Much has been said about Californica's coastal 'wildlife', but if you think that's going to spare you more recollective dust-bin ramblings, think again. Santa Cruz, for example, has more than simply banana slugs and a party-college UC campus to its credit. More proof follows that on the California coast, life's just one long, sandy, sun-bleached, surf-washed bitch...er, BEACH...after another. Cowabunga, dudes & dudettes!
SURF CITY REVISITED
Last year I spent a few days back on my old high school surfing turf, Santa Cruz. The original ‘Surf City’ (well….at least ONE of ‘em) made famous by Jan & Dean’s celebrated 60s song, Santa Cruz has regrettably not been spared from the fate shared by all popular California coastal destinations. That is, it’s been loved to death so many times and in so many ways that there’s little ‘reality’ left in the ‘surf city’ experience (“…two girls for every boy”?...naw, don’t think it was ever like that, but you know how realistic post-pubescent mating fantasies are!).
Still, there is much about that area on the northern crescent of Monterey Bay to commend it, if you know where to go and how to avoid all the glitzy dross that so often characterizes tourist Santa Cruz for outsiders. Back in the late 80s I was working at the Santa Cruz Heart Institute, now long gone (bought out in a hostile take-over by its arch nemesis, the Catholic owned Dominican Santa Cruz Hospital & Med Center), and living at Sunset Beach State Park (about 9 miles south of Santa Cruz). My 4 room bungalow sat at the top of a large sea cliff made mostly of sandstone, along with about 12 other equally quaint little cottages that had been originally built there in the early 1900s (long before the State of California made this stretch of beautiful seacoast a state park). When the state created Sunset State Beach, they allowed the original vacation homes to remain where they were, with the result that the area is now a rather exclusive little exclave of isolated beauty for a lucky dozen or so residents. All around the hilltop is the acreage of the park itself, with a lovely scattering of coastal pines, Blue Gums, and other coastal flora dotting the sand dune environment. Many years later, a nearby exclusive residential condo development was established in the sandy area south of the park that was subsequently named ‘Pajaro Dunes’; we Sunset Beach locals considered them our ‘wealthy yuppie neighbors to the south’.
When I had initially relocated to Santa Cruz, I faced the rather bleak prospect of finding a reasonably nice place to live at a cost that wouldn’t drive me to the poorhouse, since the always pricey nature of all Santa Cruz real estate has been relentlessly speculated into the stratosphere, ever since the area was first discovered by the trendy as a vacation paradise, back in the 20s. After much checking around, and keeping my twin criteria (of low cost but high natural beauty) firmly in my sights, I ended up taking a teeny, tiny little studio apartment in an old, rambling single-story building directly across the street from Santa Cruz’s famed surfing site, ‘Steamer Lane’. It was cheap enough for the crackerbox it was (at about $150 a month) and right next to the ocean, but the downside was that it fronted directly on Portola Drive, one of the most heavily trafficked coast-hugging scenic drives in the city. The cars were endless and so was the noise, unfortunately, and that detracted substantially from the otherwise great proximity to the ocean (the main enticement was sort of like “If you can make it across the street carrying a board alive and without being hit by a car, you’ve got all that lovely surf to enjoy!”).
However, my tiny studio came with a parking space for my ’72 Datsun 240Z and another odd little space near the dumpster I could park my Yamaha 550 Seca suicycle in, so it was adequate for my momentary needs. Unfortunately, the walls of the place were paper thin, with no insulation, and there were other apartment dwellers on either side of me, so this provided quite a few interesting moments from time to time. On my right was a lady I called ‘the screamer’ and her husband, and my left side neighbors consisted of a recently discharged US Navy sailor and his Filipina wife.
The ‘screamer’ earned her nickname exactly as you might well imagine, since every night at about 10 PM I could lay even money on being serenaded by a lullaby consisting of assorted coital groans, lustful screams, bouts of heavy breathing, muffled sobs, ecstatic shouts, and I would imagine even a few “Mother-fucking Mother of Christ! I’ve discovered Jesus!” type exclamations, as ejaculation after orgasm shook the walls of the flat, and the squeaks from the old bed frame created a sonic cacophony that had to be the equal of a B-52 bomber making a low and fast pass over a decrepit junk-yard hydraulic press that was compressing old car bodies. At first this series of non-stop ‘nocturnal audio emissions’ was incredibly irritating, since it kept me awake, completely unable to sleep and admittedly not a little vicariously interested in the bedroom goings-on (what impossible Tantric positions would they attempt next?). It wasn’t long before I actually found myself starting to appreciate the prodigious capabilities of the screamer’s husband, since they frequently kept at it for what seemed like hours until finally the house-shaking, passionate shrieks of semi-crazed lust tapered off into little residual mouse-squeaks of G-spot joy, and once again all was quiet on the opposite side of my right wall.
