Voyage to Siliconia
Are we sick of them yet? Myopic mavens with fat brains and eight hundred megahertz of chutzpah who just "incubated" a business into a multimillion-dollar deal to provide everyone in the world with free access to a review of every bathroom on earth. Yes, AOL just bought myjohn.com for a kajillion bucks, and founders Nori Nerd and Gary Geek are now 24-year-old siliconaires. After buying themselves a Porsche and a Ferrari and a hilltop in Portola Valley, Nerd and Geek promise that the money "won't change our lives much."
And you and I, Mr. and Ms. John Q. Ordinaire, read about them and tsk-tsk. Those damn dotcommies are taking over the world. Then we begin our day as millions of others do. We go to our computers and click on Netscape and go to Yahoo! We check our e-mail. We trash our porno spam. Rather than looking out the window, we may check the weathercam. Rather than count our blessings, we may check our quotes to see how much money we've lost today. For fun we might check out the pandacam and see if little Hua Mei is eating her bamboo at the San Diego Zoo. Or we may go to register.com and learn that the domain name myjohn.com has already been taken. So has istink.com and ismell.com. As for doodie.com it's up and running and, trust me, you don't want to point your browser there, girlfriend.
Back in the day when being a real commie was the latest college fad, when we were "the kids," when we chanted little ditties like "The people united will never be defeated," we didn't see this coming, this flowering of all things technical. We thought we were in charge. Some of us thought technology was dehumanizing and other Unabomberish things. What people forget about the generation of 1968 is that we came of age when all the arts were in bloom, when rock 'n' roll and self-deception reached new highs. Now time and an appreciation of money have beaten many of the illusions out of us. In the years since 1974, when the war in Vietnam ended and Nixon resigned, there were many times when we realized the "revolution" was over. I'd almost forgotten about it until New Year's Eve. Remember Y2K? A thousand or so NASDAQ points up and down ago? Hope you saved your mugs and T-shirts. If this week was a crash and not a correction, maybe you'll be able to sell them on eBay. If there's still an eBay, bandwidth willing.
As the clock struck midnight on December 31, my friend Amaru -- he of the graying ponytail and never-sell-out integrity -- Amaru, the true artist, looked at me ashamedly and said, "I care about the stock market. I have a 401(k)." The next day my friend Jan, the former Weatherman, called to say she had cast her fate with the masses and was up $12,000 in just three months. On the NASDAQ, of course, or the Nas, as I heard Dan Rather call it. As in the "red-hot NASDAQ," not the Nazarene. And that was Weatherman as in the group that used to blow up toilets and shout "Power to the people," not as in, It'll be sunny today with a touch of Greenspan.
A few weeks ago I was standing outside the Monterey Market squeezing avocados and trying to follow what the men who do the heavy lifting were saying in Spanish. I heard something like, "Quiero...jada, jada ...AOL. No! Prefiero jada, jada...Yahoo!" Amazon, si, Qualcomm, no. We're not in Leningrad anymore, Toto.
Just an hour ago I heard this on the radio: "Not doubling your net worth every sixty days? We can show you how to do it stress-free. Don't let the technology revolution pass you by..."
Who's not in the stock market? The guy who didn't have chest pain this week.
I'm driving along and trying to connect the dots. If you're old enough to remember Huey Newton and the Chicago Seven and Los Siete de la Raza, then you may remember when you'd be following someone on the freeway with the bumper sticker: "I'd rather be driving a Mac." If we're all driving disks, why is 880 south the Land of Perpetual Gridlock? It's one of the great mysteries of the computer revolution, along the lines of why is there more paper, not less? If you're old enough to remember Steve Wozniak and Nolan Bushnell and Jaron Lanier, you may also remember another mysterious bumper sticker: "Watch Sunnyvale grow." Make love, not war was already history.
Because a car is not interactive, you get philosophical in a car. You get emotional. Road rage is just one little byway. You're in this time machine whizzing through space, and the thoughts fly by as fast as the landscape.
So I found myself for the first time in many years on 101 south of 92. Right after I passed through the Legoland of Foster City, it hit me -- here I was at Ground Zero, the NASDAQ Proving Grounds. At this very moment, I was among the monumental forces that are driving the world economy. Soon, the names, the logos, the coveted brands of our society would fly by...Inktomi ...Excite@home...Advanced Micro Devices...Intel. Soon I'd see the Sunnyvale that grew.
