The wind rousts the waves, whipping up a spectacular show of nature’s force and beauty to those witnessing the tossed foam-topped ocean performing under a late winter sun. From across a busy mid-day Pacific Coast Highway, I play poet peering through the glass of an upscale oceanfront cafeteria serving curry roasted cauliflower salad and vegetarian chili–my odd lunch pairing. I enjoy the view thanks to a brand new construction, Pacific City, which is the latest installment of gentrified downtown Surf City.
Downtown Huntington Beach (aka Surf City) has come a long way since I first took up residency in 1977. Back then, the spot upon which I write in this clean, stark-modern restaurant with solid white, kelly green, lemon-aid yellow and teal faux art deco tables, chairs and leatherette booths, was probably a run down gas station or liquor store back then. An outlier of Main Street where the original Jack’s Surfboards and the YMCA youth hostel sucked up a city-like block with its ramshackle broken down brick front and faded letters, my current location was a strip of highway fodder to drive past on the way to more happening places like the arty Laguna Hills or more-widely known for its naval installation, San Diego.
If memory serves, my dining spot sidles the former location of the Golden Bear nightclub, which drew significant music-loving crowds. Featuring artists such as Janis Joplin, Arlo Guthrie, Jimi Hendrix and Jerry Garcia, the Golden Bear cafe, turned restaurant turned music hall hosted serious madcap concert-going experiences for a good 63 years before it closed in 1986, probably at the advent of the city’s huge facelift planning phase–even before the Waterfront Hilton and Hyatt moved in to accommodate tourists venturing into this former sleepy beach town.
Only I would not characterize the downtown of the 70s and 80s as sleepy so much as sleazy. Yes, the surf culture pervaded, which in itself did not account for the run-down, neglected downtown even local folk felt slightly wary of at night. No, between the oil drills along the beach by the dozens and the off shore rigs peppering the ocean front view, there did not seem to be reason for investors to take note. And lease holdings were tied up tightly at that time to oil contractors and developers.
So, with the world-renown U.S. Open of Surfing’s arrival each year for the last 60 or 70 years (and its 9-day festival), only one of about 50 surf competitions that take place in Huntington Beach annually, I’m sure many chop-licking promoters, developers and real estate moguls begrudged the wasted, unexploited prime realty. Probably about the same time some of those long-term lease holdings expired and the oil drills disappeared, money rolled in and Huntington Beach began its slow 20 year upgrade.
So here I sit, thinking about that grungy YMCA with its “dirty hippy” (as my friend’s parents would say), drug-addled or merely down-and-out on their luck clientele, where my best friend stayed while he visited me a few months after I moved to Southern California from the suburbs of Long Island, New York that winter of 77. We were dirty hippies back then too so didn’t think twice about the sub-par accommodations. It was affordable, and I did not feel the “unsavoriness” of the place until a well-intentioned passerby informed me that the place was a dangerous dump full of criminals.
My best friend was no criminal unless you consider smoking pot and under-age drinking criminal rather than mere exploratory indiscretions of teens being teens. We two criminals or adventurers (depending on your rigid adherence to the law) flop-housed at the Y and dug the ocean’s roiling and rolling, its contrasting aqua marine to the Atlantic’s sea salt brown, and the frisbee-throwing 65-degree winter weather (from an east coaster perspective).
Disheveled downtown was our town back then–for that week anyhow–a place to kick around and watch the placard-waving, end-of-times barkers and strung out sun-and-booze blanched surfers splayed here and there against downtown restaurant or head shop walls, or near the Golden Bear, probably scene of the last sober moment before getting tossed or passing out. We walked the length of the city’s beach front and all over the town, miles of it, as tourist-residents.
A far cry from this pleasant, well-dressed, muted-pretentious, upscale open-air strip mall on steroids with its second tier cushioned lounge chairs parked alongside a balcony view of the ocean dancing before a paying audience. It’s clean. It’s orderly. And it smells better than the vomitous former downtown stench emanating from alleyway pockets, but somehow not quite as personable and dauntless.
