Mike Davis' blue-collar odyssey to "City of Quartz": From trucker to legendary leftist writer

How driving delivery trucks and tour buses led the late Mike Davis to write his landmark work of L.A. history

Published November 6, 2022 6:00AM (EST)

Mike Davis (Wikimedia Commons)
Mike Davis (Wikimedia Commons)

Before there was a "City of Quartz" for Mike Davis, there were hot rod races in the country roads of eastern San Diego County. "There were still country roads and sections of straight roads where you could stage impromptu drag races because the population was less than half of what it is today," Davis said, describing a vanished era "where your fundamental loyalties weren't to God or country or race or religion. They were to Chevys or Fords — and never the twain should meet."

To speak with Mike Davis, who died on Oct. 25 at his home in San Diego at the age of 76, was a chance to speak with a great American writer. (Davis was also an occasional Salon contributor.) But Davis hadn't set out to be a literary voice. He discovered he was a gifted writer in the process of trying to stand up for working people. He did this more in the tradition of Woody Guthrie, a raconteur for the dispossessed, than in the spirit of aspiring writers with expensive educations and bohemian surroundings.

Davis grew up with friends for whom mobility was, above all else, defined by racing cars. "I have an 18-inch scar on my thigh from one hot rod accident in 1964," he said during a 2018 interview at his San Diego home, where he reflected on inspirations for his landmark work "City of Quartz," which turns 30 this year. 

Long before Davis won MacArthur and Lannan awards for his writing, he drove trucks through channelized riverbeds, through affluent neighborhoods delivering toys and furniture, and through the have-and-have-not communities of Los Angeles that would inspire his later writings. That truck-driving career started during his junior year in high school when his father had a heart attack.

With his father unable to work, Davis dropped out of high school and took over his father's job making deliveries for his uncle's meatpacking company. "It was at times a great boon to my friends," Davis told me. "I used to deliver meat to the Chargers training camp," meaning the pro football team that began in Los Angeles, then moved to San Diego for several decades, and more recently moved back. The camp was located way in the mountains northeast of the city, and players were kept up there in monastic isolation. "After practice they had two passions," Davis said. The players would "consume enormous quantities of beef. Two or three of my high school buddies would always accompany me up there, and they'd get to meet their hero football players and watch porn movies, and we'd take home a few steaks as well."

Later Davis qualified for a poverty program designed by UCLA's Institute of Industrial Relations in partnership with the Teamsters Union. "It was probably the most utopian experience in my life, certainly the most fun," he said, explaining that he and his fellow trainees got paid to spend three months driving brand new heavy-duty trucks — Peterbilts, Kenworths and Macks. 

The most bizarre and also most practical aspect of the training, he said, was that Davis and his fellow trainees practiced driving those heavy-duty trucks down the channelized sections of the Los Angeles River (later made famous in "The Terminator," among other movies and TV shows). "We could practice without breaking or smashing into anything," he said.

That training landed Davis a job driving a Ready Mix cement truck for a construction company. "One day, I was pouring concrete when they were building the ARCO oil towers [in] downtown [Los Angeles], which I think have been torn down now because they were full of asbestos," Davis recalled. "I got so mesmerized watching the ironworkers 20 stories up there doing their thing. My hearing was bad, even at that point, and all the sudden I realized somebody's throwing something at me and guys are yelling at me. I was managing to pour concrete right down the center of Figueroa Street!"

Davis lost his job after that incident, but got another one driving for Pensick & Gordon, the largest toy distributor on the West Coast. "They had, at that point, probably the most modern warehouse system in California, a partially automated system," Davis said, noting that the warehouse featured an automatic order-picking machine. "There were 12 of us hauling 27-foot and 40-foot trailers every day. I ended up staying on that job for almost five years, working full-time."

Davis said he might have remained a trucker his whole life — if not for a seasonal layoff, a Teamsters wildcat strike and a Marxist newspaper run by UCLA faculty and students.

Those years of experience sparked Davis' lifelong interest in Southern California labor issues related to the mobility of people and goods. At one point, he considered becoming a maritime clerk for the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), and early in his studies at UCLA he wanted to study transportation economics and logistics. "I also nursed this dream, which I never confessed to my socialist comrades, of becoming an independent owner-operator or working in the industry as a logistics expert," Davis said.

