Salt Air Days

The Monterey Bay forms a crescent – a backwards letter C – about 2 hours drive south of San Francisco. Santa Cruz is the northern-most city along that crescent, which means it’s where the untamed Pacific Ocean and the calmer sanctuary of the Bay intersect. That ocean wildness has always been a part of it’s culture. If each city along the Monterey Bay were a famous starlet, Carmel would be Grace Kelly, Monterey would be Kim Novak, and Santa Cruz would be Bianca Jagger: Santa Cruz in the seventies was fun, racy, bohemian, free, a bit on the edge. It was an exciting place to grow up.

Santa Cruz is famous for its world-class surfing. Long before surfing, however, the town had another major attraction– it’s picturesque turn-of-the-century Beach Boardwalk, which lights up at night along the black coast like a sparkling neon necklace. Tourists would suffocate roads on the weekend, driving long distances from inland to swarm the Boardwalk. Us locals would stay away; we’d talk about “those valleys” coming over the hill (from what is now Silicon Valley) to take over our beaches. Come Sunday night, we’d get our little town back. With it’s glorious mix of surf rats, intellectuals, artists and iconoclasts.

Everyday life in Santa Cruz was shaped by it’s soft and regular climate: heavy fog in the morning -- cold and clammy -- that by noon would burn off to unveil the bluest, brightest seventy-degree day you could always count on. Due to this predictable sun, and the unbuttoned nature of the population, most of the grown men I grew up respecting wore shorts and flip-flops all the time. Even the Mayor. Women in the seventies whom I admired – mostly my mother and her friends -- seemed always to be wearing narrow long cotton dresses. Perfect for the early morning fog, and cooling in the sunnier afternoons with a big hat. Women were graceful and looked chic, but as though they had just rolled out of bed, brushed their hair & slipped on the dress. There was not a hint of bling or flash: your tan was your makeup, and your glow of health was your beauty regimen. The women in my parent’s circle were undeniably cool, even to a child -- writers, potters, Shakespearean actors, screenwriters, astronomers, vintners – everybody traveled or had lived abroad, everyone had a creative project brewing, and everyone liked to party.

My mother Anne-Marie had led an adventurous life prior to settling in Santa Cruz to raise her family. Tattered address books revealed page after page of former lives in Venezuela, Puerto Rico, Spain and finally, San Francisco. It was there that she had been a founding member of the San Francisco Mime Troupe, a noted theatre ensemble. A voracious reader, my mother's friends always included writers. The objects in our home that were arguably the most treasured sat on our bookshelves. If any adult around me mentioned "style," my first assumption would be they were referring to the way a person spoke or wrote: one's wardrobe was not of great concern. Although, I noticed, the writers always looked good.

Growing up in this world of books and idea people, juxtaposed with the raw natural beauty of Santa Cruz, made for a heady mix. From my perch on her front deck hammock, I would watch my godmother Sharon furiously chop cilantro in her tiny kitchen, all the while talking about her newest Mexican cookbook. In my ears, the sound of waves crashing and Jimmy Buffet on the record player; in my nose, chopped cilantro and the tang of salt air. And all around me smart adult conversation peppered with laughter. In remembering this Santa Cruz childhood, I feel an overwhelming sense of belonging to a true California: California with a certain slowness made possible by the climate, the all-pervasive freshness in what you smelled, ate and saw around you, and the optimism of the people. This is the real California.