I’m driving down the 101 toward San Francisco International Airport. A gray blanket of fog pours over the hills in the distance, smothering what would be a luminous California sunset. Eleanor is sitting next to me in the passenger seat taking deep breaths. She does not like to fly.
I hesitate, then finally ask what’s on my mind, cutting the air between us. “I don’t want to put any pressure on you, but since this is the last time we’ll be hanging out for a while, I feel like we have drifted over the last year. Is there something I did wrong? Is there something you want to tell me? You know, before you leave?”
We are driving to her one-way flight bound for Pittsburgh. She’s moving out of the San Francisco Bay Area, where we have both lived since we were kids. Our parents, who were themselves mixed transplants from New England and other parts of California, settled in the Bay in the ’70s and ’90s. Eleanor and I met in high school—two weirdos who recognized each other’s outsider-looking-in approach to the world. Now on the cusp of 30, we have 16 years of friendship between us. We did a podcast together. She went to work with me the day after my father died. We have gotten lost in the desert together, twice (before smartphones). On separate occasions, we have cleaned up each other’s vomit. We were once referred to as “hetero life mates.” And today she is leaving.
There are other friends out in Pittsburgh who have made a calm life as artists, cooks, house-cleaners, and creatives: an impossibility in the Bay Area, unless you have family assistance. Eleanor visited them a few months ago, and charmed by their stability, the brick-paved streets, and the affordable apartments that lined them, it became impossible not to see how well she could do there too. Among other talents, she is, first and foremost, an artist.
I’m telling her “I feel like we’ve drifted.” What I really want to say is “What could I have done to make you stay?”
“There’s nothing really,” she says, “I mean, the political climate has been hard. But also it’s just the Bay. Inviting people out to Stinson is easy, getting people to visit me when I have nowhere to host them is harder.”
Several months ago, she had made the difficult decision to move back onto a small corner of her parents beachtown property, after her urban East Bay house became waterlogged during the rainstorms of 2016. We had to move her out over a weekend, after the mold took half the furniture and gave her roommate pneumonia in both lungs. I touched swollen blisters of stagnant rainwater, pulsing on her walls. After emailing the landlord about the issues, the housemates abandoned the property. He then successfully sued them in accordance with California tenant laws.
Although moving back to your parents’ home is never ideal, Eleanor didn’t have a lot of other options. But Stinson was not the little village she had left behind for college.
While only accessible by a narrow 10-mile strip of road lined by falling rocks and perilous sea cliffs, Stinson Beach is nevertheless one of the most popular day trips for San Francisco urbanites. Once a salty refuge for dendrophilic introverts and quiet hippies of means, Stinson spent the last few years transforming into a seaside “simpler times” theme park for San Francisco’s stratospherically wealthy. Eleanor had spent the last few years watching her foggy hometown gorge with tourists in $300 jeans on a mission for an idyllic, sand-weathered NorCal experience.
But hating rich tourists simply for flooding the place with money is not the reason Eleanor is leaving the Bay.
We understand that with our respective shares of the rent, we could be paying mortgages on entire houses in Denver or Austin. But we are here.
She was a manager at an artisanal goods boutique, which directly served this crowd of fast-culture beneficiaries hungry for slow-culture products. She is also the child of interracial parents, who built their own house in Stinson when she was little more than a baby. The town was essentially her cocoon for over 15 years. As an adult, she quickly got hired at the boutique because, to quote Eleanor, “the owners know the signs of a townie who has returned with swallowed pride and no prospects.” But the tourists did not know these signs. The new deal for living in Stinson—her hometown—was getting used to hearing “Where are you from? Here? No way!” repeatedly from rich white people, who didn’t know how to fit a brown girl in their vision of an authentic seaside experience.
She would then go home to an in-law unit, while those people retired to one of the lavish Airbnbs that now outnumbered permanent housing by about 3:1. “Imagine working at Disneyland, then going home to your place in the back of the Pirates of the Caribbean ride while drunk frat grads puke into the water,” she told me.
