“If I could go down now, whole town is sleepin’,
See the sun creepin’ up on the hill, yeah,
You know the river and the railroad would run through the valley still.
Well, it never was much to look at, just a one-horse town,
Kinda place young people wanta leave today;
Storefronts pretty much boarded up,
Main street pretty much closed down.
“I might go down, come the weekend, go on my own,
Drop off Annie and the baby, maybe drive alone.
Pay my last respects to a time that has all but gone.
Little by little, light after light, that’s how it died.
Say you’ll never go home again, now that’s no lie.
It’s like a letter in the mail to my brother in jail,
‘It’s just a matter of time, and you can do a little bit better time.’”
- from “Letter in the Mail” on James Taylor’s Never Die Young CD
Headed downtown early this morning. Had coffee and breakfast on my mind, needed to do some ‘thankin’ (as one of my longtime Arkansas buddies says). Also wanted to beat the tourist crowds that, every summer, routinely conquer and occupy this little Carpinteria, a quaint but mostly-sleepy beach town of approximately 14,000 nestled on the Pacific strand where the Golden State turns southeastward about two-thirds down the coastline from its northern boundary with Oregon. According to Wikipedia, “The Spanish named the area Carpinteria because the Chumash tribe, which lived in the area, had a large seagoing canoe-building enterprise, or ‘carpentry shop’ there; this was due to the availability of naturally-occurring surface tar which was used to seal the boats. You can still see the tar oozing out of the bluffs at Tar Pits Park, on the beach just south of the campground.” I’ve been to the beach many times and can affirm the veracity of the statement about tar oozing out of the bluffs. But back to the throng of every summer’s tourists.
While these crowds are generally pretty laid back and serene, they come here from all over the world to enjoy “The World’s Safest Beach,” as the town has officially styled it. So there’s an expected level of pandemonium from the large number of young children with their families, the confusion of diverse languages, cultures and expectations that converge in a small space. The other day in the same coffee shop I’m headed for this morning, I conversed with a German couple who’ve been coming here every summer for 18 years, they like it so much; and in front of us, there was a large Italian family who could not efficiently communicate to the baristas what they wanted. But fortunately, they came with their Italian hands and arms, prepared (and well trained!) to gesticulate with sufficient exuberance to, along with their many and rapid words, eventually get the point across. I like these folk — I like the spontaneous encounters and light conversations with people from around the world. But sometimes there are just too many of them at once, particularly on Saturday mornings that should, by rights, quietly ramp up to energetic levels only after 11 a.m., when I tend to recover and “come back to ground” from a hard week at the office. I work in Carpinteria; hence, I live here for the convenience of avoiding daily Highway 101 gridlock as thousands of commuters cram the one highway that snakes along the coast between Oxnard-Ventura and north through Santa Barbara to Atascadero before splitting into several routes that open the congestion.
As usual, I was afoot on this morning’s quest. I walk the same route every early morning (as contrasted with late mornings), stopping at the coffee shop for my usual double cappuccino-slightly-on-the-dry-side. Today, though, I would add a warm cranberry oat breakfast bar and ask Aubrey for my cappuccino in a ceramic mug instead of the usual to-go cup with sleeve. I always liked the name “Aubrey.” It was my paternal grandma’s name (may she rest in peace), and she was as fun a person as I’ve ever known — a short, sturdy little Scottish woman full of vigor who, though deeply religious, was never hesitant to tease and laugh in her inimitable style. And she could render “Amazing Grace” in an alto, Celtic style, that made my arms stand up with goose bumps. By contrast, Aubrey the barista is a quiet young person. Very kind, but shy and unassuming. And my grandma didn’t have a tattoo on her left arm. But that’s beside the point. The first time I saw Aubrey working behind the counter, I noticed her name tag and complimented her on her name, adding that it was my grandma’s name as well. She looked at me with a poker face and uttered not a word. But I could hear her internal question: “What’s his point?” She’s softened up since then and makes a mean double cappuccino for me with a shy grin as she hands it off.