The sailor and his wife, occupying the left side flat, were quite another story altogether, since they regularly alternated between steamy sex on the even days and knock-down, drag’um-out battles royale (that sometimes included artillery barrages of crockery, flatware, and even the occasional stew-pot mortar lob) on odd ones. The sailor was quite a young guy, probably all of 21, and his Filipina wife, whom he had very likely met and married outside of the Subic Bay Naval Station, was also very young and unusually pretty. She favored VERY low-cut dresses and had an insanely sculpted body that I tried diligently not to stare at intensely whenever they were out in front of their flat (without much luck, since the sight of her bounteous endowments invariably left me slack-jawed with envy and disbelief that he could be so lucky!)
This jealous reaction soon departed after they moved in, since she would invariably cook fish almost every night of the week, and it wasn’t long before the odor of frying fish permeated every single molecule of the old building’s walls. For a boy raised on the sizzling aroma of pan-fried Idaho Rainbow Trout as a child, even this was too much! On the occasional hot coastal summer nights the ever-present fishy odor was particularly distressing, since there wasn’t any air conditioning with which to help alleviate the oppressive stuffiness of the room’s stale air and open windows simply allowed more of that dreadful piscatorial aroma to waft in. Fortunately, the sailor managed to piss off his pulchritudinous pocket princess regularly enough that she would refuse to cook dinner for him, thereby sparing me the fried-fish processing plant routine.
Regrettably, this otherwise blessed turn of events had its downside as well, for on those frequent evenings when she was so furious at him she couldn’t even sputter out her native curses coherently, I could count on at least 30 minutes or so of porcelain missiles flying across the room and smashing into opposite walls, sporadic thumps that sounded like the furniture were taking direct RPG hits, and all of this audible mayhem interspersed with strings of florid Filipino curses that would probably have made a randy Roman Catholic priest blush (if he understood Tagalog, that is). To his credit, the sailor seemed to not be into wife-abuse, but she was definitely merciless on him. I can imagine he was torn sorely between two conflicting urges: 1) to fuck her gloriously to death, and 2) to simply terminate her oxygen supply once and for all. To his credit as a beset man of moderation, he did neither, and so the bilateral cabaret show of no-holds-barred noisy sex on the right of me and Armageddon-like kitchen clashes on the left continued until I finally found my dream bungalow at Sunset Beach State Park and moved out of domestic marital bliss’ demilitarized no-man’s land.
I had stumbled into the Sunset Beach digs quite by accident, since one afternoon, after returning a patient to the hospital’s CCU, I overheard one of the radiology docs telling a friend that he and his wife were having another baby shortly, and therefore had to find a larger accommodation. My interest piqued, a conversation ensued as we struggled to strap a meth-saturated psycho to his guerney for some x-rays.
Turned out they were living in my soon-to-be bungalow out at Sunset Beach and paying what seemed to me to be a reasonable price at the time ($400), despite the fact that the old place was nearly 60 years old, was gradually falling apart, and had a septic tank system that was out of action (in a spectacularly Yellowstone National Park geyser manner) more often than it was in usable repair. When you consider the splendid isolation afforded by the house and the incomparable scenic beauty that lay just outside the place’s windows, it seemed worth a lot more than a mere $400 per month (looking back, I realize that was rather steep rent for a hovel with a view, but what the heck? As long as Santa Cruz residents continued to have coronary bypass surgeries up the ying-yang, I had the money, so I could afford the indulgence).