But where are the monuments of yesteryear? Where are the statues and pillars and domes that say: We are the greatest city in the greatest nation? In fact, where the heck are the cities? When does Menlo Park end and Palo Alto begin? Where is the way to San Jose? How did Sunnyvale grow into Santa Clara? The buildings, the vaunted brick-and-mortar, they appear to be nothing more than big garages. Since it all started with Stanford grad students William Hewlett and David Packard tinkering in their garage, perhaps this is appropriate -- but still, molto billions later, must they still be in garages? Has a society so powerful and pervasive ever been housed in such flimsy architecture? If the market really crashes, you can't even jump from these buildings.
Here is what this valley looked like in 1939 to the great writers of America as they collectively described it in California: A Guide to the Golden State, the masterpiece produced by the Federal Writers Project of the Works Progress Administration: "US 101 cuts now through the fruit trees that sweep in row on row across SANTA CLARA VALLEY. The broad plain was so thickly studded with great oaks that to Capt. George Vancouver in 1792, it looked like a park which had originally been planted with true old English oak.' Now in the spring the foothills of its mountain walls -- the Mount Hamilton Range on the east and the Santa Cruz Mountains on the west -- it looks more like an expanse of snowdrifts because of the orchards white with blossoms. The almonds flower first, in late February, and then following them in succession until early April, the peaches, cherries, pears, apricots, prunes, and apples. In summer an army of wandering fruit pickers invades the valley -- an army as large as the host of visitors in blossom time. The trays of prunes and apricots drying in the hot sun cover acres...."
This is Silicon Valley, the valley of dreams, the place where the American dream -- anybody from anywhere can become anything -- has now reached its apotheosis. How can such big dreams come from such ugly buildings, row upon row of so-called "tilt-ups," instant cubicle-opolises? It is a landscape of "campuses," of incubator garages in industrial-parklike settings. But I don't dare slow down to stare, because in the rearview a Darth Vader-like $90,000 parody of a sports car is gaining and threatens to mow me down if I don't recognize its might.
This beautiful land, this enchanted piece of paradise was once known as the Valley of Heart's Desire. Sadly, the fruit trees had to go, the orchards replaced by a bloom of buildings, to fulfill that prophetic name. Inside these dumpy walls the dreams of young people from all over the planet might go from idea to code to product to venture capital to IPO. Then you'll see them on the evening news, drinking champagne and cheering the closing bell of the first day of trading, and think to yourself: Oh shit! I forgot to get rich.
As you whiz by, more names hit you: 3Com, Sun MicroSystems, Yahoo!, Netscape -- it's as if the giant $s are just floating in the air. This is the reason the United States now controls the world. What started out as the might that came of NASA Ames and the Stanford Linear Accelerator, what began with ARPAnet has now turned into guys named Jerry and David sharing Web sites. We don't need no stinking bombs -- we can teach the world to netsurf. It's a kind of dream come true. Make Web sites, not war. You gotta love these kids. Instead of killing the commies and all the other "enemies," we conquered them with our dotcommie economy revolution.
So I am here in the epicenter of the happening universe. Just a few months ago I was in Rome looking up at the Pantheon. There was the name M. AGRIPPA etched in huge stone letters for me to stare at over my cappuccino across two millennia. Where are the mighty marble edifices with Jerry Yang and Marc Andreesen and Gene Kleiner carved beneath the domes? Where is the thirty-foot statue of the Mighty Woz? The Arch of Jobs? The Grovian Way? The flying chariot of Larry Ellison? In fact, most people, even people like me who turn on, tune in, and drop bucks on the products they brought to market, hardly know their names.
Of course the buildings are flimsy. It's a virtual world. To have anything monumental would be going against the flow of information. It would be saying we are here to stay and not moving at the speed of light. The Jaguar ad from Wired provides the Silicon Valley manifesto: "Demoralize every other car on the road along with their drivers. Introducing the new XKR. The 4.0 litre AJ-V8 engine produces 370 horsepower and launches you from 0-60 in just 5.3 seconds. No wonder others are left feeling a little inadequate."
