From an interview with Richard Rodriguez published in the Spring 2014 issue of Boom: A Journal of California. Rodriguez is the author, most recently, of Darling: A Spiritual Autobiography, excerpted last July in Harper’s Magazine.
BOOM: A lot of people seem very concerned about the change that those Google buses signal in San Francisco. Do you share those concerns?
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: No, because I’ve always loved wealth. I’ve loved being around it. If I knew you were wealthy, I would have made friends with you in grammar school. I knew the house where Ronald Reagan and Nancy Reagan lived in Sacramento, because I played there. I knew those people. I knew all the people on that block. They went to school with me. My trick was to know your mother, because I knew that if I ingratiated myself with your mother, remarked on how good the lunch was, she’d invite me back. She’d say, “Who is that nice little boy?” And the kid was not interested in me, with two exceptions. There’s one kid who died of an oversize heart. He taught me to listen to Frank Sinatra. I thought that’s what rich people listened to, because he loved jazz.
I love rich people, and so I love them at the market, these impossibly beautiful Indian women who obviously have money. The way I used to go to the food market in Brentwood and I would love seeing rich people shopping. The way I would watch Fred Astaire walking up to communion. It’s just interesting how they deal with it, their impatience standing in lines, their bratty children, their beauty, their anxieties, their loneliness, their glamour, the sound of their car doors shutting, which doesn’t sound anything like my Honda. It interests me. It’s like living in London in the eighteenth century, a place of people with such enormous wealth living among people who have none.
This is my American character. I’m not threatened by great wealth. I’m interested in it. Not that I will have it for myself, not that I even want it, though I have a lot of charities that I’d like to give money to. I don’t have enough money. But there’s so much want. Gosh, just so many food banks, so many libraries and teachers and organizations, school districts that don’t have anything. Then when I see somebody go buy a Lamborghini or a Bentley — I saw this woman in a Bentley the other day, caught in traffic as I was, and she was distracted. And when a beautiful woman is distracted, she can be even more beautiful. But I thought, Oh, I wonder where she’s been or where she’s going, and that interested me. And I was happy to live in this city. You know, there is a Virginia Woolf novel, Mrs. Dalloway, where the main character is walking up Bond Street, and a royal goes by in a Rolls-Royce, and she only sees the arm holding the little support by the window. And there’s speculation about who it is, a prince, princess, or even indeed the king, and the traffic sort of gives way. Well, when I see these buses, I know they don’t live in my world, and yet they do. It interests me.
I walk home from the gym, up Fillmore, and for two blocks, we’re in the projects. On one block where there is a police station, there is also a congregation of young males, black males, and obviously drug traffic. The persistence of white gentrification is such now that white people walk through this like it doesn’t exist. It’s really thrilling to me that people can be that oblivious. The other day, there was a shoot-out. This was at four in the afternoon on a Saturday. A kid was dragged out of a car, and he ran. Right in front of a restaurant — we’re getting just to the edge of gentrification — there were gunshots. I was just watching — bang, bang, bang! One kid, as he’s running away, sees me watching, and we hold each other’s glance for a second. It is really intense, and then he runs past. I live in that. Within five blocks, we are safely within the yuppie precinct, and it is impossible that that just happened. That’s very interesting to me.
You know, one of the things that is happening in the world right now is that increasingly people are going to restaurants that are in dangerous neighborhoods. In Tijuana, Mexico, for example, there’s a new, very experimental kind of nouveau something in neighborhoods that I would consider too dangerous to go to. I do not understand. My nephew, who has a number of restaurants in Oakland, he’s a great believer in being edgy and taking good food to the edge of safety. At the same time that food is advertised as being extremely healthy and in portions that are not overwhelming, there is this possibility that you’ll be killed when you go back to your car.