28 October 2009

Why Palo Alto is awful

It's a class thing.

I freakin' hate Palo Alto. I do. I haven't lived or worked in the suburbs since... well, ever, really (except the few months I lived in Buffalo Grove, Illinois) and I'm about to start yelling at people to behave themselves.

"Oh, Northern California is so nice, you'll love it there!" people said, when I was getting transferred. Well, it might be, but Palo Alto and the mid Peninsula is a terrible, awful place filled with dreadful, miserable human beings.

San Jose? Fine. When I walk to the train station in the morning, at least half of the people will say hi, or give a head bob, or not walk right into me intentionally (and yes, this is how low the bar is now set, thanks to my experience in Palo Alto). The regulars and staff that I've come to know at 4th Street Pizza where I watch football on Sundays, San Jose natives, many of them, are uniformly friendly, open, well-mannered folk. (Well... one regular is a complete and utter tool, but he's loaded - and not the kind of loaded that you often find on a bar stool. Last Thursday he comes in, and within seven minutes - literally, I timed him when I saw where the train was heading - he had told the young woman behind the bar that within the past week he was in Vancouver ["Wait that was just six hours ago? wow!"], Las Vegas and New York, and was going to Asia "again" next month, and had been to the Philippines, Ireland, and Tahiti "a few times." He also treated his much younger wife like crap and talked to the bartender like she was nine years old. Awful, awful man. And evidently rich. See what I mean?)

San Francisco? Excellent. When I was living in Noe Valley for that month and would walk around the neighborhood people would almost always say hi on the street when you'd pass them, or at least respond if you did.

I have never seen such an unhappy, edgy, ill-mannered collection of human detritus as the fiduciary bunch that walks the streets in Palo Alto. They park their $100,000 cars straddling two parking spaces; they walk into a restaurant, sit at a busy counter, and throw their crap across three seats; they walk four abreast, ploddingly, down the sidewalk, and then deliberately walk into you as you approach from the other direction; they have no regard for any rules that help to make things a little more livable (e.g., "Walk your bikes on sidewalk," choosing instead to ride around the dogs, people, and cafe tables; or "Please place used dishes in the dishwasher marked 'Dirty'," leaving stuff pile up in the sink of the shared office space all weekend, despite the dishwasher marked 'Dirty' being RIGHT THERE; or "Left Turn Only this lane," applying, evidently, to the little people).

I have decided that it must be a class thing. Here's my theory. To live in Palo Alto costs a LOT of money. People with money are (nearly) invariably awful, coddled, lazy, entitled, careless, oblivious people. Someone else fixes things, cleans up after things, does things, and unless you are in their world, you don't matter. Rules? For other people. Deadlines? For other people. Traffic laws? For other people. Common Courtesy? There's a whiff of Egalitarianism there, so most definitely for other people.

People with significant means have, at least since Tom and Daisy Buchanan, had "other people" to take care of the messes they make. And they know that people aren't equal, of course they aren't, so why treat those who are beneath you as though they are? I have found this to be true about rich people throughout my life, but I've never really lived or worked among them. I remember when I started at Marquette, which at the time was a pretty middle class kind of place with still a lot of first generation farmer's kids and working class kids, being SHOCKED at the carelessness of some of the guys on our floor. It wasn't that all of the guys with significant means were complete tools, but I would say that everyone who was a complete and utter tool was from a family with significant means.

I had also thought that money = class; that people with money behaved well, for some reason. Maybe that was because the only people I knew with money, real money, was the one family in Fowler who ran the grain elevators. They had slightly nicer, and newer, cars than the rest of us (though their cars were still American), and they lived in a nice, newer two story house, but they didn't "Wear what they owned and carry the rest with them," as a colleague would later say about the people at the Cherry Creek College Fair. That family in Fowler could have bought and sold the town, likely, but beyond the kids' straighter teeth because they could afford braces, they were indistinguishable, and would never have put on airs of being anything other than that. I was friends with them, good friends with the girl in my class, and as we grew up I realized that wasn't accidental, and further that they'd have been mortified had anyone ever acted in any other way.

When I got to MU and interacted with the one or two scions of real money, in this, as in many other things, I was completely unprepared. Messes were made in public areas because someone else would clean it up. Food was wasted. Money was spent frivolously. Cars were wrecked and replaced. Cafeteria workers were treated with visible disdain because, well, they were cafeteria workers. This was shocking behavior to me; I was completely dumbfounded that people could act like that. Since then, I've seen it over, and over, and over.

Here let me say that, yes, of course, there are exceptions. I have met people from families with great wealth who are level-headed, hard working, polite and thoughtful. My roommates in Hawai'i were from very wealthy families, and I am not proud to admit it but I was reluctant to live with them because of that. It really gave me considerable pause. I took the plunge anyway, and made a great friend who is one of the most generous, thoughtful, deliberate persons I have ever met. I remember that as a lesson about prejudice, and try to keep an open mind, but I'm not always successful - if I know someone comes from money before I meet them, I'm likely to mistrust them, despite my best efforts. And the awful human beings who walk around Palo Alto don't make it any easier.

Compounding the problem, I think, is that so many of the people walking around Palo Alto were very, very wealthy in their home countries, and many of those home countries don't have the lip service that we pay to egalitarianism. While I do believe that wealth can breed carelessness and disdain in everyone, it might be that in the Ukraine, Russia, and India, wealth breeds more acute carelessness and disdain because of the social realities in those places. It may simply be that the wealth PLUS the education that they earned, first in their home countries and then at Stanford, further imbues an innate sense of superiority with disdain? Or that the incestuousness of the social milieu - all wealthy people, all well educated people, all in IT - further reaffirms whatever disdain they may have, or nurtures it where none existed? While living in Japan, I noticed that foreigners were, when among only themselves, terribly ill-mannered; collectively, a group of gaijin in Japan didn't know the rules, follow them, or care, and assuredly some found it liberating to be unbound by social strictures. Perhaps some of that dynamic is happening here as well?

When I lived in Southern California many of my neighbors were immigrants, either first or second generation, but they were of a different class - largely working class, not university educated in their countries of origin (in L.A., this was Mexico; in San Diego it was the Philippines, VietNam, and Mexico). And again, they were friendly, would say hello, would not take up two parking spaces, and had some sense of what it meant to live in a communal setting.

And maybe it's that the "industry" here in Silicon Valley is, well, Silicon Valley? Maybe it's that all of these engineers together... I don't want to say they are socially challenged, but perhaps that further layer of incestuousness causes some of this? One of my old friends, who's in IT for a large IT company just up the road, says "Too many tech geeks in one place is definitely NOT a good thing."

But I know a lot of engineers who know how to put a cup in a dishwasher; I know a lot of immigrants who are friendly and unfailingly gracious; I know a lot of well educated, highly intelligent people who don't act as though the world owes them something.

So I think it comes back to class. Maybe it's that Palo Alto it is the low-lying, rank, weed infested marsh into which the confluence of the wealthy, entitled, I'm-socially-above-you stream; the recent immigrant I-don't-need-to-follow-the-local-rules stream; and the hyper-educated, I'm-smarter-than-you stream all dump?

Whatever the reasons, I can say that I've never lived anywhere or seen anyone like the near-vicious, definitely thoughtless, undeniably selfish denizens of Palo Alto. They are awful.

So I'll take the train in, try to limit myself to one meal a day there, even on 16 hour days, and take the train home. And I'll try not to start yelling at people to behave themselves, but I am not making any promises.