The Problem That Never Goes Away

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I’m visiting my brother who lives in Berkeley, California, and I’ve noticed that there’s a war going on here between the people who can afford to live in the San Francisco Bay Area, and those who can’t. I’m not sure who’s winning this war, though the most obvious combatants are the homeless, who line the streets, slump on sidewalks and lean against buildings, occupy any bench, sleep on any lawn, and browse through any dumpster. Their clothes are dirty.  They smell bad.  But most of all, they need to use the bathroom.

All establishments jealously guard their bathroom.  Usually a customer needs to procure a key from the person operating the cash register. Places with large homeless populations smell strongly of stale urine. These people who live on the street don’t appear to be temporarily disadvantaged computer programmers, so I suspect that many a city less liberal that Berkeley offers their homeless free passage west, to where you can bask in the sunshine or fog from public sidewalks free from shame.

Succulents in the Berkeley Hills








I’ve been staying up here for a week now, and I still haven’t grown too accustomed to the plant life in people’s gardens to miss the beauty. It’s not tropical, it’s desert. Desert plants, probably native to Mexico, are what are being cultivated up here, and they’re weirdly striking compared to the tropical plants I’m used to seeing in Thailand.

Sticker Shock


It’s been two and a half years since I’ve been back in the San Francisco Bay Area. It was always an expensive place to live, but now that I’ve been living in Thailand for two years, and South America for a year before that, I am stunned by chronic sticker shock at simply being here. I’m afraid to leave my brother’s house, for fear of being bankrupted before I can find my way back home where living within my means is not only possible but easy.

Driven by halitosis and headache, I ventured forth to a nearby drugstore to buy toothpaste and aspirin but after looking at the prices, almost left without either. Most of the toothpaste choices were housed in cartons with elaborate, colorful printing complete with holographic stickers. I’m sure the packaging cost at least as much as the carton contents, and the combined cost of those two came to about seven dollars for the average tube. This was about seven times what I was prepared to pay.

Likewise, the bottles of aspirin that they were pushing ranged from eight to thirteen dollars. I finally found one with “normal” 340 mg tablets, which can be divided by four into the dose I take for a blood thinner. The coated 81 mg tablets cost twice as much as the ones I bought. But it was hard to find that bottle of “normal” aspirin, as it was crowded out by the fancier versions of a simple, inexpensive drug that lacks the sex appeal of its enteric-coated brethren. I had to kneel on the floor to select that bottle from the bottom shelf.

As expensive as everyday items are, rents are much higher. The average rent here is between two and three thousand dollars a month! Any less than that and it’s a bargain, protected by rent control. In Mae Rim Thailand, I’m paying $110 a month for a small house. I don’t have a car and drive a motor scooter around, often sightseeing in the nearby glorious mountains. I never visit a supermarket, because fresh and prepared foods are available everywhere, for prices so low that I no longer bother to ask the price of anything I eat.

If I were to try to live in America, I would have to find a place with subsidized housing, free lunches, senior discounts, a place where nobody else wanted to live, probably for good reason.I’d have to apply for food stamps. But I would be hard pressed to find anywhere even remotely as attractive as Mae Rim, where lunch costs $1 and where noodle shops abound.