There are many rich people here, many fine, even spectacular houses, but also modest bungalows and cottages. For a town of 57,000, Santa Cruz has an astonishing variety of architectural styles, with conical towers, shingled turrets, spindled porches and lacy bargeboards hanging from gables. There are tiny apartment complexes sharing intimate, narrow courtyards, and a streamlined moderne doctor’s office with a fluted, tiered tower shaped like a one-candled birthday cake, with weathervane in place of flame. Here, the rich surf until sunset, the poor stroll, while sea lions lounge on crossbars under the not too tacky pier.
It’s my third time here. The first was in 1978, when I was a 15-year-old retard on an outing with my father, psycho stepmother, brother, baby half sister and the family next to us in San Jose. I can only remember the man’s name, Angelo, and the younger daughter’s, Annette. I had a secret crush on the other, at 18 a glamorous, older woman. They were Puerto Rican, one of the few non-Vietnamese families left on Locke Drive, a longish cul-de-sac facing the city dump. You could smell it day and night, saw it the moment you stepped outside. At a nearby creek, my brother and I caught crawfish which we brought home to be cooked, then ate with relish, including the shells. Those were our Red Lobster nights. Dumbass immigrants. We were on foodstamps. My father operated an unlicensed bodega from his garage, kept ducks in the backyard, even pigeons in a homemade cage. Whenever a customer pointed to a specific bird, it was my job to catch the fleeing fowl. To clear the brush for his duck venture, my father, without a doubt the most solipsistic man I’ve ever encountered, used a flaming, rolled up newspaper as tinder and almost torched the neighborhood. It was Fourth of July, so Angelo shouted when the firetruck arrived, “Goddamn kids with their firecrackers!” Truong Tran, a wild poet and professor at San Francisco State, also lived on this street we Vietnamese called xóm rác, the garbage ghetto. Imagine all the toxics leaching into the ground, creek, then crawfish. If not for the Jameson treatment I liberally applied in my twenties, I would be aglow with poisons.
Santa Cruz must have one of the highest homeless population per capita in the nation. It costs only 16 bucks to ride the Greyhound from San Francisco, and there’s plenty of grass, verandas and porticos to sleep on. The sights salve the soul, the weather cool, the people tolerant. Nearly all white, they panhandle on the boardwalk and downtown, the zombified, gravelly, Thunderbird guzzling neo hobos, the tie-dyed, bongo stroking dead heads, the suburban runaways, have you seen me?, the pseudo tibetan nomads, the dreadlocked gutter punks with every flap of skin pierced. “Can you spare a thousand bucks?” a white bearded guy asked me at seven in the morning. “Sorry.” “OK, I’ll see you tomorrow!” At Las Palmas, the homeless are given “beans, rice and Jesus Christ.” A framed article on the wall quotes Rick Mendez, the taqueria’s owner, “I don’t know their problems or how they got to where they are, but it’s not for me to judge them. Everyone gets hungry.”
Some dude matched me stride by stride, “Vietnamese are hard-core, man. I saw a Vietnamese guy put a pistol to another Vietnamese guy’s head, pulled the trigger. Bang, he was dead!”
“Why would he do that?”
“How the fuck do I know?!”
A famous photo has been hallucinated into a lived experience for this middle-aged bum, apparently. Seen on a screen, magazine or book, much of life is second hand anyway. Some folks will entertain for coins. On Pacific, the main drag, I heard a baby faced, rather brilliant blues singer, or maybe I’ve just read about him, just now.
Born in a country with such a long coastline, the sea should have been my birthright, but it wasn’t meant to be, although I’ve trekked along the North Sea, ridden a ferry on the Mediterranean, glanced at a beloved bottom on the New Jersey Shore. In Halong Bay, I thought I had escaped the earth when, on a privately hired boat, I spent hours among its three thousand limestone islands. Like painted mountains on a Chinese scroll, they jutted from a misty, jade colored sea. The old name of Hanoi was Thăng Long, Rising Dragon. Hạ Long is Descending Dragon. The inhabitants of this paradise are mostly poor. In their sampans, they paddle to the tourist boats to peddle live seafood, T-shirts, films and coral. In the karaoke bars, the prostitutes warble with their off-key and drunken johns.
Walking past the carnival rides in Santa Cruz, hearing the cogs and screams, I thought that perhaps we are simply thrilled when allowed to exceed our body’s limitations, that to momentarily transcend the tip of our nose, we’re willing to be strapped to a violently hurling machine, and in the future, when medical science can instantly repair a damaged body, we would pay to be drawn and quartered, guillotined or waterboarded, just before we order another corn dog or cotton candy.
There’s a Poets’ Park here, and the Poet & Patriot Irish Pub, formerly owned by the just deceased Chris Matthews, poet and activist. Born of working class parents in New Jersey, he was an Airborne grunt in Vietnam before settling in Santa Cruz. In 1979, aged 33, he became a local politico, but several episodes of public drunkenness derailed his re-election. After a trip to Ireland, he went sober and wrote a play, A Flag to Fly, about the Saint Patrick Battalion, Irish soldiers who switched to Mexico’s side during the Mexican-American War. Staged in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Ireland, it brought Matthews his biggest literary success. Identifying with another invaded Catholic country, some of these men fought out of idealism, others for the rewards promised. Seventy one would die in battles or when captured, court martialed, then hanged by the U.S. In the Mexico City suburb of San Angel, there’s a plaque honoring these San Patricios, also known as “Los Colorados” for their red hair. Many were actually Germans, Canadians, English, French, Italians, Poles, Scots, Spaniards, Swiss and even a few black, former slaves.
