Exploring the city
I’m driving LYFT in Redding, California, a city in Shasta County three and a half hours north of San Francisco.
As always before I embark, I like to do a little pre-trip research.
One reviewer on Yelp described it as “a blend of new and old, struggling for its identity;” another as “a town trying to catch up with other cities in California but still stuck in the good ol’ boy mentality from the past.”
A third praised it for its weather (Redding ranks as the second sunniest city in the U.S.) and motorcycle friendliness.
Strip malls abound on wide roads while verdant mountains poke up towards the sky in the distance.
A well-kept barrenness marks the streets of downtown, with nothing appearing neglected or run-down despite the stillness in the air and overall lack of activity.
The coffee shop I take a break at feels like a mix between a spa waiting room and a dentist’s office lobby, with a piano in the corner.
Passengers seem to have mixed feelings about the city.
One, a young woman who works for a catering company, describes her mom’s decision to move her up here from San Jose when she was twelve as having “ruined her life.”
“I prefer places closer to civilization,” she expresses. “The only reason I’m still here is for my brother’s kids, who are my world. Love those guys with everything I’ve got.”
Other passengers hold more positive sentiments towards it: “You’re separate from all that big city bullshit, where people are mean and get in each other’s way. Up here you’ve got people working together,” says one.
This passenger also likes Redding for its proximity to “pure nature that hasn’t yet been conquered by Man and turned into product.” Shasta Lake and Whiskey Town Falls among other natural beauties are just a short drive away.
He believes the nature up north to be more pristine and undisrupted than some of the nature areas in other parts of the state.
“Think outdoors on a grander scale—taller mountains, taller trees, more vivid lakes. You can’t beat it.”
Two men, one who seems to be in his mid 40s, the other in his late 20s, talk about what makes a book compelling to them.
“I want the author to take me into his head without locking me up in there,” the older man says. “He’s got to let me out into the world too. I don’t like it when a single mind dominates the story.”
“For sure, I mean that can get so…” the younger man starts to respond.
“Claustrophobic,” older man finishes.
“Also if he can come up with an epiphany more inspiring than just ‘the world is heartbreaking and this girl hurt me,’ then I’m in.”
After dropping them off at Tiger Field, I make a grocery store run with a woman in her mid 60s, who has lived in Redding for 25 years but feels ready to move out due to the rising crime rate and unbearable summer temperatures.
Finally, a a child future dessert connoisseur shares with me:
“I tried to eat chocolate cake for lunch. It was from the bakery down the road from my middle school. Except I found out it wasn’t fresh. It was the chocolate cake from yesterday. So I gave it away to somebody.”
Bigger Passenger Story: No Money for Emotional Rent
Picture yourself in each of the following scenarios.
In scenario one, you are an early 20-something struggling to make ends meet–going out very little, just barely able to pay rent. The majority of your time is spent in class or working. When you do return home though, you’re met with peace. You can relax. You don’t feel emotionally triggered.
In scenario two, you’re saving money, relieved from the stress of needing to pay rent. When you come home at the end of the day though, stress and anxiety close in on you. You find you are provided for materially, but emotionally, there is unrest. The same behaviors and conflicts that shaped and scarred you when you were a kid continue to play out and confront you now.
These are the two options passenger Noam* found himself choosing between.
Earlier in the afternoon I’d pulled into an apartment complex in the Centerville neighborhood of Redding to pick him up. The sun shone down on the pool as I waited for him, double park lights on, engine still running.
A couple minutes later a tall, pale-skinned man approaches the car carrying a Fed-Ex box. His mop of dark-brown hair spills from right to left across his forehead, stopping just above his glasses. He reminds me of a slightly shorter, more computer science oriented Adam Driver.
After opening the back door, he places the box on the passenger seats before coming to sit up front. Once there he takes his red backpack off and sets it on the ground.
Our first stop is Fed-Ex; our second stop is the Shasta College campus, where Noam is a first-year student.
A straightforward question about how he likes the school (to which he provides an equally straightforward answer: “It’s good for people who want to be liberal arts and business majors,”) quickly segues into a weightier conversation about his current feelings toward life in general.
“I sort of hate the world right now,” he spills.
Before responding, I privately wonder what’s creating these feelings. Dread and uncertainty over our country’s political fate, bought on by the impending (2016) election? Recent breakup? Drama in his living situation? All of the above? None?
“It’s just been hard,” he elaborates, without my having to seek clarification. “I’ve been struggling to pay the bills. Could have gone to school in the Central Valley to save money on rent, but that would have come with a whole other set of issues.”
Noam explains that while he lives in a one-bedroom apartment up here, his family resides down in Turlock, having moved there from the Midwest three years prior for his dad’s job.
Though he’d been given the option of attending college there– where he would have received not just free rent, but also lowered tuition (“My dad was able to get all my siblings in for real cheap since he works at the school,”), he chose to come to Redding for his education instead.
“Any time it seems like someone’s getting free rent, I think they’re probably paying it in other ways,” Noam conjectures. “There’s no such thing as free living, in my opinion. Every situation comes with a price.”
