In the Valley

I am hurtling home from the Caltrain station, proceeding at speed up Santa Cruz Ave., main drag of this, my burg. All this “hurtling” and “at speed” occurs entirely inside my head, of course. Still, my wheelchair can move faster than the average human pace, and this I find gratifying. Equally, I find it maddening when some human blocks my forward progress. I am the battery-powered king of the road, or at least the footpath, and I want this joker out of my way.

The latter proves to be a man of indeterminate, advanced years. He is wearing a jacket. A field jacket, and this day is warm. Even San Francisco, where I was only 90 minutes ago, was too warm for this sort of garb. Patriots. I am remarkably oblivious to much around me, but I do notice this. The back of the man currently blocking my way is emblazoned with Patriots in large, red cursive script. I know that the recent bombing at the Boston Marathon occurred on Patriots’ Day. If this is a holiday, I know nothing about it. This is a nation full of patriots, after all, each one more patriotic than his predecessor. The march of patriotism is long and plodding and determined, and this man seems to be marching with all the other patriots. Because my progress is slowed, I do notice a detail or two. How he is wearing a backpack with a dirty washcloth dangling from a safety pin. How a second washcloth has been neatly pinned just beneath the patriots lettering. The man stops, briefly stopping me, to glance inside a rubbish bin.

He continues, we continue. Despite my impatience, I know it is good to be slowed, even stopped. Much has stopped for this man. One can see. I wonder how he got here, Menlo Park, and why. There must be some connection, some person, some reason. The man trudges. As I trudge in my own mechanized, battery-powered way. My sense of urgency is, truth be told, artificial, a thing of my own creation, all personal urgings and ambitions. He has his own…to scavenge enough recyclable cans by sundown, say. To find shelter before someone else takes it.

Slowing me down the way I need to be slowed down. Did Tolstoy dot his scenes in Anna Karenina with serfs to make a point, or did their appearance help him keep his own sanity?

Earlier in the day, a tram full of poor, huddled masses from the other end of the T Line stopped briefly just outside the San Francisco Caltrain station. Packed like the Tokyo subway, the car could not accommodate a wheelchair, let alone another person. The glassed-in crowd scene paused at the stop, rolled away, leaving me on the platform. The electronic sign described a broken down car somewhere on the line. Expect delays. This is the city’s newest tram line. Open less than two years, I would guess. Like everywhere in America, San Francisco is officially running out of money. I got to lunch 45 minutes late…. I said goodbye to my friend Doug and rolled up the street to the afternoon’s meeting at Bernie’s Coffee, right in the heart, if one still exists, of Noe Valley.

Oh, there’s plenty of heart in Noe Valley. But there’s something something essentially heartless about the process of buying, or at this stage searching for, a home. Essentially, it’s the prices. It’s the dividing up of America, the shrinking of that which is shared, the ossification of our class distinctions. Timeless stuff, I suppose. It’s just that things weren’t supposed to be this way. Good that I came here on Muni, San Francisco’s public transport system. Perspective. One needs it.

When I was a graduate student, living in Noe Valley in the mid-1970s, the place was still largely what it was. Working-class Irish, families that had been there for several generations. Some young families, most refugees from suburbia who were quite willing to cram their lives and their styles into a smaller space and ride the trams, buttoning their jackets against the breezy fog. Increasingly, gay men and lesbian women began investing in the neighborhood, both with money and sweat. Was this Noe Valley’s first gentrification? I don’t know, being a student renter at the time, but locals complained that they didn’t recognize the place. Now, I don’t recognize it either, though it looks much the same. Restaurants and businesses are considerably more upscale. But what’s really upscale is the prices staring me in the face, right here in Bernie’s Coffee, as a realtor flips through the local listings.

I know these houses. Meaning that I knew them when they were still occupied by people who were products of the postwar boom. Families that had ascended from working-class to lower middle class to just plain middle. All the time carrying on pretty conventional lives in what were considered to be too expensive houses. The people who bought my building, the one in which I had rented an apartment for eight years, paid more than $100,000, as I recall. The figure shocked me at the time. Now I am looking at houses much smaller than that one, turning the listing pages in the realtor’s binder. There’s nothing less than $1 million. Everything attractive is considerably more than that. I don’t understand it, I really don’t. It’s no one’s fault. It just makes me reel. It makes me uncomfortable.

Things get even more uncomfortable when I finally grasp that these prices are not final. Some homes sold at 20% above the listing. I am listing too, hard to starboard. I am keeling over. Jane and I are buying at what must be the peak of some market. But what else are we to do? We’ve gotten all sorts of inside tips about how to make our bid attractive, when the time comes. And the time has already come for me, Mr. Landlord. After all, apartment rents in Menlo Park, world headquarters of Facebook, not to mention Stanford University…well, in a sense they are skyrocketing more than housing prices in San Francisco. Surely some good will come of all this. And over time, once over the shock, it will all become clear. I hope.

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