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emily speck

o, california

miles de rosa

Part I: As Antagonist 

        A few months ago, I got into an Uber in Pittsburgh, about four hours from where I now go to school in central Pennsylvania. The driver wore a Blue Lives Matter gaiter, pulled up above his nose. He had a short, thin layer of hair encircling a shiny bald spot atop his head. 

         I was with a few friends. They piled into the backseat while I slid into the front. The man asked me where I was from.  

        “California, Bay Area. How about you?” I replied. Usually, when talking to older men from Pennsylvania—men I usually disagree with about a lot of things—I try to keep the conversation to sports. He pivoted to California before I could get off any cracks about Ben Roethlisberger’s aging arm or the Steeler’s porous offensive line. 

        “Lived here my whole life,” the man said. “What do you think of California?”  

        “I love it,” I replied. “But it’s getting to be a harder place to live. I won’t be able to live there after I’m done with school. Won’t be able to afford it.”  

        This tends to be what people want to hear. They want to hear about the Golden State being not so golden anymore. This seems to make people happy.   

        “Well, you know why?” the man said. He didn’t wait for me to reply. “It’s because of those high taxes that the democrats keep shoving down everyone’s throats.”    

        I expect this. This is a common take. Taxes are too high. Working people struggle. Democrats are to blame. He wasn’t entirely wrong. The real issue with the tax rate in California, though, is who gets taxed and why. I didn’t say that at the time, just nodded and switched the conversation to the San Francisco Giants and the Cinderella-season that had just ended.  

        What I’ve learned since moving out of California, especially to a very right-wing area in rural Pennsylvania, is that everyone has an opinion. Everyone has something to say.  

***

        I left California after high school and moved to a town called Selinsgrove to pursue Creative Writing. Selinsgrove sits in the heart of Pennsylvania, deep in a former American heartland, surrounded by mono-cultured farmland and abandoned factories. There are types of people here I don’t recognize, and I often feel like I’m being watched, being noticed as an outsider. I have never been sure if this is true. Ever since I moved here, I have become an increasingly paranoid person.   

        There are very few small businesses in Selinsgrove and the neighboring towns. There is a two-block main street that holds a pizza parlor, an antique bookstore, a thrift shop run by two crotchety old women, a hot dog grill, a beer depot, a fancy Italian restaurant, and an oyster bar. Outside of that is a three mile long row of national chains, lining a parkway referred to as “the strip”. Immediately on the right is a Sheetz, then a massive Walmart. It goes on like this—Giant Foods, Target, McDonalds, Wendy’s—for a long ways. It is as close to a military parade as corporatism will ever get.  

        “It didn’t used to be like this,” my friend Gabby said to me once. We were driving along the strip. I was staring out the window and pointing at the pastel pink colors in the sky, the trees up on the distant hillsides, and remarking about how sad it was that almost none of this was public land. There is so much beauty in Pennsylvania that no one is allowed to enjoy.  

        “What did it used to be like?”  

        “This whole strip used to be small businesses, like local restaurants and shops and stuff,” she paused. “My grandparents used to come up here all the time. They’ve told me stories. My grandma almost choked to death on a burger at a local diner over there.” She pointed out the window to what was now a Kia Dealership.  

        Gabby grew up in East Stroudsburg, a small town in the Pocono Mountains. I have never been but from what she has told me, it is one of the many places in our country where vacation homes sit next to empty properties, dilapidated craftsmen, and tent residencies. When I asked her what she thought of California before she met me, she said, “Celebrities, rich people, surfing.”    

        I’m not rich and I don’t know how to surf. The water is cold in the Bay Area and all along the north coast. The waves are small, more like ripples in the water than Mavericks. The fog rolls in early off the bay. When it does get hot, it waits until noon for the fog to burn off.   

        I think some people see California as a 12,000-mile party drenched in light and opulence and celebrity. It is something to aspire to. Something to shoot for. They see it as a lifestyle that never stops moving, consuming all that get too close, a place to live a lifestyle that isn’t attainable anywhere else. Others see it as over-priced. Full of itself. Not worth it. A place where liberals get to be liberals and revel in their stupidity. Some people, when I tell them I’m from California say, “Why would you ever leave?” Others ask me why I’d ever want to go back.  

Part Two: As Symbol 

“California, I’m coming home/Oh, will you take me as I am?” – Joni Mitchell, “California,” released in 1971.  

