Sep 23, 2007


As little white boxes of Chinese food unfold and pass from hand to hand, the woman at the head of the table looks to heaven. Face is drawn; eyes are dimly lit. What could possibly be wrong? Two good boys; a loving, sturdy husband, with an ever wry smile; a house in a fashionable part of the city. (And the kitchen floors just redone). I know what you are thinking. But no, the life here is in proportion. There’s no rush to be fashionable. No expensive furniture. The TV is small and insignificant. Of course, there is some excess. But there is no foul.

Every night, this woman serves a carefully made dinner in the dining room, with the menorah, with a piano under piles of books, and more books stuffed in a bookcase. There’s every kind of food in this room. And it’s all a bit disorganized, in the Jewish tradition of learned taken for granted, of chaos respected.

But why upset? This is why. She is from a Quaker background, she grew up on the Main Line. Above all, she has respect for good manners, for civility, for a life of noble purpose. Even if she cannot quite grasp that life herself, in the way she might like to, she practices her convictions. She knows her shortcomings. When a friend who has been fighting breast cancer for eight years needs to go to the doctor, for the ever feared rejection news, this woman is there. And she anticipates these obligations and keeps careful track of appointments. She doesn’t say, “would you like me to come with you?” She says, “I will be there at 8 a.m. to pick you up.”

When a friend kills himself, she is at the wife’s side. She arranges everything, brings calm and sensibility, and respect. Months later, when the wife decides to have a memorial service, who is there to plan and prepare and get the thing done? She is, and not with heavy awareness or infantile lightness. But gently, respectfully.

Of course, she would say this is all nonsense. She has her secrets. She has her desires and longings. Look at the drawn face and unlit eyes. That tell you a little. Still, she is exemplary.

And so the other day when she went to a dance class and a parent at her son’s school came out the door and looked past her, said nothing and went on, this woman was deeply offended. This was not the first time this had happened. And it has nothing to do with her. The other person didn’t mean to offend or be indifferent, but just now in this city people don’t like to encounter each other. They don’t like to break silence, step, or bread. Some don’t know any better. Or they forgot. Some are young and impetuous. It a city of the dispossessed, the unpossessed.

Everyone is with their fantasy people, they don't have time for the real poeple. So here is this woman coming out of dance class but where is she really. She's seducing the man tbe waiter she saw at lunch, examining his ass, imagining horses asses and bull's asses. And then a stye in her mind and she turns to scolding her child. This is what she will say. She has each word, if only she could say it right now. Another stye and she's demeaning her sister. There's another conversation, and she goes over each word again and again.

Just the other night I was talking to a beautiful young woman, with a flashing smile and lots of expression. She is from Pacific Heights and it shows like a logo on the back of her neck and in her rattling cheeks. I had just met her. Let’s just say this was a difficult event. Someone had lost something and her husband, among others, was one of those who had lost. It was a moment where you want to maintain a level of firmness and correctness.

“Well,” she’s saying. “You live out near the beach. I was always curious. But does the salt air affect the paint on your car. I’ve heard it does.” The banality didn’t stop there.

And so what. But you see it's not just the banality, not just the thinness of that generation. It’s not just the $30 plates of spaghetti. Or the new mile high buildings going up on the skyline. Or the end of Barry Bonds, or the ocean of crack and meth rising in the Tenderloin, or the fake politesse of making busses quieter, and dogs pick up their shit, and kids get lost, or the disappearing black middle class or the disappearing white middle class or the fact that the mayor has no character, not a shred, nothing, if there was ever a human symbol of this city’s hollow heart, it’s the mayor, yet his approval ratings stay welded to 90 percent. It’s that the city has lost its civility and in that way lost definition. It’s just another place now, as vanilla as a mid-sized rental car. Were it only sin city or the naked city or party city. Or ‘fuck you’ city. Now it’s nothing city. Living on the last of its charm, on the fumes of its talents.