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I went to California at the age of twenty-one. I was a little late to begin my self-discovery journey, but picked a wonderful place for expeditious lessons, deep in the mountains off Highway One. I lived in Big Sur for eighteen months, six of which were spent in Willow Creek Canyon as caretaker on a four-acre homestead.

I had two dogs, seven cats, and a .22 pistol to keep me company.  The dogs and the pistol were for protection, the cats were for the mice. However, those dumb cats would never kill the mice. I had to kill them and feed them to the cats.

Each day I would fire a round of shots into a round of wood, to warn any possible intruders that someone was on the property; and they could be killed. One of the dogs, the Doberman, was loyal and sweet to me, but not the smartest animal. He thought target practice was a game and would run in the direction of the bullet. The German Shepherd was much smarter. He stayed at my side when we were out.

Interestingly, they had different ideas about running away. When we went for walks, we sometimes would hear the wild boar that lived in the canyon. I never worried about the dogs mixing it up with coyotes, because my dogs were mountain tough. But when Dobie the Doberman heard the boar, he would run into the woods to try to catch it. I always worried that he would be killed, but I guess the boar wanted nothing to do with him, because he always came back up to the trail.

Jerry the German Shepherd stuck with me when we were doing things, but on our ‘down time’, he would run far away, down the mountain pass and through the brush to the back of the school, about three miles away. All the children in our area attended Pacific Valley Regional Elementary School, in a one room but partitioned building.

Occasionally, a car would drive up the pass, the driver would open the front gate, and then carefully coast down our long and rocky driveway. It was usually the teacher who sometimes lived on the property when her boyfriend, the owner of the land, was back from his business trips. She would get out, open the door to her backseat, and let Jerry out. Then she would come tell me how much fun he had playing with the kids on the playground that afternoon. He loved the kids, and he loved the teacher, so I never wondered why he ran down there.

In rare instances, the visitor was someone the dogs didn’t know, and I hoped they would not get out of the car and try to be nice to the dogs. “Stay in your car!”, I would yell, and motion for them to stay put. Then I would walk out to their car with the dogs and introduce them. Dobie and Jerry were trained to be guard dogs, so I didn’t worry that much about my security. I had the dogs, and the gun, but relied much more on the dogs than my skill with a pistol.

Everything on the homestead was divided up by structures. There was a kitchen building, an outhouse, and outdoor shower, two cabins where the owners lived when they were there, and a trailer where I stayed. I cooked all day on a lovely old stove that ran on either propane or wood. I preferred wood. There was no one there to eat the homemade fritters and other yummy desserts that I concocted, and they would pile up. But cooking kept me from going stir crazy, while making me feel connected to the pioneers who had been on this land before me, so I kept at it.

Sometimes, Debbie the Bandit would drive her dirt bike down the mountain to see me. She lived about two miles up the winding road. I always knew she was coming because I could hear her popping off her .22 on the ride down, sort of aiming at, but mostly trying to scare the Blue Jays. As Deb got closer, I could hear her yelling, “Fucking Blue Jays!” She really hated those birds.

She was an eighteen year-old who lived with her thirty-three year-old boyfriend. He was gorgeous and kind, and I had a little crush on him, but I would never admit it to her, him, or anyone. Deb had grown up in Big Sur, and her parents still lived and partied there. Deb was a mountain girl, tougher than any coyote or even boar, but she was also hilarious and great company for a gal who was on her own most days. Plus, she would eat some of the fritters and tell me they were good. Since that was my life’s work at the time, the input was really appreciated.

We would smoke jays on the side of the cliff when she came down and get so high that I swear somedays I thought I could and should just walk right out onto the fog bed. Then we would climb up on the far side of the property and nude sunbathe in the warm grass on a hill. Hang gliders would illegally soar over our land and stare at us, and Deb would threaten them with her gun. It was scary but exhilarating. I always loved when she’d visit.

When I left Big Sur, I moved to Cambria, CA, where I was a cook, a cocktail waitress, a bartender, and a “bagger” at the local grocery store…these positions all ran into one another, working out my schedules between bosses who all knew each other. But in a town of 3,000, that wasn’t much of a surprise.

