Without much detail, a doctor at Stanford University specializes in a procedure my wife needed, so we packed seven months of clothes into three suitcases, failed the airport weight limit in all of them, and slogged our way to an extended-stay hotel that required about two months’ worth of mortgages to enjoy their daily dose of scrambled somethings and chicken sausage.
When you visit a city like Palo Alto for a couple of weeks, it’s natural that you start making comparisons to home. And let’s be honest, we are smothered with news about the megacompanies of this era – Facebook, Google and Apple – and we wonder what it would be like if those titans built their headquarters off 610 North.
There’s also an aura that surrounds Silicon Valley. We (well, I) have always thought of that region as a bunch of smart people trapped in a bubble that the rest of us consider downright foreign. I had images of T-shirt wearing Facebook employees jetting across town on hoverboards that double as Frappuccino spigots. I thought all the homes would don “Save the Planet” yard signs and carbon neutral hoses.
Those impressions weren’t exactly right, but then again, Silicon Valley is no Houston, Texas, thankfully.
Consider some of the “problems” we faced:
During my wife’s road to recovery, she found herself craving sodium, which doctors said was a good thing. A few days after the procedure, all my wife wanted was a bowl of grits. We couldn’t find them hidden between the granola dispensers at our hotel, so we asked that local company – Google – to find a national chain breakfast joint. Surely grits aren’t so southern that national restaurants wouldn’t have them.
Nope. We landed at the International House of Everything But Grits and walked away with slumped shoulders repeating strange lines from the movie “My Cousin Vinny.”
Grits weren’t the only food casualty on this trip. Our hotel was just across the street from a large shopping center anchored by an Austin-based grocery store called Whole Paycheck. When I moved to Houston more than a decade ago, I lived in an apartment next to one of these confusing places so I was familiar with the crazy concept of walking through a store and not recognizing a single item on the shelves.
What I did know about Whole Paycheck was that most of the stores had a nice array of ready-to-eat food, which sounded a lot better than the Sizzler (who knew those still existed?) adjacent to our hotel parking lot.
I’m not sure what I was expecting at the Whole Paycheck buffet, but what I found were entire rows of foods I could neither pronounce nor likely chew. I have heard of kale, but I’ve never seen it served in 13 different varieties. I walked back to the hotel with a slice of organic pizza, a carton of organic mac-and-cheese and a salad that may or may not have included kale.
We tend to do a lot of fussing about traffic in Houston, and rightfully so, but there are traffic problems in Silicon Valley we’ve never faced in these parts.
For starters, you can’t hear their dang cars. I stood in a parking lot loading a few bags of groceries (every bag costs an extra 10 cents, by the way) and I almost walked into moving vehicles twice. That’s because their hybrid/electric cars make the noise of rabbits tiptoeing on cotton. Cars should sound like cars, shouldn’t they?
But I quickly learned why they drive these poor excuses for transportation: Their parking lots are designed for the Seven Dwarfs. I have been on a tight road and needed to do a 5-point turn. I needed 7 points just to line my car into the sliver of space allowed for standard-sized cars.
We faced other problems, like gas stations that don’t accept credit cards – no kidding. I also read a story that employees of Facebook and Google who make more than $150,000 a year cannot afford housing. The story on CNBC said both companies are going to begin shipping modular containers that will serve as homes for the “low class” out there. In San Jose, the article said, millennials who move there for jobs will not be able to afford to buy an apartment “until the year 2041.”
Not all was grim in the Valley of smart people. My wife and I found a lot of things we either loved or at least made us chuckle. My favorite was their process for disposing of trash. They have containers for “Recycling,” “Compost” and “Landfill,” as to further infringe on a person’s moral compass for using plastic. I tried to do my part to fit in with the locals, so as I stood over these containers, I began the painstaking process of sorting my garbage into the three categories. I couldn’t help but laugh when I noticed that the locals don’t give two flips about it, either. There was plastic in the compost bin, food in the landfill container and all three in the recycle bin.
I discovered that Silicon Valley is not immune to the same problems we have: Panhandlers walk the streets, and the areas of haves and have-nots are just as prevalent there as they are in any city in the country.
My wife and I realized something pretty special as we finally weaved our way back to the airport and began our journey home. The Silicon Valley area is full of good things and bad. They have playgrounds for children designed by the brightest minds at Facebook – those things were cool. They have the best weather we’ve ever felt. They also have the same problems we have, it just costs more to have them out there.
When my wife said she was ready to get back to “our people,” she didn’t say it in a demeaning sort of way. She, like most of us, knows that beyond the unbearable summers and gritty traffic, we like calling Houston home.