After enduring a long, stifling Catholic upbringing in Oklahoma, I made my escape. I attended the University of California at Santa Cruz, the home of the Banana Slugs. I fell in love with the campus, and the town. After graduation, I hung around for a few years, working a few jobs that I don’t keep on my resume anymore, back when it was easy to live on not a lot of money. I got comfortable with the languid rhythm of life in that little seaside hippie town. But as the saying goes, all good things must come to an end. I won’t bore you with the personal details of why, but I left Santa Cruz and moved to North Carolina, where I live to this day. I’ve settled into the wonderful little town of Carrboro, a town with a lot in common with Santa Cruz. But, alas, it isn’t Santa Cruz.
When I left Santa Cruz, I always harbored the notion that one day I would move back. I loved Santa Cruz. I loved the ocean. I loved the chilly fog coming in from Monterey Bay. I loved hanging out at Bookshop Santa Cruz, then grabbing a pepperoni slice from Pizza My Heart before heading home to study. I loved the Beach Boardwalk, with all its trash and seediness, the quintessential California amusement park. I loved the quiet solitude of walking between the redwoods on campus, or kicking up sand at Natural Bridges State Park. I loved walking down the street, certain to hear the distinctive, phase-shifted sound of Jerry Garcia’s guitar blaring from an open window, a bootleg recording from a certain rare show. I loved the street musicians, playing Christmas carols in the warm California sun, trying to will a real Winter into existence.
Mostly though, I loved the crazy off-kilter vibe that seemed to ooze from the pavement, a hallucinogenic stench of cannabis, coffee, and patchouli. Seductive, subtly addictive, Santa Cruz could take over one’s soul. The aging, half-broken hippies hanging out at San Lorenzo park were the carefree casualties of Santa Cruz’s addictive pull. Santa Cruz is a college town, adding a streak of intellectualism to its heady allure. The disheveled surf bum loading up on coffee at the next table might be a doctoral candidate, a professor, or an in-the-flesh mad genius. Read any article about astronomy in the paper, and more than likely a few quotes from a Santa Cruz prof will pepper the article, probably just another Banana Slug searching the stars for enlightenment, no doubt.
The first time I voted in Santa Cruz, I voted for Carl Foytik for mayor; I still have one of his campaign buttons, somewhere. Foytik, a perennial student who had cycled through just about every program at the University without ever actually graduating, wore his graying long hair atop his head in a bun, with chopsticks. In practically any other town, Carl would have never been taken seriously, but in Santa Cruz, the other candidates politely paid heed to his ideas and suggestions. I wish I could say he was elected, but he lost. Instead, John Laird, the first openly gay mayor in the United States and a socialist, won. Only in Santa Cruz!
In 1989, two years after I left, the Loma Prieta earthquake devastated Santa Cruz. After that, all bets were off, the party was over. The town had to rebuild, and the forces that have sucked the soul out of every other city in America were waiting with shovels, cranes, and almighty dollars to do the rebuilding. When I read about the quake, I knew the moment had come, Santa Cruz long childish revery was over. All that was left to do was wait for the Wal-Mart doors to swing open, with everyday low prices to trade for a town’s soul.
I recently went back to Santa Cruz while on a business trip to California. After years of living in North Carolina, I had come to believe that the Santa Cruz I loved was long gone, that it existed only as a memory. I headed to Santa Cruz with trepidation, certain that my beliefs would be confirmed, and my memories, destroyed. I expected Santa Cruz to have fallen in line with the rest of this cookie-cutter nation, with big box retailers, chain stores, and super-sized faux food on every corner.
What I found though, was a compromise. The old Santa Cruz hadn’t disappeared completely, it was just a little rusted, dented here and there, but still there. Pizza My Heart had moved, but the surfers and college kids that worked there still looked the same, youthful and rebellious. And the pizza was greasy-but-good, as it always had been. Bookshop Santa Cruz had moved, its old home destroyed in the quake. The new store was bigger, and decidedly offbeat, eclectic, and downright eccentric. Down the street, Logos Books & Records (yes, lots of vinyl) was still around. Yes there were chain stores on the Pacific Garden Mall, but there were still crazy stores selling only organic cotton and hemp clothing, and wild skateboard shops. I ate lunch at a wonderful vegetarian restaurant, the Cafe Gratitude, and for a moment imagined the steam rising from the soup could somehow make time stand still, and that I could live in this town again. The kitchen door opened, and over the sound of the dishwasher, I heard that phase-shifted guitar, the wistful, heartfelt tenor, singing “May the four winds blow you home again.” I left, went back to Bookshop Santa Cruz, and bought my daughter the Banana Slug shirt I had promised her, and, on a whim, picked up a shirt for myself emblazoned with the slogan “Keep Santa Cruz Weird.”
Yes, I wish I were still living in Santa Cruz, but whether I ever do or not, Santa Cruz will always live within me.