Down Dream Road
ROCKAWAY BEACH, CALIFORNIA SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 15, 2001 -- i am not lost, i am in san francisco.
pacifica, to be exact, the far end of the fog and surf-wrung world, america at the point where the first growling precipice and seaface cliff announces the end of what we know and the beginning of the rough uncompromising chaotic swirl of earth meeting ocean -- the end of the continent, a tumult of rock and earth and sage brush and grass holding its ground or plummeting into the waves without comment or apology -- now we are at the extremity, it used to be a good long trek to get out here from san francisco once when the reach of the city was measured in slower human spans -- a rough cut land carved by someone in a hurry to make a place for himself and to get busy in, make a few bucks and give people a good time while you're doing it, rockaway beach they called it, a salt and fog bound hand full of beat american enterprise scooped out of the seaweed sand and introduced to the wild western american world in 1927 by charlie gust and his wife anastasia when all america was wild and playful and alive and having a big beautiful bubbly affair with style and champagne and its own crazy expansive success there was laughter everywhere -- in new york there were great roaring car races up the vanderbilt highway and airplane stunts above the hempstead plains, from new york to st louis to kansas city to san francisco women and men danced under glittering ballroom lights and went outside for a moonlit stroll -- the moon is a burling mist in pacifica but what of that, they danced here too and strolled and laughed -- and america wore its craziness like big flapping happy pants in the sand.
this isn't charlie's story it's mine, but as far as his story goes gust was a typical immigrant greek in that as soon as he hopped off the freighter in new york harbor or boston harbor or whatever harbor where his enterprising stubborn feet left the deck and touched the ground; it was during the big emigration, he turned his enterprising face to the west, far across the continent, same as all of his independent minded begrudging greek compadres, spilled like so many of the destiny-driven restless manifest migrating dream road americans who had preceded him, across the plains, to the great golden west -- a land that had been all gold mines and grub miners and grasslands and mountains and deserts to wander about and make a stake in, all of it pulled up short by the big beautiful wet cold pacific sea, an ocean at the end of it as a reward for your sweat and dust eating crazy dreaming (i know my greek grandfather did that, got as far as montana where he took up as a mining camp cook rattling tin pots and serving up grub to bearded men whose eyes were yet bright twenty hour days hacking into the earth after ore couldn't kill their appetite and desire their dream of prizing from the ground that one gorgeous payday nugget that would reward them for their urgency, my grandfather, who would not return east before coming to san francisco, it was his destiny he said to reach the pacific and dip his big greek hands into the ocean and cup it up in a salty communion he could not explain and didn't feel the need to) -- by the time people like charlie got to it things had settled down a bit in the big unconquerable american west, but not much, the west can't be conquered it just shakes its gut and laughs people off, when you aren't paying attention it just shrugs off all that human pride and foolishness.
anyhow charlie gust opened this place here along the slinging black sand where the western rocks toss like dice into the sea to mark the beginning of the end of the world, and started selling peanuts and sandwiches and drinks and such to fishermen, and i guess they liked it because even though the place burned down twice during those wild times in unexplained fashion -- bad luck, bad writing, who knows what, the dark ugly torch, the hand of the ku klux klan, burned across america in those days, ravaged the land even then -- his business thrived, charlie never gave up, stubborn greek, built himself a comfortable hideaway for the ne'er do wells from san francisco to come down for cocktails ad dancing, a secluded spot out of town where only the people they wanted to could see what they were up to and if they had a mind to and if they couldn't hold themselves back they could join in.
