June 18, 2001
| RICHARD RODRIGUEZ:
For months now, newspaper and television reporters have been coming to
neighborhoods like this one in San Francisco. Little more than a year
ago, these buildings housed dot-com dreams of sudden, vast wealth. Now
look, the reporters say-- there are vacancy signs in the windows. America
is a nation of dreamers, land of adventures and schemers, hustlers, and
visionaries. When you win the golden cup in America, become a Rockefeller
or a Carnegie, Presidents know your name and teachers tell their children
about you; you summarize our nation's meaning. But when you lose, we pretend
not to recognize you.
SPOKESMAN: I've known Tom since I was 15. I love him. He and I have built this company together.
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: In a recent documentary Chris Hegadus and Jahan Nujameem tell the story of a couple of Internet entrepreneurs. Startup dot coms two friends barely out of college who had an idea that Americans would pay traffic fines and other government fees using the Internet. On little more than charm and a dream of billions in profits, they raise $60 million from investors.
Easy now to remember the excess of those times for what it was. 150 years ago San Francisco filled quickly with young men from every quarter, drawn here by rumors of gold. A muddy town became a city of garish hotels, overpriced restaurants, and raw manners. I remember the noise of those restaurants and the 20-year-olds yakking on cell phones. I remember in my neighborhood a young man who always wore Armani blacks and had gone to Wharton or Harvard business school. He patiently explained to me we had entered a new economy. He was paying $3,000 for a dark studio apartment up the block.
So fierce is our ambition as Americans, I think we turn sometimes embarrassed by how much we want. We mock the gaudy dreamer who fails. Arguably our best American play invites us to pity a salesman named Willy Loman whose dreams don't materialize. Odder still is our snobbishness of the parvenu in this country where it takes only two generations to become old money. One of our greatest novels, Scott Fitzgerald's "Great Gatsby," is about a hustler, the sort who ends up rich, but uses the wrong fork at the banquet. At the edge of America's bright ambition lies dark ambivalence. Arguably our best movie, "Citizen Kane," is about a very rich man who ends up all alone in a castle filled with the detritus of Europe.
In startup.com the dream dissolves. The young entrepreneurs had an idea, but not a very good Web page and apparently little business experience. Their partnership dissolves. The investors' money dissolves. On this side of the dot-com story, many Americans like to think of the era as a failure of 20-year-olds. But many others, an entire nation, middle-aged and old, supported the preposterous schemes, and good for us. People say-- middle-class people I know in San Francisco say-- good riddance to a lot of them. The price of real estate has plunged. You can rent a one-bedroom apartment for under $1,000 a month. You can get a reservation before 10:00 at the yuppie restaurant, and the Safari vans and Italian sports cars, impatient in your rear-view mirror, have been repossessed.
But something about the days I will miss. San Francisco was filled with so many young men and women, children of the suburbs who knew the American story line, but saw little tragedy. They expected easy, big money. They expected to retire by 30. I think of others before them, immigrants to the American dream from distant countries and villages with low ceilings. So many people have come to America dreaming of the golden cup. I think of the young faces of Ellis Island, as bright as the old men you see in brokerage offices, waiting in late afternoon, waiting for the flashing numbers to ascend. I'm Richard Rodriguez.