My poor hometown of Modesto, California, its days in the national spotlight are quickly growing dim. Of course, not many there are sorry to see that happen: For the last five years it has been the Tabloid Murder Capital of America. First it was the Yosemite beheading case in early 1999, then two years later the Chandra Levy-Gary Condit saga, and then since Christmas Eve 2002 the murder of Laci Peterson.
The Chamber of Commerce wants to remind everyone that Modesto is a great place to do business. Of course, it doesn't help when all of the links under "Progress News" on their website say "Coming soon."
Consider our prominent citizens:
- George Lucas, graduate of my high school, who wrote and directed the very fine film American Graffiti about coming of age in Modesto. Of course, he was a poor student, didn't like the place much, and didn't even come back when the town dedicated a statue to honor him. Not to mention that the film was actually made in Santa Rosa and not Modesto. Then there's the whole Jar Jar Binks fiasco, which I'm sure brings back ugly memories for all of us.
- Ann Veneman, the soon-to-be-former Secretary of Agriculture under President Bush. But it seems the thing most people are going to remember about her tenure is blocking black farmers from collecting on a lawsuit settled with the department for years of racist policy.
- James Marsters, who starred as Spike on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, one of the best television programs in recent years. (Really, I'm not kidding.) No word yet on a second role...
- Er, that's it.
Writers covering the various murders described Modesto as "sleepy," "dusty," "gloomy," or -- my favorite backhanded compliment -- "increasingly sophisticated." Compared with San Francisco, yes, but then so is nearly every city in the country. The town is quiet (at least when there aren't any tabloid murders), but it's hardly sleepy. According to the 2000 census, almost half a million people live in the metropolitan area (and yes, the Census Bureau does call it a metropolitan area). That would make it the second largest in Illinois, but for California seems small.
That's the same sort of mistake many writers make whenever they venture out from the big cities, and yes it may have a small impact on why some red staters sound so defensive and resentful. I recall one horrendous story about the mass poisonings in New Sweden, Maine, written by David Montgomery for the Washington Post Style section last year. The poisonings were horrendous, but the story was as well. Condescending through and through.
Modesto isn't all that interesting, but it's no one-horse town, either. It's just another big town that grew up from a small town, with not much else around for dozens of miles in any direction, and a few distinctive charms. Now the place has to get used to life outside the tabloids.