Should I Stay or Should I Go?

Leaving the Bay Area for greener, smoke-free pastures is enticing, but this is my home.

The news said that people were moving out of the Bay Area, but it was the Emeryville Home Depot that gave me a sense of scale.

Plastic straps crackled under my shoes as I shimmied between two scissor lifts to reach the moving supplies. Nearly all of the shelves — even the ones out of reach — had been emptied, and what little was left had been strewn across the polished concrete floor. It was as if someone had strip mined for cardboard, leaving an amount of open space that felt eerie in a big box store. At a loss for what else to do, I scavenged around the shelves and made it most of the way through the Sarah McLachlan track on the intercom before I decided it wasn’t worth buying the lone roll of bubble wrap. I shimmied to the front of the store, then headed to U-Haul. 

Though my relocation has only taken me from Oakland to the Peninsula, the larger migration is visible everywhere. My landlord resigned himself to a vacancy as soon as I gave notice. Coworkers moved as far away as Hawaii, and streets all over Oakland were blocked by moving trucks being loaded by white, vaguely-hip thirtysomethings. I found it hard to blame them. Life in Northern California hasn’t been easy for years, but the last few months have been punishing.

Overdose deaths have risen by 75 percent, children are using Taco Bell’s WiFi to attend school, activists have taken it upon themselves to water the tule elk, the Republican Party sneered at us on a national stage — and that was all during the last week of August, before I had to check if my pandemic mask works for wildfire smoke, and before I read about a real estate company in San Ramon that specializes in helping people leave the Bay Area and Southern California

I guess that if anywhere knows how to extract profit from people trying to avoid a strained infrastructure, it’s the home of Uber and Lyft. California is on the spear tip of the economy and the prow of the continent, meaning it’s subject to all the creativity, whiplash, energy, and exhaustion that entails. It’s become a truism to say that things happen in California a few years before they happen in the rest of the country, and though that’s probably as true for Global Warming as it is for technology, fires are not a new problem. As mak-’amham, the Berkeley-based Ohlone restaurant asserted in a recent newsletter, “colonizers forcefully restricted our ancestors from practicing the old burns, and now the land is in a deep fire drought, overgrown from lack of tending and management.”

In other words: Californians have done better, so Californians can do better. We just aren’t right now. 

It was a sad thing to contemplate as I drove across the Dumbarton Bridge on my moving day. I was trying to feel thankful that the sky overhead was blue when it occurred to me that Hawaii would be even sunnier. I’d also heard of tech workers relocating to Truckee, Aspen, Missoula, and other “Zoom Towns,” and though I’m concerned that the trend falls somewhere between gentrification and TikTok houses, it would be interesting to live outside of an urban footprint. I was practically buying a ticket in my head when, at the top of the span, the wind swayed the car and turned my head to the right, where a bitter brown cloud was holding over Oakland and San Francisco like a patient guest waiting to be let in. The reflection in the water made the Bay look muddy, and I felt compelled to do something to help.

One of the author’s last looks at Lake Merritt before his move. (Photo: Tom Connor)

The only problem was that I had already tried. A few fire seasons ago, I had read about the mistreatment of California’s inmate volunteer firefighters (which the state is now trying to address) and I decided to get off the sidelines. After confirming I was eligible for the state’s volunteer firefighter program, I called a number on a government website. After 20 minutes on hold, they told me I had to call a different number, but the person there told me to call the first number. When I called that one again, they just hung up on me, and I sat there with the knowledge that the Ohlone have always had: colonizers are really bad at managing fire resources. I didn’t know how else I could help though, and unfortunately I still don’t. I just know that the thought of doing nothing feels like the thought of leaving: it gives me the same anxious, vaguely sick feeling that I got looking at the bitter cloud over the Bay.

Still, wanting to stay and not wanting to leave are different. The first is wine, weed, and sunshine, while the second is blood ties and bonds. It’s in the desire to be here in case someone I love needs an evacuation point and a place to stay. It’s in imagining what California could be like if we just got our collective act together, thinned out some forests, and used the wood to build some houses. It’s in knowing that probably won’t happen, but hanging on because it might. It’s also a convenient line of thinking that only requires me to physically stay in the Bay Area to be “helping,” so as strange as this sounds, staying is easy. But in all fairness, I can’t do any more about Global Warming or pandemics from Minneapolis than I can from Mountain View, and if some tech bro in San Ramon can sell migration-as-a-service, then I can use presence-as-an-impact for self-actualization. I’m disrupting my mental health.

There are practical factors keeping me here, too. My entire immediate family is here, for one. I also need to live in this area so that I can work in this area to afford the payments on the student loans that I took out so that I could work in this area and afford to live in this area. That’s true of a lot of Californians, because for all of the state’s beauty and innovation, money — the pursuit of it, or the lack of it is as defining a feature of the California experience as Tahoe or the PCH. Woody Guthrie sang about it in 1940, when it had already been true for generations. And though tech companies are embracing permanent remote work, I don’t want to risk the lower pay and benefits for those that relocate, nor do I want to encounter the limited career prospects that I take as implied. The next CEO of Apple won’t be Zooming into her meetings from a ranch in rural Texas, so there’s most likely a relocation ceiling that we just haven’t seen yet.

I’m just speaking for myself, though. I don’t fault anyone who wants to leave any more than I applaud anyone who wants to stay. The question of where to build a life has as many answers as there are people, but I sense that on some level we’re all struggling with the same thing: the only thing harder than living in California is leaving it. I was acutely aware of that last week when I drove back to Oakland to drop off my keys to my now-former landlord. I stopped for a minute and stood beside Lake Merritt, which was as orange as the sky and striking in that special “you had to be there” sort of way. It was breathtaking and frightening, beautiful and disappointing. It was eerie, but for now it was home.

Quarantine Thoughts is an ongoing personal essay series focused on how the coronavirus, social distancing mandates and the economic fallout of COVID-19 is impacting locals. Read more essays here.

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