You can see how a young man with a rocket and a "pre-IPO" idea in his pocket can relate. It's a step up from the Romans. It's not about conquering or killing -- it's about winning. About leaving others feeling "a little inadequate," not throwing them to the lions. Better demoralized than dead, no? But just in case he's in a killing mood, you change lanes and let the little twit fly by. Besides, he's so busy talking to his VC on his cell phone he doesn't even know he's going 85.
The brass rings from the high-tech merry-go-round are scattered everywhere. The Bay Area is looking more and more like the '50s. New houses. Pastel colors. Emeryville is booming. On Sunday Berkeley open houses are surrounded by Lexus SUV-driving eager over-bidders. Even Oakland is finally picking up some spare change. Mighty AskJeeves is soon to be a major tenant at Oakland City Center. A banner across a deserted street near Oakland City Hall reads, "Welcome CyberGold." An authentic French creperie just opened across from the rescue mission on Washington Street in the heart of the bail bonds district.
A couple has just applied for a permit to build a 28,958-square-foot house in frigging Fremont! Says the Oakland Tribune's Web site: "The house would be on Sabercat Court, part of the gated Sabercat Ranch Estates which overlooks Interstate 680 between the Washington Boulevard and Auto Mall Parkway exits." Hey, it may not have the same cachet as 50th and Park but think of the optimism of sinking 10 mil into something near a freeway in Fremont. Why not? What goes up will not come down, right? The NASDAQ is never going to crash. This is a New Economy.
An old Pete Townsend song comes on the radio, "Feeling Mobile." I think it's a commercial for cell phones, but no, it's a real song: "I don't care about pollution/ I'm an air-conditioned gypsy/ That's my solution..." A few minutes later I hear, "Get on board, on the love train, love train/ Tell all the folks in China and Russia too...." Now I'm sure it's an IBM ad. Are you ready? Rock 'n' roll equals advertisement.
What to make of this Valley of Heart's Desire where money blossoms as apricots once did? Palo Alto with its newfound wealth piled on top of its old-for-California money has taken on a Beverly Hills vibe -- the richest little small town on earth -- as Silicon Valley has replaced Hollywood as the place that defines California, America, Fantasyland. University Avenue (which, last time I visited, was a place of closing stores and opening franchises) now has a kind of glamour. There's even a Spago nearby complete with a gang of Latino valet parkers ready to skid off in your new XKR.
Outside a taqueria on University a gang of four young men is seated. Each is slim, blond, blue-eyed, and wears permanent-pressed blue cotton-blend pants, a professionally laundered shirt, and a thin belt across his tiny waist. The nerds may be glued to their cubicles, but the salesmen are circling their prey. They look past each other and parallel-talk into their Nokias. None of them are touching their veggie burritos. One is saying loudly, seemingly into the air, "Look at it this way, you met the thirty-million-dollar man. And he's gonna fund your deal." Another becomes so agitated he gets up from the table and with his look-ma-no-hands ear clip dangling, he stands up on the curbside planter and shouts something into his invisible mouthpiece. It reminds me of one of my favorite e-mail jokes:
Bill Gates, Andy Grove, and Steve Jobs are in a high-powered business meeting. During the serious tense discussion, a beeping noise suddenly comes from where Bill is sitting. Bill says, "Oh, that's my beeper. Gentlemen, excuse me, I need to take this call." So Bill lifts his wristwatch to his ear and begins talking into the end of his tie. After completing the call, he notices the others staring and explains, "Oh, this is my new emergency communications system. I have an earpiece built into my watch and a microphone sewn into the end of my tie. That way I can take a call anywhere." The others nod, and the meeting continues. Five minutes later, Andy starts beeping and he says, "Excuse me gentlemen, this must be an important call." So Andy taps his earlobe and begins talking into thin air. When he completes his call, he notices the others staring at him and explains, "I also have an emergency communication system. But my earpiece is actually implanted in my earlobe, and the microphone is actually embedded in this fake tooth." The others nod, and the meeting continues. Five minutes later, the discussion is again interrupted when Steve emits a thunderous fart. He looks up at the others staring at him and says, "Somebody get me a piece of paper. I'm receiving a fax."
The ear-clipped guys are going places. I've been here before. I remember turning off 101 on Holly Street to visit Phyllis in the house where she grew up high on a hill in San Carlos. Had the whole hilltop. Spectacular view. Sold it for $350,000 when she moved away in the early '80s. Ouch.
