By THOMAS FULLER SEPT. 16, 2016, New York Times [original article contains links and additional photographs.]
Image from article, with caption: Golden Gate Avenue, in San Francisco, Sept. 7, 2016
San Francisco — AFTER more than 27 years abroad, mostly as a foreign
correspondent in Asia covering civil unrest and poverty, I wander the streets of this
city, my new home, like an enchanted tourist.
The people who share sidewalks with me must wonder why I sometimes laugh
out loud. The advertisements for sustainably grown marijuana on the sides of San
Francisco buses. (“That’s cannabis, the California way.”) The comfort dogs on public
transport and the woman who brought her dog to the Easter Sunday service.
Blindingly white teeth. The burrito that was so huge it felt as if it would break
my wrist. Police officers covered in tattoos.
I left the United States when Ronald Reagan was president, so adjusting to life
here involves more than just unlearning the metric system and remembering to put
the month before the day when writing checks.
I drive around the Bay Area marveling at the America that we often take for
granted. In so many countries that I covered in Southeast Asia it was a given that the
elites would take over public land as a kind of perquisite of power. But in the hills
and gullies surrounding San Francisco I gaze in amazement at the endless
unmolested tracts of open space.
I spend hours in supermarket aisles. Organic ice cream sandwiches! Vegan
shoes! A “Bluetooth compatible” electric toothbrush!
The America of 2016 is so much more specialized than the one I left in 1988. It
almost seems that we have created needs so that we can cater to them.
I stop and stare at the giant trucks in San Francisco designed for the specific
purpose of shredding and hauling documents. What a luxury as a society to produce
tons of confidential documents and then deploy specialized trucks to destroy them. I
knew yoga was big in California and ditto for cannabis. But it was still a surprise to
discover “ganja yoga.”
The Bay Area is, of course, the world’s laboratory for new technology. I tend to
meet people finding solutions for problems I never knew we had. A woman told me
she was developing an algorithm that would determine what kind of books a child
might want to read.
Everyone keeps offering me credit in America. I drove away from a dealer with a
brand-new $30,000 car without handing over a penny. It was so thrilling that I keep
repeating this routine. I bought a Vespa. Why not? At 2 percent interest the money
seemed almost free. Then I bought shopping carts full of home improvement
materials at Home Depot and was told I didn’t have to pay for them for two years.
Someone needs to tell Equifax to decline my next credit application. This could
end in penury.
Of course some of what I’ve encountered has been less alluring. During all my
years in Asia I constantly grappled with the perniciousness of poverty. Yet somehow
I was unprepared for the scale and severity of homelessness in San Francisco.
The juxtaposition of the silent whir of sleek Tesla electric vehicles, with the
outbursts of the mentally ill on the sidewalks. Destitution clashing with high
technology. Well-dressed tourists sharing the pavement with vaguely human forms
inside cardboard boxes.
I’m confounded how to explain to my two children why a wealthy society allows
its most vulnerable citizens to languish on the streets. My son, when he first
encountered a homeless man, asked why no one “wanted to adopt him.”
It seems a terrible statement about my home country that my children will
encounter homelessness and mental illness much more vividly in the wealthiest
nation in the world than they did in Thailand, where we previously lived.
During a trip back to Bangkok I spoke about this paradox with Nopphan
Phromsri, the secretary general of the Human Settlement Foundation, an
organization that assists the homeless there.
Greater Bangkok, a sprawling metropolis with more than 10 million people, has
1,300 homeless people, a survey this year found.
San Francisco has less than one-tenth Bangkok’s population but six times as
many homeless people. I’m sure you could fill a book with the reasons for this. Ms.
Nopphan believes that homelessness is more intractable in rich societies. “In
wealthy countries there are systems for everything,” she said. “You’re either in the
system or out of the system.” There is no in-between in America. In Bangkok, by
contrast, rich and poor coexist. There are vast tracts of cheap, make-shift homes and
a countryside where people in the cities can return to if they lose their jobs or hit
On most days Asia feels very far away.
But a few weeks ago I had an odd flash of connection with my old life, during a
visit to Walmart. Something about the cavernous warehouse roof, the grid of
fluorescent lighting and the austere, sterile design brought on a sense of familiarity.
It struck me that the ordered rows in Walmart didn’t look that dissimilar to the
factories in Asia where most of these products came from.
I found myself staring at details — the laces on the construction boots, the hints
of glue holding together soccer balls, the knots on the drawstring of a sack holding a
I remembered the hands that made these things, the factories I visited in China
and Southeast Asia where workers spent their days hunched over tables smelling of
glue, plastic and leather.
It was as if there was a symmetry across the Pacific between the producers and
the consumers, between the factory and the cash register.
I stood in the checkout line and watched milk-fed Americans unloading their
carts onto the conveyor belt. My mind flashed back to the diminutive workers in a
factory I visited in Tianjin, China, who for a few hundred dollars a month stitched
leather boots and who giggled when they thought about the giant feet that would one
day fill them.
Thomas Fuller (@thomasfullerNYT) is the San Francisco bureau chief
for The New York Times.