During spring break that year, my brother Denny drove down from UCSC to visit the family. He was off to vacation with his wife in Hawaii. Her father was a shipping magnate out of Honolulu and the family owned a big spread up on the North Shore. Denny planned to fly there and meet with his wife, fly back and drive up to Santa Cruz in two weeks. My mother was taking my brother up to the airport in the morning.
Denny had driven down in a ’41 Chevy Sedan and this Persian guy named Michael Shirazi had come along with him. Michael definitely looked the part. Black hair down to shoulders. Black eyes. A dark mustache. The tremble of his deep voice possessed all the enchantment of sheiks and Arabian Nights. This was long before the Iranian hostage crisis, when Americans began to speak disparagingly of people from that part of the world. At that point in time, he was just a small, handsome guy with an enchanting voice.
Denny, Michael and another friend of theirs were out in the driveway at dusk, drinking a bottle of Spanish Port from a brown paper bag when I arrived home. I got behind the wheel of the Chevy while the three of them talked.
Over dinner, my sister fell hard for Michael. Later on, Rose and a friend of hers were fawning all over him in the living room. I talked to Michael quite a bit too, about Northern California and the Bay Area and how much I wanted to be up there with the underground movement instead of in Orange County.
Michael left late with a friend of his from San Diego, but before he did, he invited me to come up north and visit with him.
“Anytime, my friend. You are always welcome.”
Again, imagine a deep, bass voice and a guy rolling his R’s. You couldn’t help but think of Sharif in Lawrence of Arabia.
I took his card to the restaurant where he worked as a waiter. His home address and phone number were jotted down on the back.
“I will be back there Monday. Please, come visit anytime.”
All that following week, I dreamed of heading north. I had driven up with Denny over the previous Christmas vacation but hitchhiking up alone was akin to crossing the Seven Seas for me. I was barely sixteen. I had never been anywhere alone, except up to LA.
Determined to be adventurous, I walked down to the freeway that next Monday morning and stuck out my thumb. I waited and waited. People drove by with wary looks. That or they stared straight ahead, as if I wasn’t even there. Hitchhikers were few and far between in Orange County. I felt like a guy with his picture hanging in the post office.
Someone finally stopped and dropped me off at the county line. The next ride left me standing amidst that industrial wasteland south of LA. The next ride got me to the Fourth St. onramp, downtown. It was well past noon and hard to imagine making Santa Cruz that day. I thought of turning back. I hadn’t planned on spending the night on the road.
Miraculously, a salesman headed to Santa Barbara stopped to pick me up. He said his father had hitchhiked around the country during the Depression, so he understood how I felt.
In Santa Barbara, he pulled to the side of the road just past a stoplight and let me out. I thanked him and headed up the highway on foot. In those days, 101 became a city street through town. There were two lanes north and two lanes south, with a wide, grass meridian between.
Several groups of people were already staggered along the north side of the road, thumbs out and waiting their turn. I nodded to everyone in passing and walked up to the back of the queue. It was getting on towards late afternoon. In a straight shot, Santa Cruz was roughly four hours up the road. I pictured getting into town around midnight and having to sleep in a doorway.
Each time the folks at the head of the line caught a ride, everyone else grabbed their stuff and moved up a 100 feet or so, to the place now vacated in front of them. An hour went by before it was my turn at the head of the line. Five minutes later, another salesman pulled over. I was overjoyed to learn he was headed up to Soquel. I was even more overjoyed to learn he would take me the extra few miles across town to the restaurant in Capitola.
The highway was soon loping up through the dry, rolling hill ranch country north of Santa Barbara. We eventually came over the pass into the Salinas Valley. Mile after mile of farm country passed by. There were numerous crossroads on the highway and a couple of places with stoplights.
It was still dusky as we pulled off the freeway at Capitola. The salesman had already told me how the Mexican restaurant where Michael worked was famous in the area. We came upon it along an empty stretch of road, its darkened form and lights etched against the twilight sky.
I was worried that Michael might not be at work, or that he would be put off by me showing up unannounced, but he was there and acted like his long lost brother had just come home from war.
“Come, my friend. Let me introduce you to my girlfriend, Starla.”
Starla, a willowy brunette, welcomed me to a booth in back with a pat on the seat.
“Come, sit down.”
“It’s Denny’s younger brother,” Michael said.
“Oh, I love your brother. You can see the resemblance,” she said to Michael.
“What would you like to eat, my friend?” he asked me.
I shrugged. I didn’t have much in the way of money.
