From San Francisco
In my neighborhood in San Francisco, the economic recession gets told more by what you don’t see than what you do see. There are fewer parking spaces on the street at night because fewer people are going out. There are no foreclosure notices attached to “For Sale” signs on the Victorian facades. Up the block, the two-bedroom (“Has To Be Seen!”) apartment is renting for $4,000 a month -- without a garage. Despite the posted imperative, the place has been vacant for two months.
It is the lack of a consistency of tone or theme that is striking. Nearby, on Fillmore Street, there are the usual plastic cups of the resourceful, friendly addicted who have haunted the street for many years. The restaurants are less crowded, but they are not empty. The woman at the excellent bookstore wonders what else she might do if her store should be forced to close. The coffee shop next door is as clamorous as ever.
There are potholes on the streets that recall the potholes of Tijuana. The city and county of San Francisco is too broke to repair them. Range Rovers must finally endure jolts as severe as those portrayed on off-road TV commercials. The four-tiered city park across the way is as wild now as an English spring garden; the tall grass is slowly dying. Cars are broken into nightly. Women cross and recross the paths in the park all day, confiding their souls to cellphones. A neighbor tells me he has lost fully half his savings. Nevertheless, he has engaged a crew of four construction workers for two months to reconstruct his kitchen. I watch the four men unloading slabs of white marble from the back of their truck.
My neighborhood lies between the public housing of the Western Addition and the mansions of Pacific Heights on the hill -- most of them recently restored to a Victorian-era excess of craftsmanship. Real estate agents are apt to describe this neighborhood as “lower Pacific Heights,” ignoring our descending southern flank in favor of the grandeur up the hill. In my neighborhood, there are more apartments than houses, though probably more condos than rentals. In my neighborhood, there is youth, obnoxious, glorious.
At St. Dominic’s Church, a few blocks away, the pastor told us on Palm Sunday that weekly contributions are down by $8,000, whereas requests for emergency help with rent, food, diapers and children’s clothing have quadrupled.
Suffering never happens in a uniform way, the poet W.H. Auden noted in “Musee des Beaux Arts.” Suffering takes place in western Pennsylvania or in Riverside County “while someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along.” Thousands of people show up for 34 job openings in Miami. A young man in a crisp blue shirt sits alone at his Apple at the coffee shop on Fillmore. And who is to say the young man is not, thus, also in an unemployment line?
The young man calls out to me as I leave the cafe. He asks why “someone who writes about serious issues would live in a yuppie neighborhood like this one”?
It is such an unexpected question from a young man who looks so thoroughly Fillmore that I am taken aback. I say something stupid about tall ceilings and southern exposure. But, once in the street, I wonder about the malice that lurks in the question.
I went to a meeting several months ago. The meeting took place at a homeless shelter in the Tenderloin; it had to do with an upcoming charity function. A young man who lives in my neighborhood was there, and he said we could hardly have a serious meeting without coffee. He volunteered to make the run. He asked me to help carry.
We talked as we walked. He was without a job; he had several interviews lined up in several cities. Isn’t that a coffee shop? I pointed. But no, it had to be a Starbucks. We walked on. We did eventually find a Starbucks. Just before we reentered the shelter, bearing our cardboard trays, he asked: “Do you think they will think we are lording over them by bringing Starbucks coffee?” Throughout the meeting, all I could think was: It would never ever, ever have occurred to me to ask that question.
Someone tells me Oracle lives halfway down the block from my house. Intel lives in a duplex in the opposite direction. When the dot-com bubble burst in 2000, neighborhood gossip focused on a house on Pierce Street that had taken two years and hundreds of thousands of dollars to enlarge and minimalize. Just as the construction crews were pulling away, the owner was forced to sell the house he had never slept in. The dream was quickly bought by another young husband, wife and dog who have recently begun a reconstruction.
Class envy does not come naturally to Americans. The American dream is a dream of success. Until recently, I was unaware of any moderation clause attaching to the dream. So, why should there be scorn in our voices when we speak of yuppies?
And why should it amuse old-timers in my neighborhood that the young man who lived in the green Victorian owned three English sports cars and did not have a garage? Anyway, he lost his job and moved away.
The young are resilient, we think fondly -- able to rebound from disappointment, even recession. So why do we loathe the aspiring young for their obliviousness to tragedy, for their white marble kitchens, for their three sports cars, especially the MG convertible, and no garage?
I think, finally, my young neighbors are not people who suffer in public. They dream in public -- that’s another matter. They gut. They build. They advertise their hair and their teeth and their BlackBerrys and their leisure, whether you like it or not. They may lose their jobs; they do not suffer unease about the future in public. They disappear online, or else they move away and their apartments stand vacant until someone else comes to town who can afford $4,000 a month.
Richard Rodriguez, author of “Brown: The Last Discovery of America,” is writing a book on monotheism and desert ecology.