I was supposed to be out of here by now.
Here's how it was supposed to go: I would live out my teen years in my hometown of San Jose, California. Then, I would go to college in San Francisco, get a job there, and stay.
Too bad I only got the first half of that done.
When I was 14, I saw Almost Famous and became immediately convinced that I would be a music writer. I had just started getting into my own local music scene, and I had known since second grade that I was, at the very least, an above-average writer, so “music writer” seemed like the perfect marriage of my skills and interests. I didn't really know how I would make this future happen, but I quickly cobbled together what sounded like a pretty good plan: moving to San Francisco. SF was the nearest big city, and big cities make dreams come true, right? All I knew back then was that if I was gonna get myself to the masthead of Rolling Stone or Spin, I needed to leave San Jose.
San Jose is a city of just over a million, about an hour south of San Francisco. I would say “Perhaps you’ve heard of it,” but it’s very likely you haven’t—I’ve encountered scores of people, even people from the Bay Area, who only have a hazy idea of where it is.
That’s to be expected. There’s nothing wrong with it—nothing so oppressive that I should have been so eager to get out when I was a kid. But that’s just it—there’s nothing wrong with it. By textbook definition, it is a city, but that’s about where it ends. It’s aggressively suburban, perfectly comfortable, mostly milquetoast. I always judged my mom, who spent her entire life here, for seemingly never wanting to get out. It’s a fine place to be, but I never understood why anyone would want to stay.
So I got accepted to San Francisco State and moved up there to seek grittier pastures; to forcibly insert a little toughness into my entirely agreeable life. What I didn't expect, however, was that I would actually fall in love with it up there—it's beautiful, first of all, and as someone who has always had an artistic lean, it was nice to live somewhere that values creativity and culture.
But SF and I also had a toxic relationship. It was too expensive for a broke college student to make full use of. Public transportation services in my residential end of town were few and far between, and when I finally brought my car up with me, it still took 30 minutes to drive the 10 miles to work. Until a Trader Joe's opened on the next block in my last year of living there, getting groceries required either a 20-minute bus ride to a stop that dropped off on the side of a dirt hill (then lugging my groceries home on a bus), or a literal drive into the next county. I also lived close enough to the ocean that I spent what felt like half my life there scrubbing mold out of closets—and the rent I was paying on that gross little apartment could have gotten me a downtown loft in, say, Chicago.
I missed the comfort and convenience of San Jose, and even though I lived in San Francisco for five years, I never stopped feeling like a tourist. But every time I'd come back home for a spell, I'd quickly become restless with the monotony of my life in San Jose, and feel the undertow of San Francisco pulling me back up north.
The summer before my last semester of college, I ran out of money. This was 2009, and San Francisco was just beginning to play host to a new moneyed upper class that was starting to trickle in to populate the tech companies taking over downtown. This also, unfortunately, coincided with the apex of the recession. My landlords raised my rent, and I couldn’t find another place to live before my lease ran out. I had no choice but to move back into my parents’ house and commute for the next few months. I told myself it was only temporary—all I needed to do was graduate, find a job up there, and I'd be back soon.
Then, right before graduation, my mom was in a massive car accident that kick-started some debilitating symptoms of her MS that had remained dormant for decades. My parents were adamant that I “live my life,” but even still, the idea of up and leaving them at that very point in time felt monstrous. A few months after the accident, I found a temporary gig at a place 30 minutes away from San Jose. That temporary gig turned into a full-time job and six years later . . . I’m still here, settled and living in the town where I grew up.
Don’t get me wrong. Staying in your hometown is fine. I know my way around here, and my closest friends, miraculously, all circled back here after college, too. Though it’s mostly strip malls and chain restaurants, there are a few scant seedlings of a real cultural landscape, and at any given time it has just enough personality to make me feel like I live in a city. I love it because it’s where I’m from, but I don’t deny that it isn’t ideal. My friend’s sister once put it beautifully: “It’s like the smell of your own shit. You’re used to it. But to everyone else it stinks.”
I don’t loathe living here, but still, I feel like I failed.
Part of it is because I truly miss San Francisco. I miss working downtown and absorbing the lively buzz of a true metropolitan center every day. I miss the misty, moody weather. And to be honest, I kinda miss the status that came along with having a 415 area code. For all its faults, I felt like a big city was where I was supposed to be.
But more than anything else, I'm upset because I feel like my leaving the city wasn't my fault. I feel like it screwed me over; pushed me out. Though it’s true I was getting fed up with it, I was ready to wait it out for a few more years—but then, all of a sudden, I had no choice but to leave. It feels ridiculous to hate a city—an abstract entity that can’t hate you back—but whenever I hear of a friend moving to San Francisco (and especially when I see on Facebook that a girl I had beef with in high school now lives there), I secretly seethe with envy. Even now that SF’s place as a playground for the tech elite has fully cemented, and I watch people move there from all across the country, I am alternately disgusted by SF's snobbery and glad I left, while also thinking . . . that should be me.
And so I press on with life down here. I try not to think about the fact that I am one of those people who still lives in their hometown; that I am the pathetic, aimless stereotype. That I’m almost 30 and still live 10 minutes away from my dad (my mom has since passed away), and worse yet, that I still do my laundry at his place on the weekends. That I'm still in touch with a few of my high school teachers and go back to the campus every couple of years to help them out with school musicals or band competitions. That I buy my clothes at the mall.
I try to stave off the creeping sensation that I might be a complete and total loser by staying involved and active in my local music scene; the scene that started this stupid dream of leaving in the first place. I blog for a local arts nonprofit and contribute to our local weekly, and write essays about how San Jose could be a great place if people would just give it a chance, thinking that maybe if I keep writing it, it will eventually come true. But I'm hoping this will be the last thing I ever publish about it, because, as much as I respect San Jose for raising me right and as much as publications I’ve worked for love that my articles about it incite massive, heated comment threads, my goal is not to be “The Writer Who Constantly Defends Her Empirically Crappy Hometown.” I just want to write about bands, damnit. That was the plan.
I’m leaving on an international vacation in a few weeks, and I’m already practicing my standard response to locals asking me where I’m from.
Where in California?
“It’s near San Francisco.”