We Don’t Have to Live Like This: A “Leaving the Bay Area” Essay


Whenever someone asks me why I’m leaving the Bay Area, I always have trouble explaining myself, but at least once a day I say out loud to no one else, “I have got to fucking get out of here.”

To be fair, I lived in Berkeley for two years and Oakland for one. I went to school in Daly City and worked in West Portal. You can talk to me all day long about Berkeley’s rich history, about how many people work hard every day through community outreach and equitable business practices and public art to try to make Oakland less of an actual war zone, or about Oakland’s genuinely great punk rock scene, or West Portal’s genuinely great Walgreens, but let’s face it: I spent most of my time in places most San Franciscans never go, and that they never feel like they are missing out on. So I’ll give you that.

Also, a lot of my wanting to leave is for subjective reasons. It’s taken some time, but I’ve realized I don’t like the weather here. I know, I know. I just happen to like thunderstorms and snow and hot summers, hot nights. I don’t like for it to always be chilly, but with the sun in my eyes. I’m not crazy about fog, either. I don’t want to walk around with a sweater in my arms, which is something everybody always suggests for me to do, but which I never actually see anybody doing. All the beautiful flowers and plants and trees and weeds make me sneeze and get short of breath. A common sentiment is “We’re so lucky to live here.” But consider also that you are lucky to like living here.

Many Californians look at me with shock when I say this, but those people have never tried to acclimate to a different environment. They maybe have people in New York, and have spent some months in Europe. But a weird thing about almost all San Franciscans is that they either grew up here (or in Sacramento or San Jose or someplace very close) or they escaped from a small town where they were bullied—sometimes bullied for being a person of color or for being gay, but also sometimes just bullied for being beyond fucking insufferable. Many of the friends I made here had spent substantial time in other cities—Chicago, Portland, LA, Atlanta, Dublin—but most of the friends I’ve made here are people who also don’t fit in. And the dichotomy of grew up here or escaped from a fucked-up small town applies to some good people here, but it also applies to everyone here who’s awful. The problem is that so many Bay Area people like to brag about being so cultured, thinking globally, and so forth, but they have no real perspective on how the rest of America or the world lives. Make a whole major city and surrounding cities and suburbs up out of people like that, and of course the general viewpoint coming from that area will be irrelevant and smug.

One of a million examples: I was at brunch with some friends, and a couple of their friends joined. The woman looks just like Jaime Pressly, but with more tattoos, and the man—who grew up here—is a normal skinny dude, if you want to picture them. The man told a hi-larious story about her father wanting to go—get this—hunting with him. Like with guns! “Hey, uh, you wanna go huntin’?” the man said, impersonating his girlfriend’s father in front of us. He repeated it, like this father’s attempt at bonding with his daughter’s boyfriend was just the silliest fucking thing in the world. In general, just saying, “Freedom” and “’Murrica” in a George W. Bush-ish accent is a lazy punchline you hear a lot here in casual conversation. It could just be that most people anywhere are not funny, but there’s a certain toxicity and shrill classism to this kind of thing specifically that I’m ready to leave behind.

And don’t get them started on religion, by the way. Nobody misses a chance to tell you how much they hate religion and don’t believe in it. Wow, what an original, interesting, nuanced view, guys. Come on. You’re in a big city now, your old pastor can’t hear you spout that stuff from the Internet; you’re not impressing anyone. I’m not really religious but I think theology and ethics are interesting, and I think the language and imagery of the King James Bible are fascinating, but the way so many people here dismiss “religious people” in general is about as cool of a posture as skateboarding over 69 boxes of cigarettes (so I mean, actually very cool and good. Wow, I’m just imagining how cool that would be. Forget everything I said before. Man.)

Look, if you’re an atheist, that’s great, I just hate when people talk about “those religious idiots.” It’s every bit as small-minded as the people they’re trying to criticize.

Salinger said, “happiness is a solid and joy a liquid.” I think people in the Bay Area are, in general, very happy, but there is a distinct lack of mirth and joy here. This is an extreme example of the kind of Tiny-Town-from-Footloose bullshit I’m thinking of (mixed with the same police brutality and racism you see everywhere, that is.)

Like, the song “Happy” by Pharrell is, of course, happy. “[untitled],” off In the Aeroplane Over the Sea by Neutral Milk Hotel is joyful. Bob Ross’s paintings are happy; Norman Rockwell’s are mirthful. Drinking white wine and eating oysters on the beach and there are dogs running around? Happy. Giggling at some pompous douchebag’s commencement speech and almost getting caught? Joyful. Happiness is close to contentment and complacence. Joy and mirth maybe only come as respite from suffering. Both are good. Why be mad at any of them? Some Bay Area people just have such a solemn, dead-eyed, bragging-based complacence to them, which often compels them to yell at me or my friends to put down our phones and live in the moment, or be sincere, why do you have to speak in ironic jokes like that all the time? I don’t know, what fucking business is it of yours?

Also, people walk super slow here. It’s not me being an East Coast asshole. It’s motherfuckers sauntering around in a beautiful reverie of self-absorption. Then you try to speed up or get around them and oh, the glares you get for daring to be in their space! People just don’t do that in other places.

Similarly, the way y’all drive.

Also, the way people talk about the use of the contraction “y’all” as a sign of stupidity. “Y’all” is a regional, informal plural form of “you,” for which there is no non-regional equivalent in the English language. Enforcing “proper” language doesn’t make you smart; it makes you an Imperialist.

But look: my answers to why I’m leaving can’t be “the weather” or “the people.” Or else how could I have met so many amazing people in my time here, or strolled about on so many nice days, such as the day I’m writing this? So I always end up just saying, “Time for a change.” Which is also true.

If you’re my friend, I’m sure you get what I’m saying on some level. And I’ll miss you and I’ll be back around sometimes and I hope you come visit me. I’ll miss you, and I’ll miss my family here, and The Booksmith in the Haight and Write Club SF, and every reading that was ever nice enough to have me. I’ll miss the avocados and the jicama and the pupusas and the succulents.

But if you’re the kind of person who constantly brags about how cultured you are but who demonizes people of faith and people who use a certain vernacular who you’ve never encountered in real life, or if you walk slowly and drive shittily without consideration for others, but then yell at other people around you for having a good time, hey, maybe cut that out? This place could be so much better if you let it.

Stay tuned one year from now for my “Why I’ve Had Enough of New York” essay, probably.


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16 thoughts on “We Don’t Have to Live Like This: A “Leaving the Bay Area” Essay

  1. lauren gallagher (@snickersnacked) · Edit

    Hey Nate, you copied me. Let me know when you get to the big NYC. I have only been here a month but can say that you’ve made the right decision.

  2. i moved to ny almost two years ago and i’ve always had so much trouble explaining this exact perspective to people. THANK YOU!

  3. You missed a few things that drive me crazy about SF
    1. The discrimination against bridge, tunnel and train people (outsiders)
    2. The worship of dogs over people, even kids
    3. Expressing care for the homeless, but then running from a beggar
    4. Foodies in all their staunch snooty glory.
    5. Passivity. Stop making me guess what you want. Just say it.

  4. Oh dear. Having lived in both the bay area and New York, I can tell you that these are all just city problems. Everything you’re complaining about is so much worse in Brooklyn. But that’s a discovery you’ll make for yourself, I suppose. Good luck.

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  8. Hmm… so you seem to dislike unconscious holierthanthou types and you’ve found there’s a lot of them in the bay area. I agree! Unfortunately, while the holierthanthou factor will be lower in other places, the unconscious factor is way higher in other places too.

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