FROM THE ARCHIVES: REPORTAGE DE LA PLAGE, 23 AVRIL 1999

En Californie, le printemps n’existe pas.  Entre l’hiver et l’été,
l’année souffre une crise d’identité.  Les jours sont entrés dans une
folie d’oscillation entre une chaleur luxurieuse et une mélancholie
d’automne, brouillée par les nuages.

On a l’impression d’habiter un film assemblé par un monteur derangé,
sous la direction d’un metteur en scène dément.  Votre rôle dans la
drame est morcelé.  Quelquefois on parle Anglais, quelquefois on parle
Francais.  Quelquefois, la mer parle dans la voix d’une femme — et
alors l’ocean interromps le discours tendre dans la voix d’un homme.

On a l’envie des longeurs de la saison d’été, monotone et stupide, mais
fixée, lorsque elle vous dirai “Cowabunga, dude!” et on repondra avec
le sourire d’un idiot.

FROM THE ARCHIVES: REPORT FROM THE BEACH, 5 APRIL 1999

The advent of these bright, mild days of April means only one thing to
the Ventura resident whose soul burns for adventure — the
rollerblading season has begun.

There is nothing quite like strapping on the blades and gliding out of
the carport onto the smooth gutter that runs down the middle of
Weymouth Lane, turning left on Pierpont and navigating its bikepath to
the end of the avenue, where it runs into the entrance of the San
Buenaventura State Beach.


A wide bike path there, divided by a row of tall palms, runs behind the
dunes, which offer only brief glimpses of the ocean to the rolling
traveler — but already the waves sound clearer and the wind comes off
the ocean unmitigated by the houses of the lanes.


Up past the lifeguard headquarters the dunes fall away and you are
travelling in view of the surf, across a wide flat expanse of beach,
staked out with volleyball net posts, unstrung as yet.


Then under the Ventura Pier and along the beachfront esplanade, as far,
if you want, as Surfer’s Point, the legendary surfing spot that starts
at the end of California Street, or just “C” Street, as the surfers
used to call it.


It’s pleasant to pause for a while then, take off the blades and climb
the stairs to the pier, for a little refreshment at Eric Ericsson’s
restaurant on the pier.



You can sit at one of the tables out front, braving the chill that
still comes in on the wind at this time of year, and have an iced latte
and a plate of fresh, steamed Santa Barbara mussels, prepared with an
astonishing amount of garlic, and chopped tomatoes and basil.


Behind the pier you can see the cars whizzing along the 101, and on the
ridge behind that an Amtrak train will likely roll by. In front of you
is the reliable incantation of the waves, the sun hitting hard on the
deep terraces of sets at the point. Beyond these, depending on the
light and the mist, is the shocking closeness, or mysterious distance,
or utter invisibility of the Channel Islands.


All this whets the appetite, not just for the mussels, which turn out to be delicious, but also for the dreamlike gliding home.

The view from the back of a horse is one of antique magnificence, in
which honorable deeds seem inevitable and glory within mortal grasp.
The view from rollerblades is not quite so lofty, of course — but
still, how one towers over the ungainly tread of the joggers, with
their slightly embarrassed smiles distorted by anguish and despair.


You realize the truth of the maxim that all exercise which feels like
exercise diminishes the soul to the exact degree that it improves the
body.


On rollerblades your feet are winged, your spirit flies out ahead of you, and it’s all you can do to keep up.

FROM THE ARCHIVES: REPORT FROM THE BEACH, 29 MARCH 1999



Now that Spring is here, the days of bright sunshine seem to unfold
with greater authority, no longer a promise but an actual downpayment
on the summer.

The vacation motels along Thompson Avenue, with names suggesting an
intimacy with the beach (an intimacy which is betrayed in fact by the
unseen barrier of the 101 Freeway) look brighter, too — the neon
“Vacancy” signs, merely pathetic in February, now have the quality of
confidant, if insincere, smiles.

