ON her after-breakfast walks along West Cliff Drive in Santa Cruz, California, during our August vacations there, my wife, Terry, wears a daisy-yellow gardening hat she says she would be embarrassed to be seen in anyplace else. She bought the hat in a store across from the Santa Cruz boardwalk a few years ago; it has an exaggerated front brim and a girlish bow on the back whose daintiness she defeats by undoing the cotton ribbons and knotting them under her chin, Annie Oakley-style. She wears the hat because it's the only one she's found that effectively shades her face from the sun here on the coast, which even on breezy days can be searing once it burns away the morning fog and begins to reflect off Monterey Bay.
Except for those mornings when I surprise Terry by accompanying her as far as the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum (a shrine to the sport and the lifestyle that has been squeezed into the ground floor of a lighthouse about three quarters of a mile from our hotel), I protect myself from sunburn by hiding indoors, lying in bed with the remote control and hoping to catch a Perry Mason rerun or an episode of VH1's Behind the Music. If nothing on television amuses me, or when I become embarrassed for the people on Jerry Springer or Jenny Jones, I take a book out to the balcony.
One of these years I'll get around to reading a few of the minor contemporaries of D. H. Lawrence whose work Paul Fussell discusses in his 1980 book on British travel writing between the world wars. "Travel books are a sub-species of memoir," Fussell argued, and he went on to quote a writer named Norman Douglas that "'the ideal book of this kind' invites the reader to undertake three tours simultaneously: 'abroad, into the author's brain, and into his own.'" A few years ago another guest at the hotel, a native of this area, gave me a book about the Monterey Peninsula by Robert Louis Stevenson; I should be reading it from cover to cover instead of skimming it for descriptions of "the haunting presence of the ocean," "vast, wet, melancholy fogs," and other natural phenomena right before my eyes. But vacation isn't a time for scholarship. Unless John Updike or Scott Spencer has published something new, I end up reading first-person mysteries heavier on observation than action, featuring disillusioned private eyes (Lawrence Block's Matthew Scudder is the best example) who are really old-fashioned moralists. This is the sort of novel to which I am addicted and which -- though I've settled into a groove as a music critic -- I harbor vague ambitions of writing myself someday.
All I know for sure about my alter ego is that he's a former cop who tells his clients that he resigned from the force because he didn't look good in blue. His actual reason, an attempt to do right that played out wrong, he reveals only to the reader (also a paying client, when you think about it, which is why such novels seem to demand the first person). Knowing that I'm between assignments, this tough guy shadows me around Santa Cruz, cracking wise. "It makes no sense for young people to quarantine themselves the way they do," he said, a little ruefully, as Terry and I left a movie theater one Saturday after midnight a couple of years ago, when Pacific Avenue was deserted except for the post-adolescent tribes gathered outside the pizza parlors and clubs. "The last I heard, youth wasn't catching." Maybe if I wrote about him, he would shut up. But no full-time writer wants to spend his vacation writing. Anyway, every writer owes himself at least one imaginary book. My two-fisted novel of sensibility is perfect; if I tried starting it, it wouldn't be.
TO all appearances, writers like me are gentlemen of leisure anyway, "working," in the most literal sense, no more than three or four hours a day. The most time-consuming part of the kind of writing I do is the thinking things over, which I do from morning to night, though it might not look like much to anybody else. I used to have a neighbor who greeted everyone by asking, "Working hard, or hardly working?" I never knew which would be the more truthful answer. Being on vacation doesn't make the answer any easier -- nor am I convinced that somebody who sneaks out to as many daytime movies as I do is entitled to the customary time off in the summer.
It probably goes without saying that I am not always fun to travel with. My wife may be the only one who would put up with me. Her workday is longer and more hurried than mine, and she leaves for vacation justifiably exhausted. A good long walk by the bay is usually all the exercise she wants; when she returns to our room, she naps or reads or gazes out at the horizon -- a body in motion the rest of the year now determined to stay put.
By mid-afternoon we're often ready to hit the book and record stores on Pacific Avenue. Santa Cruz is a beach town, but it's also a college town. With a program in the History of Consciousness, UC Santa Cruz has a reputation as the most radical branch of the University of California. We were there a few years ago, for a production of Othello, presented by Shakespeare Santa Cruz. The campus itself was worth the trip. Set amid redwoods on a sprawling former ranch, it looks like a place for lectures on forestry and animal husbandry. The university seems to draw students who are in no hurry to leave town after they graduate or drop out, and away from the smell of brine and the barking of the sea lions near the bay is a stretch of Pacific Avenue with shops that could be in Berkeley or Harvard Square.
