Column: Mike Davis has terminal cancer. But his big worry is what is happening to our world

You can easily see why Mike Davis might be down.

The Jeremiah of Southern California — the writer has been equally celebrated and hated for decoding the dark side of the region’s perennial boosterism — has battled cancer for five years.

He recently decided to stop chemotherapy and is now on palliative care at his San Diego home. Doctors have given him months to live.

The recent Covid Surge has slowed the flow of activists and academics to say goodbye. He launched a new book last year but has now had to turn down multiple requests to write it.

I wasn’t expecting a quick response when I emailed him to ask for an interview – but he responded immediately.

A Facebook post announcing his fate “gave many people the impression that I was right at death’s door,” he wrote. “Actually, I’m in fine spirits, surrounded by love, ridiculously spoiled, and dealing with discomfort with a little morphine.”

Early in my career I went to a reading for his underrated book Magical Urbanism: Latinos Reinvented the American City, which he signed for me with the note “From a Fan.” His kind words inspired me to adopt his ultimate lesson – you can’t really love a place without pointing out its sins.

And boy, is it about time.

Environmental disasters abound, as he predicted in his 1998 book Ecology of Fear.

Pandemics are now part of everyday life, not a one-time rarity as it would have happened 17 years ago in The Monster at Our Door: The Global Menace of Bird Flu.

Racial and urban strife is again endemic, as seen in his most famous volume, City of Quartz, published two years before the LA riots and considered a modern classic even by critics.

We live in a world Davis warned us about – and he’s not happy about it.

I asked Davis to chat for about an hour and expect bromides and castigations against the powers that be. He gave me so much more.

It’s not often that a personal icon can kick it with you for the better part of an afternoon when he has so little time to spare.

Davis, 76, sat on a couch with his wife – artist and professor Alessandra Moctezuma – at his side. He wore a t-shirt with a Celtic harp surrounded by the words “Reuelant Irish Bastard”.

He was gaunt, but his eyes, voice, and intellect were as wild and clear as ever. His trademark white beard and cropped hair shone with the power of life that’s not ready to be left just yet.

I had some questions but put them aside as we chatted for hours. Chatting at Bell Gardens’ Okie old guardhouse, he hailed Joe Biden as “a sheer disaster.” I briefed him on the latest happenings with LA County Sheriff Alex Villanueva. There was a fun reminiscence of the former mayor of La Richard Riordan and war stories from his days as an activist. We both agreed that writer William Saroyan is an underappreciated genius who will likely never see a renaissance.

He bore no ill will for his many critics, though he paints year-long campaigns just as little better than a trotting-Civic Eeyore. Nor has it satisfied that most of them now lie in the dustbin of history while he is celebrated more than ever as mankind goes to hell.

“What – as a good communist I should have been proud to be attacked by all these people?” Davis once remarked. “I’m not really worried about justification and all that.”

But the man who once told this newspaper “it’s not that bad” while slamming him in a nearly 6,000-word front-page story, admitted he’s more concerned than ever.

Mike Davis, in a red shirt and brown blazer, holds a book while leaning on a shelf in a bookstore.

Mike Davis after writing a children’s book about a trip to Greenland in the children’s section of the Midnight Special Bookstore in 2004.

(Annie Wells/Los Angeles Times)

At the beginning of our conversation, Davis showed me a photo of a group of men he’s known since second grade, all from the conservative “heart of darkness,” which he joked was the El Cajon region in the 1950s.

“I never doubted for a moment that people could change,” he said, noting how many of these friends—all working-class white—would join him for anti-racist rallies in the 1960s. “But it’s an almost heartbreaking loss for me to know that I can no longer reach these types of people,” due to political polarization.

“Although I’m famous for being a pessimist, I really wasn’t a pessimist,” he continued. “You know, [my writing has] More was a call to action. An attempt to incite righteous anger against those we should genuinely be angry at. But now there is a certain sense of doom. This is not the time or history that my children should inherit, you know?”

He motioned to his 18-year-old son, James, who had been reading a Nathanael West novel in silence nearby. Before his illness, the two traveled upstate San Diego County to pursue Davis’ secret life as a rockhound and his son’s love of botany.

“Personally, what’s most troubling is taking my brown son to East County, where I grew up…” Davis began. ” [Gustavo] What happened.”

James picked up the story. “Someone who owns property right next to a [public] The street will get on a pickup truck and they’ll threaten us and they’ll tell us, “You better get off my damn property.” We’re on the side of the road, a public right of way. It is ridiculous. And it happened several times. “

Two hours later it was time for lunch.

A copy of "Magical urbanism" That Mike Davis signed for the author in 2003.

A copy of Magical Urbanism signed by Mike Davis for the author in 2003.

(Gustavo Arellano/Los Angeles Times)

Moctezuma had laid out a selection of burritos, tacos, and hummus in the kitchen. She and Davis shared stories about protesting Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari in Ireland and disrupting a lecturer at the Alamo by revealing that Moctezum’s ancestor killed Jim Bowie.

I knew I should have continued with deep questions, but I couldn’t. I knew Mike Davis, the legend; I finally knew Mike Davis the man. I wish I had known him earlier.

We kept talking.

Did he feel driven out of Los Angeles after the backlash to the “ecology of fear”? No, he happily moved to San Diego to follow Moctezuma, who found a job at Mesa College, where she still teaches.

What did Davis think his legacy would be? He scoffed.

“I don’t think for a writer-activist it claims to have a legacy—that will be defined later,” he said, slowly munching on carne asada. “The important thing is that you can say every day that you have punched the time clock. You did your little bit for social justice. “

For the record:

9:12 July 22, 2022An earlier version of this column said that Mike Davis has been married to his wife since 1999. They married in 1997.

“I was just looking at your hands,” Moctezuma said, then grabbed her husband’s fingers. The two have been married since 1997. “You can tell Mike writes every day. non-stop. You have all that muscle in your hands! “

Davis blushed. “Not the hands I used to have.”

“My quality of life really couldn’t be better,” he said. “As you can see, in this family I am surrounded by love. And in a way it was absolutely the best period of my life… I’m not sure I’d act this time, except maybe as we were adventurers when we were first married. “

We have to travel a lot,” Moctezuma replied with a wistful smile. “Yeah. Had a lot…” She trailed off. “You know, fun.”

The two now spend their days watching the sunset or “snuggling together, watching TV together,” Davis said.

There was nothing funeral about my time with Davis. In fact, I took away the one bit of optimism for this country that it still retains in the face of darkness.

During our conversation he aroused young people who sent him kind letters about books he was writing before they were even born.

“You have this whole generation that doesn’t want to be a lost generation,” he said. “It wants to be the most active generation ever. First of all, the moral dimension of all these children. They have incredible values ​​about race or gender and they are naturally willing to be fighters. “

Davis has collected school yearbooks for the “social history” they depict.

His prized possession: 1938 Roosevelt High.

The Boyle Heights campus was “the rainbow coalition brought to life,” he said. “You talk about diversity. Oh dear God. Okies, Russians, Japanese, Filipinos, Blacks. And then about 50% Mexican.

“All these kids are growing up together and kind of basking in that self-respect. “Don’t mess with Roosevelt High School. We have all kinds of people who are all going to fight,” he added, sounding happy and content – and hopeful. Column: Mike Davis has terminal cancer. But his big worry is what is happening to our world

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