I remember driving down to Palo Alto in 1969 to see Char and Lenny in the cottage on Middlefield Road where I ate spaghetti and drank red wine that was labeled Cheap Red Wine and had no vintage and we talked into the night about Frantz Fanon and The Wretched of the Earth. This is way, way back before noodles were pasta, back when we thought VC meant Viet Cong, not venture capitalists. This was when Lenny thought he'd never get a job as an engineer.
This place was like Dullsville, man. Eichler ranch houses? Could we have dreamed there would be museum shows about Eichlers?
We thought then that Berkeley was the center of the universe. The place with ideas and values that would transform the world. The revolution was coming -- we just didn't know which one. Berkeley was where it was at. Palo Alto was -- ugh -- suburban. People scrambled car decals to spell out Snodfart. We were just a paradigm shift and a mouse click away from obscurity. We had attitude. They got stock options. Oh well.
One of the friends on the weekend visit list was Rooshabh Varaiya. We met when he was a graduate student in electrical engineering at Berkeley. He was the friend who taught me that there was some great popular cultural spirit out there, and it was mass communicating to a new global one-world. I began to glimpse the holy trinity -- Coke and Levi's and Mickey Mouse. I saw that Elvis and Marlon Brando and other rebels had affected Rooshabh in distant Bombay just as they affected me and my friends coming up in the USA.
Rooshabh loved to party, had a magnificent smile, and would invite one and all to his student digs at the top of Hearst Street for feasts of killer curries, too many intoxicants, and lots of outrageous jokes. He moved to Palo Alto in the early '70s, and the party continued for a while but we lost touch in the exhaustion of raising kids and working. From time to time I would see the toll that working for Hewlett Packard and Tandem Computer took on my friend. But today when I go to visit him in his new office at Cisco Systems, I see an elder statesman of the computer revolution. He's more relaxed than in his younger years but still in it to win. He's paid his dues, but they haven't wrung the Elvis out of him. You can see he still carries the scars of a Berkeley indoctrination when he refers to the place where he plays golf as a "working-class country club." From each according to his handicap, to each according to his birdie?
On the day I go visit him in the bowels of the Cisco Systems campus, I have read on the front page of the Wall Street Journal that Cisco is the second largest company in the world. The world. As in: after Gates, it's theirs. Two weeks later, Cisco passed the declawed Microsoft as the world's largest, but this past week, in the NASDAQ carnage, corny old General Electric came out on top.
Here's how big Cisco is. If I make a mistake and type "Cicso" as I have just done, Microsoft Word gives me the squiggly line as if to say, You better spell this name right, it's a made company. (If I type "3Commies," I don't get the squiggles.) I also read that Cisco started 11 years ago with 44 employees and now has 27,000. Cisco receives 20,000 job applications a month on its Web site. I resist the temptation to find out what Cisco stock was worth in 1994 when Rooshabh came here.
I followed the e-mailed directions to the campus, which took me past the huge hangars and humongous satellites of Moffett Field (where the Feds could communicate with Mars if they hadn't lost that little billion-dollar thingamabob.) I drive into a UC-sized orchard of gray and teal buildings. There are buildings A through P. After realizing the alphabet (unlike corporate growth) was finite, Cisco went to numbers. There is nothing comparable to the Temple of Venus here, but there are immaculate lawns, flowering plums, sculpted beds of daffodils, and -- to signal an entrance -- large rocks and fountains. To signal a big entrance, the waters may dance.
Rooshabh greets me as a friend and not a journalist (usually a big mistake with a writer). I realize I have to protect his frankness and great wit from a certain exposure. It is clear from the articles I have been reading in the Wall Street Journal, the Chronicle, and online at places like Redherring.com that if Cisco isn't the greatest company in the world, they certainly have one of the best PR departments. Oh, did I mention that Cisco makes the routers that move almost all the traffic on the Internet? Routers are kind of hardware with software, which Rooshabh describes as "highly abstract logical ways to route things through Internet protocols." Miss that? Just remember that eighty percent of the Internet depends on Cisco.