In Mexico, the Mexican-American War is known as the “United States’ Invasion of Mexico,” the “North American Intervention in Mexico” and the “War of ‘47.” It began in 1845 with the U.S.’s annexation of Texas, and ended in 1848, with Mexico losing nearly half of its territory. I’ve done no research but I doubt that Iraqis are referring to the presence of American, British, Australian, South Korean, Polish, Italian, Georgian, Dutch, Ukranian, Spanish, Romanian, Japanese, Danish, Bulgarian, Thai, El Salvadorian, Czech, Azerbaijanian, Singaporean, Albanian, Bosnian, Macedonian, Latvian, Honduran, Dominican, Mongolian, Slovakian, Lithuanian, Norwegian, Hungarian, Portuguese, Kiwi, Nicaraguan, Tongan, Filipino, Estonian, Moldovan, Armenian, Kazakhstanian and Icelandic soldiers in their country as “Operation Iraqi Freedom.” With only one non-fighting troop, surely Iceland cannot be counted among the Coalition of the Coerced and Bribed? It’s the thought that counts, amigo. Where they found this depleted uranium fodder, I don’t know, since Iceland has no standing army.
I passed a pleasant garden where folks were sitting, wandered in and discovered that it was a little anarchist bookstore, lending library and minimal café, with one type of coffee and four of tea. Free wi-fi. I paid \$1 for a cup, glanced at a John Zerzan and opened Lewis Mumford’s Technics and Civilization, “The eye, the ear, the touch, starved and battered by the external environment, took refuge in the filtered medium of print; and the sad constraint of the blind applied to all the avenues of experience. The museum took the place of concrete reality; the guidebook took the place of the museum; the criticism took the place of the picture; the written description took the place of the building, the scene in nature, the adventure, the living act.”
“How long have you guys been here?” I asked the young guy behind the glass cabinet.
“Yeah, we just opened.”
“So I got here just in time, huh? Where did you guys meet before?”
“Here and there. We didn’t have a regular place.”
“How do you afford the rent? That’s a pretty nice garden.”
“I don’t know, we sell coffee, people donate, we’re all volunteers.”
“Santa Cruz is so expensive. It’s like, you’re either rich or homeless. It doesn’t seem too congenial for bohemians, no?” I meant non-trust funded, past the age of 25.
“Well, I’m in school. I have financial aid and my parents help me out.”
One of the oddest radicals of the 20th century was Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, who was born into one of the richest families in Italy, his father a top entrepreneur who may have committed suicide after conflicts with Mussolini. Feltrinelli joined the partisans during WWII, then launched, in 1955, Feltrinelli Editore, a publishing house that introduced to Italian readers Henry Miller, James Baldwin, Gabriel García Márquez, Carlos Fuentes, Fidel Castro, Che Guevara and Ho Chi Minh. Its inaugural volume was the autobiography of Jawaharlal Nehru, and it was the first to release Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago, in 1957. That year, he opened a Feltrinelli bookstore in Pisa. It became a leading chain and now has 90 stores all over Italy, selling also CDs and DVDs. He bought an elegant home in Piemonte. Reaching Villadeati, one cannot help but be struck by the magnificent sight of an elegant villa-castello at the top of a dominating hill. Constructed during the 1600’s on the remains of an ancient fortress, it boasts a tall, slim tower, two lateral wings and a gorgeous hanging garden. Descending terraces are dotted by smaller structures and towers. Leon Battista Alberti stated that even a garden must have a political dimension. Not satisfied to be a boffo capitalist, Feltrinelli financed the Italian Communist Party and founded Gruppi d’Azione Partigiana, a paramilitary group that tried, on March 15, 1972, to cut off power to Milan by dynamiting an electricity pylon. The explosives went off prematurely, killing him instantly.
After reading my jottings on Santa Cruz, Joseph Hutchison writes, “I haven’t been in Santa Cruz in 30 years, but it seems to be micro-mirroring the macro shift that’s been going on since 1980: the vampirical feasting of the rich on the poor and middle class. The Mumford quote is startling, and brings to mind his biography of Herman Melville, where he writes: ‘Melville, like Buddha, left a happy and successful career behind him, and plunged into those cold black depths, the depths of the sunless ocean, the blackness of interstellar space; and though he proved that life could not be lived under those conditions, he brought back into the petty triumphs of the age the one element that it completely lacked: the tragic sense of life: the sense that the highest human flight is sustained over an unconquered and perhaps unconquerable abyss.’ We are rediscovering that abyss—in Santa Cruz, Washington, New York; in all the suburbias, gated or not. I shudder to think what will happen if a few hundred Feltrinellis take their well-deserved disillusion and rage into the streets. But we’d better all think about it, because the chances seem good that it’s on the verge of breaking loose.”
U.C. Santa Cruz rests on a hill, overlooking the town and ocean. Unlike other college campuses, there is no vast lawn or quad, no square or clock tower, no center, in short, a design meant to thwart unruly protests. It is said that there are students called woodsies living in the forest, in tree houses, while others sleep in campers, gypsy style. Off Highway One, some Mexican laborers also dwell in the woods. Last night, at a downtown bar, I had a rather ill-tempered discussion with a professor who argued that the financial turmoil we’re going through is merely cyclical, that the market and new technologies will restore us to where we’ve been, which is on top. America in the 21st century won’t be radically different than the 20th, he said. The world will continue to finance our debt, give us a free ride, he lectured, because, well, it’s in their interest to do so.