these days charlie's place is called nick's -- nick's his son and chuck is his grandson, runs the place i hear, there are five big letters on the road side wall, N-I-C-K spelled out on red and white discs the size of swollen phonograph records only a whole lot bigger, staggered across the side of the building, N-I-C-K-S, cocktails and dancing, mon fri 9am 8am sat-sun, brk lunch din dancing fri sat -- and if you stood outside and took the time to decipher that your hair would go soggy from the fog and salt spray dancing everywhere while you did so because of course it's wet and soggy and cold in pacifica all year round, i know i've lived here myself, during the early days when i was making my own dream road and this was one of my first dizzy dreaming places where i stopped, pacifica, a dreaming place i return to whenever i return to san francisco and the bay, i like to stoke up the morning with a pot of hot coffee and then brace for a ritual that began for me when my dreaming began, in my childhood a simple squinting walk along the sand, or in this case as a young man shaking off the night walking to the end of a concrete pier where the first fishermen gather with blue dawn in little clusters, worms and oilskin jackets and hopeful baiting of their hooks amid the smeared remnants of a previous night's fishermen's assembly -- fish guts and scales and candle wax and spilled beer -- to face the green boiling sea watch it bowl into the belly of the world -- and here's me walking past them toward my own strange seeming horizon too.
but that was then this is now and i'm a lot older than that and sitting across from nick's at the acapulco, mexican restaurant, the place is empty except for me and a cluster of gentle faced women seated near the kitchen door and talking softly -- the felaheen are alive and well and living in america, jack! -- and i'm looking out the window eating watermelon seed and pasta soup, some nachos too, "that's all i got," says the broad beaming waitress but with an apprehensive look on her face the menu says bean soup they don't have that, how will i react? "i'll try it, how bad can it be you serve it don't you?" i smile and she smiles back easily and she's glad all's right and tolerant again in the world.
as for the soup it's pretty good and the soft talk of the women near the kitchen door is good and so is the view across the road to nick's, where a laborer is chipping away at some stucco with a hammer and chisel where the wall meets the sidewalk as sea mist slips past, and a handful of tourists slip past, a man with an idaho falls f.d. patch on his sleeve, another man, this one a skinny old coot with a red cap wearing something that says san onofre surfing club, here's a couple of girls from san pedro high school in their cheerleading sweats. out in the water, i can see a surfer in a wetsuit, a half a dozen seagulls are looking out to sea from shore like me, watching him.
now in the acapulco one of the women has stepped over to the cash register, and she has begun talking a little louder and the others are all listening. "i'd rather die then live on my knees," she announces with an anxious tone. "after all we're americans that's what we fought for." and then she trails off into spanish. there are sweet fluttering sighs of agreement from the table. there are inflamed conversations like these all over the city, all over america, i have been hearing them for days and everywhere, to tell the truth, so why not here in rockaway beach, when i checked into the sea and sand hotel the arabic looking maid peeked nervously around the corner from the opposite side of the courtyard at me and when i stared back she looked away.
across the road at nick's, a waiter has come out, he's installing an american flag at the door.
it is saturday september fifteenth two thousand and one in the world i am not lost i am in san francisco i am stranded here i cannot get home to new york i will not be forever but i am here now so i walk out onto the beach at rockaway toward the western rocks and a couple of men, striper fishermen, look up at me and call me over. they have heard about me from someone inside nick's and they ask me if i have any news from home. "we're depressed from way over here," says one of them. yes i have news from home and i tell them what i know. there is nothing to be said about it after that so i ask them how's the fishing. when the fishing's good says the younger one, stripers run up to 10 pounds or so, but fishing's not so good this year. "same as new york" i say. "i went out in a boat off the coast of north carolina you can catch 20 pounders or better there, caught a 24 pounder" and i show them how big with my hands. they are impressed with that. i wish them luck, and head on towards the cliffs. here's the man with the red cap, he is well above the waterline staring at something in the sand. below the tideline is a woman probably his wife, she is wading into the surf smiling, her skirts are raised up over her knees, the churning cold surf exposes her thighs, the water tugs at her body, she resists, she does not resist, she is ecstatic, she looks at me boldly, the pacific thrashes and moans.
i head for the crest where california begins.
(Also a poet and journalist, George Wallace edits The Long Island Quarterly and poetrybay.com. Interested publishers may contact him there or send word through Big City Lit.)
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