“I hated how they hated smart kids, or even half-smart kids like me. I hated how they had a playbook I did not have: things that were good, things that were bad, and anything off by so much as a degree from those things — these things were worse than strange. They were unclean, to be beaten or shunned into a dark nothing…It was so suffocating and loud and dull, emblematic of everything I hated about growing up where I did. I could not escape the suspicion from a young age: that where I was from was both deeply embarrassing and deeply embarrassed of people like me.”
-Spencer Hall, “Volunteer”
It’s so sparse.
The psycho-geographical density of the second half of my life…Washington DC. New York City. Silicon Valley. London. Tokyo. Driving down from Nashville to Birmingham for the first time in a decade or so only rammed home how little there is off the sides of the interstate. Even my old neighborhood development growing up has more houses than it ever did, and yet, they sit far apart by California standards on lots that would be unspeakably huge in Santa Clara County. If you’re on two and a half acres on the Peninsula, it’s Woodside or Atherton or Los Altos Hills, not 1400 square feet of single story fifty year old brick ranch.
There’s not that much. Go ten feet outside a metro area and at best, you have a selection of strip malls and outparcel restaurants. Maybe the Amazon bomb hit here, but it was mostly to clear out whatever Wal-Mart didn’t. The building that was a Piggly Wiggly when I was stacking lettuce in 1988 is being remodeled into…a church, in a town of 3000 people that already has three Southern Baptist churches alone, never mind one Missionary Baptist, two Methodist, a Church of God, a Church of Christ, and even a tiny Catholic chapel. And they said the Irish were priest-ridden?
The thing is…you can have the stuff. Birmingham has the best all-around food and brewing scene in the Deep South, barring maybe New Orleans. Maybe. There’s a food hall in the first floor of an old department building that would not be out of place in Santa Cruz, there’s ice cream in Avondale that’s on a par with the best mint chip in the Bay Area, there’s only the second location in the world of Rodney Scott’s Whole Hog BBQ. With no railroad bridges to turn into a High Line, they have turned ten blocks beneath the freeway into the City Walk. It’s an attractive place to be – and honestly, I would rather move back there than Nashville, because it’s not freighted with Baptist Vegas – it’s a majority-black town with majority-black government, a reliably safe blue bubble amidst a horrifying state rather than a purple smear in Tennessee’s red sea.
But at some level, I know now: I just don’t want to need a bubble. I don’t want the camaraderie of the foxhole, the blue island in an ocean of blood red. I don’t want to be a dot, I just want to be. I want friends, not a mutual aid pact. I want a life that’s isn’t at the mercy of the agency of rednecks. I don’t want to live a life that’s only protected by my own affluent whiteness from the worst among us.
Maybe it’s just being 50, but the things I want now are safety, stability, the comfort of knowing I can have a nice quiet pint and be left alone for a couple hours. Maybe the pandemic did for everything that wasn’t the cocoon. I’d love to have a gang of friends to do stuff with, but if that’s not on offer, then I want to be in California, where white people are a minority, where the Okies will never take charge of state government, where it will always be possible to mind your business. And I will find the bits that spark joy, and spark them.
And yet, forty-eight hours after landing, I tested positive for COVID after twenty-six months. I made it to Seattle, Santa Barbara, Disneyland (twice), London for three weeks, and no problem. But one trip to the South blew it all to Hell. The lesson is a bit heavy-handed, but then, some parts of me have always needed an elephant to shit in the tub to realize the circus had come to town.
I’m Californian now. The end.