It occurred to me today driving south on I-280 that I have effectively lived a third of my life in California. It was sixteen years ago this week that we were on our fortnight drive from DC to here, and I’m 48 now, that’s close enough. The exact one-third mark is probably somewhere in autumn, but since NorCal doesn’t have “autumn” and the weather now is more or less what it was then, I’m marking it now. Because driving along the scenic route, golden hillsides and scattering of trees, East Bay hills rising in the distance, blue sky for once dappled with a dash of wispy cloud instead of glaring sun, it looks so much like I remember those earliest days being.
So much is different from those days, and I’m sure I’ll remember a lot of it again next spring when Brood X hatches in DC, but it’s amazing to think how different the world looks now. I mean, I had a smartphone when I arrived, but it was a P800 that was barely usable (and which I sold to a guy in Daly City for a couple hundred bucks as quick as I could manage). I would only keep driving my Saturn for a little over two years. “Social media” was a niche and limited thing mostly for millennials, and limited to the computer; the notion that any adult would naturally have a cellphone was still pretty new. Streaming was barely a thing, especially for video; the main desire of my move was to get DirecTV with the TiVo tuner. Hell, half the public places that had Wi-Fi charged to access it, and I was still smoking cigars shipped from DC. My principle cell phone number, which never changed in DC from January 1998 until the day I left, has turned over five or six times depending on who was paying for it and what I could afford myself.
What’s remarkable in retrospect is how much has been stable. Same home phone number since we got here. Same address for almost fifteen years. Same place of employment for almost twelve. For a decade now, we arguably make one big trip a year and don’t otherwise leave the state. And for the last seven years or so, a steady sense of dread as the world slowly deteriorates around us. Some of it is political decay and malfeasance. Some of it is the Wall Streeting of Silly Con Valley, as VC money tech-washes taxi companies and home rentals while ratcheting up the asshole factor and driving real local people underground – or away. I used to say that this was where the future comes from, but that seems more like a threat than a promise these days. And now, thanks to the pandemic, it’s tougher than ever to enjoy the Northern California that lies beneath the superficial gloss of the Valley.
I want to go over the hill and ride down the PCH. I want to go have a pint in my favorite pub. I want to ride the light rail down through San Jose and take the MUNI Metro all the way out to the Riptide. I want to watch the San Jose Churros playing in their WPA-era park and sit behind the Ultras at the San Jose Earthquakes as planes land behind the scoreboard. I want to take the Coast Starlight to Santa Barbara and go up to the top of the courthouse. I want to catch the Pacific Surfliner from there and go to Disneyland and ride Rise of the Resistance at Galaxy’s Edge before cocktails at Trader Sam. I want to go to the beach with my goddaughter and I want to drink Rum Runners on the patio at the Beacon looking out at Lake Tahoe. And after almost four months of trying to diligently shelter in place, wash hands and wear masks, I’m no closer to any of that than I was on St Patrick’s Day.
It’s infuriating. At the beginning, it felt like a chance to practice living my best life: working 100% remote and wearing only my cozy American Giant gear and alternating between a quiet cozy pint at home and a quiet cup of coffee in the morning. Then the sun came out and the temps went up and the world went haywire and too much of this country stopped trying and just decided that the pandemic was over because they were tired of it. And now the death toll rises and the prospect for things getting better gets dimmer every day. Without the ability to travel or see friends, the buying of stuff – mostly hats, of which more later – has flared up again as the only way of achieving novelty or diversion. Which is not really sustainable – how much stuff do I need, where do I put it, and what do I do with the old stuff? – but we’ll sort that out later.