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Land of Milk and Money

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June 2, 2014

Is Tech 2.0 boon or bust for quality of life in the Bay Area? A tourist investigates.

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Image by Barry Falk.

It’s rush hour on a Friday, and I’m driving through San Jose traffic during the Bay Area’s second big Web boom. I’m surrounded by Google buses, eBay shuttles, BMWs, Audis, and Teslas—the daily northerly conveyance of tens of thousands from Silicon Valley back to San Francisco, our new dork overlords on the move, inching up the fright-scape that is Highway 101. Though the story of tech and the Bay Area is more complicated than wealth and movement and also simpler and older than anything that requires tech at all.

Wanting to investigate or at least encounter some of the power and problems of a region experiencing dramatic change, your attention might be diverted, as mine was, by a gizmo that isn’t on a phone or a computer. It’s a probably-1982 Datsun station wagon, idling in the stop-and-go traffic, a sort of multi-tool of cars. It’s gorgeous. In fifteen years of driving cross-country, I’ve never seen one; a solution to our need to move as elegant as a Delorean stretched out and stripped of all unnecessary angles. There is no dash-mounted Wi-Fi module. The snug gray car has the same brutal lines and attractiveness of a good shovel or an icepick or a stout hammer. For a moment I savor the simplicity of this pre-modern tool, wanting to delay my encounter with the Capitol of the Internet and Everything It Means. I admit all this excitement is partially my own invention, and more importantly what I need to do is deal with the fact that my four-year-old daughter needs to pee.

Outside my car I see a gridlocked highway—good lord, does it have twenty lanes?—which for the last thirty minutes has been bisected by misleadingly named parkways, which themselves must be ten or twelve lanes apiece. I did not realize this part of Silicon Valley was so awful. As many as four million people live here, and the corridor from San Jose to San Francisco has a GDP of nearly a trillion dollars, or more than all of Indonesia. Mostly a tableau of steel and concrete, the acres are lined by the occasional patch of crabgrass or a row of saplings. Inching through the traffic, biting my nails, calmed by none of this, I see not one exit—the little girl banging on the chair, saying she has to go now—that seems to offer anything but corporate office parks and townhouses and wide boulevards. And while I do not begrudge what work and needs these millions are satisfying, what I cannot see is any kind of gas station. Or pedestrian. Or even a place Loretta might point her nakedness and do what needs doing.

I hitchhiked to San Francisco when I was nineteen to see a cousin who lived on the legendary Haight Street. On that same trip, I spent Halloween on the balcony of the Castro Theatre. A few years later, my cousin was in Los Gatos, and it was in her guest room that I learned a good friend had died. In Pacific Heights in 2003, I was diagnosed with malaria, which delayed our wedding in Illinois by nearly two months. San Francisco may have been important to me, but, in my mind, to the world, it ranked beside medium-sized Seattle, compared to the titans like New York and Chicago.

Now, a decade later, I’m back—in an age when companies rise and fall on a screen, in a time when we are debating what a city can or should ask of its corporate citizens, in an era that seems so special and unique and, well, innovative, that it’s like an unpleasant preview of the harshness or darkness of the world I’ll encounter when I can’t do something as simple as find a bathroom.

In a few hours, when I emerge from the traffic and see the Bay Bridge for the first time, when I confront the fog, after I’ve waited many minutes for a hand-cranked five-dollar coffee, what I will decide is that the Bay Area is still not a little bit unlike paradise—though it’s another valley and another boom and another excellent day to be alive in the state of California.

