California: a greater room for words

Like most native New Yorkers, my relationship with California is a little strained. A typical interaction between me and my beloved In-and-Out Burger is a perfect example.

Me: Let me have 2 burgers protein style, fries and a vanilla shake.

Counter person: Now is that hamburgers or cheeseburgers?

Me: Hamburgers.

Counter person: Onions?

Me: Nope.

Counter person: But tomatoes, spread, lettuce, you good with all that?

Me: Sure.

Counter person: Okay, let me read your order back to you. And hey, are you having a great day?

This is where I feel like a heel for not having engaged in friendly banter, but in NYC efficiency is generally what’s considered polite. Get it done, don’t hold up the line, and don’t engage strangers, who don’t really care about your day at all.

That said, Patty and I are having a lovely, giddy time in San Francisco, which I feel like I understand more than I have on other trips here and to the rest of its state. Of course, all those other trips have largely been for family (my grandfather lived in San Mateo), work, or cons (events during which I hardly leave the hotel).

Certainly, I’ll never forget my first trip to Los Angeles, which, while for work, started by witnessing a pack of young men (what is the male of starlet?) in nearly identical black slacks and tight t-shirts brawling in the street outside of a night club and ended with my having a vague affair in an LAX airport hotel while the Miss Teen USA California pageant was happening a dozen floors below.

Seriously, for me, California is Mars. Sexy, perfect, cold Mars, and it is a place I don’t understand.

But part of that is, I recognize, self-preservation. If I understand California, I must fear that I will have to succumb to it, to come out here to act or to be queer. This state looms so terribly large for anyone that’s some of the things I am, even as I think I could never be happy here with my imperfect smile, disinterest in surfing, inability to fit in boxes, and my relentless awareness of the scaffolding that holds everyone’s myths together.

But yesterday, running around in the chaos that is San Francisco (seriously, sometimes the cable car is actually practical transit, but running into the the street to catch them in dense and sudden fog while the conductor beats out a syncopated rhythm with the bell and cars swerve around you seems like the least logical way for a city to conduct its business of getting around ever), I thought I could maybe understand what the lure is and what it’s like to be from here.

Because I’m always talking about the scale of New York and how we must be big in our hearts to survive all the shit of it, but I never before got how effortlessly easy it is to be big here, where a person doesn’t have to pick apart every sentence a hundred times before they say it to make sure it’s small enough and doesn’t waste anyone’s time or take up too much space on the subway.

Last night, when we got back to the hotel Patty and I both had hair wild from the wind and the moisture. She’s a curly girl, and so it’s never unexpected. But I’ve been straightening my hair nearly constantly for about 15 years now, and so it was something of a surprise despite a few recent and failed efforts to let it go back to its natural state.

So I burst into hysterical laughter when I saw it in the bathroom, this ghost of the 80s child I was staring back at me. I remembered all my friends with their perms and crimping irons and then my college career counselors who told me my long curly hair was too immature, ethnic and unprofessional. I wondered if it’s easier for people from here not to be chameleons.

It’s probably not. There are probably a million private local myths in San Francisco and Los Angeles and the whole of this state for people to navigate past and try to bend themselves to that I will never see as an outsider. Half the the country, of course, can’t just be easier and happier than the other half, right?

The grass is always greener, I suppose, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned is that in every city no matter the weather or the height of the buildings that there is a reason people there have to struggle to see the sun. Travel, it seems, just always gives me a much keener sense of what those reasons are back home.

15 thoughts on “California: a greater room for words”

  1. I love California! I love that there are so many people there doing dream things – show business, startups, you name it. I miss living there.

    LOL, you want a lot of extra conversation when running errands? Come to the South. 🙂

    1. I’ll toast to that. I’m from Boston, but I live in Nashville now; two and a half years later, I’m STILL getting used to people trying to make small talk with me during business transactions. You know, trying to respond while also keeping an eye on the clock, that sort of thing.

      1. Yes! It doesn’t help when I’m usually trying to do a lot of things during my lunch hour.

        Plus, I *know* I’m impatient personally, and I feel sorry for the people waiting behind me while the cashier chit-chats.

        If I have time and there aren’t people tapping their feet, it’s nice and friendly.

  2. >Half the the country, of course, can’t just be easier and happier than the other half, right?

    Well, Michigan (my home state) has a heaviness that I don’t feel in Arizona (my current state). Though it’s also true that you bring yourself everywhere you go; that you can’t escape. I agree that travel opens my eyes as much to the place I’ve left as the place I’ve visited.

  3. Grokked.

    San Francisco has always seemed a science fiction-y, 20-minutes-into-the-future place for me. Feels more dramatic, more *more*, which doesn’t really make sense but I like that way of saying it. I find it very easy to imagine more dramatic events happening and things being there, whether it’s the Incredible Hulk or Starfleet Headquarters. It’s genuinely neat, and I’ll visit again when I can (I’ve been there overnight in July 1995 and for a few days in August 2007). I’m smiling about how the trip’s going for you two, and for how easy you’re laughing there.

