Here’s a Day – Irvine
Repetition breeds familiarity, and familiarity breeds, what? – Comfort? In other words, is there comfort in a butt-and-back-worn seat on a Greyhound Bus? Like the one I’d taken from Boston to San Fran.
Just tell the story.
Now a month on my friend Bob’s couch, and having struck out in my lofty job search for a Pulitzer-level position with the San Francisco Chronicle, and weary of running nothing but ups and downs on the City By the Bay’s streets, I watched from another Greyhound window the towns and farms and sprawls of Interstate 5 along the 10-hour run down to Anaheim. I must have left San Francisco early because it was just before dinner time when my high school friend Nicky DeMesa picked me up not far from the Angels’ Big A stadium and cruised me further down the highway
to the campus of the University of California at Irvine – smack in the heart of Orange County – where he lived with his wife Heather in graduate student housing as a candidate for a Masters in Electrical Engineering and where I was to crash on a mattress on the floor of a spare bedroom the next four months.
I spent the first month or so running – I’d started running six months earlier – and ran through the campus – sure the co-eds were in near fainting state as I’d pass in all my spartan-like physique and mystique – running a high school track a half a mile off campus – running up and through surrounding hills, as in there’s pretty much hills wherever you go in California. I’d round off these fits of exercise with frequent trips to the Lucky supermarket across from the campus for armloads of Olympia and Hamm’s beer (a kind of when-in-Rome thing), and shortly after arrival at Nick and Heather’s found a bag of pot hidden in the spare room and managed to smoke all of it. Without sharing. I can’t remember doing much of anything else, or hanging out much with my hosts, or reading, writing, watching TV, anything. What was I doing?
Not long into my stay I saw an ad in a local paper for a “sports stringer” with the San Clemente Daily Sun-Post, 26 miles away, interviewed and got hired, and began three months of covering periodic episodes of Friday night football, afternoon water polo, tennis, and girls track in various places like San Juan Capistrano, Dana Point, Mission Viejo, and Laguna Beach. Get an assignment from the Asst. Sports Editor, cover the event and write the story, collect fifteen or twenty bucks apiece, and generally try to make more money than the cost of gas, challenging, as I was driving Nick’s spare car which he affectionately had nicknamed “The Sled”, a humongous green Chevy with a huge eight-cylinder engine. Writing the stories was fun, and I became a somewhat regular patron at a breakfast joint on El Camino Real just down the road from the paper, stopping in the morning after cranking out another high-octane tale of adolescent athleticism for a cheese omelette and home fries.
Between the gasoline (you could literally hear “The Sled” giggling while gurgling gas punching it down The 5) and the omelettes the income thing was in the red, and after a month or so I took a part-time early morning job at a MacDonald’s in San Clemente, cooking the breakfast goodies. This was the fall of 1982 and after all these years I have just two distinct memories of that experience. The first – one of the youngsters working the counter coming into the kitchen area singing “It’s always tease, tease, tease” from the Clash, and, two, rolling The Sled down to the Pacific after a shift, hoping to wash off the grease and oil, crossing the Amtrak tracks directly next to the beach, running out into the refreshing water, noticing along the way no one else on the beach save one lifeguard and a lovely young lady he was chatting up, so as not to notice me when I got pulled out in a wicked riptide undertow and surely would have drowned – yeah, no Couch Surfing at 70 – but for the fact that I managed to catch a body surf-able wave back in to where my toes could just touch the bottom. The oil was, silver lining, washed away, and I quit that gig a week later.
I never got rich in one of the richest counties in the country. I did get to write for a newspaper in California. On Thanksgiving Day – Nick and Heather having flown back to our hometown of Wareham, Massachusetts to spend dinner with his family, me without the money for a ticket – I did whatever it was I did on the largely deserted campus, then drove The Sled over to the coast highway and parked somewhere off the road in Irvine just short of the Laguna line. I walked down to the beach and walked along the shore, an absolutely pristine, blue-sky, gentle-wave day. My thinking was it doesn’t get any better than this. When I got back to the University housing I called my mother – in Wareham – to wish her a happy holiday. She wasn’t happy. She asked me what I was doing, so far away, alone. She asked me what was wrong with me. I’m not sure I had an answer for what felt like a largely irrelevant question. Just over a month later, on December 31st, New Year’s eve day, Nick dropped me off at the Laguna Beach Greyhound Station and went back to his electrical engineering and his wife. I began what amounted to a 100-hour journey back to Boston, crashing with a friend for two days upon my arrival, subsequently hunkering down on the couch in my younger sister’s Somerville third-floor apartment. For the next eight months. One year’s worth of coast-to-coast couch surfing.
Just outside Pasadena back there on that New Year’s eve day a guy on his way to Springfield, Missouri climbed into the empty seat next to mine. Introduced himself as Jim, a glass-blower in Springfield. Just before midnight and the new year he removed a half pint of blackberry brandy from his backpack and I pulled out a half pint of gold tequila from mine. At the stroke of twelve we clinked our bottles in celebration. I believe my exact thought a moment or two into the new year was this – “Am I the hottest shit in America or what!” An hour or so down the road, somewhere in the Mojave on the way to Flagstaff, Jim asleep in the next seat, I began to weep. I couldn’t have told you why.