*                      *                     *

When the tech wave first crests I have just transferred to Brown University. A middle-class dude from a no-name Miami suburb, I’ve never before encountered the kind of wealth and ease that I think I see on College Hill in Providence, nor has it occurred to me that the world is changing and that when I leave this oasis, which I have entered mainly by luck, I will meet some kind of new world order. On campus, there are young women in clothes that came from actual fashion designers, sashaying to and fro with Camel Lights and charge cards. None of us have cell phones yet. It’s just a few months into the new millennium, and at a party, I pull a beer from a case and hand it to a guy who might have been an actual Rockefeller. When that first semester gets heavy—so many exams to write!—I smoke a few cigarettes and do pull-ups. Some of my classmates eat dinner downtown—Billy Joel at the next table, having flown up from Montauk—or maybe they themselves jet down to New York for a weekend at a penthouse. A memory of their ease: one of the first warm days of spring, two bros in popped collars and sunglasses splayed out on the hood of a black convertible Jaguar, listening to that old song by Mungo Jerry. “If her daddy’s rich take her out for a meal / We’re not dirty, we’re not mean / We love everybody but we do as we please.”

The idea of working for a website—like as a career?—this felt to me like deciding to drop out of college to play a video game.

Even rich kids get jobs. I remember walking through the Brown post office where recruiters set up their tables. There were lines for the consultancies and the Rhodes Scholarships. It was understood many would go into finance or law. Another option, not entirely clear to me at the time, and perhaps unclear to most that spring, was that we could work in tech.

For me, the Internet in the mid-’90s was a place for email. Later a place to download songs. I suppose I did buy some stereo equipment, using up the last of some money I’d earned working on a fishing boat in Alaska. But the idea of working for a website—like as a career?—this felt to me like deciding to drop out of college to play a video game.

I remember watching the Super Bowl—at the geeky fraternity next to the one that had the secret pot-smoking chamber with the amphitheater seating—and all the commercials were for these fanciful new websites. Pets.com would sell you items for your…pet and it was worth $82 million, far less than grocery delivery service Webvan.com, which earned a valuation of $1.2 billion, despite having made only $5 million in revenue. That spring, in an English lecture class, someone had a Snickers bar delivered to his seat by a service called Kozmo. The delivery person had this orange messenger bag. It cost nothing extra to have a candy bar delivered to your desk.

Then 9/11 and wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. For a while, we didn’t care much about valuations of websites. I flew out of SF a few times en route to Asia. The airport felt unloved and the city once again ranked in my mind among our nation’s second tier. We had eight years of a Bush presidency and then the massive financial collapse of 2008, followed by the inauguration of our first black president. From a great distance, California was Schwarzenegger and Boxer and Pelosi. My family had moved to Saudi Arabia, and homesick one afternoon, I surfed the Web, trying to remember what it was like in 2000, and I felt the rush that comes from encountering icons of an older age, in this case a Kozmo messenger bag, which you could buy on eBay. In 2013, we moved back to America, and judging purely on the sort of ambient feeling I could sense—Democrat in power for a second term, prosperity returning, for some—the nation felt primed, ready again to allow for the lightness (and the irrationality and the exuberance) of another boom.

How could I judge? It’s not like I’d ever made particularly admirable, rational, or tough-nosed decisions myself. After college, I worked as an editor. When my wife and I moved abroad, my biggest responsibility was to care for our newborn daughter. When we settled back in Los Angeles it felt fresh and unencumbered and ridiculous and full of possibilities.

I hadn’t been back to the Bay Area since 2006. Good friends had settled in and around the city. It was spring and Kelly was in town for work and our place in Los Angeles was being fumigated, so we packed the car and headed north.

*                      *                     *

The first days, we are in Albany, CA, just north of Berkeley, staying with friends who bought a house full of therapists. They’ve kicked out some of the shrinks, knocked down some walls, and made a second-floor aerie. James works as a magazine editor and his wife Ella part time as a real estate agent. My wife and I marvel at their luscious yard, the kindergarten three blocks away, the strip of quaint shops, and the jaw-dropping beauty of the foliage and views. Our children play together in clumps of wildflowers and under the shade of a Meyer lemon tree. It’s like everything is dripping with honey and fuzzed in sweet-tasting moss. That afternoon, we walk to Indian Rocks, giant stone edifices that lie there—no-big-deal, despite the awkward name—beside stately wooden houses owned by Michael Pollan and Alice Waters and Michael Chabon. That night we grill a flank steak, eating it with bottle after bottle of local pale ale and red wine. (Outside, we can hear the murmur of young adults who live next door, partying on the back porch, staying up late. I hear snatches of conversation about stock options and benefits packages.)

