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Qualities of Life

Is S.F. worth a thousand extra hours of commute time?

By Ami Chen Mills

IS IT REALLY JUST THE CONCEPT of the city that has grabbed so many reverse commuters by the seat of their pants? Is living in ess-eff really worth the extra $2,785 a year, not to mention almost a thousand extra hours of commute time? To determine how different San Francisco and Santa Clara counties really are, Metro dispatched this reporter for two afternoons to both Silicon Valley and San Francisco, charged with the following Herculean task: Have a good time. I was given $20 in each locale and asked to spend it doing the following: eating lunch, shopping for shoes, visiting a local cafe and buying some healthy, possibly organic food.

Los Gatos and Campbell, Silicon Valley

Approx. 1pm on 280 south, Palo Alto: Air quality must be at an all-time low as I enter Santa Clara County on one of the hottest days in October. The hills across the bay are barely visible from 280 and are sort of a purplish gray-brown. The freeway has been recently repaved in some sections, however, and 280 is always a lovely, lovely thoroughfare.

1:29pm, Saratoga Avenue to Fruitvale Avenue, Saratoga: There are some really very gorgeous trees along these roads which wind into the villages of Los Gatos and Saratoga. I am reminded of an older valley, the Valley of Heart's Delight, once a quilt of orchards and oaks and open space. That's why the houses around here sell for half a million and more. Old or not, it costs to go rustic. Still, the sense of space and the trees and the green Santa Cruz mountains rising in the near distance are all soothing.

1:40pm, downtown Los Gatos: I'm parking in the city lot (there is lots and lots of free parking). The first thing that happens: a beefy blond guy who's changing out of his biking shorts near his car looks at my car, which has the huge numbers "4X4" painted on its side (I did not do this, the previous owner did, may his house plants be plagued by locusts) and yells to me, "Hey, is that a four-by-four?" And laughs. Jerk. Can I go home now?

I forge ahead to the main drag, where I find: a Smith and Hawken, an Andale Taqueria, Precious Objects Galleria, all sorts of houseware, furniture and cookware stores, crafts stores, Lisa's Tea Treasures, the Cricket Hollow Doll Shoppe. It's sort of a housewives' downtown, except for the restaurants, cafes and bikers, most of whom are strictly recreational bikers, decked out in full rainbow-hued spandex regalia. There's no such thing as Critical Mass in Los Gatos, unless you mean the lines at the Coffee Roasting Company on Sunday, where bikers mingle after rides.

For lunch I head to Cafe Marcella, a local hot spot. Everyone in the restaurant is over 40. The women wear sweaters around their necks, and scarves. The men are in suits, mostly. When I order the Chinese chicken cabbage salad ($11.95) and an iced tea (about $1.95), my waiter says, "Great. Very nice," in an accent. I notice the first Latino I've seen all day. He's the busboy. I feel young and out of place.

2:30pm: I leave the restaurant and sit on a rocking bench outside Smith and Hawken. I go shopping for shoes in a shoe store where most of the shoes are $70 or more. I think this is pricey. I ask the clerks in the shoe store where I might catch a bus to get to the Whole Foods Market in Campbell. This catches them off guard. Still, a couple of women think they know where the bus stop is, and one customer even offers to give me a lift to a closer store. Would this happen in San Francisco? I think not.

I must say, I feel very safe here. At a boutique called Adrienne's, I browse through dresses costing $180 and up. I think this is pricey. Nice clothes, however, and very stylish.

Outside, I cross the streets slowly, stopping traffic. The drivers seem used to this and don't appear to be annoyed.

At the Los Gatos Coffee Roasting Company, the hangout in Los Gatos, bug-eyed chess players hover over play tables. I order a Frappucino kind of thing ($2.75) and linger out front where I talk to a haz-mat firefighter in biking shorts from Campbell who describes Los Gatos as a "cute little town." He comes here often because there's "lots of good restaurants" here and because "there isn't a heck of a lot in Campbell."

Although Campbell's not too far away, he loads his bike in his car and drives here, and then rides. A few buses pass us with a few people on them. "We don't really take the bus down here," the man explains. Across the street from us, in the space of two blocks, I count six antique stores.