Taking one last look at the rarely clear outline of Catalina Island jutting into the horizon, creating the illusion of the ocean-as-bay from my limited human perception, I pull out the parking ticket for validation. The $12.00 parking fee, yet another reminder that I am, yet again not, in my own hometown, is a first for this town. I know of no other place in the city with comparable parking fees. But hey, I could have walked the mile to get here too. Just like I did in 1977, the last time I pal’d around with my best friend, just being us.
She barreled through the classroom because she was a barrel, as wide as she was tall, and she was tall. Young, vibrant and cheery with an obvious eye for the boys in the classroom so much so that even I knew at a sullen and cynical 14 that she craved attention. Perhaps her size measured her insecurity.
She had ink black straight hair, long, parted in the middle falling down her back. Her thick black eyeliner matched the color of her hair and framed her deep brown crinkling eyes. She smiled a lot, teasingly–especially with the boys.
I resented her flirting in slight sexual innuendo, all for male attention, just like I disliked my mother’s constant catering to my father who, in return, called her “fat ass” or “sumbitch.” An adolescent of the woman warrior seventies, I believed in taking no shit. Miss Hill’s pandering to the scarcely post-pubescent boys was shit; it annoyed me, which conflicted with the attraction to her enthusiasm for my favorite subject, English.
I wanted not only to like her, to take her seriously, but for her to notice me, despite the quiet and unprepossessing persona I wore at the time. An ‘A’ student, I yearned to be recognized for my smarts–my perceived strength.
“This is a wonderful piece, something I can see Janis Ian or Carole King singing,” she scrawled in large, deep-ink flourishes in my journal. She had assigned a journal at the beginning of the year, instructing us, the class, to write our thoughts–whatever we wanted–just to incent us to write. With such loose parameters, I wrote poems, cherished song lyrics, doodles and observations, all of which added up to my solitary, dark, introverted teenager dreams and drama.
Music–all kinds–made my world back then: everything from hard rock/metal to folk to classical. Before that sophomore year, I was a cellist. The local elementary school offered music lessons to third graders and so I learned the cello (after the music teacher grabbed my hand, looked at my long fingers and decided cello it would be instead of the violin I and everyone else pleaded for). I played second or third chair in the orchestra throughout my school years up to 9th or 10th grade when I perfected a full time recreational weed and boys pastime.
I especially loved fine lyrics: the poetry of Joni Mitchell, Neil Young and Dylan. That year Phoebe Snow sprung on the scene with Poetry Man, which prompted me to buy a couple of her albums. Her warbling jazz-soul sound, intoned from a space between her nose and throat in the register of a deep tenor or high alto, intrigued me. And some of her lyrics spoke bitter-sweetly about disappointment, fear and inadequacy. I felt her.
One song in particular consumed me so that I memorized the lyrics after too many spins of the vinyl. The title described my life–as I felt it: “Inspired Insanity.” The piece still holds a foundational place in my music history more for its statuesque placement from an impressionable youth and sentimentality than for its musical appeal.
In fact, a friend recently asked me to name a favorite song–seemingly impossible–but for the qualification that it somehow represent me. Instinctively, I named “Inspired Insanity” more likely from habit or history than actuality, but it was the first song that came to mind.
I’ve since moved across ample fields of genres and artists to add much more sophistication and style than her simple folk-jazz temperament into my listening repertoire occasionally moving back again to folk, where music returns time and time again: think Tracy Chapman in the 90s, Iron and Wine a few years back and some of the ballads of current bands like the Weepies of the Indie folk rock genre.
It must have been what I was going through at the time as a moody self exiled 14 year old in a New York winter hibernation, either loneliness, disconnection or generalized angst about me in the world. But the song spoke the yearning inside: “Help yourself to my new clothes. Borrow some of my daydreams too…You can call me hung up but when I call you, don’t hang up the phone…Come visit me, inspired insanity.”
Perhaps I felt taken for granted. Or simply taken. My mind did not register quickly enough all the outside motivations, what strangers or acquaintances wanted of me, and so I created misunderstanding. My intuition absorbed into analytical musings always. Books not people amused me, made me feel lucky, desired, understood…made me feel. People were not my strong suit. But 14 year olds generally don’t do people well.
