One thing I certainly haven’t done these 18 months is treat my unemployment like a vacation. A couple of friends have suggested that it is, indeed, a vacation from the hamster wheel. True, but I’m sure as hell not getting paid like a holiday. And damn it all, the benefits are not infinite.
Because I’ve been busy writing and futilely perusing the Web, looking for jobs I’ll apply for only to get a rejection — on those rare occasions when a prospective employer actually shows any sense of decency — and because I can’t really afford to go too far, I’ve stayed close to here.
I’ve gotten up to San Francisco three times this summer: for the Trans March and the Pride Parade in June, and a great girls’ afternoon out early last month with my friend Lorraine, a fellow ex-journalist I met right after my layoff. Plus, I accompanied my pal Megan on her daytrip to L.A. and Santa Monica in July. But that’s all, folks; I’ve stayed close to Fresno, though if I strung all my bicycle mileage from this summer together, I’d probably be in Mexico by now.
At a certain point, as anyone who lives in the Big No knows, you just have to get away. It could be to escape the godawful air (traditionally neck-and-neck with L.A. for the country’s worst), which does a number on my fragile lungs more often than I want to count. It could be to break the routines (and Geminis detest routines after a while), or to escape all the ignorance and stupidity and sullen, dead faces around here.
But I’ve been worried about my car since the Pride Parade two months ago; a couple days after that, the heater core of my Celica’s engine went, meaning my wonderful car, after over 240K on the odometer, is on its last legs.
But early Monday — Labor Day, a holiday whose significance is sadly lost on most of us these days, but traditionally the “last day of summer” — I got in a 15-mile bike ride. It was only about 11 when I got back, and I decided screw it — I showered, threw on some clothes (a teal top my friend Amy had just given me, black capris, black slippers) and did my face and got in the car and headed to the coast. Namely, to Santa Cruz and my favorite West Coast beach, a short drive north. (East Coasters call it going to the shore; out here, it’s the coast.)
And to new adventures. Sometimes things are best left unplanned.
I hadn’t been to Santa Cruz in over two years. I went out there to see Herman’s Hermits on the beach in late June 2008; my friends Megan and Dax and his brother Mark joined me that evening, we dropped copious money at the arcade, stayed overnight and went downtown for coffee and breakfast, then up to my favorite West Coast beach.
There was a two-week stretch of July 2006 when the temperature here got to the upper 100s, about a week in the 110s. And it was even hot in the Bay Area: 91 in San Francisco, 113 in Pleasanton, etc. Just plain stupid, fucking, oppressive hot.
The next-to-last Saturday afternoon of July, I drove the hour and a half west to Gilroy, thinking it was the weekend of the Garlic Festival. Well, when I got off 101 and saw the screaming lack of traffic, I realized very quickly the error of my ways; that it was the next Saturday. But Plan B was quick to pop up: Hell, I’m not gonna waste a drive like this — I’m going to the coast! Mama didn’t raise no dummy — I need water! I needed cool summer breezes!
The problem, once I reached 1 in Watsonville, was that every goddamned yuppie in San Francisco was thinking the same thing and heading south to Monterey. Ten minutes going south and I think I traveled one mile. I quickly reversed direction; there was considerably less traffic northbound. Eventually, I ended up in Santa Cruz, which I didn’t know much about at the time. I turned off, headed toward the ocean, and found myself staring at the world-famous amusement pier.
Summertime at its finest: The rumbling of the roller coasters and the accompanying screams. The Ferris wheel. The crowds. The noise.
The lack of parking.
You see, if someone was with me, I’d have no problem finding a spot. I have a parking fairy with me who goes on duty when I have passengers; I can find a spot — snap! — right up in front of a place, but only as long as someone’s riding with me.
Solo is another story.
I drove around 45 minutes trying to find a metered spot within about an eight-block radius of the pier. Nothing.
But I wasn’t put off. Besides, I could bank this place for another day (and did). Plus, the weather was gorgeous, and there was a lot of California I hadn’t experienced yet, and besides, I probably needed solitude more than I needed crowds. So I headed back to 1 and northward.
About 20 minutes later, I reached an uphill, just past where the railroad tracks crossed diagonally to the east side of the road. And as the road peaked, followed by a sweeping bend and dip, I saw this majestic roll of waves moving through an inlet toward the shore, amid the backdrop of a huge sandstone rock face. It looked beautiful. It looked like a beach. And as I descended the crest, I noticed plenty of parking room on both sides of the road.