        I truly fell in love with California when I knew I was going to leave it. When I got my acceptance letter from Susquehanna University, a letter that outlined details of a lucrative scholarship (for which I am very grateful) my heart sank. I knew I would have to take it. Financially, it didn’t make sense for me to go anywhere else. But it meant leaving a place that had meant so much to me, a place I felt inextricably tied to.  

        For the next ten months I did everything I could to soak up California. My girlfriend and I would leave school in the middle of the day to go sit in the sun by Lake Merit and stare at the skyscrapers reflected in the shimmering water. We would take walks around downtown Oakland to look at the colorful street art plastered on every open wall or building gate in the city. I demanded we eat as much food as we could: tacos and burritos from the taqueria around the corner from my house, Tikki Masala burritos at the fusion place around the corner from my school, sushi burritos from the hole-in-the-wall shop in Berkeley, hot dogs from famous east-bay hot dog joint Top Dog. Anything I knew I wouldn’t be able to get in rural Pennsylvania.  

        Most of the time though, my process of grieving California was just sitting. It was feeling the sun. It was listening to the sound of the cars go by or studying the sharp way the light bounced from the windows. It was the corner store a block down from my house. It was all the little spots—the small nook where the trees cleared on the hill behind Lake Merit, the creek aside the Oxford green in Berkeley, the concrete steps outside of the ice rink, always littered with tobacco and old blunt raps—that me and my friends had gone to find small moments of privacy in such a big place with so many people.  

        By then these places had already begun to change. The train station in Berkeley had been ripped up and redone completely. New buildings lined the skyline. My favorite ice cream shop, where scoops started at a buck fifty, had closed. I fell in love with California because I was a very small fish in a very big, very beautiful pond. I got to spend the first eighteen years of my life watching it move, and breathe, and change—not always for the better—and I knew once I left, it would never feel the same again. 

***

        In the late sixties and early seventies, California—San Francisco particularly—served as the cultural epicenter of the hippy movement. People at the time wrote and talked about it as a place of salvation, a place where people could go to escape nationalistic Americanism that had gripped the rest of the country in the face of the Vietnam War. It is a heavily romanticized time in California’s history. Much of the beauty of the hippy movement—the message that peace and love were paramount to human happiness, and that the meaning of life was just to enjoy one’s existence—was marred by unseen abuse and exploitation, particularly of young women. A culture of reckless drug use also developed. People were using frequently, and without discrimination or proper understanding of the substances they consumed.  

        Still, the romanticism of that period has never fully eroded and I’m not sure the perception of the state in that period has either. During that period, it seemed like people viewed California as a place to go to escape the endless hustle, the constant working to build an imaginary future. Looking back at that time as someone who wasn’t there, culturally, symbolically, it had become a place where people could just be.  

        I feel that the largest part of this culture that has persisted most prevalently in the public’s perception of California is the idea that it is a free-spirited place, for free spirited people, and that there isn’t as much pressure to conform to national norms as there is in the rest of the country. This I think remains true. Californians value individuality more than common ground, they generally respect those who live their lives in opposition to the status quote. But the way in which people push back against the norm is changing.  

        The hippy movement in California is associated with a degree of vagabondage. Accounts of that time portray people sleeping on an ever-rotating array of couches, working odd jobs to find money in between the proverbial couch cushions, and doing whatever they could to support themselves without sacrificing their newfound liberation. People lived in a very day-to-day way. Their form of revolution was pushing back against the endless, ever-fastening pursuit of capital. They were chasing something different. The hippies chased peace, they chased love; in their own flawed way they chased enlightenment.  

        This lifestyle has been expunged entirely from the region. It is no longer possible to survive in California without a steady stream of income or substantial financial support. Most young people who live near Los Angeles or San Francisco scrape by, squeezing in extra hours outside of work driving for Uber or monetizing one of their hobbies. This likely will be the way I have to survive if I plan to move back to California after graduation: juggling multiple, under-paying jobs in service of living in a place I love, a place I’m not ready to let go of yet.  

***

        I have known for a long time that it is my mom’s plan to move after I graduate from college. Her mom Jane is getting older, and the pandemic has aged her some. The lines on her face have grown deeper. When she visits, she cries more often than she used to. She has begun to feel the distance from family the pandemic has caused us all to reconcile with, and my mom wants to close that gap a bit. This is one reason for the move. The other is money. 

        “If I stay here, I won’t be able to retire until I’m eighty,” she told me. We were in the car.  

        We were driving up to Oregon to visit my grandma. “Yea,” I said. “I’m not surprised.”  

