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Sketch by Martha Anne Booth

Once the novelty wears off, a vacation spot may prove to be more than just another pretty place

by Francis Davis

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.
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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 Abroad, 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.

Sketch by Martha Anne BoothAll 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.

Sketch by Martha Anne Booth

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.


(The online version of this article appears in two parts. Click here to go to part two.)

Francis Davis is a contributing editor of The Atlantic.

Sketches by Martha Anne Booth.

Copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; September 2000; Pacific Time - 00.09; Volume 286, No. 3; page 32-37.