The next afternoon James and I grab our kindergarteners and take a city bus across town, to sit in the sun-drenched backyard of friends who live in Oakland, which is the site of recent protests against some of those rarified buses that shuttle people to the campuses down south. Something like seven thousand people enjoy the free rides, which have Wi-Fi.

Protestors have systematically blocked the buses, smashed at least one window, and one bus was even vomited upon. But what do they want? In at least one instance, they issued a demand for one billion dollars. More reasonably, there’s been anger at the way the buses idle in city bus stops, causing actual city buses—filled with people who are not making six figures—to be late to work. Tech companies have since agreed to pay $1.5 million to monitor the use of such spots. Google has also begun a ferry service to Redwood City. Another thing that might happen, and probably already has, is that some commuters will simply buy cars and get to work that way. It’ll be harder to block an atomized fleet of Teslas. One organizer, speaking to a reporter last month, said a new focus is on evictions. Landlords, prepare for vomit.

However ham-handed or ill-informed our cries might be, sitting there in Oakland, it feels thrilling to be near the money and the energy and the future.

Then I contemplate my own prejudices, and the way they’d morph or shift if we lived here, which I’m increasingly drawn to make happen. My thoughts drift to my friend’s house and the bottom floor, which currently houses the offices of three therapists. How hard would it be to convert it to a few bedrooms? I suppose that would be a kind of eviction.

If Napster and eBay and email defined the Web of my early adulthood—free stuff, buying stuff, talking about stuff—I like to think that, as a father and a citizen and a landowner, I could have a reasonably deep relationship with what’s happening in the Bay Area now, that I could think in a rigorous way about what could or should happen next. Perhaps if my family did move here, we could help urge tech campuses to employ union labor to cook on-site meals, to hire more women, to provide for a more diverse and vibrant life for an economically diverse San Francisco. However ham-handed or ill-informed our cries might be, sitting there in Oakland, it feels thrilling to be near the money and the energy and the future.

In 2008, when I first passed through Dubai and Abu Dhabi, before their respective crashes (or at least slowdowns), I remember the shower stalls at the beaches in the Emirates had nicer fixtures than any home I’d ever seen. It seemed clear to me then what would happen: I fantasized that when the United Arab Emirates went broke, the desert would push itself over the grass lawns. The fixtures would be stolen. Yet things in the UAE are still mostly okay, with investment, tourism, and development returning to previous rates. There’s even talk again of iPads made of gold and nicer things being handed out to press at ceremonies for new condo buildings. Those beach shower fixtures have, if anything, been replaced by even nicer ones.

It’s hard not to imagine or even hope for a similarly severe correction in the Bay area, and I don’t relish that instinct—that desire to watch a castle crumble. In the US, after the 2000 to 2002 bubble burst, the market value of US companies listed on the Nasdaq declined by five trillion dollars. In San Francisco, housing prices over that same period fell by ten percent. Today, housing prices are fifty percent higher than those in 2002.

*                      *                     *

“I’ll work only if they will allow me to commute by bike,” my old friend Mike told a headhunter. “And I will work no more than 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.” His new job, as an engineer for a major retailer, is perfectly fine and well compensated. There’s a lot written about how you can’t get a job if you’re old around here, but Mike is closer to forty than thirty. We agree to meet at San Francisco’s newly remodeled Ferry Building, which I discover is a kind of fancy food wonderland—Blue Bottle coffee and an artisanal cheesemonger and a pressed juicery—beside the bobbing waters of the bay.

Mike says he’s not hungry so I order some kid-friendly food. In contrast to the hum of people enjoying their lunch break Loretta is growing antsy so I tell her to count every crab in a nearby aquarium. Outside, Mike tells me about how he doesn’t let his job stress him out. Loretta chases pigeons. It’s enjoyable enough, he says, but he’s not necessarily making the world a better place or anything.

