Last week, four small vehicles were upended in San Francisco. And the whole world was watching.
The inversion of 7,200 total pounds of Smart Cars quickly became an international story. Vanloads of hoodie-clad men defiling German sub-subcompacts on our city streets gave foreign relatives an excuse to phone at odd hours and inquire about our residents' well-being (Everyone's fine. Please don't send any more care packages. They sell soap in America now, too). Serious news outlets across the globe — and, naturally, "The Funniest Online Man Cave that brings you Cars, Hot Women and internet trends" — disseminated the day's big story. Hell, it made Drudge.
Well, fair enough. Smart Cars are inherently hilarious: The sight of one always kindles hopes that a giant, a clown, or a giant clown will emerge from within.
The oddness of the moment isn't in the mass appeal of Internet clickbait, but the attempt to affix deeper meanings to it in San Francisco. Truth be told, Smart Cars have been folded, spindled, and mutilated since they first rolled off their tiny, adorable assembly line. Dutch miscreants hurled them into canals. Canadian vandals — surely the world's most polite — have been upending "Smarties" for years; an Edmonton Smart dealer named Ken Lust regaled The Canadian Press with the harrowing tale of his victimization by "Smart tippers" all the way back in '06.
Lust attributed his misfortune to "several fellows who probably had too much to drink that night." That sounds about right; in Amsterdam there may yet be other chemicals available that render Smart-tipping irresistible. This hardly seems to be a bellwether for the Dutch or Albertan condition.
Of late, however, anything and everything taking place in San Francisco seems to be newsworthy simply because it happened in San Francisco. Like Richard Dreyfuss molding a plateful of mashed potatoes in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, national and international observers are mulling this city's banalities while uttering "This means something."
There may never have been a mid-sized city with a healthier sense of self-importance than our own. Our leaders see themselves as a light unto the nations; our residents trekked here, resonantly, to be who they are. The city's visceral physical beauty and resultant cavalcade of tourists ensure a steady influx of cash. That, combined with an increasingly affluent population, ameliorates any need for efficient or even functional governance.
A steady stream of newcomers journey from every corner of the world to sup from our bread bowls, be relieved of their phones on our mass transit system, and leap from our bridge.
When you find yourself nodding along with Gavin Newsom, it's likely time for some manner of intervention. But our erstwhile mayor was on to something with his well-used quip about San Francisco being "49 square miles surrounded by reality" (Newsom loves to appropriate witticisms from Anthony Robbins, but, in this case, he's filching from Jefferson Airplane's Paul Kantner.). As what passes for reality here grows increasingly fantastical, San Francisco is further transformed into a tabula rasa.
Out there in reality, San Francisco is less a city than a symbol — and all that transpires within is part and parcel of larger symbols still. That's why right-leaning readers who glommed onto Internet images of San Francisco cops shutting down kiddies' Dolores Park lemonade stand were uninterested in municipal codes pertaining to food peddlers or that a platoon of bell-ringing Mexican ice cream men were also given the heave-ho.
Rather, this was an affirmation of their established worldview, and a grim reminder of what's to come in Obama's overregulated America.
Similarly, left-wing readers horrified by the notion of free-spirited San Francisco nudists being asked to put on some goddamn clothes were unconcerned with the deleterious effects of an "ad-hoc nudist colony" invading a residential and commercial neighborhood or the joys of interacting with these colonists.
Rather, this was an assault on their established worldview — and a grim reminder of what's to come in Obama's overly policed America.
The opposite of love is not hate but indifference. Whatever one's thoughts on San Francisco and that for which it stands, we are being watched.
And we like this.
An armada of New York journalists has been deployed to analyze our city; it harks to teams of doctors parachuting in from the Centers for Disease Control after some fiend poisons the water system with vast quantities of Tab.
San Francisco's existential state has been poked and prodded. We have looked to the side and coughed. We have been diagnosed. And, like a white-coated technician unexpectedly interrupting your meal and asking if anything tastes putrid, it can come off more than a bit creepy. The level of San Francisco coverage has grown obsessive and extreme.
But ours is a city of extremes: of cost, of class difference, of visions. Millions if not billions of people can't go a day without using the products created by companies headquartered here or a quick shuttle-bus jaunt down the road. This is a city not lacking in conflict, and conflict is the essence of storytelling. It's no mystery why the New York journalists are coming here. It's no mystery why anyone comes here.
In this city, every last story can be shoehorned into being a signifier of a bigger story. Just as tales of abandoned homes and farms sprouting amid housing tracts in Detroit play into the overarching theme of urban decay and American decline, in San Francisco every faltering mom 'n' pop shop, every eviction, every overpriced bread product, and every overturned vehicle can be plugged into a larger societal narrative of "progress" and its discontents.
And that's valid. Until it isn't. Then it just becomes lazy and repetitious. San Francisco is a city replete with stories. But not every San Francisco story is a component of the San Francisco story.
Even Sigmund Freud, who also saw a lot of meaning where often it wasn't, said something to the effect of: Sometimes an upturned Smart Car is just an upturned Smart Car.