Rooshabh meets me in the lobby of his building. We buzz our way past the electronic eye into row upon row of cubicles until we come to his office. It's a modest, almost military, standard-issue windowless space with desk, computer, little conference table, and a bunch of stuff still in bubble wrap. "They've moved me so many times, I decided not to unpack yet," he says, flashing me the Elvis grin, complete with slightly flared right nostril. The thick black hair is thinner now and graying at the temples. The colorful body shirts and hip-hugger bellbottoms are replaced by an elegant Italian suit because today he was entertaining foreign clients, but I know he still has a mean "Houn' Dog" in him. He explains with some pride the great corporate democracy that has been Hewlett Packard's legacy to the Silicon Valley: "Cisco decided that anyone who gets an office doesn't get a window." This goes for even the mighty who bear the laurels of CEO and CFO. Rooshabh says that it was the downfall of Fairchild Semiconductor to be caught up in that "East Coast mahogany desk business culture." Perhaps if Fairchild had treated its people better, the legendary Fairchildren would not have gone off and founded this new Rome.
In the Berkeley version of history, William Schockley was a famous mad racist who wanted to sell Nobel laureate sperm to engineer better babies. But Schockley was also the Nobel winner who invented the transistor and started Shockley Semiconductor. In the Bible according to Silicon Valley, Schockley begot Fairchild, which begot Intel and 38 other companies. Defection is an honored Silicon Valley tradition. Since it merged with AOL, Netscape has lost so many employees that some call them "Netscapees." That's why successful companies like Cisco have worked hard to retain talented employees. While the vice presidents slave away in their dark offices, it is the young men and women in jeans and T-shirts who are sitting in their cubicles, staring into the Window's green glare, sipping their water bottles as brilliant sunshine pours over their partitions. Maybe some modern Tennyson is keying, "The Splendor falls on cubicle walls..."
I am trying to figure out what it is Rooshabh does without asking questions that will show my complete ignorance of how the world works, of all things technical, and my lack of memory for all the things I should have learned about him over the years. I sense that he is somewhere between an engineer and a businessman, that he understands and helps develop complex products. Because he's such a social creature, I'm sure he could sell anything to anybody. He describes the Cisco sales force with the kind of language and enthusiasm once reserved for Caesar's armies. Terms like sharks and blood are bandied about.
His business card identifies him as "Director, IOS Technology & Engineering Operations," which is the group that combines audio, video, and data lines into one. The card itself is a piece of work. In addition to the usual phone and fax and e-mail and Web site info, it repeats everything in Japanese. It is branded with the distinctive Cisco bridge logo and embossed with a triangle that says it is a registered ISO 9001, as if a company this big needs the good Internet seal of approval. The bridge refers to Cisco's origins in the mid-'80s, connecting the Ethernet to other budding internets.
Cisco is a reminder that the Internet is not just chat rooms and online shopping and pandacams. At Cisco they practice what they preach. According to the most recent annual report, "By employing our own Internet Solutions, Cisco has maintained its agility and competitive advantage. All of the company's business operations -- from supply chain management to employee communications -- are Internet-based. Today, eighty percent of our orders and more than eighty percent of our customer inquiries are transacted over the Web."
It's on the company intranet that employees share such tales of woe as the "The Nine-Million-Dollar Kitchen." This is the heartwrenching story of the guy who sold his shares of a company for thirty thousand dollars to finance a kitchen remodel in 1993. Cisco acquired the company, and at today's price, the stock would be worth $9 mil. Well, you can't win 'em all, buddy -- you got the double oven.
When I finally give up and ask Rooshabh what he does, he reaches into the bubble-wrapped stuff and pulls out a framed patent he took out in 1981 for a prototype hard disk drive. Later he unwraps a board with chips on it that was invented by a company he briefly headed. He likes hardware almost as much as he likes what it can do. He wants to show me the "boxes," the routers, the real thing. We drive some distance to see the lab where they test things. In we go to another gray and teal monument to a few good years. Inside, he buzzes us past more electronic security and with much fanfare throws open the lab door. There is a cavernous room entirely empty except for all the green and red and silver spaghetti wires dangling from the walls and the ceilings. "Where is it?" he laughs. "It was here three months ago."
Time for cocktails. We head to the house Rooshabh bought on a valley hillside in 1976, when he was working for Tandem Computer. It came with a photo of what it looked like in 1965 when it was still surrounded by orchards. Unlike the young ones, Rooshabh has seen hard times in this valley. He went through several recessions, including the crash of '87 when stocks were halved like ripe apricots. Then another recession in the early '90s, when everything was moving to Texas and the World Wide Web was just a twinkle in Al Gore's eye. Given the ups and downs he has seen, doesn't he take an attitude toward the twentysomethings with their instant gazillions and their stock options and their IPOs? No, he admires them. "These kids are utterly fearless."
