Weighing the cost of staying anchored to the Bay Area.
When I turned thirty, I moved to a boat in the Berkeley Marina. This was not the accommodation I’d imagined for myself at this age, but owning or even renting in the Bay Area felt out of reach. At a couple of hundred dollars a month and boasting views of the bay, the slip in the marina was a steal.
The downside about life in the marina was my boat leaked. If I did not bail out the boat within forty-eight hours, the water would creep up from the unseen hollows and spill over the boat’s carpeted floor. If I went away for more than a day, I would hold my breath at the marina gates, relief flooding me when I saw the blue sail covers, the boat gently rocking in the tide. Although the boat was old and only worth a few thousand dollars, it was my family’s boat.
The boat’s name, Lunavero, was a combination of the first two letters of my siblings’ names and happened to mean “moon truth” in Latin.
There are many people in the Bay Area who live in odd and humble corners.
Unsurprisingly, I had a complicated relationship with the boat and the accompanying bailing life. It was easy to bundle my things into a bag and spend the weekend with friends who had managed to choke down their reaction to the Bay Area prices and commit to a home with a roof. I also went to stay with my parents who lived deeper in the East Bay. My parent’s house, which had quadrupled in value since the mid-nineties, was spacious with an ambling garden. There, I would shower and wander around the house and garden, wallowing in comforts I couldn’t afford.
After twenty-four hours the fear of the boat submerging itself leaned on me, and I would return to the marina to bail.
It was good to be forced to return to the boat — I would remember there were enjoyable aspects of boat life. I delighted in making tea on my camping stove and watching the sun come up, pink and pearly over the marina while listening to the tinkling of boat rigging and seagull cries.
I liked the people too. Early on, I was invited into the ILS (Illegal Liveaboard Society), a cast of characters who, like myself, were unable to legally acquire a liveaboard slip. Instead, we covertly slunk in and out of the marina gates. My neighbor, an English Instagrammer who was preparing to sail south to Baja, gave me a rusted square ruler used for opening the marina door without using a fob (fobs tracked one’s comings and goings). The head of the ILS was George, an eighty-year-old. George’s children had tried to move him to an assisted living home out of state, but instead, he moved to his boat. The society would gather in the cockpit of his Hallberg-Rassy, drinking black coffee in tin mugs.
After a few months of being on the boat, I realized a massive slug colony was growing on the hull.
There are many people in the Bay Area who live in odd and humble corners. Some do it out of a deep necessity. For me, that was not the case.
I had my family’s house to default to, and close friends who would’ve allowed me into their small studio apartments, at least for a time. But I wanted my own patch of the Bay Area, however small and leaky.
Earlier that year, I had tried living in a more affordable city. I sublet a Victorian home in Portland, a city in which I knew no one. My roommates were a violinist, an ecstatic dancer, an herbalist, and a drug-dealing Uber driver. This was refreshing in itself. Most of these types had long since been priced out of the Bay Area. I loved Portland, but after six weeks I decided it was not home. Portland felt like a swimming pool, whereas the Bay Area felt oceanic (perhaps only because the places we are raised occupy much more than just physical space, but also psychological, social, and emotional space).
After Portland, I decided to make a go of it in the Bay Area. I moved to the boat, quit my low-paying teaching job, and got a job at a startup. Joining the tech world seemed the only financially sensible path. My office was a brick-walled building in downtown San Francisco, nestled next to the new Salesforce Park, a five-acre rooftop garden. In this part of the city, tech offices and expensive salad bars had sprung up like California poppies along the industrial streets that were often littered with needles and feces. My company was an appendage to a venture studio, and since we were an as-yet unproven experiment, our small team was stuffed into a small room. We sat for long hours each day, nestled amongst the computer equipment and desk chairs. The air was stale and full of promise.
After a few months of being on the boat, I realized a massive slug colony was growing on the hull. The boat was meant for day sails, not steeping in the murky marina water. I went for an investigative swim with a broom and a scuba diving mask to see if I could remove the slugs, but the hull was thick with them. I decided to pull the boat out for fear it would be consumed by slugs.
The slug fiasco was some kind of penance for thinking I could trick the system, and my next move was less lofty — a sublease in Oakland above a cannabis store.
My friend Jean helped me scrape the slugs off the hull (the hallmark of a good friend). Jean is a true Californian in the way most Californians are not. Her family has lived in the state for generations. They have a plot of land in Gold Country, an area a few hours from the Bay in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. The plot, which Jean’s family calls “The Mine”, is a narrow camp, flanked on one side by a steep tree-studded hill, and on the other side, a creek.
The camp is made up of a scattering of tents that are taken down in the winter months. For the rest of the year, each tent is set up like a bedroom—a low bed with a quilt, a rug, a bedside table, and a small washbasin. A long picnic table, a wooden moss-covered shelf with crockery, and a camp stove make up the kitchen. In a clearing, camping chairs circle a fire pit. At one end of the camp, a composting toilet looks out into the trees, and on a trail that winds into the steep hillside, is the mine. The old gold mine itself is underwhelming — all you can do is throw a rock through the dark opening of the hillside and listen for a watery plunk.
During the day you can lounge on chairs with feet in the creek, and in the evening, drink around the bonfire before retreating to the tents. It is a place that allows you to just be. It doesn’t demand something of you in the way that living in the Bay has come to, where you are always on the lookout for a job that might pay more or a friend who might vacate an affordable apartment.
Though the camp has a sense of history and permanence, like everywhere else in California, The Mine is a precarious place. In 2018 a fire edged so close that firefighters used the camp as a base while fighting the nearby inferno. For The Mine, it’s not if a fire comes, but when.
