Culture vulture

Photo Illustration by C. Owsley Rain

The gatekeeper’s tale
Back in the summer of 1969 the fledgling Culture Vulture began our first-ever paying job. Previously I’d worked with my father on whatever ranch he happened to be employed on, helping him out with the usual chores: feeding the cattle, picking up eggs in the hen house, mending pasture fences and so on to earn a $1-$5 allowance doled out by my mom once a week. But now I had a real job that would draw an actual paycheck for money accumulated at the princely sum of $1.25 per hour.

The job consisted of tending the gate of a privately owned stretch of lakefront property at East Park Reservoir, a huge, artificially enlarged body of water that stretches from Ladoga to Elk Creek in the mountains west of Willows. At age 15, this was my first taste of employment that didn’t involve tending to farm animals, and it saddens me to relate that my first public-service job did nothing to enhance my appreciation of our economically stratified human society.

The job consisted of placing a dated sticker on the corner of the windshields of every car entering the property and subsequently recording the exit date and collecting a dollar for every day that the vehicle was on the property. When things were slow, as they often were, I occupied my time by sitting at an umbrella-shaded picnic table listening to rock and roll songs on the AM radio—KFRC out of San Francisco—and reading science-fiction novels. Robert Heinlein’s The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, which basically provides an outline of how to overthrow an oppressive government, made quite an impression.

Aside from learning that I could get paid for doing something that didn’t involve heavy manual labor, the most formative observation gained from that summer’s employment was an insight into class distinctions that has never left me. Quite often I would check in local families in well-worn station wagons with four or five kids and a mom and dad packed in among the camping gear and fishing equipment, who would cheerfully proclaim their intention to stay for a week or whatever and just as cheerfully hand over their bucks for each day they spent on the lake as they were leaving. I liked those families; I could relate to them.

At the opposite extreme were the groups who arrived in shiny new Wagoneers or Range Rovers from the urban areas where the Century Ranch sales staff recruited potential buyers for the real-estate subdivision that was going to dot the area around the lake with lovely vacation homes. I grew to dread seeing these people coming in, because checking them back out was so often an unpleasant experience.

“A dollar a day is way too much for this place,” was the most common observation made by the exiting proto-SUV drivers as I counted out the change to their $20 bills.

Uttering the phrase, "Thank you, come back and visit us again," was my first taste of monetarily induced insincerity, and when we left that job to go back to honest ranch labor, shoveling cow manure in the barn didn’t seem like such a bullshit way to earn my book and record money after all.