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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.
Copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
Copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.