After the slug infestation on the hull, I reinstated Lunavero in my parent’s side yard. The slug fiasco was some kind of penance for thinking I could trick the system, and my next move was less lofty — a sublease in Oakland above a cannabis store. I was relieved to be free of the bailing regime. But my roommate’s dog frequently pooped on the carpet, and construction on the 300-unit residential tower next to the apartment building started as early as 4 a.m. (the development, to my irritation, I could not complain about — it was hypocritical to complain about construction and the housing crisis).
Then Jean told me her friends had a cottage in the back of their house in South Berkeley. It cost $850, the equivalent of striking gold in the Bay Area. The cottage, or the Casita, as it was known, was tiny. In a previous life, it had been a single car garage, and that was the size of it — car-sized and a fraction more. It had a beautiful wooden interior ceiling, a hot shower, a toilet, a kitchenette, and cottage pane windows that looked out to the garden where an enormous cat (Mr. Kitty) roamed.
San Francisco is waking up from hibernation after the quiet pandemic months.
A short walk away from the cottage was a farmer’s market, where vendors sold Medjool dates, artistic-looking mushrooms, eleven-dollar rye bread, and organic salad greens with names like Puntarella. Across from the tents of the farmer’s market, on a narrow strip between Adeline Street and the BART tracks were other kinds of tents. These belonged to the unhoused. Encampments like this one grew on overlooked patches of land. I would cycle past one only to see it had been cleared, the people forced off (to where I could only guess).
In the fall of 2020, as they had done every year for the past few years, the fires came. I woke up to a strange orange darkness one morning. When I went outside, my mask on for coronavirus, and also because of the poor air quality, other people were wandering the streets like zombies, wondering what new world we lived in.
I had recurring dreams — I was inside the Casita, but it was not safe inside. Perhaps it was the pervasive sense of claustrophobia and pandemic anxiety leftover from the months of sheltering in place. In my dream, the outside was not safe either—a man stood at the door looking in. Every morning I woke up relieved that he was not at my door. Then I remembered the real threat outside was the air, the ash-drifting stink that stung your eyes and scratched your throat. I thought of the encampments often. While most people scurried from building to building with masks on, the unhoused breathed in the smoke day and night. On reflection, perhaps the man in my dreams did not want me but simply wanted to come inside.
I observe my fellow denizens of the ark, employees of Salesforce, Slack, and Facebook, whose offices attach to the park
It is difficult to justify the exorbitant cost of a place when for several months of the year, the outside can be an apocalyptic nightmare. When the fires are bad, it’s hard to know if the heaviness in my chest is from the smoke or from the heartache of knowing the California of my youth is gone, and it is only going to get worse. Life in the Bay Area, which I once thought of as oceanic, feels claustrophobic and precarious. The question is: “Is it all worth it?” It seems in a haze around us always. It feels akin to living on a leaky boat, a hovering worry that you might return home one afternoon to find the place you called home gone.
San Francisco is waking up from hibernation after the quiet pandemic months. A man in a suit waits again at the white gondola taking people from street level up to the Salesforce Park. He is like a New York lobby attendant—cheerful and welcoming, disguising the security function he fulfills.
The transit center beneath the park is hidden in curving white panels that look like lace. Up close, the panels are printed with Penrose Rhombus Tiling—a seemingly simple pattern that can continue infinitely without repetition. The narrow park floats, adrift on a sea of skyscrapers. It is clean and well monitored, a constructed utopia. The park would be more at home in Singapore than in San Francisco. Being in an elevated park is both unfettering and troubling — it’s the version of public space that San Francisco cannot achieve on the actual street level, where a large population of people is addicted, unsupported, and unsheltered. Ambassadors patrol the park, maintaining this idealized version of public space.
There are precious species: the rare and endangered silver trees native to Table Mountain in South Africa; the Chilean wine palm, which is threatened due to overpopulation, grazing, and felling for palm wine; the critically endangered Wollemi pine, which was thought to be extinct until 1994 when less than a hundred adult trees were discovered in the Blue Mountains of Australia.
They have pulled into port for the job, and now talk of leaving to other tech hubs, like Florida or Austin.
Plants have been carefully chosen for their ability to survive changes in climate, for example, the Queensland bottle tree, which is shaped like a bottle and holds water beneath its inner bark in case of drought, and the orange-pincushion leucospermum, which grows from an underground rootstock—if a fire decimates the aboveground, the plant can still regrow. There is a prehistoric garden, which boasts plants that have been around since the time of dinosaurs: giant cycads, ginkgos, and monkey puzzle trees. In total there are fifty species of trees and two hundred and thirty species of understory plants. The park is Noah’s ark, a bid for a certain kind of future.
I observe my fellow denizens of the ark, employees of Salesforce, Slack, and Facebook, whose offices attach to the park. They are speed walking past, engaged in work conversations, coffees in hand. Access to this fabricated public space is a perk for them, away from the realities of the streets below. Many of these passengers are not from here. They have pulled into port for the job, and now talk of leaving to other tech hubs, like Florida or Austin.
Holding on to the guard railings and looking out across the city with the wind on my face, I imagine leaving, sailing out into the bay and through the Golden Gate—the bow cutting through the fog, the bridge and its undivided familiarity becoming too large for my vision and fragmenting into panels and screws, the current dragging the boat across and underneath the red-orange finish line of the bridge. Like a splash from a cold wave, I feel a rinse of guilt thinking about lifting anchor and setting sail. But in our current age, it is too dangerous to be attached to a place.
Leaving, though, is not the solution either. An escape to Florida brings worries of sea level rise, an escape to Austin and extreme temperatures. Wherever we are, we will be navigating unpredictable waters. We will always be bailing, and perhaps there is a kind of peace we can learn to make with this.
Feature Image: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Guillaume Paumier