A holiday in Oakland

Last year around this time, several of my friends went back home for the holidays, and wrote about their respective experiences returning to places they had purposefully left behind. A long email thread became a vessel for their familial angst. None of them posted their stories online, but in essence, I learned that those television holiday specials are real.

I was not a natural part of this discussion, as I do not go back to anywhere for the holidays – I stay where I am. That is an experience of its own, you might find. Here’s what I wrote to them in response.

I’m staying back where I’ve basically always been. As an all-but-four-years resident of the Bay Area in California (those other four years being spent in college in Los Angeles), I remain just about two miles from where I was born, for the holidays.

When I say born, I mean the hospital. I have continued to live so close to my birthplace that miles are a meaningful measurement. I grew up knowing that everything around me was normal, as many of us do. Everyone uses chopsticks to eat salad. Everyone has brown rice for breakfast. Everyone eats quinoa and kale for lunch (actually, now they really do, around here, but they didn’t when I was 5 – but I sure thought they did). Everyone lives in a town where the next town begins two miles away, where yours ends.

I didn’t realize how different-ish I accidentally was, for a great many years. Every so often I still discover new experiences that are common to others, but not to me. It took until two years ago for me to know that most parts of the country don’t have towns that just run right up into each other. I guess I never thought about it, even when I was visiting other states or countries. I just assumed that there were a whole bunch towns in between De Leon Springs, where my grandmother lived, and Orlando, where the airport was. But it turns out there are just big stretches of nothing in a lot of places. I had no experience with that. The two places I really lived were here in the bay area, where everything is fantastically dense, and where one town ends another begins, and Los Angeles, which is one big suburb that never stops until you’re in Orange County or a mountainous no-man’s land on the way to a gas station town.

Over the years I’ve been hearing tales from my friends about the Real America. I once told someone that America is a place I live, but have never seen. I had a great time in highschool. I had long hair and ripped jeans. I listened to metal, drew pictures of people getting destroyed by lawnmowers in my binder, and was kind of self centered. People were generally real nice to me, and I was okay to them. I learned a lot and made good friends that I still speak with today. I made a bunch of short films that later got me into film school by accident. I did not realize, and this is not just superlative, I really did not realize that the “stuff it, nerds!” experience you see in movies was based on reality. I had always assumed it was an exaggeration, an overblown retelling of isolated incidents. Hearing about my friend getting milk thrown at him every day at school because he didn’t talk made me realize that Real America is a scary sounding place with which I have precious little experience. I know nothing of your Middle West, of your American South, of your Back East.

This makes me sound pretty ignorant, which is fine and fair, but for me there’s a difference between knowing something objectively and feeling it in your gut. Having lived through it is vastly different than having heard about it, or read about it. I knew, somewhere in my mind, that those highschool experiences were real (or at least representative) for people, but it wasn’t part of my reality. I’d never experienced it, and I’d never been forced to think about it, as others are when it’s happening for them. I’ve only actually seen it in fiction, so it lived in that world of “possible, but not in my experience.”

That is why I say I have never seen snow, when in fact I have seen it on a mountain, from afar. I’ve seen it close-up, clumped up into a two foot patch of frozen grit on the ground. But I’ve never seen it fall, and I’ve certainly never shoveled a driveway, or seen my footprints as they sink into some sort of cold fluffy whiteness. I know what snow is, because I am a human being with a capacity for thought, but I don’t Know Snow. Any Midwesterner who laughs derisively when it gets down to 26 degrees here in the Bay Area, telling me I “don’t have any idea what cold is,” is correct, and can laugh if they want. But they’re also wrong, because all human experience is subjective. That’s about the coldest I’ve had to experience in the place where I live. That is, relative to the general temperature in the area, cold. (Since originally writing this, I now have seen snow, in New York, last February. It was alright. I was weirdly surprised by how it gets on absolutely everything. Snow on a car! Snow on that sign! Snow on a fence!)

I don’t have to live in Minnesota, and to know what “real cold” is. I never had to, and I will never have to. My subjective experience will never be your subjective experience. Someone just yesterday, when I retweeted a nice picture of an Oakland sunset on twitter, told me that “the rest of the country gets those 100 times per year.” Sure, fantastic. If other parts of the country get more or less of something, does that devalue the experience when it happens to me, here? I have come to learn that all experiences are legitimate, and I do not want to dismiss anyone else’s experience for being different than mine.

Some people are thrust into being different by the boringness of the place they grew up. I was thrust into differentness by the interestingness of the place I grew up, combined with the uniqueness of my parents. It’s two sides of the same coin, really.

I am sure you have read stories, or have personal experiences about what it’s like to go back to the home town you tried so hard to get away from for the holidays. This is my experience, from the other side of the coin.

