The other day, I went into my local credit union to make a deposit. My teller on this occasion was a young lady who would be attractive anyway but who has obviously invested extra effort in her appearance with rings and make-up. Her eyelashes are a tad, but only a tad, overdone.
In the past, it has seemed both like she was bored and like she was attempting to avoid my male gaze even before I could gaze. This prompted me to make an extra effort not to gaze. Remember, this is a teller in a credit union. So it was awkward as she went through the motions of doing what I needed done and I was trying to look almost anywhere else.
On this occasion, however, it seemed like in addition to the boredom and the male gaze avoidance, she seemed especially sad. I was transfixed. Her sadness could have had any cause, but I realized that whatever her ambition was with her glamour, she was not achieving it. She was, instead, stuck as a credit union teller, a relatively low-paid position serving, in Sebastopol, a lot of well-off folks.
Later that day, it happened I was up on Skyline Boulevard in Redwood City. This is not really like Skyline Boulevard that traverses a route along a ridge line from southwest San Francisco into Millbrae or even the section along Crystal Springs reservoir north of Highway 92. This is the section just a little south of Highway 92, back up on a ridge line, and it is spectacular.
There was a strong onshore flow so the fog was coming in, but this section of Skyline was just above it. The area west of this section of Skyline is mostly wooded, although the ocean might—I’m not sure—be visible in the distance. I was thinking to myself, what a spot to be in a living room with a glass wall, such as any house there must surely have, looking west. Put on some music, get stoned, watch the sunset.
I was jealous but the guy I met up there took it all for granted. Yes, it’s nice, he told me. But you have to drive anywhere, he complained. As I was driving away I thought to myself, there are lots of places where you have to drive that are a lot less spectacular than this.
Reflecting on all this later, I was thinking about that teller who had served me earlier that day. There is nothing, I know from personal experience, absolutely nothing, more boring than other people’s money. Her soul was being crushed even as I watched and the best I could try to offer was a sympathetic smile as I thanked her and turned to walk away.
Perhaps it was that scene on Skyline Boulevard she aspired to. Perhaps not. And of course the social inequality in this juxtaposition barely begins to cover it. I routinely drive through massive homeless encampments where human beings endure Dickensian horror in their daily lives. What of their dreams? What of their souls?
I tend not to think of dreams and souls these days. Mine have been crushed in the seventeen years it’s been since I had a job that paid rent, especially in the couple years since I finished my Ph.D. and still have been unable to find such a job.
Making it all worse, I look at the state of humanity in an authoritarian system of social organization and I realize that even if there is a solution to the existential challenges we face, we are likely incapable of uniting to implement it. As human beings, we are damaged by the insanity of this system and the drama we now face with Donald Trump as president reflects both our inability to come together as a species and the enormous sickness of our society.
It is a shame. We are destroying a truly beautiful world, overrunning it with squalor ranging from tract homes to homeless encampments, all so a few can be bored with those spectacular spaces that remain.
- Erich Fromm, The Sane Society (1956; repr., Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon, UK: Routledge, 2010).↩