Shortly after moving to California, I attended a New Years’ Eve party in a mansion somewhere northeast of Berkeley. I didn’t know any of the people who were throwing the party (though many of them would later become my close friends), and I’d never been at a party in a mansion before. Or any New Years Eve party that didn’t include my parents, actually. I made the best of weird circumstances by eating an entire orange in one bite, which is my Party Trick.
My Party Trick.
Someone at the event asked me where I was from. “New England,’ I said, keeping it general. I was born at Hartford Hospital in Connecticut, spent college in New Hampshire, and spent many of my summers working at a summer camp in Massachusetts for girls with diabetes. I’d been living away from my hometown for a pretty long while, but California was the first time I’d done it in a state where people called highways “freeways.”
“I can tell,” the guy said.
“How?” I asked.
“You talk really fast,” he said.
Growing up in Connecticut, I’d never really thought of myself as a “New Englander.” My parents were both kids from Chicago who went to college in New York, and they’ve spent close to three decades maintaining a kind of mental self-separation from the people in their new home-state. Some of that rubbed off on me. I’d just grown up thinking of myself as a Generic White Girl who happened to be living in New England.
But moving to California showed me that I really was a “New Englander,” whatever the hell that means. (It probably means that I should be living in a slowly-flooding pit filled with bears and pumpkins and Yankee Candles at the end of a gravel driveway somewhere just outside Boston.)
I’ll be honest: I really, really dislike California. It wouldn’t be too much of a dramatic exaggeration to claim that living here is like scraping my nails very quietly along a chalkboard every moment of every day. I’ve spent the past several years trying to articulate what exactly it is about California that is so wrong and fucked up, but I’ve had to admit, in the end, that California isn’t really fucked up at all.
It just doesn’t have enough trees.
And the highways are too wide, and the people here are flaky as shit, and there are too many people, and it doesn’t rain often enough, and because no snow falls and no trees change and no rivers of migrating birds follow the highway in the fall, it feels like time isn’t passing. And the towns don’t have centers, and everything is built flat on the ground instead of vertically with second floors and basements, and I haven’t seen a proper 24-hour diner in forever, and when you drive from one town to another, they just sort of bleed together with no trees or empty space in between. There is no Edge Of Town. And all the buildings are simultaneously too new and too run-down– everything looks like it was built in the 70s and hit by a zombie apocalypse in the 80s. And there’s a drought. Why the fuck would anyone put a huge chunk of the country’s agricultural industry in a fucking desert? Who does that? Why does anyone even live here?
My dad used to text me pictures of bears. My mom once called me to complain that a black bear had appeared in my back yard and that my dad standing ten feet away from it, taking pictures. Now, there are some mitigating factors here: the bear was in a tree, and the tree was growing out of a disused canal behind my house. There are all sorts of snakes and foxes and turkeys and opossums in the dry canal, and bears use it as a highway. When they climb up the trees next to the steep wall of the canal behind my house, they can be ten or twenty feet away from our fence, level to our eyes, while still being on the other side of the fence and also up in the top of a tree. But the point is that my dad was standing next to a bear and taking pictures of it.
The latest communique from my dad
When I moved to the Bay Area, everyone I knew was talking about how glad they were to live so close to nature. Meanwhile, I was getting bear texts from my dad. “You people are fucking deluded,” I once ranted to a friend. “You do not live in nature. You live in an urban scab that happens to be a day-trip drive from a national park.”
The fault was mine. I lacked proper California sympathy. Fact is, southern and central California are completely reasonable places that exist in this universe, and there just aren’t any Real Trees here. But there are a lot of people, and a ton of cars, and I just have to Deal With It. I am used to certain things and a certain way of living, and the things I am used to are not universal. I am not a Generic White Girl. I am a white girl from Connecticut, and I grew up next to a giant empty canal filled with spiders and snakes and red-tailed hawks that used to eat crows outside the windows of our living room. In many places in New England, you can live in a place like that and drive (or walk!) five minutes to a Starbucks and a Stop & Shop. Most places in California? No such luck.