I munch on a fry that I’ve stabbed with ketchup. It’s a beautiful day, and tonight we’ll be staying at Mike’s apartment in Hayes Valley, once a slum and now another yuppie paradise, so Loretta and I follow him to his office a mile away, where he’s left the keys. I’m begging Loretta to put her shoes on, and Mike laughs at me. The girl scampers ahead, skin slapping on concrete. In his employer’s glass tower, Loretta runs to the elevator, cackling with glee.

Through smoked glass, I can see workers at their desks. Who gets to decide who’s making the world better, or worse?

“You think she should put her shoes on?” he asks the receptionist, a trim Hispanic guy sitting behind a desk.

“Only if she wants to,” he says, shrugging.

Upstairs, about two dozen people sit in an open-plan office. The receptionist is also a deejay, and the chairs in the foyer are shaped like hands and covered in yellow leather. At Mike’s desk is a Tupperware with some carrot ends nibbled to the quick. I forget to check if everyone in the office is wearing shoes. Loretta wants to sit in one of the hands. I’m torn between a desire to take a break and the sense the receptionist’s head would explode if we got too comfortable in a place that’s maybe just for show. Through smoked glass, I can see workers at their desks. Who gets to decide who’s making the world better, or worse?

On the way home, we stop at a grocery store, which is nice, and I’m envious of its proximity and neighborhood-y feel. Then Loretta begins to point at every ghastly treat in the candy aisle, demanding one, no, two of each. I get her to agree to a carton of milk, a block of cheese, and a tray of salami. She’s eyeing the candy still.

“I’ve been here twenty-five years,” the guy at the register says.

It’s not hard to imagine he might be gone next time I come. I’m not sure how long Mike will last. Hayes Valley is just down the hill from hippie mecca Haight-Ashbury. When I fell ill with malaria, it was on a couch a few blocks away, and though it had been in a rather sumptuous apartment, we were all waiting for a drug addict to steal the car stereo. From what I can gather, Hayes Valley absorbed what was left of Haight’s counterculture in the 1970s, in the 1980s it got hit with the same crime and drug violence that affected urban cores, after it became a place for adventurous homesteaders, à la New York City’s East Village, and in the last few years rising prices here have driven out nearly anyone who can’t prove a staggering annual income. Income inequality in San Francisco is reportedly on par with Rwanda.

“I even made a family,” I hear the grocer say, and I congratulate him.

“No, I mean, look at you,” he says. “You’ve made a family.”

I look down at Loretta. She is mine. Should I bring her here? LA is fine but SF could be better. Behind the man are row after row of liquor bottles. Mike had joked that Kelly and I can’t ever seem to settle down. Here on a shelf are plenty of ways to take it down a notch.

*                      *                     *

That night, Mike has to go to a meeting. My wife is late coming back from a reporting trip to Marin County, where she’s tracking down those who don’t vaccinate their children. She finally returns, angry and bewildered that people can be so selfish, and after I’ve put our daughter to sleep, I tell her I’ll get dinner for the three of us, having browsed the Web until I found a Lebanese place half a mile away.

While she taps on her computer and our daughter sleeps, I set out into the night, hoping Mike doesn’t hate falafel. I mostly have a feeling of liberation, the sense you get when you’re somewhere amazing, a place you’ve been coming to your entire adult life, that the whole world knows about, and that lately has the swirl of a kind of cultural touchstone.

The route shoots from Hayes Valley up through Lower Haight, and I find out how steep a hill I’m climbing. Huffing and puffing, I see shadowy figures emerging from dark corners, and I remember how frightening parts of SF felt in the late ’90s. Public housing units until recently were the sites of gang warfare, and it was once laughable to say you were heading to Hayes Valley for dinner. I begin to regret my poor Internet skills. Why doesn’t any fucking restaurant in SF deliver decent food after 9 p.m.? Finally the hill levels off, and through a window, I can see an old shirtless dude slugging a bottle of Heineken, smoking a cigarette, his head thrown, laughing deeply.