With frothy mug and warm plate in hand, I ambled to a seat facing outward toward the coastal range to the east so that I could watch the marine layer gradually lift to expose the mountains. Sliding my camera bag off my shoulder – it was along just in case I happened across any great low-light photo ops – I settled into the comfortable armchair. From my position I would also catch sight of those intrepid early morning cyclists who beat the crowds on the road, especially those cyclists who, along with my great friend Buzz, were riding the Cool Breeze Century today. I’d normally be out there with them, but lots of factors have prevented my participation this go-round. This is a bustling time of year on this paradise of a coast with its shirt-sleeves-shorts-and-flip-flops weather. Cyclists, surfers, and motorists clog the coastal highway headed for weekend R & R, and skateboarders and hundreds of pedestrians add to the crowds in the local streets throughout the day. So early is better for the cyclists as well as seekers of robust coffee and “slow-mo” morning solitude.
The “regulars” were mostly there as I arrived – the guy who sits by the front door reading a Grisham novel, whom I’ve never seen smile or speak to anyone, even when spoken to. He was into the novel of the day, and I respected his purpose – similar to mine. Funny; he doesn’t look like the Grisham sort – whatever that is. Just something about him. But he seems intent on Grisham; this is the third JG novel I’ve seen him with in as many weeks. Maybe he’s on a mission to read all of Grisham’s production. Anyway, he sports a salt-and-pepper Van Dyke under dark eyes set behind frameless glasses and an even darker, shiny, thick-and-slick crop of hair combed at a forty-five across his head. Across from me on the window side sat a guy with a gray-haired spike, the “newspaper man” I call him, with Blue-Tooth in his ear and newspaper in his hands. Today, though, he was frequently picking up his cell phone and looking at it as if to say, “Why the hell isn’t this thing ringing?!” I took it that someone wasn’t meeting his schedule and expectations, since he looked a little grumpy, evidenced even in his perfunctory nod that acknowledged my “good morning.” I didn’t bother him with further conversation today. Mutual respect. There were a couple others outside on the patio area despite the chill of the marine layer. Shorts and flip-flops with fleece pullovers and ball caps.
I like this place. When I walk in every morning, the staff sees me coming and usually knows what I want, regardless of which team members are there. We exchange pleasantries at the counter and I always get a smile or two, though it took me a few weeks to cultivate that when I came to town. Sometimes Southern Californians can be pretty stand-offish if you don’t nudge ‘em out of their aloof comfort zone. But as I entered the door to a minor crowd one recent morning, I heard one of the baristas yell over her shoulder, “Mike’s here!” followed by an immediate, minor scramble as two began making my cappuccino even before I paid – one frothing the milk and the other pulling the shots – while the observant sentry rang up the sale and tendered my change. Into the tip box it went as a warm smile of familiarity rose to the surface. When I complimented them on their prompt attention, their white teeth flashed in brilliant smiles contrasted against dark beach tans and their pleasant banter bubbled forth.
This morning, as usual, my cappuccino was robust but smooth, and the warm breakfast bar went down well with its mildly sweet-tart grainy taste. Didn’t bring a book and there was no conversation stirring beyond the working patter behind the counter between Aubrey and Gabe, the very crisp, short, spunky Latino who had just joined her for his shift. Another regular, “Spike Two” I call him, walked in as I finished. With his sunbleached blonde hair and dark tan, he was in his usual style of bright red sweatshirt and dark pants with Ugh boots, rolled newspaper under his arm and his half-lens readers already astride his nose. But our eyes met as he headed to an outdoor table with his java and news and we exchanged enthusiastic morning “hey, how ya doin?” My dishes now emptied, I delivered them to the bussing area and walked out the front door to the pleasant farewells: “Have a great day, Mike.”
“You, too, Aubrey and Gabe. See ya tomorrow.” As I said, I like this place.
