Flashback: New in Town?

June 11, 2012

The following Up the Valley column appeared in the St. Helena Star newspaper on January 13, 2011.  I’m posting my oldies here over the next few weeks so that they can be search engine optimized, tagged, and categorized.  Ain’t literature fun?  A new one comes out this Thursday, in which I blow the lid off the White House!  Stay tuned…

 I read recently that the City of St. Helena was intervening in a lawsuit by Indian tribes, who maintained that their prior claims to parts of the Napa Valley bestowed upon them the inalienable right to land. Public officials are afraid the suit could lead to casinos in our small town.

I have to admit that I was baffled. Not that I don’t understand why we would turn our municipal noses up at the concept of gambling establishments in St. Helena, although owning a winery would appear to bear some similarities to owning a casino, except that with casinos the house always wins.

Nor does my surprise relate to our rebuffing of the Indians despite our apparent insatiable need for Native American jewelry stores, of which we now have 12.

No, I was surprised at our objection to the Indians’ claims because it upends everything I’ve come to understand about St. Helena society. I thought the whole idea was that the longer you’ve lived here, the more rights you have.

Certainly people are considered newcomers here who’ve lived for what would be considered a lifetime elsewhere.

Meanwhile, I think we should all pick a date — let’s say 1960 (just so we can make certain long-standing local columnists happy), and agree that any family that has arrived before that date is deemed an old-timer and should just shut up about it. But that still leaves a number of us defined as wet-behind-the-ears St. Helena arrivistes, so for our benefit, I thought I’d go a bit Jeffersonian and propose a Bill of Gradually Acquired Rights.

These rights start to attach from the day you turn 21, unless you are a member of certain Founding Families, in which case they start to run from birth (you know who you are, and if you have to ask, you aren’t.) This being an Official Government Document, it will have to be at least 100 pages, but here are some highlights among the vesting periods:

• Years One to Ten: Congratulations, you may drink local wine, vote and pay taxes. Keep your head down and your opinions to yourself. You may attend council meetings and sit in the audience and look pretty, unless you have the utter misfortune to be applying for a permit, in which case you should hire someone with Greater Acquired Rights than yourself to represent you. You may volunteer for things no one else wants to do, like Park Garbage Cleanup Committee, Defective Jungle Gym Security Detail, or Bocce League Ombudsman.

• Years Ten to Twenty: You may now have limited opinions expressed at dinner parties. If you are a single woman, don’t plan on getting invited to many dinner parties unless you bring your “steady boyfriend” with you, and don’t worry — no one will figure out that he’s gay. You may request appointment to commissions and serve on committees, and even run for elected office, particularly if you can secure the coveted endorsement of the ex-hippy radical environmental fringe group and bridge club at the senior center.

• Years Thirty to Forty: It’s time to start complaining about how much better things used to be. Hone your skills in this regard with reactionary letters to the editor about recent and disturbing trends unearthed via your careful reading of the Police Log. You will be a fixture at all upscale restaurants offering the Early Bird Special, Locals Discounts and Half Price Bar Menus, and then accompany your meal with a bottle of wine costing more than my car, because one has to have standards.

• Years Fifty to Sixty: Feel free to have opinions without any basis whatsoever in fact. Your truth meter should be set on News Network Media Commentator and stay there. If you haven’t already done so, you should learn to play poker so that former-mayor Greta Ericson doesn’t clean you out at senior center events. You might consider writing a column about the good old days before there were streetlights or cars or electricity, when the local folks all knew each other because they were always running into one another in the dark.

• Years Seventy to Eighty: At this point, your primary focus will be on disabling the Safeway cart theft-proofing mechanism so you can wheel your groceries to your house. You will have wonderful stories that we will all want to hear again and again, which is good because you won’t remember who we are or what you’ve told us already. You will attend the public library events where students read to pets and demand the same treatment as a Goldendoodle. You will have survived everything, embraced change and linked us to the past. You will be irreplaceable.