I wasn’t born in California. I wasn’t born in Florida, either, even though it was, until 2002, the only place I ever remembered living, the place I would say I was from. I was born in Dallas, but only lived there maybe six months. I think the next place we moved was Albany, New York; I know that’s where we were living a few years later when my parents divorced. When I was around kindergarten age, we moved to the east coast of Florida, and in little more than a year moved to the west coast, to Tampa Bay.
I moved out to San Jose, to Silicon Valley, looking for computer work, just after the original dotcom crash. This might have been quixotic, but my technical background was all Unix, and Tampa’s businesses—enterprise back offices, military subcontractors hanging off MacDill AFB—were almost all Windows. I landed in wobbly fashion, doing (of all things) Excel work and then technical writing. Then finally, someone I was applying with for a different position actually read my résumé and realized I was a web developer.
To call my career path spotty would be charitable at best. Some years I made less in Silicon Valley than I had in Tampa, although occasionally I’ve made considerably more. When I recently passed my four-year anniversary with my current company, it made this the position I’ve held the longest since the mid-1990s.
Moving to the West Coast had been on my mind for years. I always had some reason not to, though. A job, whether or not I liked it. Not enough money in the bank to take that kind of risk. An impoverished roommate I would feel guilty about abandoning, even though I was hardly much less impoverished than he was. A mother who, after her mother passed away, had no local family in Florida besides me.
But by the time I moved out here, I had been laid off, so had no job to leave. I had some savings after that long-lasting, high-paying job. (At least, it seemed high-paying to me at the time, which it was by some measures, and the savings seemed like a lot, which I now know it was by very few measures.) I lived alone. And my mother was in a new relationship. A friendly acquaintance had a spare room in his house in San Jose and offered to withhold rent until I could find a job, so I took the leap.
When I announced I was moving to California, more than one person reacted like it was some kind of phase, something I needed to do for a few years to get out of my system. Then my wanderlust would be fulfilled, I would move back, and get on with whatever serious business I presumably couldn’t do in Cali.
But I didn’t, back then, have any intention of moving back. On one of my first interviews out here, my prospective manager asked me the ultimate interview cliché: “Where do you see yourself in five years?” Somewhat foolishly, I said, “With any luck, living in a cabin closer to Big Sur, writing.”
I got the job anyway. I never got the cabin.
Every so often, I hear that California doesn’t have seasons, just climate. To someone who grew up in a place with hot summers and snowy winters, maybe. To someone who grew up in a subtropical climate—hot summers and warm winters, differentiated mostly by storm frequency—not at all. The Bay Area moves from dry, bright summers whose highs reach into the nineties and beyond to wet, grey winters whose highs rarely reach the sixties. And it gets snow almost every year, a light dusting on the Santa Cruz and Diablo Range mountains, if only for a few days.
And yet, the climate changes across the Bay Area in a way it doesn’t in Florida. From Silicon Valley, it’s less than an hour inland to the Tri-Valley, where the Mediterranean climate takes on a touch of desert aridity and the highs are higher and lows are lower. And, it’s less than an hour to the coast, to Santa Cruz and Half Moon Bay, where moderate is the best description: the change between daily high and low is consistently about twenty degrees, and the change between summer and winter highs (and lows) is maybe about fifteen degrees.
These climates are not what I grew up with, but I adjusted to them quickly. Every year I have flown back to Florida for Christmas, and despite it being December it always feels like a sauna when I first step outside. I don’t remember that feeling growing up. Perhaps I’ll readjust to Florida as quickly as I adjusted to California, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that adaptation isn’t reversible.
I don’t have a great affection for wine, but I love wine country. Some of my favorite parts of the Bay Area—the Santa Cruz mountains, Livermore, and of course Sonoma County—are all known for wine, and they’re all beautiful, each in different ways.
I’ve picked up some things about wine since being out here, though. It’s hard not to. I’ve also learned about—and learned to love—cocktails, beer, and coffee since I’ve been out here. (I’ve been drinking coffee since I was a child, prescribed it for ADHD back when we called it “hyperactivity.” It took moving out to the Bay Area to appreciate coffee, though.) I was a nascent foodie my last few years in Florida, and that’s only grown in California.
It’s hard to pick a single cuisine that somehow defines the Bay Area. There’s good Japanese food, and Thai, and Korean, and Filipino, and lots of good Mexican. People from the northeast seem to think there’s no good Italian, but the reason wine country is wine country is Italian settlers. There’s not just good Italian, there’s great Italian.