I didn’t find California culture anywhere near as hard to adjust to. I’ve heard stories about people moving from California to the east coast and feeling a deep, unsettling dismay at the way we behave over there, but I think being an east coast asshole has given me an inherent advantage in my transition. I am guarded and quiet in public and kind of mean. I put a high priority on getting things done as quickly as possible. I show up everywhere incredibly early and hide it by parking five blocks away and reading my email in my car. I am the first person to arrive to any party, even if I am late. I am way more aggressively practical than I ever realized before I moved out here. Is this because I’m a New Englander, or because I’m just a highly practical asshole? No clue. But we have a reputation for this kind of shit, so sure, I’ll live it up.
I used to have a silly story I’d tell about the difference between east coast and Californian personalities. I’m not sure how closely I stand by it anymore, but I’ll share it with you now:
Imagine you’re at a party. You’re talking to someone you’ve never met before. He says, “Yeah, I’m a huge biker. I’m really really into biking.” Now, if you’re in New England, you can safely assume that this means your new friend bikes a lot. He probably has a real expensive bike, and he bikes to work every day, and owns one of those biking leotards, and he wears those death-trap shoes that you clip onto the bike because you want to die. But if you’re in California, and someone at a party tells you, “Yeah, I’m a huge biker, I’m really into biking,” you can make no such assumption! Does this person even own a bike? Do they bike once a month? Maybe they just bought a bike. Maybe they just spend a lot of time in bike stores. Maybe they used to be on a competitive bike-racing team in college, but lost a foot in a tragic accident, and now they just bike in their dreams. In California, everything’s up in the air.
I’ve heard people say that they want to move to California to live the “Cali life,” but I’m pretty sure there is no Cali life. There are just a lot of people here doing pretty much whatever they want, all the time, for whatever reason, whatever. I think this article about Los Angeles describes it best:
No matter what you do in L.A., your behavior is appropriate for the city. Los Angeles has no assumed correct mode of use. You can have fake breasts and drive a Ford Mustang – or you can grow a beard, weigh 300 pounds, and read Christian science fiction novels. Either way, you’re fine: that’s just how it works…
…L.A. is the apocalypse: it’s you and a bunch of parking lots. No one’s going to save you; no one’s looking out for you. It’s the only city I know where that’s the explicit premise of living there – that’s the deal you make when you move to L.A.
…And I don’t just mean that Los Angeles is some friendly bastion of cultural diversity and so we should celebrate it on that level and be done with it; I mean that Los Angeles is the confrontation with the void. It is the void.
This observation is more true in a general sense about the entirety of California than it isn’t. When the east coast was settled, it was settled by frightened European religious fundamentalists who cared quite a lot about inherited status and who were constantly being menaced by bears and the weather. There’s a humility and guardedness to New England towns– a close gathering around the central green, three-story houses with basements so you can store all the things you’d need for an apocalypse, only three or four kinds of churches. Only three or four kinds of people.
But by the time Americans got to California, we were proud and arrogant jerks. We just jizzed concrete over the entire landscape and marched around like we owned the place. Why bother building a second story on a house when you can build another one next to it, and another, and another? Why bother making a place livable and kind if it looks cooler and makes more money as a concrete iron maiden?
Sure, California has Google and Hollywood. But Silicon Valley is really and truly the most fucked-up place I have ever seen in my entire life, and Hollywood is basically just a gigantic heap of useless trash. (And I often have a hard time parking there.)
Okay. Here’s the rundown. New England pros:
- My family
- Roads are occasionally empty
- People tell the truth, walk quickly, and get things done
- You can pick your own pumpkin
New England cons:
- Often boring
- Too white
- No good Mexican food
- My job isn’t there
And California pros:
- Better food
- Actual jobs
- My job, specifically
- You are living in the void
- Everything here was built by a charming asshole
- You will never be menaced by a bear