    Someone who lived in northern San Diego (i.e. Rancho Bernardo) for 5 years as a kid, then in Camarillo in Ventura County for a year-and-a-half, but isn’t a native and gets a little overwhelmed by California, too

  4. This is plain weird. I’ve been following your blog a little on and off for about a year now (it started with Torchwood and went from there as many things in my life seem to be doing…). RIght now I’m in San Fransisco on a conference trip, heavily jet-legged and kind of stuck in the void between stiff-arsed, work-talking, (I’m pretty sure 100% heteronormative) collegues and the San Fransisco experience (don’t ask me to define that one… I don’t have a clue).

    Anyway, I was just reading a text message from a collegue about going to that In-and-Out burger place for dinner tonight, thinking something in the lines of ‘yeah, whatever’, while I was waiting for your page to load…

    Sometimes worlds collide and somewhere out there in that bloody San Fransisco fog two of mine suddenly and completely unexpectedly seem to exist simultaneously in the same place. It’s like those parallel universe things, it’s wrong but it’s nice and I’m still waiting for the fog to lift and while I’m waiting I’ll be out walking some random streets, trying to figure out that San Fransisco experience thing and the rest of my life.

    Thanks for… I don’t know… for making me think, I guess. You’re good at making people think and that’s one hell of a gift. (And thanks for that weird, split-second ‘OMG, I can’t believe it, rm is in San Fransisco RIGHT NOW!’ moment. It made me laugh out loud at myself and that’s always a refreshing thing to do first thing in the morning…)

    1. So did you get to the In-and-Out Burger? It’s the only burger-type fast food I can eat with my celiac disease, so going to the West Coast is always a minor event for that reason alone for me. Anyway, I hope your trip got better!

      And thanks for sticking around in a not just Torchwood way, since the bright shiny things that attract my attention these days seem to be all over the map (and I _must_ catch up on Miracle Day — the last ep I saw was 7).

      1. Yes, we went and it was great. The whole trip is just as schizophrenic as I expected it to be. Anyway, in the middle of all the talking and smiling and agreeing and clapping each other on the shoulder that come with scientific conferences like this one, I sometimes wonder if the others might just be faking it just as much as I do… Probably not…

        Torchwood, yeah… not sure if Miracle Day will send me right back into that blurry state of Torchwood limbo or if it will break the spell forever and as none of these options seem particularly appealing to me right now I haven’t touched season 4… yet…

        Anyhow, I’ll pop in here every now and then to check for new bright and shiny things.

  5. I find it hilarious that you consider NYC “half of the country” and San Francisco/California the other half! It’s all sort of vague in the middle, isn’t it?

    I do not love San Francisco. Having lived there in the mid-90s during that whole dotcom explosion, and watching families forced out of their homes so that suddenly-rich 22yos could have hip Mission District apartments, and seeing the “Live/Work” spaces created for artists snapped up by people who put a laptop in the studio and think they’re very clever, and watching the doctors I worked with step gingerly over the homeless as they made their way upstairs to their $350K/yr jobs (and complaining that it was JUST IMPOSSIBLE to live in SF on that salary!), all the while smiling and maintaining it’s “We’re so fucking liberal and good to everyone, what a shining example of acceptance and cooperation we are” facade, I found it really unbearable.

    But maybe that’s because it was the first big city I lived in, and any metropolis I’d moved to would have seemed that way to me. I think NYC is so much more honest, though, about its pursuit of money and success, its ambition, the need to trample some folks to make it happen; even the art scene is open about the fact that its existence isn’t due to some divine wind but the trickle down of cash from the wealthiest members of the community.

    I find there are so many different ways to be OK in NYC — when I lived in SF I felt like there were 4-5 proscribed “types” and if you didn’t fit into those you were immediately downgraded as a human being. And as someone who isn’t easily sorted, I was forever made to feel like a pet at best and an interloper most often.

    So NYC, FTW. There are an unlimited number of roles to be played here without being judged any more harshly than the next goofball.

    (I grew up in California, and I feel like it is my place of origin, but it never feels like HOME.)

    1. Hilariously, I also agree with EVERY WORD OF THIS and it echoes huge parts of my various “I like visiting SF but could never live here” rants over the years. I still think it’s entirely true, this trip just shook loose some mysteries of the world linked to a recent epic email exchange we had best discussed over drinks. Of course, you probably already knew that.

  6. I wish to submit “starlings” as the masculine form of “starlet.” Because I can.

    (Also, I just had that horrifying realization that pescetarian eating habits theoretically preclude me from getting my annual IN-N-OUT on. Oh dear.)

  7. You just made this Californian miss the way that seaside fog and salt makes my hair wavy and crazy. Feeling how suddenly thick and bouncy my hair is when visiting (presently live in Durham, NC) is always the first reminder to me that I’m home again, even if only for a few days.

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