26 May 2006

Living In La-La Land

I spent the first week of October, 2001 in the Hotel Chelsea on W. 23rd Street. From my window I could see the clouds of smoke still rising from what had been the World Trade Center, and when the wind shifted in the right direction, I could smell it. New Yorkers, normally the most unflappable people in the world, were edgy and anxious, and it wasn't at all unusual to see someone suddenly start crying for no visible reason.

Still, I kept marvelling at the way most people held up under the strain, indeed seemed to grow stronger and more responsible. You have to remember that in those first weeks after the attack, no one knew whether it had been a one-off or if we could expect more bombs or airplanes or who knew what else to come crashing down on us. I remember riding in from JFK on the subway, past the miles of American flags that had blossomed from the semi-detached duplexes of outer Queens, the way people were quieter and more tentative than usual, the way their eyes swivelled toward anyone that got on the train, inquiring eyes that almost visibly asked, "Are you one of those bomb-wielding terrorists or are you one of us?"

Once past that initial screening, each new passenger tentatively became "one of us," and tried to cement that position by showing even greater vigilance toward those who got on at the next stop. Writing about it now makes it sound extremely tense and paranoid, but actually it wasn't. If anything, if felt safe and comfortable and secure, almost as though you were a child again, and you had not just your parents, but a whole carload of sensible, reliable adults looking after you.

And that's the way it felt nearly everywhere I went that week. Yeah, of course there were people wearing their patriotism on their sleeves, and making a big deal about American-this and New York-that, but behind the occasional histrionics was mostly a quiet, solid determination that said, "We're going to get through this, and we're going to help each other, and we're going to be responsible for what happens to us and our city." It was all so incredibly, well, grownup was the word that kept coming to mind.

Another thing that kept coming to mind was: it would have been best, of course, if 9/11 never happened, but if it had to happen, thank God it was in a city full of grownups rather than one populated by children and perpetual adolescents like, say, San Francisco. I tried to imagine how Bay Area people would react to a similar attack, and I just couldn't picture, for example, hundreds of firemen and policemen rushing to their deaths in an attempt to save people. No, I figured it more like the cops and firemen getting on the phone to their union reps, demanding, "Hey, does it say in our contract that we have to go into burning buildings?"

And I imagined the union reps replying, "You know, I'd like to give you an answer right now, but I really need to talk to our lawyers first, gotta cover my own ass here too, you know. How about I give you a call back after the weekend?" Meanwhile the hippies and radicals would be protesting with signs that read, "Bush Is The Real Terrorist" and city officials would be claiming that they shouldn't have to clear up the mess since it was obviously the federal government's fault that those poor oppressed Muslims had felt it necessary to blow up a couple buildings.

Granted, I generally expect the worst of San Francisco, and hopefully if the city ever does have to contend with a terrorist attack or natural disaster, I'll be proved wrong and the citizens and local authorities will rise to the occasion and acquit themselves as admirably as New Yorkers did in 2001. But this report seems only to confirm my doubts on that score. The city government, always prepared to offer advice on what needs to be done about Nicaragua or Darfur or East Patgonia, and never shying away from a debate over whether to supply the homeless with gold-plated shopping carts or the more economical but less attractive silver ones, isn't so well equipped to deal with the more mundane aspects of running a city. Picking up the trash, policing the streets, maintaining an infrastructure that won't collapse in the next earthquake, man, that stuff is kind of boring and negative, you know what I'm saying?

Of course some people find that gormless attitude to be part of San Francisco's "charm." I did too, to be honest, back when I was stoned most of the time, and if it's true, as the proverb goes, that God takes care of drunkards, fools and little children, San Francisco should be well looked after. So party on, dudes!

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