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Depth of a Salesman: Parsing Economic Philosophy at Paragon 

Wednesday, Feb 27 2008

There's a line in the Bible that reads, "There are many rooms in my father's house." I have no idea what this means, but it often runs through my head when I am traveling through San Francisco neighborhoods in search of new bars. I think that it refers to the idea that there is room for everyone and everything. That's a good analogy for the city, for the most part. The only people we don't seem to have room for are poor people, but what did Jesus ever have to say about that sorry lot, anyway?

Anyway, there are many rooms in my father's house, and I try to visit each wing. Basically I make a living by entering different "rooms," occupying them for a while, and then returning to my own familiar space. This is sort of lucky, because most people don't really leave their own neighborhoods very often. There might be a lot of rooms in their father's house, but dangit, they are just gonna hang out in the basement and play Rock Band all day.

Last week I went to a sort of fancy-schmancy place, which usually evokes both joy and fear. You know it's gonna be pretty nice, but you also know it's gonna be pretty expensive, and that you will feel underdressed, and that you will be reminded that there is always someone whose house has more rooms than yours.

I went to the Paragon Restaurant and Bar in SOMA. The bar itself is long and elegant, with the usual twinkly wall-o'-top-shelf booze that glitters with the help of some clever back lighting. A gigantic mirror sits in the middle of the backdrop, slightly tilted forward so that the entire dining room comes into focus while you sip your drink.

I sat in the only available place, on a stool next to three well-heeled gents who were passionately discussing something. They were all impeccably groomed, but with that San Francisco style that says, "Yes, I do own my own business, but I would like to be perceived as hip. For example, I own the new Alison Krauss and Robert Plant record. ... Stuff like that. Thanks!"

I was perusing the starters menu when I heard one of the guys saying that he was worried about retirement, that it was so expensive here, how was he going to live? Of course, when I hear this stuff my stomach starts doing a slow churn. If guys like this are worried, lordy-Jesus, I'm totally fucked. So I did what I usually do in these situations, which is overspend. I ordered a Jameson and a gourmet hamburger.

"I say we just give it all back to the Mexicans," said the handsome one with gray hair. "They deserve it. Everything from Taos all the way over to California. Just draw a line."

At this I couldn't help but look up and make direct eye contact. Only in San Francisco will you hear super-liberal stuff like that coming from the mouth of a businessman. We started to debate the issue jauntily. He said that he had 60 employees and it's hard to tell who's legal and who isn't, so let's just give the Mexicans the West Coast as a gift anyway. We get these rooms; you get those.

Eventually that guy and his pal left, leaving me with the only one of the bunch who was wearing a good ol'-fashioned suit, complete with crisp white undershirt and a tie. Imagine, if you will, a handsome version of Eugene Levy, but with the nose of Bob Hope and the cleft chin of Kirk Douglas. He was drinking Manhattans.

"So do you work around here, or do you always dress like that?" I asked.

"Nah," he chuckled. "I always dress like this. I sleep in it." He was an insurance salesman, and he was waiting for a no-show client. He kept checking his phone for updates. I have often thought that being an insurance salesman would, for lack of a flowery phrase, suck. He liked it, though. He had a low-pressure boss and he enjoyed the Dance of Sales. I asked him if he had seen Glengarry Glen Ross, and he proceeded to quote from the film liberally. I liked this guy.

This was one deep insurance salesman. He had a degree in architecture and city planning, but grew tired of the idea that "spaces" could create political, economic, or social change, which was, I guess, the emphasis at Cal. His thesis in school was on public housing, and how it could be better designed to, for lack of a flowery phrase, not suck. He told me about "redlining," a discriminatory practice from the Eisenhower administration. Officials decided who would be given loans to buy houses and who wouldn't, and it didn't come down to their credit or character. No, it was geographical. They "redlined" primarily African-American areas and said forgetaboutit.

From there we discussed the failure of public housing, and the idea that concentrating poverty into compact areas was supposed to be a great idea.

He checked his phone again. "He's not showing up," he said, resigning himself to another Manhattan. I would hate to have a job where I had to depend on other people not being flaky in order to survive. I'm the flaky one, goddamnit, and I like it that way.

The salesman offered to buy my drinks and dinner, since he had an expense account. Oh god, did I really need someone to pay for my stuff. I had $25 to my name. But I demurred. I preferred to live under the fantasy that I had money, something that is easy to do in a place like Paragon.

Maybe spaces really can change things. When I am in an upscale place, I feel sort of not poor anymore. Sure, I may just order a cup of soup and a beer, but I am surrounded with niceties and good service. I can pretend. Environment does matter. Not to be overly boojie, but perhaps that is why public housing is a failure. You can't surround people with crime, drugs, and ugliness, and expect miracles. The real answer, according to the insurance salesman, is to spread poor people throughout an entire city. Give them housing in a nice neighborhood, where they can assimilate. A nice room somewhere.

I thanked him for the great conversation, paid my tab — overdrawing myself, natch — and left that new space to return to my familiar old one. Next week, if the fates allow, I will invade another space. Only I'll pick somewhere cheaper.

About The Author

Katy St. Clair


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