Going to California

Life by the Valley — 3.1

It was hot out there, too, certainly, you could feel it in the air and see it on the streets. Some frenetic energy, as yet unnamed by science, propelled people through their days in a collective rush toward wealth.

In Austin, the traffic was thick with older and newer cars and trucks, the perfect and the dinged intertwined, carefully leaving enough several car-lengths between vehicles to reduce the risk of an accident. When construction closed a lane, the civilized response was the zipper: every car in the lane beside the closure taking its turn to let someone in, and every merging car waiting for its turn to fold into the path forward.

From a conference room at work, overlooking a Bay Area stretch of the 101 Freeway, traffic gleamed with new cars of mostly foreign makes and models. There were few American cars, and trucks were rare. And on the one hand, while the traffic was pitiless — the “we’re all in this together” spirit of the zipper was nowhere to be found — it cut both ways. It didn’t matter how fast you were going: if you left space enough for a car to physically fit between you and the next vehicle, you shouldn’t be surprised when a car moved to fill it, like any other vacuum in nature, usually without signally, many times abruptly, often for absolutely no apparent reason.

Bay Area driving culture was the exact opposite of Texas roads where, as we liked to say, an armed society is a polite society. But it wasn’t a fear of being shot that kept me from cutting people off in traffic, or that made me respect the unwritten social contract of the zipper. I genuinely enjoyed waving people over when they seemed ready to merge in front of me. I enjoyed waving a thank-you in my rear-view mirror after someone let me cut over in front of them. So the relative brutality and selfishness of Bay Area driving would have been infuriating for me, if there hadn’t also been an upside.

In Austin, and in Texas in general, you could go something like ten miles over the speed limit, and no more, without being guaranteed that the next cop who sees you will pull you over and rather aggressively ask what the hell you thought you were doing. In the Bay Area, though, most of the time if you were only going ten miles over the speed limit, you’re almost guaranteed to see other cars shooting past you, sometimes honking.

My heart soared when I discovered that eighty miles an hour was the basic flow of traffic along several a wide, winding freeways. My favorite was 280, which parallels 101 along the western boundary of Silicon Valley, dividing the tech towns from the long and sharply rising hillside — a mountain range, really, to this Texas boy — which itself separates the warm flatland of the peninsula from the cold Pacific Coast air. Low clouds sprint east off the ocean, building up on the western edge of the hillside until some critical mass breaks through, foggy tendrils waterfalling down the eastern stretch of hills, rolling in to calm any late-afternoon heat, with me, shooting north at more than ninety miles an hour, my ragged red convertible still being passed by shiny European road yachts driven by silver-haired men, lost in thought.

Few people talk about Silicon Valley from within Silicon Valley, even in the static-filled days of that unnamed frenetic energy, throwing off radical sparks of dot-com and Web and broadband-to-the-home. Still, there was no confusing the place for what it was. I had to be reminded repeatedly that until pretty recently, most of the peninsula had been a few scattered suburbs surrounded by tens of miles of rich farmland, fruits and nuts and vegetables in tidy rows where office parks and burrito joints and more office parks and some apartments and glass-and-steel office columns had come to squat. You really wouldn’t know it by looking at the place, which my Texas-tuned estimation figured had been built pretty much from scratch in the mid-1980s, with some office parks added or updated as much as a decade later. This felt odd to me, having come from a place where space was hardly a premium. In Texas there was always more room to build, and every year brought updated styles of home construction, or new modes of compositing strip malls, or a wave of gas station updates. Growing up, I could peg within three years when any housing development had come together, while in Silicon Valley, only two things seemed to change once the place had been built up: the expensively crafted logos which hung off the top edges of four- and six-story office buildings, glowing the names of whichever tech companies had been rolling in cash most recently, and the highway billboards, which were optimistically nerdy well before the rest of the world wrapped its head around the Internet as something that was not going away, that would definitely be a deeply important part of your life, and that would only be summoned into being by some secret alchemical combination of computer code and market vision.

At least, those two things seemed to be the strongest vectors of change from the perspective of a haggard red convertible sprinting down 101 at a speed approaching three digits. Exit the freeway, calm yourself, and drive a few blocks, and you may find one more degree of freedom in that time and place. Even though the people who’ve made lives for themselves in Palo Alto and Mountain View may believe that the normal rules of the world don’t apply to them — and this misconception would bring them enough grief soon enough — the life and times of restaurants didn’t seem to be any different there than any other. If you were very profitable you could survive, at least for a while, but the churn was high and if you didn’t keep upgrading your signs and your service you would quickly find yourself left behind.

Doug lived a couple of blocks from Mountain View’s small downtown strip where, after my first day at work, we walked over and met Jim. The look and the feel of that walk though cool, late-summer air as a few street lights began to flicker to life is forever cradled in my memory, and though I have no idea what we talked about as we walked over to Tied House that early evening, I’ll never forget what they told me once we got there.

 

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