It was a funny summer that I had. It may seem strange, but I’m used to having a home. A few summers ago, though, I didn’t. I drifted aimlessly for the most part – with soggy old chunks of burrito glued to my lips. I lived in my truck; my bedroom was rest stops chosen only for their proximity to where ever I felt drowsy. Sodden, stinking wetsuits piled in the back, sitting on top of a red Coleman cooler infected with the stench of something long forgotten. Mildew grew everywhere. My clothes stank, no matter how many times I sat outside the laundromat reading Stephen King novels, glancing up occasionally to see my possessions whirling around inside the $4.00 turbine of soapy water. I knew no one. Not one person.
What freedom! How terribly romantic!
I was a student at the time. A mediocre one, at best. What fucks me up at school is the way my brain jumps around. My classmates all seem so focused, so determined, so intent on…on learning. It’s crazy.
Don’t get me wrong. I like to learn. I love to learn. I’m just terrible at it – I’m sure I would’ve been treated by some brain-numbing agent had I been born ten years later. So when school announced that we’d better start looking for an internship, lest we fail the program, I got excited at the possibilities – just think of it! Learning what I want, how I want! Choosing my destiny! What freedom! How terribly romantic! – and then promptly forgot all about it.
Enter last-minute panic. My brain was flailing desperately, grasping for some kind of saving grace. A lifeline. It came in the shape of an email from the then-online editor of Surfer Magazine, who just so happens to be the captain of this fine web-surfing ship.
How long might you be available to intern? Do you have any writing samples we could look at?
Thanks for your interest.
When did I email them? Never mind. This is good news. I like to write! I like to surf! I can do both of these and get school credit! Respond, I tell my brain. Respond, right now. Send him writing samples, right now. Of course, my mind is off gallivanting through a field of posies somewhere, not wearing any pants. And so I promptly forget all about it.
A few weeks later, I realized that I hadn’t sent anything in. You’ve got nothing lined up! And you won’t graduate, rendering the last two years of your life a complete waste. So I send him some college newspaper drivel, and he responds with a test of sorts. “Here’s something for you to work on,” is the gist of it. “If it’s good, you can show up.”
I suppose it must’ve been alright, at least, because I somehow managed to slip through the cracks and secure an internship in sunny So Cal, land of surf journalism opportunity.
Remember when I said I was used to having a house? And then remember when I said my brain jumps around? Here’s where those two things mesh together. At some point, after I was certain that I would indeed be going to San Clemente, I realized that I should find a place to live. I would be there for four months. At first, I entertained the idea of camping. It sounded nice, sleeping under the stars for longer than a weekend, not waking up severely hungover at noon and driving home, hell-bent on keeping the vomit in my stomach. I assumed it would be easy to find a place to camp.
Apparently, I was wrong. LaWanda at OC State Parks informed me not only could I not stay in any one camping place for longer than a month, but also that all the camping “spots” were “reserved.” What madness is this?! “Reserving” a camping “spot?”
Why look, it’s April. I’m supposed to be in California in a week. Wasn’t I supposed to do something before I left? Oh, that’s right. Find a place to live, so I’m not a homeless bag-man, covered in weeping sores, and wearing shoes from a dumpster.
Out of desperation, I built a bed in the box of my truck from scrap wood I found in my friend’s back yard. It was just a plywood rectangle that sat on a mismatched set of spindly legs, pill bugs climbing out in droves. I topped the plywood with a thin foam mattress, and climbed in to see if it would work. As long as I didn’t move, it was fine. As long as I didn’t move at all. Like, dead still. It should be fine, I thought. Above it all perched a tall-boy canopy that I picked up for $50, with a pleasantly large window that was perfect for closing my fingers in every night.
I drove (it has since been repossessed… oh, shock!) a Ford Ranger, which is not a large vehicle. The box measures approximately 6 ft. by 3 ft. I am 6’1. It’s surprising how much that inch hurts. That was one of the most painful inches I’ve ever experienced. Suffice to say, I will forevermore sleep in a starfish position on the softest mattress possible.