To be clear, she loved her town and its bearing in the coastal California fantasy. She wanted to share it, brag about it, celebrate it. But selling bourgeoise yogurt crocks and $100 bottles of wine to people who didn’t see her as part of their shabby-chic fantasy was becoming difficult to bear. She was also onboarding other displaced “village kids” who were doing exactly what she was doing: moving back home, into their parents’ offices, in-law units, and backyards. Having only kind words and a dead-end service job to offer them was making her grow thorns.
She was unhappy. The boutique was becoming a psychological warfare zone. She had tried her hand doing sales at a startup, but the work was soul-fraying. Art made her happy, and she was genuinely talented, but working at a couture costume shop and an internationally acclaimed ceramics studio wasn’t enough to pay the bills. She couldn’t afford to move.
The muse was not only dead—it couldn’t afford the resuscitation fee.
This is why I never doubted her desire to leave the Bay Area. But my guilt came from somewhere else.
I had not been facing these problems. I dabble in dance, but I was too cowardly to ever accept the life of an artist. I work in tech.
Leaving the Bay Area is the best thing you can do right now, if you have a dream.
To clarify, I am not a programmer. I say I am a “techie” in the sense that I have positioned myself, through a combination of hard work, luck, and privilege, to benefit from the startup bomb that exploded in my backyard 10 years ago. I was handed a sales job by a family friend right out of college, and I took it greedily, not looking back until, well, now. Mostly I have worked in sales, marketing, and user research. For my efforts, I live in a gritty but familial part of the sprawling, controversial metropolis of Oakland. I have my own en suite bathroom and a tiny balcony where I can grow useless amounts of herbs and play at “connecting to the land.” My roommate is a professional journalist with a blue checkmark on Twitter. We’re both in our thirties. We understand that with our respective shares of the rent, we could be paying mortgages on entire houses in Denver or Austin. But we are here. Our friends (what’s left of them) and family are here; my job network is here. Two fully-employed middle-class women in their thirties splitting bills on Venmo and figuring out how to most diplomatically accuse the other of eating more of the peanut butter. This is normal in the Bay Area. Only programmers live alone. Only rich programmers own houses.
Setting aside for a moment Oakland’s own gentrification culture war (which would be another 20-minute essay), it is a two-hour drive away from Eleanor’s home in Stinson. It should only be an hour, but the traffic on the 580 moved from “rush-hour average” to “perpetual nightmare” sometime in 2014. With a regular work week, you don’t often have four hours to spare for a round-trip drive to see a friend—even the one who wouldn’t leave your side when your dad died.
Had we drifted? Of course we had. But it was more than the traffic and geography that was the source of my guilt. I felt I had played into the system that was financially and culturally kicking her out. And I’d realized it for the first time just as she’s leaving.
“I’m scared I haven’t been a good enough friend to you,” I confess to her.
“I do feel loved and supported,” she says.
“I’m glad,” I say. And I mean it. I feel greedy for this absolution because I realize beyond the guilt, there’s another feeling: paranoia.
For the first time, while sitting in full-stop traffic before the Bay Bridge in the ironically named “fastrak” lane, I count them in my head: 11 people I care about have left California in the past two years. Eleanor is number 12, and apparently the final straw that’s really making me pause and think “What the hell is going on?”
She shifts next to me in the dead-stop traffic. I know her well enough at this point to know she is teeming with anxiety. “We’ll make the flight. We left early,” I say.
“I know,” she says.
But we both know this is not why she’s nervous.
She’s nervous about the life shift. The constant cloud of “failure” that threatens to downpour on you at any minute if you live in the Bay Area is still looming over her head.
What she doesn’t know yet is that this cloud, for her, is about to dissipate. Leaving the Bay Area is the best thing you can do right now, if you have a dream. She’s going to be fine, she just doesn’t know it yet.