As a basically-permanent resident of the Bay Area, I have had a curiously opposite experience to many of my newer friends (and when I say newer, I mean since my circle was expanded to non-native bay area residents through college and the internet). I have always lived in a destination. I was born in a place people want to get to. It gave me a different sort of a complex. When people want to get “here,” they want to get to San Francisco, which is not a place I live or want to live in. I live ten miles away, in Oakland. Most of those miles are across a bridge.

San Francisco is a nice enough place. It has nice hills, it has water, it has a couple nice parks. It has an interesting history of subcultures, now mostly dead, and a fine tradition of turning out pretty good bands, now less-so. But if you grew up right next to it, it’s just a thing that’s there. It’s a place where you go sometimes, not a glittering destination. I worked there for eight years straight, and half-lived there for a year and a half, before returning full time to the east bay. There really was a great music scene there, for a time, and I was going to at least one concert per week.

But over time, I started to wonder – what is the appeal of San Francisco, really, over any other big city? New York has art, fashion, publishing, and film. Los Angeles has fashion and much more commercial film. What does San Francisco have? It has some banks. It has a proximity to Silcon Valley, where tech things happen, because that’s where tech things used to happen. It has a gay-friendly district, but that meant a lot more 20 years ago than it does now, as politics slightly improve in that regard. I guess tech and startups are the big draw now, but they have no reason to be in San Francisco specifically – they just happen to me. It doesn’t have a good reason to be a destination, in my opinion, unless maybe you’re from a place that doesn’t have hills, water, and nice parks, or this is just the closest big city to whatever state you’re from.

San Francisco, being a destination, has taught me to mistrust tourists and transplants. People ask, “where are you from?” I reply with “here.” They ask, “no, me too, but I mean originally.” Being born here is the unexpected result. And they have a point, at least anecdotally. When you talk to people in San Francisco, you’re a lot less likely to meet someone “from here” than from somewhere else. In the East Bay, you’re more likely to meet born-and-raised residents, like me, but that is changing as well.

As a person who is from the Bay Area, I view transplants and tourists as people who come here because they were “too cool” for their respective birthplaces. My friend Tim has written about how the place he grew up inflicted upon him a sense of adventure and wanderlust. I respect and encourage that when it is inspired in a person who is interesting, and who has interesting things to offer a new location. Most of my friends fit that description. Unfortunately they are the exception rather than the rule. (I’m sure that you, dear reader, are also super awesome, keep that in mind as you read the next two paragraphs.)

This will sound callous and awful, but a lot of the people who were too cool for their midwestern town maybe weren’t actually. Maybe they just thought they were. And then they arrive here, and they want the city to be indispensable to them, and they want to be indispensable to the city. They moved here because they *knew* they were too good for everyone they already knew. And they *knew* this city could finally help them escape the boredom, and would help them reach their full potential. And they now *know* that the city just wouldn’t be the same without them.

It’s this sort of person who calls San Francisco “San Fran,” and says “ha ha only in Cali.” This is the sort of person who, when I go into a bar and play a song on the jukebox will shake their heads derisively and hit the kill switch. This happened when my friend Kris Graft and I went to a place called Dada, one of the many south of market watering holes for people getting off work, or pretending to. We wanted to hear Surfin Bird 7 times in a row. Granted that is real obnoxious of us, but we were the only damn people in the place. “No, that song is not cool enough for San Francisco, the cool place I have moved to,” the lady at the bar implied-more-than-said as she switched it off. I said I would never return, and I haven’t. We went down the street where a lady said we could play “whatever you want, as long as you don’t talk about startups.” She drank with us. She was born and raised in Vallejo, 20 miles north.

This bad attitude of mine toward newcomers makes me hate jingoism all the more (perhaps it is a glimpse of my shadow-self). When I go to Japan and am denied a burner cell phone because “it’s just impossible” if I don’t have a permanent residence card, I bristle at the audacity of the racism, because I know that if I just go to the right location, I can get one without difficulty. It’s “company policy” until you meet someone who doesn’t hate dealing with Caucasians. It’s most likely that I feel this anger because some part of me knows that’s how I am with people who move here, who change where I live, making it “worse” (for me) simply by making it different. It’s not about races, in my case, it’s about people coming and sucking culture out, instead of injecting culture in. I’m mad at these people for making their new home into the place they wanted to get to, when they were getting away from the place they wanted to get away from. They want the fun and danger of a new city, but the safety and comfort of their former home. That’s what they bring in, the comfort, the inflated housing prices, the chain stores, and the Real America. It blands the place out.

