Why Do People Move to California?

FIVE THôT columnist Laura Zander is a book nerd on a perpetual quest to satiate her curiosity and observe the magic of juxtapositions. A veteran of the tech world, she's widely acknowledged as a product, marketing, and operations guru. You can follow her reading life at loudlatinlaughing.com or @lz 

Most of my friends are not native Californians. I have a slight phobia about natives, something about them lacking full appreciation because they have nothing to compare against during their formative years. After recently giving my usual spiel about how I ended up here (“Took a road trip, the road ended”), I began collecting other stories on westward migration. The transplants arrived by car, plane, Greyhound bus (NJ ->CA, brutal), frequently without ever having visited, with no connections or jobs or housing lined up. If you have a story you’d like to share, please drop me a line at movedtocalifornia@gmail.com

The Hooligan: I was in school in Indiana when I incurred the wrath of local authorities (stupid college shenanigans). The town was a college town, so they threw the book at me, trying to set an example. I ended up with 200 hours of community service that I had to complete before January or I’d be roasting marshmallows in jail. I took a job helping out at Goodwill. We’d get these crates of donated goods, rats flowed out, we’d poke timidly at the boxes hoping no more rats were nestled inside. After a few hours, I looked at my hands and noticed they were completely black with grime and gross. I didn’t come back after lunch. I found another community service gig at a local cemetery. My coworker, named Rex, was exactly what you’d expect someone who worked in a graveyard to be like. He’d roll up at noon in the work dump truck that he drove as his own vehicle, completely hungover. He’d take naps among the graves, smoke Marlboro reds while he watched the flames rise higher and higher on the enormous pile of leaves we’d raked. “Should we call the fire department?” I asked. “Nah,” he said, “If it gets out of control someone’ll call ‘em.” That fall I spent a lot of time sleeping in my car or among the graves. It was cold as shit. I basically decided right then that I was going to move to California. I moved out two years later.

The Flip-flopper: I first moved out here with the boyfriend back in 1994 from Miami. We’d acquired an apartment sight unseen near San Jose because the boy got a job there, so we lived in the South Bay. It was horrible to go to concerts in San Francisco, far away and tiring to come back via public transportation. Our world was so small, just work, and living near San Jose. It was not what we’d expected California to be like. We lasted six months then moved to Vegas to save money. The second move to California was in 1997 in the beginning of the dot boom, which made apartment hunting a challenge. The day we found our apartment, the manager was an hour late (stoner, surfer dude) who popped open a beer bottle using the heater. Unfortunately, we had to leave SF after a family emergency made us pack our bags for Florida to help out. But Fort Lauderdale was depressing after we’d had a taste of San Francisco. So we broke our lease and left Florida with Hurricane Dennis nipping at our heels. By the time we made our third attempt to move to California (1999), the dot boom was in full swing, so we couch surfed for a month before finding an apartment in the Castro. We’ve now been here for 13 years, but are planning to move to Chile at the beginning of the year. 

The Faux-alcoholic: I moved to California in 2003 and had a hard time meeting people. I ended up going to AA meetings even though I wasn’t an alcoholic. I moved to Brooklyn a few years ago to get away from all the SF hipsters. 

The Horizon-Watcher: Sitting on the stoop of my parents’ house in Kansas, waiting for my ride to the airport, I watched thunderstorm clouds gather on the horizon. It was a good omen for my departure. I was picked up in San Francisco by a friend and immediately went for sushi. I spent the night putting my bicycle back together and the next morning biked to a job interview. I’ve been here for twenty years, and and am still employed by the company I talked to on my first full day in California. I was surprised to receive letters from my former co-workers in Kansas to whom I was some sort of hero, holding out the promise of escape to them.

The Fearless: I was born in Cuba but spent most of my life in Chicago. When I went to movies in majestic old movie palaces, I would always sit in a west side aisle seat, always leaning westward, leftward. The movies I watched were always about self liberation and discovery. Eventually, I split from my wife to live as an open gay man. I had been a corporate whore for eight years at a financial firm being crushed by servitude. One day I decided to leave. Because I did not know how to drive, I needed a city with good public transportation. After decades of Chicago winters, I needed a city without snow. I cashed in my 401k, sold everything and packed one bag (but packed no jackets, oops). I had never been to San Francisco. I had no job lined up. No apartment. No friends. Jumped on a plane and landed in August. Ran outside and bought a jacket. It was frighteningly fearless.

The wide-eyed adventurer: It was my first plane ride. I moved here from Louisiana, to get the hell out of that state. My best friend moved to San Francisco that summer and I followed a few months later. I had no idea about how many bags you could bring or weight limit. I ended up having to pay an additional $92 for excess baggage, no pun intended. The bag fee ended up being half the price of my round-trip ticket, to give you an idea of how cheap flights were in 1992. I almost missed my connection in Dallas and was the last person off the plane in SF with my childhood pillow in tow. Twenty years later, I’m still here. Sadly, the pillow had to go.

The Young Couple: Moved to California in 1992 with my musician boyfriend because the Washington DC music scene was not as hot as it is here. I refused to move to LA, so we compromised on a trial year in San Francisco. I was in my final year of college, taking a full course load while working full time as a concierge for Ritz Carlton. We took a five day trip to visit SF and stayed at the Ritz on my employee discount, damned ritzy for us then. We fell in love with the beautiful city by the bay on that trip. Back in DC, we tightened our belts, gave up a cool apartment to save funds, and began planning. The day after graduation, we hit the road, arriving in Berkeley two weeks later to crash with distant relatives of the boyfriend. They were true SF flower child hippie turned Berkeley hippie parents, and we delighted in their stories about Jefferson Airplane and the drugs of the 60s. Then we hit the pavement to troll the whole city to find an apartment. Exhausted, we finally stumbled into a place that seemed like it had a cool neighborhood, so signed a lease. We didn’t realize the full impact of living on Haight street until a stream of people accosted us, making sure we were set for buds or doses. We stayed in that apartment for five years and fell in love with every inch of the city. The boyfriend formed a band, and then another, and another. He has a successful career as musician and producer. We’re still great friends today, possibly in part because of this shared experience.

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