Once upon a time during the sixties and seventies I dreamed of being a California girl, so every year I drove more than a thousand miles from Vancouver to San Fran to get a taste of that dream. I didn’t really examine why I felt so strongly about it; it seemed so self evident at the time. It was like that in those days of summer, pot and poetry, and it lasted until the mid-eighties. Whatever was important; it happened in California first. It was the undoubted trend setter for the western world and I wanted to be there, taste it first, know it, experience it.
It came to an abrupt end after 9/1; since then I have made that border crossing only once. My travels now are by plane, to Barcelona, my new city of dreams. I didn’t miss San Franciso until I fell into a chance conversation with a woman who happened to be sitting next to me on bench at Granville Island, Vancouver’s upscale market by the water. Small, my age and with intelligent dark eyes, she turned to me and asked me if I liked the island. I said yes; it was okay, had been here for 20 years already. Where was she from? San Franciso, born and bred, and intending to stay there though many of her friends had already moved to other, less expensive places to retire. A high ranking civil servant in a branch of the California government that looks after disabled people, she was only two years from retirement, she explained. She was on a one day layover, fresh off the cruise ship, and flying home that day. We fell into a spirited exchange about the recent history of Vancouver and what life was like in SF these days. “Oh, it’s still a great place, but there aren’t a lot of families living right in the city; it’s mostly young people and old people like me who don’t want to leave,” she said.
And then I remembered: the reason I had always loved SF so much was that no matter how freaky, strange or different you were; people would accept you, no problem. Such a sense of heady freedom pervaded life in SF that it became my standard forever. It was the freedom, real or perceived, that made it such a thrilling place where, quite literally, you could be anyone you wanted. Was it still like that, I wondered. She thought it was; and she agreed with me that it was unique in the world. Then she asked me about places to have lunch; I gave her some directions and we parted, almost like old friends by now.
This morning, Paul Krugman writes about the political and fiscal mismanagement of California in the New York Times: he says that the flawed tax structure of the state is preventing it from rising to the challenge of the economic disasters we have created. Children are going hungry in one of the richest states of the union, it has 11 percent unemployment, and he wonders if this inability to solve problems is a harbinger of similar failures in the rest of the nation. He also believes that California is a bell wether state; as it goes, so go all of us.
So in spite of what my friend said about the city being the same free and accepting place it has always been, how long will that last in the face of increasing hunger, economic uncertainty, unemployment and misery?
I fear that the political and financial stalemate Krugmann describes could permanently turn the California dream into a nightmare. I hope not. I want to go back to the state of dreamin’, just one more time. But it is probably too late. I should just get on with it and pack for Barcelona. Times are bad there too, but at least they don’t have a Republican who speaks with a thick Austrian accent at the helm.