I arrived in San Diego at around 5 pm on Thanksgiving Day, after a twelve-hour drive. A shower, a glass of wine, and about forty-five minutes later, I was sitting around a table with my friend Morgan, her roommate, and a group of twenty-somethings. On impulse, I found myself scrolling through Craigslist, looking for apartments.
You may think I'm getting a little obsessed with this question, but I mean, eventually, I have to live somewhere. Right? That time seems be coming quickly, and San Diego does have a healthy list of qualifications. Including:
Institutions of higher learning.
Have I mentioned it’s sunny year-round?
I’d never been overly interested in San Diego, to be honest. Before my arrival, I’d envisioned a polished, resort-esque collection of subdivisions stacked together next to the ocean. And it’s true that it has San Diego does have its fair share of beige apartment complexes -- even the occasional patch of astroturf.
But upon closer inspection, I was pleased to discover that San Diego does actually have a certain grittiness. In Hillview, rainbow-flagged storefronts border a neighborhood of sun-worn desert bungalows. You can easily imagine a certain camaraderie between its inhabitants: maybe a first-time homeowner sharing a dumpster with a family, a bohemian couple, or a 60-something retired transplant. Ocean Beach was salty and humble, Little Italy offered something to aspire to, and in North Park, I had an excellent pourover.
Lots of potential. And the people? The observance of more than a handful of buff, overly made-up, Hollister-wearing young folk had me concerned. Is San Diego, like, the Jersey Shore of Southern California?? I mean, that would be OK, though I'm not sure it's my scene.
But when I posed the question to my Uber driver that Friday evening, he turned around to face me, revealing the full beauty of his sandy-colored mustache. His ‘90s-logoed tee was worn thin, staring gloriously back at me. “Absolutely not!” He said, with a wink.
In Pacific Beach one Sunday morning, I found myself strolling along the strand. I’d headed to this part of town thinking I’d find a quiet coffee shop to get some work done, but I’d gotten distracted by the blinding sight of the ocean. The sky was that Baywatch blue you don’t believe is real until it happens; the sand was as white as the waves cresting before they reached the shore. And there was even a token beach bum, leaning against the railing with his shirt off, taking photos of a hang glider drifting over the pier.
It was all too perfect, and I was in the midst of taking a quick Snap of the whole scene when the beach bum turned around. Or should I say, wheeled around. No, he wasn’t skateboarding. He was roller blading.
“Hey, I like your backpack,” he said.
“Thanks,” I said, tucking my phone into my leggings. “Yeah, it’s -- it’s definitely a good one.”
“It looks really durable. Like, heavy-duty. Like it could keep stuff pretty dry."
“Yeah for sure. Erm, totes. I mean, I got it for riding my bike. So yeah.”
“Looks like it fits a lot, too,” he said, giving it a pat.
“You know, I wish it fit a little bit more in it actually," I said, and we both squinted at it a little more critically -- "but yeah, I mean, yeah, it does the job."
“I see what you mean,” he said, looking up and smiling, finished with the backpack. “I’m Mack.” He stuck out his hand and gave me a little eye-twinkle action.
“Mariah,” I said. We exchanged a firm handshake.
For a little while, Mack and I meandered casually down the strand together as if this is what we did every Sunday. It’s what Mack does every Sunday -- I asked him.
“Yeah, I mean, I'm digging the roller blading. It’s a pretty good way to start the day. Just something I’ve been doing lately. It’s good for the core.”
“Right,” I said, glancing at his six-pack. “I’ll keep that in mind."
Turns out, Mack was himself a transplant from Ohio who had moved San Diego on a whim with his brother about six months ago. I'd heard that story from a few other people, actually, and I was starting to realize that maybe San Diego is where the young people go to retire -- not Portland.
“You know, I wasn’t going to talk to you, because you had your headphone in.”
“Yeah, but I was just listening to Jeff Buckley, feeling all the feels.”
“I get that, but you gotta socialize.”
Oh boy, I thought, putting on my best listening face.
“Alright,” I said. “So show me your skills. How do you go up and talk to strangers?”
I didn’t end up getting a full tutorial, but there were some sand drawings involved. He told me that he'd been stewing up a new adventure, maybe moving to Moab, maybe moving to Mexico. A handwritten excerpt from his favorite book fell out of his backpack, the handwriting surprisingly meticulous. He highlighted a few passages, then handed it over. He apologized for not offering me a spliff.
“Tell you what. I want to drink some tea, you want to drink some tea. So why don’t we go back to my place and drink some tea together?”
“Don’t worry, I know what you’re thinking. And I can guarantee you I’m the exact opposite of just wanting to get in your pants.”
I wasn’t sure whether that statement should be convincing, insulting, flirtatious, or endearing -- but something in our conversation had convinced me of his good intentions nonetheless, and I decided to trust that instinct. We got in my car and headed about ten blocks away from the ocean to a sunlit, second-story apartment. He lived with his brother, but the place was empty, filled with succulents and the wooden details of crafty, mid-twenties men. He skateboarded around the kitchen, boiling water and collecting an assortment of tea leaf options.
As we ate papaya and drank our tea, we talked about San Diego and the beach lifestyle. Mack had a degree in finance, but he didn’t want to do that. San Diego, he said, had seemed full of freedom, and it's true -- life was easy here, with the sun and the sand.
“But,” he added, “It’s almost too easy.” And I got that.
I left to meet a friend at a coffee shop, and Mack left to head back to the beach to get some reading in. I was moving on to Joshua Tree a few days later, and he insisted I borrow one of his hammocks to take with me. Again, I hesitated.
“If you move here, you can bring it back to me in person, and if not, you can always mail it.”
I started to protest, but then again, he was right. It was just one small tie to maybe.
I thanked him and we said goodbye.