        “But if I sell the house, I might be able to make enough from it to buy something small, outright in Oregon,” My mom doesn’t look at me when she’s telling me something she knows I might not want to hear. She kept her eyes trained on the road. Her hand wrapped tightly around the steering wheel, dead grass and dry shrubs blow by outside the window. “I’d be able to retire, be closer to my mom.”  

        “Sounds like a good plan,” I said.  

        “Are you okay with that? Me leaving?” Her voice softened. She squirmed a bit in the driver’s seat and glanced at me. I think part of her knew this wasn’t entirely a fair question. 

        “Yea, you should do what you think is best,” I said. My stomach turned over. There was nothing else I could say.  

        My girlfriend lives in Los Angeles. She is a year behind me in school. I would like to be able to live at least within the same state lines as her in the next chapter of our lives, and the idea that I would have no place to do that if I am unable to find a high enough paying job to make it on my own terrifies me. The state was pushing my parents out. It feels inevitable that I get pushed out too.   

        “Okay,” she replied, and settled into her seat. The road was open ahead of us. Springsteen played quietly on the radio. I dug my fingernails into the side of the seats and stared out the side window. 

***

“It’s all good from Diego to the Bay/Your city is the bomb if your city making pay/Throw up a finger if you feel the same way/Dre putting it down for Californ-I-a.” – Tupac Shakur “California Love,” Released in 1996.  

        It has long been said that California’s largest export is culture. In reality, it’s computer parts (which recently overtook agriculture) but it is hard to quantify just how much California has influenced the country at large, and to take it a step further, how much black people in California have influenced the country’s pop culture. The state has built much of its image—a place for revolutionary thought (The Black Panther Party), a place for art and music (Tupac, Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Kendrick Lamar, etc.), a place to party (Oakland’s Hyphy Movement)—on the backs and marketing potential of black artists and individuals.  

        People want stardom, they want glam, they want cool. They want what California is portrayed to be. They want to be a part of the culture that’s been developed there. That culture, largely, was built by the state’s black population; a population that is now dwindling. In 1990, twelve percent of California residents were black. Now, just five percent. 

        Much of this has to do with the rapid economic boom. When Silicon Valley began to blow up, San Francisco, Oakland, and the San Fernando Valley all began to gentrify. Black families were the first to be pushed out of their homes and neighborhoods—homes and neighborhoods they had lived in for decades. The city governments have leaned into this, giving abhorrently large tax breaks and benefits for new housing developments in the cities. Houses, entire neighborhoods, have been wiped out and replaced with flimsy, poorly built, half-empty apartment buildings.   

        These new developments bring in new residents of higher incomes, who in turn raise the property value of the neighboring houses. Property taxes go up, rent gets higher, more and more people get pushed out. California is becoming whiter, richer, more corporate, more tech driven. Tech is and has been the industry on the rise. A lot of the time it feels like, especially in Northern California, if you aren’t in tech, it’s only a matter of time before the cost of living or the property taxes force you out.    

***

“I’d be safe and warm/If I was in L.A.” – The Mamas & the Papas, “California Dreamin,’” released in 1966.    

        When talking about California weather, people focus on the desert-like heat in LA, where it is scorching hot most of the year and rain is scarce. Every fall, when I watch the baseball playoffs from my small dorm room on the East Coast—often with snowflakes falling on the shingles—commentator Joe Buck makes a crack about what it must be like seeing Dodgers stadium on the broadcast from the Midwest or East Coast. The stadium is a beautiful Hollywood blue, nestled in between the mountains of Chavez Ravine. The sun is always shining.  

When it sets, they show shots of a clear sky turned orange, pink, and yellow. By this time of year, it is late October. The weather is impossible to ignore. People sit in shorts and t-shirts as the sun slips behind the mountains. Even fall nights in L.A. are warm.    

        In the Bay, I would argue the weather is even nicer. All year it sits between 60-80 degrees, the best of spring and summer weather for much of the country. A cool breeze is always trailing off the water. At night the wind blows cold, but it stays over 40. On the coldest days in the Bay Area, it sits around 45 degrees.  

California is shown in the media as a place of overblown luxury, a place of supreme comfort. The weather in Beverly Hills is a part of this. The photographs of the palm trees lining the sidewalk would look out of place under slate grey skies. The climate is among the reasons athletes and musicians alike seem to flock there at every opportunity. The two cities basketball superstar LeBron James left his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers for? Miami in 2011, and then Los Angeles in 2018. 

