Saturday, February 20, 2010

A Tale of Crackheads, Yuppies and Tom Wolfe

    I live in Hayes Valley, a neighborhood near the Civic Center, the main library, the opera house and the Market Street of San Francisco, California.  Before the big Bay Area earthquake, this area was located under the freeway overpass, and it was the slums.  When the city was rebuilt, the neighborhood started attracting artists, poets, and hipsters.  This was the start of the gentrification of the area, and it continues today.  There's still quite a few homeless folks, crackheads, and petty criminals, but the settings have changed.
    There are now upscale dining spots, cafes with italian names, interior design stores and yoga studios.  Most of the new residents who move here are yuppies.  I've always hated the connotation of that word.  I hate everything that it implies.  I have always identified strongly with the working class.  Growing up, my family was not rich, although we never lacked for anything of importance.  In fact, because of how close my immediate family has always been, I consider myself far more priviledged than many people who grew up with more money.
    My parents both made a living with their hands, and I was always proud of them for that.  This led me to empathize with the blue-collar values of hard work, plain-speaking and a distaste for pretention, showiness, and anything that smacked of a designer label. 
    Now I just finished a book called "Bonfire of the Vanities," by Tom Wolfe.  It's about the class system in New York City.  It's about the "haves" and the "have-nots," and the distaste that the "haves" feel for the "have-nots," and the envy, rage and revulsion that the "have-nots" feel for the "haves."  The main character is a Wall Street titan of finance.  He is plainly aware of the difference between his Father's generation of businessman and his new generation of "masters of the universe."  Men of his standing would never consider riding the subway.  They would never consider rubbing shoulders with the violent, desperate and dirty people that travel via New York's underground tunnels.  He called it "Insulation."  If you wanted to live in New York, you had to insulate with private cars, bodyguards, separate neighborhoods, doormen, and security.  I felt a huge wave of disgust as I read this.  It was disgust for the man himself, the people like him, and the incredible and utter lack of humanity that would be required to believe in such a system. 
    And then I left my apartment, and was immediately assailed by a dirty, drug-addled, homeless man who followed me for a few blocks.  He told me he was an undercover cop, a security guard, a rapper, and a manic-depressive.  I was too, "polite," NOT too kind to tell him to piss off.  Finally he turned to me with a serious look on his face.

"What happened to the fly on the toilet seat?" he asked.
"...What?" I answered.
"He got pissed off!" He started cackling.

I gave him a chuckle, as it WAS a good one, and then I ignored the obvious plea for money, and kept walking.  I was heading to the park, where I planned on reading.  Within a few minutes of getting there, I was approached by a young guy holding some cheaply-made pamphlets in his arms.  He started speaking quickly about a "save the kids" program.  I told him that I would check out the website and walked off.  Rather than sit outside, I went into a cafe with an italian name.  I didn't want to be hit up for money anymore.  I wanted to be isolated.  And my desire for that disgusted me.


Alison said...

Oh you think the NY class system is bad? This week an MP said...

read it and weep.

Anonymous said...

I mean, there's really no reason to feel bad about not wanting to be around crackheads. There's a big difference between the working masses and people who's minds have permanently abandoned them...

Eric said...

I think, in a society so completely open to nearly any lifestyle choice, as the USA, insulation is only natural. There WILL BE people living in a manner that disgusts or revolts you because, simply put, they can. The reality of the world is that we are not all meant to hop in a "melting pot" and hold hands and get along. This is all a big social experiment, and isolation/insulation is something that can help people make it work. If it is self imposed, no problem. Other people imposing it on you, that seems to be another matter.
I really enjoyed this post though, more than anything thus far.

Alison said...

There's nothing wrong with wanting to be isolated every once in a while. We all have days when we just want our own space and a bit of peace and quiet. It doesn't matter if you are tapping me for money with a sob story, preaching to me about some cause, or asking me to participate in even the most civic minded of surveys. If you catch me on a bad day i will waste no time in extricating myself sharpish to find me some 'me time'.

BUT there is a big difference between that and the people like the banker in the book who measure other people's worth based on some self formulated material measure of success. Believing themselves to be inherently 'better' people because of what they have and viewing others as inferior human beings because they live in smaller houses, take public transport, spend less on clothes etc.

They then feed this superiority complex by isolating themselves and their families from the 'inferior' classes and only mixing with others they consider worthy (in the same wealth bracket), thus perpetuating their warped ideas and passing them on to their kids, sometimes for generations, living in their little bubbles of gated houses, domestic staff, private drivers, private schools ('public' in the US?), fancy hotels etc.

Its the inherent judgement of the relative moral worth of other people based purely on material possesions that makes these wankers very different from those who just want a bit of peace and quiet to read a book.

I think you are still pretty far from becoming like the guy in the book, and i will tell you loudly and with colourful language if you ever start to inch that way.

Oh yes, one more thing, i enjoyed this post too. But then again i like that you write primarily to please yourself, i wouldn't read your posts if i didn't like them, i'd feel like i would have to write a blog before i was in a position to criticise some one else. Anyway, I have enjoyed all your posts i have read...thus far.

Trouble.Thinks said...

I think this must be one of your best posts yet. It makes one think.

Amanda West said...

Great post.

It's ironic and strange to be walking in shoes that we've swore we'd never lace up.

I've been there.

Juliana said...

I really enjoyed this post. I have had a similiar experience. Well, I was wanting to give a homeless man with a sign the shirt off my back almost literally and my husband was saying how his SIGN was a lie blah blah. I was SURE it was not---and when we drove back in the other direction there was one of homeless guys buddies with the sign that his other friend had. I was pissed off.

I would have to agree with what Alison said here and I still think you are an amazing person from what I have read so far and I do not think that you are a hypocrite at all for wanting to feel isolated, just as long as that isolationg passes after some more positive experiences!

Martin said...

Alison - That guy is a tool

Clara - True

Erik - True...But at the same time, I kind of pride myself on being able to relate and get along with just about anybody...crackheads excluded. Insulation doesnt work that well with that kind of mindset.

Alison - I have no doubt that if I ever got like that guy in the book, you would send a roundhouse kick to my teeth from halfway around the world. Thank you,

TT - Thanks ;)

Amanda - yep, I think we all have. It always sucks.

Juliana - Welcome! That story actually reminds me of a similar story here in San Francisco. There's this younger lady who panhandles by my house who I dont think is even homeless. She ties her leg up in her jeans somehow, because sometimes she is standing on both legs and sometimes she only has one and leans on a crutch. I dont know how exactly she pulls it off, but she does a great job of it. I almost want to give her money for the acting skills.