The last time I left Merced for the day, I didn't want to come back.
This happens every time I visit another town outside of the Valley. "Why am I living in Merced," I ask myself, "when I could be living in Sonora or San Francisco?"
I think about the Central Valley landscape, the flat land, dry and punctuated by towns spaced along the 99 corridor, each one almost indistinguishable from the one that precedes it. It's hard to come home when home could be so much better than it is.
But the night of UCM's graduation, my family went to a performance at the newly refurbished Merced Theater, where we enjoyed a spring concert conducted by Greg Christiansen, Golden Valley High School's retiring band director.
Along with our friends Craig and Megan and their children Jack and Maris, we watched three jazz ensembles, a student wind ensemble, and a student symphony perform. It was a wonderful concert in a lovely venue, featuring some of Merced's most talented and hardest-working teenagers, the kind of event that buoys one's hopes for the future.
After the concert, we looked for a place to eat, but we'd forgotten about the impact of grad night on local restaurants. At Appleby's, we were told we'd have a 2-hour wait, so we decided to eat at Wimpy's.
"We have a booth for nine," the night manager said, "but we already have one table of nine, so it'll be a while until we can get to you."
"No problem," we answered. "We're happy just to find a place where we can sit down."
But while we waited, more people began to pour in, and so, with surprising initiative, Megan and Jack got up, filled water glasses, and took them to tables around the restaurant. Then she enlisted the help of Maris, who began bussing tables.
"They're going to need to call in some more employees," I said as the entrance began to fill up with young people wearing caps and gowns, best dresses, and white shirts and ties.
"They already did," Megan said. "They should be here any minute."
Soon, the assistant manager, dressed in jeans and a T-shirt, came to take our order.
"Sorry I look like this," she said. "But I just finished a 10-hour shift and I wasn't expecting to come back."
Later, I saw a man hobbling around on one crutch, using his free hand to carry dishes and run the register. "Who's that?" I asked.
"Oh, that's the manager," Megan said. "He was called back, too."
People kept pouring in as Megan and her kids filled water glasses and bussed tables. By the end of the night, Jack and Maris were offered job interviews, and we were given an employee discount for our meal.
Though Wimpy's is just a burger restaurant, there was an air of celebration there last Saturday night. Strangers asked the grads about their majors, clapped when they came in, and offered their congratulations when they left.
There was a spirit of working together in the restaurant that night, a feeling that here in Merced, exciting things were happening and we were all, in some small way, a part of it.
I don't think that would have happened in a bigger city, where the joy of a grad night would be spread over a larger population, diluted by sheer numbers.
Eventually a family from Planada that Craig knew sat at the booth next to us.
"I saw your daughter in the spring concert," Craig told him. "She was great."
"Yeah," the father said. "But we had to miss it because our son graduated from the UC tonight."
In a day or two, when I read about the next gang murder or see that Merced is once again mentioned on someone's worst place to live, work, and breathe list, my cynicism about Merced might return, but for now I'm feeling pretty good about our prospects.
Once we really start to perceive ourselves as a university town, pulling together to achieve a better community, Merced will no longer be just a place to get out of, but a place for our most gifted and motivated kids to live, work and contribute.
The author teaches English at UC Merced and Merced College.