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