I didn’t fly on an airplane until I was 18 years old. At 22, I had been out of the Pacific Time Zone only once in my life. Then I started making up for lost time. In the past nine years, I’ve spent time in Oregon, Maryland, DC, New York, Michigan, Illinois, Costa Rica, Washington, Canada, Louisiana, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, North Carolina, Minnesota, Spain, Mexico, Peru, and Kentucky. Some of these are global tourist destinations, some are perhaps unlikely places to travel to from California, but I’ll go anywhere. Ask me to drive with you to a strip mall in an exurb, and I’ll probably say yes. Just to look out a window in motion, no matter the view, is enough.
This month, I finally went to Ohio, the state I did my state report on in third grade. The books we used for our reports made each state seem full of sunshine and roses or, in Ohio’s case, snake mounds and buckeyes. After I grew up, I met tons of people from Ohio in the Bay Area, which confused me until I realized Ohio is a place people leave. A lot of people, anyway.
I went to Cleveland for teacher professional development at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame + Museum (which was awesome, by the way). I didn’t know much about Cleveland other than its nickname “the mistake by the lake,” that it has the highest migration-out-of after Detroit and Flint, and is America’s 17th “most miserable” city according to Forbes (what is the point of making a list like that? Who benefits?). The Ariel Castro kidnapping story broke the week I booked my flight, and apparently, another serial killer was on the loose while I was there. I wasn’t expecting much, but I was curious. I live in a city that is frequently portrayed as violent and dysfunctional, so I know that is never the whole story.
In top Southwest Airlines form, the flight attendant tried to lead passengers in a chant (“When I say O-H, you say…”) when we landed. I stayed at the Cleveland Hostel in the Ohio City neighborhood and was pleased to find the Red Line would take me right there. What surprised me, though, was how the train runs through a weedy kind of ravine below the city, and when I got off, no one was at the station or on the street above it in a supposedly hip neighborhood on a Sunday afternoon. I felt both conspicuous and ignored as a pedestrian walking two miles to the Rock Hall every day. Conspicuous in the sense of being an odd sight, like people were thinking, “Why is that girl walking across the bridge?” (an office worker downtown did, in fact, stop me one morning and ask something along those lines); ignored in the sense that no one ever stopped to let me cross the street. The Bay Area has a very aggressive pedestrian culture; it is relatively common here for pedestrians to glare, cuss, and bang a fist on your car if they perceive you to have dissed them or be in their way. At home, I slowly walk out into the street and stare down cars until they stop. This didn’t work in Cleveland; I felt invisible. It was a different culture.
This wasn’t my first time in the Rust Belt, but Cleveland looked rustier, literally, than anywhere I’ve been. It also seemed to have all the worst kinds of weather all at once (hot, humid, overcast, rainy, windy). It is not, in other words, the kind of city anyone would fall in love with at first sight, though in my week there, I came to this conclusion: it’s not that bad. Maybe it was the good food I ate at places like the Westside Market and the Flying Fig or the urban farm I walked by every morning that grows food for nearby restaurants. Maybe it was the magical experience of seeing a Rock Hall librarian play in a Gram Parsons tribute band at a bar that serves hot dogs and tater tots with your choice of 50 different toppings, including fruit loops and peanut butter. Maybe it was the defiant civic pride I sensed in some residents (not as prevalent as “I hella ♥ Oakland” t-shirts but still there). My first day in Cleveland, I stumbled on this blog post by a woman who has to justify her move to the city, and one night, I met a woman at a show who asked me to tell everyone in San Francisco what great lives people have there–big, beautiful houses for cheap, great food, genuine friends. The Ohioans I’ve met in the Bay Area, however, seem to think of Cleveland as irredeemably unappealing, and that has me thinking about geographic identity, about people’s relationships with their hometowns–who leaves, who stays, and why, and if leaving or staying isn’t inspired by the nature of a place so much as the nature of an individual.
Memorial Day weekend was my tenth anniversary of living in the Bay Area, a metropolis of transplants, though as a native Californian, I think I’m more like a skin graft. My hometown in Southern California inspired a soap opera and has a decent public school system thanks to Oprah’s property taxes, yet I hate it as much as any ex-Clevelander I know hates Cleveland. My own wanderlust was borne out of feeling, as an adolescent, trapped in someone else’s idea of what paradise is supposed to be like. As an adult, I’m aware that I’m from a place where everyone wants to go (I’m speaking of California in general here), but I’m unsure of how it has shaped my identity and what, if any, responsibilities are owed on that privilege. At the Rock Hall, I met a teacher from a small town in Illinois who asked me if the following stereotypes about California were true: everyone looks like Barbie (no, but in LA there is a grain of truth to that); everyone’s liberal (if you’re liberal in the Bay Area, your politics will never be challenged, but turn on the car radio while driving through the Central Valley and you’ll hear broadcasts that sound straight from the Bible Belt); it never rains (there were a few days in high school when school got canceled because of rain, seriously, and it rains a lot in the Bay Area during winter).
