I grew up in San Bernardino.
Above: My dad, quoted in the San Bernardino Sun-Telegram, 1959. When Dad emigrated to America from Lebanon in 1956, he could have settled anywhere. He ended up in San Bernardino, where he built himself a business and a family and ran both with equal vigor for 50 years.
Most likely you’ve heard the news this week from San Bernardino, California. A pair of jerks killed a bunch of probably real nice people. What a terrible, terrible event.
Lots of impassioned people are spilling gigaflops of pixel ink on the Big Issues raised by this mass shooting, the largest in…well, a short while.
Political points will be scored by people decrying their opponents for milking the event for political points.
People who already hate certain things (such as Muslims, or guns, or, like me, arguing on the Internet) will discover, folded into their perceptions of this event, newly colorful reasons to hate that same thing even more righteously.
I want to talk about the town.
I was born and raised in San Bernardino. I lived there for 18 years, until I moved away to college. My mom and my sisters and their families live there now.
There — that little tiny intake of breath that I heard. If we were speaking face-to-face, I’d hear it clearly. What should I say? Is everything all right? I’m so sorry.
My family is fine. According to Facebook, some friends of friends may or may not have known some of the people affected. (The same is probably true of lots of different news events.)
I, personally (and thankfully), require no special sympathy or attention.
San Bernardino, though, could use some.
It’s had it pretty rough. It’s an old town, founded in the late 1800s, a gateway between the urban sprawl of Los Angeles and the desolate California desert.
It’s got two Rs in its name; it’s not San “Bernadino.” Get your hashtags right, people!
It was a three-industry town: The Santa Fe railroad had headquarters in San Bernardino for many years, and there was the Kaiser Steel mill, and there was Norton Air Force Base, onetime home to dozens of now-obsolete C-141 Starlifters.
All three vanished during my adolescence. The railroad moved its headquarters elsewhere; the steel mill closed; and the base was shuttered. A lot of the people I went to high school with couldn’t wait to leave, and many of us did.
San Bernardino today is the palm-tree edition of the desolate Rust Belt factory town, seasoned with inner-city gang culture overflowing from Los Angeles and meth culture tumbling down from the desert.
Hugely expensive pension liabilities caused the city to declare bankruptcy a few years back, hurting city services, and sky-high unemployment and illegal drug traffic feed off and nourish each other.
So… I’ve never been entirely proud to say I was from San Bernardino. There are nice areas, sure; and around half the people are employed, which is good. My high school had (and continues to have) some good programs.
But at least I had the luxury of knowing that if I said where I was from, people might not know those terrible things about it.
“It’s the home of the very first McDonald’s restaurant,” I could say instead, or if the person is old I could say “Route 66 goes through the center of town,” or if the person looks cool I might say “If you’re going up to Big Bear to ski, you should stop and get a burrito at Rosa Maria’s on Sierra Way.”
Now, I fear that San Bernardino has entered the miserable fraternity of places known only as killing sites, like Sandy Hook, or Newtown, or Aurora.
In college, I had some friends from Littleton, Colorado. They had gone to Columbine High. They had already graduated and moved away when the shooting happened, and had had no involvement with it whatsoever.
Still, it was weird: I couldn’t imagine them having had a normal high school experience, because, you know, they’d gone to Columbine.
How many people will have that weird reaction now to San Bernardino? To the prospect of visiting, or buying property, or going to school, or doing business with my family and friends in San Bernardino? “That San Bernardino?”
I heard one of San Bernardino’s former mayors on the radio today. “We’re a town in transition,” he said wearily, and then, to make the perfunctory point: “I’d say we’re in recovery.”
The shooters’ victims are the fallen men and women. Let nothing take away from that horror, or their families’ grief.
But the shots went on to hit wider targets, too. I’m from San Bernardino. Yes, we must all now add, that San Bernardino.