Monday, February 23, 2009

Signs of the Times

On CNN's website today there was a little photo essay on bad economic times in New York; the pictures all happened to be from our neighborhood. It wasn't exactly news, as lots of the places pictured -- a Mexican restaurant, a magazine shop, a store that sold Fifties stuff -- had been gone a while, but there were some new ones, too. The pictures had the double effect of making me a bit homesick and also suggesting the strange emptying-out of public spaces that's going on around us. That was still on my mind when I walked to downtown Palo Alto, down to the drugstore, and came upon a shop going out of business -- the Z Gallerie, a place that sells flashy home accessories. Palo Alto is usually an arena of restraint and a certain social severity. I've been noticing lately that people go to some lengths not to make eye contact with one another here. New York has a reputation for that but it's actually not true; New Yorkers look at each other constantly. Paul's theory is that here in Silicon Valley people wish to appear complete, as if they need nothing, and to look in someone else's eyes might suggest you wanted something. Whatever the case, there was not much of that usual cool in evidence inside Z Gallerie; people were excited about the 75% markdown and considering big mercury glass hurricane candle holders, faux horn candelabra and waist-high glass vases in zebra patterns. People were actively jostling others aside and talking exuberantly about the merchandise. Whatever gloss the stuff once had by virtue of display seemed to have leaked out as it was pawed over and piled about. The one thing that didn't seem to be touched was a display of skull-patterned stuff in the back: plates, stemware, cereal bowls emblazoned with silvery-black skulls. Rhinestone skull napkin rings. embroidered skull napkins, skull placecard holders. It seems that skulls, in the new depression, are over and done with.

4 comments:

Elizabeth said...

thank goodness -- about the skulls, that is.

Collin Kelley said...

While I'm sorry the company is going out of business, I hate the stuff in Z Gallerie. It's all way over the top for me.

macrame said...

Mark, it was good to read your blog about the skulls at the Palo Alto store, especially after I heard you read your poem about the very same skulls...how interesting! Great seeing you in person at San Jose State...Pushpa

galincal said...

Supposedly, the incidence of autistic spectrum disorders diagnosed in children in Silicon Valley is higher than average...one theory that was put out in Wired Magazine suggests that high tec/engineering as a career tends (WARNING: broad generalization ahead) to appeal to people who are more comfortable interacting with machines than people and thus their children may be more likely to exhibit autistic-like traits (if you believe in a genetic contribution)...poor eye contact is a hallmark of autistic spectrum disorders...could there be a link?

My other thought is a somewhat frequent converation I have with fellow transplants from the East Coast. Although Californians have the reputation of being more casual and laid back, our experience has been that people are not that neighborly, that they are involved in their own lives and activities and don't tend to look out for each other. That is a broad generalization also but I know it has been my experience of living here in California. I would say it's probably a societal trend but my siblings who remained in New Jersey seem to have a different experience of community, one that's less isolated and less image-conscious. Avoiding eye contact as a means of communicating that you don't need or want anything from others could be part of this cultural way of being.