Tag Archives: Silicon Valley

Where Every Prospect Pleases

The wife and children and I live in a small two-bedroom condo. It’s all that we can afford here in the San Francisco Bay Area where things are pricey. We bought at the wrong time, in late 2005, just before the Great Recession. Not that the recession did much to bring down the cost of housing. If you’re very lucky, a half million dollars today will get you an ugly fixer-upper in a distant, soul-killing suburb. Or you can make do, like we do, in a rinky-dink condominium in a downtown neighborhood of the inner suburbs where the library and local bookshop are only two blocks away. I don’t know how anyone affords a detached single-family home here.

I’ve just read Two Years Before the Mast in which Richard Henry Dana – a Boston Brahmin turned common sailor – recounts his time spent aboard a merchant vessel working the coast of the then-Mexican province of Alta California in 1834-35. It’s amazing to me that the state could have been so sparsely populated so recently. Monterey, the capitol at the time, seems to have had no more than a few hundred residents. Anchoring in San Francisco Bay (which he calls Francis Drake’s Bay – actually a little farther north), Dana admires the perfection of the climate and the wooded hills framing the water. “If California ever becomes a prosperous country,” he prophesies, “this bay will be the center of its prosperity.”

Elsewhere Dana observes that “the beautiful is linked with the revolting, the sublime with the common-place, and the solemn with the ludicrous.” This is true, I suppose, of most everything that man gets his mitts on, but it feels specially true of my corner of California. It is beautiful in spring when the hills are green and the sun shines most days and the birds are everywhere. Hiking with the kids a week ago we identified over twenty species, from kestrels and turkeys to mockingbirds and wrens. A few miles away, however, by the bay shore, my office is built atop a toxic dump created by Silicon Valley entrepreneurs who cheerily poured their waste chemicals into old orchard plots forty years ago.

All things are apparently convertible to dollars. This is proof, perhaps, that something went horribly wrong. Or maybe it was ever thus. Profit is only another name for virtue here in the best of all possible worlds. I may resent the universe for seeming to require of me the things it seems to require. I may sincerely hope to vomit if I hear another colleague use the terms “KPI” (key performance indicator) or “B-HAG” (big hairy audacious goal). I may drive the freeways worshiping the wild hills and despising the tract homes and the filthy strip malls. I may repeat to myself again and again that only man is vile. But I try to remember that I’m a man too.

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The Lunch Hour

I am sitting alone eating a plate of Thai green curry and reading Paul Auster’s Ghosts when I look up and take fresh note of my surroundings.  I come here often.  The waitress gives a friendly laugh every time I walk in: always with a book, always orders the same thing.  But today there’s something exotic in the quotidian details of it all – the décor, the people, my own presence here, the ritual of meals in public places.

Immediately to my left is a pair of software engineers, one with a light brown beard and a gray and white Hawaiian shirt; the other in a green polo, with dark hair and a large nose.  They’re excitedly talking in a language nominally English but composed of acronyms and nonsense terms, pronouncing judgment on the skills of colleagues and the quality of products the functions of which are to me incomprehensible.

In a booth to my right a young woman sits with a friend or coworker.  She’s wearing black Chuck Taylors and jeans and her tightly curled red hair is tied in a knot on top of her head.  She looks down, smiling, and closes her eyes while pretending to brush crumbs from the table – a gesture intended to illustrate something in their conversation.  She and her companion leave.  Their place is taken by two south Asians, a man and a woman.  He’s tall and broad in a button down shirt, no tie.  She’s slim, wearing khakis and a tapering blouse with vertical pink stripes.  They smile and laugh. They’re in love, I think.  But then a second man arrives, wearing an office badge that matches theirs.  We were beginning to think you wouldn’t make it, they tell him.  I pay my bill and leave.

I sit in the hot car with the windows down and read for another five minutes.  An enormous black bug flies into the automobile and buzzes at my face, moving in sharp aggressive jags.  I open the door to give it a wider egress and it shoots away.  A group of businessmen passes, laughing.  To my left a man steps out of a car and yells something in Mandarin or Cantonese.  Two twenty-something hipsters glance at me as they walk by.  An older woman in a purple pants-suit talks on her cell phone while carrying a to-go bag from the Salvadoran taqueria.   I start up my car and drive down the lane.  Bristling with redwoods, the ridges of the Santa Cruz Mountains rise to the west.  A ragged strip of ocean fog hangs above.  I drive faster.  I roll up one window and the fluctuating air pressure in the car makes a staccato thumping in my ears.

Idea for a story: Single, middle-aged man living in Silicon Valley, present day, works for a cremation and burial services company, making cold calls.  His sense of dislocation, his incomprehension of the lives of the technology workers and others around him.

I sleepily park the car.  I make a brief walk around the deserted buildings near my office, the former campus of a forgotten software company.  The poplars are finally in leaf, shimmering.  The fat roses are white and yellow, the grass lush and well kept despite the fact that the buildings have been tenantless for years.  I stretch out on a bench under a maple.  There is a fountain purling to my right.  I close my eyes, which begin to itch and water – allergies.  When I open them halfway the slow shifting of the maple boughs and their rippling leaves above me seem to dance in mathematical patterns like swirling tiles in a cheap cardboard kaleidoscope bought for a child.

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