SO MANY important social issues start in Los Angeles that it shouldn't be surprising that when it comes to lack of values, we're on the crest of that wave too.
I remember once in the early 1980s, not long after I arrived in Los Angeles, I was riding a bike down a side street in Silverlake when I spotted a wallet in the middle of the street. I coasted over to the curb, put down my kickstand and was walking back to pick it up when a guy in a pickup came flying by from the other direction. He skidded into a gas station parking lot, threw open the door and --ed across the street shouting, "I saw it first!"
It wasn't true by a long shot, and since I was 40 feet closer, I easily got to it first. The wallet (I subsequently discovered) had fallen out of the hip pocket of a guy on the back of a motorcycle. And indeed, when I picked it up, I could see it was a serious wallet, packed with credit cards and half-a-dozen twenties.
The truck driver was so excited he was saying, "Let's see. Let's see." At one point, he tried to pull the wallet out of my hand; then when he saw that I wasn't about to let go, he made me what he undoubtedly felt was a more than generous offer: "We'll split it fifty-fifty."
"I'm going to call the owner," I said.
He gave me this incredibly disgusted look. "I'll bet you are."
"Hey," I said, suddenly angry at this assumption that my values were no better than his. "I don't care what you think."
His face dark with indignation, he stomped back to his truck, slammed the door and roared away.
That was my introduction to the character of at least one segment of L.A. society, and as far as I can tell, it's a segment that's been growing. When we had the riots after the Rodney King verdict two years ago, thousands were ready to loot stores, steal 300-pound sofas and color TVs, and run off lugging VCRs, diapers, pantyhose, sweat socks and bowling balls.
I had always thought before this that public officials were a little hysterical over the possibility of public disorder. Now I understood what they were worried about -- any little incident and the morally bereft come streaming out to loot, rob, steal and plunder. Yeah, I know we ought to feel sorry for them -- they lead such boring lives, sitting home all day, drinking wine, punching their wives and watching TV -- but how did there get to be so many of them? Didn't their parents teach them anything?
Then when we had the earthquake these same folks came rushing out all over again -- not to loot stores (there were too many cops this time) but the public treasury. We were treated to the spectacle of tens of thousands of people standing in line, shoving, snarling and trading punches for the chance to tell a Federal Emergency Management Agency official the same sad story about the power at their apartment going off and ruining $400 worth of food in the refrigerator.
Oh, gimme me a break! I have a two-door refrigerator-freezer. I'd be hard pressed to get $400 worth of food in it if I stocked it with nothing but salmon steaks and filet mignon.
You might argue that it's a mistake to point the finger at Los Los Angeles. People are the same everywhere. There's always a couple of bad apples in every barrel. But that's not true. When the Mississippi River flooded last summer, FEMA handed out emergency aid, but people didn't try to rip off the system.
I once talked to a young lawyer who positively hated her work -- and with good reason. She worked for one of these high-volume personal injury law firms that advertise on TV. Her clients were all so predictably greedy she could hardly stand to file their claims. Someone would rear-end them and they'd jump out of their car, holding their necks, screaming in pain but actually giving secret thanks. Since it was her job to collect from the other driver's insurance company, the alleged victim would be calling every day, asking, "Where's my money?"
Our problem is that our intellectual leaders not only don't speak out against moral decay; they attack the very people who complain about it as racist, bigoted homophobes. The way our intellectual leaders now see it, "family values" is little more than a code word used by the anti-gay fundamentalist right; "two-parent families" is a veiled attack on young African-American mothers; and to lament the decline in public virtue is to pine for an "Ozzie and Harriet" past that never existed anyway.
Perhaps not. But even so, when I was growing up in the '50s, people didn't rely on insurance fraud as a substitute for work; they didn't loot just because the police were busy somewhere else; and when you found a lost wallet in the street, they didn't accuse you of cheating them just because you wanted to call the owner instead of splitting "fifty-fifty."
Paul Ciotti, a Los Angeles writer, wrote this for the Los Angeles Daily News.