Whenever someone asserts the Bay Area is rare in this “café culture” of terrific cocktails, beer, wine, food, coffee—cites it as a reason that they don’t want to leave, or a reason that people want to move here—it gets met with pushback, skepticism, or defensiveness. Other places have great versions of all those things, you know, they’ll say. And of course, we know. We know you’re going to be able to find a great coffee shop and a great craft brewery and a great cocktail bar and and and in nearly any metro area, often even in the smallest towns.
We also know, though, that there just aren’t that many places in the world where you can find this many in this concentration. And we also know that “how many good coffee shops do you need” is a pretty lame comeback.
As my mother got older, being closer—being able to take care of her when needed—felt more important. Her relationship, the one that gave me confidence I wouldn’t be leaving her alone if I lived on the other side of the country, had ended disastrously. In 2016, she had surgery on her carotid artery, and I didn’t go back to care for her, trusting her local friends to do so. That failure ate at me. When I look back at my journal, this is the year I find entries about me looking for my own places in Florida.
What I pictured then was a situation like I’d been in before, and like she had been with her mother: living nearby but not together. My grandmother only moved in with my mother during the last year of her life. Before that, they visited every other week, then every other week. If I lived in Tampa and my mother lived in east Hernando County, about fifty miles north, we’d live even closer to one another than she had with her mother.
Yet back then, this was abstract. I’d already attached to places here, the land, the cafés, the Pacific Ocean rather than the Gulf of Mexico—and I’d attached to people, too. Friends. A writing group. Even some coworkers; I had one of the best jobs that I’d ever had, not knowing the company wouldn’t survive the year. And an old friend I’d feinted at dating once, failed at, and stayed friends with anyway was becoming—I could say an aromantic partner, and maybe I could just say BFF. Either way, someone I’d rather be able to keep seeing regularly.
At the time, I thought it might happen in 2018, after I passed four years with my company and my 401(k) became fully vested. Instead, by 2016 the company had collapsed, and the next job I had in 2017 was short-lived and not particularly enjoyable. I might well have moved back to Florida in 2018, if I hadn’t gotten another job, this time one I did enjoy—and that paid extremely well.
So I stayed. And these last four years might well have been the best of my years here.
In 2020, my mother started pushing hard for us to move in together. I had been thinking about my schedule, not hers, and she was in her mid-70s marching toward the late 70s. Instead of pushing for me to move there, she wanted to move out here.
This wasn’t the first time the possibility had come up. In 2016, my mother had found a potential home in Gilroy, a town about thirty-five miles south of San Jose. I didn’t like the house, and liked the location even less. In retrospect, Gilroy would have been a nicer place to live than where my mother lives now, a tiny town fifty miles north of Tampa, but I didn’t recognize that back then.
By 2020, though, housing prices here had made homes even south of San Jose virtually unattainable. We looked at the outskirts of the Bay Area, in Vallejo and Concord, and in Sacramento, a city I’ve come to love over the last decade. Sacramento was more expensive than Tampa, but not by much.
But, of course, the pandemic began in 2020, and traveling back and forth house-hunting in the midst of it became unsustainable. So this, too, was put on hold. And in the two years since, housing prices in Sacramento skyrocketed.
It’s tempting to try to find one specific problem to blame for California’s housing costs: it’s restrictive zoning, it’s foreign investors, it’s NIMBYs, it’s absurd tech salaries, it’s Proposition 13. It’s not any one of those things, though. It’s all of those things.
And it’s also one other thing. People want to live here, despite the soaring costs, legendarily bad commutes (at least pre-pandemic, although traffic snarls are returning), rampant homelessness, a myriad of other strikes. It’s not just a matter of putting up with the area in exchange for great pay, if they’re getting one of those absurd tech salaries.
I’m not going to miss paying over a dollar more per gallon for gas. I won’t miss paying as much in rent share as I would pay for an entire two-bedroom apartment in Tampa. But even twenty years on, there are moments nearly every day when I’m sitting in an outside patio, or walking in a park, or even driving down an interstate through the hills on either side of the Bay and think, I am so lucky to live here.
There are other places I could have that feeling about. Other parts of California. Probably most of the Pacific Northwest. I like being near the ocean, even if I don’t visit it as much as I should. I like the moderate climate. I like hills and evergreen trees, sunny summers and grey foggy winters. I like coffee culture. I like the whole region’s mostly progressive politics.
And I can’t pretend the politics, both legislative and cultural, don’t matter. My BFF-slash-aro-partner is trans. Most of my friends are LGBTQ. So am I. Words I could use to describe myself—grey-asexual, aromantic, masculine nonbinary—feel very, very Californian. I don’t think of myself as “closeted,” just quiet. But I’m going to stay a lot quieter after the move.
A late friend of mine used to say Florida was paradise, and that he couldn’t imagine why anyone would want to live anywhere else. He and his partner—one of my oldest friends—weren’t particularly quiet or closeted. It was half-joking, suggesting I should move back, but for both of them, Florida really was, and is, paradise.