The old place was rectangular in shape and was divided into 4 internal rooms. In the main room was a beautiful old wood-burning fireplace; out front was a broad deck. It was constructed of redwood overall and inside it had beautiful redwood walls, floors, and ceilings. There was even a dilapidated old garage out back that could house my 240Z (although obviously built big enough in the 20s to house a Stanley Steamer, the Z was about as tight a fit as Brad Pitt and Angela Jolie in flagrante delicto) to protect it against the highly corrosive sea-fogs. For a single bachelor type guy, though, this was a heavenly retreat, redolent with character and charm unmatched by anything I could easily imagine in a John Steinbeck setting on Monterey’s Cannery Row. After I moved all my books in (making one room my library), got the old toilet and shower stall to function again (sans geysers), and made the kitchen livable, it was quite the idyllic bachelor hideaway. In my own mind, I was a modern reincarnation of Steinbeck’s Doc Ricketts.
The owners, named Buiton, lived a few houses away and owned about 4 of the 12 homes that together consisted of this isolated enclave of vacation homes encircled by the state park. Andamar Buiton was originally of Chilean nationality and a retired former UNESCO official who had spent many decades working for the UN in South American countries. His wife, Brenatta, was American by birth and rather hung-up, so it seemed to me, on her self-perceived good fortune in having married one of the UN’s minor Spanish-speaking cultural minions. She never let myself or any of her visitors forget that Andamar had done this, or Andamar had done that, and every single nook and cranny of their home was filled with kitchy flotsam and jetsam apparently acquired during their decades of foreign travel and work. In my opinion, and despite their imagined ‘semi-exotic’ expatriate status, they were really both colossal bores.
Having my landlord always hovering just out of sight also proved to be especially annoying. This was particularly the case when the old septic tank erupted yet again (for about the hundredth time) and started spewing up very nasty (and highly odoriferous) lumpy greenish crud on the floor of the bathroom (which was a small cubicle about 3 feet by 4 feet that was just barely big enough to hold a toilet and a shower). In response to my complaint about this, it was suggested that I should NOT flush the toilet more than twice a day, since the system was so old. Yeah, right! I was tempted to save up my daily quota of ‘dumps-beyond-twice-a-day’ and make a few ‘night deposits’ on their rear doorstep more than a few times, before Andamar finally donned his green rubber wellies and reluctantly set himself to perform surgery on the decrepit old septic system.
Still, and despite all the small annoyances of living in an ancient place that always seemed just on the verge of falling victim to fatigue, the ocean ambience that lay just outside its walls was stunning to say the least. Not far from the edge of the front deck, the sandstone cliff plummeted down about 50 meters to the beach below. Standing there, on the edge of that gentle precipice, one could see the lovely crescent curve of the beach fronting Monterey Bay stretching off in both directions—to Capitola in the north and to the massive PG&E power generating plant at Moss Landing in the south.
Amazingly, that broad and beautiful beach was always deserted, no matter what the time of day or night, and in that I had it essentially all to myself to run on to my heart’s content. After a stress-filled day of work patching up hearts at the Santa Cruz Heart Institute, I could always look forward to driving the 9 miles from Santa Cruz on my motorcycle to take an invigorating late afternoon run on all that packed sand as the sun gloriously slithered sensuously into the submarine canyons of the Bay. It was invariably a near magical experience that only one who has been a life-long runner can fully appreciate.
At that time, located in the quirky heart of the Santa Cruz boulevard known as the Pacific Garden Mall, there existed a most eclectic little building stuck between two concrete stores that looked as if some wizard had stolen a kitschy Bavarian chalet right out of the Black Forest and materialised it on the mall. Shortly after my arrival in Santa Cruz, I learned that this was the quirky little place known to locals as ‘Heinz’s Biergarten’.
Hienz’ Biergarten was clearly a local fixture of intense curiosity in terms of its being both a piece of startlingly near-psychadelic edificial eye-candy and an inexplicably whimsical time-space anomaly of the first water. However, instead of being something that a Monty Python or Douglas Adams might have dreamed up in a Mel Brooks out-of-body experience, the owner and proprietor of this bit of edgy Baroque gingerbread was one Heinz Gruss, formerly resident in Dresden (East Germany).
Heinz had come over to America and decided to pursue his variation on the ubiquitous American Dream by virtue of a two-fold approach: he would build a European style deli that specialized in Continental goodies on the first floor, while in a concrete bunker installed below the place he would operate a precision optical goods retail and repair business (as a licensed Leitz representative).
