PEOPLE I MEET By Simon Lawrence
BIG SUR California
First published 2008 T.Times
This was my final night, my last chance to sit under the Big Sur stars and enjoy the sounds of the dark and the crackle of the burning embers in the fire ring… but all of it was diluted by the hum from the bar high above me… An hour later as the cosy glow was finally quelled by the chill of the night, I kicked some dust over what was left and climbed the stairs to the top, bought myself a beer and sat outside on the deck amongst the revellers, lit only by the dim glow from the bar.
I felt a tap on my shoulder, and then a sweaty hand caress the back of my neck…
‘Are you a bloke?’ asked a voice.
I turned to a round face so close to mine I could barely focus.
‘I am a bloke,’ I said smiling and took a sip from my glass.
‘Are you a bloke?’ she asked again.
I shouted ‘yes!’ a little louder in case she hadn’t heard me.
‘You’re a bloke,’ she told me. ‘Where are you from?’
‘Oh! I hate English people – but you sound like you’re an Australian bloke.. right!?’
‘I am,’ I said, ‘well spotted!’ I’m an Australian bloke living in England.’
‘I hate English people,’ she said again; ‘go away!’ She ran her fingers up my leg towards my crotch, and then told me she liked to masturbate a lot.
‘Really!.. That’s very nice,’ I said in a more reserved English voice, and took her hand from my inner thigh.
‘What’s an Australian bloke doing here?’ she asked a little more coherently.
‘I’m a writer… I’m here writing about interesting people, particularly those who like to masturbate a lot….’ I said with more than an ounce of sarcasm in the hope she would leave.
‘Oh! that’s so cool! how long are you here for?’
‘Another two weeks’ I said… ‘but not here exactly, I’m driving Highway One from San Francisco to Los Angeles; but I’m leaving BIG SUR in the morning.’
‘Stay longer,’ she said coyly, touching my knee again. ‘Then I can show you around!’
‘I can’t… sorry honey! I’ve a schedule to keep.’ I looked at her over the top of my glasses. ‘Honestly!’
We were joined by a pretty barmaid who filled my visiting companions glass to the rim with red wine.. and left without saying a word, or acknowledging either of us.
‘Free drinks eh?’
‘I’m the manageress here, perks of the job,’ she said smiling. She put her chubby face against my ear… ‘Next Wednesday I’m hiking with some friends into The Los Padres National Park, you come too, write about us!’
‘I didn’t think there was anywhere else to go but Highway One.’
‘There isn’t unless you know where the tracks are… We take a jeep inland from here,’ she pointed, flicking her finger in a random direction… ‘it takes a couple of hours, then we hike for another four; but the fun part is when we rope up and lower ourselves in to the Padres River and swim naked with the turtles. It’s spectacular down there, you would love it. That’s what you should come and write about,’ she said again.
‘Big turtles?’ I asked wondering what they must think when a naked invader lowers her considerable self into their tranquillity.’
‘Just small ones,’ she said, making a round shape the size of a dinner plate with her hands. Then she turned away, and grabbed the nearest guy, ‘this is John; did you know it’s his birthday?’
‘No I didn’t, happy birthday mate,’ I said.
‘Actually it’s not officially my birthday till midnight.’
‘Ok I’ll take it back till then,’ I said and smiled as he shook my hand.
John was instantly likeable and a tall, typically good looking, dimple chinned American, dressed casually in a smart leather jacket and blue Levis.
‘You from around these parts?’ I asked.
‘No, I’m the Best Man’ he said.
I smiled meekly looking at everyone around us, ‘It seems I’ve gate crashed the reception then!’
He introduced me to his wife Robyn who stood less than five feet above her flat shoes… They were both from Southern California, ‘born and bred,’ he said. John was a keen artist, ‘once a proper artist,’ he smiled… until the reality of supporting a family forced him into a “real job,” as he put it.
‘Before I married Robyn and we had kids, she would come and sit with me, I’d set my easel up in my folks garage and paint all day.’ He laughed, ‘in those day’s she was content to just watch me, and enjoy the silence; pleased to be in my company and of course the feeling was mutual.’ Robyn looked up at him, smiled at him; and then gave his arm a loving squeeze.
‘You still look that happy contented couple to me, and there’s some nice galleries to look at round here too,’ I said enthusiastically.
‘That’s about all there is!’ quipped Robyn disappointedly.
‘I think that’s what I like most about BIG SUR to be honest... we’re in the most consumer-led country on earth, and shopping here is almost impossible, apart from an $8.00 bag of fire wood and a few provisions I bought this afternoon from that shop,’ I said pointing roughly in it’s direction. ‘But the BIG SUR women! There must be something in the water here, it seems they like to take their clothes off a lot!’
John looked at me quizzically, ‘really, I hadn’t noticed that, where were you looking?’
The gallery along from the bar was typical of the many I’d passed on my way from Monterey. Photography in America is a more accepted art-form than in the UK and for $300 you could buy a beautifully framed BIG SUR landscape with the raging Pacific Ocean in the background, or a stretched canvas depicting the majestic Redwoods standing amongst the evening sunlight. But for the same money… you could purchase a BIG SUR woman, albeit in printed form… sitting naked on top of a large outcrop of rocks or leaning contentedly against a tree, or even holding a glittering crystal in an outstretched hand as an offering.
‘Perhaps that’s what they mean in America by “getting out more”,’ I laughed. ‘To be honest John, I thought Americans a little more prudish than the Brits, I’d have to go somewhere with painted out windows to see pubes and erect nipples in the UK!’
