20 September 2007

Goodbye, California

I haven't really lived here in ten years, but I've always kept this small room, more of a storeroom than a living space, really, but it's still provided me with a base in Berkeley, something I'm now on the verge of finally giving up.

Considering all the awful things I've said about Berkeley in recent years, people could hardly be blamed for wondering why I'd want to maintain any ties to the place, but my reasons were twofold: most of my family is located nearby, and I had way too many things - the accumulated possessions of a California existence that dates back to 1968 - to consider shipping them over to England during the years I was living there. Most of the stuff has mainly sentimental value, but it's value nonetheless, even if it wasn't quite enough to convince me to lay out the thousands it would have cost to bring everything to London.

But now that I've got a new home base in Brooklyn, the time has come to pack up all these memories and move them out to the Right Coast. I flew out here on Monday night, not expecting any great drama to arise around this; if anything, I was annoyed at having to leave New York for a couple weeks at one of my favorite times of year. But as the plane crossed into California airspace, I was seized with sudden spasms of regret and fear: was I doing the right thing after all? Was California really as bad as I'd made it out to be? It certainly didn't look that way from 30,000 feet, with the lights of the cities splayed across the darkened land like so many jewels on velvet (sorry, I know it's a cliché, but it really does look like that).

It became painfully apparent that I couldn't casually cut my ties to the place where I'd had some kind of home or connection for nearly 40 years and not expect to deal with some rather intense feelings. I remembered how I first came here, young, scared, dead broke and wanted by the law, and immediately felt safe and at home. I recognized that despite my best efforts to screw things up, California had been very good to me, providing me with the opportunity to make my fortune and pursue my dreams. Basically, my life had been pretty crap before I got to California, and while there were plenty of crap intervals afterward as well, most of them were of my own making.

For the first day I even toyed with the idea of abandoning this whole Brooklyn thing, settling back into my little room in downtown Berkeley, and living here in quiet obscurity for the rest of my life. I could certainly afford it; the rent here is ridiculously low, with all utilities, even high-speed internet, thrown in. It might not be much of a life, granted; we're talking about a 9'x12' room that's so cramped I have to sleep in a loft up near the ceiling and can reach almost everything without getting out of my single chair. And not much light gets in through the windows, the stairways and common areas haven't been decorated (or, it sometimes seems, cleaned) since the 1970s, and the house in general is a classic example of Berkeley's rent control turning what might be a perfectly normal house into a time capsule hippie hovel.

Still, it's been a comfortable place to hang out, or perhaps more accurately, hide out from the world. I first took this room when my original Berkeley room, a bit larger and in the house next door, was devoured by the monster that became Lookout Records. I and two employees/partners ran the label out of that slightly larger room until the Green Day explosion of 1994-95, when the number of employees expanded to the point where there was no longer room for me to sleep there. When I got this new room in January of 1994, I grabbed a handful of blankets, took them next door and threw them on the floor, followed by myself, and slept for something like 29 hours.

Now, in two or three days if everything goes to plan, I'll be loading the last of this room's contents into a truck and setting off across the country. Normally I'd be looking forward to a transcontinental drive, but I'm kind of already dreading what it will feel like to wave goodbye to California for the last time.

Well, not necessarily the last time; I can always come back, I keep telling myself, if things don't work out in New York. And of course I'll still visit family and friends here as often as possible. But not having a specific place to come back to is going to make that a very different experience. Once upon a time, I would have thought nothing about moving thousands of miles away - in 1970 alone I did it three or four times - but perhaps I'm finally getting too old for this sort of shenanigans.

I try reminding myself that even if I were to stay in California, I wouldn't want to keep living in this room or this neighborhood. Downtown Berkeley was no prize when I first moved here (next door, into what would become the Lookout office) in 1990, and it's been going downhill ever since. Even if there were anywhere to go at night, I no longer feel all that safe on the streets, and the crime stats - almost double the rate of street crime compared with New York City - would seem to indicate I'm not just being paranoid. Today's Berkeley Daily Planet had a story about how a gunman strolled into a cafe directly across the street from the UC campus and robbed six students of their laptops; in New York I've grown used to seeing people sitting out on the sidewalks at two in the morning typing away on their computers without a care in the world.

So I guess I'm going to go, and if my recent experience in leaving other places - specifically Laytonville and London - is any indication, it'll be fine, and you won't catch me looking back or turning into a pillar of salt. But right at this moment, surrounded by the wreckage and detritus of my past waiting to be put into boxes and be carted off to a new home, I'm feeling just a teensy bit anxious. Give me a couple days, though, and I should be cruising up over the Sierra Nevada singing, in the words of Joe King, goodbye, California, it's really been nice, and getting ready for the rest of my life to begin.


Restless Native said...

The current false lull of security in Brooklyn is just that, as street crime rises again, slowly but steadily.

Now that the middle class is on its way out, there's increasingly no buffer left between those with money and those without in this city, and the effect is being felt more and more every day.

Larry Livermore said...

I've heard rumors about increasing street crime in Brooklyn, though the police stats don't show it, and a friend of mine was attacked and robbed at Graham and Jackson a few weeks ago (big difference from Oakland or Berkeley, though: the police actually investigated and arrested the perpetrators).

Where I'd take issue, though, is with the idea that "the middle class is on its way out." The old middle class, maybe, but what socio-economic class do you think most of the new arrivals, including the hipsters, come from?

I'd also argue that most street crime is not about having money or not having money; it's much more an issue of power and, more often than not, race. If anything is responsible for the streets feeling or being less safe, it's that the police have been slacking off a bit from the old zero tolerance days. I've seen people jumping subway turnstiles again, drinking on the trains, the kind of stuff that had almost disappeared under Giuliani. It's only a matter of time before some low-lifes start thinking, "Hey, nobody's stopping me from doing this little shit, who's going to stop me if I do a few jackings?"

restless native said...

I'm not quite sure what class (or planet, for that matter) the hipsters are coming from, but I do know that money does not seem to be much of a concern for them as they appear to have no trouble funding their apartments, drinking binges, and tapered jeans (without appearing to hold down any 'real' jobs). There are obviously deep pockets behind their worry-free lifestyles, and I'm guessing not their own.

I think the types of crimes we're seeing more and more of now, i.e. yuppies getting bashed over the heads for ipods, violent muggings, even a recent home invasion robbery in Park Slope, are what happens when one group sits and watches while another flaunts off its money.

But I see where the racial element is visible though; growing up in Brooklyn not too long ago, it was not unusual to see a white perp being sought by the cops for a street crime. Fast forward to 2007 NYC, it is virtually guaranteed that anyone committing a violent street crime in this city is black.