It’s a sad and lonely feeling to realize that the streets you walked as a kid are no longer home.
I grew up in California in the 1990s and early 2000s. I went to middle and high school in a place called Piedmont — a tiny, scenic city that my mom called the “donut hole” of Oakland, as the former is completely surrounded by the latter.
On weekends, I’d take the bus, the 51 line, out to Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley to see the street vendors who sold typical Telegraph street fare: jewelry, bumper stickers, tie-dye, ceramics pots. I’d visit Amoeba Records and Cody’s Books. My friends and I took BART to go shopping in San Francisco. We had a bonfire on the beach after prom. We worked part-time in a smoothie store on Piedmont Avenue in Oakland, where we sold protein boosts and shots of wheat grass to the California clientele.
It was a beautiful place to grow up.
It was also a beautiful time. The San Francisco Bay Area of my memories was totally chill: When I think back to high school, I see hemp necklaces, redwoods in the fog, and long walks up hills so steep that I used to see them in my sleep, in dreams where I was falling.
All of these things are still there: the trees, the misty mornings, the sloped cities and, probably, the hemp.
But when people ask me what Oakland or Berkeley or San Francisco are like, I have no idea what to say.
Home isn’t just a place, but also a time.
When I go back now, I’m worst than a tourist. I gape at things that friends who just moved to the area think nothing of. There’s a Whole Foods by Lake Merritt?! People go jogging there at night?? There are bars and restaurants serving $12 burgers by the 19th Street BART???
I wonder if the establishments I used to frequent are still there: the cinema at Jack London Square, the deli at 51st and Telegraph with the good Italian meats, the Virgin Megastore in downtown San Francisco where I looked for CDs from Common, Sublime, and Eminem shortly after I heard him freestyling on the radio late one night, on 106.1, KMEL.
Do these places still exist?
I have no opinion on whether the Bay Area of today is better or worse than it used to be; that’s a complicated question that requires a nuanced understanding of the region that I no longer have. And there probably isn’t a right answer, anyway.
What I do know is that the place I once knew is gone. The streets are the same in name and geography, but their rhythm and personality have changed.
I visited last month, at the end of April, and my main thought was that everything seemed so busy: cars and people and noise everywhere.
Piedmont Avenue, which I recall as being calm, was packed at 2 o’ clock in the afternoon. Parts of Oakland that were run down were now filled with pedestrians. BART was hellishly crowded, and I use the word “hellish” because it felt so damn hot from all the bodies squeezed, skin to skin, on the train.
One day, I drove out past Walnut Creek to visit a friend, who told me that it cost her more than $2,000 a month to rent an apartment in a plain, suburban neighborhood an hour away, by car, from San Francisco (that’s without traffic).
I close my eyes and think back to the laid back Bay Area that I remember.
And then, I wonder whether that place ever really existed at all. Maybe it’s not California that’s changed, but me.
I live in Buffalo now, and I’m used to a slower pace of life: fewer people, fewer cars, less traffic, and shorter waits (if any) at restaurants and events.
Maybe the Bay Area was always busy. Maybe I just never noticed the rush because it was all I knew, or because I was a teenaged kid with few worries and lots of free time.
I don’t know. But whatever the truth, I’ll always long for that place that I remember. Real or illusory, it was home. It was mine, and I miss it dearly.