“Ah, you’re broke,” Michael said with a smile. “Not to worry. I bring you something nice.”
I was soon eating two carnitas tacos, with avocado slices and a chile relleno side. Michael had brought me a beer to wash it down. Starla kept the beer in front of her, in case anyone got curious. The two of us were fast friends and several hours raced by while Michael finished his shift.
Back at his house, we opened a bottle of Zinfandel, smoked a big, fat joint and talked until late. Before going to bed, Starla turned the couch into a bed for me.
A few minutes after they had disappeared in back, the moaning started. Soon, the headboard was pounding against the wall. Starla was not exactly a screamer, but she wasn’t quiet either. From the sounds of it, Michael was something in bed.
In the morning, we had tea and breakfast together before Starla went off to work. I had waited until she left before handing Michael a note from my sister.
Michael’s eyebrows went up. I shrugged.
“She told me not to open it, so I didn’t.”
Michael went off to the back room and reappeared less than a minute later with a sad shake of his head.
“What?” I said.
He explained that my sister had written the note to a man named Bill, professing her undying love for him.
“Oh,” I said. “Yeah, they’re supposed to be getting married this year.”
Michael shook his head, part world weary look, part sparkle in his eyes.
“Gary, your sister, I think she is in love with catastrophe.”
“Oh fuck,” I said suddenly. “What if she sent your note to the other guy?”
“Gary, let’s hope your sister is in love with catastrophe.”
Michael had classes up at the university and took me with him. Before disappearing, he told me about the Kite Café.
“It’s off through the woods there.”
As I walked through the redwoods and neared the café, I found a steady stream of young freaks appearing out of the forest around me. Obviously they had set up some kind of camp back there out of sight.
I had a coffee and watched this tribe of people come and go. Some went back up into the woods after freshening up and having a muffin. Some went off to their classes. I watched the exodus over the next hour or so, some arriving, some departing, some hanging around doing nothing, like me.
I eventually grew bored and headed back into town and down to the wharf. I was walking past where Pacific Avenue crosses W. Cliff Drive when I heard someone call out my name. It was Zach, the older brother of one of my friends from high school. He had dropped out and moved up to Santa Cruz during his senior year.
“What are you doing, man?” Zach asked me.
“Oh, just hanging out. What are you doing.”
“Just taking a walk. I started a guitar repair shop in my garage and I always go out for some fresh air in the morning before I get down to work. So you’re just hanging?”
I explained about Michael and hitchhiking up.
“Cool. Come on. I’ll buy you a beer out on the wharf.”
We walked all the way out to Stagnaro’s and bought a beer from the ice tub out front. Like in Europe, nobody bothered to card you at Stagnaro’s. Zach and I went around to stand in the shade against the rail. The fishermen were cleaning fish and bantering away behind us.
Eventually, we ended up back at Zach’s place. He shared an old Victorian house with a handful of other freaks out on Lighthouse Avenue. Zach left me with his stash and went to work in the garage. I sat there reading Kierkegaard. People came and went all day, smoking joints and rapping with me.
As afternoon turned to dusk, it occurred to me that I ought to call Michael and let him know where I was but Zach came through the house with a joint in his mouth and a guitar around his neck.
“Come on,” he said. “We’ll be pied pipers.”
A group of us headed down towards Steamer’s Lane together, singing along with Zach. He was actually a very good guitar player and our tribal song fest went on until stars were sparkling in the cold, winter sky.
Back at the house and having a communal dinner, I told everyone about Michael and my sister and about headboard banging in the middle of the night. Zach offered me his couch instead, and I accepted the offer. I called Michael at the restaurant and let him know what had happened.
On Sunday, around noon, I headed back home with warm memories in my heart but also filled with melancholy. I felt older and wiser for having made the trip, but school started back the next day and I was rather dreading it.
It was after midnight when I slipped in through the backdoor of my parent’s house. My mother must have heard me and came out into the hallway.
“Where have you been?” she said.
I thought of the book she had given me as a boy. Where Have You Been? Nowhere. What Have You Been Doing? Nothing.
“I went up to Santa Cruz.”
“You went up to Santa Cruz?! How did you get there?! Who did you stay with?!”
I told her about Michael, but not the rest.
“My God. You could have been killed.”
“I can take care of myself.”
She shook her head.
“Next time, you tell me before you take off like that.”
After a few restless weeks in school, I ditched early one Friday and walked out to the freeway, my sights set on that unspoken demarcation point. Santa Barbara. Once you got that far, you knew you were about to leave Southern California behind and well on your way north.