        This weather—and overall climate—are beginning to change too. Like much of the country, it is getting hotter. The heat is noticeable, especially in the Bay where for most of my childhood it rarely climbed above 80. In the summers now, it reaches into the 80s by mid-day. The fog burns off by 10 am. The sun shines brighter than it used to.  

        Fires and droughts are becoming more and more frequent as well. Driving through northern California used to be a scenic mirage of lush landscapes, of rivers, lakes, and forestland. Now, if you make the drive north to Oregon, you will see mostly red clay, scorched earth, dead trees, and charred stumps; empty caverns of earth where rivers used to flow now only trickle with small streams.  

The state is quickly running out of water. People in the Valley have begun to stockpile large jugs, imported from other states, unsure how reliable the local supply will be in the coming future. The wells have run dry. The ground is so deprived of any moisture that even when it rains, the water runs off and eventually evaporates, then blows inland.  

        The fires are beginning to consume much of the natural beauty that California possesses. For weeks, sometimes months in the fall, the air is filled with smoke. Small particulates that used to be people’s homes reign down across the West Coast. It is a brutal reminder of the environmental violence that is regularly occurring in the present day. The state is becoming less and less a place of safety and warmth.  

        The natural side, the beauty, the newness, the opportunity of California is dying.  

 

Part Three: As Future   

        My dad told me he was leaving California in the car. It wasn’t exceptionally unexpected. During the pandemic, he had started seeing a woman who lived in Washington. Rayleen has a big, beautiful house that sits on the edge of the Olympia National Forest. It sits on a cliffside above a small inlet.  

        There is a little nook attached to the kitchen where you can watch as the sun sets over a small strip of crystalline water. This is where my dad takes his coffee in the mornings. He sends me pictures of him sitting on the brown leather couch with the dog. It makes me happy to see him in such a state of peace. He is a man who I have often known as anxious, as consumed by the things that seemed to be set in stone. Now that he has broken out of those things—an old job, an old house, an old day-to-day—he seems refreshed. 

        “I had a patient the other day,” he said to me. We were driving. He had recently picked me up from work. This was early in 2021, in the grey area when the pandemic began to feel eternal, like a lifestyle that would last forever, and also something that would keep us separate, isolated. Borders were still closed. There was nowhere to go.  

        “Oh?” My parents often have difficult conversations with me in the car. I think it’s because there is nowhere to escape to but the highway.   

        “Yea and the whole time he kept telling me this story. In February of 2020, he bought a house in Ireland. Somewhere to retire to. But he bought it sight unseen. And in March he was gonna go out to see the house, and start moving things in. But then the borders came down. He’s still waiting to see the house,” My dad keeps his eyes on the road when he talks. Whenever he tells me a story about one of his patients, he treats it as an allegory. He never just tells these stories to tell them.  

        “That sucks,” I replied.  

        “Yea,” he said, “But he just kept talking about how he didn’t want to live here anymore. How much he used to love the Bay Area, but that it’s become a harder and harder place to live. Every year it gets more and more expensive. More and more people get pushed out. More people on the street. Everything feels like it’s constantly accelerating, like I’m on a treadmill that just keeps speeding up. I can only run so fast.”   

        “Uh huh. What’s your point here?”  

        “Well, I told him about Ray, and the house up in Washington, and then I went out to grab something and when I came back, he was sitting up on the table. He pointed at me and said ‘That’s a good plan. You should do that. That’s a good plan.’ He just kept saying that over and over again, ‘That’s a good plan, that’s a good plan.’”  

        I had seen it coming. My dad gets anxious being in one place for too long. I had a similar feeling when my mom told me she was leaving. I was sad, but I wasn’t going to stop him. The state was becoming more expensive. As he called, “more violent.” The economic violence that has occurred so frequently and with so much vigor is laid out plainly to see. Homeless communities line the streets. Ash from the fires caused by excess production, drought, and an over reliance on fossil fuels blows in from over the hills every summer.  

        The worst part of this is that it makes you feel powerless. There is so much going on in the state currently that is horrific to observe, inhumane to experience. Losing my home, either to fire or untenable increases in the cost of living, is fortunately not something I can speak to firsthand. It is something I can only hope to work against. But homelessness and environmental degradation, as well as the destruction of communities through mass incarceration, are beginning to feel more like features of the system than bugs.  

        California has become a violent machine. It feels like there’s no way to stop the churn.  

***

        In Joan Didion’s seminal work Slouching Towards Bethlehem, she borrows from W.B. Yeats the line, “The center cannot hold.” Of course, Didion was talking about the hippy movement, both the instability of that time and the radical change it brought to both the state and the nation. Both country and state were pulling themselves apart.  