But that is nothing compared to his obvious pride in his own kids. Now that I know how hard it is to raise the little buggers, I tend to judge parents by their kids. The Varaiyas are a charming family to be around. Son Shane and daughter Rachel go to a public high school and describe life in an academic pressure cooker where everyone's parents are on duty 24/7, pushing them to study hard and be a success. Or else. It's a you-are-what-you-drive world. Plenty of kids arrive at school in $60,000 vehicles. Shane has suffered his father's cruelty: an '88 Honda. But he appears none the worse for it. He wants to be an artist and has the temperament. He tells stories as well as his dad and has already been a major rebel. He loves coming to Berkeley. Wishes his school were as diverse as Berkeley High. His sister, with her American mother's face and her father's black velvet hair and luscious dark eyes, is so drop-dead gorgeous I try not to stare. She is also thoughtful and seems to understand that she is in a place and time of extraordinary circumstances. Whether she knows she is in the center of the universe, I can't tell.
They want to know the usual things kids of this age want to know: Were our parents hippies? I actually looked into my old album to find a photo of Rooshabh, which I was going to bring to amuse them. But when I saw the group of us spread out on the lawn at Live Oak Park in 1974 -- me in the center nursing my new baby, and my longhaired bearded husband looking dead-on like Charley Manson -- I decided the joke would be on us.
We are having dinner in Saratoga Village at The Plumed Horse. The menu is filled with luxurious foods like ostrich and foie gras and lobster. Not exactly a teenage hangout, but at the next table a three-year-old is being spoon-fed a taste of caviar. Shane asks, "What's foie gras?" and when told makes a yuck face and goes for the salad. This is about as decadent as Silicon Valley gets. After all, it's not Rome -- it's a family-oriented series of suburbs filled with good schools, uncynical people, churches, and fly-by-night architecture. It is casual, relaxed, and incredibly hardworking. To find a hooker or a porno shop, you'd have to drive to Hayward or the far corners of San Jose or boot up the iMac. And even though some names are legendary -- Groves, Yang, Jobs, Kleiner, Perkins, etc. -- they would probably not be recognized by most people even if they were the very guys in wrinkle-free pleated front khakis and polo shirts at the next table.
Oddly, one person who does get recognized is my old friend Karl Sonkin whom I meet for lunch on another actual voyage to the virtual valley. When we walk into the Lion and Compass, an old (like since the '80s) valley business lunch place, heads turn and people whisper, "There's Karl Sonkin, the reporter from KRON TV." The Lion and Compass was started by Atari founder Nolan Bushnell, and it's a cut above his other dining venture, Chuck E. Cheese. But talk about dated -- there are (quel horror!) phone jacks in the walls. The latest stock prices are flashed above the tables. I hope they've started supplying air sickness bags.
Karl's been in the valley for eleven years. For every instant millionaire here, there's someone who just works hard for a living. Karl is in the latter category. It would probably surprise all those who recognize him to realize that by valley standards he lives an incredibly modest life. To begin with, he doesn't own property. Gone with an old relationship. Yet his rental house near the freeway in Menlo Park does not come cheap; he's probably the only person in the valley rooting for a downturn. His '94 Toyota is easy to find when he searches the BMW lot that is the restaurant's parking area.
And yet, he's happy to be here. Has no regrets. Loves living here. The weather. The casual dress. He describes times he's interviewed some of the very billionaires whose names strike awe in those who are counting and found himself in his on-air suit and tie looking so much flashier than the icon. He reinforces what the Varaiya kids have told me: the car is the only street clue to the wealth. "There really aren't any fancy stores here. Everyone shops at Gap or Banana Republic. I can do that."
Most of the money is in the house, he explains. He takes me for ride to a house in Los Altos Hills that's on the market for twenty million. But it just isn't all that different from any other new on-the-golf-course executive tract house except many more rooms, more marble wet bars, more sunken tubs, much more precious land, and a big circular driveway and multiple garages to park the beloved machines.
