Wednesday, February 10, 2010

East Bay Ethnography

The jungle shivers with sound as your canoe floats down the Amazon. Monkeys grunt and howl. Exotic birds whistle and squawk. Unseen creatures rustle in the ground cover. You glide around a bend in the river and come upon a cluster of indigenous people sitting by the shore. Adorned in feathers and flowers, the men and women sit together in a circle around a fire, smoking herbs from a long pipe, eating fruit, laughing and talking. They notice you sailing by on your canoe and run to the shore, waving excitedly, beckoning for you to join them.

Instead, you paddle on down the serpentine river, negotiating a couple more curves before you come upon a very different tribe. Covered in war paint and ready for battle, the men dance around a fire, screaming, waving spears and calling for enemy blood. Their women sit back and watch, clapping, ululating, urging the men into a ferocious frenzy. You duck just in time to miss the first spear whizzing by your head. You paddle faster, dodging a few more spears before your canoe slips behind another turn in the snaky river, out of sight and out of reach.

How, your inner ethnographer wonders, can two cultures but a few miles apart be so drastically different?

Anyone who's ever moved from Berkeley to Orinda would have to wonder the same thing. With just a couple of hills between them, the two communities are as culturally different from one another as our fictitious Amazon tribes. Berkeley is edgy, dark and offbeat. Its vast flats range from upscale boho to drab, cold and even dangerous as you near the Oakland border. Its lush hills look straight across the middle of San Francisco Bay. Folks lucky enough to have views can watch the sun go to bed behind the Golden Gate bridge every evening. When the sunset isn't on, they watch the fog roll in.

The class war is alive and well in Berkeley. UC Berkeley students look down on the towny skateboard kids that grew up in the flats and pepper every sentence with "hella", as in "I'm hella tired". People in the flats despise "the rich" that live in the hills. In truth, there are plenty of middle class people up there, such as my hair dresser who's lived in the hills for twenty years, with her four boys and fireman husband. There's money in the hills too, but it's considered bad form to flaunt it.

Downtown Berkeley is haunted by every manner of street person, some sad, some scary, some with skin conditions you didn't know existed. The city has a classic art deco library, a newly renovated art house multiplex, a nationally renowned repertory theater and the University's Zellerbach Hall, where you can see everyone from Hillary Hahn to Laurie Anderson. Berkeley is home to Michael Polan of The Omnivore's Dilemna and John Yoo of the Justice Department torture memos. The town has understated wealth and serious crime. A world-famous university and a nightmare of a high school. Chez Panisse and soup kitchens. Upscale boutiques and vintage clothing stores where your purchase comes with a free case of scabies.

A trip to either of the huge Berkeley Bowl grocery co-ops is like a game of humanity bingo. Here, a pair of professioral European intellectuals in moth-eaten sweaters. There, a price-conscious Chinese dad with his wife and kids. To your left, a dignified Indian grandmother in a purple and gold sari. To your right, a neo-primitive couple in their twenties, tatooed, gauged, pierced, dyed and about as far removed from their baby pictures as humanly possible. Right behind you, a pair of hippy grandparents, the tips of their long hair still sandy, the roots gone white. Bingo, middle eastern mother and daughter, inspecting the zucchini. Bingo, butch lesbian couple giving each other good-natured grief by the seafood counter. Bingo, two brown grandmas in their Sunday-go-to-church hats. Bingo, Bingo, Bingo. Snooty college prof! Smiley yoga teacher! Microscopic, much-mascara'd Japanese babe! Bingo! Glitter-bedecked madwoman! College kid on a beer run! Dread-locked, wire-rimmed, vegan Afro-nerd!

Four miles from Berkeley and just six subway stops from San Francisco, Orinda is more like a supply station for the tony suburbs surrounding it than an actual town. The merchants are clustered around two small shopping strips, Orinda and Orinda Village. There are a couple of gas stations, a handful of restaurants, two pharmacies and some sociologically telling businesses, like the riding store that caters to the horsey set, and the two overpriced resale boutiques (clothes and furniture) where the well-to-do can unload their gently-used possessions.

There's no class war in Orinda - other than a few small pockets of modest housing and apartments, everyone's upper-middle class. If you're going to play humanity bingo at the Orinda Safeway, you'll have to sift through subtle variations of white people. Little ladies with headbands. Old guys who don't need a pitchfork to look like American Gothic. Suburban moms smug in their conviction that they're living the perfect life. Drivers of BMW SUVs. Eaters of processed food. Wearers of perfectly matched golf and tennis clothes. Orinda is so white that when we see an African American person at the grocery store, my husband always says "There's the Orinda Black person! Let's go introduce ourselves." Even the store merchandise is different. The Berkeley Bowls overflow with a cornucopia of exotic greens, organic produce and unusual fruits that look like they could grow on James Cameron's Pandora. You can find Indian bread, grass fed beef, local sand dabs and all manner of exotic food supplements that don't do a damn thing for you. The Orinda Safeway is a throwback to the days of better living through chemistry, featuring oversized hormonal chickens, a variety of cheese logs and a dizzying array of processed foods.

Sometimes I wonder if all those people at the Orinda Safeway are plants. I have no clue where they are coming from, or where they go after they've paid for their groceries. I have never seen a human being on our circular street and it is entirely possible that the people next door aren't people at all. For all I know, they have grey skin and slits for ears and six long fingers with an extra knuckle. The other day, I was on the phone with my mother. She was telling me about my sister's mother-in-law, a dignified lady who is sinking into dementia. My mother thinks the poor woman's increasingly vegetative ennui is exacerbated by living on a street "where nobody ever walks." Oh, I thought to myself, like MY street.

Anyway, I have a couple of theories about the Orinda Stepford vibe. One is geography. The valley is relatively narrow. You are cradled by the horizon-less landscape. To me, that is claustrophobic, but it's quite possible that people who grew up in that environment are lulled by the hilly embrace and feel insecure without it: When we were looking for an Orinda rental, everyone we spoke to had lived here their entire life. My other theory revolves around the giant electrical towers that criss-cross the landscape. Humming, looming metal monsters. You see homes with manicured gardens and a massive tower or three in the back and you wonder what living next to all that electromagnetic radiation can do to you.

Years ago,some friends invited us to Thanksgiving dinner. The other guests were an Israeli couple, both physicians. Over dinner, the male doctor described the three other doctors in his practice: a Jew, a half-Jew and a non-Jew. He explained that he related the best to the Jew, second, to the half-Jew, and lastly, to the gentile. He said he couldn't help it – he felt most at home with his own tribe. As a half Jewish mutt, I had to speak up. I pointed out that my diverse group of friends looked beyond this tribe stuff at everyone's common humanity. The good doctor nodded. "And that," he replied, "is your tribe."

We are not born burb-dwellers: We moved to Orinda for the school system. Yet another desperate, ultimately unsuccessful attempt at a fresh start for our problem child. The weather's lovely and the home we are renting is a huge improvement on the crazy Japanese house we were living in in Berkeley. But as pleasant as Orinda may be, there's no one around from my tribe.

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