Thursday, May 31, 2007

Oh Won't You Be My Neighbor?

Last week our favorite neighbors moved away. They are the kind of family that included parents both DH and I liked as people, and a child that Big A adored. As any play-date veteran knows, that combination of parent/child compatibility is somewhat rare, and the fact that it existed just across the street from us was especially precious. We play dated regularly and watched each other's homes during vacations. Most memorably, these were the people who took in Big A the day my uterus ruptured and DH had to rush me to the hospital. I'm sure that watching my toddler (who was sick, to boot) on the last Saturday before Christmas with no warning was a colossal inconvenience. But they never complained, and in fact expressed gratitude that they happened to be home when my pregnancy shit hit the fan. Now, that's a good neighbor.

Our beloved ex-neighbors are attempting what I call "the golden exit." This is a scenario that anyone living in the San Francisco Bay Area knows: Sell your ramshackle property and move someplace far, far away, where your 25 percent stake in a house here translates into a 80-100 percent stake in the purchase of a bigger, nicer, newer home. When you live where the median home price is over a half million dollars, most young families who are lucky enough to be able to buy a house are doing so by taking on mongo mortgages. House payments then become the #1 determinant in our life decisions. They drag many a woman back from maternity leave before she is ready, or cause families to go into massive credit-card debt if they decide to try the single-income, parent-at-home route for awhile. It's inevitable that mortgages become the symbol of all that is hectic, frantic, and stressful in Bay Area life. It's no wonder that lower-cost housing is the siren song of the Red States.

Still, even though every family out here at least considers the golden exit in passing. most don't do it. People have problems staying here, but there are also obstacles to leaving. First, Bay Area residents are unable to tolerate any weather. Sure, we knit jaunty little scarves in winter, but we often wear them outside without jackets, because the Bay Area doesn't do ice or snow. And after the rainy season is over, you can count on it being dry for months and months. As someone who grew up in cloudy Upstate New York, this was a revelation to me when I first arrived. But, as with anything, revelation quickly turns to expectation. Everyone here cultivates ridiculously picky expectations about how the weather should treat them. When you utter, "Whoah, it's a little muggy!" when it is 30 percent humidity and 72 degrees, you are screwed. Moving to Saint Louis or Chicago is just out of the question.

The other big problem is that people are drawn to the Bay Area because of the wide variety of jobs, the ethnic diversity, and tolerant/liberal social values. If those things float your boat, it's hard to find a better boat than this. Sure, you can head to Seattle, Portland, Boston, or New York. Those are great places. But, those urban centers also have more expensive housing that would make the no-mortgage goal impossible for most. So in the end, most of us stay put and dream on about possibly leaving later.

So I'm bidding my ex-neighbors a fond farewell and wishing them luck in their relocation to Texas.* May they find the benefits of moving outweighing the losses. I'm also praying that the new neighbors who take their place will be even a fraction as great as these ones were.

*Texas, as in the state of mind rather than the geographical state. I refer to anything more than 30 miles away from the California coast as Social Texas, because once you go inland, the majority of people tend to be much more conservative than on the coast. Yeah, I know that would make me a wine-drinking, organic-food loving, latte-craving yuppie according to certain folks out there. To which I say ... yeah. For better or worse, that's probably me in more ways than not. Whatever. That's why I don't live in Social Texas (anymore), k?

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