When I lost my job I went out to California and I suppose there are a few reasons for that. One is that this is just what we do, we Americans, when we find ourselves without work: We go West to where things might be (have to be, please God let them be) better. We have always done this, dragged ourselves by our idle, hungry hands out to the left coast: The Oregon Trail riders, the gold-diggers, the Dust Bowl refugees.
Even my own father did this. In early 1985, he and my mother and I left Tennessee to spend a few weeks in the Bay Area. I was three or four months old. As a kid, they would tell me stories: We were in Chinatown in San Francisco for the Chinese New Year and my mom was convinced all the firecracker popping would render me deaf; we went down to L.A. for a couple days and they thrust me into the arms of Frankenstein at Universal Studios and I cried and cried, but I was good on the plane. It wasn’t until a few Septembers ago, when I was planning my own post-employment trip out West, that I discovered that first one had also been spurred by my dad being let go from his job.
It was just for the winter, his company’s slow season—he was hired back in the spring—but it was unsettling to think of my dad being without work. Aside from that month or two he’s never not had a job in my life. But I liked the thought that, amid that uncharacteristic and impermanent unmooring, he felt the tug westward, too. And I liked the thought that, by being unemployed and going to California, I was fulfilling not just some deep, nearly patriotic desire, but possibly even a genetically ingrained impulse. This made me feel better, at least, about spending a significant part of my dwindling savings on a vacation when my day-to-day life already involved sleeping in, reading magazines and intermittently changing from one pair of elastic-waisted pants into another.
But really, what spurred both of us, decades apart, to make that trip, was this: There was family out there and a visit sounded nice and we sure had the time.
My cousin Marie and I grew up as best friends. By late summer 2010, we were both a couple years out of college and, until I was laid off from mine, both working jobs that suited us in ways that would’ve made our much younger selves giddily proud: me at a magazine in Atlanta, her as a naturalist at an outdoor school among the redwoods on the San Mateo coast. I don’t remember if it was her idea or mine that I should visit, but we both agreed it needed to happen.
She picked me up at the airport in San Francisco and we immediately lapsed into our long-established patterns of togetherness, which have almost always consisted exclusively of sitting and talking and eating, or walking and talking and eating. By then I had been jobless for almost a month, and unemployment was beginning to agree with me; the bone-shaking terror and unexpected elation that had coursed through me in the first weeks following my not entirely unanticipated layoff had mellowed into kind of a quiet, nervous calm—a warm thrum, like being very tired at the end of a long, hard day, or being ill but on the mend.
I was in California for four days and I remember so much of what Marie and I bought and consumed. On that first afternoon alone there were strawberries from a bodega in Chinatown, eaten straight from the basket, unwashed, on the street corner; a terrifyingly gray dim sum meal washed down with multiple styrofoam cups full of boiling-hot water, the only complimentary beverage made available to the restaurant’s dine-in customers; an It’s-It ice cream sandwich, the first of several that week, gobbled down despite crushing brain-freeze at the foot of the Golden Gate bridge.
That night, on the way back to Marie’s place about an hour down the coast, we stopped at a grocery store in the last medium-sized town before her tiny one. She bought vegetables, eggs, cereal, probably some kind of deodorant made out of lichen or something—all sensible things, things that adults with jobs spend their money on to sustain themselves in their structured, responsibility-saddled lives. I bought magazines and a couple candy bars, really fancy ones, made by a company—a chocolatier, even—up in Seattle, where I’d visited a friend the previous spring, a trip that had felt earned and righteous and required the taking of vacation days.
Marie also bought a block of cheese, mozzarella, which I proceeded to eat in its entirety over the next four days. If she noticed this she said nothing about it.
I arrived just after one of the outdoor school’s first groups of the fall semester, some Bay Area fifth-graders who’d spent the week hiking and beach-combing and camp-song-singing and dining-hall-feasting. While the outdoor school was in session Marie and her co-workers lived on site, some in yurts but most double-wide trailers all named after animal habitats: The Fishbowl, the Rookery. The staff all had nicknames, too—”nature names.” Marie was called Moose after a river in New York state where she’d once had a near-near-death kayaking experience. She lived in the furthest-back trailer, the Midden, with Cypress, a girl our age from New Jersey, and Wolfie, a cat who was later eaten by coyotes. Just outside the Midden’s front door was the stump of a redwood, long ago sawed off at its base and still rooted into the earth—the trailer had been positioned there in such a way that the giant tree nub served as a front stoop. Inside the place was cozy, the tiny rooms lined with sagging furniture and drying flowers and vaguely evocative abstract oil paintings left behind by generations of previous tenants. The redwoods were dense enough all around the trailer that even at midday the light was indirect, grayish, always like twilight or early morning.
I found out at some point during my stay that a midden is a kind of densely layered heap of refuse, constructed by a human or a woodrat. That seemed right. I felt like one more little scrap tucked into the pile.
In California I also learned that when a redwood of a certain age is cut down or burned to the ground, compensatory growths sprout up from its root system, eventually forming a perfect ring of new trees around the dessicated trunk of the old one. There was one of these things, a redwood circle, out in the woods behind the Midden. The new trees were towering, maybe all as big as the one they’d sprung up from had been when it died, all feeding off its old fingers of roots, still creeping, unseen, underground.
