When I was 21 years old, I decided it was time to move to a REAL city. Sleepy Seattle felt too small, too familiar, and not nearly international enough. I wanted something grittier. Something faster-paced and higher density with glamorous nightlife and world-renowned music. I’d spent most of my life in a region known for rock — but it was 1996, and I wanted a city known for House.
So I moved to San Francisco.
Or rather, first I moved to Hayward, a working class city in East Bay, where I squatted in my aunts’ guesthouse for a couple months to save up money. THEN I moved to San Francisco. Specifically, I moved into the Lower Haight.
Everything was in order for my new glamorous big city life: I had a sweet inner-city pad, complete with roommates from Paris and Brooklyn. I was up to my elbows in my music scene of choice. I lived within walking distance of hundreds of amazing restaurants and bars, and had my tiny little Honda CRX to get me to the thousands more within driving distance. I was a glamorous big-city girl and I was ready to LIVE THE DREAM!
…oh, except for the fact that my $11/hr file clerk job barely paid me enough to cover rent and food. I wasn’t living the dream. I was living the lie of being a young, struggling urbanite.
There’s a lot of pixie-dust that gets sold to all of us in college about how we’re going to move to the big city and make it big. Certainly New York and LA are especially guilty of this crime, since the cities are fueled by selling a dream-version of themselves to up-‘n’-comers of all kinds — but they’re not alone in the deception.
It’s not that I didn’t know that moving to San Francisco was going to be expensive. Of course it was going to be expensive! That’s part of what attracted me to it. The glitz and glamour and nightlife and Easter-egg-colored Victorian walk-ups with their secret garden back-patios. Of course it cost to live amongst all that fabulous.
I knew it cost, so I got myself a good job. I’d been working retail for minimum wage, so entering the white collar work-force with all its vacation time and insurance benefits felt like a MASSIVE step up. My income almost doubled when I moved to San Francisco — I felt confident that this increase would cover my living expenses.
But the cold reality is that, if you’re living in one of the most expensive cities in the country, an entry-level office job just doesn’t get you very far. It’s absolutely a livable wage, but it’s not going to get you the kind of glamorous life that attracted you to living there.
I was in a state of constant budgetary crisis during my time in San Francisco. In fact, my first EVER published article was called SF LOW BUDGE and was all about doing things like stealing toilet paper from public restrooms to make ends meet. When I tried to live within my means, it meant eating at home (which I could have done in Seattle) and not going out (the whole reason I’d moved there!). I tried focusing on free events (parties in Golden Gate Park were awesome!) but lived in a state of constant frustration over not being able to actually enjoy the arts and culture I’d moved to the big city to enjoy.
Now, I don’t want to misrepresent the situation here: this was far from poverty. My point here isn’t to say WOE IS ME, EDUCATED WHITE GIRLS IN THE BIG CITY ARE SOOOOO POOOOOOR, but rather to say that the big city dreams that are mass-produced and sold off-the-rack in small towns across the US (and around the world) just aren’t tied to reality. They are romanticized fantasies, and it’s important to recognize them as such.
Chances are that if you’re in your early 20s and you move to the big city, you will not have the glamorous life of your dreams.
Reality check: Chances are that if you’re in your early 20s and you move to the big city, you will not have the glamorous life of your dreams. (Exceptions for those who sell drugs or skin, have a trust fund, or are independently wealthy, or run a profitable side business.) For most of us in our early 20s who move to the big city, it’s about being in close proximity to glamour, and getting tantalizing tastes of it here and there. Eventually (if you work hard and/or get lucky) you might get to the excitement that pulled you to the city in the first place. But initially? You’ll probably live in a building that looks like this, eat at home most nights, and be frustrated. Or, you’ll wrack up crippling debts. (I did that in San Francisco, too. It took me almost 10 years to pay off the debts I incurred in my year of living there. I do not recommend this method.)
Is this a reason not to move to the city? Well, maybe some of you want to follow Cat’s lead and trade the starving urban artist routine for the non-starving smaller-town artist routine. For me, however, I love my big city life, and the scrappy years were totally a part of the journey. No regrets. (Well, other than the credit card debt. That was just stupid.)
I just wish that someone had told me, in words that I could understand, that scrappy wasn’t like Rent where everyone squeaks by in gorgeously decrepit artists lofts. For me, scrappy was being the bored artist in the office working mundane day-jobs. Scrappy was living in ugly buildings and missing amazing cultural events happening a block away because I couldn’t afford it. Scrappy wasn’t about high city fashion — it was about spending too much of my paycheck on khakis to wear to the office jobs that helped me barely pay my rent.
So this is me saying to all the young Offbeat Homies dreaming of a big city life: it may not be glamorous, but if it’s what you want, it’s so very, very worth it.