On California, and a book review

I grew up in California but moved away in mid-2010 to the UK for a postgrad at Central Saint Martins. Recently, I had the opportunity to visit San Francisco with my partner. It had been almost five years since I was last in the state.

I had a great time showing him some of my favorite things in San Francisco, discovering new favorites, seeing family and friends. California was as beautiful as I remember, perhaps more so. I didn’t realise just how much I had missed the environment, the fog and the wildlife. A couple of friends and I happened to visit Ocean Beach on an overcast day when thousands of bright indigo jellyfish-like creatures washed up on shore. I spent an afternoon walking the trails through Mt. Sutro with a good friend, passing California poppies, Pepper trees, serpentinite boulders, eucalyptus, mountain irises, hummingbirds, columbines, poison oak.

However, a few of the more disappointing aspects of Californian life have lingered in my mind since returning to the UK, things that I rarely noticed (or maybe more accurately, tried to ignore) when I was living in the Bay Area.

One moment from our trip sticks out in particular.

I wish I could apologize to the girl sitting behind my partner and me on the outbound T Third Street train the afternoon of May 8th. I was back-to-back with her, both of us sitting next to the window. A disheveled man sat next down next to her, slouching a bit in the seat so his knees touched the seat in front of him. Not terrifically unusual, but it seemed odd when I noticed the car was almost empty, he could easily have sat anywhere. About a minute in, she got up and quietly asked to pass.

Jump over.
Jump OVER.

As her requests got quieter, he got louder and more vehement. Eventually she did try to jump over and was forced to straddle him, lifting a leg over his and pressing up uncomfortably (a gross understatement) against him. She rushed down the train to an exit in another car, may well have started crying. I certainly would have. I should have said something, probably to him, but at the very least to her. A moment after she got up, he did the same and looked for someone else deserving of his attention. I felt guilty for feeling thankful that the seat next to me was already occupied.

I have witnessed and experienced very similar one-off events on public transportation nearly everywhere. My default method of transportation is the bus/lightrail/train, and I’m aware that it goes with the territory.

But then I remembered. This is not a one-off thing in San Francisco, it happens all the time, with bewildering frequency. It was a near-daily occurrence on my bus between SOMA and the Mission during the summer of 2009. I remember bracing myself instinctively at the bus stop twice a day, every day.

Fear was a standard and essential part of my everyday routine, and it felt utterly normal.

I don’t really know what else to say about the event on the T Third Street line. It wasn’t nice for anyone involved. I felt the most empathy for the girl in that moment, but it was obvious that day-to-day life is far more unpleasant for the clearly unwell man. I want to say that the undercurrent of aggression in San Francisco doesn’t need to be so commonplace — it can be different, it is different elsewhere — but if I tried to offer an immediate solution it would be feeble at best, ignorant at worst.

Regardless, that event and the memory of my previous experiences, amongst other things, have contributed to a growing doubt in my mind about California’s assumed status as the golden land of opportunity.

California is not a terrible place. As far as opportunity goes, there’s no doubt that parts of the state are booming as evidenced by the 10+ cranes currently crammed together in downtown SF, working around the clock. It is also beautiful. Enviably, California’s unique combination of weather and landscape means that outdoor activities are enjoyable nearly year-round. But for all that and more, there is a harshness, something at odds with California’s projection of cheery optimism.

On the few occasions that I have tried, I have had a hard time articulating this cognitive dissonance. But then I came across “Where I Was From” by Joan Didion. In the book, she covers all of the above far more eloquently. In her words:

[…] This book represents an exploration into my own confusions about the place and the way in which I grew up […], misapprehensions and misunderstandings so much a part of who I became that I can still to this day confront them only obliquely. A good deal about California does not, on its own preferred terms, add up.

Joan Didion, “Where I Was From”, around page 16 at the end of chapter 2 and beginning of chapter 3

She uses facts, figures, and primary sources dating from California’s inception up to the book’s publication in 2003 to untangle the roots between two opposing forces — between the myth and the reality of California — and to contextualize the lasting effects of their friction. She doesn’t reach a definitive conclusion on the matter, but she manages to reveal more than a little of the Californian psyche and the state’s impact on her as a person.

With the current water crisis in California, her writing on the progression and impact of water regulation since the first population boom is particularly striking. The run-down of what it takes to “just add water” to the San Joaquin Valley (see chapter 5 around page 46) is meticulous and fascinating.

Clearly, I enjoyed the book. It’s satisfying when you come across a piece of writing that so thoroughly addresses your current thoughts.

“Where I Was From” by Joan Didion is available from the obvious online marketplace. I read the Kindle edition, hence the ambiguous page numbers above. A few alternative sellers below: