beautiful and cold

I find nowadays, when I’m committed to traveling somewhere farther than a day’s drive away, that there’s always a point at which I suddenly think: “Why go?” It’s so nice and comfortable here; I have all my familiar routines, things, people around me, everything fits. It may get boring or depressing at times, but it’s known. And I feel almost a kind of lethargy come over me.

Today in San Francisco it’s a gorgeous spring day. Everything is blooming after the recent rains, the sunlight has that bright-bright almost solid quality to it, as if the sky were really a dome of blue rock. The beauty is so seductive—it always makes you think you –you personally– can actually have it all.

But it’s cold too. And that’s actually how I think of San Francisco most of the time: beautiful and cold. I went out to do errands so that I could finish packing for the night flight, and once again I was struck by the blankness, the emptied-out quality, of the faces of the well-dressed passersby, the women cradling their cellphones to their crooked heads, as if they were a tiny fire of connection in a world that was otherwise just a barely tolerated backdrop. Strangers tend to treat each other as an irritation, something to be avoided, ignored or dispensed with as quickly as possible. I’ve lived here for over 15 years; I’ve seen this every day; I never expect it to go away.

I am going to a place that is the absolute antithesis of San Francisco: hot, sometimes unbearably hot (like this time of year), poor, not clean, not beautiful. Well, El Salvador, once you get outside the sprawling, fume-choked capital, has its beauty, I suppose, just as Delaware does—but relative to Colorado, for example, Delaware is the plain one, and El Salvador is, let’s say the Delaware of Central America (with apologies to my sister-in-law who’s from Delaware—but she knows what I mean). It’s a place in which nothing is really that comfortable for me, even if I’m now somewhat familiar with it. However carefully I try to pack, I know El Salvador is going to turn me into a disheveled mess about five minutes after I step outside of any door.

But the people — no matter how many cellphones rain down on that country, or SUVs or other shiny trinkets with which we distance ourselves from our immediate environment — I think they will never become the kind of people we have become. They will not necessarily be better or worse people than us overall, but they will never, collectively, adopt that blank stare of disdain towards the unrecognized face when they move through their streets. That stare is a stare of privilege, and San Franciscans won’t lose it till they lose theirs.

I remember coming back for the holidays once while I was living as a volunteer in El Salvador, and going to a suburban supermarket for the first time in several years. I was almost paralyzed by the sight of a pile of oranges the size of grapefruits—and they were floodlit! Special lighting had been set up over the display. I had to choke back the hysterical laughter I felt rising in me because the memory of what I’d seen in the streets and markets of El Salvador was so fresh.

Many things are complex in political and personal realities, very little is black and white. And yet at that moment it seemed absolutely obvious to me that there was something horrific in those engorged, floodlit oranges, something close to evil—even if it was out and out funny too—in the fact that they could exist in the same world with millions and even billions of beings whose entire lifelong net worth would never be as much as that heap of fruit and the expense of that display.

I think unless we who can so easily take comfort for granted can find ways of making that equation real to ourselves, we are stuck in a world where privilege continues to leech away the qualities that are best in us, day after day. Never mind what it does to the people denied it.

Anyway, that walk in San Francisco was enough to get me back on track. I know why I’m going.

I wanted to share some photos my neighbor Bob Burnside just sent me of his last trip there.

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