While he was being molded in the model of a valley success story, he began questioning whether he wanted to be another cog in the wheel of technology.
A gargantuan brown garbage container greeted us at the entrance of a grungy two-storey building by the campus. Inside, we found a broken suitcase, an old backpack, a ripped comforter, and other debris of college life.
Our son was moving out. He had lived in the residence for two months while interning at a tech company. In ten weeks, he had made more cash than I would see in ten months.
Whatever I chose to call it, this “thing”—cash, money, moola—brought self-worth and validation. For me, it spelt the difference between the world of words I inhabited—discounting the safety net that my husband’s income afforded me—and the Silicon Valley galaxy. My yearly income would fit into an antiquated Portuguese cash box.
The Portuguese word caixa means “box” or “coffer.” The word may have been inherited from the antiquated Tamil kaashu used to name a small copper coin with a hole in the center, or, alternatively, from the Sanskrit karsa, a weight of gold or silver.
Whatever the origin, cash translated to buying power, and the afternoon in Berkeley, outside our son’s temporary home, my husband and I struggled to understand how our son’s fiscal independence seemed at odds with his choice of summer digs.
In the living room of the co-op, a gigantic mural of creatures with owl eyes and loopy smiles glared down: Where The Wild Things Are, by Maurice Sendak. Behind that wall, leather sofas and love seats packed a large gathering room where bath towels shrouded windows. A projector screen rose in the center, the only object that may have been cleaned here since draft-card burning in 1965 when Berkeley youth rose in protest against the country’s involvement in the Vietnam War.
I chose to ignore the dust and clutter and strode down the corridor where our child shared a room but I could not miss the pink vagina painted on the wall to my left. Jessica Rabbit stood waiting on another wall, dipping cleavage, wet red lips, long legs and all. Her gun was cocked at me. “I’m not bad,” she hissed into a bubble. “I’m just drawn that way.”
I turned to my son when we entered his room. “Of every possible accommodation in the world, why would you live in this?” I asked. The boy’s father rolled his eyes in acknowledgment. We told our son that we knew why he had disbarred us from seeing his place earlier during the summer. He chuckled. “But isn’t this place so cool?” he said, tossing his Vans into a plastic bag.
As he pulled off the shirts hanging in his closet, he seemed to sense our disappointment. He cupped my face in his two hands. “But mom, don’t you think it’s totally cool?” From the wall behind him, William Blake’s words, hand-written in green, reached out to me: “To hold infinity in the palm of your hand, and eternity in an hour.”
On our way back home, he told us that that he would never trade the experience of summer living in the co-op for anything. At a co-op, huge emphasis was placed on being a good citizen, recycling correctly, sharing housework, living tolerantly, accommodating marginalized people, and being sensitive to others’ beliefs. He said attending college in the last couple of years had changed his mind about the way we continued to live and about amassing wealth. While he was being molded in the model of a valley success story, he began questioning whether he wanted to be another cog in the wheel of technology. Did he want to be part of an uber culture that chugged on relentlessly, uprooting the poor, steamrolling others’ dreams and gentrifying land? Did he want to be like the computer that executed, in soulless, logical order, with no shard of humanitarian foresight? Or did he, given his penchant for the arts, want to stay in the humanities? “I think I can live small,” he said. “I’ve started rebelling against the idea of riches. I dislike money.”
Later that evening, as we put him on a flight to Europe for his semester abroad, we warned him against romanticizing a life of penury. I was chewing on all the things he had said about money, morality and lifestyle when, eight days after he landed, we received a frantic call at midnight. “Hey, guys,” our son said. “I lost my wallet on the bus. I can manage for a while. But I need cash soon.”
Now that he had no cards, he had begun to scrimp. “It sucks to live from day to day. You’ve got to watch everything you spend cash on. Just make sure to send the credit and debit cards right away, okay?” Of course I would, I said.
I sat back and pondered the lives of all the parents before and after me who had smiled beatifically through those auguries of innocence and wisdom.
Kalpana Mohan writes from California’s Silicon Valley. To read more about her, go to http://kalpanamohan.org and http://saritorial.com.