I Hate This Place- Part IApril 23rd, 2007
by Jordan E. Rosenfeld
SAN FRANCISCO, CA-
(Most place names have been withheld, bastardized or totally made up to protect the innocent, the addicted, the ashamed, and mostly me.)
Many writers are married to the landscapes of their youths. You can’t take the humid, race-embattled south out of many a Southerner’s writing, for instance. Writers like J.M. Coetzee and Lynn Freed’s books are set in their childhood homes of South Africa, full of jacaranda flowers, humid air and the tinge of apartheid. Even Stephen King reinvents his lush and creepy Maine, revealing how deeply infused the state is in his bones. I, however, never really thought about “my” place much, until it was time to leave it (which I did NOT do at the appropriate “leaving for college” stage).
I’ll be nice to people I don’t like, but I am one judgmental bitch about a place that just doesn’t meet my expectations. After thirty-two years of living near a certain Northern California town, for instance — let us call it “Movado” with its strip malls and pop-up homes and utter lack of integrated planning –- when I must drive through it, I feel like I’m in a scene from Poltergeist right before the pissed Native-American ghosts ravage the neighborhood. I am also not surprised that, according to recent statistics, 30 registered sex offenders call “Movado” home.
I have physical reactions to other parts of Marin County where I grew up–”Lojax”–a town beloved to me since it’s where many of my adolescent “firsts” took place, is, nonetheless a little bit of a parade of freaks and losers (forgive me, Dad); I get an inexplicable rush of excitement reminiscent of my first Pink Floyd Laser Show when I come into San Anselmo–with its chi-chi boutiques and flood woes, because I was born there (and as a teen I also hung out there with black-clad friends and listened to The Cure in Cafe Nuvo, believing this made me hip).
Once I drive south of the Golden Gate, however, the animal of my body starts sniffing the wind with a wrinkle of concern, as if I will dissolve once I hit I-280. So the fact that I’m now a year into south-bay living is still a bit unbelievable. I have NOT adapted (that discussion will be Part II).
Moving south of San Jose almost exactly 1 year ago was plan B–or more like Plan B-flat. Plan A was to drop everything for two years and move to the icy northernmost nether-plains of Montana. My husband was interviewed for a job at a hospital on a remote Native-American reservation (hint: he’s a doctor, but he can’t do a thing for your physical body). A scarcity of income and job prospects had driven us to that stench pit known as desperation, and thus to BFM.
The moment we set out by rental car from the airport in the nearest town “Name for large rush of water pouring off a cliff or hillside“, which was still two hours away from our destination, my senses shrieked with dislike at the washed-out storefronts that looked like they hadn’t changed since the fifties and jeered at the hollow-husk feeling of a town that is teetering on some kind of edge (All in favor of thriving say yea! All in favor of bare survival say yea! What’s this? You don’t care!?)
Places have moods and baggage, like people, and like people we often love them despite this. But we all have our limits. The town we were about to give up, for instance, has the mood and personality of cheerleaders high-fiving each other after the football team wins.
I loved to stroll beneath the delicate scroll-front historic buildings of downtown, or survey the strange ebb of the tidal slough that most call a river. Some might find that kind of community-oriented, clean-street living too sterile, but to me, it’s familiar and safe and I’ll take more please. (Of course, the quality of the community makes all the difference.)
The town we visited in Montana–Let’s call it “Loserville,” on the other hand, greeted us like an alcoholic relative—you know, the one you’re always slightly afraid to see, who leers over you with boozy breath and inappropriate eyes and smokes in the house even though you have asthma, and has to order greasy Chinese food out because there’s nothing in the fridge.
It was grumpy snow cold (dirty snow at that) and for the first time I understood the phrase “in the middle of nowhere.” I was temporarily won over by the miles of gorgeous open plains and the wild cloud formations–the Vegas strip of all skies–but quickly got real: you can’t make a home in the sky after all (can you?).
While I have never appreciated billboards, because I resent being sold products when I’m driving, in “Loserville,” they didn’t sell products, but served as chilling reminders: “Real Men Know Not to Abuse a Woman!” and “Remember, Methamphetamines Alter your Behavior.”
The loveliest homes stood across from mere shacks, squat little boxes that looked like temporary homes, their paint peeling, their lawns ghostly suggestions of growing things. We could have bought three of the “nice” homes in this town, while the historic Victorians in our hometown edge toward million-dollar price tags (thanks to the housing bust, the latter has probably changed).
Loserville hid its shame 100 miles from the nearest big city; I imagine it is but one of the many places in our country where the hopes of early white Americans and the traditions of the Native-Americans clashed, creating a chimera of bare survival. I make no claim to understanding the culture; I was there but four days. Yet there was no mistaking the meaning of casinos on every corner, in restaurants, and even in hotels; adults at an age of retirement working in minimum-wage fast-food joints; a white mother of four glaring disdainfully at a tall Native-American woman proudly wearing feathers and beads in the supermarket aisle. Something in my own gait was too confident, too full of privilege in comparison and people stared at me wherever I went.
A few insensitive idiots, upon hearing about my initial feelings of discomfort, urged us to reconsider. They said, “If you could just survive for a year, think of the novel you could get out of it,” or, “It would be such great material!” (Yeah–that’s my first criteria for choosing a place: “Is this enough squalor to prime the pump or what?). I don’t create purely out of suffering anymore, thank you very much. Even the temptation of great pay (that’s the gub’ment for ya) and health benefits and the knowledge that our residence would be temporary, couldn’t replace the familiar.
TO BE CONTINUED
(And a disclaimer: I realize there are plenty of beautiful, thriving parts of Montana–I’ve been to a few. This was not one of them).
Tags: Movin' to Montana - Not