But it’s not my paradise.
And I wonder whether, as Florida’s politics shift from purple to red to proto-fascist, it’s safe for that friend there. Or my BFF, who has family in Florida.
There’s a voice in my head trying to play therapist.
Is your dismay at moving back partially because you feel like you’re returning to watch your mother die? Probably some.
But you do want to be with her in her last years. Of course.
Yet, you feel like you’re returning under duress. Why? Because it’s happened like the old line about how someone went bankrupt: first gradually, then suddenly.
Back in 2020, my flatmate for the last fifteen years started considering where he would go when I moved out, seriously looking at Portland and Seattle; for a variety of reasons, he likes the Pacific Northwest, too. My former housemates, the ones I first lived with when I moved to San Jose, now live on the outskirts of Portland.
When I went back to Florida for Christmas in 2021, somehow my moving back in July of this year, now, was treated as a fait accompli by my mother. I don’t remember committing to that during the year, nor do I see any journal entries about having done so—when they touch on moving back, they’re mostly concerns about personal space—yet I don’t remember not committing. Does that make sense? I left that Christmas trip with the feeling of, “So, I guess it’s happening now, then,” not the feeling of, “I am deciding that it is happening now.” At the same time, my flatmate found what seems to be his dream loft in Olympia, and put a deposit down on it before I’d gotten back to California.
So then it definitely was happening. I mean, if I’d said “No, I’m not ready, and I’m not moving,” he could have gotten his deposit back, but it felt like the quantum states were collapsing.
Your mother asked you to make sure that you had no reservations about moving in with her, but you clearly have them. What was I going to say? When I re-read what she wrote in March 2020, it isn’t the ultimatum it became in my head, but the subtext of “if you say no, I have to make plans to move into a group home” still comes through.
And besides, at the end of the day, it’s not moving in with her that’s the issue. It’s leaving California.
So why not stick with her moving out here? I don’t know. Scared of the economics. Scared of the recent wildfires and their air quality issues, which mom was extremely put off by—for an asthmatic not too far from turning 80, not without reason. Feeling like somehow this was the path of least resistance.
Maybe you need a real therapist. Maybe.
Four days ago, junk haulers came to my apartment and took away furniture I’m not moving with; two days ago, movers came and took away nearly everything else, and I moved into a hotel in San Jose to live out the rest of the week, wrap things up, say goodbyes. My flat now has nothing in it but abandoned cleaning and packing supplies, and some flotsam and jetsam I haven’t disposed of yet. A dish rack. Three pillows.
Two days from now, a Sunday, I’ll set off on a cross-country road trip. Sunday night will be spent just outside Palm Springs, on a day when the predicted high hits a balmy 115 °F (46 °C). On Monday, I leave California behind to drive to Tucson, Arizona. I’ll be following I-10, more or less; after Tucson I stop in Van Horn, Texas, then Austin, then New Orleans. From there, I could make the trip all the way to my mother’s house—my house—in a day, but I might stop somewhere around Tallahassee. I’m not sure yet.
I’ve joked about retiring and opening a tiki bar somewhere around Tampa Bay, which has a surprising dearth of real ones, serving the complex rum cocktails invented by Trader Vic’s, Don the Beachcomber’s, and other mid-century bartenders. Even though I don’t think I’m serious, I’ve thought enough about it to think what I would (and wouldn’t) do: focus on drink quality, lean on beach culture and the Caribbean for theming rather than Polynesia, try to sidestep the “white dudes do the exotic Orient” issues endemic to tiki.
Yet, at least now, as I sit outside a brewery in Santa Cruz, it’s hard not to daydream of moving back even though I haven’t left yet. I don’t know if I’ll be able to afford moving back to the Bay Area on my own after I leave, unless I get another flatmate. But I don’t have to, necessarily. There’s Sacramento. Or Santa Rosa, the most affordable North Bay City. I could even go up the California coast toward Eureka, which is beautiful but maybe too secluded for me. And there’s always Portland or Seattle or Eugene, the whole Pacific Northwest.
I have faith I’ll find things I like in Florida: friends, old and new; rediscovering old places that survived all this time; finding interesting new places. If I’m honest, I’ve been scouting over the last few years on my return holiday trips, finding breweries and coffee shops and restaurants and, yes, even a tiki bar, although it’s seventy miles away in St. Petersburg. (St. Pete is perhaps the most interesting city in Tampa Bay these days, manifestly not the case when I lived in that Tampa suburb a quarter-century ago.)
But one day, I’ll return. For all the quirks, all the expenses, all the travails I’ve been through these past twenty years, this is my paradise.