He might have remained a trucker for his entire career, Davis admitted, if not for a company reorganization that shifted all but two drivers to seasonal status. "The rest of us got laid off for a couple of months," he said. "Because we were working only 10 months a year, we lost all of our seniority. So I decided at that point to go back to UCLA." 

During a 1970 wildcat strike by the Teamsters — a famous event in L.A. labor history — Davis worked with Marxist professors and students from UCLA to produce a newspaper called Picket Line to support the strikers and labor activism. The students and faculty working on that paper encouraged Davis to enroll at the university himself. That was a turning point in his life.

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"I was almost 30 years old and married and considered myself a grown man," Davis said. "I didn't want to live like a starving student, so I decided I would get a job on the side that could keep me in the style to which I was accustomed." With his Class 1 driver's license, he was hired to drive a tour bus — which also meant writing and delivering the scripts to people visiting L.A. from all over the world. "The most peculiar part of the job," he said, "was that you dressed up like an airline pilot."

That sparked Davis' interest in L.A. history, and provided an opportunity to develop the synthesis of literary, historical and sociopolitical elements he would use to full effect in "City of Quartz." Before that time, Davis said, he "was interested mainly in the trucking industry and left-wing activity inside the Teamsters union." 

Writing scripts for his tour-guide job sparked an interest in L.A. history, and drove Davis toward a synthesis of literary, historical and sociopolitical elements that would shape his writing career.

Those tour-guide scripts drew Davis to other L.A. and California authors, such as John Fante, Louis Adamic, Upton Sinclair, Raymond Chandler and perhaps his biggest influence, Carey McWilliams — the author, lawyer and editor at the Nation who was known for his influential reporting and commentary on California politics, the plight of migrant farm workers and Japanese American internment during World War II.

As part of his tour guide job, Davis recalled, " I somehow ended up with these group tours sponsored by the longshoremen's union," which had organized the Hawaiian sugar plantations after World War II. His group tours largely consisted of Filipino and Japanese retirees, Davis said. "These were fantastic people. They would sing and chat and the whole thing. They weren't so interested in seeing movie stars, they were really interested in history, so I got to use my Carey McWilliams." 

Davis' life changed again when his employer, Gray Line Tours, decided to break the union and he and the other drivers went on strike. "They brought in professional strikebreakers. It turns out that the private bus industry retains a permanent cadre of strikebreakers that just travel around the country breaking attempts to organize bus lines, whether it's school buses or tour buses, whatever."

The Gray Line strike soon fell apart and Davis went back to the trucking business, somehow balancing his studies at UCLA with his trucking income until one fateful traffic stop on the road in central California, "at the scales somewhere around Hollister or Gilroy." Davis was pulled over by a California Highway Patrol inspector who wrote him for "the most savage and ridiculous series of violations you could imagine." His employer didn't pay for tickets: "The drivers had to eat them," he recalled. "So thanks to this one stop, I ended up paying $100 more than I had earned."

Around that time, Davis had started teaching one night a week in the Urban Planning Program at UCLA. "So I was driving six days a week, and teaching one night at UCLA," he said. "One paid me something like $5,000, and the other I was losing money on." So that was the end of his trucking career and the beginning of his life teaching, research and writing at UCLA and other Los Angeles-area universities.

It was at the Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arc) where Davis found the most intellectual liberty. During his decade-long tenure there, he used his courses as vehicles to explore Los Angeles in transformative and intellectually mischievous ways. "For instance, I became interested in whether you could restore some of the original streams and creeks that flowed through west of downtown L.A., which reappear in their natural form in certain backyards on the west side, and a couple of the country clubs."

Another course on design and infrastructure, Davis said, could well have landed him in Guantánamo Bay a few years later. "I tried to figure out a way to get the students excited about infrastructure," he said, explaining that each student in the course was given a hypothetical $20,000 "to inflict as much damage on Los Angeles as they possibly could." 

A course on design and infrastructure could have landed him in Guantánamo Bay a few years later, Davis said. Each student was given a hypothetical $20,000 "to inflict as much damage on Los Angeles as they possibly could." 

This subversive project compelled students to pay attention to freeways, subterranean elements, "aviation, fuel lines running though the West Side, the vast amount of natural gas stored in the Ballona Wetlands. If this had been after 9/11, I'd be in prison," Davis said. "It was quite remarkable: These kids came up with absolutely brilliant schemes for shutting the entire city down for the cost of a truckload of fertilizer." That was the kind of freedom Davis had when he started writing "City of Quartz."