        I will borrow that same phrase now as California reaches another junction in the nature’s history. California operates like an unstable isotope, constantly in a state of flux, of change, all the while showering the area around it with people and culture and products. California never rests.  

        And so here we are again. California is turning over, changing hands, passing now to the tech giants. Google, Facebook, Uber, and Salesforce all call the state home and have ushered in a new vanguard of economic dominance. Real estate is being bought up at a rapid pace, property taxes are ballooning, and in many of the cities, there is little to no rent control. For the last decade, longtime residents of California have been pushed out. Those who were unable to find new housing elsewhere have ended up on the street.  

        As the largest economy in the country, California has the fourth highest rate of homelessness. Streets in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Oakland, Berkeley, Fresno, and Stockton teem with tent cities tucked below freeway overpasses. California’s government has incentivized growth so heavily in its economic and housing sectors, it has driven the citizens who helped build the state, citizens who have lived there for their entire lives, out of their homes.  

        City governments have been reluctant to implement rent control where there hasn’t been any previously. They are making too much money from the influx of high-income earners. The government has no incentive to stop California from turning over once again. The people in power have no interest in preservation.  

***

        I haven’t talked about agriculture much yet in this essay. Partially because the subject has never drawn my interest as much as it should, but it would be an act of malpractice to ignore it. 

        California is one of the nation’s largest breadbaskets, although it isn’t often spoken of in that light. The state produces nearly half of the country’s fruit, vegetables, and nuts. It is the only state to produce artichokes, almonds, dates, figs, garlic, dried plums, olives, pistachios, raisins, and walnuts. If you’ve eaten recently, it is a good bet that something on your plate originated in California.  

This agricultural power comes from California’s favorable climate. In the central valley, it is often warm enough to grow these temperate foods without being so hot they die. It stays warm long enough to give these foods the proper amount of time to mature. Now that the state is getting hotter, this may not be true for much longer.  

        CNN estimates yield for some crops will decline as much as 40% by 2050. The increase in earthquakes, fires, droughts, and floods—and the more unpredictable these things are becoming—will only make farming more difficult. In the coming decades, California will become less and less dependable as an agricultural hub. The land will only become less tenable, water only scarcer. This will not only affect the sustainability of the state, but the country as a whole. America will be forced to become even more reliant on importing food and global trade, further contributing to the rapid rate of environmental decline.  

        Despite the state’s left-wing posturing, the government has become more and more aligned with neoliberal tenants over the last forty years. The state is eager to preserve its image as a place for all people, a place that champions diversity and beauty. But it has been unwilling to make any financial concessions to do it, instead opting to pump more and more money into any sector they believe will generate profit. Social protections have been stripped back. The public education system has become one of the worst in the nation. California has built more prisons than schools since the Reagan administration. Housing prices are inflating at an unsustainable rate. Cities have become wildly overcrowded. Pollution has increased and accelerated the near inevitable apocalypse brought on by climate change.  

This is what the new California has chosen to be: a corporate wolf masquerading as a sheep draped in the aesthetics of the hippy movement, of the freedom fighters the state has since pushed beyond its borders or imprisoned, of friendly identity politics with no fiscal teeth. The new California stands for nothing. The new California stands only for profit.   

Part Four: As Reckoning 

“All that is constant about the California of my youth is the rate at which it disappears.” – Joan Didion, “Slouching Towards Bethlehem.”   

        If it is to be believed that California can be looked at as a signpost for the future direction of the rest of the country, which I believe it can be, we can expect the wealth gap to become even more pronounced. The environmental crisis will continue to be ignored, while politicians who claim to be dedicated to the cause of environmental justice sign drilling permits on local land. Governor Gavin Newsom has issued just north of 9,000 oil and natural gas drilling permits since the start of 2019, all the while touting the importance of environmental preservation and investment in renewable energy.  

        The state’s intent devotion to capital above all else shouldn’t be surprising. It wouldn’t be if I were writing about New York, or Texas, or Florida. But, to me at least, it continues to be. The California I go home to looks a lot different than the California I grew up in. Or at least the version of California that existed in my head. The version I wanted to believe was the reality. 

***  

        This last summer, I took a drive with my mom up to Oregon to see my grandmother. California’s far north, especially inland from the coast, has always been warmer, dryer than the Bay. It doesn’t have quite the desert feeling that Los Angeles does, usually still populated by plenty of green trees, small lakes, and rivers. There is shrubbery growing from the dirt even in the driest regions. 