My first visit to Scott’s Creek. A happy accident.
I gingerly made my way down the steep sand path and walked the quarter-mile down to the water and took my shoes off. God, it was cold! But was I complaining? I think it reached 113 in Fresno that day; at Scott’s Creek, it couldn’t have been more than the upper 70s. And I just stood there and let the water envelop my legs. And I stayed there well over an hour, until the sun disappeared from view. Then it was back in the car and 30 miles north to Half Moon Bay. Then it was an hour to go a half-mile. A rock slide had blocked 1 at Devil’s Slide, eight miles north, and just to make the turn onto Highway 92, the detour heading to 101, took that long.
The heat hit me full blast again as I descended Altamont Pass on I-580 into the San Joaquin Valley. I eventually made it back to Fresno around 1 that morning, in time to jump in on a poker game at our pal Matt Kreamer’s house. It was 98 out at 1 a.m. Welcome back to hell. And I don’t mean my night at the table, either, though that wasn’t anything to write about. Or just the heat. I knew I was back in Fresno when I pulled up at a 7-Eleven on Ashlan Avenue to pick up a Big Gulp on the way to Kreamer’s and saw some skinny, skanky crack ho in T-shirt, shorts and flip-flops loudly arguing about money with her equally skanky pimp in front of the payphone, slurring all the way.
But I’ve been back to Scott’s Creek a few times since. I went there after visiting my pal Lexy from home that December. And when I was there two years ago with Megan, Dax and Mark, we were treated to a nature show.
It was about 2 in the afternoon on a cloudy Saturday. And the matinee was about to begin. At 11 o’clock high, squadrons of brown pelicans were dive-bombing the fish just below the surface, smacking with a force that would give mere mortals concussions. Off to my right, I counted nine seals riding in the waves. And off in the distance slightly to my left, past the pelicans, a pair of dolphins were leaping about.
It was like being on a Provincetown whale watch, only without the whales. The last few years before I moved west in 2004, I would take vacations the week before Memorial Day and drive the 4 1/2 hours from New Haven to Provincetown, at the tip of Cape Cod. And one of the things I would do was go on the three-hour whale watches at the nearby Stellwagen Bank, where the whales would migrate in the spring.
Sometimes the captain would have to go pretty far out to find whales, sometimes not. Once, he gunned the boat so we could see over 20 dolphins surfing its wake. And on the best watch of all, we didn’t have to go far out at all to see a dozen whales, flocks of birds, dolphins … and a German sub just hanging around for kicks.
That’s what Scott’s Creek was like the last time I was there. Minus the whales. Or Das Boot.
Fast-forward to Monday. I needed to go to the beach more than I needed to go to Santa Cruz. But I figured I’d need to stop and pee somewhere, and maybe it would be nice to go downtown and sit and decompress in a coffee shop and do a little reading first. So by around 1:30, I was on 99, heading for 152 to Hollister and points not too far westward.
Around 4:30, I turned off 1 toward the amusement pier, just to see it; I wasn’t expecting to find parking on the last big holiday of the season, and I was right. I just needed to see something that screamed “summer.” I crawled out of there after one pass and made my way to downtown, where the fairy took pity on me found me a free spot in a three-hour lot just off the main drag, Pacific Avenue.
Santa Cruz itself is a nice-looking place to visit, but take a walk up and down Pacific Avenue and you can see it draws from the worst elements of both hippie and yuppie — the freak factor, self-absorption and astronomical prices. In other words, a so-called liberal place that’s really anything but. Kinda loathsome, really. But it wouldn’t hurt to stop for an iced coffee. The place we went a couple years ago seems to have disappeared, but I found a Peet’s where I could sit back and read (Jon Krakauer’s book on Pat Tillman, “Where Men Win Glory”) for a short while.
But the clock was gnawing at me. Just before 6, I realized I had to get out of there soon if I wanted to spend any time at the beach before sunset.
After a crawl up Beach Avenue, the traffic dissipated; seems everyone else was taking Highway 17 back over the mountains to San Jose. Northbound 1 was fine once I could get to it. And when I did, I watched my Celica hit the 243,000-mile mark at the junction of Highway 9.