Thus his schizoid presence—half of him the scowling old troll behind the counter above ground, serving stale pastrami sandwiches and German beer, and the other half a bespectacled subterranean optical engineer in the building’s dungeon. I immediately warmed up to Heinz, since I am an equally eclectic soul myself and appreciate such yang-yin paradoxes more than most would. For his part, Heinz also appreciated someone who had spent as much time in German-speaking Europa as had I, and we soon became fast friends. Thus every day, I would jump on my bright red crotch-rocket (a Yamahah-hah Seca 550, XJ550S model) after the day’s OR schedule was finished and zoom over to Heinz’s place for a couple of cold Spatenbraus before heading back home to the Sunset Beach pad. Heinz would assign one of his young slave laborers (local HS students) to tend the deli counter and join a couple of us at the Stammtisch (“regulars table”) for a good half hour or more of talk-story, German style, and then I’d zoom back home on Highway 101.
Heinz was quite an interesting fellow in his own right, given his hair-raising escape over the East German border in the 50s, but even more interesting was the fact that he had almost been drafted as a rocket pilot in the final days of the Second World War, having been an elementary school member of the NSKK (German Gliding Corps) prior to the war. When the Luftwaffe came after him to press him into service as a Messerschmitt Me-163 ‘Komet’ pilot, he had already acquired a couple dozen hours of solo time in conventional soaring planes.
For those of you who are not well versed in aviation lore, the Komet, was a startlingly advanced delta-winged aircraft that relied upon a liquid fueled rocket engine burning Hydrazine and Methanoll; it was a also a very tricky handful of aluminum to fly. With a maximum ceiling of about 53,000 feet, a top speed of roughly 600 mph, and a total flight endurance of about 6-9 minutes only, its most inexcusable habit was a tendency to explode on landing (a result of the incompatible use of specially impregnated leather sealing gaskets with the engine’s oxydiser), a circumstance that invariably killed its pilot!
Few Komet pilots actually survived the war, given the hopeless odds against their fighter defenses obtaining that late in the war AND the unfriendly landing characteristics of this deadly aircraft (both to the Germans and the Allies!). Heinz’s guardian angel must have been doing yeoman’s duty, since the 15 year old prospective Komet pilot was saved from an unhappy fate by the fact that the war officially ended the day before he was to report for the abbreviated flight training that resulted in immediate operational assignment after just a week’s indoctrination in flying rockets!
This particular detail of Heinz’s personal history was by no means atypical of his past and no more remarkable than the rest the life adventures he had enjoyed in his earlier life. While Heinz was a very interesting individual and fascinating friend, his political views were anything but left of center. In fact, since his biergarten had a cozy little patio directly in front of it, with the typical sun-umbrella covered tables found in many Euro outdoor cafes, it became a favorite hangout for Santa Cruz’s numerous street people. Particularly in winter, when the air was brisk, they would arrive in droves and sit for long periods in the wind-protected patio’s sunny warmth (until Heinz chased them off). Needless to relate, this roosting tendency of the homeless locals typically set Heinz off more surely than someone discussing the merits of socialism. Most of us ‘regulars’ would gaze at Heinz through beer-goggles and listen to his Wagnerian soapbox orations at such moments with a half-grin, for while the sight of homeless people on his patio would unfailingly scare off the ‘genteel’ bourgeoise clients he relied upon for regular business, we maintained a covert sympathy for the often ignored plight of those disenfranchised members of society.
As for me, on weekends I’d sometimes drive down to Heinz’s and spend a few hours writing on the patio, as interested in the creative ‘raw material’ the street people arrayed around me provided as in the deliciously cold product of Germany’s ‘Regenheitsgebot’ (purity laws that govern beer making) that Munchen’s Spatenbrau epitomised. However, sooner or later the good strong beer would addle my wits to the point where the pen and notebook would get placed to the side and people watching would become the main game. This was before laptops became widely used as replacements for pen and paper, of course.
Most of the material I wrote based on these vicarious explorations of other’s street lives remain in unpublished manuscripts today, although I do dip back into them now and then for inspiration.
At any rate, that was then and this past weekend is now, naturally enough. I managed to spend some time in my favorite old Capitola hangout, Mr. Toot’s Coffee House on the Capitola Esplanade, and watched some of the locals heading out into Capitola’s typically unspectacular winter surf with full wetsuits on. Even with that minimal protection, the cold water temp limited waits in the soup for sets to about 30 minutes max and by that time toes were blue and fingers numb. Due to the freak cold-snap that had recently blanketed California, it was actually warmer in the water than in the air; that is, however, no comfort to a surfer when the first stages of hypothermia settle in and remind one that it’s time to head back to shore for a warm-up.