        My mom drove the whole way. We went through the Valley, cutting straight through endless rows of perfectly sectioned grape vines, stretching out into infinity. From the car, the fields looked endless. After the vineyards were the farms. I watched as crops were showered in water underneath the hot sun, AC blasting, music on quiet enough as to not be a distraction, per my mother’s request. Occasionally the two of us would talk. Usually, she would talk, and I would listen. My mom is much more of a talker, her arthritic hands wrapped around the steering wheel, hunched over the dash, squinting at the road.  

        “I’ve been listening to this audio book,” she told me.   

        “Mm,” I replied.  

        “I love listening to bad books on tape,” My mom is a writer too. My talent comes from her. “It’s fun, because you get to critique them.”  

        “Yea.” I didn’t have the heart to tell her that I hate reading (or listening) to bad books. Bad writing twists something up in my stomach. More accurately, I hate work that has been written purely for publication, or purely for profit. Possibly because of my own difficulty getting work published.   

        Often with my mom, I feel absent. Like something in my brain is working as hard as I can to keep her at arm’s length. I don’t know why I still feel that way. I wish I didn’t anymore. But I do, and did then, so I sat in the passenger’s seat and stared out the window. 

        “Maybe we can listen to some on the way back.”  

        “Yea,” I said. 

        Usually after we passed the farmland on the drive to Oregon, we would begin to enter stretches where the roads were lined with lush forestation. The Redwoods that line the coast up north are one of the environmental signatures of the state. They are part of the fabric, the culture of what makes California unique.  

        But as I watched the landscape change outside the window, all I saw was scorched earth, tree trunks burned at the stump. Rivers that had cut deep into the earth had dried up, leaving only red-rock caverns lined with dead shrubbery. Earlier that year, fires had ravished Northern California. After the fires, drought took hold. It’s an all too familiar cycle for residents of the state. 

        “It’s so dry,” I muttered.  

        My mom took her eyes off the road.  

        “I’ve never seen the water so low.” There was a harrowing tone in her voice. I took my eyes off the side, looked down into my lap. She looked back at the road. I turned the music up. We didn’t talk much for the rest of the drive.  

        The state is dying. On that drive, watching the way the environment had changed, had been affected by a ruthless cycle of production and consumption, it felt like getting something violently torn from my brain. A held image, a prototype, of what my home had been—gone. Replaced by something unfamiliar, scorched, burned; that old image of old growth forests, cold coastlines, moist air, all went up in smoke.  

***

        The worst part about California is that it doesn’t love you back. What makes California beautiful is that it is always turning over, always transforming, always remaking itself in the image of whatever is newest, shiniest, most fresh.  

When you are living there, this all happens around you. You watch the place you have come to love be torn down and rebuilt and then torn down again and rebuilt further and further from the initial image you held in your mind’s eye. Every four months, I go home. And every four months, home is different. Soon it won’t be home for me anymore. 

        Part of me is heartbroken about this fact, that I likely will not be able to afford to live in California after college. Even if I do end up there for a little while, it feels inevitable that I will eventually be pushed out. My dad recently moved to Washington with his fiancé. My mom is planning a move to Oregon once I graduate college.  

        It has become a much harder place to live in recent years. In San Francisco, homeless people shoot heroin under the awnings of skyscrapers as businesspeople step over them on their way into work. Smoke turns the sun red and the sky orange. Even those who have captured stability in the Golden State are constantly bombarded by real-time images of economic disparity and environmental destruction.   

        Despite all this—the rapid decline in quality of life for working people, the extremely inflated cost of living, the ever-present threat of natural disaster—I doubt California’s stance as a symbol will change. In fact, I think California, both as a government and a center for industry, will do everything it can to keep that image going. The image that it is a place of freedom and prosperity. The image that it is a place for everyone.   

        After reading Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem, it dawned on me that this may be a universal experience for everyone from the state. The state outgrows you, or you outgrow it, or everything all together outgrows the romantic versions of it you had held in your head. It’s not that California has changed that breaks my heart. It’s not that the state feels further from its symbolic ideals now than it maybe ever has. It is specifically what it has turned into; a forbearer for the rest of the country, a case study in late-stage capitalism, a microcosm of environmental degradation.  

        The only constant in California is that it will never stop deceiving me. It will never stop breaking my heart. 

miles de rosa is a small man from California. He works at a restaurant. He loves to write.

emily speck is a Broadcast major with a film minor from Cleona, Pennsylvania. Photography is a newfound love for her and she plans to continue pursing photography within videography and taking photographs.