Sometimes my friends from Big Sur would come to town, and they were thought of by the townspeople as roughnecks. I thought of them as friends. Sag was a guy I knew from Gorda, where I lived the rest of my Big Sur days after the caretaking stint. He would come down to Cambria to party at the bar every few months. Once while I was working he was there and got completely hammered, and started some trouble, so he was asked to leave.

On his way out, he stopped and whispered in my ear to let his friend know that he would be outside, but the owner of the bar, who was always drunk and high (it was the ‘80s; I make no excuses) thought that he was hitting on me, and he and his friends ushered Sag out and started beating him up. I was screaming, “He didn’t do anything! He’s a friend of mine!” When the owner’s bloodthirst abated, they stopped throwing punches. Sag got up and walked around the corner. He was a mountain goat who took a beating as well as he gave one. It was a typical Saturday night.

I loved my time in Big Sur and learned so many lessons from her. But Cambria was like coming home, and it was there that I began to learn about responsibility, community, and growing up. Everyone grows at their own pace, and some faster than others. I was a slow learner. There were many more lessons to come. There still are.

 

The tub stands on the hill,
Just outside the kitchen building.
There is a hose attached to the faucet,
Which runs up the long metal tube,
And ends at the showerhead at the top.
It is a quiet, rainy day.
The well water and the rain fall on me simultaneously
From the shower, and from the sky.
Both come down softly, warming my skin and my mind
As I revel in this paradise of mine
That most will never know;
That most would never guess
Would be such a spiritual and thrilling experience.
Just taking my shower in the tub on the hill in the rain.

 

 

 

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Monday morning, 6:51 am.

Work hasn’t even started yet,

And there’s a whole week to go…

But, before you know it, it will be Friday;

Oh man, before you know it,

It will be Monday again.

Before you know it, I’ll have been to Portland

To visit the kid next month,

And back here,

And the month will be over.

Before you know it, the pool will open,

Finally, we will be swimming,

Absorbing the sun’s warmth and kindness.

At some point, probably mid-July,

We will begin to complain that it’s just too damn hot,

It’s okay though…

Before you know it, the leaves will start to turn;

We will all plan trips to catch the best peak times.

Soon they will all have fallen though,

And winter will rush in behind, as always too early,

An unwanted guest that seems to never go away.

But before you know it,

We are back here again.

 

And it didn’t take long to grow up

And it didn’t take long to grow old

And before you know it,

It will all be over

And before you know it,

It will all be gone.

So I’m going to love it today, this minute

And I’m going to hope that I don’t ever lose it.

Until the end comes around.

And I don’t want to lose it.

I don’t want to lose you,

And I don’t want to be lost

I don’t want to be gone

But, before you know it…

 


The Newark Riots occurred between July 12 and July 17, 1967. There were 159 race riots across the country, during the “Long Hot Summer of 1967”. The riots in Newark were instigated by the arrest and beating of a black taxi driver, but the tension had been building up since WWII, as returning white soldiers fled the city for the suburbs under the  Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944. The African Americans who in turn took up residence in the Central Ward faced discrimination and poverty. Then, the state cleared out much of the Central Ward to make room for UMDNJ, leaving thousands displaced.

I was seven at the time, and unaware of the reasons for the riots. I didn’t even really understand what a ‘riot’ was. I only understood that men were fighting, breaking into stores, and stealing, that Newark was a dangerous place to be; and that we did not live far from the tumult.

My parents always went away for two weeks in August, and left us with our teenage siblings, and our housekeeper Sally Jones, who came from 8:00 am – 3:00 pm on weekdays. Sally lived in Newark with her husband and children, but spent decades helping my mother raise her very large brood. In my typical unobservant fashion, I didn’t make the connection between the chaos in Newark, and my dear housekeeper living there. I was, as many seven year-olds are, only concerned about me (and by extension, my Mom, because I needed her).

As I have mentioned previously, my summers consisted of leaving the house in the morning, and heading to the pool for the day. But in the summer of 1967, Mom and Dad were worried. They didn’t feel comfortable leaving their kids alone in the house at night, with pandemonium close by. They decided to bring us with them to Cape May, NJ. They rented a house on Broadway for two weeks in August. That was the beginning of nine years of beach bliss.

