life in the margins

An revised version of this essay, entitled “The View from Bohemia,” appeared on Dissident Voice and CounterPunch.

For most of my adult life I have lived in bohemia, that marginal, dwindling Gaza Strip of American culture which survives in the cracks between the sterile, expanding suburbs, the gated streets of the urban rich, and the trash-blown decay of the ghetto. It exists, as it ever has, only in larger cities, and perhaps no longer all of those. Its inhabitants in these times are not the carefree, eccentric artists and non-conformists of yore, but a grimmer group: wraith-like night owls with dark-ringed eyes, crusty radicals stolidly refusing to assimilate, and children (some now middle-aged) with drug and alcohol “problems.”

I’ve found no real community here, nothing but the most tenuous web of human relationships. My only day-to-day community is my longtime companion, both of us pretty marginal even on the margins; it’s us against the world.

But tonight as our ancient room heater whistles and clanks, and traffic roars outside the cracked and rattling window of our basement flat, I raise a glass of cheap red wine and toast my dark bohemia. I am grateful for the contrarian traits, the aimlessness and alienation that have led me here. I am grateful even for my poverty relative to others of my birth class. These are the things that have kept me recognizable to myself. Perhaps I mean they have kept me human.

Tonight I’m remembering how, by accident, years ago, I stumbled across the life that might have been mine, if I hadn’t twisted off the path somewhere.

I was driving north on Route 101, which follows the old Spanish “Royal Road” from Los Angeles to San Francisco. Taking a wrong turn off the walled highway, from which, through extensive work over the previous several years, all landmarks had thoughtfully been concealed, I ended up in the sanitized strip of North First Street in sprawling, silicon-powered San Jose.

I knew about Silicon Valley, of course. Who doesn’t? But I’d never been at its epicenter, surrounded by the built world it makes and is, in turn, made by. Along North First Street, mile after mile of newly-erected office parks squatted on old orchard land, the lovely, irrelevant mountains far away on either side. No humans could be seen behind the endless ranks of tinted windows or outside in the dead lakes of their windswept parking lots. Meaningless logos: UNISYS, INFORMIX, 3COM – glowed like halogen eyes from empty concrete faces.

All was new, clean, quiet, freshly painted, expensively landscaped. But the rows of young trees, stuck in the manicured earth as ornament, looked more like famished prisoners lined up to be shot. Like the glass box buildings they seemed as untouched by life and movement as an architect’s scale model. Even the brilliant sunshine didn’t make it all look real.

A single refrain was repeated in the parking lot signs: This Area Is Monitored by Video Surveillance at All Times.

In its regimentation, if not its ostentation, North First Street ironically called to mind the old Socialist bloc, except if you recall that the ugly architecture there was mostly built to house people. (No people actually lived anywhere near these buildings; they lived miles away, in suburban tracts.) Even the eternal spying generated by that long-fallen system was a perverse form of employment, performed by actual human beings instead of neutral, unresistant machines.

But Silicon Valley has remained a zone of expansion, not Soviet-style collapse. There is money here, and more is pouring in, like cement into a mold, to shape a future.

At the northern end of this long, silent no-place, atop lead-gray bunkers, the enormous white radar disks of Lockheed rose from behind a straggling line of brush, blank dish-faces turned toward the bright, generous California sky, looking for death.

Escaping, heading farther north, seeking food, which in the office park was scarce, and not, obviously, something intended for enjoyment, I turned off the highway again. Along Middlefield Road in Redwood City there were no longer fields, nor any redwoods. Instead there was the barrio. Unlandscaped, paint peeling, dotted with windblown trash, it still looked alive.

There were men on the street corners, talking. Sounds and smells. Children. It was not a slum. The commercial strip was taquerías, carnicerías, and bars – food and drink, the basics. La Mixteca, La Oaxaqueña, La Tampiqueña: everything spoke of place, identity, the living air of poor Mexico. If you asked, “who are you?” North First Street had no answer for you. Forget it. It makes no difference to our bottom line, said Unisys. But in the barrio, the storefronts told you proudly: I am the one from Tampico, from Michoacán. I do not forget.

It is in these multiform places of odds and ends, not the lifeless horror imagined and constructed by the corporate mind, where people have discovered, or have always known, what it is to be fully human. The landscape and activity reflect this understanding. It is messy, uneven, tender, violent. It is playful, improvised, disorderly, hopeful, angry, foolish, vivid, rhythmic yet unpredictable. There is never very much money but no one goes hungry, and pleasure and pain are still mostly genuine and unsynthesized, deriving from the company of other people. It is an urban re-creation of the lost village, our home for untold thousands of years.

The burgeoning corporate world absorbing San Jose had no room for the village or the barrio, or any place where we could be fully human. The suburb, the office park, the financial district (“downtown”) and the slum were all it knew, all it could imagine. And perhaps the remotely-located theme park for weekends and holidays. Not the carnival, not the street fair, not the open market. These are crude, unhygienic, full of dangerous elements. Anyone has access to them. And the barrio calls people to one another instead of to things to buy.

Meanwhile, in the midst of all this explosion of wealth, these resources that have re-shaped landscapes and lives, what is it most people would say they want? A comfortable home in a stable community of friends, good health, a good education for their children. Yet for millions in California these things remain as desperately difficult to attain as they are in the most remote and backward village anywhere else.