It was just around 6:30 that I came to the sweeping dip left and the majestic view of waves crashing. This is what I’d been waiting for all day.
There was a parking spot on the shoulder across the road from the path down to the shore. I took off my slippers and descended very slowly down the steep path. (And on my first trip to the coast as my better half, the wig was looking very natural in its windblown state.) I walked down to the water to let the water wash over my feet and legs; the first wave I encountered was a little bigger than I anticipated — smack — up past my knees. My pants got a christening. The water was cold but not terribly chilly. It was just fine.
It was necessary.
I never usually see more than a dozen people there at any given visit, and that was the case this particular Monday. About 20 minutes in, I realized that, aside from a guy in a white T-shirt on a blanket with his girlfriend, I was the only person there who wasn’t wearing a hoodie or a fleece. I did bring my cardigan with me, but I didn’t need it. I left it with my purse and shoes on the blanket and just took in the beauty of a late-summer late afternoon.
So what do you do at a beach? You’d think it would be a place for me to think about heavy-duty things, to contemplate the universe and all that. Nope. Quite the opposite. The universe is constantly running around in my skull; the ocean is a place to disconnect from it, to empty my skull, to do something resembling meditating, without really calling it that.
I used to do that sometimes on my visits to my favorite East Coast beach — the place I’d like my ashes scattered someday — the Narragansett Town Beach in Rhode Island. My 40th birthday, an early-June Monday, was a very chilly day, in the 60s, and I spent most of the afternoon — hours — perched in a lifeguard’s chair, overlooking the water straight ahead and the landmark Casino Arch to my starboard, busy thinking about absolutely nothing. Then it was home for dinner with my pal Drew at my favorite sushi place, Daiko in West Haven.
Just the crashing of the waves, the ebb and flow, the constant breeze and the salt air — especially in contrast to the hot, dry, particulate-laden air of the San Joaquin — is wonderful therapy. It could be as short as an hour, as long as an entire day, but the upshot is that I feel renewed, at least for a short while.
And, on this day, numb.
Is it possible to get frostbite when the temperature’s in the 60s? My feet were starting to get a little numb from the cold water, but I didn’t feel too uncomfortable; besides, I wasn’t going to leave until the sun flickered its last. (We New Englanders are made of stronger stuff, y’know?)
And there wasn’t much time left on that clock. The sky was hazy all day, but the sun resonated loud and clear until its final minutes, when it dissolved into a pinkish-orange semi-circle that hovered above the haze at the intersection of sky and water.
And about three minutes after, what was left of the pink semi-circle dissipated into the haze like an Alka-Seltzer into a glass, leaving only a pinkish residue that glowed faintly for the next minute.
OK, now I think it’s time to go. My cell phone said 7:32. Just over an hour of therapeutic bliss.
Somehow I could still walk and made it up the fairly steep slope, but I couldn’t feel my feet for a minute as I toweled off and put my shoes back on. And no, you can’t get frostbite when it’s in the 60s — a couple minutes in the car and I was good to go.
And that was just the first part of the adventure.
Driving north on 1 as the ocean sky worked its way downward from pink to gray to black felt like an early evening in Maine — the sparse houses overlooking the rocky coastline, half-hidden by the tall grasses. Andrew Wyeth would have had a field day here. The Pacific Coast Highway might be an absolute bitch to drive in spots — I accidentally discovered the joys of driving the 65 miles of nightmare from Hearst Castle to Big Sur my second Memorial Day out here, and at sunset, to boot — but its reputation as one of America’s most beautiful roads is well deserved.
It was dark by the time I drove the 30 miles to Half Moon Bay. And as I approached the turnoff for 92, it hit me: I don’t want to go back to Fresno. I have no reason to be up early. It’s still early enough. This is the first time I’ve been on 1 when Devil’s Slide was open. I’m hungry. And it’s only 30 miles to San Francisco.
I was part of a caravan that made its way through the construction zone of Devil’s Slide, where twin tunnels are being built, and into Pacifica, and wound our way to the point where we could see the sprawl of the grids of lights of civilization below — Daly City.
And as 1 merged with I-280, headed toward the City, some of the sights became familiar, like the combo In-N-Out and Krispy Kreme. I recognized it from my BART trips to SFO, headed for flights back home. Traffic heading into San Fran was fairly light as I forked left from 280 to 101, headed for the end of the freeway at Octavia and Market, as I decided to see what was open in the Castro.
