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I Left My Heart in Silicon Valley

Of culture vultures, posers and
the twitter of car alarms

By Richard von Busack

THE CONVERSATION is repeated time and time again. Yes, I'm back in San Francisco after seven years of living in the valley, having moved up here to get married. She couldn't move south because of her job, I explain. I could. Now we're here together. San Francisco, they say. Ooooh, you've moved up in the world! Back to civilization!

Yeah, civilization. And its discontents, too.

My life is so much happier now, I can hardly stand it. First off there's the joy of dashing out barefoot to move my car in a last-minute attempt to outrun a $25 street-cleaning ticket. This, after a sleepless night thinking about how the landlady gave me 60 days' notice, on account of how her daughter is requisitioning my flat. Well, it wasn't really sleepless, to be honest. I finally did nod out for a few seconds about 4:25am, until the familiar robot shriek of my neighbor's jittery Miata snapped me out of it. I love waking up to car alarms. Thank God there are no twittering birds or rustling trees to pester me here.

Here, I don't miss being able to garden or having a back yard. I don't miss the clothesline or that pleasure I used to get when the breeze would fill the bedsheets, making a mariner out of me for just a moment. I don't miss the smell of cut grass or the purr of a distant lawnmower. I don't miss the smaller things, say, Tom François' butcher shop or the South Bay's public radio. Why should I miss San Jose at all? I have culture now! Admittedly, I only go to music and art galleries about once a week, just like I did when I lived in San Jose, but I could see it more if I wanted to. Isn't that the point?

OF ALL OF THE ARGUMENTS about why San Francisco is superior to San Jose, my least favorite is "There's more culture here." My question is: How much culture can the average person absorb? Don't most people have to get their culture on weekends? I'm sure there are authentic fans of ballet and opera who would repine if they had to drive an hour for their Puccini fix. Otherwise, I suspect that culture vultures just say things like "there's more culture in San Francisco" so that you'll presume they're out every night rubbing elbows with Yo-Yo Ma instead of doing what they're really doing--sitting at home in their jammies watching television like everyone else.

Culture's a commodity, and people are certain they can buy it if they shop at the coolest stores. But generating culture--now that requires solitude and study, stealth and cunning. For that kind of task (especially since the Internet) you can live anywhere. If you've seen the derivative art that big art cities attract, you might conclude that it would be better if these artists spent some more time in the studio and less time at the cafes.

Cities don't necessarily attract the artist, but they're guaranteed to attract the artsy. Most of the artists, musicians and sculptors I knew in San Francisco are in the East Bay suburbs now, out where they can get some room to do their work.

My old friend Phil is a painter who has somehow survived in San Francisco for two decades, despite being evicted twice by speculators. He puts it best: "Artists are the yuppie shock troops." Real artists and musicians pacify the slums with shops, galleries and cafes, and then the artsy young bankers and their spouses arrive. Lured by the Bohemian charm, they kick out the artist and barge on in.

The commuters' lot is not a happy one. I know the skull-crushing tedium of 101, the cars sniffing each other's rumps for 40 miles, the traffic backed up like Old Man Moses' colon. I know about smelling the engine cook as the rousing trumpets of The Lehrer Report bray away on the car radio.

If love hadn't moved me north, I'd be in San Jose still. There I could take a bike ride from the same movies and the same shows they had in Cultureburg, and I could make that ride through billows of autumn leaves. I could watch the moon rise in the warmth of summer nights that residents of Anchorage-by-the-Bay will never know. Down in San Jose I could always see old people and children--a rarer sight up here, since both groups are getting their insufficiently earning butts kicked out. Down in San Jose, I stopped believing that everyone who lived in a suburb was just an engineer with a generic soccer mom wife. And driving through the bland parts of town, the mallvilles and the light-industrial blight, I felt like I was really up against the real America, much more so than I did when I was shivering with all the other rebels in this overcrowded, overrated, humongously expensive rebel-ghetto known as S.F.

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

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