Further up Haight, a crew of four drunk girls hanging off this very tall guy smoking a cigar reminds me it is St. Patrick’s Day. They’re weaving down the sidewalk at 8:30 p.m. and one girl is saying over and over, “Tell us how old you are, John. Just tell us how old you are.”

“I. Am. 26. Years. Old,” he bellows, exhaling smoke, thumping his chest. “I. Am. 26. Years. Old.”

A man with the lean of something harder than liquor lurches ahead of me in the wake of a tall and shapely woman with dark hair and dark jeans.

“Gobble, gobble,” he says to the woman, and I’m not sure I hear him right. Then he pipes up: “Hey, turkey butt. How’d you end up with a turkey up in that butt? Damn, turkey butt. How you doin’? Turkey. Butt.”

No one smiles. Except the drunks later on, trying to fall into each other.

The woman is young, well dressed, with mascara running down her freckled checks. She leans into the older man with feeling, her eyes wide open, and together they share a kind of dream.

“Let me tell you a story, sweetheart,” says an older guy in a whisky-soaked blazer, ash all up and down his sleeve, “about the best day of my life.”

*                      *                     *

The next morning, it’s time to head home to LA. “You deserve happiness.” It’s scrawled on Mike’s mirror. I’m not sure if he’s actively seeking it, or waiting for it to arrive. He hugs us goodbye, saying he’s heading to another appointment.

The night before, Mike told us that aphids had eaten all his pepper plants. Now all the pots are in a stack by his back door. He also explained how in tech, a 23-year-old can make six figures, but that’s about it. It’s tempting to be angry at that recent college grad, but the reality is that it’s very difficult to increase your pay beyond the handsome starting wage. Engineers are interchangeable and more arrive every year. He also tells us how embarrassed he is by some of the supposed innovation. “You go to these meet-ups,” he says, “and the hot new company is offering something basic, something that does not inspire.” Last month, he says, a company got a lot of attention for a plugin that could post a clicked link to your Twitter account. They raised millions, he said, on the premise they’d soon roll out another plugin for Facebook.

Mike calls the emotional tenor one of “desperation”—to win, to get there early, but also, perhaps, the twin desire to get home, to stop working.

I think about a rangy old dude I saw in line at a coffee shop back in Albany. He had silver hair and a massive brass belt buckle emblazoned with the symbol of a bell, i.e. Ma Bell or the Bell System, which ran the telephone system for America and parts of Canada from 1977 to 1984. That was part of a previous boom—when Petaluma Valley north of San Francisco was known as Telecom Valley, where a ten-mile corridor of companies was responsible for just about every telecommunications breakthrough from 1969 to 1984. Before that was an earlier boom, when water met dirt and made a different valley—the San Joaquin—bloom with money. Some day, some kid will marvel at a Google belt buckle, perhaps. (We’ll still have belts.) The man looked lonely, surrounded by people decades younger.

It’s time to go and I walk outside into the morning, leaving my ladies so I can grab the car. A woman beside me says she needs to text her guitar teacher, and her friend sighs with sympathy. A coffee shop nearby has purchased a parking spot beside Octavia Boulevard where they have built a wooden platform and will presumably install some tables and chairs—right beside a raging stream of traffic. Mike says it’s getting worse and worse each day, as more and more people with money arrive, buying cars and clogging streets. He calls the emotional tenor one of “desperation”—to win, to get there early, but also, perhaps, the twin desire to get home, to stop working, to take a break from the game. The coffee takes about ten minutes, but it’s damned good. A decade ago, Hayes Valley was not a place you could get good coffee. A decade ago, I did not live in California, where I can imagine staying for a long time, if it will let me.

