Sunday, November 21, 2010

Palo Alto

In a city of the future, it is difficult to concentrate.
—Radiohead, “Palo Alto”

During my first year in California, when I was nine, a group of local parents wrote and produced a theater piece called Perfect Palo Alto. It was a series of skits that lovingly mocked the eccentricities of my new home: Every single adult here works in computers! Our city is populated with well-to-do ex-sort-of-hippies! We’re all really liberal, overeducated, and self-righteous!

This is a weird place, I thought. No one would have ever written a play like that about Framingham, Massachusetts, or Nashua New Hampshire, the most recent cities I had lived in. What would you even say about those places? We’re a suburb of Boston! We have a big mall! And what practical New England parent would ever decide to write that play, much less be seen by their children and peers performing in it?

Palo Alto, I came to understand, was a weird town that prided itself on its weirdness. It was like that kid who makes sure to do everything on purpose to be as bizarre as possible; and, not surprisingly, it was filled with kids like that. Everyplace I went seemed haunted by a strange hippy heritage that traced back to the Sixties. Grace Slick and Joan Baez both went to my high school. My favorite coffee shop, Saint Michael’s Alley, used to be a hangout for the Grateful Dead when they were still the Warlocks. Only back then, the coffee shop had been housed in a different building, one that had long since been converted into the Varsity Theater, where you could watch Rocky Horror or Spike and Mike’s Sick and Twisted Festival of Animation and imagine Jerry Garcia having a smoke there back when he looked like a Chasidic Jew.

The town reveled in its iconoclasm, the college-town in the midst of the Silicon Valley, the town only twenty minutes from San Jose that considered itself a steadfast satellite of San Francisco (an hour’s drive).

When my economics and government teachers explained the difference between liberals and conservatives, they would always say, “Conservative voters tend to be more prevalent in wealthier areas. Where we live is an exception, though.”

And was it ever an exception. Growing up in Palo Alto, Republicans were like polar bears; I’d only ever seen one on TV. Before an election, every front yard sign, every bumper sticker, every snide comment from an adult seemed to be preaching to a city-wide choir: Mondale, Dukakis, Clinton. A few of my fellow students claimed doggedly to be Republicans, in what always struck me as an Alex P. Keaton style act of contrarian rebellion. I never met a real Republican until I went to college—at U.C. Berkeley, a school I chose over a small liberal arts school primarily because I had heard there were Republicans there and I wanted to confirm that they really existed.

Palo Alto’s demographic and social weirdness, when I was growing up, seemed to stem from the fact that people mostly moved there for the school district. At a time when California’s schools were in a fast decline, Palo Alto’s schools were consistently rated amongst the highest in the nation. These schools kept the property values sky-high for the small, single-story, space-efficient tract houses that pervaded most of the city.

In nearby Atherton, every resident lived in a mansion, but they shared a lackluster school district with neighboring Menlo Park. This incongruity used to strike me as odd, until I realized that many affluent areas don’t care about the quality of their public education system, since the residents would all be sending their children to private schools.

But in Palo Alto, all of my friends’ parents were like mine: they had sunk all of their money into a small, expensive house so that they could send their children to a top-ranked public school. So while I grew up in a town with a high average income and high property values, no one I knew ever seemed to have much money. We all had parents who carefully budgeted, who fretted over the money we spent on clothes and food, who considered every purchase seriously: Do you really need that?

Thinking back, I realize that our parents could have been living in bigger houses, driving fancier cars, not worrying about every dollar, if they had chosen to live in cheaper cities with lesser school districts. Palo Alto self-selected for people who valued education—public education—over every other luxury in life, and that was what made it truly a town of weirdos.

The values of our parents seemed to have rubbed off on most of the students I knew. Certainly the interest in education did. Grades were so high that my school could not publicize class rankings for fear of keeping us from being admitted to universities. My 3.6 GPA put me in the 68th percentile of my graduating class.

But our view of money seemed to come from our parents as well. In a city with one of the highest real estate prices per square foot in the country, no one wanted to be seen as rich; instead, students tended to brag about how poor they were. Having a lot of money, or spending it frivolously, was something to be ashamed of. In my high school, it was considered horribly uncouth to have anything expensive or new. I knew one very rich kid whose parents bought him a fancy sports car for his sixteenth birthday, and everyone mocked him behind his back. He was one of the handful of people I knew who had a new car at all; most of my friends, like me, did not have a car, and none had a car manufactured after the Seventies. At the high school across town from mine, the newspaper ran a “Wreck of the Week” column featuring students boasting about the decrepit state of their vehicles. There seemed to be an acute understanding that we had not earned the money we spent on clothes or cars, and that wasting your parents’ money didn’t make you cool; it made you a spoiled brat.

This rule probably did not hold amongst the small crowd of “popular” kids, but no one cared about them. While they held some sway in middle school, by high school, they could no longer manage to lord despotically over the masses, hopelessly outnumbered as they were. All the horrors I hear reported from other high schools—the football players and cheerleaders and game days and school spirit—were all reversed at my school. Sporting events were under-attended, with teachers begging us to show up. School spirit was for losers. I never once heard a girl admit to being a cheerleader without an embarrassed disclaimer: “Actually I’m a cheerleader. But it’s just because I’m really into dance.”

I moved away from Palo Alto at what ended up being the dawn of the dot-com era. When I applied to college, I had visited the internet one time. By the time I graduated, my father was asking me whether I might want to put off the Ph.D. program I had just been accepted to and make a bunch of quick money as a tech writer, just like every other jackass with an English degree.

Whenever I came back to visit Palo Alto, every other car was a BMW or Jaguar, and there was a new yuppie restaurant in the place of each quirky old diner or bookstore I used to love. Saint Michael’s Alley had been converted from a grungy coffeehouse to a stylish gourmet brunch spot. The Varsity Theater became a Borders bookstore. All the eccentric little corners were swept clean, as if the weird haunted hippy town of my youth had never existed.

During those boom years, when I would visit my mom, I used to go for a run around my old neighborhood—a run that took me past Steve Jobs’s house, an unassuming neighborhood landmark—and each time, I would pass at least four houses knocked all the way down to their foundations. They were about to be built up again from scratch, now taller and with basements and bloated out to the far edges of their lots.

Like every affluent place, Palo Alto seems culturally improved by economic downturn. The bloated houses still stand, but I don’t see so many knocked down when I visit now. The roving crowds of dot-com twenty-somethings in cocktail attire no longer swarm University Avenue in search of mates. Palo Alto still makes me a little sad, seeing it from the outside, its sanitized plazas and former-dives where my teenaged friends used to write on the walls with Sharpies. Still, that is only from the outside. I have a lot of hope that the high school kids are still traipsing around like lost hoboes somewhere I never go, that young Grace Slick is there writing scandalous songs, hidden away somewhere my respectable grown-up eyes can no longer see.