“God, I love the smell of middle class despair in the morning,” says industrial artist Ethan Hunter from the driver’s seat of his Tesla Model X.
As a roving reporter for The Brie, I’m one of Hunter’s passengers for the day, and he is among thousands of Utopian artists who have moved out of their collective coastal warehouses and into warehouses along Interstate 5 and Highway 99.
The reason? Rent.
“Why shouldn’t we force the locals out?” Hunter asks as we buzz past the enormous Amazon facility near Patterson on the way to San Francisco, 88 miles to the northwest. “Artists are the fucking heart and soul of The City, and the rents are obscene! Who wants to live in the Mission surrounded by homeless people when I can be surrounded by homeless people in Turlock for much less?”
After a stop at Starbucks, Hunter stomps on what I would call the gas pedal and we’re doing 80 before even merging into the slow lane of I-5 north. “Moving to Turlock was the only way I could afford the lease on my car,” he says. “I didn’t know what else to do.”
I ask him how much the lease is, but he’s busy slurping caramel macchiato foam off his goatee, so I look it up on my three-year-old Moto G4 running Android Marshmallow. The P90D is $1,691 a month, about the same as my mortgage payment in Sacramento.
“Patterson is basically a rest stop between Sacramento and L.A., but the rents are crazy,” says a woman named Amelia from one of the five comfy back seats. “Why? The I-5 provides easy access to high-paying jobs, and we can’t compete with the commuters. They’ve driven starter home prices up to $325,000. No one who works in Patterson can afford that.”
She explains that she’s a program manager for a local non-profit homeless shelter, and paid Hunter $20 for a ride into the city where she hopes to do some fundraising. The other four seats are also occupied, so I assume Hunter made a cool $100 for this one-way jaunt to the City by the Bay.
One of the other carpoolers is a professor of economics at UC San Francisco, who tells me the average person in the Bay Area is “essentially priced out of the market.” He tried to borrow money from his parents, but they died penniless so he moved to Patterson.
“And here I am,” he says, “paying $30 to carpool with a ‘starving artist’ who leases a Tesla.”
A woman in the way back makes a noise like a strangled cat. “What the fuck? I paid $40 for this seat, and I’m a middle manager with Wells Fargo!”
Hunter seems oblivious to the rising tension as he negotiates the sweeping lefthander onto the 580 and heads up into Altamont Pass. The road is awful.
“Goddamn road construction,” I hear him say under his breath, and it reminds me of the new double-digit gas tax passed by the Legislature – $52 billion over ten years, supposedly for road construction. So I ask out loud how electric car owners will fare under the new law.
The UC economist pokes Hunter in the shoulder. “Owners of electric cars will pay a $100 annual fee starting in 2020, but we paid this asshole more than $100 today.”
Amelia hits Hunter in the back of the head with her iPad Mini, and I try to calm things down but it’s too late. Hunter slams on the brakes and the Tesla slides to a halt next to a giant pile of corrugated steel road culverts.
“Get out!” he screams. “All of you!”
The Wells Fargo middle manager climbs into the front seat, shouting something about $60 billion for the bullet train, and starts to beat Hunter about the head with what looks like a 1990 model Texas Instruments calculator.
Amelia drags him out of the driver’s seat and stomps his face into the mud generated by recent rainstorms that ended California’s decade of drought. “I’ll show you homeless, you collectivist fuck!”
All I can do is watch as middle class capitalists beat the shit out of Hunter the industrial artist and stuff his body into one of the culverts.
Amelia takes the wheel. “I’ve always wanted to drive one of these.”
No one says a word for the remaining 68 miles to Utopia.