No need for envy. A few years ago Karl got what he wanted. He went to China and with much persistence was able to become the single father of a girl who had been abandoned. She goes to one of the finest public schools in the world and has that kind of dream room that girls longed for in the '50s -- with a white canopy bed and all the books and toys a child needs and a loving maternal daddy. Although he uses state-of-the-chip equipment at work, Karl's house is pretty low-tech. A fifteen-year-old Panasonic TV. An eight-year-old VCR. An Apple Mac Performa that he mainly uses to log on to the Web site of Adoptive Parents of Chinese Children. He knows his daughter is lucky when he reads about the experiences of Chinese kids in rural Alabama. In Silicon Valley an Asian child is in the majority at many schools.
I beg, as every outsider inevitably does, for Karl to show me the real valley, the landmarks, the hangouts. He's literally done over 2,000 stories about this place as a daily reporter. Ask him his favorite story, and it's not the time he interviewed the head of Excite or attended the party at Yahoo!. It was the time he interviewed the cop who did a backward Heimlich maneuver on a kid who was choking on a gumball. He saved the kid's life but got the gumball right in the eye.
We try to find a landmark. That phone book cover place, the background for the network reporter doing a remote from Silicon Valley, the place the Japanese will have their snapshot taken when they come. Karl's favorite is the one site that can't be photographed, something he identifies as the "Blue Cube." Adjacent to Moffett Field, it's the place from which Lockheed runs military satellites. "It's a top-secret place that everybody in the whole world knows about, but if you go out and do a story they tell you: Don't focus your camera on it.'" How about the Orchard Museum that is being built in Sunnyvale, on a plot of land maintained as the "last orchard." Is that Valley or what? We drive through a trailer park in San Jose. "This is it," he says with gusto. "This is where the real people live. Vast numbers of people live in trailer parks." He almost bought a double-wide himself.
If the computer has moved us into cyberspace, why do all the people Karl calls the IPO wannabes keep coming here to live? Karl's short answer: Nobody gets funded through e-mail.
We visit the charming old OJ Olson's farm store on the site of the last working apricot orchard. The property has just been sold to a housing developer who will build fancy-schmancy homes and reopen the refurbished store as a Disneyland version of the once real deal.
Do I want to see Starbucks where the twentysomethings hang out in their quasi-punk attire? No, plenty of that in Berkeley and everywhere else. We talk about finding the garage at 367 Addison where Hewlett and Packard got their start. Or looking for the original Orchard Supply Hardware in San Jose. We drive past the now-decapitated El Palo Alto, the great tree that guided the padres. We cruise Castro Street, heart of the cute new old town of Mountain View. It's filled with wonderful restaurants, but at 2 p.m., as if the bell has rung, almost every place has emptied out as people go back to work. This is the home of the three-cappuccino lunch. Finally, Karl tells me to go to Fry's Electronics. That's the valley. That's it.
So I do. I take the bridgeless way from Berkeley, skipping the Bay Bridge -- remember the first time you heard someone refer to the drive from the South Bay to the City as a "reverse commute"? Skipping the San Mateo Bridge, which is, like the 405 in LA, a possible rush hour anytime from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m. And skipping the Dumbarton, that path along a bog with a Sun MicroSystems campus at each end. If the Santa Clara Valley once referred to the orchards between "the Mount Hamilton Range on the east and the Santa Cruz Mountains on the west," then Silicon Valley refers to the ooze of housing and commercial buildings spreading anywhere south from San Carlos or southwest from Hayward to Gilroy. So worldwide is the valley's web that there's a Web site listing all the Siliconia imitators from Silicon Fen in Ireland to the Billy-can Alley in Australia to Media Del Rey in LA. Even the Berkeley landscape is pockmarked with outposts of the Silicon Underground. Po Bronson, in his economic thriller, The Nudist on the Late Shift and Other True Tales of the Silicon Valley, describes one such entrepreneurial cell in the basement of the Bancroft Hotel.
