Not long ago, I was sitting in the Green Point Diner in Brooklyn when a man at the table next to me began a loud monologue on the differences between California and New York. “New York is a terrible place to go to find yourself,” he began. “All you’ll figure out in New York is what you don’t want to do. Now California, that’s a great place to find yourself, but a terrible place to get what you want. Once you know what you want, come to New York. New York will give it to you.” Not only were the table arrangements so cozy that I couldn’t help but overhear this stranger’s monologue, but my friend and I put down our forks to listen because we had been engaged in a similar discussion of the differences between New York and California just before he raised his voice. Psychic connection? Perhaps. Then again, the probability that people in their twenties would be discussing the differences between California and New York is probably pretty high, considering that the Golden State and Manhattan are the most popular places people would choose to live if given the choice – and in this age of relocation normalcy, most people are.
We live in a country with regions as diverse as nations: there’s the Southeast with its buttery grits and biscuits, “yes ma’ams,” and Bible thumpers; the Northeast with its Ivy Leagues, lawyers, and clam chowda; the West Coast with its national parks, gay bars, and New Age spirituality. But of all these dichotomies, one national rivalry trumps the others: the East vs. West Coast, which – in most people’s minds – really means Los Angeles vs. New York.
I overheard this Green Point diner’s summation while spending a month staying with long-neglected family and friends on my native East Coast – a week in Georgia (which doesn’t really count as the East Coast, since my experience of the entire state is confined to fatty home-cooked meals and church four days a week), a week in Philadelphia, a week in New York, and a week in Boston. Visiting all of these familiar cities from my relatively new home in California, I had become unhealthily obsessed with the differences between the two coasts, and perhaps more tellingly, with which one I should live on.
Since I moved from Massachusetts to California three years ago, the expression “the grass is always greener on the other side” has taken on coastal proportions for me.
Like many members of my generation, I am wondering constantly where I “should” be. With more than 14 million Americans moving to a new county every year, we have been instilled with the sense that we get to choose where we end up. Though wonderfully liberating, this freedom of choice can also produce a mild sense of panic in young adults who are expected to find the ideal locale to build a career, make friends, and pay off college debt. So once we make a decision, there’s a lot riding on our staking a claim in it: Who wants to pack up all their shit every few months and find a new place to live?
A 2003 New York Times report by a horde of social scientists analyzing the East/West Coast dichotomy found that the two poles are becoming increasingly similar in everything from commuting, to jobs, to crime. Assuming that trend has continued, the fight between east and west as it’s played out in the national imagination is perhaps representative of the urge to set roots, to be happy where we are.
As an East Coast native with a lot of family and friends who are not exactly supportive of my cross-country move, I have mostly been faced with New York pride. Whatever trouble I’ve encountered since moving out here – relationship drama, financial worries, physical ailments – my mom and sister respond with, “Isn’t that a West Coast thing?”
When I was in Brooklyn recently, I ran into an old friend at a pizza joint around 1 p.m. I was having lunch; he, breakfast because he’d been up till 7 working in his painter’s studio (and drinking beer). I was partly jealous of his ambitious artist’s lifestyle, until he said disdainfully, “I know a lot of people from L.A. They’re always like, ‘Yeah, let’s go for a hike.'” I knew the lackadaisical tone he imitated very well – it could have just as easily been saying, “Let’s go for a drink” – but it forced me to think, ‘What’s wrong with taking a hike?’ You’re eating pizza for breakfast and have developed a sizable a beer belly. It’s not that I’m opposed to either of those things per se, but they did seem to take away his leverage in terms of criticizing people who like to get exercise and enjoy the outdoors.
And when I made plans to meet up with a college friend later that day, she told me she’d recently moved to Williamsburg; Brooklyn’s version of the East Village. “Yeah, I live with all the hipsters now,” she said in an intentionally blase tone, partly to make fun of herself, but partly because that image-conscious designation was the way she thought of her new neighborhood, and by extension, herself. It’s refreshingly rare to find Californians who make so much of a neighborhood. In the state claiming the 11 least affordable metropolitan areas in the country, most people are pretty well satisfied with any square of land (or tile) to call their own.
Of course, Californians can dish it out, too. Just this morning, I overheard a Bostonian arguing with a Santa Barbaran about the relative merits of Disneyland and Disneyworld.
“Disneyworld was there first,” said the Bostonian.
“Yeah, but your Magic Mountain blows,” the Californian shot back. Touche.
Beneath the East/West Coast rivalry is the deeper question of what it means to leave home, to set roots, to be a stranger in a new town. In her essay On Going Home, Joan Didion writes that she was nearly thirty-years-old before she could call home without crying. (She’d gone – gasp! – from California to New York.) “Nothing was wrong,” she writes; it was simply the confusion her generation faced between remaining in the town where one was raised, in the shadow of extended family and familiar surroundings, and moving toward an uncertain, but more promising, life. For members of my generation, it has become largely frowned upon not to stray from the comforts of home. My friends who have stayed in their hometowns constantly wonder if they would be happier far from the burden of family obligations and the codependence of family care, while those of us who have moved far away are all too familiar with guilty thoughts of, ‘God, I have to get back home soon.’
It’s been nearly three years since I packed up my car and headed west, and I still can’t think of that last glimpse of my mom, waving from the porch as tears streamed down her face, without intense pangs of regret. But as much as I hate the guilt of leaving behind family, I know there’s only one alternative to that bowling-ball-in-the-gut feeling every time I hug my mom goodbye at the airport: to stay put, to never leave.
Aside from the obvious desirability of new experiences, there’s the simple fact that running away – which is what all moves are at their core, however “practical” or “well thought-out” they may be – actually does work. Sitting in an empty bar on a Tuesday night in Philadelphia while my sister cried at her friend’s apartment after we’d had a huge falling out over the same stuff we’d been fighting over since kindergarten, I comforted myself with the thought that I would soon be on a plane back to California (okay, and with a couple of Sierras). Fortunately, moving far away takes you, well, far away – until of course you have to go back home, whether due to obligation or desire. And Thomas Wolfe was an odd case: The rest of us can go home again, and the pain and joy of it is how it is always; exactly the way we left it, no matter how much has changed.
In the end, all of the worries about east vs. west and city vs. country are probably just so much hot air, like much of the stuff with which we gum up our minds. Whenever I’m plagued with the “where should I live” question, I think of myself in my car headed west – no destination in mind, save a few friends’ couches – and being so drunk on the openness of it, the fact that there was nowhere I had to belong and no one who needed to know where I was. Driving across the middle of Utah, expanses of desert on both sides of the endlessly flat road, no cars, no houses, no people as far as the eye could see, I was lost in one of those rare “It’s all right, Ma. I can make it,” moments, which I knew because all I was doing was singing along with Bob Dylan and spitting wind-blown hair out of my mouth. The idea that I would one day be in one place, trying to make it in that place alone, was not even the germ of a thought inside my head.