Q: What's the Opposite of a Miracle?

A: What the state does to the families of people who die while poor

There will come a time when Friday, March 10, 2001 -- the day California transportation officials unleashed their vacuum trucks on a hallowed ditch near Terra Linda in Marin County -- shall be remembered as a fateful moment of history.

On that day, the waters of Las Gallinas Creek -- or, at least, the waters of a drainage ditch that leads to Las Gallinas Creek -- turned to wine. As prophesied in John 2:1-11, a tanker overturned on Highway 101, spilling 3,500 gallons of fermented grape juice, staining a huge swath of pavement burgundy, and the water in the ditch rosé. State and county officials dispatched vacuum trucks to suck the wine from the tributary, a civil waste management official was cited as saying in a local news report1, and the vacuum trucks turned the wine back into water, in so doing performing a heresy.

Did not Jesus of Nazareth, at a wedding celebration in the village of Cana in Galilee, launch the Christian tradition of religious mysticism by performing a miracle much like the one at Las Gallinas Creek?2 Did not Canned Heat, in its indelible classic "Going Up the Country," say, "I'm goin', I'm goin' where the water tastes like wine/ I'm going where the water tastes like wine/ We can jump in the water, stay drunk all the time"3?

Although I don't ordinarily believe in omens, in my mind the image of those vacuum tubes draining the Las Gallinas Creek tributary of its pinkish glory quickly fades into a vision of future rue: We are perched, I fear, on the precipice of mad, cruel, times. Events in the months leading up to The Heresy of Interstate 101 seem to add significance to the omen, portending an era much like the 1980s, when Proposition 13 stripped our state of education and other services, a hard-right Republican administration made it fashionable to scorn the poor, and the forces of evil subsequently marred an entire decade.

Rough estimates of the cost of the electricity bailout announced by Gov. Gray Davis -- a bailout that includes state-financed power purchases and an agreement to buy privately held power lines -- are in the $20 billion range, out of a total state budget of $104 billion. This doesn't include the price tag for buying or building new power plants, as approved by the Legislature a couple of weeks ago. The prospect of a massive, debt-fueled, utility-rescuing spending spree has already lowered the value of California's outstanding bonds, and the bond rating agency Standard & Poor's has put the state on guard for a possible ratings downgrade. It won't be very long before Sacramento has little money for anything beyond paying down debt that it agreed to take on for the benefit of power companies.

At the national level, meanwhile, President Bush's disgraceful tax cut would pauperize a federal budget that provides most of the social services that Californians receive. In reducing taxes on the nation's most affluent 1 percent of families by $774 billion, for example, Bush II proposes to strip the federal treasury of money that could provide Medicare prescription coverage to 39 million elderly Americans.

I was too young to recognize the act of depravity that condemned us to our last such cursed age, the Reagan Revolution, and the era of Proposition 13, where voters authorized property tax cuts that eliminated funding for schools, parks, libraries, and county and social services across the state.

But within a few short years, I saw the results. I saw libraries closed on Saturdays, their bookshelves now empty. I saw parks charging entry fees, their swing sets rusty and broken. I saw school taught in trailers, and municipal swimming pools drained empty. I saw public life wither in a state that grew mean. Now, as I imagine a ditch-worth of watery wine sucked into a Marin County haz-mat tanker, I see that in California, again, a hard rain is going to fall.4


In hopes of peering into the soggy California future, I asked for help from Art Linfoot, a retired engineer. Years ago, Art and his sister, Gail, moved to Butte County, about three hours north of here, to dedicate themselves to the care of their aging mother, who lived in a trailer house. "We did it because of our love for my mom. It wasn't like we had to," Art says. "We wanted to."

After their mother died in 1997, Gail Linfoot continued living in the trailer with her two children, whom she supports with the aid of a meager income supplemented by county health assistance. Not long afterward, Art received a letter demanding $3,931 the state said he owed as reimbursement for assistance his mother received under Medi-Cal, the state's health care program for the indigent elderly, before she died.

And because Art, Gail, and their mother jointly owned the land under the trailer house, California's estate recovery program, crafted in 1993 to help heal an ailing state budget, began gnawing on the Linfoots.

Under this "program," California has become one of the most aggressive -- some might say abusive -- states in the nation when it comes to dunning the heirs of elderly people who were poor enough to receive benefits from Medi-Cal. California is more ruthless than most states, going beyond what federal law requires, a federal review conducted two years ago says. In one case the state sued to force a Sacramento couple to sell their family farm after they spent years caring for an ailing father.

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