The Cats

Los Gatos used to be a farm town, prosperous enough to raise fine 19th century brick buildings. Now it’s home to some of the most materially successful people on this planet. It’s northern California, not Manhattan, so you can’t tell who’s winning by Blahnik shoes and Chloe dresses, but those are probably Marc Jacobs bags that the yummy mummies swing from their Australian strollers. “Win a trip to London!” say the posters advertising a black-tie library fundraiser, and it’s hard to square the cheesy prizes–interpretations of cats by local artists–with the casual, unassuming wealth of Los Gatos.

There’s a shop for “Metaphysical Needs,” where _Feng Shui for your Kitchen_ and _Numerology for the Teenage Soul_ jostle with the I-Ching, Sufi truths, and the teachings of the Buddha. The Buddha’s head is also for sale, along with crystals, Tibetan prayer flags, drawstring pants, and inessential oils. None of it comes cheap, except for the stack of secondhand books just inside the door that are sold to raise funds “For Nunneries,” according to the sign. Los Gatos is a big market for spiritual accessories. Also haircare.

I walked around a branch of Williams-Sonoma, a kitchenwares store that seeks the same dollars as Smith & Hawken and Sur La Table down the street. After twenty minutes’ consideration of pie weights and estate-crystallized sea salt, I wanted to congratulate someone on how quickly they had sold me discontent. It wasn’t really the Riedel glasses, the sugar-almond toasters, or the German chef’s knives I wanted; it was the fantasy of well-bred children and friends laughing in my sunlit kitchen. But if you make the money to buy the life they box up so neatly, you almost certainly don’t have the time to live it. In Silicon Valley, no one works harder than the people who don’t need to.

At the traffic lights in the main square, a boy racer turned heads in a Lamborghini. The thing growled like a caged beast. “Doesn’t the noise bother him?” I asked, missing the point as usual. Perhaps he was taking it to the nearby valet carwash place, which offers a cleansing car mud-mask followed by a waxy massage for just $120. Los Gatos doesn’t support an independent bookshop or a record store–this is Amazon country–but the car dealerships are right in town, a block down from the beautiful French wine store. One sells Jaguars, Aston Martins, and Bentleys. Another, Maseratis, Lotus Elises, Ferraris, and Lamborghinis. (Business looks slow for the Hummer dealer.) Anyone can walk around and stroke the M&M-colored sports cars–even a shy and scruffy woman with a learner’s permit is a prospect around here. Who knows what venture capitalist boyfriend might be paying my way through psychology grad school, or what Web 2.0 pixie dust I just flogged to some behemoth up Route 85?

The cafés see more action than the bars. Coffee is excellent, and Saturday morning is brisk. You can sit with a macchiato and watch the weekly quality-time appointments with the stroller-bound bosses for whom everyone works. They are sweet, mostly–and wouldn’t you be, with so much trouble taken to please you? They seem glad to have their mommies and daddies around in daylight. Little blonde girls skip in and out, flouncing their ponchos and sucking on smoothies.

The laptop jockeys stay hunched and focused. I like to think they’re polishing sestinas, but TPS Reports are probably closer to the mark, or perhaps business plans. In 2006, big money has come out to play again, and venture capitalists hear out supplicants over eggs and cappuccino. If you tune your face to a vacant expression, you can pick up a choice of pitches in any Los Gatos coffee shop. (iPod earbuds, with the sound turned off, work well. So do the large mirrors in the Los Gatos Coffee Company.) Entrepreneurs exist to convince you that their dream is your dream, and since I’m susceptible, I prefer to sit a safe distance away, now that I know for sure their dreams aren’t mine. They can imagine a different world; I want the imagination to be content in this one. Still, the casual passion of a Valley pitch draws me more than gossip.

Successful VCs wear their brains and money lightly. They’re so assured, so genial, so enthusiastic, that you believe they couldn’t imagine anything more fun than deciding where to place their bets. Most are charming–and wouldn’t you be, with so much trouble taken to please you? It’s a game. It’ll be fun. Silicon Valley is predicated on the belief that nothing is more fun than work, and that progress is good.

On the peaceful Santa Cruz Mountain trails that start on the edge of town, few people stroll. They run, in CoolMax, or they huff up on mountain bikes and careen down. Even at their leisure, well south of all the cubicles, they subscribe to Paul Graham’s belief that you can cram a lifetime’s worth of effort into a few years, if you’re smart enough. After that, it’s voluntary–but why stop? As the CalTrain conductor says, “Don’t forget your belongings, and have a productive week.”

11 thoughts on “The Cats”

  1. when i was in los gatos, just once, i was really struck by how odd and different it was compared to even mountain view, which isn’t too far away. it’s very high end. i sort of wanted to pee on the street just to see what might happen. 😐

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  2. I’m sometimes struck by the same kind social Tourette’s in a place like that…apparently it’s used a lot by Hollywood when they want a location that’s idyllic middle America. Only the richest places look like that any more.

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  3. You can judge wealth by nighttime darkness.

    The town has an enormous number of Police for it’s population, so I guess it is known to be safe. So safe are the suburbs of Los Gatos ( a block from the centre), in fact that the street lights are off at night. It seems rural, not suburban.

    I really dont get it though, if I had their money I would be living on the top of the TransAmerica pyramid, or some large Penthouse in the city, and modern Capra bedammed.

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  4. Interesting take on darkness. I always thought the poorer places got worse lighting (Harlem and Brooklyn have fewer street lights than the Upper East Side), but your theory makes sense in Los Gatos.

    And I love that you know exactly where you’d live if you had that kind of cash. I have a pretty good idea, too.

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  5. One of my inlaws arrived at my mother’s funeral in a Lamborghini. Between church and graveyard, certain men were gathered around it listening to the engin purr…

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  6. dervala,

    i missed you–and your wonderful writing.

    this post renewed my thankfulness that i don’t have much money and live in a little cabin in the beautiful, snow-covered woods of northern ontario–which i too often take for granted.

    voluntary ‘poverty’ seems almost like a subversive life-choice in north america–particularly when you live happily!

    i’m glad you’re back. now, when are you coming back to canada?

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  7. Jack,

    I was never happier than when I lived in a cabin in northern Ontario (though I didn’t care for blackflies and snow, and I missed high-speed internet).

    Once I met a man on a Lake Superior beach who told me that his sisters had left to be nurses in T’rono, but that he had been able to stay. He was very lucky, he said, because money didn’t mean much to him. I’ve never forgotten his definition of luck, and I feel sorry for all the people down here who have not been so fortunate. Even, and especially, the ones who think money’s just the way they keep score.

    Still, that their lives would make me doo-lally doesn’t mean they’re not happy, or happy-and-productive, as the formulation here goes.

    Matt and Michael: {insert sound-effect of an Eartha Kitt purrrr-growl}

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    My sweet sad California, in restless pursuit of Nirvana and home equity. – rt

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