Yesterday I decided to spend one of these bright days inside a movie
theater, watching The Mod Squad — a mistake I hope others will not
make. Depressed by the spectacle of such wonderful actors mouthing such
dull-witted dialogue I came out into the late afternoon on Main Street
and my spirits were instantly restored.



The ocean peeked back at me from the end of Chestnut Street, the
slanting light made the small-scale buildings of downtown Ventura look
like toys. As I walked to my car I passed the old Ventura Theater,
where the last evening of the Monster Swing Weekend was already in
progress. The Rumba Bums were on the bill, but I heard no music, just
squeals and cheers from a crowd inside, like the innocent echo of
lighthearted evenings long past.

I had the sensation of being on a movie set, but the feeling wasn’t
alienating, because it was my movie, set on the streets of my little
town, Ventura . . . an imaginary location somewhere on the coast of
California.

FROM THE ARCHIVES: REPORT FROM THE BEACH, 12 DECEMBER 1998



Where I live, the sounds of the night are romantic and consoling –
trains and waves.  The coastal tracks run by about a mile and a half from
me, but over the silence of the cultivated fields the trains sound very
clearly after dark.  Late at night long freights roll through endlessly,
the soft clacking punctuated by occasional organ-note whines from the
diesel horn.


The waves are continual, of course, and low — sometimes you need to
strain to hear them.


But tonight they were thunderous — they kept breaking into my
consciousness as I worked at the computer.  When I realized I had to go
out for milk, I couldn’t help walking down to the beach to see what was
going on.


This gave me a chance to examine the Christmas lights on my street, very intense in the misty air — and only strung on the simplest houses, the ones owned by the oldest residents.



As I approached the beach it sounded as though the waves were crashing
right into the houses facing the ocean, but they weren’t.  The tide was
rather far out and the waves were breaking in long explosions of foam
across the whole length of the beach — something they very rarely do.
Either the bottom has shifted and regularized or the winter swells are
so large they bring waves that just override the bars.


There was a very light haze circling the whole horizon, and low down to
it.  To the northwest, the haze made the lights of Ventura sparkle –
they looked exactly like the Christmas lights on my street.  Far out at
sea, oil platforms showed their lights just as festively, and a fishing
boat with lights running up its tall net booms was anchored just
outside the entrance to the harbor, probably waiting for the tide to
lift it over the bar there.




Above the ring of the mist the sky was crystaline, thick with stars.
The first time I glanced up a shooting star burst like a rocket — so
big and bright that it looked like milk being spilled from a glass.
More shooting stars exploded as often as I gazed up.


Milk — of course.  Then back home, drinking egg nog laced with very
good Brandy.

The waves seem even louder now, as the tide comes in . . .
as though they’re breaking on the walls of houses just a few hundred
yards away.

It’s a call that always repays answering.

FROM THE ARCHIVES: REPORT FROM THE BEACH, 17 NOVEMBER 1998

Autumn at the beach — a season that has some substance here because
the damp of the sea air puts a bite into the chill of things.


Ventura Beach is never what you would call a happening place.  Even in
high summer it's slow during the week, barely crowded on weekends.  Now
it's left to the surfers, who never stop, the year-round residents, a
strange breed, and the lost.



The McDonald's which I stop into often for a McBLT — an excellent, if
mushy, sandwich — is virtually deserted after dark, the Denny's across
the boulevard hardly less so.



Down the coast, the fields near the ocean are always dotted now with
imported farm workers, moving slowly along the furrows, harvesting
things.  Always a truck parked at the edge of the field near the road,
with racks where the workers hang their open, woven-straw hand-baskets,
stuffed with their personal effects.



You never wait in line at the Vons supermarket these days, amongst
vacationers laden with twelve-packs of beer and soda.  Just us members
of the Vons Club now, the regulars, with the discount card.



A beach town never feels desolate, though. The sound of the waves is a
constant reminder that it's hooked up to something vast and
industrious.  It's like having the TV on all the time . . . tuned to
the Cosmic Channel.