Another fellow joins us. He's a biker too, an engineer from Lockheed Martin who lives in the mountains. The engineer tells me he prefers Los Gatos to Santa Cruz. "It's a higher caliber of people here. It's so mellow here, so nice here, so comfortable. You got coffee, you got bagels. You don't have to worry about locking up your bike. Everything is so tranquil, so constant. Of course I'm from New York and I had enough of that. Maybe I'm just gettin' old."

Maybe.

I decide it's time to head to Whole Foods.

3:20pm, Campbell: I get on the freeway to get to Campbell, and after I get off, I am immediately swept onto a six-lane street, not a freeway or anything, just Hamilton Avenue in Campbell, and I whiz right by the Whole Foods, which is two lanes over, so I have to make two U-turns to get back to it. There's tons of free parking. Directly in front of me, an Una Mas! tacqueria and a TCBY Yogurt. Across the street, Noah's Bagels, Starbucks, Jamba Juice, GNC and Blockbuster. Near Whole Foods: Fresh Choice, Clothestime, The Dress Barn, another Starbucks.

I have $2.25 to spend at Whole Foods. When I walk in, I am impressed by the hardwood floors. There are Asians here, blacks and at least two employees with piercings. Whole Foods is a cool, free-spirited oasis. I buy a sack of sprout mix, an organic cucumber and a can of dolphin-free tuna. My grand total: $2.26. I am pleased. The woman in front of me at check-out is wearing Birkenstocks and no makeup. The clerks here seem happy. If I lived in Campbell, I think I would stay in Whole Foods all day, even if it is a chain.

Silicon Valley Escapade Grand Totals: Cost, including tips: $20.01. Time spent in car: Too much. Air quality: hideous. Total feelings of contentment and satisfaction: I felt very, very safe. Placid, even. I lingered at a corner gas station in Campbell to wash all my car windows because it was so clean and nice there. But I felt alternately bored and out of place in Saratoga, and appalled in Campbell by how ruined the valley has become through car and corporate dominance. Even though the valley has 20 times more space than the city, it feels crowded because of all the cars. Can any of this be reversed? Therein lies the valley's only hope.

The Mission and Noe Valley, San Francisco

1:40pm, Potrero Hill, Muni stop at the corner of 18th and Connecticut: Sometimes taking the bus feels like a real pain in the ass. Especially when you sit at the damn bus stop for five minutes reading a map before you realize you haven't got change, and then you go into the Italian restaurant behind you for singles and as you're handing the cute waiter your ten and making a little small talk, the 22 Fillmore rolls by without stopping. Dammit.

1:50pm, on the 22 Fillmore toward the Mission: I can never decide if the Muni rules or sucks. People say both. I am so pleased that the next 22 bus ($1) comes in, like, five minutes. There's no one on the bus. I sit by a window.

Today, Muni rules. On the bus, of course, you get all kinds. You want diversity? Heh, heh.

As we rumble toward the Mission, we get Latino people, black people, Asian people, white people, old people, young people, weird people, mothers, widowers, possible gangsters. There's an old woman, her thin white hair falling out, telling the driver all about her sister's surgery. "And I had a birthday last week. Sept. 28," she says.

"Happy Birthday!" says the driver.

1:55pm, 16th and Valencia: As I get off the bus, there's a Latino on the corner yelling "Nigger! Fucking nigger!" at some other guy who's getting on the bus. He's just standing there, yelling and laughing and yelling and laughing.

The area around 16th and Valencia swings. Within one and a half blocks, a city dweller can partake of any of the following foods: Mexican, Chinese, Thai, Turkish, Japanese, Indian, Vietnamese, Spanish (tapas), American, crepes, falafel, pizza, sandwiches, coffee. There are at least three new and used book stores in this same area as well as a number of thrift stores and used furniture and appliance shops. The Slanted Door nouveau Vietnamese restaurant is currently the hippest eatery around here, and at 2pm I get a seat by a window. This restaurant typifies what's going on with restaurants in the city-ethnic foods served in high yuppie style.

Next to me, two gay men discuss issues around wedding photography. There's a bald lesbian across the room waiting for her Vietnamese coffee to press through. Although it's late, the place is lively. I order a seafood noodle soup ($6), a fresh lemonade ($2) and the waiter says, "Very nice." The waiters are all young and kind of cute, and I read an article about how the city should ban the Blue Angels flying team. When I try to get the attention of a waiter, the man next to me suggests I throw a fork. Now that's funny. I feel like there's nowhere else I'd rather be, and the soup is great.

