Accord to polls, most Americans believe in life after death. Among those who hold most tightly to this improbable notion are faithful Christians. In the texts they adopted from the ancient Hebrews, their god condemned the first humans to death—this otherwise unknown fate—for attempting to eat their way to knowledge. With anger and irony, he scolded his creations saying, “By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.” God invents death. Yet death remains a secondary theological theme until the Christian era. In the Christian Gospels, their messiah engages dead people, dying people, people who fear dead or dying people, and people who simply fear death. He councils them, cures them, and even raises them from the dead. As the messiah himself contemplates his own demise, he too shows fear. But then, with one act, death is reinvented into a fork in the road leading to eternity, with the faithful heading one way, and the rest slouching towards Mordor. The scheme allows this American majority to view dying as a temporary interlude between the material world and the inescapable occupation of a celestial (or scorching hot) afterlife.
This makes Americans particularly piss-poor at accepting loss and expressing grief. Though some tried. In the 1960s, rationalists, (or perhaps folks just hedging their bets), came to believe that they could systematize their fears by adopting Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s stages of grief. By the book, each subject moved from denial to acceptance with a tantrum, a deal, and the blues sandwiched in between. In Inter State, José Vadi illustrates that grief is chaotic and not conveniently compartmentalized. Sometimes acceptance is followed by anger, and sometimes each stage happens in minutes, and sometimes simultaneously. He grieves for people. He grieves for cities. He grieves for himself and the transient world around him. For Vadi, struggling with grieving most closely resembles anger, but in expressions peppered by the other four—as they are hardly mutually exclusive. His grieving, however, is perfectly appropriate, and greatly appreciated. He lost his grandfather, his childhood, and the very places those ghosts might still haunt. He writes, but we commiserate together. He demands his reader to be a good listener.
A lamentation on memory, place, loss, and erasure, through Inter State, Vadi traverses and critiques California like a quixotic Umberto Eco—but unlike Eco, he does so not as a tourist, but a lifer. Vadi’s emotional investment in the San Gabriel Valley and Bay Area proper is evidenced in his intimate descriptions of dive bars, street corners, and under-appreciated urban vistas. Walking with him through San Francisco’s Tenderloin or cutting across Oakland’s (and Berkeley’s) Telegraph avenue feels authentic enough to conjure up the sound of multi-lane traffic and the smell of marijuana and urine. As someone who spent years in both the SGV and San Francisco (a generation later for the former, and earlier for the latter) I was genuinely touched by his vision and his loss. His San Francisco, where tech conquered and gentrified, replaced my San Francisco. And for this, I too still feel anger, denial, and begrudging acceptance.
Vadi’s book is both edgy and nostalgic, and at its most provocative hints at issues concerning the future of ethnic identity in a demographically shifting state that constructs public memory at its own convenience. His visits through the Central Valley, Tehachapi, and Salinas suggests as much. He wonders how one commemorates transients. He wrestles with the necessity of memorializing and the subsequent proliferation of historical fraud. But for me, Vadi is at his best when skating, or dreaming about skating. He approaches his environments at the sidewalk level. Skyscrapers may fascinate spire-gazing Midwestern tourists, but Vadi’s line of sight explores ground level. Every curb, bench, stairwell, and handrail holds both purpose and memory. The sound of his wheels in historic (but often invisible) locations echo the familiar noise of every skater who came before—some famous, some infamous, but most nameless. The clank of an adolescent’s failed kick-flip, for Vadi must be both the sound of comfort and the reminder of the inescapable adulthood confronting a married, employed Berkeley grad.
I do have a beef with José Vadi; and that’s concerning his dismissal of Fresno. By pronouncing it “dead,” he did to Fresno what Gertrude Stein did to Oakland with her oft-quoted, “There’s no there there.” Stein, of course, said so because of losing the Oakland she once knew; Vadi, who otherwise strives for authentic experiences, has no relationship to the derided town. He drives through Fresno–one of the most gritty, troubled, confounding, demographically diverse cities on the planet–and jots down his condemnation and short caveat with less care than Francis Trollope mustered in her evisceration of Cincinnati. Like Pomona, Fontana, and even Oakland, Fresno can be grim, but it still deserves a skater’s eye rather than a Victorian’s snub. If Vadi relied on his hubba better angels, he might have found his way into the Fresno High area, and heard the scraping sounds of teenagers launching their boards and bodies down the local school’s notorious staircase. He could have cased the Tower district and followed the plumes of weed and experienced other like-kinds with eclectic tastes, soccer knowledge, scabbed elbows, and the want of cold beers. Unlike Oakland, Fresno’s downtown might have offered a small haven from the sort of gentrification responsible for much of Vadi’s angst. Without tech money to reinvent block after block, Fresno’s downtown changes slowly. If Vadi is being honest about his want of an urban environment uncorrupted by the thing some call progress, Fresno awaits his return.
Regardless of his dismissal of my current hometown, Inter State is affecting. His writing comes from vulnerability which manifests as authenticity. I think Vadi accepts the permanence of death for both people and their built environments. In Inter State, he grapples with loss, and in doing so helps us all grieve a little better.
Dan Cady is Associate Professor of History at Fresno State