Back when I was living in the area, Mr. Toot’s Coffee House used to be filled with artsy types from the surrounding area in pursuit of their respective muses, and the occasional atypical UC Santa Cruz student loaded down with books, tablets, and research materials. Now it is more likely to be filled with status-conscious, posturing tourists, trying extremely hard to look ‘local’, armed with laptops, and posing with cell phones permanently glued to one ear.
The cell phone thing has become such a regular affectation that it is hard to find anyone, anywhere who is not avidly chatting away into these infernal machines. 99.9% of the time the subject matter is inane and puerile, to say the least. Mr. Toots is no exception to that rule, with at least every other person in the place having important conversations with friends. A fairly typical Santa Cruz example might be: “Hi! S’up? ‘Cha doon? Nuttin? Me needa! Whatcha say we gedagedda and do sumpin? Cool! Dude! Like thas awright. Whatever.”. At worst, it might go: “Hi Megan! Like, I was so, ‘Oh my Gawd’ about what he told me this afternoon! Etc., etc.”
From my standpoint, as a person still possessed of half a brain (albeit under steady and unrelenting attack by the legions of shit-for-brains dimbulbs that I seem to draw), such loud, public declamations of lifestyle emptiness and vapid thoughtfulness are worse than the worst sort of commercial television programming you can think of. Being in the immediate vicinity of these vocal morons is not unlike being forced to share someone’s remarkably dulled-down and ‘stupidised’ personal life unwillingly. But of course you cannot simply ask them politely to remove themselves to hell rapidly, since that would be unfriendly and even ruder than the usual rude norm that passes for social interactions these days.
In my never ending quest to battle the hoards of these three-brain-cell, cell-phone dipshits, I have finally found a deliciously ironic way of dealing with this sort of immensely annoying thoughtlessness. In the Air Force we used to call it ‘Wild Weasel’ ECM. That’s military jargon for ‘electronic counter-measures’. In this case, it takes the form of a handy little pocket jamming device that is the size and shape of a small cell-phone. At first sign of one of these cell-phone abusing oafs, I simply whip out my jammer, flip the switch to ‘on’ and instantly all cell-phone digital and analogue frequencies within a 50 yard radius lose their signal. Once turned on, you can slip the jammer back in your pocket without reducing the signal strength, so there you are, looking about disinterestedly while covertly enjoying every second of the situation and all the puzzled looks as these idiots try to figure out why they can no longer talk on their cell-phones.
As you might suspect, these devices are not strictly legal in the United States, but they can readily be purchased abroad, where their use is not proscribed by law. Their technically illegal nature is rather profoundly obviated by the fact that radio-frequency jammers are commonly used tools of the law-enforcement and intelligence communities. In fact, larger cell-phone jamming units are sometimes surreptitiously purchased by churches and other public organizations, businesses, commercial establishments, etc., to ‘actively enforce’ bans on the use of cell phones during religious services, meetings, and what have you. In view of their now wide-spread use in these everyday applications, it seems only a matter of time before their use is no longer proscribed as a technical illegality.
From my standpoint, cell-phone zappers are probably one of the nicest benefits of technology to be had these days, given the common level of electronic rudeness that prevails in public places we must all share amicably. Sometimes ya gotta do what ya gotta do, if others disregard the normative rules of polite public demeanor. Best of all, it’s FAR better than simply telling some dipshit to ‘Fuck off!’, since he’ll never know what divine power just intervened to disrupt his pathetic little pedestrian concerns, heh-heh! Of course the minute these rachet-jawed, prefontally lobotomised proles lose their signal, they reflexively think it must be the building’s structure that has frustrated their conversations, so they pack it up and go outside. That suits my need for serenity and peacefulness just fine, of course!
Needless to say, the rest of my time spent enjoying my Quadrupio Espressos at Mr. Toot’s was quite pleasant. Just me and the seagulls, squawking on the railing outside! Lovely! I much prefer noisy seagulls squawking over discarded tidbits to stupid people conversing vapidly about the absolute dreck in their pathetically empty and sad little lives.
If life truly is a metaphysical beach, to paraphrase an old catch-phrase, I'll take allegorical sand between my toes and virtual saltwater up my nose any day. Whoa, gotta split....existential surf's up, dudes and dudettes!