Santa Cruz was near the epicenter of a devastating earthquake in 1989, and on our first trip there, three years later, much of Pacific Avenue was still closed off -- but not the blocks where the used-book and -record stores are. Terry, who might never have been persuaded to go to Santa Cruz if she had remembered the earthquake, often jokes that nothing short of another natural catastrophe could keep me from my afternoon browsing in Logos Books and Records and Streetlight Records and the Bookshop Santa Cruz. She's probably right. Becoming a critic has allowed me to go on indulging my undergraduate obsession with books and music, and I enjoy being in the company of those similarly obsessed, even though we may not exchange a single word. I am especially fond of Logos, if only because it was the first local store I ever bought a record in (one I had been looking for, by the French pianist Martial Solal), and because the people who work there are such a contrast to the bored kids you see behind the cash registers in most of the big chains, who tend to know nothing about the stock that isn't on their computer inventory display. The clerks at Logos look as if they already have lives, and as if those lives revolve around books and records. They remind me of my days in retail after college, in the 1970s, when everybody I worked with seemed to be the world's foremost unacknowledged authority on some obscure aspect of popular culture, and the only qualification for being hired was being overqualified.
On that first trip to Santa Cruz a writer friend of ours in from Palo Alto for the day took us to lunch at India Joze (pronounced "Joe's"), which serves ambitious Asian-fusion dishes in an unpretentious setting. We still occasionally go there, though some of the culinary subtleties are wasted on my unsophisticated palate (left to my own devices, I would eat like a college student too). And being so close to the water, we tend to crave fish. A favorite of ours is Carniglia's, where I once had a meal so delicious I occasionally still think about it (North Alaskan halibut with a Sicilian sauce, over risotto), and which has the advantage of being on the Municipal Wharf, a short walk from the West Coast Santa Cruz Hotel, where we always stay, because all the rooms face the bay. When we want something quicker and cheaper, we go to Riva's, which is also on the wharf. Along with the snapper on a kind of chewy sourdough roll found only in northern California, what lures us back repeatedly is the sight of the large seabirds coming in for a landing, one after another, on the dining room's slanted roof. These include gulls and an almost pterodactyl-like species with fringed wings and an enormous wingspan, which it took us East Coast city dwellers years to identify as pelicans.
Sunsets are beautiful in Santa Cruz: the fog reappears over the bay, and what we see from our balcony becomes Robinson Jeffers country again, the ocean and cliff as stark and indifferent as they were in the morning, before the sunbathers and volleyball players filled the beach. The truth is we rarely see the sunset; we're usually at a concert or a movie. Marin Alsop, the conductor of the Cabrillo Music Festival Orchestra and a disciple of Leonard Bernstein's, specializes in contemporary composers whose works might seem hopelessly arcane in any other setting. But most of the concerts are given in the local civic auditorium, where you can see the lines of a basketball court on the floor under the folding chairs. And Alsop makes the music accessible by making herself accessible, telling her audience about the character and artistic significance of each piece beforehand, and sometimes having the orchestra play a particularly lovely or rhythmically agitated passage in isolation before performing the piece in full, so we'll have something recognizable to listen for.
When we started going to the West Coast, we used to split our time between Santa Cruz and San Francisco, certain that after a few days of relaxing by the water we would be desperate for the cultural attractions of a city. But Santa Cruz offers many of those cultural attractions, and on a more manageable scale. In one sense San Francisco comes to us: the name jazz performers scheduled to play there often make side trips to Santa Cruz, for Monday-night gigs at the Kuumbwa Jazz Center. The movies we would have to take buses or cabs to see in scattered locations around San Francisco are generally playing at the Riverfront, the Nickelodeon, or the Santa Cruz Cinema 9, all within easy distance of one another downtown.
On the drive back to the hotel there's always something on the car radio we wouldn't be hearing back home -- ska, early Dolly Parton, a show hosted by a young woman complaining about her boyfriend between records by Alanis Morissette and Fiona Apple, vintage doo-wop and rhythm-and-blues on a station from Cupertino. This helps me make a list of things to look for in Streetlight and Logos the next day, along with the secondhand jazz albums I passed up that afternoon but subsequently realized ought to be added to the several thousand I already own. If I were home, in Philadelphia, I would stay up late to watch Politically Incorrect With Bill Maher and Late Night With Conan O'Brien. But because I never quite get adjusted to the time difference, I fall asleep soon after Terry does, only half following an episode of Baywatch so vintage that David Hasselhoff didn't have to suck in his gut.
THERE are plenty of other things we could be doing here. We could take a trip to Big Sur or to Carmel, to see the Catholic mission church built in 1797. And there is a breeding ground and rookery for sea lions and northern elephant seals just north of Santa Cruz, and a huge redwood forest on the slopes of the mountains. Although the asphalt-covered boardwalk and the amusement rides near our hotel are probably what people from elsewhere in the Monterey Bay area have in mind when they describe Santa Cruz as "trashy," there are things to marvel at even there, beginning with a wooden Giant Dipper roller coaster from 1924 and a carousel from 1911 with hand-carved ponies and chariots and a genuine pipe organ -- certified historic landmarks still in operation. But we have made all these trips and looked at all these things on earlier visits, and we are in no hurry to see them again. This is the joy of vacationing in the same place year after year: having fulfilled your obligations as a tourist by doing everything the guidebooks recommend, you're free to do whatever you'd enjoy doing at home if you had the time and the peace of mind.
"Vacations" are an attempt by working stiffs to "summer" like the rich, if only for a week or two. Although many city dwellers feel uneasy venturing any closer to nature than beaches and mountain resorts that are as crowded as cities, the growing popularity of supervised "adventure" vacations indicates a desire to return home reborn as a person capable of scaling a cliff or surviving in the woods, if need be.
