In spring last year I saw a hummingbird for the first time. She tended to a flower outside the window of the apartment and I watched her, I was still – frightened she would fly away if I moved. I realised in that moment where I was. I had been here for three months by then, but it was only in that instant, when the hummingbird let me watch her feeding, that I realised I was in California. And from then, all around me California became visible. I felt the outlines fill with colour. All the colours were there, but mainly they were blue, green and grey. The sky, the leaves and the poured concrete. A corner of the world came to life under a stream of constant sunshine and it was a tie-dye world, a technicolour world, and I was deeply ensconced in it, this theme park of the west, in this adult Disneyland of a state.
I started out on foot around the town, picking up rocks to look underneath and I found stories in the faces of people, but they were in languages I didn’t understand – Chinese, Spanish, American-English – and I nodded and said ‘hello’ but I was invisible here. I felt deeply what it meant to be a stranger. Everywhere I looked I could see the natural world, the physical world trying to bust out through the pavements. The palms swaying overhead, the dusty gold of the distant hills and the coast raging against the beach try to take back the land. Mount Tam watching over us in the distance. The hills of the city rising up to shake off their buildings. I found hairy girls and shaved boys and people eating constantly but not gaining weight and people who were either fully caffeinated or anti-caffeine or taking a break from coffee, but always with a stance on coffee. Vegan food and barbecued ribs and ice cream prompting queues around blocks, lines of food hobbyists. I found bleached blondes and stubbly faces, tiny shorts. I discovered the real necessity of sunglasses. And there were juice bars and murals and there was no central heating to dry me out, so my skin became supple and olive-toned and my hair was soft and shone in the evening light and my husband held me in a different way.
I listened to the ground to hear the never ending hum of making, doing, breaking through, middle-fingering the obstacles and shaking off of doubts. Of technology and craft, of knitting apps, perhaps. There was abundance everywhere. Abundant fruits in every shade, ready to roll off the fruit stands that spilled onto the streets. Abundant limes, twelve for a dollar, that were for pints of margaritas, that in turn were for hangovers that didn’t matter because I didn’t have to be anywhere tomorrow. There was abundant money. There was abundant poverty. There was abundant fear for the future of the city. There was an abundant capacity for ignoring that which people didn’t want to see. There was an abundance of people who were ready to accept me no matter who or what I was, and then to forget me.
There was glitter and unicorns and a man playing a saxophone on rollerblades, and there was marijuana, sweet, sweet green waves to ride amid the sirens that sounded like sports fans cheering. We watched tacos thrown like frisbees in the street, up above the crowds when Los Gigantes won the World Series. We hid indoors when a gun was fired outside our building in the middle of the night.
A man and his dog rode a segway and a car drove itself down the freeway. People were always talking about ideas, but usually just their own ideas. If they could detach the peninsula and set themselves free from America on the raft that they had made with the land, never to look back again at the rest of the world – the world that seems so far away anyway – they would. They would cut themselves loose from the bridges, The Golden Gate and the Bay, the bridges that tether them to the mainland like anchors. With kiteboards under their arms and burritos in their pockets they would shout ‘Viva San Franscisco!’. Long live San Francisco. Long may it live, this wide open world of political discontent pouring out in the colours of the rainbow flag and in the sound of the mariachi band that whines from the speakers of a car stereo. All those wide-open people may remember me after all, but perhaps they won’t remember me the way I will remember them. As I write at my desk, the meter-wide, plastic dodecahedron that hangs from a tree outside my window reflects Californian sun onto the walls so I can see the rays even when I can’t feel their warmth. And when we leave I will know this place is here, and I will feel a warmth of some kind, even if I can’t casually get up and go outside to eat the avocados that have fallen from a tree on the next block.