I’d found myself in California, though that says so little for having been so much.
It was cool, certainly. “Air-conditioning, but on the outside,” I’d said at the start of this story, and having just suffered through a summer’s worth of days when I’d been unable to keep my computer up for more than twenty minutes before its core would swelter from heat internal — the black arrow pointer stuttering across the screen before the whole machine crashed hard — the consistently temperate Pacific Ocean breeze could not have been more pleasant.
This coolness in the air changed everything over what I’d come to expect to be normal in Texas, from how the buildings came together (thin wooden walls, without insulation) to where the people came together (anywhere, everywhere, on the streets, all the time). It would be a long time before it would change me, though it wouldn’t take long for the process to start as I first got my lay of the land.
Hold your right hand up in front of you — fingers straight upright and together, palm facing away from you, allowing your thumb to hang naturally, creating a slight space between it and the forefinger knuckle — and you’ll be looking at a good map of more than half of the San Francisco Bay Area. Your thumbnail is roughly the shape and size of the city of San Francisco itself, seven miles tall and seven miles wide, with water on all three sides. Along your forefinger are the cities of the East Bay, Oakland and Berkeley and others, first joined from thumbnail to hand by the double-decker Bay Bridge; ignore for now the fact that there’s a gaping emptiness above your thumb, where the Golden Gate Bridge joins San Francisco to the rich towns of Marin, in the North Bay.
The deep crease, where the meat of your thumb joins the rest of your hand, is where you find the city of San Jose. Between San Jose and San Francisco, on the inside of your thumb, the Bay Area Peninsula, is Silicon Valley, where towns ramble north from Cupertino and Santa Clara to Sunnyvale and Mountain View and Palo Alto and beyond, each one easier on the eyes and harder on the wallet as you wander away from the sprawl Hispanic poverty around San Jose to the intimidating beautify of San Francisco. Not that it was a clear gradient all the way up the fifty miles between the two cities, far from it. In those early days, outside of the handsome homes and glass-and-steel skyscrapers of the city, I often had a hard time telling the rich from the poor.
One of the first days, driving around Palo Alto with Doug, he’d jabbed a finger toward a row of flat-roofed wooden homes, surrounded by low, lush greenery but built to press nearly up to the curb. “That’s a million-dollar home,” he said. “Or more. One-point-two, probably.” I could not believe it. In Texas, a million-dollar home would sit far back from the curb, cripplingly thick brick walls holding off the outside world, three stories of open air and windows you would never open — God, why would you want the outside air in? — surrounded by neatly mowed grass that grew yellow and sun-burned along its tips even when heavily watered in blatant violation of the strict water conversation plans imposed some years. That place looked like my tin-roofed shack, times eight, minus the tin.
“You have got to be joking,” I said.
“There are bigger places, for sure,” he told me. “People are fighting with the city to tear down these flimsy things and instead put up multi-story McMansions with elevators, insulated walls with double-pane windows built right up to the edge of the property lines. So a lot of these are getting replaced by the new wave of money that’s coming through here.”
Doug wrestled with the steering wheel, doing something I seldom saw. He frowned. Money, and the new wave of it, was a thick current of heat that flowed over the coolness, just beyond the fingertip reach of most.