FROM THE ARCHIVES: REPORT FROM THE BEACH, 6 OCTOBER 1998


Ventura and Oxnard, the city it bleeds into towards the southeast, are
by volume mostly agricultural.  Along the 101 Freeway that bisects them
is a succession of malls and outlet centers, and using only this artery
one could supply all the needs of life without ever thinking of these
cities as anything other than highway sprawl.  You could miss entirely
the old downtown of Ventura, that runs along Main Street for a few
blocks near the restored mission, or the tiny beach community where I
live, “on the lanes”, as the older residents say — the little lanes
like mine that run off Pierpont Avenue and dead-end at the sea.


But if you take the surface roads that lead from my lane to the backs
of the shopping centers and malls, you drive through a landscape of
cultivated fields, some of which run down almost to the state beaches,
and grow strawberries and mushrooms and many other green things which I
do not recognize.



Downtown and the lanes, like these open fields, seem frozen in a
time-warp, images of the California coast towns long ago.  It can't
last.  Already one sees industrial parks and condo developments sitting
preposterously isolated on the edges of the farmland.  In our lifetimes,
probably, the fields will give way entirely to such things, as they
have over the course of the last century in Los Angeles and in the San
Fernando Valley.



One navigates this dreamscape with a sense of loss already.  One wants
to photograph it all, just to prove it really exists — to be able to
prove it once existed.  The bright hand-painted signs at the fruit stands
near where Telephone Road becomes a dirt lane, minutes from the great
outlet malls of Oxnard, brood in melancholy gaiety.

They will not be preserved, like the Olivas Adobe, which sits surreally
on the edge of the Olivas Park Golf Course, testifying unconvincingly
to the age of the Spanish land grants.  The tiny beach shacks on
Weymouth Lane where I live, where lower middle-class families could
once live within spitting distance of the Golden Coast, will not
survive another generation.

Ventura is a strange place, culturally arid, hard to love for any
obvious reasons — but the quiet doom that invests all of it makes it
very sweet . . . charms the spirit.

FROM THE ARCHIVES: REPORT FROM THE BEACH, 30 AUGUST 1998

Yesterday at sunset two large Golden Retrievers ran down onto the beach
with their owner and proceeded instantly to two spots in the sand, as
though they were prearranged, and began digging furiously.  They didn’t
stop as long as I watched them.  The holes just got bigger and deeper.
Occasionally the dogs would pause, step back and bark into the holes.
There was nothing in the holes.

This was almost as strange as a couple in their thirties I saw a few
days ago, strolling along the shore.  The man had one arm around his
lady companion — in the other he carried a golf club, a metal driver.



Every now and then he would stop, disengage, address an imaginary golf
ball in the sand and “drive” it into the surf.  Then he would continue
on.


Some fantastic act of defiance — like Cuchulain attacking the breakers
with his broadsword?  A man who cares far too much about his golf swing?


When we know what the dogs were digging for we may know the answers to
these questions, and many others besides.  Mysteries of the beach
revealed . . .

FROM THE ARCHIVES: REPORT FROM THE BEACH, 24 AUGUST 1998

Today, Cotty Chubb and I drove up to the marina in the man-made harbor
at Santa Barbara and rented a small twenty-foot day sailer. We had to
answer a simple questionnaire about sailing. The only question I knew
the right answer to was which buoys are conical (red) and which are
cylindrical (green). Cotty got this one wrong but all the others right,
so we were qualified to operate the vessel.


We cast off and went out onto the ocean.




A slight breeze took us down the coast as far as the Biltmore Hotel in
Montecito, where Cotty was staying, then the wind freshened
considerably and sped us back, rails almost to the water, spray in our
faces and elsewhere. (Fortunately, being an old sea dog, I had wrapped
my wallet in a zip-loc sandwich bag.)




