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Humanity's Ground Zero

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His short hair and mustache are heavily flecked with grey, but he still retains the stocky, powerful build of a butcher's son, who once, long ago, hauled animal carcasses for his father in the San Diego suburb of El Cajon. At a moment's notice, he puts you in his four-wheel drive and takes you out to San Diego's McMansion exurbs or down to the Mexican border and right up to the new, controversial triple fence just being erected (where you have a passing run-in with the Border Patrol). He is the tour guide of your dreams, a walking encyclopedia of whatever is strange and riveting about Southern California. No object on the landscape seems to escape comment, brief description, or analysis. The bridge on the Interstate you drive across somewhere in the desert lands far out of town is the highest poured-concrete one in the country. The military vessels of every sort that crisscross San Diego's blue harbor are identified and discussed, including the stealth landing craft of ! the Navy SEALs. ("The Navy has more toys out here!")

A small lecture on the local real-estate market follows the complaint that "all anybody talks about these days in San Diego is real-estate values!" Each military base and reservation you pass is carefully pointed out. "People here don't notice the wall-to-wall military. They don't see the death all around them, the killing platforms. They just edit it all out." And every now and then, an odd memory from earlier days surfaces. ("The only good thing about growing up in San Diego was Navy-town and its cheap movie theaters. It was a teenage paradise.") Sitting shotgun in his car, you can't help but be aware that you are watching a dazzling -- if everyday -- performance from a polymath who seems never to have forgotten a thing.

His modest house is at the edge of one of San Diego's poorest neighborhoods which you get a brief spin through -- with a passing discussion of local graffiti thrown into the bargain. His small living room, where we set up my tape recorders, is dominated by a giant, multi-colored plastic playhouse for his two year-old twins, James and Cassandra (or Casey). To interview him in this house is to be surrounded by a world of revolutionary history. No wall, no nook or cranny, not even the bathroom, is lacking its revolutionary poster. ("Camarada! Trabaja y Lucha por la Revolution!") All around you feet threaten to stamp on Russian plutocrats, giant hands to smash the German exploiting class, while you are urged to "Vote Spartacus!" in 1919.

Mike Davis, whose first book about Los Angeles, City of Quartz, burst into bestsellerdom and put him on the map as this country's most innovative urban scholar, has since written about everything from the literary destruction of LA to Victorian holocausts of the 19th century and the potential avian flu pandemic of our own moment. He has most recently turned his restless, searching brain upon the global city in a new book, Planet of Slums, whose conclusions are so startling that I thought they should be the basis for our conversation.

We create a makeshift spot in the living room, my tape recorders between us, and begin. Davis has in him something of the older, nearly lost American tradition of the autodidact. In a tribal world, he would certainly have been any tribe's storyteller of choice. Midway through our interview, which is largely an inspired monologue, we are suddenly interrupted by weeping from elsewhere in the house. Casey has awoken from her nap upset. He quickly excuses himself, returning moments later with a collapsed, still sniffling, dark-haired little girl in pink pants and shirt on his shoulder. Under his ministrations she perks up, then sits up, then begins to talk, hardly less volubly (though slightly less comprehensibly) than her father. Soon she is seated inside the large plastic house, engaging both of us in a game of "big bad wolf." When she wanders off, perhaps twenty minutes later, he turns back to me and, before I can cue him on the interview (I've just checked his last w! ords), he picks up in mid-sentence exactly where he left off and just rolls on.

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