I only knew I craved attention for what I could master, and I excelled at school. I had cracked the code of teachers and books long before, so I kept my eye on the coveted ‘A,’ did what I had to while enjoying some of it along the way. My ‘A’s’ were the teacher nods that validated me.
So at mid-year, when I read her praise, replete with exclamation points, next to the journal entry containing the entire neatly penned Snow song, I silently shrieked, panicked with the horror of the mistake.
“She thought I wrote this?! Oh no!!”
Instant shame, embarrassment, fear and flattery combined to redden my face, flushing heat all the way down to my ankles.
It had been painful enough to deliver my thoughts and poems to her, a stranger reading my creations, my penned pretties, not just the usual rote academic scribblings, but I consoled myself in safety of the teacher-student relationship. I trusted she would never ask me to bare my soul only to betray me by reading my work to the class. She may have even given such assurance in assigning it.
Not like in 9th grade when Mr. Rowe announced to the class that the creative project would be performed or read to the class. Back then, I combined my two loves, writing and music, and somehow mustered the courage to play a recording of a song I wrote and performed on the guitar. The ballad told the story of an assigned text, A Single Pebble, the Yangtze River Chinese gold miner who braved the forces of society and the river and lost (unless you count the immortalization by John Hersey). The image of my reserved former self does not comport with that project choice, but the certainty of the recollection cannot be denied. I can still sing some of the song.
But the song in 9th grade spelled pure victory in an earned ‘A’ for work performed, finished and collected. If memory serves, mention of using the song to accompany the reading for future classes echoes proudly (whether real or imagined) in my mind’s ears.
Not so this mistaken praise. Though mortified, my ego beamed with the attributed talent of writing such a song, which translated into the belief in me as a poet–or a songwriter, at the very least. I could not help but conclude that the other poems in the journal led her to believe so. Otherwise, how could she not detect the difference in style, the clear polished finish of the one song compared to the other driblets of word leakage (the estimated worth of my creative endeavors)?
So, though I feared she would discover the song some day and judge me a fraud–burned with the humiliation of that thought–I did round back to the idea that she presumed; I did not misrepresent. I assumed she would figure it all out, while simultaneously dreading she would not. I had little faith in human capability or not enough experience to realize that she most probably would not even remember the whole incident. She, a 22 year old, teaching her first job probably, had more to do and think about than one song in one journal of her dozens of students in several classes.
However, the scene often played out in my mind of her buying the album and hearing the song, so familiar in some way, and not knowing why. Or, the flash of recognition coupled with memory of first reading the song would conjure up my image before her eyes: the quiet student who dressed in coveralls, flannel shirts and construction boots (the original Doc Martens) and wrote poetry. Would she color that image with respect for my musical tastes or disappointment in the assumed attempted fraud perpetrated on her–even if the assignment was ungraded?
It doesn’t matter. I know. The minuscule moment magnified in my mind from teen hood speaks louder to the undigested lesson, the latent effect of that experience. Somehow I registered (or chose to) that someone recognized me as capable of producing publishable work, something as good as Phoebe Snow lyrics (which in hindsight proves less poetry than song, raw and unpolished; I mean her lyrics without the voice through them fell short of spectacular). The 14 year old me sensed the twinge of an inkling of a promise: perhaps I too could create something worthwhile, a source of another’s delight or ease of sorrow.
If only I could withstand the collective gaze of others.
Eventually, I did adapt to scrutiny. Inspired by past small successes and fleeting acts of bravery, I pushed myself through the paralysis of stage fright, figuratively for me but very real for Phoebe Snow (and Joe Cocker), and performed, wrote and occasionally sang for my living and others’ entertainment.
Real inspired insanity–sometimes frenetically and other times serenely–produces beauty, wisdom, advice or instruction. Its seeds can be found in frozen undetected time tucked in between the blinks that flutter chaos and creativity, and sway a life to the left or right. Perhaps the heat of a blush imprinted a dormant notion that unlocked itself in time, just at the right time, when I began to write–without fear.
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