sell expensive tasteful shit to each other? Yes. The pachamama lifestyle was not so natural to be discounted from the American money system.
Billy Graham once smartly said: “I am selling the greatest product in the world; why shouldn’t it be promoted as well as soap?” I was used to that product being something that made down-and-out people feel better about their suffering. Until I moved to California, I had never encountered products that made people feel better about never having to suffer much of anything.
While religion is certainly a potty word among the moneyed wellness crowds, an elusive “cosmic” ideology called spirituality is alright. Consciousness is liberating because it’s noble to help the indoctrinated and confused see through their illusions. A teleology where the messiah is none other than oneself, and who not only possesses the kingdom of heaven, but also has things, the best things, seems alright, too. This messiah is called a guru. The guru need not consider why they got gears and why others don’t got gears because who wants to deal with hypocrisy or political inquiries? It’s better to turn inward, where the spirit is located. Where the guru sits. It’s better to use your heart. It's where the love is, and that was what you were supposed to spread instead of money. Except here, love came at a price.
Meanwhile, I continued my storytelling game with the bossy little girl who had never danced wildly in an artificial sugar rush in front of the mechanical puppets at Chuck E. Cheese. Instead, she asked waitresses who made $10.50 plus tips if her food was organic.
One day I was called to have a talk with her mother. I was next door at the ersatz witch’s lab, where I usually was when I wasn’t at my other job, working for her. I walked some 20 steps over. She stood behind her chocolatey wares on a raised wooden platform, which made her tower over and above her customer, or whoever she may be speaking to, like me. It made you feel small and absurd. I asked her what was up. We had regular chitchat for a while and I was confused, until she nonchalantly asked, “Did you tell her about a Queen Rose?!”
“Yeah,” I said, “We were telling stories about all the flowers who lived in the garden, and I probably mentioned that there was a Queen Rose.”
“Probably?!” She huffed. “Well, she can’t stop talking about it!!” She looked at me and her face changed, quickly, but I noticed it.
“We don’t believe in hierarchy, you know.”
“Oh, okay.” I said. I thought she was making jokes, obvious jokes, called sarcastic jokes, and I’m a fan! I smiled largely.
“Please use fairies. Fairies can live in the garden with the other flowers but not The Queen Rose. Next time, just stick to fairies!”
It’s important to remember she was, literally, standing on a pedestal above me. But she meant it. She didn’t believe in hierarchies.
She believed in bliss. It was cascading through the uninterrupted sunshine of another perfect-temperature day. I went back to my other job and she went out to lunch because to live beyond conflict is the final luxury. It’s the most nourishing food a body can consume.
Man Burmaster is a writer from North Carolina. She’s the author of Silence for Carnivores and the upcoming Machiavelli’s Milkshake.