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Santa Barbara Was My Paris

Sixteen-Year-Old Kid Finds Safety and Culture in S.B.


Friday, September 6, 2013

Fifty years ago, when I first came to Santa Barbara, there was a popular folk tune, “Raspberries, Strawberries,” that proclaimed, “A young man goes to Paris, as every young man should.” Santa Barbara was, a half-century ago, my Paris. I came back to town recently to remember it and was rewarded with what feels like almost total recall of those sweet old days.

I first arrived in Santa Barbara scared, cold, tired, broke, and hungry after driving down the Pacific Coast Highway as as fast my Vespa would carry me from an Oakland home where I no longer felt safe. It was fall, it was cold along the coast, and I had no idea where I was heading. Signs for the Natural History Museum drew me in off the highway, and as I wound through the streets and began to experience the sun’s warmth, I found myself ready to stop and dismount for a while. I pounded the streets by day, looking for work, and spent the nights on Chapala Street, first at the Salvation Army and then sleeping in the backs of station wagons in the adjacent used-car lots.

Jobs for a 16-year-old high school dropout were in short supply even then, and having no money, I was growing desperate. But the town’s ambience, its warmth, and the openness of the people I was meeting kept me hopeful. Finally, I walked into the old Copper Coffee Pot, on State Street near Figueroa, just as young Andy Birk, the owner’s son, was firing a busboy. He handed me an apron, and I went to work.

An advance on my pay and a dollar-a-night room in the Virginia Hotel got me stabilized until I found a spot in a scruffy old rooming house that could have served as a movie set, the whimsically named Hotel de France on the corner of Anapamu and Chapala streets. On the night of John Kennedy’s assassination, I wandered across the street to watch the news on the television in Alex Heiland’s workingman’s tavern, the Canteen. I behaved maturely enough to convince folks there I was a whole lot older than I was, and the Canteen soon became my hangout. I felt at home there, and between the Copper Coffee Pot, Hotel de France, and that marginally seedy bar, I sunk roots into Santa Barbara.

But my bigger, more enveloping memories, and the reason I’m writing this, have much more to do with the small-scale, and probably over-looked and underappreciated, cultural center Santa Barbara was in those days. Or so it was for me. The town has long been a tourist destination, of course, but the quarter I haunted there was largely bounded by Micheltorena and De la Guerra streets, Santa Barbara and Chapala streets. In those days, this was largely a business and residential area, full of working people and not so many of the visitors and brokers who fill the streets today. I spent time up on the hills and on the beach, at impromptu wine festivals in the canyons and on raucous rowboat rides along the shore, but the cradle of my life there was in that stretch of Anapamu that is still adorned by the courthouse, the library, and the art museum.

The courthouse grounds served as my yard, especially when I moved a few blocks down Anapamu and lived right across the street. Who could have asked for a lovelier garden? The Arlington Theatre worked magic in the evenings; I still recall my bafflement the first time I sat down in there. I’d entered after the lights had already dimmed, and I spent much of the movie trying to figure out whether I was indoors or outside. I always did feel like I was sitting beneath the stars in a village plaza, almost like the wanderings of time and space in a Woody Allen movie.

But it was in the library that my cultural education took off. I like to think the Don Quixote murals are the source of the lifelong joy I’ve found in tilting at windmills. My roommate Don McPherson and I borrowed an endless flow of art books and records. My earliest exposure to schools of art, classical music, and the theater of the absurd, especially a recording of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, came through the public library, and I trace my love of culture back to it.

Obviously, my mind and soul provided fertile soil, and I would have eventually found my way to at least some of these anyway, I’m sure. But in that charmed time and place, they fashioned a deeply rooted garden that has never gone out of bloom, never ceased to feed and nurture me. Santa Barbara was the gardener of my spirit.

Ernest Hemingway said, “If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.” That is precisely how I feel about my time in Santa Barbara. I lived in a wonderful mix of a working community and vibrant culture. I found freedom and knowledge and learned to chart a course in life. I gained strength and competence there and learned to see the world through discerning eyes. It was a feast, and it has stayed with me for the rest of my life.

The final verse of “Raspberries, Strawberries” concludes, “An old man returns to Paris, as every old man must. He finds the winter winds blow cold. His dreams have turned to dust.” But the dreams that grew 50 years ago in Santa Barbara never failed me, and it pleased me endlessly to return and find that my Paris remains there by the sea, still thriving, still shining in the sun.

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