The close family live in San Francisco, and we’ve just returned from a four-week stay with them. More than ever, this mind-bending city, beautiful yet bizarre, is an eye-opener. From buzz to scuzz, from hype to hell, from Nob Hill to Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, contrasts and contradictions abound.
Painted ladies in the area (beautiful Victorian-style homes, more than 100 years old and worth millions of dollars) are cheek by jowl with cramped, low-cost housing; unemployed people, mostly black, sit on their doorsteps on streets where a cornucopia of drugs is on offer; the aroma of pot is ubiquitous. Women clutch their handbags tightly. Cellphones are not on display. Some mornings, shattered car windows litter the pavement. Thieves patrol on foot, or in ancient, noisy jalopies, and scavenge inside parked cars under cover of darkness.
Low-cost housing and homelessness are political hot potatoes, and despite a lot of noise around these issues, little has changed. The city has done almost nothing for their burgeoning homeless, and nowhere near enough about housing the people of low income who clean their homes and streets.
San Francisco has become unaffordable to almost everybody except its established and newly wealthy inhabitants.
In our pleasant area, every home has an alarm system, and though one is largely safe from bodily harm even in the small hours, burglary is common. Nearby, a gentrified main artery seethes with choices of overpriced restaurants. A sushi place with stools at a counter imports fish overnight from Japan; crossing the threshold would throttle most people’s finances, let alone budgets: the sushi, I’m told, starts at $200. The stools did not lack for occupants, mostly twenty-something Silicon Valley superstars, or even just stars, Silicon silly and fat with dollars to spend on anything they like. And they like a lot of stuff, including CBD, a derivative of pot that is the new cosmetic: it won’t make you high, but purports to uplift mood, calm (as only decent pot can do!) and refresh…
One of my favourite places to revisit is the City Lights Book store in North Beach, a wonderland, a paean to the diversity of writers and poets from around the world. Musty odours of history waft with you from floor to floor; everywhere, shoppers are buried in books. The poet and social activist, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, was an original co-owner. Part of the iconic beat generation, and one of Alan Ginsberg’s first readers, he is much loved by San Francisco, which celebrated Lawrence Ferlinghetti Day on 20 March in his honour. As much as he loves the city, the poet laments the changes: the vast wealth of Silicon Valley has gentrified even once undesirable areas, and hundreds of thousands of people have had to sacrifice their homes to rising prices and the high cost of living. The city is poorer for the loss of the rich diversity of citizens who have been forced to relocate.
Around the corner from us, a cluster of warmly clad young techies steps chattily across the homeless, in this case, a cat and the splayed legs of its owner, shivering in the grip of a foggy night. Unlike our beggars on corners, who work for their donation, smiling, cavorting, even performing, for the blind Mercs, Audis, SUVs, the homeless in San Francisco, drugged, drunk, dilapidated, are above all too depressed even to look up at passing motorists. A woman in a wheelchair stares down into her dark, punishing world. It’s hard even to glance at her, or, on another corner, the swaying young druggie with glazed, unseeing eyes. Haight Street (where I stayed and had a great time in the Seventies and early Eighties) is painfully pointless, hippies, style and memorable music replaced by clueless tourists, high-priced shops, grunge, and drug addicts mimicking the Sixties.
A friend who works for one of the FAANGS is downcast when he reads that Microsoft has snagged a $10-billion deal (this is America, folks!) with the Pentagon. He and his team have just concluded a deal with a client for $200-million, and he is pleased with the sizeable impact on his target for the year: everybody who works in tech has breathtakingly high targets, monthly, quarterly, annual (no pressure!). He explains that his company is way ahead of the competition and should have got the Pentagon contract, but it’s all about politics and connections (really!?). Listening to him makes me appreciate being a Luddite…
And everybody in California is petrified of another four years of the Donald. More than once, I was told that if he lands another term, America would be too damaged to claw its way back to being the country of the brave and the free that it once was. Impeachment? From California’s mouth to God’s ears!
Meanwhile, the power grid is outdated and the private corporations involved with distribution are corrupt; the state is a climate catastrophe, burning up yet again, with thousands evacuated and many homes without power.
Welcome to the larger world out there.
Coming back to South Africa is always wonderful, yet disturbing: there is so much to worry about, seemingly intractable problems piling up every day and the gloom deepening. Staggering into Cape Town airport after two long flights, I am flooded with relief to hear familiar accents, see welcoming smiles. And by the grace of no delayed flights, we’re just in time to catch the incredible performance of the Springboks, who prove yet again that South Africans can re-invent themselves; that we can and will climb out of whatever dark hole we find ourselves in.
Recent rains have swept tapestries of flowers across the mountains, as if in celebration of our victory. Hard as it is to grasp when you’re struggling, it’s simple enough: wherever you live, you must choose your poison, and then swallow it, bitter as it may be.
As for me, never have I been happier to come home. DM
"Censorship of anything at any time in any place on whatever pretence has always been and always will be the last resort of the boob and the bigot." ~ Eugene O'Neill