I am now more than halfway through my second semester here at Columbia—a full seven months since I first left my home in Berkeley, California—and somehow I still find myself pulling out my Metrocard when leaving a subway station, as if I’m still riding the BART—the Bay Area’s transit system—instead of the 1. This was far from the most obvious of my Californian tendencies.
I stubbornly wore my denim jacket nearly every day of fall semester, halfway through my first East Coast winter, even though my friends insisted that the jacket, and I, wouldn’t survive. It’s well-worn, a faded blue, and still a little larger than I am, even with the time that I’ve had to grow into it. I think holding onto it—a stylistic choice which feels characteristic of the alternative fashion that dominates Berkeley—felt like holding onto home, especially in a time when I had never felt further from it.
The first time my friend from LA saw me wear it, she laughed, “You’re such a Berkeley boy.”
These habits seemed to emphasize the distance between here and there, reminding me that I’d come to a place I didn’t yet understand, and that I was still strongly tethered to home.
Then on Monday, Oct. 8 2017, I open up Facebook and see that my older brother has marked himself safe in the Sonoma County wildfire.
Over the next half hour, I come to learn more about the devastation in the same way I would have were I at home in Berkeley: I sift through articles from CNN, the New York Times, TIME, and some smaller local papers from my bedroom. Twitter live feed updates rapidly in a separate window.
In the midst of all this, I find myself grasping at old memories of my brother: the time we struggled to find water while we backpacked through Big Sur at the height of the California drought, or blasting country music on our road trips up and down the coast. Every glance at my Facebook notifications throws those pictures into question.
The photos in particular are shocking: Once-green hills are charred black and speckled with orange, like glowing embers left in the fireplace. The rising grey haze makes the houses seem to stretch miles high, adding stories. Cars fuse to the ground, melted in the furnace around them. Again and again, I see people dwarfed by the devastation that lies before them. “It doesn’t look like California,” my roommate, a fellow Californian, says. “It looks like an apocalypse.”
But even when poring over these images, I can’t feel the heat. I can’t inhale the smoke. I can’t do anything but sit and watch and feel further from home than I ever have before.
everything smells like smoke
all sports are canceled
school was almost canceled
My younger sister updates me on the situation in Berkeley as our brother heads south from his home in Santa Rosa to join her. While the fire hasn’t reached Berkeley, the wind trails in smoke anyway, and people have been instructed to remain indoors.
She tells me of a classmate who sits beside her, and how in class that day he watched live on Google Maps as the fire inched closer and closer to his home before finally engulfing his neighborhood. I watch my friends from back home, the majority of whom attend state schools, experiencing the fire through their updates on Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat. There’s a difference in the way we are experiencing the tragedy, I realize. It is surrounding them. And while it occupies my mind, the space around me is free from the danger.
it feels horrible
there’s like ash on ppls houses
i got ash in my eyes walking to fucking fourth period
My sister sends me a photo of a girl walking across the quad of my old high school’s campus, the place where I ate lunch with my friends every day for four years, with her head hanging low and a facemask guarding her mouth and nose. There’s a slight haze to the photo, like there’s a faint smudge on the camera lens.
u can’t rly see
Half an hour later I’m still reading articles, though I’m now sitting in my University Writing class, and the stuffy, claustrophobic rooms of Pupin have never felt more fitting. I feel like I’m caught in a whirlpool somewhere between here and there—my mind endlessly shifting back and forth between the two, but not fully experiencing either.
One day later, on Tuesday, Oct. 9, Governor Jerry Brown declares a State of Emergency in Northern California counties affected by the wildfires. On Wednesday, Oct. 10, Columbia emails students from California to express concern for our well-being and remind us of on-campus mental health and counseling resources. It’s the first time I hear the wildfires mentioned on campus. I decide not to take advantage of the counseling services offered; my own feelings of detachment feel small next to the tragedy faced by those more directly affected.
The smoke has since cleared from the Berkeley Hills, and my brother has returned back home to Santa Rosa, his neighborhood mostly unaffected. I can’t help but think of the recovery effort that will take years, and the fact that I won’t be around for much of it. I’m the only one of my siblings to leave the state, and I realize now that the distance between us will only grow with time.
I’m one of very few of my high school friends who desperately wanted to leave California. I felt like if I didn’t leave for college, then I never would. New York seemed like the place to be because I thought that’s where writers lived, breathed, and wrote. If you’ve seen Lady Bird, this might all sound familiar.
There’s a scene at the end of the movie when the main character, disillusioned by the reality of New York City, recalls her emotional experience driving through her hometown of Sacramento for the first time—of seeing all the city’s bends and buildings she’s known her whole life through a different lens, and feeling a new sense of appreciation for it all. I think since coming to New York I’ve felt something similar when I go back, riding the BART through West Oakland, or taking the AC Transit 7 line from Downtown Berkeley up into the hills where I live.
The sense of belonging that I feel as I watch Shattuck and Telegraph pass from the window seat on the bus only builds as I round the Marin Circle. When I start moving along Arlington Avenue, which snakes its way through the Berkeley Hills and into Richmond, I know that I’ve come home. But there’s a distance now too, because I can’t help but feel that when I look out that window I still see California as it was and not as it is. I can’t help but think the wildfire burned more than just my home state—it scorched my connection to California. The bus comes to a stop across the street from my house but, stepping off and out from the safety of that window, I’m no longer certain that this is home. In truth I think that I’ve become stuck between homes, drifting along somewhere in the three thousand miles that separate the place I knew from the place I have not yet come to know.