California

This kid—let’s call him Sam—dropped by the store a couple weeks ago. He’s been a regular customer since he was a wee thing (which was about a minute ago in adult time). He wanted to sell a couple of LPs and give us a preliminary goodbye. “I’m going to San Francisco,” he said.

Sam couldn’t have had a worse audience. He’s maybe, maybe, twenty-one, skinny, with a baby-face, a touch of an Eastern North Carolina drawl and that placid, lightly glazed look of a precocious stoner. He wears hip-huggers and moccasins and leather vests without shirts underneath. The overall effect is something like Tom Sawyer role-playing Jim Morrison. And maybe that works for him[1]. It likely charms the pants off the young ladies. It doesn’t however do much for our typical weekday afternoon crowd. All men, save me, and the next youngest was at least thirty-five and looked like he’d been having a terrible day since around 2010.

Sam gave us a breathless spiel about selling everything and chipping in with his friends/bandmates to buy a sweet 1977 van with “swizzle seats.” He and his boys had pooled their resources and arrived at a figure in the 7K range on which they planned on living until the band broke or whatever.  I kept a peripheral eye on the back of the store and caught a few customers actually wincing at the details.

After he left, my coworker posited that their sweet ride would likely not get them as far as Tennessee before breaking down. “And that wouldn’t be the worst thing,” said a customer. “That way they’ll have reasonable excuse for coming home before they actually get to California, blow the seven grand in two weeks and start hating each other.”

“Seven thousand dollars spilt five ways is basically a vacation in San Francisco,” said another customer. “Not even a particularly luxurious one.”

“They should just book a hotel and see the sights,” said the first. “Maybe take a little road trip down the coast. Ditch the van. Sell it, if it’s still running at that point. Fly back in a month. Re-enroll in school next semester.”

It was a good suggestion. Pragmatic, mature, responsible, yet not without a sense of adventure. We all nodded because we’re all adults and because we’ve already had opportunity to fuck up our lives in various ways. We’re still paying off debts accrued when we were Sam’s age. We’re at the I’m not trying to be an asshole, but you need to think long and hard about that Mumford & Sons neck tattoo, my man age. Which is to say we sound like parents (some of us are). Which is to say we sound resigned. Which is to say I don’t remember the last time I considered packing up the car and driving off into the sunset and disappearing into the west.

I know there are plenty of people who want to go west for totally good, clean, justifiable reasons. They like redwoods or computers. They enjoy volcanoes and rain or conversely the secret thrill of living on a faultline in a major metropolis without a naturally occurring supply of drinking water.  I wasn’t one of them.

I spent my long, complicated university years stuck in the south, going to shitty punk shows and skipping classes. When not hating myself and my life in equal measure, I recreationally pined for the West Coast. I had it my mind that a clean slate and a little gold dust might be a better treatment for depression than, say, Zoloft. It wasn’t the craziest idea in the world. After all, wasn’t America a country founded for escapists by escapists? How was throwing everything in the hatchback and seeing how quickly I could put three thousand miles between myself and my shit life in the armpit of North Carolina any different than my ancestors taking good hard look at the British Isles and deciding to blow[2] that damp, class-obsessed popsicle stand and give humid, race and class-obsessed Virginia the old college try?

Happy people don’t abandon everything and light out for the territory, no matter how shiny the gold, how seemingly free the (stolen?) land, how alluring the charms of God-sanctioned polygamy. You can’t sell something as dumb as manifest destiny to a contented soul. You need frustrated, impatient, hungry folks who hate history and have poor impulse control. You need Americans, whose privileged majority is entirely comprised of people that leave. When the going gets tough, the tough gets packing. We don’t, as a general rule, stick around to clean up our messes. If there’s a chance of a way out we’ll take it, which has a lot to do with why so many towns (some not that small) have been in death throes for years. Feeling oppressed in Poland? Super. You’ll love New York. New York got you down? How about Ohio? Ohio too crowded? How about Oklahoma? Oklahoma too dusty? Try Southern California? Southern California too hot? Try Seattle. “I mean, it’s nice here, mom. But I’ll never get anywhere in publishing if I can’t run into Tao Lin at a Bushwick Party.” And so it goes.[3]

But I didn’t. I was either too smart or too scared to risk it on my own. Caution and cowardice can look pretty similar. At the time, I usually felt like I suffered from the latter. Failing to act didn’t stop me from daydreaming. I invented a whole other alternate life. [4]  It hinged on an unseized upon moment in 1995 when I sat in the car in a strip mall parking lot with my then roommate and once best friend playing hypotheticals. “We could not pay rent,” I said. “We could not pay rent and drive to California,” she said. It was September and hot. We’d been enrolled at the same terrible state university for two weeks. We already hated it. We lit fresh cigarettes.  We listened to music from California and watched the sun disappear into the west. We would not follow, but it was nice, for a moment, to imagine that we might.


[1]Having spent a longer period of my adult life than most in the less glamorous margins of the music industry, I suspect “fake it ’til you make it” is as sound a strategy as any other if you’re looking for attention.

[2] That probably wasn’t a good idea either, given the cash crop-growing, institutional racism participating, wrong side of history inhabiting that move would go on to entail. At the very least if my forefolk had stayed on the left side of the Atlantic, they probably wouldn’t have gotten involved with slavery and I might have single-payer health care. Win/Win.

 [3] I think the game resets if you settle in the country from which your ancestors once emigrated. I’m not sure you’ll get extra lives, but your kids might end up with duel citizenship, which is almost as good.

 [4] I kept up with the exploits of that other me for years after I stopped dreaming about the Golden Gate Bridge That Alison didn’t stay in Bay Area. She ended up following a guy to Chicago. He broke her heart and she spent a couple of years trying to make it as a journalist before decamping to Oregon shortly after her thirty-second birthday. I haven’t checked in on her recently. But I think she took up mountain biking and married to a one-time drummer turned pastry chef. She’s probably produced a kid or a memoir by now.

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