February is a beautiful month in San Francisco. With much of the country shivering and shoveling snow, we are enjoying balmy temperatures in the 50s and 60s and blossoms bursting out on a nearby street lined with Japanese plum trees. One of my sons, when he was little, sniffed at the pale pink blossoms and said, “They smell like tortillas!” And he was right, somewhere in their sweet scent is an undertone of corn tortillas. We’ve called them tortilla trees ever since.
This morning a kind friend took me out for breakfast at the Garden Court of the venerable old Sheraton-Palace Hotel, originally built in 1875, burned to the ground in the 1906 earthquake and fire, and rebuilt on the same site. It’s a beautiful old hotel, and the Garden Court, with a glass dome ceiling, Austrian crystal chandeliers, and marble columns, is the height of elegance–though this didn’t deter half the people in the room from focusing on their “devices,” as my friend calls them, rather than the old world atmosphere of the Garden Court.
While we ate delicious food and drank cup after cup of excellent coffee, I regaled her with tales of one of my earlier visits to the Sheraton-Palace, a 1964 sit-in of hundreds of people demanding the hiring of more black employees. 167 people were arrested for blocking doorways, the comedian Dick Gregory among them. The rest of us occupied the lobby floor for the night. I have a photo somewhere of me and a bunch of other people sound asleep on an expensive floral carpet while a hotel employee vacuums around us.
We were successful in our efforts. The following day, the Mayor called together members of the city’s hotel association with the leadership of the demonstrations and insisted the hotels sign an agreement to hire more black people.
The sixties and seventies were powerful times for me, that collective effort to improve our world. I’ve rarely felt more engaged and alive. In Speaking of Sadness, sociologist David A. Karp writes:
Competition…is one of the cornerstones of capitalism. Advocates of capitalism maintain that competition is a necessary ingredient in both maintaining organizational efficiency and motivating individuals. On the negative side, however, competition pits individuals against each other, diminishing trust, and generally dehumanizes relationships. …capitalism contributes to a culture of inauthenticity. In a society where everything and everyone is evaluated by their profit potential, individuals are aware that they are constantly being manipulated, seduced, and conned by those who want to sell them or “take them.” In a world held together by appearances and a tissue of illusions and deceptions, everyone becomes an enemy of sorts whose motives cannot be accepted at face value. In short, the abstract values of capitalism “trickle down” to everyday consciousness in a way that induces human beings to distrust and withdraw from each other. Withdrawal and increased isolation…are important features of the social dialectics of depression. (pp 181-82)
This is what fell away in that period of widespread collective action. However vulnerable we felt, we were in it together and could rely on one another even when we were near-strangers. I believe that the loss of community I’ve witnessed over the ensuing decades goes far in explaining the enormous increase in depression, anxiety, addiction, and other forms of mental ‘illness’ that we see today. There are countless features of contemporary life that keep us apart and disconnected, pitifully few that bring us together. For ourselves and our children, we need to reverse that trend.