Spare me, oh, author, spare me your regional stereotypes. I am provoked to supplication mostly by a fulmination in Newsweek against my home state, California, but generally by what appears to be an alarming trend both in and out of the nation's sports pages. The Newsweek piece was all too representative of the genre. In it the writer, a young woman who dwelt briefly on our golden shores, paints a broad portrait of the Californian as a humorless cultist and spouter of Zen homilies whose ambitions are confined to the preservation of his year-round tan and the accumulation of weirdo pottery. Her headline writer, inspired by these revelations, simply writes off our diverse and exceedingly complicated state as "Nirvana." Good heavens!
I should be outraged by so gross a libel were it not so drearily familiar. The Newsweek author, whose own California sojourn apparently left her as ignorant of our people as she was on the day she crossed the border, has succumbed to an attitude that dates at least to the Algonquin Round Table. How can the nation's most populous state be "Nirvana"? How can a place that can manufacture in swift succession such antithetical gubernatorial personalities as Ronnie Reagan and Jerry Brown be accused of mass-producing identical freaks? There are, in fact, at least five, maybe six, Californias, all wildly different in geography, climate, density of population and politics. San Francisco has as much in common with Los Angeles as, say, Boston has with Miami. And obviously there are many more Californians than Californias. Most of the ones I hang out with, for example, are pale the year round, funny, relatively hardworking and agnostic. Pottery to them is something beer is poured into. This, by the Newsweek lady's fraudulent criteria, would make them New Yorkers. One wonders what she makes of Manhattanites who enlist in mystical causes and attend ceramics classes.
That is just the point: the regional stereotype is invalid. Unfortunately, this fact is not only lost on certain Newsweek staffers but also on a distressingly large majority of the sportswriting crowd. People in my business are, regrettably, in the vanguard of this backward legion. Turn a touring sportswriter loose in the hinterlands, and he is Ali with Coopman. Nebraska, a state which spawned the quintessential urban tough, Marlon Brando, becomes in sports journalese a dusty prairie whose pool table topography is interrupted only by erupting football stadia. Nebraskans wear letter sweaters to the opera. Indiana, home of Cole Porter, is strictly Hicksville. Minnesota? Why, it's so cold there that.... Texas? Mention the name and you've got to make a joke. And the South? Well, shut mah mouth. Oh, the crimes that have been committed in the name of dialect. Have the practitioners of our trade lost the capacity to see and hear or is the compulsion to slip in the cheap crack so overpowering?
There are some in our business who have seemingly fashioned careers out of city knocking. These are the vampires who can scarcely wait to sink their fangs into such thoroughly masticated metropolises as Buffalo or Cleveland or, homage to the Bicentennial aside, Philadelphia. I am prepared now to defend these communities against their jeering antagonists with all the ferocity I normally reserve for those somewhat deeper thinkers who metaphorically assail my beloved city, San Francisco, as an aging and rouged-over madam—an image that unfailingly brings on nausea.
To the regional stereotypist we are a nation of cartoon characters—the Iowan with a blade of grass between his teeth, the Kentuckian waving his mint julep, the Southern Californian resplendent in his shades, flowered shirt and short pants. How wrong-headed these visions are. There are hippies at Ohio State, hillbillies in Manhattan, sophisticates in the Corn Belt. There may even be someone in Buffalo who does not work in a factory.
There was a time, I'm sure, when these stereotypes meant something. Ring Lardner's hayseed ballplayers were real enough. Who knows, there might well have been such creatures as Damon Runyon characters. But it is growing increasingly difficult in this age of mobility and mass communication to identify a person with his place. A resident of Sioux City has almost as much access to information and culture as a Chicagoan. Most of the people I met in nearly four years of living in Manhattan were from someplace else, yet in look and manner they seemed to the island born. A Johnny Bench may hail from a hick town in Oklahoma, but you do not see him packing a cardboard suitcase to spring training, now or ever.
We journalists are instant experts, of course. Give us a weekend in your town, and we will tell you all about it. The fact is, as even we know, you must actually live in a place to take its true measure. No one, not even the Newsweek person, can be faulted for expressing an opinion. There might even be something approximating a, Lord help us, "California experience." But if the opinion is based on a cliché, it is not merely irritating but also flat-out boring. And in journalism there is no greater sin.