Much of that groundbreaking work is the result of Davis' time in library stacks poring over books and periodicals. "Part of 'City of Quartz' was written while I was teaching in Ottawa and Toronto for a year," he recalled. "I just read the L.A. Times for a 30-year period — literally cover to cover," he said, including the local editions for the West Valley, San Gabriel Valley and South Bay:

I was interested in things like the homeowner's movement. I didn't just read the front page and the main local news, I went scrupulously through all this other stuff, in far too much detail. I was convinced no one would ever buy "City of Quartz" because it has a 90-page chapter on homeowner's association, and things like battles over dog poo.

When Davis returned to L.A. from Canada, he spent part of the following year delivering furniture. "I had a brand new Mack cab-over, and me and one of the warehousemen would make the rounds picking up furniture" at illegal manufacturing sweatshop "all over South Central L.A." 

Davis' formative experiences within the Southern California supply chain clearly informed the socioeconomic commentary at the heart of "City of Quartz." A theme that begins in that book and extends through all of Davis' work — "Ecology of Fear," "Planet of Slums" and "Buda's Wagon: A Brief History of the Car Bomb," to name a few — is that economic and social mobility is directly linked to people's access to physical and geographic mobility systems. In other words, if people can't get where they need to go, and don't have access to resources, they are more than likely to struggle with poverty:

I got to see inside the sweatshop furniture industry and this whole new industrial economy of Los Angeles based on sweatshops. Also, you got to know the workers. You wouldn't find a harder group of workers in the world than the young Mexican guys and Salvadorans who worked in these plants, and who I worked with at this company. Some of them holding down two jobs at a time. The dignity and heroism and struggling for their families, extraordinary. I thought it was the single most important story to be told about contemporary Los Angeles.

Three decades after the publication of "City of Quartz," the book remains required reading in cultural and urban studies courses around the world. Its subtitle, "Excavating the Future of Los Angeles," asks readers to use lessons learned about L.A.'s past — about its "Boosters, Noirs, and Mercenaries," in Davis' memorable phrase — to consider not only the future of urbanism in general and cities around the world.

In his final book, "Old Gods, New Enigmas," Davis challenges readers to think about the city as its own solution in the concluding chapter, "Who Will Build the Ark." He reflects on a range of perspectives contributed by Lewis Mumford, Jane Jacobs, Frank Lloyd Wright, Walt Disney and Le Corbusier, among others, and concludes that, more than ever before, cities of the future will play host to humanity's greatest failures and greatest triumphs. At the end of his career, Davis maintained the same spirit of intellectual mischief and creative rebellion evident in the early courses he taught at SCI-Arch, calling for a hacker's sensibility in reclaiming the cities of the future:

Some of history's giant trees have already been cut down, a new Ark will have to be constructed out of the materials that a desperate humanity finds at hand in insurgent communities, pirate technologies, bootlegged media, rebel science, and forgotten utopias.

When asked about the ethical importance of mobility in connecting working people to vital urban centers and making cities more egalitarian, Davis said, "Whether you look at Lagos or Cairo or Delhi, for instance, an increasingly large part of people's budget has to be spent on transportation. Transportation now involves far longer commutes than the vast majority of Americans would conceive of themselves ever having to take. Hundreds of millions of people in the medium, large and hyper-large cities face excruciating tradeoffs between housing and transportation costs."

In the end, Mike Davis' blue-collar route that led him to "City of Quartz" now extends to the realities faced by working-class people around the world. "Rational transport planning would look at, 'Here's the biggest clump of jobs, here's the biggest concentration of residences,' and draw a straight line between them," he said. But that is "almost never done." Davis' landmark book remains a call to action, a reminder that we must  learn from history — both its triumphs and its many failures — to excavate a better future for working people around the world.

By Tyler Reeb

Tyler D. Reeb is a Canadian-born writer, researcher and educator based in Los Angeles. He writes about international business, politics, technology and culture. He serves as the director of research and workforce development at the Center for International Trade & Transportation and is the editor and principal author of "Empowering the New Mobility Workforce" (2019).

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Authors Books City Of Quartz Essay History Labor Mike Davis R.i.p.