Leaving town, desiring not to repeat Loretta’s pee experience with Highway 101, I shoot over to the 280, which is gorgeous. The wet mountains are green and the valleys greener. It’s hard to imagine there was ever anyone who came here and thought, “Hey, I should keep going.” In a lane to my right, a woman speeds by in an Audi, en route to the exit for Mountain View, home to Google, and it looks like she’s reading a novel. I increase the throttle to get beside her, and just as I’m about to make some grand conclusions about multitasking or the elegance of commuting when you’re a get-it-done tech wizard, I see she’s actually reading an instruction manual. Perhaps for a Roomba.

It’s easy to be mad at tech for not building some kind of efficient new train line, something that would get six-figure engineers from SF to San Jose and that we could all use. It’s tempting to resent tech for driving up real estate prices and crushing the perception that San Francisco was and always would be a bastion for bohemia, not a place with levels of inequality on par with developing nations. It’s no sweat to point at incremental, uninspiring innovation—post your texts to your Tweets, or whatever—and decide our brightest minds are wasting their time. But California is no stranger to booms and busts, to new money smothering old, or to the notion that nothing lasts forever, or even the idea that culture is something fixed or worth saving.

*                      *                     *

On the way to Los Angeles, the plan is lunch with another old friend, Dean, who works at the headquarters of a massive online auction website. The campus in San Jose feels like my orthodontist’s office back in Miami. We order Mexican food from a bemused lady in a taco truck who gives my daughter a bunch of beans and a tortilla. To pay, Dean dips a credit card through an attachment on what I presume is the woman’s iPhone. (But is it hers? Can everyone afford one of those now?) We get to a local playground, not unlike the one I took Loretta to in Hayes Valley where we were accosted by two dudes wacked out on meth. Here, there is no threat of violence, just a few harried-seeming moms and dads. I survey appearances and try to decide if the children are adopted. Everyone gives me the stink eye.

Dean tells me about a recent email from the company he works for, in which tips for what to do if your bus is attacked by angry protesters are included. “Duck” is one bullet point. A stiff wind blows our plates into the sky. He invites me to visit his place in Los Gatos, where a hot tub overlooks a nudist colony.

Then I’m rolling down Interstate 5. California produces nearly all of America’s almonds and the bulk of its figs, grapes, and garlic. The brown earth here is dry and farmers need it to rain. “Congress-created dust bowl,” say the signs, referring to a fish whose habitat is being protected by Pelosi et al, who bear some responsibility for how little moisture the farmers are getting this year, in that they have restricted allotments of water to preserve the habitat of that rare and endangered swimmer. If only it would rain, everyone who needs it could get wet.

Tech can’t fix everything—the water shortages or mental illness or my daughter’s need to pee—and in any case the levers of power behind any boom are always greased with money; left to their natural inclinations, the people who make the big bucks seek mainly to fill and refill their own ever-enlarging pot. Eventually every gush becomes a trickle. It’s up to us to decide who we will be and why, to play our own version of the game, and, perhaps, to raise a family. The rules suck and they always change and eventually, every one of us is some version of that old guy, looking lonely in a suburb, with or without a meaningful belt buckle.

A few hours from Los Angeles, I enter one particularly parched stretch of road. On a hill overlooking it all is a farmer sitting next to his dog, patting his head slowly. He’s squinting his eyes, and I imagine he’s looking for what’s next.

G

Nathan Deuel is the author of Friday Was the Bomb: Five Years in the Middle East, an Amazon Best Book of the Month. He has contributed essays, fiction, and criticism to print and digital versions of The New York Times Magazine, Harper’s, GQ, and The Paris Review, among others. Previously, he was an editor at Rolling Stone and The Village Voice. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife and daughter.

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One comment for Land of Milk and Money

  1. Comment by Kallie Wilbourn on June 2, 2014 at 5:17 pm

    Deuel is a clever writer. He does not seem knowledgeable enough about the Bay Area to appreciate the awful displacement of its diverse middle class via techie colonization. He should read Rebecca Solnit’s articles on this subject. She knows what she is talking about.

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