What has been offered instead? Work that drains the spirit. Money that no matter what the quantity, cannot purchase community, or a sense of purpose. What does the money buy? Mostly high priced, shiny distractions—big stereos, TVs, toys that whir, beep and cry in mechanical voices. Flickering images of unattainable sex and power. Fake danger for thrills, because your money has already bought you a car and house with alarm systems, your community is gated and your workplace is monitored by video surveillance.

Miraculously, none of it fulfills. The more you eat the more you want. The more you watch, the hungrier and lonelier you are. More and more extravagant diversion is required to keep you from looking for the Man behind the Curtain.

Silicon Valley, then and now, is the freedom we have been sold. This is the life we have been taught to believe we own.

Is it a conspiracy, some monstrous plot to keep people from freedom in the most sophisticated way possible, by gradually substituting an imitation life for the real one, while destroying or marginalizing everything of actual value? Advertising is as omnipresent a backdrop in our lives as Big Brother’s far cruder casualty and productivity statistics. Under its incessant shaping, coaxing, cajoling, bombarding, berating, this virtual prison becomes the best of all possible worlds. Even while the streets you say you love are empty, and the highways you hate are full. Your house is barred and shuttered; the fear of others is etched into your face. And if you look around for alternatives… the TV announcer shrugs his tailored shoulders at co-ops, land trusts, smirks at protesters. Alternatives? There are no alternatives.

Conspiracy! For the millions of souls that such an extravagant system cannot bring into the fold and still be profitable, well, doesn’t it all fit together: crack, meth, prisons, sweatshops in Asia? But while sectarian Leftists, cultural nationalists, racists and reactionaries impotently scream at the designated leaders of the cabal – White People! Blacks and Jews! The Government! The CIA! – and turn their own guts inside out looking for collaborators and traitors, those who have the money and resources, whoever and wherever they are, are simply, busily, with escalating speed, using them to acquire more.

In many older societies, Mexico, for example, only the timeless, cast-iron bonds of family have continued to hold, though greatly attenuated, under the modern onslaught. Like a narrow, swaying bridge over a chasm, the family continues to provide a way to define oneself in relation to other people rather than in relation to things. Where the family survives, the freefall into starvation, murderous violence, or despair can sometimes be forestalled.

That’s all right. After years of seeking freedom from the stifling embrace of family, after buying into the dream of generations of Americans to leave it all, the past, all of it behind—only to find the sought-after future a nightmare of someone else’s devising, I am reconciled to the family. Against the corporation, Marx has not withstood, nor Lenin, nor Mao, nor even Che. The lie of the beneficent state could not retain the mass imagination as well as the lie of the Fast Car. The barrio is shrinking, the slum growing. Around the world the guerrillas are isolated in lonely spots; they can’t come down from the mountains, most people can’t live their way, believing they will never march into the capital in triumph. But the family, battered by social upheaval, its boundaries stretched over countries, over seas, stretched to the breaking point, does not break, does not disappear. It holds, it clings, it commands: I am what you are. Not a nation, not money, not Unisys or Telecom, but me. If you forget me you are nothing, you are the walking dead.

Although in this respect, my society, so advanced in pursuing the corporate future, has been in freefall for a while now. The Family is a reactionary joke here, rather like the Small Town. Like the oak trees felled to carve out Oakland, it is something never honored except in its absence. I make a pact with the family, like Pound with Walt Whitman, because I see that we need each other. But I have opted out of the family as central core of my emotional life. And this village I say we all came from—the gossip, the boredom, the superstitions, the betrayals, the withering resentments, the inevitable rivalries, the same people every day—would I go back there even if I could? Not a chance.

Well then, what is this bohemia of mine? I have said what it is not. It used to be a place for non-conformism, and perhaps it used to be quite clear what that was. Now after non-conformism has become another marketing strategy, bohemia clings to life; it is like a fading photograph, and the image of the people gathered in the frame is too blurred to decipher.

What I can say is, there is still life here at the margins, as there must always be. Those of us who come and stay here have no choice but to do so; it is who we are. In these slender realms between the vastnesses of the suburb, the gated city, and the slums, some hang on by their fingernails to craft, traditions, and family (the village, the barrio), others to art, intellect, eccentricities (bohemia). Every empire will have ragged edges where its hold is incomplete, and a few stalwart non-conformists living deep inside its borders. Like tidal creatures we persist in the niches no one else wants, at best ignored by the shapers of the great future. Negamos a morir, is the word from the barrio. We refuse to die.

And if you are looking for real resistance, you will find it everywhere, not just (and sometimes not even) in mobilizations, placards and protests. It could be in a hand-painted car, a newsletter, a shrine, a song, a terraced garden. Anything undertaken with care and intention, with respect and compassion, with an awareness of the true nature of the structures that overarch our lives, is resistance. Any thought that touches a deeper truth through layers of artifice and habit is resistance.

While the corporation mythologizes individualism in order to drive the populace herd-like into its deathly stable, the only place real individualism – isolated, distracted, picking its way through the broken streets – will really survive, is the ragged fringe of bohemia. It is a ledge, not a path. It is not whole, not enough, like the barrio. It does not have children; it does not build; it cannot shape the future. Perhaps, though, it offers a place from which to see.

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