Earlier in the day while I waited patiently to pay for my firewood and a couple of bottles of wine, a girl had burst though the door in a state of mild panic. Hey do you know where Deejen’s is?’ she asked the girl behind the counter who hesitated for quite some time, then said confidently…. ‘Errrr! I don’t really know where that is...... But it isn’t far!’
Cool answer I thought.
‘I’ve got a bride in the car,’ she said, ‘and we have to be there in 65 minutes and she’s not even dressed yet!’
Even though none of us had the slightest clue how far Deejen’s was, or how long her rush to the wedding would be, it seemed inevitable she’d be late.
‘Maybe she should start getting some clothes on,’ I chipped in.
I told John and Robyn, and it turned out she’d made it with a full ten minutes to spare; dressed, made up and ready to be given away. It was the reception to her wedding I had inadvertently gate crashed.
I heard an English voice behind me, then a firm hand came up and shook mine – ‘names Elder, another bloody Australian then! Robert Elder friend of Johns,’ he continued by way of an introduction. ‘You come over here in your droves, take our homes, our jobs and our women, you’re from Melbourne aren’t you?’
‘I thought it was the Americans that did that,’ I said in my defence, ‘and anyway we’re in the State of California and you sound very British to me?’
‘I am,’ he said.
Elder was twenty-six and from Kingston-upon-Thames in Surrey, it was obvious he’d been to a decent school but was now travelling the world with a pal, who I later learned was an exotic mix of an Arab father and an Indian mother; but because his name exactly matched one of the 7/7 London bombers had created panic at every airport check-in they had passed through.
I told him I was from Melbourne, from the outer suburbs, but apart from the last vestiges of an Australian accent, I was now firmly a British Citizen too.
I bought him a beer while he told me of his love of BIG SUR and that it was the writer Henry Miller who’d inspired him to come and stay for a while. Miller was a New Yorker who had settled in BIG SUR during the early 1940s and was famous for writing what were then regarded as “dirty books”, called the “Rosy Crucifixion” trilogy. These days they would be considered tame, but their legacy is a wonderful portrait of American social history; or perhaps I should say… Miller’s life at that time amongst real America.
‘I’m reading BIG SUR and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosh,’ I told him. He thought it not his best writing, but as I’d yet to read Millers infamous trilogy as a comparison, most of what he said with the authority of an Oxford Don went straight over my head.
‘So what did you think of Australia?’ I asked.
Elder told me it was three years since his visit and never wanted to go back. It wasn’t because he disliked the country or its wonderful people… merely that he had “done that,” as he put it, and was apparently always moving on! He had spent the best part of a £30000 redundancy payout travelling, and had just about completed an extensive tour of America too. He was ready to head home now – most probably settling into the routine that’s a proper job, marriage and children. I suspect for the majority of us, that’s considered normal!
‘You’ve done the best thing at the beginning of your adult life,’ I confided… ‘to travel and see as much of our wonderful planet before you settle down. Don’t ever believe it when someone tells you, you need to travel before our world becomes increasingly messed up. What I’ve discovered is that what you see in your mind, how you think about things… is what you create in your reality. So that suggests if you only see the bad in our world, that’s all you’ll find. So I try only to see the beauty that surrounds all of us, because it is always there!’
‘Ok John,’ I said as Robert Elder went off in search of a more exhaustive debate with someone with a greater knowledge of Millers writing than I had… ‘Just in case someone finds out I’m a gate crasher; which one is the bride; and the groom?’ He took a long swig of beer, and then pointed to a young woman who was having great difficulty finding the edge of her glass. She gave up after several attempts then lay face down on the table. It was obvious she would remember little of her wedding night.
.‘The Groom;’ said John, pointing to a guy with a long wispy beard that almost reached his navel. ‘He’s still a bit of a hippy,’ he said, raising his eyes skyward.
‘Really,’ I said, ‘I’ve never seen a bald hippy before!’ He was dressed soberly at the top; in a smart jacket, still wearing his wedding shirt and bow tie, but sporting a pair of Hawaiian shorts and flip-flops. I don’t want you to think I’m portraying a negative stereotype about hippies… they’ve contributed greatly to world culture much of it overtly positive and loving, and anyway, I was at a wedding reception, albeit, uninvited – after a marriage, the joining of two lovers as one. How appropriate can you get!
Next morning, after I’d packed my things I went for a last look at BIG SUR from my little balcony overlooking my fire ring and the river. Below me a couple were feeding a Blue Jay. The California light is intense with none of that greyness we experience at home, it makes the greens, greener and the browns, browner, the colours jump out at you; shout at you… it’s as if I’d popped the whole scene into some photo-manipulation software and bumped the saturation up quite considerably. I wondered how the Bride was this morning, perhaps she hadn’t even noticed it was daylight now, the first full day of married life just starting, and she might miss most of it. I thought about Janette the chubby bar manageress and how she was getting along; probably sleeping off her late night and a hangover or maybe she’s been up since daybreak perfecting her masturbation techniques! Perhaps she’ll get some training in while swimming in that high mountain stream amongst some rather shocked turtles!
As I turned out onto Highway One… there surrounding me like some giant 3D cinema screen was the spectacular BIG SUR… with it’s monumental Red Woods and the intermittent heavy ocean mist that envelops this place haphazardly day and night… and when it clears you feel the searing heat from the sun, and you are immediately besiege by dozens of the friendly little Blue Jays who come to feed on anything you care to give them.
I will miss this place, it has a special energy I’d not experienced before… perhaps I’ll come back again one day and bring a lover of my own to share it… maybe even get married here too!
© SIMON LAWRENCE