And the Walkin' Man Walks

Mill Valley may be the last best place, and that's exactly the problem. It's amusing to be in L.A. auditioning for roles, or as I was not so long ago, searching for actors for a screenplay I'd written. But after listening to young executives casually flay suggested talent, and eating with polished agents, ties thrown over their shoulders, I'm ready to head home to the North..

I know that some major film stars and famous directors live in the Bay Area, and perhaps for reasons similar to mine: George Lucas, Francis Ford Coppolla and Robin Williams have homes here, and so do a host of vital, unseen workers who make their films possible. And we are all members of the Bay Area film community. But that 's just a casual use of a very important word. Knowing people in a common industry does not a community make any more than eating in the commissary at San Francisco General creates a dinner party.

My own notions of community are based on geography and not occupation. When I arrived here 30 years ago, Mill Valley was a small town without parking meters or boutiques. The Olivera family ran the 76 station on Miller, and the site of the present Whole Foods Organic Emporium held a bright pink butcher shop-cum-something operation.

It felt more real as a community then. Even two decades later, when I began working in films, I liked being the local actor, the guy who Jimmy at the 76 station might address by saying, "God, I hated that movie. Why'd you play such a jerk?" These conversations made me theirs. They made the results of my work comprehensible within a real community and engendered real discussions about economics, aesthetics, and responsibility - locking my work into a mutual reality we could discuss.

Now, the Oliveras are gone and the butcher shop, too. While the core of the original community still remains, a subtle and disquieting transformation has occurred in its relationships: a smooth impersonal congeniality has replaced the eccentric, often cranky authenticity of the original merchants.

Now, when I sit in the square with a coffee and a newspaper, people will ask me to read a scripts they've written, and they've no idea why this might sadden me. I certainly don't mind being approached by my neighbors, but the feeling behind such encounters is that the real, most important business is elsewhere - that Mill Valley is merely the stage for the perfect lifestyle, but not worth the focus of one's time and energy.

My daily activities here, even a decade ago, were bounded by interchanges with a wide variety of people I knew. We took for granted that we had the health of Mill Valley in common and we set up town meetings to discuss civic problems, or just stopped to jaw about them on the street. It is impossible to meet people continuously and not learn something about their lives. You notice a picture taped to a cash register; you discuss a newspaper article, and before long you are engaged in an interchange that is primarily human and only secondarily commercial.

To protect this, I'm willing to bite the hand that feeds me when there's a legitimate community cause at issue. Recently, I joined a local contingent in preventing a Blockbuster's from entering Mill Valley. We wanted to protect local video merchants and diminish traffic on one of our main thoroughfares. But even as we fought, I was aware that my livelihood was threatening what I and many others find so valuable about our town and aware, too, that by protecting it, I make it more desirable and, consequently, more besieged by people wanting to live here.

There is a man who walks the streets of Mill Valley, apparently a homeless person, who is called the Walking Man. He's fifty-something, thick-bodied and appears powerful. The Walking Man lugs a bundle and smokes unfiltered cigarettes as he trudges past the the dog-walkers whose pets eat more regularly than he does. I don't know where he sleeps or why he walks, rain or shine, keeping his own company. His dignity is so impenetrable that I have never felt it appropriate to speak with him. I sometimes imagine he has walked out of time to remind me of an era before Mill Valley was transformed from an easy Thirties summer community into a pricey suburb. Of course he's not a symbol, but a man, almost, but not quite a stranger. And I suppose that that is what, after all, distinguishes true community from everywhere else. Even those you don't quite know, are never strangers.

NOTE: (Also appeared in San Francisco Magazine in their March issue - "Hollywood in the Bay Area.")


[ The Official Peter Coyote Web Site ]