The Gold Rush era of California never really interested me, growing up. I thought they were all foolish, these hordes of men who ran across the continent to chase a rumor.
But I saw a painting today in the Oakland Museum that blew like a gust of wind into me: an oil painting of a miner, lean, spare, in colors as drab and flat as his faded pants and canvas shirt.
The detail of his costume, I’d never really understood how spare it was, how few things: a pack, a rifle, a water bottle, an axe, a shovel, a kerchief, a powder horn. With these few things, hiking through the mountains for weeks at a time – something the hardiest of us doesn’t even attempt. Half-starved. Eyes straining for signs of microscopic flakes of metal in the monstrously huge mountains.
One daguerreotype photo wrote how every miner wanted a picture of his land claim, his shack, whatever he had made it to. The original Alfred Bierstadt painting is there, the one of Yosemite, the glowing one, and every painting like this in the landscape section of the art gallery has a little nagging downer placard next to it saying that the painter exaggerated in their representation of the landscape, or even added waterfalls where there where none.
Despite such party poopery, the paintings still glow like fires, drawing us in, capturing the awe more than grating realism ever could. People always need dreams, utopias, fantasias. We live without them now, and our lives are much diminished. The paintings of San Francisco at the turn of the last century are wobbly, wavy, woozy, barely out of whack.
“You can see where the perspective is wrong,” says a man ahead of me. I can see Montgomery Street, with the merry shapes of horses, Telegraph Hill bare naked. In the San Francisco Bay exhibit, there is a corner with a great heap of rusty cannonballs, pulled up from the floor of the Bay. Soldiers stationed on Alcatraz in the 19th century used to fire them at Angel Island for target practice. (The’d miss and hit Marin, which was good for no one.) There are thousands still down there, apparently.
Seven thousand years ago there was no Bay. There were a few rivers, and then the oceans rose. Seven thousand years is nothing. In the videos of Indians talking, usually about the rains and animals and trees that are now gone, there is one who decides to tell one of the stories – of the thousands like it – about how the animals felt about human beings arriving. The coyote and the lizard argue over what kind of hands the humans should have: paws like the coyote’s, or toes like the lizard’s. The lizard wins out.
They must have talked among themselves when we showed – apparently they knew we were coming, as they do have a more direct line to God than we do. In one native culture there is a flood myth that mirrors the one in Genesis, but instead, it is the animals who build the ark and save the humans from drowning. Why ever would we deny that animals have agency? So few people do, yet we pretend that it is some universal quality of human life.
I am drawn always to the places in history and time where people feel they have no agency… it is a full-throated and common misbelief. I feel the temperature of cities very well, and I think that with San Francisco the worst form of disempowerment has to do with housing and land and home. It is a curious thing to think about – the crisis of eviction and forced migration in a city of immigrants and migrants – but it is the tide that people feel is unchanging, beyond their control, whirling above them in a sphere of capital unseen.
Most of the landlords of San Francisco live outside the city, many outside the state, several outside the country. The city is a domino effect; in time, Oakland will be swallowed in the whitewash. I am both gentrifier and gentrifiee, but what truly irks me is not the lack of vision for maintaining a truly diverse city (in all ways) but the fact that people here feel that they can’t do anything about it. The lack of neighborhood coherence prevents people from banding together to fight it, so then everyone has to move, and you get another neighborhood with no coherence.
There are only certain things you can do to be able to buy a $2 million condo, and a lot of the things you can’t do are the things that make society liveable, humane, meaningful. You can’t buy a $2 million if you are a teacher. You can’t buy a $2 million condo if you are a nurse, and definitely not if you are a home healthcare aide, taking care of old and sick people. You can’t buy a $2 million condo if you tend to the flowers in Golden Gate Park, or staff the bridge toll stations, or work underground fixing Muni trains at 3 a.m.
You can’t buy a $2 million condo if you are a public defense lawyer, a social worker, a counselor, a bus driver, a bartender, a waitress, a mariachi singer, the guy at Zeitgeist who makes burgers for everyone, a docent at the Exploratorium. You can pretty much only buy a $2 million condo if you are in the advertising industry (that would be Facebook), the advertising industry (that would be Google), or the advertising industry (that would be Foursquare), helping to create demand for products that, increasingly, only your own co-workers can afford to buy.
So why bother? I am one of those white people on the endless rows of silver Macs in the coffeeshops, innovating away like a jackoff. Cultures change, and it’s been this way the whole time I’ve been alive, the Bay Area pretending to be out of the stream of the 1950s redux, trotting out pictures of hippie boobs and Huey Newton to prove that such things made a more lasting impact than their translation later into lifestyle choices.
We experience all of this very far away from the Bay Area, once in a year in a remote desert, as if we had to protect it, the very flame itself. We have drawn back so far from the world that we don’t even speak to it any more. Really, can you get a business degree in environmentalism now? What about a Black Power MBA? What about a Feminist MBA? What about an Anarchist MBA? Can we scale up the peace movement? Will the shareable economy help – pink fuzzy capitalism? Are we so desperate to reclaim bohemia, to reclaim irreverence, to reclaim freedom, that our desperation makes us vulnerable to scams, to decayed radioactive half measures, to ghosts when the living walk among us?
The dead are in our ground, in our doorframes, in our garages, late at night. They give weight to the living. We are the smell and feel home. In our leanness, in the mountains, with our packs at night. Spectacles are easy to respond to. But slow death, a shade at a time – it may be harder to see, but it is far easier to stop.