An Evening in the City-Wanna-Be

It was 7:30pm, dinner table had been cleaned up. We were settled in front of our own computers in the front room. Just put up the holiday lights during the day. The house looked very festive, both from outside and inside. Going down my holiday shopping list, I was looking for a particular kind of item on line. I glanced at the clock on the lower right corner of my screen. 7:30pm on a Saturday evening during the holiday shopping season. The store should still be open, no? I fished out my cellphone from under the stack of today¡¯s mail and called the number that was displayed on my browser. A voice recording greeted me and cheerfully announced, ¡°We are open from 10 to 9, Monday to Saturday¡­¡± I hung up. Okay, they were still open. It would take me approximately half an hour to get there, plenty of time.

As I was putting on my jacket, grabbing my handbag, and dashing out to the garage, I noticed a moment of hesitation in me, which was shocking. It had been a very long time since I last went out after dinner time. Joining the busy Saturday night traffic on the highway, memories rushed back at me. How funny, merely four years ago, life didn¡¯t usually start until nightfall. Since when I had become this domesticated?

Santana Row was so HAPPENING! Posh restaurants were not yet full, but their bars were packed with good looking yuppies. Cafes were full, shops were open, streets were decorated from crown to root with Christmas lights, parking lots were full, sidewalks were full of shoppers laden with shopping bags or diners in slick evening ware; an ugly looking stretch SUV-limo, which was packed with drunk bachelors and some of them squeezed out the sunroof in the back and were yelling at passers-by, drove around slowly. I was fascinated.

I found the store I was looking for, bought the item I needed and walked out. Standing in front of Fantasia Caf¨¦, I was debating whether I should go for a hot milk-tea with pearl. I noticed numerous fountains in the center of the streets, one of them were decorated with Gaudi-styled lizards covered with blue-green ceramic mosaic. Two guys were playing chess using the knee-high chess pieces set up in the middle of the garden. I stood and watched them. Whoever designed this shopping street did his homework. These European touches made these few blocks a fine oasis among its blend and dismal surroundings that were so pronounced American Suburbia.

I didn¡¯t want to leave too soon. It had been a beautiful day in the south bay, and the evening was pleasant. I walked up and down the main stretch cheerfully. I was walking shoulder to shoulder with handsome brandname stores: Desiel, Gucci, Oilily, Burberry, St. John… This was almost like in the City! Then I started to notice things that brought me back to reality. A family of three dressed in old heavy coats and plain woolen hats were peering into the interior of the demo Humvees parked in front of Hotel Volencia. A group of teenager girls wearing not-so-trendy long windbreakers and a little too much makeup walked toward me, with excitement and curiosity written all over them. This place had become a kind of museum! Non-city people could come here to watch how city people lived without getting too intimidated. After all, one only needed to walk two more blocks to be surrounded by the prevailing car-dealership and strip malls of the suburb.

Suddenly I felt silly. A city is an organic community. City living is not just about expensive shops, good looking fountains, well-dressed people, and upscale restaurants. On the contrary, real city always had its dark corners, its weirdos, its stray dogs, its corner stores, and its neighborhood bars. This place looked too clean, too happy, too refined. It was like a mini-scaled ¡°world¡± in the Disneyland. But maybe that was the true identity of American Suburb: a miniature Disneyland. Santana Row had an interesting concept. The best it could achieve might be just another Palo Alto downtown, which is still not the City.

I drove home with my milk tea. As I turned into our street that was lined with houses in Christmas lights, I felt happier again. Yes, it is a suburb alright. But at least it is a suburb that doesn’t have an identity crisis. 🙂