There are no left turns for the first three lights at the end of the ramp. And as I got to the first light, going up the hill at Haight, I saw something disconcerting: My temperature gauge was starting to rise, to about three-quarters.
Shit. Come on, baby, you’ve been good all day — don’t leave me stranded here.
The car answered back. The needle dipped back to midway. Phew.
I finally was able to make a couple of lefts and head back down toward Market. Turned left on Sanchez and then a right onto to 18th, headed toward Castro. Made the right turn onto Castro and found a spot four spaces down from the marquee of the Castro Theatre, where the restored version of The Who’s “Tommy” was playing.
I could finally give the car a rest. I misread the time, thinking it was 10 instead of 9, and walked back down Castro to the Fourbucks on 18th, which closed at 10:30, to get an iced coffee to go for the trip back. I wasn’t ready to leave already, mind you — just being prepared. It was rather morguelike in there. I did notice a woman like me, just a little older and with a slight touch of elegance about her.
Left the coffee in the car and walked up to the corner of 17th; next door to the Twin Peaks bar on the 17th side was Orphan Andy’s, an all-night diner. At that point, Mickey D’s would’ve looked good, but I wouldn’t have traveled all that way for McShit, even if there was one nearby.
I sat at the next stool to the far end. A couple stools to my right, a customer said, “And how are you, young lady?”
He kinda looked disheveled, but not in a homeless way — close to my age one way or the other, salt-and-pepperish hair in sort of a rock’n’roll way, unshaven. I wasn’t attracted and didn’t want to engage him: “Fine,” I said.
The waiter came over and said hi. He was young, Mexican and slightly effeminate and had a sweet smile. His name was Gilbert, and he looked like a shade slighter and taller version of the Gilbert who did such a great job waxing my eyebrows at Manchester Beauty College a month before.
I sat there and studied the menu — the bleu cheeseburger looked very enticing, with fries, which I hadn’t had in a long while. (The things you don’t think about when you’re eating a lot healthier …)
Gilbert came back and took my order — the bleu cheeseburger and fries, a side of cole slaw, water — and then asked me, “Do you know about …” and he mentioned an imperial drag court in town.
“Well,” I said nicely; after all he was being helpful and nice, “I really don’t hang around in the drag scene. Nothing against it, but this” — referring to my trans thing — “is where I’m going full-time.”
“No, I just figured it’s something you might be interested in,” he said. “Do you live around here?”
“No. I’m living in Fresno right now, but I’m trying to get a job up here.”
“Oh my God! I’m from Fresno!”
He moved to the City four years ago, and he couldn’t be happier.
“You really need to move here,” he said.
“I’m trying. I’m trying to find a job up here,” I told him. “Here or New York or back home in Connecticut, where I came from.”
By that time, the guy next to me was listening intently, so I explained how Fresno was the Bible Belt of the West, and Gilbert was especially surprised when I told him I was able to come out in Fresno. I told him I never really did plug into a trans community because my friends before the transition are still my friends and then some.
By that time, as Gilbert tended to other customers, I got into a conversation with the guy to my right, who was digging into a humongous slab of meatloaf on a sourdough bun and making a gravy reservoir in his mountain of mashed potatoes. He had told Gilbert that he was working as a bartender and a waiter, and that he had just moved from Jersey four months before, and that his sister was a big-name chef in San Francisco.
“So where in Jersey are you from?”
Danny had lived in Caldwell and Montclair for years, as well as New York.
“Where in New York?”
“I lived for a few years in Manhattan, and then I moved to Brooklyn.”
“Whereabouts in Brooklyn? I was a Greenpoint baby before I moved to Connecticut when I was a kid.”
“I lived in Greenpoint at one point. I forget the name of the street, but I lived down where Greenpoint ran into Williamsburg.”
“Yeah, my favorite band is based in Greenpoint.”
“Yeah, I’ve heard them!”
“Yeah, I saw them when I was home visiting for the holidays. They played New Year’s night at Southpaw.”
“Yeah, I’ve heard of the place.”
And so it went.
He asked about what I did for a living, and I told him what I wasn’t doing. We chatted for a while, and then he had to go. He gave me a hug and a kiss on the cheek, along with a cheekful of scruff.