My first morning there Marie packed us sandwiches and we drove out to an open space preserve in the Santa Cruz mountains, where we hiked along a dusty path cut into an unshaded, scrubby ridge until it snaked into a stand of coast live oaks, one of which we climbed. We curled into the gnarled arms of its branches and ate our lunch and I considered not coming down. Later we bought chevre from a farm where the goats from whence it came bleated manically just beyond the shop door, then gathered strawberries from a u-pick field that blurred at the horizon into the ocean. We ate it all sitting on a grassy cliff that edged out over the beach, the tide crashing into the gray rocks below.
Why do I remember these things, but hardly a conversation that we had or a song that we heard? Perhaps the details just found an easy home in my newly soft, unoccupied brain, like the tiny purple and yellow flowers that had been pressed into the creamy white mound of goat cheese at the farm shop. But also every instance of consumption was heightened by the feeling that each dollar I spent out there was one less dollar I’d have to live on when I got home.
In reality being in California was almost saving me money—the airfare was stiff, but Marie shuttled me around and let me graze on the contents of the Midden’s fridge like a shiftless teenager. But the possibility that whatever I was doing with myself or my limited funds (I didn’t, and still don’t, have a credit card) could in any way be construed as irresponsible was kind of gently, deeply thrilling. I’d spent the previous three years in a constant panic over what I could and could not spend, over how much I was or was not making, always caught somewhere between gradually curdling resentment at a paycheck that remained static as my workload grew beyond any reasonable expectations and gratefulness for getting a job in a dying industry right out of school just as the economy began to tank. I once thought that if I worked hard enough or stayed loyal enough or worried about everything enough then nothing like this would ever happen to me. And for a while it didn’t. But then it did.
Sunday afternoon I went with Marie and some of her co-workers to a nearby Catholic church, where a little shed across the parking lot from the chapel doubled as a food bank. On a pretty regular basis, a half-dozen or so outdoor school naturalists would drive over and stand in line and pick up some groceries for the week. They were hardly the target population, but none of them got paid all that much and it was closer than the nearest supermarket, anyway; they called it the food “tank” and that one consonant seemed to mark some kind of crucial distinction. We arrived late so we waited in line as people from the community—some older folks, some moms our age with kids running around—went through first. The church ladies working the door didn’t ask anyone for proof of their need, but all us young folks hanging around with our hiking sandals and outdoorsy glows seemed more than a bit conspicuous—possibly rude, or worse. By the time Marie and I were waved in there was not much left on the shelves, which was a relief to me. I didn’t even have a job and I felt like I shouldn’t be there. We took some nearly-stale bread and some frozen tilapia filets and left.
I had gone to the unemployment office in Atlanta a couple weeks before. Filing for unemployment turned out to involve not just filling out paperwork, but sitting through a mandatory class that instructed me and a dozen other people on how to fill out paperwork, which had been oddly self-explanatory to begin with. In the classroom there were women who shuffled through forms with one hand and rocked babies to sleep with the other. There were men older than my father with a kind of shattered, half-focused look in their eyes. I was the first in the group to hand in my paperwork. I received one week of benefit payments before getting kicked off the dole for taking a freelance assignment that paid a few bucks more than what I was allotted by the state. I did not reapply.
Sunday night Marie and I perched on barkless logs and grilled the tilapia over a fire pit near the yurts. It was dark and we ate the fish with our hands and washed it down with beer we couldn’t see. The next morning she went off to welcome a swarm of new campers I wandered out into the woods behind the Midden, following the path to the redwood circle.
The circle was a hub of trails and in the middle was a clearing, where I lay down on the duff for a while and thought about where to go next. In the distance, kids were shrieking and school busses rumbling away. When I pulled myself up I stepped out onto a narrow footpath that snaked down an embankment, down a staircase built into the hillside; at the bottom, a creek elbowed through the ravine. I meant to go put my feet in the shallows where I knew they would ache and arch in the cold water. The doe perhaps had the same idea. We had interrupted each other. She stood facing and not facing me, the way a deer can: Her body pointed away from mine, her neck craned back over her shoulder, her wide black eyes unblinking. We stood and stared at each other. I stepped closer and she didn’t move. The light filtered down green and trembling through everything between us and the sky, which was blue somewhere far above.
Finally the doe turned and stepped out across the slippery creek rocks without looking back at me. I watched her cross the water and pause where the the opposite face of the ravine met the creek bank. She regarded the embankment for a moment and I thought perhaps I sensed her thoughts—that she knew she was trapped, that she’d picked the wrong angle for her passage, that the wall of trees and rock and earth was too steep, too tangled for her to go much further. I expected her to cross back to me, for us to resume our staring. We would have stared and stared and I would have missed my flight back to Atlanta, would have just stayed in California till I died, standing there in the clearing, waiting to see what would be next. But then she launched herself up onto a foothold I couldn’t see, the tawny flash of her zigzagging upwards across the sheer hillside until she disappeared among the trees.