I live in Oakland because it resonates with me, because the food is good and I can eat something anywhere (in most parts of the world that is difficult for vegetarians), we have lovely forested areas, and a nice lake. But more than that, there’s an arts culture here, and a do it yourself culture. Where people in San Francisco will start a startup to sell it to another startup so they can start a second startup, people in Oakland make handbags or jackets. Or they paint, and they sell that. Or they have a pickling business. We make things here, we don’t do it half way. We shop in local markets and sell in local markets, and we stay alive. To cap that off, we are the most ethnically diverse city in America. That combines into a fantastically inspiring culture to be a part of. But even that is changing, as more tech people find San Francisco too expensive, and take roost here instead.

I realize that I am incredibly lucky to have been born in or next to the sort of place that resonates with me. What would I feel like if I had been born in suburban Georgia? I simply can’t imagine. I visited there last year, and hung out with my friend Nick Splendorr. We had a fantastic time, driving around looking for vintage game stores, listening to weird musical mixes, and watching Conan The Barbarian in the brown-walled basement of his mom’s house, which was once his grandma’s house.

I got to sleep in an actual bed (I’m used to sleeping on couches when I travel), with a window looking over a sleepy suburb full of lovely houses with porches and yards, and it was so foreign to me that I found it exotic and exciting. I wanted to know if they drank mint juleps on their porches. It was a stereotype, and I was exaggerating, but nearly every house out there in that Atlanta suburb has a fantastic plantation house-style porch, with pillars, rocking chairs, and the whole thing.

Nick told me, “no, actually, most of us don’t use our porches at all. It’s a shame, really.” And it was a shame! We all have that. That thing we take for granted that is special about where we live. Everyone told me there was nothing to do in or around Atlanta. Well, I had a fun-filled four days doing cultural anthropology, eating terrible food, marveling at their different-from-mine flora, and baking in the heat. But he told me that until I arrived, he hadn’t really appreciated much of any of that, due to his proximity to it. It was the boring stuff that had been around him all his life. It’s all perspective, for him and for me.

But we were talking about the holidays. For the holidays, I stay here. My childhood bedroom is a place I go every other weekend, when I mow the lawn for my mom, or fix her printer again. It holds no more power over me – it has become just a room. But many of the friends I’ve made in the last 10 years are from somewhere else, and during the holidays they go back. They go home to find that home has changed in ways that are different from the ways that they have changed, and their room looks as it did when they left, or looks drastically different, severing their last safe-haven tie to their past.

Likewise, a lot of my friends that are from here have moved away, mostly to New York, Los Angeles, and Berlin, because there’s always somewhere that’s more exciting than where you grew up. Many of them come back here for the holidays, and I imagine they, too, go home to find that home has changed in ways that are different from the ways that they have changed.

For both these groups of people, I imagine it must be like coming back home from college for the first time, but for the rest of your life.

I notice that my returning friends have to adjust themselves a little, to talk to me. They are used to talking to their New York friends, or their Berlin friends, or their LA friends. I’ve been consumed with local problems, like whether San Francisco is getting infested with brogrammers from small towns who have too much money and not enough sense (answer: it is). They have been consumed with different problems, and now they’re back, and their problems are not my problems, nor the reverse.

We are still good friends, but we have to play a bit of cat and mouse before we can figure that out again. For me, the holidays are a time of curious reverse and forward migration, which, as a person who stays, feels like it revolves around me. The holidays leave me here, minus about half the people I usually talk to and hang out with, plus about half the people I used to talk to and hang out with.

Everyone wants to catch up, but it’s in such a rush, because they want to catch up with everybody, that we often wind up missing each other even as we converse. And as a person who hasn’t gone anywhere, I don’t have that holiday, “well, let’s take some time to relax and hang out” feeling. I have that “I am still working, and I will still be working tomorrow, and holy crap, at some point I have to buy christmas presents” feeling, so I don’t exactly give them the time that I should.

Holidays, it turns out, are a weird time no matter where you are, whether you are a person who moved from a place, or have friends who have moved from the place where you are. We feel this need to be part of the ritual – we are supposed to be near our family while a holiday occurs, even if we haven’t seen them for years, and don’t much care whether we see them now. It’s expected, and we do  it. Or maybe we really do want to see our family and old friends, and just can’t afford it very often, so this is a good excuse. There’s always some readjusting, no matter which side you’re on.

I am lucky to be born in a destination, and to be from the place where I want to live. In fact, where many people are elated to have gotten out of their backwater town, I consider it a triumph to have been able to remain here (financially), and to continue to enjoy it (intellectually). You can get tired of any place, really. But this is my home, and it feels like my home, and until it stops feeling that way (when those SF bros cross the bay and buy up all of Oakland), I will remain here.