I was seven that year, and as I still am, a real worrier. So my parents’ decision sat right with me in a number of ways, and the first was: we were going to run away from the turmoil. I was more than okay with that; I was relieved. That way, I didn’t have to worry about myself. Just my older siblings who stayed behind in South Orange, my friends, and when I finally thought about it, everyone who lived in Newark, including my beloved Sally.

I also approved of running away to the beach. We had been to Aunt Frances’ beach house in Beach Haven, and Aunt Betty’s house in Point Pleasant Beach. But, I had never slept over, so far as I could remember. I didn’t even know that in New Jersey, going to stay at the beach was called, “going down the shore”; but I learned that quickly.

The drive to Cape May took forever. It could have been in another country, so far as my young brain could tell. That first year, we drove down in our brand new 1967 Blue Imperial. It was big and fancy and beautiful, and I was proud that it was our family car. However, when you crammed five kids and some coolers in the backseat for a 3 hour drive, it turned into a hot, cramped, loud, sticky mess with many fights, verbal and otherwise, along the way.

In 1972, the car was replaced with the Stationwagon, complete with a suicide seat in the back, where I preferred to ride (for those who are not familiar with the dangerous vehicles of the ‘ancient to you’ past, a suicide seat was the seat in the back of the car that faced the oncoming traffic; hence it’s moniker).  However, I didn’t always get that choice. There were two reasons for this: 1. Everyone wanted to sit in the suicide seat. 2. I liked to sing my made-up songs out loud, for my family to listen to in awe. They liked to scream at me to “shut up!” When I was in the back window seat, I would stick my head out of the window like a dog and sing loudly for myself to listen in awe. I could not understand why was I the only one who knew what an amazing writer and singer I was. Everyone except me was happier with this latter arrangement.

But in 1967, as we headed out for our first shore adventure at 6:00 am on August 1st, in the brand new Imperial packed with kids and food and drink, my Mom drove as fast as a Mom on packed Parkway could drive, and didn’t stop until she reached Oyster Creek rest stop.

When we reached the rest stop, we got out and stretched our legs, ate Mommy’s coffee cake, and drank coffee milk. This was  the only place we ever stopped on the way, and it became a tradition. It wasn’t until Joe McGinniss wrote the book “Blind Faith” about Robert Marshall orchestrating the murder of his wife, Maria in September 1984 in Oyster Creek that I ever thought of the little spot with anything but heartfelt nostalgia.

Once our breakfast was done, we headed back on the road. This second leg of the trip was much shorter, and more stimulating. We were getting close to our destination. As we continued south, the sights grew more beautiful and the air was infused with a cleaniness that even we, from the small suburb of South Orange, did not experience often. I was seven, but I felt it. I saw it. I smelled it. It was…pine barrens, salt, fresh air, fresh wind. Nature. Lovely.

We reach mile 10 on the Garden State Parkway, and someone started singing “One Hundred Bottles of Beer on the Wall”, just as so many families did in the final stretch of their vacation treks. We all joined in. It was fun, and we counted all one hundred bottles by the time we reached the bridge that signaled the end of the Parkway, Exit 0, and the beginning of Cape May Township, NJ.

We crossed over the bridge and continued past the signs that said “Beach” with an arrow pointing left. We were heading to our rented home for the next two weeks. When we were arrived, it was…there is no other way to say this from a child’s view: It was exciting! We jumped out of the car, glad that our journey was finally over.

Once Daddy opened the door to our Broadway house, we all ran upstairs to claim rooms. As usual, Karen and I were in a room together. But it was okay! This was so much fun, getting to go on vacation, and not just to the South Orange Pool. We all unpacked the things we would need that day, then Mommy said, “Get in your suits, and let’s head to the beach.”

We walked three blocks down Broadway, and we were there. The Beach; the Atlantic Ocean. They called to me, and told me that I was a part of them. They had been waiting for me. And if you could see my Mom in her element in the sand and water, then you would know that seashore love is real; and hereditary.