From the water, there is nothing visible of Santa Barbara that could
not date from the Forties — it must be what Los Angeles looked like
back then. Lines of palms along the curving shore drive and promenade,
exactly like Nice, Spanish-style buildings climbing the hills beyond to
the point at which the mountains rise very suddenly and sharply.




A seal appeared dead ahead of us, diving and resurfacing — dove just
as we came up to him and reappeared in our wake. He looked at us
quizzically as we proceeded along, as though to say, “How did those
guys pass the sailing test?”



Still, we raced back, at the end, with flying colors, exhilarated after
two hours at sea. Twenty buck an hour. “In a world where a plate of
pasta can cost twenty dollars,” said Cotty, “this is a bargain.”




It was — the mental equivalent of two days of rest. Because there is
only so far you can head up into the wind . . . if it blows against you
you have to tack — and this is the shortest route you can take, even
if it looks like nothing but zigzagging on the chart.



Because there is no appeal to the ocean, you and all your problems are
quite irrelevant to its whims. Because everything you get from it is a
gift, which you don't have the power to repay.




We went swimming in the surf afterwards, and I felt a kind of preposterous cordiality with the waves.

FROM THE ARCHIVES: REPORT FROM THE BEACH, 17 AUGUST 1998


                                                                                                  [Image by W. L. Warner]

Yesterday evening a deep coastal cloudbank was driving in across the whole
horizon, eating up the headlands beyond the Ventura County Fairgrounds.
It was the last night of the fair and the lights of the Ferris wheel
glowed spookily in the mist, miles away. Wild rays of sunlight, like
banners, seemed to flutter over the headlands at the edge of the cloud
bank.


The sun, a bright red viscous disc, appeared through the mists just before it disappeared into the ocean.

These sorts of phenomena turn the blank landscapes of the sea and sky into
theatrical spaces, which seem both awesome and manageable — a place
one might act in, given the appropriate role, mythological and
ritualistic. Conditions also in which gods might step down into our
world.

["Freedom Bulletin" No. 1 -- no more posts until Congress solves the credit crisis!]]

FROM THE ARCHIVES: REPORT FROM THE BEACH, 9 AUGUST 1998

bestplacefields

For almost five years I rented a small studio apartment behind a garage in Ventura, California, half a block from the beach. My principle residence was still New York City, but I needed to spend part of the year in California, for professional reasons. I ended up in Ventura because I wanted to be near the ocean, I wanted to be within striking distance of Los Angeles, for business meetings and visits to friends and to my sister and her family there, and I wanted to be near Ojai, where a few other close friends lived. I triangulated those geographical objectives on a map and Ventura was the only logical choice.

 I sent out irregular reports to friends about Ventura — mostly meditations on place, a record of my exploration of the town and an attempt to create a myth about it for myself, as we always create myths about the places we live.

 Here’s the first of those reports, from 9 August 1998:

The beach at the end of my street isn’t wide. At high tide the waves lap up against the embankment of rocks designed to keep them from the houses lined up like books on a shelf, facing the ocean.

Sitting on one of these rocks at sunset I can look south and see the breakwater and the masts of Ventura Harbor, basically a man-made marina. North I can see the coastline for a few miles, curving inland in front of the city of Ventura then back out again to a headland of tall hills.

There is often a lot of coastal mist at sunset. Sometimes the tops of the hills at the headland are covered in it. Sometimes the whole beach is shrouded and it’s hard to make out a surf-fisher fifty yards away. All the permutations of the mist make for strange and shifting effects of the light when the sun goes down.

The water I look out at is the Santa Barbara Channel, running between the mainland and the Channel Islands, which so far have always been hidden by the mist.

The waves at the beach are not large or long but there are always surfers here. They wait out beyond the breakers, sitting still on their boards, sometimes for twenty minutes at a time, hoping for a good wave. They remind me of ducks then. Usually when a wave comes they are up and down in seconds. I think this must be an amateur or novice surfer’s beach.

Still, for those few seconds, riding upright on their boards, the surfers look bitchin’, tuned into something awesome.

The ocean.