2:40pm, the Mission: I get hit up for spare change left and right. People here, near 17th and Mission, are strung out and distressed. A woman saunters by in a leopard skin unitard and high heels. She's old. Half the people on this block are either on a drug or want to be on one. I adopt my city stride, purposeful, eyes forward, seemingly unconcerned and uninterested in the unfolding scenes around me. A woman hugging a man in a wheelchair, telling him it's going to be all right while the look on her face betrays her. Further down, toward 20th, the crowd disperses into shopping families, housewives, school kids. There are thrift stores, 99-cent stores, Woolworth's, Payless Shoes, cheap flowers sold from tables on the street. There are produce stands with tiny bananas and live crabs and fish and all kinds of people.

3:30pm, Noe Valley: I took the 48 Quintara bus into Noe, and it's a pleasure not to have to worry about parking. When I get off the bus, the first storefront I see is Starbucks, like a spore on the wind.

San Franciscans complain that Noe is yuppie, but compared to Los Gatos it's the Summer of Love around here. The street smells like patchouli, probably coming from a shop called Common Scents. There are mothers pushing strollers, just like in Los Gatos, but these mothers have tattoos and they're not wearing scarves.

Every shop I stroll into seems to have a dog on the floor, seemingly dead. I dip in and out of boutiques, enticed by things I'd like to buy, like those new stained-glass looking soaps that smell so good. Cheap, ethnic earrings. Bookstores. Streetlight Records.

I browse in shoe stores where the shoes are mostly around $113, and in boutiques where fall jackets are going for $300. Even though these prices are more expensive than in Los Gatos, I feel like they're less. Why?

I put a pair of $135 French shoes on hold. I buy a tank top.

On the sidewalk, I sign a petition for campaign finance reform. I run into a friend and we chat for a while as a teenager in baggy pants smokes a joint in the stairwell beside us. Perhaps he has glaucoma.

The day is so hot, it's inadvisable to move. I'm looking for a cool cafe, but can't make it past Starbucks, so I go in, ashamed, and get a coffee Frappucino ($2.75), then I sit in the window and watch people go by. Across the street, the view is comprised of purple and lime and teal and ochre Victorians. I am not bored here. I also feel safe, at least sitting in this window. People in the cafe are reading poetry and writing in journals and whatnot.

I have about $4 to spend. I wander into a small health food store down the street and finger some organic Fuji apples and some miniature pumpkins. I get in line with these, but then I abruptly put them back and head across the street and into another store to buy a blue and purple slab of "Facets-of-the-Sea" soap ($5.50), which is what I really want.

5:30pm, 48 Quintara toward the Mission: On the bus ($1), I know we'll be going through the projects before I get home and so I move into the single seats on the other side of the bus so I don't end up sitting next to any gangsters.

San Francisco Escapade Grand Totals: Cost: $21.40, including bus fares, taxes and tips. Time in car: none. Bus time total: probably a little over an hour, with a fair amount of walking in the Mission. Air quality: hard to notice in the valleys of the city. Feelings of satisfaction: a wonderful afternoon. Period.

To be fair, though, I did think a couple of times about an incident several days earlier, where my friends and I passed a man lying face down in the middle of the sidewalk outside The Moxie restaurant. He was wearing decent clothes, had a nice watch on. He looked like maybe he had suffered a stroke or a heart attack and collapsed. Without getting out of the car, we called to him. He did not respond. So we drove around the corner and called 911. When we got back, a young guy was with him and had roused him out of an apparent drunken stupor. I got out of the car, and the two of us tried to convince the man to move to a safer place. We asked if he needed food or juice or something. All he said to us, repeatedly, was "Leave me alone, you assholes," before laying his head gingerly back on the sidewalk.

"You could move off the sidewalk," I said, "and then no one would bother you."

"Don't tell me what I could do," the man spat. We watched him silently for a minute and then he raised his head again and said, "Get rid of me."

We left, finally. An ambulance never came.

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From the Nov. 20-26, 1997 issue of Metro.

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