I feel like I get what he means; money is only one form of currency, no more or less valuable (though perhaps more obvious and easy to measure) than time or energy. In some cases, coexisting with others depletes the latter to a degree that’s unsustainable.
“Like an emotional price. Or an energetic one,” I clarify, to make sure I’m understanding him correctly.
“Exactly,” he confirms. “An emotional or energetic one.”
He goes on to tell me that all eight of his siblings are currently living at home with his parents (really emphasizing the “all at the same time” bit). On top of that, everyone in his family is “super Christian” (which he states in a flat tone), with Noam the only member who no longer identifies as one.
When I picture nine humans, all with separate minds, drives, and personalities, living together under one roof, the idea of paying emotional rent makes 100 times more sense to me.
Whenever Noam spends time there, his full self doesn’t feel welcome, he explains to me. Home encourages the cultivation of a facade and the putting forth of small lies to get through the day and keep everyone comfortable.
Were he to live there full-time, the small lies in accumulation would take him further and further from his core.
“My issue has always just been with their whole thing about how people who sin are going to hell,” he says, letting out a sigh. “I’m like okay, I drink now, so am I a hell-bound sinner?”
He looks out the window for ten seconds, then back at me. Then out again. He seems to be processing as he talks. Each word comes out organically before arranging itself into the sentence. It’s like he’s directly emptying his brain of the thoughts, rather than retrieving canned phrases from a shelf inside it.
“I asked my mom that once. I was really hoping to have an intelligent conversation with her. And she wouldn’t provide her own answer.”
He pauses again, then continues: “Couldn’t, I should say. Went over to the computer instead, and Googled a response to my question.”
After perusing a few of the sites, she told Noam that he wouldn’t go to hell because he was her son, and would therefore remain a good person regardless of what he did.
What Noam finds especially hard is that none of his siblings challenge the structure.
“They all just go with it,” he says–which makes him feel alone and like he has no allies.
I wish I’d been raised in more of like a ‘We don’t know what’s out there, but go find out; question, be curious’ type of environment. Instead of the one I was raised in.”
His story brings to mind people I knew from the LGBT community who have talked about feeling the need to hide their orientations from disapproving families.
I wonder if Noam, who seems to have learned to associate home with a certain level of guardedness as opposed to complete emotional safety, feels similarly. I can imagine the toll this would take, both mentally and emotionally.
Noam says it has.
“If every day you’re going around not feeling good about your life, I guess that means you need help,” he acknowledges. “I don’t know why I’m not getting it. I never thought of myself as a masochist.”
Sometimes people don’t seek help because they’re discouraged by what’s out there, I suggest. Maybe they try to, or start to, but a negative experience disheartens them, leaving them at an even lower point than they were before.
“I think staying at a baseline level of discontent can be comforting and familiar to a lot of people,” I offer. “Like it can feel more stable than the ups and downs of constant attempts followed by constant disappointments I mean.”
Then, after a slight pause: “I guess what I don’t want is a therapist who’s just gona hand me a piece of paper and be like, ‘here, go medicate’ and then send me on my way.
“A lot of times it will be like ‘you’re the patient, I’m the therapist, so I’m gona use all my techniques to treat you and fix you,’ and it creates this dynamic where you’re being talked down to. And I want to just be understood.”
He pauses again, then continues:
“Like if I could just find one who’d say something like, ‘it sucks what you’re going through, and other people have been in this situation or are in it right now, yours isn’t that weird, it’s fairly common. Here’s how others have handled it,’ it’d honestly be great. You know? Like that’s all I want.”
Another brief pause for more thinking: “Maybe I just need to look harder. Give it more of a chance. I don’t know.”
His last words before leaving the car:
“I think a lot of people out there are just going around trying to make ends meet. Do what they have to do, with a mask on. [**funny that he said this a few years before COVID times.] But you don’t actually know what’s really going on with anyone. What their situation is.
“I mean I don’t know yours. I don’t know what led you to driving random people like me around for a living. Or what battles you face when you’re not behind the wheel.
He lifts his backpack from the ground into his lap.
“Anyways. Thank you for the ride. Enjoy that river,” he says to me (*earlier in the ride I’d told him I was headed there at the end of my shift).
Our ride reminds me of a couple things.
One, that as common as it is for people to cover up their pain with facades, so many of us ache to be heard. Perhaps inside the privacy of the car when in the presence of an anonymous Lyft driver whom you’ll likely never see again, it feels safer to take it off, if only for a few minutes.
Two, to remain curious about other people’s experiences before judging them–and if or when I do arrive at a judgement, to construct it with porous walls, as opposed to solid and impermeable ones.
My immediate assumption about Noam was that he was a studious, mild-mannered, techy kind of guy who was probably not very in touch with his interior world or emotions (I didn’t mean it as a negative thing; that was just my automatic, involuntary impression). And yet he turned out to be quite keyed in to his inner state.
People surprise us, often–and the capacity for our initial impressions to be overturned might be infinite
~Check back next week to learn about sea otters on a ride with me through Monterey!~
Redding river– https://postcardstoseattle.com/guide-to-redding/