I started my truck. I had thrown a hibachi, a bag of clothes, my old surfboard, and some other necessities (Twinkies, a half-gallon of milk, and a travel Scrabble board – keep in mind, I’m traveling by myself, and Scrabble isn’t the best game to play solo) in the space between the spindly bed legs. I had about $400.00 in my bank account. That works out to roughly $100.00 a month, and I haven’t budgeted for gas. I’m reasonably sure I cannot survive on that. I am under audit from the student loans people, so it’s not positive I’ll get one. This is not a good start.
Thirty-three hours pass on the road. I’ve consumed more Yoo-hoo and smoked more cigarettes than I thought I could. I like a challenge. My mouth tastes like someone put their cat in it, and it shit under my tongue. But I’m in San Clemente! What freedom! How terribly romantic!
When I turned off my truck, I didn’t feel so hot. My left arm was badly burned from hanging out the window, my eyes were bleary and for some reason, I smelled pee. Is it me? I hope not. That would be an embarrassing way to stage my grand entrance. But I was there. It was, however, 2 a.m., and I was extraordinarily tired. Now what?
Rest stops in Southern California are amazing. The bathrooms are clean, and the misfits that keep them that way are some of the most jovial folk I’ve ever met. They offer coffee with their morning waves, cheerfully wriggling their fingers inside their yellow rubber gloves, a thin shield between them and the insides of countless strangers. There is one downfall, though, to rest stop life. There’s a 24-hour limit. And who am I to challenge the authority of the rest stop governing body? Rest stops, and most notably, the Aliso Creek rest stop (check it out sometime… southbound I-5, a half-hour south of San Clemente) have a wonderful view. A Pacific panoramic spreads beneath it like some kind of fleecy blue blanket, while the coastline cheerfully saunters towards Mexico or Canada, depending on which way you’re facing. Clean bathrooms, shiny aluminum polished to a mirror-like state by one of those brave yellow-handed workers. Volcano-hot coffee in paper cups, brewed fresh weekly, only a dollar!
Then one night, my comfortable rest-stop routine is interrupted. It comes in the form of a knock on my big glass window. Opening it, I see an extraordinarily bright light. Ouch. It’s 3 a.m.
“What are you doing here?” says the light.
“Sleeping,” I answer, shading my seared eyes.
“I’ve seen you here every night this week.” This light is an asshole. I’m confused, still half asleep, and embarrassed. The light thinks I’m homeless. And it’s right. Behind it stands a stocky border patrol officer, silhouetted by his patrol car’s headlights.
This is awkward. It’s clear I’ve set up shop in my truck. My stinking clothes are strewn about, garbage bags are clipped to the side windows. I’ve got a digital clock taped to the wall, and tap-lights strategically taped to the ceiling, providing light for trashy novel reading. My wetsuit is hanging over the windshield, drying for the morning. The light/border patrol officer (who undoubtedly thinks I’m some rare breed of border jumper from the north), wants to know why I’m here.
“I’m an intern,” I say, still shielding my eyes. He raises an eyebrow at me. “I’m an American citizen.” Guilty, I sound. Why would I tell him that? It sounds so defensive. He asks me where I’m interning, and I tell him. Judging from his reaction, he must surf.
“Oh, no way! How is it? What’re you doing for them?” Friendly, now. The light drops, and he’s grinning at me. It is still 3 AM, and I do not feel like conversing. My nightly routine consists of this: movies and tequila. Each night, I pull into Aliso Creek, plug my laptop into the inverter, and pull the cork on a cheap bottle. Plug in the auxiliary cord – surround sound! Drink until I can sleep through the painful inch, then crawl into the back and read until I can’t focus anymore. I drank too much, and now I’m starting to feel ill. I do not feel like conversing.
“It’s good.” I burp. Please, do not throw up on this patrolman’s shoes. “Can I go back to sleep?”
