Friday, April 15, 2005


They say you can't go home again, which means, I guess, that the place you think of as home doesn't exist anymore except in your mind. But some things don't change. Certain friends can seem just the same as they were even though twenty (or more) years have gone by. Even the way you feel can stay the same though the world around you goes to hell and everything you once believed turns out to be just plain wrong.

And then there's Pacific Beach.

Pacific Beach, or "PB" as it is known by the locals, was a laid-back beach community just north of San Diego when Bob Sweeney and I arrived there fresh out of college in 1981. Populated by surfers and skaters, waitresses and bartenders, sun-worshipers and stoners -- and two pale guys from back east. We came because a friend of Bob's from Cleveland was managing a store called 'Great News!' and said he could get us jobs there. We would start out as stock boys and work our way up to management in no time. They had already opened two new locations and more were planned. It was a real opportunity.

Bob had no intention of pursuing a career in retail, which was a good thing because he never did get a job at Great News! Bob was only there to take a year off before going to law school. He ended up working at the local Drug King and actually did become manager fairly quickly. I started out working at Jack in the Box making tacos and later became a sales clerk at Great News! But I wasn't there to conquer retail either. I was there to write a novel.

PB was a great place to shed the myopic, pensive, dark and dusty mantel of academia and breath some bright, breezy, empty-headed, healthy ocean air. We ran on the beach, swam in the waves, grilled fish in the alley and soaked up the sun. We drank pitchers of beer at Billy Bones and danced like gangsters to the surf-rock of The Nomads. At high tide under a full moon, we collected bucketloads of grunion that were strewn all over the beach to spawn. We sat in silence under the stars and watched the phosphorescent blue tide streaking through the breakers like lightning in a bottle. We smuggled beer and tuna sandwiches into Jack Murphy stadium to cheer the Tribe as they beat the Padres in a double-header. We believed that everything was possible and nothing could stand in our way.

The days passed by uncounted, differentiated only by the shroud of haze that drifted on and off the shore each morning and evening, framing the sunny afternoons with a misty border that obscured the boundaries of time. Our year on the beach came to an end. Bob went off to Law School and a career. I finished my novel and went back to Connecticut to try and get published. But that, as a friend of mine likes to say, is a whole other 'Oprah'.

I returned to PB recently to see if any of what I remembered is still standing. I met my old pal Dave Todd, whom I've know since high school back in Louisville. He was in San Diego for a conference of Law School Alumni Magazine Editors and extended his stay for a couple of days so we could hang out together for the weekend. I booked us a room right on the boardwalk in the heart of PB, just two blocks from my old apartment. Right away I knew things would be different since there was no hotel on the boardwalk two blocks from my apartment back in '81.

And it wasn't just PB that changed -- Dave and I aren't exactly the young, spry athletic adventurers we once were. On the other hand we have gained certain advantages, such as the ability to enjoy an excellent grilled-fish dinner with amber ales right on the boardwalk and put it all on the Mastercard. We checked out the night life as well -- The Nomads were long gone, but we caught a singer-songwriter at a place called Blind Melon's at the foot of the Crystal Pier who was decent. We stood out like dinosaurs among the twenty-somethings in the audience. At one point, during a Dylan song, Dave remarked, "When we first heard this song, their parents hadn't even met yet."

We wandered the neighborhood searching for remnants of my fabled past. My old apartment building was still intact, just up the alley from the beach. A lot of the surrounding businesses had changed, but not as much as I expected. The basic vibe of PB still felt the same. Tattoo parlors, used record stores, surf shops, bars, fast food joints. The video arcade had been replaced by a shoe store, but the old Jack in the Box was right where I left it. Unfortunately, Billy Bones, the archetypal surfer bar, vanished without a trace -- replaced by a mini-mall.

The people, however, seemed pretty much the same. Kids just out of college in their first apartments, holding down stop-gap jobs. Hanging out, cruising the strip, checking each other out. That was a big adjustment when I first got to PB -- everyone checks everyone else out. Back east nobody every looked at anybody, but here they look you up and down and back again. Sadly, there weren't too many babes checking out Dave and me. We were clearly out of our demographic, constantly being referred to as "sir" by cute young waitresses, surly desk clerks and the like.

We hiked up to the plaza where Great News! and Bob's old Drug King had been. The Drug King was replaced by a super-sized Long's Drug, but Great News! is still thriving. The plaza hasn't changed that much either -- smoothie bar, grocery store, bank, pita shop. Lots of young folks everywhere you look. They have no idea what lies in store for them. How plans don't work out. People change. Dreams get put aside or forgotten.

But as we walked back towards Crystal Pier watching the evening haze paint a broad purple band across the orange horizon, I realized that it wasn't just PB that felt the same, it was me. Despite the years and the miles and the losses and the gains, I still felt the same way I did when Bob and I first hit the boardwalk that late September afternoon a million years ago. I still have my good friends, I still have my crazy dreams, I still believe that anything is possible.

Maybe you can't go home again. But you can go back to PB.

Hang loose.

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