The marine layer still hung fairly thick over the town. It’s been an unusual ten days just passed – weather-wise, more like the familiar “June Gloom” of our coastal region’s early summer micro-climates. By this time of year, the sky is usually bright and clear and a comfortable warmth is rising to meet the day. But not today. Nonetheless, something bright caught the corner of my eye as I reached the street. There was no movement – quite the contrary. There she sat across the street in total stillness, appearing against the backdrop of storefronts to belong there quite naturally. My eye was immediately riveted. To get a closer look, I immediately cut a diagonal across the sleepy street. What a beaut! Curves in all the right places, smooth lines and obviously quite well cared for. With a quick turn of my head, I looked around to see if anyone was watching me, almost embarrassed by my own unchecked admiration for this thing of beauty. She was a ’51 Ford V-8 “Woody” wearing several deep layers of a familiar, vintage Ford turquoise paint plus the dark-and-light woods used for the side panels, and she looked – at least to my non-expert eye – to be in totally-stock condition except for the special wheels that were not yet conceived when she rolled off the Detroit assembly line 58 years ago. For this babe, atypical tires of lower profile and smaller sidewalls mounted the more modern wheels as compared with the standard big wheels, wide white-sidewall tires, and small, plain hubcaps that I remember from that era. In 1951 I was a big-eared, bony kid of six, but even then was quite excited about cool cars. They were much less ubiquitous then.
Out came my camera for a lengthy series of admiring shots from every angle – the auto paparazzi! – and when I looked up I had been joined by a slightly younger guy who was as into the moment as I, him with cell-phone camera clicking shots. “Is she yours?” he asked. “I just shot the hell out of her with my camera.” Grin.
“No, but I’d sure like to claim ‘er.”
“Wouldncha?!” he chuckled. “Whaddya think,” he said, “$180 grand into her?”
My eyes got big. “Are you kiddin’?” I had no idea how someone could spend that much on an old Ford. A Rolls maybe, but not a Ford.
“No,” he said. “I watched these for quite a while, wanted to buy one, but decided I couldn’t afford it.”
“I reckon not!” my mind silently affirmed. We stood staring in adoring silence for a few moments, made a couple comments about particular features of the car, then parted company, both surely personally enriched by the experience.
Still feeling a flush of excitement, I bagged my camera and headed down the street toward the beach to do my walking and “thankin,” but caught myself turning back a couple of times to get one more look at the Woody. Warm nostalgia had rushed in and filled all the blank spaces of my quiet Saturday reverie. Whatever I had needed to think about had been totally supplanted by remembrances of slower days, quieter days, days of long, white-hot summers in the lower Midwest of my Arkansas childhood. Days with dark sweat-beads around our youthful necks. Days when neighbor Peggy would team with my mom to load her three kids and mom’s three younger kids along with a picnic lunch into Peggy’s burgundy ‘51 Ford two-door coupe and we’d all head to Rudy Creek or Twin Bridges or Silver Bridge to hit the swimming hole and forestall the sun’s ravages. Riding home afterward in that heavy Ford as the lowering sun shot its more benign rays into our faces, we’d wearily take turns hanging our heads or towels out the windows to dry. Exhausted but happy little kids. Seatbelts were unheard of then.
As I reflected this morning, my mind, in keeping with my lifelong propensity, called up the lyrics of a song from the past. This time it was James Taylor’s “Letter in the Mail.” I began to sing the words quietly as I walked. I like this about Carpinteria – this little “one-horse” town “peaceful and serene” in its morning yawns and stretches, “the sun creepin’ up on the hill,” – I like this exposure to relics of the past. They are welcome relics, at least in my world, and the car I’ve just ogled and admired has triggered a small but packed volume of memories for me. Likely, it would hardly have been noticed in a bigger city where life moves way too fast. At most, it would have gotten a fleeting glance as the hustle of the street demanded greater attention. Almost certainly, the conversation between two rank strangers would not have occurred on a big city’s sidewalk. And without doubt, I couldn’t have stood in the middle of a larger city’s main thoroughfare to shoot a series of photos of a beautiful antique car. But this serene little town, the “carpentry shop” of California’s lower coast, is a throwback “to a time that is all but gone.” A pleasant throwback, where the simple pleasures are still to be found in abundance if one takes the time to look. Carpe diem. Vita brevis!
© 2009 by Michael E. Stubblefield – all rights reserved