I experienced such a transformation only once on a vacation, and it required nothing physical of me. More than twenty years ago, on our first vacation together, Terry and I spent three weeks in London. As we dutifully made the rounds of Buckingham Palace and the Tower of London and so on, they became oppressive symbols to me of the rigid class system my British-Irish ancestors had fled. But my feelings about London changed after seeing Keats's house and Henry James's memorial in Westminster Abbey, and after a few days of being asked for directions even by people with British accents, who mistook me for one of their own on account of my pale skin and crooked teeth. It seems no coincidence to me that I began my writing career in earnest after that trip. For better or worse, being in London felt like coming home.
With its movie theaters and concerts and record stores, Santa Cruz has also come to feel like a place where I belong. I can stay who I am in Santa Cruz, even if this means being grumpy and far too self-absorbed. I don't have to pretend to be somebody better -- somebody carefree and athletic and curious about nature and ancient ruins. I can spend every day record shopping and going to the movies and doing all the other things possible back home only on weekends, if then.
Some of the qualities I love in Santa Cruz are those everybody from the East who goes to this part of northern California loves, beginning with the majestic scenery and the proximity of the ocean. One's relationship to the weather isn't adversarial there, as it is back east, where I guess the temperature only seems to be 90° half the year and 20° the other half. And although it makes me sound dimwitted to say so, I enjoy being able to sleep a little longer in the mornings without feeling dissolute -- I'm as rested as if I slept till noon, but it's only 9:00 a.m. Pacific Time.
All of this would be true anywhere on the Monterey Peninsula, but only Santa Cruz has Pacific Avenue and the popular culture I crave as much as I did when I was in my twenties. In Philadelphia I live near South Street, a commercial strip that resembles a mosh pit on weekends, when it spills over with suburban teenagers who think they're too cool for the malls. They betray their youthful insecurity by believing that being hip is a matter of looking the part. Lately a good number of the young white men I see have taken to shaving their heads to the nub, so they look like the comic-strip character Sluggo. Making a pitiful attempt to emulate the black rappers they see in videos, some of these kids wear baggy shirts and jeans, putting me in mind of Negro lawn jockeys whose faces have been painted white in a misguided show of racial enlightenment. Their girlfriends have reinstituted the pre-feminist rule of showing plenty of skin, exposing their midriffs and the area just below the navel. I'm on South Street on weekends too, but shopping for a Coltrane re-issue or something practical like toothpaste, not for an identity. Pacific Avenue is cleaner and less crowded, but it has the same feeling of being a post-adolescent playground, and in an odd and comforting way the alienation I sometimes feel as I walk from record store to record store is just like being home.
Writers are resigned to being onlookers; some of us actually prefer it that way. I am reasonably comfortable in situations where I am the only white person or the only heterosexual, but I can become irritable and self-conscious when surrounded by adolescents -- maybe because I was never black or gay, but I once was young. It's interesting to look back at films by François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard from the mid-1960s, just before Woodstock, when these Frenchmen were somehow the directors most in touch with the habits and ideals of American college students. Even as Godard tells us that the young people in his Masculin Féminin (1966) are "the children of Marx and Coca-Cola," Jean-Pierre Léaud, his lead, is wearing a jacket and tie, like an adult in training. I and most of my forty- or fifty-year-old friends still listen to rock-and-roll and dress haphazardly, as we did when we were young (here in America we don't have family crests -- just brand names on our T-shirts and caps). This might be why so many adolescents and people in their twenties deface themselves with tattoos and multiple piercings; it's their only hope of looking different from their parents. I haven't seen many Sluggos or lawn jockeys on Pacific Avenue, but I did once see two boys and a girl in the combat boots and long black dusters of the Trenchcoat Mafia. And browsing in Streetlight one day, I saw a section for something called "Black Metal," which I realized I didn't know anything about, except, somehow, that it wasn't heavy metal performed by African-Americans.
Popular culture is hopelessly fragmented today, but its unifying threads are youth and sexual provocation -- and these are marketed as if they were the same thing. I lie in my hotel bed watching a new Britney Spears or Back Street Boys video and wondering what possible interest, other than a financial one, an adult could have in these newest pop stars. The answer is a prurient interest. Is someone my age supposed to be turned on by Britney Spears -- and what would it say about me if I were? I drift to sleep thinking these thoughts, and in the morning, if I feel up to it, I go with my wife on her walk so that we can continue talking about the movie or the concert we saw the night before, even though walking along West Cliff Drive means risking a sunburn and dodging the bicycle riders who prefer the sidewalk to the lane set aside for them in the street.
"I used to have a bike," I muttered one day last year, after narrowly avoiding being run over by a crash-helmeted jerk my own age. "I was twelve." Of course, this may have been my tough guy talking. I guess I was working hard, but it felt as if I was hardly working.
Francis Davis is a contributing editor of The Atlantic.
Sketches by Martha Anne Booth.
The Atlantic Monthly; September 2000; Pacific Time - 00.09 (Part Two); Volume 286, No. 3; page 32-37.