When we returned to our rental later that afternoon, my mother went to the Acme grocery store to buy food for the night and morning. She would go big food shopping the next day in Rio Grande, where the supermarkets were. We finished unpacking and made our beds. The smell of steak rose up the steps. But when we came down, this was not steak, but minute steaks on hoagies, ala Philadelphia. Mommy obviously had made these before, but not for us. They were amazing. Another staple of our beach lives was found.

The next day, we were allowed to go out to venture, because it was Cape May in 1967, and we were even allowed to wander in South Orange next to Newark during the riots. People worried about their kids, but I didn’t know any parents who overprotected them. We all led pretty independent lives. Upon exploring, we discovered the haunted house two doors down. In retrospect, it was a badly neglected home, that many years later was purchased and completely renovated. But to us, that was a home to be feared, for surely ghosts or witches lived there. We ran past it every time we had to walk down Broadway.

The ironic thing is that two years later, we rented the house on Columbia for the month of August, for five years straight. This was the duplex where Mr. Townsend died, and they never found his will. My mother was convinced his ghost roamed the home, and following suit, so were we. I didn’t sleep the entire month of August for those five years.

But in 1967, no one but Karen and I, and maybe my Irish twin Kevin, believed there was a ghost in the ramshackle home. It didn’t even have a name.

That first seaside adventure was shorter than the ones to come, and many of the memories are cloudier than the more recent ones. But it holds a special place in my heart, because it is the time that I fell in love…with the ocean, with Cape May, with vacation!


 
Night of Dark Shadows” was released on August 3, 1971. It came to Cape May right after its release. I know that, because Beanie (my Best-Summer-Friend, from PA near King of Prussia, but a season-long Cape May summer resident) and I went to see it at The Beach Theater on August 28, 1971. How do I remember the date? I don’t, but history does, because it was the same night that Tropical Storm Doria hit the coast.

Every day when I got home from school, I watched the soap operas Dark Shadows and Edge of Night. Edge of Night was grown-up mean stuff. I didn’t understand it that much, but I thought Raven was so cool. Dark Shadows was another story. It was set apart by a mile from any other soap operas, or really any other television programming. Jonathan Frid, who played Barnabas Collins, was taught at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London, and earned a  Master of Fine Arts (MFA) degree in Directing from the Yale School of Drama. But he didn’t want to do “Night” because after the soap opera, and the first movie, “House of Dark Shadows” (which was released the year before), he felt he would be type-cast.

So “Dark” was about Quentin Collins, whom I had this weird kid-crush on. Quentin becomes possessed by his ancestor in the creepy Collinwood estate. It was a scary movie for two eleven year-olds to see by themselves in 1971, but we loved it.  Tropical Storm Doria was already kicking up her heels as we left the theater, in the form of heavy rains and winds.

This was the first time that we were going to have a sleep-over at Beanie’s. Her summer  home was around the block from ours, but you could cut through the yards to save time, which we did on the way there, running the whole way. We reached her house easily, had snacks with her little sister Tink, and proceeded to go to bed, all three of us in a double bed.

I had never wondered how Tink got her nickname. I always assumed it had something to do with Tinkerbell. Cute. Even as an eleven year-old, I knew that Tink was darn cute. But it turned out that was not the origin of her nickname at all. We were all lined up in bed, all scared, because now Beanie and I had regaled her little sis with scary stories of haunted homes and possession. Tink  was in the middle of the bed. We were all finally passing out, when I felt something warm and wet, and realized how Tink received her moniker.

I thought I was going to cry. I was wet with someone else’s pee, and scared, and wanted to be home. It was late at night, and the storm was going strong with 54 mph winds. I put my clothes on, and told Beanie’s mother I was going home. She tried to deter me from leaving, but I was adamant. She did not stop me, and I slipped out the door with my wet pjs in my overnight bag, and ran as fast as I could through the backyards and the wind and the rain, frightened and crying. It took all of two minutes, but I have never forgotten that wild night. I got home, cleaned up, dried off, and read books until the sun came up, happy to be home in my own haunted Victorian, where no one peed in my bed.

I woke up the next morning to find out that Doria was not only a tropical storm, but created a F2 tornado, which caused damage throughout the county. We went for a walk to survey the damage. It wasn’t a major tornado, but cause enough chaos for me to wonder if running home the night before had been a good idea.