As you drive down 580, you can feel that point just past Union City when the money begins to bloom. It hasn't penetrated downtown Hayward; the closed-up stores still have that depressing look of the Bush Administration. One shop even bears the sign of its last tenant: The Arthur Murray Dance Studio. Was it just ten years ago I thought my kids would never have jobs? Who could imagine that just on the other side of downsizing and buyouts and early retirement lay headhunters and signing bonuses and four percent unemployment? Who could guess that the slackers and hackers would end up working seventy hours a week, many of them making more money on their first job than most of us make after a lifetime of what we used to call wage slavery? In Fremont, in the green hills before Mission Peak on a spring day after much rain, there is no doubt that I've arrived. Again I get that '50s feeling, although the new houses are much grander, the golf courses greener. The thrift shops of Hayward disappear, and the joggers pop up. Suddenly the body shop is not a place to get your twisted metal set right, but where you get your legs waxed. Here is the bay's easternmost -- of the valley, that is -- outpost of Fry's, an electronics store filled with the wonders of the technology revolution. It is huge. It is vast. It is as big as opportunity and full of possibility as America. I decline the shopping cart. How many motherboards and Palm Pilots and Trinitrons will I be carting out anyway?
I am not a fan of big stores. I get nauseated in Costco around the time the smell of the free sausages kicks in. Costco is almost totalitarian next to Fry's. It limits the choices when the new age of wonders is all about choices, the inalienable right to buy bags of the latest stuff. You remember those stories about the Russians who wept when they saw their first American supermarket? Well, they'd piss in their pants at Fry's. In fact, I almost did myself until I found the ladies' room -- several acres of audio and video and multimedia later. There is a cafe in the middle of the damn store! There are people sitting at the cafe drinking and reading and writing what? -- code? -- on their Palm Pilots with their big carts filled with new stuff parked next to them.
I begin to think of all the things I need. Of course I need nothing; I have too much already. (You can see the Berkloid thinking kicking in here.) In fact, I have more than I want. I still have my 1982 color TV and my 1984 VCR. I have my beloved Mac Classic just like the one in the museum case at the airport display of the great cultural rtifacts of the 20th century. But I also have this 1996 PC clone that I actually use although I know I should be upgrading. By valley standards, I am somewhere between a late adopter and a total idiot, but at my job, as a nurse, I am called a "computer whiz" because I know where to find things on the Internet and can do a few other stupid computer tricks.
I could use a new CD player because the tape deck is broken on my Sony shelf system. The CD deck will only play certain CDs and only when warmed up and if I beg. I'd been doing some research on CD players and found an ominous description of one system: "Not as loud as the Aiwa but still good enough to annoy your parents." I checked Fry's on the Internet before I came here, and while their Web site is "under construction," there were plenty of hilarious mock sites making fun of Fry's by the geeknocenti who are frequent buyers. My favorite is the one with the Fry's employee application, with choices like "Some grammar school."
When I ask the salesman a few questions about the CD players, he seems as befuddled as I am. I feel I am paining him so I move on. I would make a choice but I don't understand any of the features. I don't know how to compare the watts and the woofers, and I just really want a machine where you stick in the disc and music comes out.
Okay, I could use a TV. But again, so many features and all I want is an ON switch.
Oh, but look here's that new TiVO thing that records all your favorite shows and plays them when you want them and didn't I just pass their headquarters yesterday and who's kidding whom? I'm not going to be able to figure this out. And besides, I don't have cable and can only get three channels and I hate all the shows. And I really hate Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, which was number one through five of the top-rated shows, and we wonder why everyone in the world is on the freeway heading to Silicon Valley?
Okay, okay, my computer is ancient. Look at all these wonderful new ones. But I'm just figuring out half the features on my old-timer. I find myself passing through an aisle of ordinary household appliances -- coffee machines, blow dryers, microwaves -- things that didn't exist in the '50s but are probably about to be obsolete. There's something called a "Smart Vacuum Cleaner." I briefly picture myself lying on the couch sipping a martini and listening to downloaded Dean Martin songs while a smart vacuum cleaner races around the place. "Hey, R2D2, you missed a spot."
And here's where I cut out. Out of the 21st century. Out of the New Economy. Out of the valley of dreams and geeks and dolls and dollars and straight to that shabbier University Avenue in Berkeley. I enter the stone-and-mortar retro charm of Al Lasher's Electronics and pick up a new set of rabbit ears. I've missed cable and satellite and digital -- why quit now?
Silicon Valley is filled with wonders, with mysteries, with gadgets I don't need and people I don't know and barely understand. It is the center of the earth, and Berkeley is a bedroom community with lots of what the real estate agents call "latte factor," a pleasant little backwater of wine and food snobs who still want to fight over whether it's correct to recycle plastic. 'Tis a gift to be simple.
It's obvious that the celebrated citizens of Silicon Valley are different from you and me, Scott. They have more money because they want it.