There are times when I think the most salient class divide, a huge piece of the dark matter that undergirds our lives in this country, is whether or not you’re part of the driver class, those who have no choice but to regularly get behind the wheel and rack up substantial mileage on the highway to go anywhere, do anything, or be anybody.
I know at an intellectual level that there are such people, but at an emotional level it always surprises me when I encounter the truth that there are people in this country who just don’t drive long distances often, if ever. Not just those of more basic tastes who are incurious about the world, but people who are as wonderful as they are privileged, ensconced in a bubble where everything you might ever want or need is available in world-class splendor within easy walking distance of your house.
Okay, this might be an exaggeration, but it’s really struck me recently that I’m used to a grueling lifestyle. I recently escaped the heat and humidity, in advance of my long road trip to the Pacific Northwest, by furiously driving the open road to the nearest mountains, which literally took all day and all night round-trip with only a brief stay at my destination, and it really wasn’t that bad compared to what I’m used to on my weekly-or-more super-commute to the nearest major city.
Which…is low-key kinda horrifying. But there are people with commutes more brutal than mine; I’ve even personally met a few of them! We might not be the norm, but we’re out here in significant numbers, invisible to those who can afford to buy or rent places right in the bright centers of the universe, and hence invisible to American and world culture, because these privileged bubble-dwellers are the people who make our media and lead our discourse.
Among the few places the privileged and the subaltern that is the driving class meet in full frankness is Reddit threads concerning relocations, new jobs, road trips, and commutes. I read online people advising those considering it that the commute from Tracy, California to San Jose will “make you believe in hell” or some such, giving me the impression that it’s some brutal trek akin to that man who won America’s Toughest Commute contest (or some such) who drove from the edge of Yosemite to Silicon Valley and back every day, but nope! Turns out Tracy to San Jose is…55 miles. Google says it currently takes 1 hour 14 minutes. I dart my eyes back and forth, thinking “What are they even talking about? That’s not even that bad! ‘Make you believe in hell’, indeed; they ought to see what I do every week.”
Well, if they did they’d probably faint. I can’t help but think the denizens of swanky coastal California are spoiled rotten. Not only do they think of a 55-mile commute that takes an hour as “hell”, they love to bash the hellhole that is the Central Valley. In all fairness I’ve never been to most of the Central Valley, and the little of it I have seen hasn’t left me impressed to say the least, but I’m still struck by how Angelenos look at a place like Bakersfield, California and christen it the armpit of California due to its godawful climate.
What does this godawful climate consist of? Well, winters averaging 58 by day and 40 by night, with summers averaging 98 by day and 71 by night, sunny and dry year-round with little in the way of humidity.
I look at that and I’m like “Sure, I wouldn’t want to live there, but…uh, that’s not even really any worse that what I’m used to already! How spoiled are these people?” Well, they’re exactly this spoiled:
Hmph. No wonder they think Bakersfield is a hellhole.
It gets even better: the median home price in Bakersfield is $370,000. That’s beyond what I could trade my own house in for; my home’s value is only $250,000. But that $370,000 figure is comparable to what it takes to live right in the major city nearest to me instead of out in the super-commuter belt. Of course you don’t get as much in Bakersfield as you do in even a third-rate city…or do you?
Bakersfield itself might not be much, but Los Angeles, arguably the greatest city in the world, is really not far away. In online discussions Angelenos who raise the possibility of moving to Bakersfield, where they can actually afford to buy a house, are looked at all wide-eyed like they’re crazy for suggesting such a lifestyle instead of just moving “out of state” (to the oh-so-promised-land of, say, Houston…which with the humidity will feel even hotter than Bakersfield in the summer?…), but when I look at the numbers, I find the commute is…113 miles long. Or 1 hour 53 minutes. That’s not much more grueling than the drive I make multiple times a week anyway! And I don’t even get to visit a city remotely as world-class as Los Angeles in the process. Spoiled, spoiled, these Californians…
For me, on the other hand, Bakersfield might actually represent an upgrade. Browsing Zillow, I like the housing stock there much better than what I can find at home, it’s still a very California sort of place, and it’s not much more expensive than my current digs. With realistic and near-term increases in my income, I could actually make a relocation there work. Would I want to, though? Eh…let’s just say from what I’ve viewed of it at a distance I’m not enthusiastic about going all-in on the hometown of our glorious leader Kevin McCarthy. He!
Nevertheless, I’m really struck by how Bakersfield, or for that matter other “hellish” locations to commute into Los Angeles from such as the High Desert or even Las Vegas, are really not that bad by the standards I’ve gotten accustomed to: zero-degree winters and hundred-degree summers, hundred-mile commutes and thousand-mile days on the road. Like that cursed crewman told Jack Sparrow in “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl”, “You know nothing of hell!”.