******************************************************************************

The movie “Ben” was released on June 23, 1972. Once again, Beanie and I went to see it in August at the Beach Theater. Ben was a movie about a rat, and the man who was the friend and leader of the rats. I don’t remember that much about the movie (sequel to the 1971 killer rat film Willard), except that it was very creepy, and that the theme song, “Ben” sounded like a love song, and was performed by Michael Jackson, who was just thirteen at the time.

When we left the theater, we went for a walk on the boardwalk. A rat ran across the boardwalk and hit my foot. I jumped about 2 feet in the air, and I think the rat did too. I wasn’t scared because it was just so damn strange. I have thought about it often throughout my life. I wonder if the rat did the same.

http://www.nj.com/news/index.ssf/2011/09/demolition_starts_at_beach_the.html

 

Ode to the Woodpecker


Ode to the Woodpecker

Each morning as I wake

The birds sing their pre-work songs

But the woodpecker clocks in early

Rat-tat-tat, Rat-tat-tatting

Piercing­ my daily preparation.

I try to mentally filter his pounding

Into white noise,

But it’s as if he knows it,­

And works to drill louder and faster.

He is a lesson in suffering irritation;

A lesson I continually must re-learn.

Is the woodpecker a blessing?

As much as any pain in the butt, yes.

If you look at it like that.

So okay woodpecker, peck away.

It’s your job,

I can live with that

As I trudge forward to my own.

I’ll see you tomorrow morning.


The Woodpecker is Gone

The woodpecker is gone.

He probably met his mate

And moved on

Because she wanted to live

Further out in the country

And raise a woodpecker family.

He must have found a job out there

Pecking at trees, and disturbing the peace.

They had to move

The commute was just too much.

Music of a Life


Teenage girl in flowered skirt

Feathered hair and feather earrings;

Ahead of her time.

No one knows that of course,

She is just weird.

Not a hippie, not a greaser.

Not into the Dead.

Just finding her way through.

Beatles as a kid, and lots of cool things.

First the Monkees, then Joni, and John Prine. Linda and Emmylou too.

Bay City Rollers? Really?

Okay, it makes her happy.

Mostly as a rebellion against her Deadhead siblings.

Changes in the mind and thoughts and body:

A hard rock stage, a new wave stage

Bowie, Ramones, Joe Jackson, the other Elvis, Patti Smith

Changes in the family dynamic: ALS

Her mother is dying.

She cannot stay to watch.

When twenty-one arrives, she goes

Life as an experiment in California.

Drum circles and lots of Bonnie: Raitt and Bramlett.

Roseanne and Johnny sneak in with Neil

Because it is the Mountains of Big Sur

A melting pot of transplanted Northern and Southern Easterners.

Musical influences like frenetic foggy air infused with electricity

Bouncing off the peaks and back to earth

To the conglomeration of dream seekers and dropouts

Dancing on the edge, so high over the mist

Dancing so high all the time

Deciding at last to come down off the mountains, to come down

And head to the small town of Cambria

Where 3,000 people live everyday lives

While Big Sur transients wander in and out.

Good folks, many descendants of Swiss farmers who migrated there

Many still farmers, simple and opinionated, but kind.

She finds her way to Camozzi’s Saloon,

And makes a home there

In the little apartment above

And works and plays and exists in the bar.

Her friends are musicians and DJs

And everyone there

Except those who don’t like her

Because she is ahead of her time

And tragically forever from New Jersey.

Bands play each weekend.

The scene is life itself

For all who sway together

To the beat of the new sounds

Billy Idol, Greg Kihn, Huey Lewis, Eddy Grant

Donald Fagin on the beach and late night drives.

The mornings are waiting periods for the nights.

Add cooking as a second job,

Telephone Operator for an answering service as a third.

But that is a cool job; hell, it’s all cool.

It’s Cambria, and Joni has nothing on her with Morgantown.

Walking through the pines in the eucalyptus air,

Singing out loud

No one cares

Because they are singing out loud too.

The Christians slightly push for attendance

By being very welcoming and having lovely tunes.

She walks by their churches on Sunday mornings

And for a time, her songs change to theirs.

