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Mark Morford
Morford-better off-grid?

by Mark Morford …….Then come those times, like when you walk out your front door on a calm sunny Sunday morn, and find your shiny new car has been smashed by a hit-and-run driver to the tune of 14 grand’s worth of repairs and your heart sinks and your normally Zenlike ennui boils over and you look around your grungy metropolitan neighborhood with a sudden mix of resignation and revulsion and an uncontrollable hissing sigh, that you realize how fed up you are with life in the city. It happens now and then, a wave of nausea and heaving frustration all aimed at the congestion and the traffic and the parking woes, the spitting lunatic homelessness and the lack of space and the lack of quiet and the random urban demons careening around the ‘hood smashing windows and exchanging gunfire and peeing on your stoop, when you say to yourself, “You know what? I’ve loved and endured the city in equal turns for nearly 10 years now, and maybe that’s enough, and isn’t it about time I found some quiet and green and a yard and a dog and a parking space to call my own? ”

It’s a question, I’m sure, asked by every city dweller past the age of, say, 32, the age where your hip grungy stained “artist’s” apartment with the peeling vinyl flooring and limp water pressure and the horde of partyers who live behind you and who smoke like factories and stay up til 5 a.m. snorting coke and playing acoustic guitar very very badly, it all switches from being funky and charming and urban to utterly obnoxious and tiring, and don’t these people have jobs? It is the time, in other words, wherein you hit that very special crossroads where you decide either to suck it up and accept the trade-off of calm energy for urban sophistication, or you think about getting the hell out. Or, better yet, you dream of doing both.

I am at this point. I have a lovely and well-maintained and relatively enormous flat in San Francisco and I love it to death, but I’ve been here a very long time and it can exhaust and frustrate and I’ve had two cars smashed and endured endless sirens and homeless screams in the night. There is not enough green. There is far too much gray. You cannot rent forever. Or can you?

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If you live in the Bay Area, it is a question both complicated and unbearable. After all, where the hell can you go? Where can you still buy a home in this region that’s even reasonably city-adjacent and urban-accessible that has its own delicious non-uptight community? A house that will clock in at under half a million dollars for something more than 900 square feet of cheaply built, cracked-foundation bliss? This is the real conundrum: Where to obtain city-like charms with cabin-in-the-woods quiet and space for under the cost of selling the ovum of a blue-eyed geisha on the Japanese black market? After all, the Bay Area real estate market is nothing if not a hellbitch of investment discouragement. You take a deep breath and make a few Web site clicks and take one look at prices around the region and you go, Oh holy hell, I guess I’ll just stay in my sad rent-controlled limbo a while longer and, besides, what’s a little gunfire and urine when a small fixer-upper in Sausalito is 800K, without windows?

Of course, the ripest bohemian dream is to have, well, both: the hip urban pad and a weekend woodsy getaway, maybe Calistoga or Occidental or Bodega or Russian River or Sebastopol, something up in the rolling pristine fogless green, a place to escape the urban grind, a writing sex hot tub meditation bring some friends up for the weekend retreat where you can go and plant some lavender and work on the deck and think about the meaning of single-malt scotch.

I have visited these regions. I have felt the calm verdant hum. When there, it is impossible not to fantasize about sticking around, about buying my own private quarter acre near the organic farmlands and the neohippies and the winemakers, the artist communes and the spiritual renegades and the slightly mad alt-millionaire geniuses who live well off the grid, all while still somehow maintaining a link to the beloved city. Is such a dual existence possible? Check that: Is such an existence possible on a columnist’s salary? Does Bush speak with nuanced polysyllabic intelligence? Maybe I’m missing something. Maybe there is a way and I just don’t know it, a way to live the dual urban/pastoral dream without going into 30 years of runaway debt, without cashing in every nest-egg stock you ever owned and without borrowing three-quarters of a million dollars from the bank even as you stock up on tuna and water and canned beans for when the Big One hits and wipes it all off the map anyway.

This, then, is the big conundrum. Because a city like San Francisco, well, it gets in the blood. It is difficult to shake. I want to get out, but I don’t want to leave. San Francisco remains one of the most desirable places to live in the world, the most electric and accessible and radiant and walkable urban jungles still without a Wal-Mart in its city limits, all resulting in the eternal S.F. lament, ongoing for the past decade: Relatively young? Make a decent salary (even two, combined)? Love the city? Want to lay down some roots and maybe buy a nice house? Good for you. Now get the hell out, because you can’t possibly afford it. So then, like countless city dwellers, I wait. I long. For the lottery win, for the market to implode (ha), for miracles and magic and time to heal all ridiculously inflated prices. I read the stories that claim the Bay Area housing market is cooling off — which, around here, is a bit like saying the sun has dropped eight degrees from its recent high of 59 billion Fahrenheit. I dwell in schizophrenia, longing to stay in the city but getting hit by massive cravings to flee to calmer regions whenever the drug dealers four blocks away look at me like they’re the hammer and I’m the nail.

Meantime, the yellowish vinyl tile in my rent-controlled kitchen is from 1974. I shall convince myself it is full of urban personality and charm. I shall pretend that I have enormous storage space and a closet larger than a gym locker and that my car will be protected by a magic force field generated by fierce German angels sent to me by the Audi corporation. I shall buy more plants, ignore the broken glass in the street, turn up the Supergrass and the BRMC and the Thievery Corporation to drown out the sirens and the screams. It is, perhaps, for the time being, the only way.

Recycled with the permission of Mark Morford – his column appears Wednesdays and Fridays in Datebook and on sfgate.com. E-mail him at mmorford@sfgate.com

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One Response to “Should I stay or should I go?”

  1. CRAZY CATS | Little Homestead in the City

    […] So instead of me finishing my thoughts on such a conundrum, read this young man’s dilemma on whether he should stay or go. I am sure many of you are struggling with the same inner battle. […]

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