Moving on up

Broke in Berkeley

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“We’re going to go on an adventure.”

My mom had woken me up sometime after midnight to tell me this news. I blinked in the low light, trying to wake up fully.

“What?”

“You’re going to pack up your backpack for a trip. Bring clothes and the stuff that’s most important to you. Whatever doesn’t fit in your bag, we have to leave here.”

“When are we coming back?”

“We’re not. Hurry up.”

I was 7 years old. This was the first time we had to leave in the middle of the night.

We stole quietly out of the apartment. The notice on the door read “EVICTION.” I knew that word. My little brother lay curled up on the floor of the car, under the glass dome of the hatchback. He was asleep with his favorite stuffed animal under his arm. I hoped my mom had packed for him, but I didn’t ask. I had done a terrible job of packing for myself, choosing books and forgetting my hairbrush. The next time it happened, I was better at it.

In my life, I’ve moved more times than I can count. I’ve lived in more states than most people have driven through and more countries than most have seen on vacation. As an adult, I moved for jobs, for school, for love and for fun. As a kid, I moved because we were with the army. After my parents divorced, we moved because we were dirt-poor and could never seem to stay anywhere. Like most kids, I hated it. I could never stay in one school for very long or make friends I could keep. More often than not, we left in the middle of the night, abandoning our belongings, never to return. For a long time, I hated the word “adventure.”

This week, I moved again. But this time, I chose to move. I have lived in Fremont for a whole year, from CalSO to finals, and I never had to worry about packing to leave in the middle of the night. This time, I chose the time and the place, the neighborhood and the size of my new home. I chose the length of my commute and the distance I would have to travel to a grocery store, a library and a freeway.

These changes brought on by my choices got me thinking about moving and privilege. Privilege can be largely represented in choices. These simple choices about how and where to live were choices we didn’t have when I was growing up, because we were poor. We couldn’t choose to stay or go. We couldn’t choose not to live in the ghetto or in a rent-by-week motel — because privileges like that have to be bought. The old saying goes that beggars can’t be choosers, and that is more evident in how and where one lives than in anything else. It is inescapable.

My escape in growing up brought me choices. I get to choose who I live with, where we will live, where we will go.
Living in the South Bay was a hard choice. As I’ve written previously, my choice was between a commute lasting between an hour and a half to three hours, and at a distance from campus that made a social life or club involvement really difficult. Circumstances have changed enough this year that we were able to make the move to the East Bay to a home in West Oakland. The maximum length of my new commute, even if I take the slowest no-cost option, is 40 minutes. It is a new world.

My friends are almost as excited as I am. Everyone is very supportive of this change, and strangers touched by my story tell me they have been rooting for me all along. Our new place is bigger, better located, and packed with better features than anything we’ve had before. There are more good things about this move than I can list, but it feels incredibly fragile to me. To have so much freedom and so much choice is hard to accept after a lifelong habit of being the beggar who could not choose. It all seems too good to be true. I am hanging up pictures, making my bed and making it real. Our choices become our lives, they make up who we are.

I caught the bus in downtown Oakland for the first time a few days ago. The ride was over so quickly that I barely had time to distract myself with emails and texts. The bus pulled up to Bancroft Way, and I was momentarily overwhelmed by the small changes in fortune that led me here. I had my packed my bag for a day, not forever. I have the keys to my new place, and I know it will be there when I get back. The long car ride of eviction and the long bus ride of the beggar have ended.

I am no longer afraid of adventure.

Meg Elison writes the Monday column on financial issues affecting UC Berkeley students.Contact Meg Elison at [email protected].