I’m sitting here tonight writing this in an empty house. Earlier, I walked my dog around the block enjoying the cooling temperature and the way the light of the setting sun shimmers through the perpetually green California trees. I needed a break from the chaos and disorder of my house and a quiet walk with only the dog and a few dozen crows for the company did the trick. My wife took our daughter to visit a friend and won’t be back until later tonight so I made myself dinner, did the dishes, and read a bit of Franzen’s The Corrections.
Chaos because everything is packed or in the process of being packed. We are moving. Leaving California for what might be the last time. Emotionally I’m somewhere between excitement and the eerie liminal feeling of leaving a place that I will never return to. Moving entails going through years’ worth of possessions. Old pictures. Greeting cards stashed away. Boxes of mementos and memorabilia. The ephemera of life that even a small family like mine accumulates unknowingly. Somehow, I’ve managed to fill two full-size dumpsters with backyard plastic toys and ratty Halloween decorations. Every attempt at organizing and sorting through one of the closets takes twice as long as planned because it feels like opening a time capsule and I catch myself reminiscing with my wife about whatever item we’ve dug up that hasn’t been touched or thought about in years. Should we keep it? Will we use it? Do I need these boxes of matches I bought in a Tokyo alley? How about this hand-carved totem given to me by the tribesman in Borneo, it’s probably cursed. Will I ever wear this shirt again?
I’ve traveled a lot and I’ve moved numerous times but this time it feels different. Final. In the past, I always knew I was coming back to California. Not this time.
My family arrived in California in the winter of 1991. The Soviet Union was being dissolved and SCUD missiles were flying as the First Iraq War was about to start. The United States was entering into an economic boom and taking its place as the sole cultural and economic ruler of the liberal world. Nirvana was a few months away from dropping Nevermind, Jeffery Dahmer was arrested, and Gene Roddenberry died. I was six years old and spoke no English.
It was my mother who decided to move our family from Bucharest to Long Beach. All her life she considered herself a Californian in spirit and was enchanted by images of surf and sand paired with the promise of fun and freedom that were in stark contrast to the stilted and cold Eastern European life under the austere Communism of Ceausescu. So when the opportunity presented itself she convinced my dad, uprooted our family, and moved us across the world to the place of her dreams. Looking back I can’t blame her, coming West to California was a dream many have had throughout the years, from 19th-century prospectors to wannabe actresses and musicians. Everyone comes West.
Did it work out? I don’t know. Maybe. Yeah, Long Beach, wasn’t all surf and sand. There’s a breakwater built by the Corps of Engineers so there are no waves and back in 1991 downtown was a no go zone because gangs shot each other in plain daylight, there was no culture, no sidewalks, trash everywhere, and you couldn’t sleep because of the constant sirens and police helicopter noise, but damn, it was California. My mom loved it, still does and she’s disappointed that I’m leaving. Doesn’t understand why I don’t want to raise my daughter in a two-bedroom apartment surrounded by the perpetually methamphetamine enhanced.
The truth is, I love California. I loved growing up out here. Skateboarding with friends all day, playing D&D all night. Sublime, Snoop, No Doubt, and almost every band imaginable coming through. Disneyland. Surfing in Orange County. Driving my beater up and down PCH. Getting drunk on 4th Street and then making my way to one of the 24-hour diners on the coast. Shows in L.A. University Heights in San Diego where my wife and I lived for a bit. Ojai. Santa Barbara. The Mountains. The Desert. The kitsch of Hollywood. All of it I loved.
But, the reality is that California has become a place where you can scrounge in poverty or live in absolute wealth. There is no in-between. As a young, broke, 20-year old I lived off of Pal Malls and bakery goods I took from my coffee shop job while scrounging change from my tip jar so I could get drunk on PBR from the Red Room on Wednesdays. But I’m not that person anymore. I’m a husband and a father, and California is unhospitable for the lower middle class to which I belong.
The places I grew up in, Long Beach, Lakewood, and Seal Beach, grew in the post-war boom. Almost everyone I knew in Long Beach that had family going back more than one generation had a WWII vet who settled in the area using the GI Bill. The neighborhoods were tract homes, affordable for a single-income young family. Right now, the same homes built in the late ’40s and 50’s sell for over 1 million. Unaffordable and unthinkable for a young family in their 20s and equally unattainable for me in my late 30s.
In 1991 my family managed to purchase a 1 bedroom 600sq foot apartment in Long Beach for around 80k. Today 1 bedroom in the same building is going for 400k on Zillow. The building is falling apart, there’s graffiti everywhere, and last week when we visited my grandmother a half-naked woman was having a psychotic episode in the middle of the street.
Almost all of my childhood friends have moved. Montana, Washington, Arizona, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Tennessee, and Nevada.
A part of me wants to stay. I will miss the Pacific. The desert. The long drives on PCH. But I need to provide a better life for my daughter and California has become an inhospitable and unwelcoming land.
My disillusionment with California began a few years ago when my wife and I returned from our extended stay in Japan. We were excited to come home after three years in a foreign country. We were excited to raise our recently born daughter at home, close to family. But right away I felt disconnected. I’ve lived outside of California before but coming back this time was different. Everything seemed dingier. The people are ruder. The streets were dirtier. We drove to L.A. and the amount of filth and homelessness was worse than I remembered. Yeah, L.A. was always gross, but not like this. Maybe it was that having a kid changed our perspective, and made us see our surroundings through new eyes, but a part of me can’t deny that things have gotten worse in the last couple of years.
But the dinginess and unaffordability aside California is still a beautiful place. The end of the road. Where the Wild West ends. Freedom. The Pacific Coast. That was until 2020 and COVID. The freedom-loving, hippie beach bum, Hollywood punk rocker, West Coast rebel State died in 2020. Californians, with few exceptions such as Orange County, embraced the idiotic and embarrassing COVID stupidities. Skate parks were filled in with sand. Surfers surfing by themselves were arrested. Businesses were shut down. Toddlers were forced in masks and the latte-drinking, Tesla-driving, managerial laptop class dweebs cheered all the measures. The land of taking risks and adventure proved to be run by cowardly bugmen with spines of soy.
In 2020 I knew I was leaving. I will not raise my daughter in this place, she deserves better.
So, I’m leaving. Going East. Trying something new. The movers are coming by in a few days to pack our stuff and truck it to our new house. Our house. A place we bought, a three-bedroom, two-story, with a yard and a two-car garage that costs less than a 1 bedroom in the ghetto where we live now. I’m not following a dream as my mom did. I’m not moving anywhere that I’ve dreamt about all my life, but I am following a dream to own my place and provide a good home for my daughter. Sadly California wasn’t the place.
The next few days will be hectic. Packing what’s left of our stuff. Going through everything that needs to be sold, tossed, or donated. Preparing our car for the long trip. We plan on turning this into a small vacation, stopping in a few places along the way. Making sure the insurance is up to date. Discontinuing utilities. Turning in our keys, and visiting family one last time before we set off into the sunrise.
Goodbye California, it’s been an interesting trip.