There are other rest stops. I have no loyalty. I begin a new routine. On alternate days, I head south, past my beloved Aliso Creek and turn around in Carlsbad. From there, I drive north to almost the exact same place, just on the northbound side. This is a ghetto rest stop. It’s dirty. No yellow-handed workers smile at me. The view is spectacularly plain: to the west, the coursing traffic of the freeway, to the east, dirt.
Truck drivers like to get an early start. 4:30 or 5:00, usually. And so I am awake also. Dawn patrol, every morning. It’s a good thing. I don’t know the area that well, so most of the time, I’ll check the pier first. I have yet to find Trestles. Eventually, I meet a group of friends that shows me around and lets me stay at their house on occasion. They are the coolest. I’ve only been here a week. One of them even wrangled me a two-week gig teaching kids how to surf. What freedom! How terribly romantic!
My first day of “work” arrives! I am nervous. My hands are sweating. I call my girlfriend, who I left at our apartment two weeks ago.
“You’ll do fine,” Amy tells me. How nice of her. It does not help. Why am I nervous? I’m not getting paid for anything, I don’t know these people. I have nothing to prove, really. What’s the worst that can happen?
I keep a journal. No, it’s not a diary. It’s a journal. In it, I made a list of three possible scenarios. The first is called the Spicolli. It’s a good one. I get a job, and I get to fly on down to London with the Stones. The second is called the Joe Average, which, in retrospect, is almost exactly what happened. The third is the worst that could happen. It is entitled: The Huge Loser.
#3 The Huge Loser.
I drive down, music cranked, sunglasses on. Get to Surfer, write some shitty articles, get spat on. Start putting commas in the mi,ddle of words, speeling shit rong. Surfer laughs me out of the office after the obligatory* invite to a left. It’s hollow and firing. Eep. Cut to me bleeding on the beach, the Surfer staff pointing and laughing, slapping each other’s backs while I cower in the sand. Someone kicks sand at me. Janna’s (associate ed.) perfect white teeth glinting in the California sun, her shoulders shaking with the hilarity of it all. I come home early, don’t graduate because I didn’t get enough intern hours. Run out of money because I spent it all on Natty Ice to ease the embarrassment/depression of the beating in and out of the water. Can’t get home, end up in Oregon, homeless, alone, and broke. That would suck.
*the “obligatory” invite never actually happened.
For contrast, here is the Spicolli, which I thought at the time was the best possible ending.
#1 The Spicolli
I drive down, music cranked, sunglasses on. Hair gets shoulder-length on the I-5. Perfect words spew from my pen/fingers in volcano-like fashion, shocking the surf/literary world with their clarity and beauty. Editors orgasm collectively all over the world at my perfect grammatical skills, causing world-wide water shortages when they all wash their underpants at the same time. The Editor-in-Chief calls me up, offers me the senior editor position and tells me they’ll arrange a house and Louie’s (my dog) quarantine has been waived in lieu of my acceptance to dine with Barack. Amy comes to town, we move into our two-bedroom white house, build a four-foot mini ramp with six-foot extensions under the Wisteria covered gazebo in the backyard. I score perfect, un-crowded* surf every day for the rest of my life. That sounds nice. And unlikely.
Neither one of those happened. I got home fine, although I was broke. I still am, and fully expect to be for the rest of my life. But I did have a wonderful summer. I lived in the dirt, I surfed good waves, I ate great Mexican food, and I made great friends, the type that (I hope) I will be friends with forever. I eventually graduated, which was a nice bonus. I never really expected to. I now have a different perspective of the surf industry, one that is still constantly changing. It is not what I thought. Not in a bad way, it’s just different. It’s like meeting a beautiful actress, then hearing her fart. You knew she did, but in the movies, of course, they never showed it. But I will still watch her movies, and I’m reasonably sure that I will never have a homeless summer again. And for some reason, that makes me kind of sad.
What freedom! How terribly romantic!