And at a certain point, one of the off-duty cooks, still in his red apron, sat down at the stool to my left. John was in his late 50s, early 60s, I’m guessing — a bear, balding with gray hair and a mustache and a tiny voice. He had retired from the place after 17 years but still came in to help out from time to time, like Monday night. I got the impression, from their conversations, that Gilbert was new to the place.
Meanwhile, there was a lull, so Gilbert came around the counter and sat where Danny had been. We talked about the transition and about what I did for a living. I asked him, “You see a lot of people. Do you know of anyone who has a Web or editing or copywriting or PR job?”
“I don’t know anyone in those circles. I’m sorry.”
“No, I just figured it didn’t hurt to ask.” I told him about the blog and gave him my e and blog addresses as I was squaring away my check. By that time, it was getting near 11 and I figured, with three hours ahead, I better get back on the road sooner than later.
He had a hug for me as I made my way to the door.
That was just cool. I stopped just to hang out and get a bite and ended up in some really nice conversations.
And as a coda to all that, I was down to a quarter-tank, so I stopped at the 76 station about three blocks down Market, heading back toward the freeway and the Bay Bridge.
As I was filling the car, a woman walked by on the sidewalk side of a hedgerow and said, “I really like your hair.”
It was the woman from Starbucks.
“Thanks a lot. I saw you sitting in the corner at Starbucks when I went in to get my iced coffee before.”
“I thought I saw you there.”
And thus, another wildly random conversation.
Daniela had an accent I couldn’t quite place (Spanish? Italian?) and I walked over to talk to her.
“So were you working?”
“No. I’m planning to take a trip. I used to be a flight attendant and I travel a lot. I’ve been to Morocco, and next week I’m thinking of going to Barcelona. What do you do?”
“Nothing at the moment. I’m an unemployed ex-journalist, and I’m trying to get a job here or New York or back home in Connecticut.”
She was elegant and sweet, and I almost asked her if there was another place to go where we could sit and have coffee, but I thought the better of it. I wasn’t sure I could last the trip home.
Yet another really nice random conversation. I don’t know how these things happen; maybe they see a pretty woman who has a lot of personality or something. I don’t plan these things. And I’m sure as hell not complaining. In a way, what seemed like a random series of events and conversations had some sort of psychic energy connecting them together, but I’m not sure what it is.
Maybe it was all a part of laying down the foundation to go live up there. I so need to live up there. God, please make this happen.
As I regretfully let Daniela continue her walk east on Market, and wished I could have spent more time talking with her, I made my way to 80, the Bay Bridge and 580 back to the Valley.
And as I started climbing Altamont Pass, the prelude to descending into the Valley, the temperature needle started climbing as well.
Shit. I hadn’t put any coolant in the car because when I popped the hood that morning after my bike ride and filled the oil, I popped the radiator cap and saw that it looked wet inside, so I didn’t think I needed any fluids. Guess I was wrong. And I was looking for an exit and a parking lot just in case, one eye on the road, the other on the needle.
But the car held its own as I crossed the Valley to 99, the mother road back to Fresno. So far, so good, but the needle was dancing just above the halfway point. Not good.
As long as the car didn’t get any worse, I figured I could get past Modesto and south to Turlock, where there was a rest area and I could give both myself and the car a rest. I pulled in and dropped the seat back and closed my eyes. The rest area was well lit, there were other cars and trucks around, and I was right near the concessions and pretty close to the bathrooms.
I woke up with a start after what I thought was an hour. It was only 20 minutes. I closed my eyes and tried to get back to sleep with no success. So after about what seemed like 20 more minutes, I got up, popped the hood and the hatch and fed the beast water and green Prestone. Yeah, baby was thirsty. I usually top off the radiator at the house every time I’m heading somewhere long distance, and this time I didn’t. I won’t make that mistake again.
I felt a lot more confident about getting home after that, and pulled up in front of the house around 3 a.m. Then I couldn’t get to sleep for another hour and a half. So I checked my email and sent a return message — more like a full letter — to Shana, a new and welcome friend in my life. She’s probably wondering what the hell I was doing emailing at 3 in the morning. I swear it’s the caffeine!
Or was it just the adrenaline rush of having a spontaneous trip turn into a much cooler experience than I would have imagined?