It’s peaceful and laid back being a West Coast Christian

They eat brunch at the Moonstone in San Simeon

After they build up the Holy Spirit during service.

Soon though, she turns away from their endorphin highs

And returns to the bar and the bands

And the sweaty dancing nights.

The rockers eat brunch in town en masse

They are hungover

But champagne with strawberries makes them feel better about

Who they are

And she is one of them

She has always been one of them.

Wrong turns keep bringing her back to Jersey

To the life she never wanted to live

Running running running back to the West

Bouncing back and forth across the country for years

Between happy poverty and comforting sadness

Until her father dies

And she doesn’t bounce anymore

But becomes resigned to her East Coast fate.

Her travels have yielded a bastard

A son who calls himself a bastard and laughs

He is dragged into and through it all.

After many drugged and drunken stupors

And abusive men

She sends the boy away

Crying;

She must save him from her life.

A frantic foggy mind that cannot find its way back

And fears it all may dissolve

Lost child and childhood.

But when the fog lifts

She finds her sobriety

And keeps it.

A new start to her old life.

She is no longer weary and heavy laden

And doesn’t need that scripture to find comfort

The comfort is within herself.

The inside girl returns

And she realizes she has always been there

Waiting and singing.

 


When the kids were little, their Uncle Joey was the manager of the Red Carpet Inn on Route 17. We used to go there almost every summer day to use the pool. It was a pool at a motel, so it wasn’t like we were living the high life, but it was pool, and that was a lot. Our town didn’t have a pool, and we couldn’t drive to the beach all the time. So it worked great for us.

Joan and I were in business school together. When I met her, I thought that she couldn’t be that smart, because she had such a street attitude. I thought, mistakenly, that people could only be street smart, or book smart, not both. Joan proved to be the only person in our class besides myself who received all ‘A’s. We were both on the President’s List every term. And we found that we got along well, and enjoyed each other’s company. Soon we were talking on the phone, visiting each’s others homes, and going places together.

One day, I invited Joan to the motel pool, and she accepted. She was supposed to meet us there at 10:00 am, but we waited for a couple of hours until she showed with her two kids, and one extra. She seemed out of breath and out of sorts, and began apologizing for the extra head. “I’m sorry, I had to take him.  He’s my neighbor. His parents had a fight, and he came to me. I just couldn’t leave him there. He won’t be a problem.”

Joan’s kids stripped off their cover ups and jumped in the pool with my children. The boy, who was about twelve years old, was sitting next to Joan while she prattled on about his parent’s bad parenting skills and shambles of a household. My heart broke a little for him.

He squirmed uncomfortably, then asked, “Can I go in the pool, too?” She scolded him. “No, you don’t have a bathing suit”, then turned to me, “He doesn’t own a bathing suit.” He was in a tee shirt and cut-off jean shorts. My heart broke a little more. “Of course he can”, I said. “He can go in in cut-offs. It’s fine.” He jumped in, and held onto the side.

The other children came over happily and welcomed another playmate to the water. They could stand in the water on the shallow side, and he soon joined them in their rollicking fun. They had water toys and smiles and laughter. The sun was shining. I was chatting with Joan about non-important things while we soaked up the rays. The boy waddled through the pool to the side,  grabbed the edge and looked up at us with shimmering eyes and a wide smile. “This is the best time I’ve ever had!”, he announced. My heart filled with joy and sorrow simultaneously for this child. I was so happy to give him a wonderful day, but so sad that THIS was ‘the best time’ that he ever had. Playing in a motel pool on the side of Route 17. I think it was his first time in a pool. At twelve.

I never saw the boy again. I don’t remember if I even ever asked Joan about him. After we graduated, Joan and I stayed friends for a while, but then our different lives let us down different paths, and as so often happens, we lost touch. I tried to find her a few times, but the most I could find online was that one of her children passed away. I was never able to reconnect.

But, I think of this boy often. I think of how lucky my kids were for a while, how lucky so many of our kids were, even though they and we didn’t know it at the time. I think of how for a brief moment, I wanted to pick this kid up and take him home. Then I lost my own way, and only wanted to make things right for me and mine. Now that I am back, I want to help that boy again…and all those boys and girls who think a day in a pool in a motel on a highway is the best time they ever had.