I didn’t choose California; it was given to me. But it sometimes feels like a gift with hidden costs. My parents, also born here, were basically forced out in their 50s because they wanted to buy a house. The rent for my studio apartment is more than their monthly mortgage and property tax payments combined for a three-bedroom house in Oregon. I can’t help but worry I’m on the same trajectory–building a life in a place I should have a birthright to but is unsustainable. When that woman in Cleveland boasted of the life she has in her hometown, I felt a glimmer of envy for a life I’ve never known and that might be pure fantasy. My teacher salary could be up to $20,000 less somewhere else. Doesn’t that make moving a wash, financially? I think about if I have children, what I want their hometown to be like and if that even matters when, in all likelihood, they’ll want to leave. I fantasize about living where I feel a sense of community, like I’m part of a strong network of like-minded people bonded together by shared space and activity (there are too many like-minded people and too many things to do in the Bay Area for those ties to bind most of the time). But maybe I don’t have what it takes to build that, maybe I’m too introverted. It’s like, wherever you go, there you are. The teacher from Illinois gave me some advice she gives her students. She said the ones that leave their small town for a reason, because they’re working toward something, don’t come back, but the ones who leave just to get away, are always pulled back sooner rather than later. I won’t leave unless I have something or someone to move for.
Downtown Cleveland from the roof of the Cleveland Hostel:
Cleveland is glad you’re here; you, however, are not so sure:
The New Soft Shoe performs at the Happy Dog:
The first week of summer, I took a writing workshop for teachers and worked on a piece about a trip I took to Joshua Tree two years ago. The second-to-last day of the workshop, I got food poisoning and spent the night throwing up, so I didn’t get to finish my piece, which I started right after I got back from that trip. I never have been able to get Joshua Tree out of my head, and I am still trying to finish my piece. It starts like this:
I almost didn’t want to go to the museum. I thought about the nine-hour drive home and how when I went to sleep that night, I’d still feel in motion, like I was driving through my dreams. We read about it in a magazine at the house we rented and decided to stop by on our way out of town.
Everywhere in the desert seems far away from everywhere else in the desert; it’s hard to find your way, even though Joshua Tree, the town, is more or less a grid. We didn’t get lost exactly, but it’s hard to track city blocks that don’t look like blocks. The parcels looked more like campsites with address numbers marking clearings in the sand.
We found the museum and parked across the street. There was a big welcome sign made out of tires, but the letters W-E-L-C-O-M-E were partially jumbled and there were two W’s and two L’s. A newspaper dispenser offered us rudimentary maps and brochures proclaiming Noah Purifoy’s assemblage sculptures “a critical and pubic [sic] success.” We were the only pubic there; it was a self-guided tour.
I said, “…”
He said, “…”
My companion and I went off in different directions. We had a lot to say, just not to each other. For the next hour, I only heard strains of his voice on the phone carried by the wind, fabric whipping around in it, the swish of sand and clatter of wood planks under my feet, a dog barking. The air smelled vaguely, subtly like herbs. It was late March and though the sun looked blazing, it was only almost warm enough. Everything in the desert looked hot–the glittery sand floor, the pointy leaves on the Joshua trees, the few wispy clouds in the sky–but the heat was a mirage. I couldn’t take my hoodie off, but if I stood still in the sun for too long I couldn’t leave it on.
I had to talk him into coming on this trip in the first place. He said the space-like vastness of the desert scared him and nothing was meant to live there. I hate space and knew he was right–I can’t imagine living in a place I couldn’t grasp or grow vegetables in–but for some reason, the desert didn’t scare me, maybe because the lawns of my elementary schools couldn’t be watered in drought years, which were all the years. It got so bad there was talk of trying to desalinate seawater. So chaparral, the color orange, and sand make sense to me, but when I’m in the desert, I can’t stop looking for the ocean.
It’s said writing is thinking, and I want to write about the desert to figure out what I think about it. I don’t remember what I thought about as I wandered in and out of, under and through Purifoy’s sculptures that day, down labyrinthine outdoor hallways of corrugated tin, under old clothes and mannequin heads hanging from low ceilings, inside a gazebo made of electronics parts, past stacked bundles of weathered newspaper, a Newton’s Cradle of bowling balls:
It seems to me now that the desert felt motionless but also moved by something other than wind. Heat moves things imperceptibly, the way glass is a liquid; it just moves so slowly you can’t see. The desert, the sculptures, the whole museum, my life are like this, moving invisibly, like those revolving restaurants I’ve never been to but in which I imagine suddenly looking up from my salmon and seeing a different view. Like the movement of a relationship and how in hindsight you think you can pinpoint when you knew it would or wouldn’t work, but that motion is actually perpetual and gradual.
The day we arrived in Joshua Tree, we visited The Integratron and had a sound bath from a blonde woman named Joanne who wore black-and-white striped arm warmers and rang Tibetan singing bowls while we lay on our backs on the floor of the dome. When the ringing stopped, I didn’t know how much time had passed or if I had been asleep. I wonder if the desert’s space-like vastness is not really a perception of space but of time and movement? If what makes people uncomfortable or enthralled is that its seeming stillness makes you aware of your own constant, imperceptible motion, what your heart feels like beating, your mood as it changes.