I was born in Colorado, spent three years in West Virginia, lived in Oklahoma for middle and high school, went “back east” to Boston for university, and then farther east to Egypt, and then even farther east to San Francisco.
To many people in California, Oklahoma is just as exotic as the Lost Kingdom of Thormasgurd, except no one wants to know more about Oklahoma. They assume things are radically different “out there” and they’re usually right. Sometimes they even express a fear of going to the middle place in the US because it’s a lawless, conservative backwater where people tie jackets around their waists, and I encourage this by tightening my cardigan around my middle and yelling “Yeee haw!” every time I meet someone.
I remember the first time my parents visited me at Boston University. I’d been away for all of eight weeks or less when they visited in early October, but on the way to Legal Seafood, I felt compelled to show them how city-savvy I’d become by wearing an eggplant J. Crew sweater and jaywalking, often stranding my parents on opposite sides of the street. Instead of proving myself an adroit city-dweller, I pissed off the parentals through my reckless walking behavior and ended up feeling dumb and sweating because it wasn’t cold enough to be wearing a sweater and speed walking.
Over the course of four years, and it did take me four years because I’m a slow realizer, I found that I would never be a local in Boston, that somehow my Oklahoma roots were standing out ever starker on the scalp of my collegiate experience (unwise metaphor?), and that, to my never-ending surprise, I was actually encouraging it, getting involved in things like stew-making and contra dancing and prairie-dress-wearing. While in the northern wasteland, I found comfort in identifying with a mostly mythological Oklahoma, not at all the same one I had mildly despised while growing up. The Oklahoma in my collegiate mind was something else. It was a warm fire in winter and a sense of belonging in a place where everyone was far from home.
Now in San Francisco, I’m finding the same phenomenon to be true. Though I haven’t lived in Oklahoma for roughly five years, it’s still the place I’m “from,” and I will likely be from there my entire life. In cities like San Francisco, many people are in a similar boat. Maybe not one quite as conservative or mythologically rich, but most people are not “from here.” Many are from other parts of California or other states on the West Coast, and they’ve been drawn to the hilly flame of San Francisco like hapless moths, just like I have. Quite often there’s nary a local to be found.
Being a local is a kind of rare currency in this city. It connotes intimacy with a place that so many people desire, and it’s something that can’t be bought or earned. It can only happen or be given by parents foolish enough to try to withstand the expense and private-school calculus of raising a child in the city.
I will never be a local here, no matter how asymmetrical my haircut is. The only place I am a local is back in Oklahoma. I think that makes me a continual explorer, but it also adds the burden of creating home every place I go, but I guess that’s what we all have to do anyways. At least I’m in good company.