Decadence: A process, condition, or period of deterioration or decline, as in morals or art; decay.
The movie Cabaret—based on the hit Broadway play—was released in 1972, transforming Liza Minelli from “Judy Garland’s talented daughter” into a major star. In its day, Cabaret was shocking. Its depictions of free, fluid sexuality and melting gender norms stunned the audiences of the time. Fifty years later, it is shocking how unshocking the movie’s salacious scenes have become; yesterday’s depravity has become today’s norm.
Dostoevsky complained, “Man can get used to anything, the beast.” Perhaps that explains why I find myself morosely acclimating to our society’s ubiquitous signs of decline. Just the other Friday, my wife and I took BART—the San Francisco Bay Area’s rapid transit system—into “The City” to meet tourist-friends for dinner. At a stop in Oakland, a gruff, inebriated man stumbled onto our car and collapsed into the seat directly behind my wife. I was sitting across from her and kept a close eye on him, especially when he leaned forward and started digging through a battered duffel bag. (This was a shortly after the murder of Kate Steinle as she walked with her father on a local pier.) Rather than pulling out a weapon, as I half feared, he retrieved a nearly empty liquor bottle, took a deep swig (without hiding the bottle in a paper bag as such sad people used to do), and promptly fell asleep, snoring loudly. Sigh. A typical day in The City.
Twenty minutes later, we emerged from the subway onto Market Street near the landmark Ferry Building, a gem of San Francisco, the only major downtown structure to survive the 1906 earthquake and fire. Just then, “Critical Mass,” a monthly bicycle protest aimed at making the city more bike-friendly, rode by. At the rear of the bicyclists’ scrum, a naked fifty-something man—standing on his bike’s pedals to make sure everyone could get a good view—slowly passed. A few seconds later, an unconcerned policeman escort followed—who could plainly see the nudist’s behind but must have thought it wasn’t worth the screaming that would ensue if he made the man put on pants or, even more unthinkably, arrested the exhibitionist. In fact, the nudist might not have been acting illegally. In 2012, San Francisco “barely” outlawed public nudity—to much complaining; but the law allows people to participate in parades and some other permit-issued special events in the buff.
We’ve lived here since 1992, and so weren’t surprised to see the nude bicyclist, although I admit to the urge to flatten his tires. Nor was it our first such encounter. One beautiful afternoon last year, we met other visiting friends at an outdoor restaurant near the Bay—only to have our view ruined by half a dozen naked (old) men happily riding by. Our friends were not amused that their early-teen daughter was subjected to what would have been once considered indecent exposure. From the look on her face, though, I suspect she thought it was funny.
Such anecdotes are by no means extreme. And despite it all, San Francisco remains a world-class city, a national treasure. Moreover, the city is booming due to the convention, tourist, and tech industries, to the point that even very small apartments rent for thousands of dollars a month.
Yet, amidst the old and new money, locals increasingly complain about how dirty the city is and that it smells like a sewer. Indeed, public urination—even defecation—has become an epidemic; recently a lamppost collapsed due to metal corrosion caused in part by years of being splashed with dog and human urine.
It isn’t just the growing number of homeless people in San Francisco who publicly relieve themselves. The other day, my wife saw an upscale-looking fellow on a busy street urinating against a wall in broad daylight.
Meanwhile, the city’s homeless can be found sleeping in every other nook, cranny, and doorway. On our aforementioned BART trip, we had to step over sleeping men sprawled at the bottom of station escalators. As it turns out, these poor fellows may not have been vagrants but merely exercising their constitutional rights: The Obama Administration recently filed a legal brief in a case out of Boise arguing that, in certain circumstances, outlawing sleeping in public violates the Eighth Amendment proscription against “cruel and unusual punishment.” Not even the creators of Cabaret could have conceived that notion!
Cabaret’s denouement has its heroine, Sally Bowles, reject marriage and domesticity and surrender instead to the cabaret’s decadence. It is sobering to reflect that the final act that renders Sally irretrievably lost—the decision that symbolizes her complete destruction—was her having an abortion.
Now? Life is a cabaret, old chum. Come to the cabaret.