We still had no idea what they meant
by ‘a place on the ocean.’
By Bill Scheller
The girl was pregnant, which must have made it especially uncomfortable to sleep on the floor. Her boyfriend, like her maybe twenty or twenty-one, nestled alongside. Their sleeping bags together were a dull green lump in the dim light of the church basement.
Jim Dixon and I were zipped into our bags a few feet away. It was one of those nights when every bone in your body is having an argument with a surface not meant for sleeping, and all night I had twisted on the linoleum from one side to the other, awake mostly, looking around to take in what I could of the place and the rest of its clientele.
The basement of the church of Saint Whoever It Was had been set up as a homeless shelter, though you didn’t hear the term much in 1971. You didn’t hear “homeless” much, either; the catchall term hadn’t yet come into vogue. Whatever – if anything – they were called back then, their numbers included a good-sized contingent of young wanderers, many if not most of whom did have homes somewhere, with softer places to sleep.
We fit the last group the closest, with the qualification that Jim and I weren’t on an open-ended escapade. Ours was a trip of a planned length, though with most of the details filled in as we went along. We’d headed to California, of course — California and especially the Bay Area, still in ’71 as much of a magnet for the footloose as Italy was for an 18th century Grand Tourist. The reason our bones were having it out with the linoleum (there was more of the sore-hipped than the hippie about us that night) was because, after a posh stay at my Uncle Ralph’s house in the suburbs and its antithesis at the Berkeley Youth Hostel, we had driven to Mill Valley to look in on a college friend from Jersey who had become, as they were called then, a “Jesus freak.” He was running the shelter at the church and had invited us to spend the night. It wasn’t Uncle Ralph’s, but it was free. That was a dollar less than we’d spent for bunk beds among the meth heads in Berkeley.
The lights went on around seven: up and at ‘em, whatever ‘em were. While we were rolling up our sleeping bags, and turning our pillows back into packs, we struck up a conversation with the couple next door. She introduced herself as Layla, and this was years before the Clapton song. He was Peorio; as to whether he’d taken the name of his home town and moved it into the Latin second declension, he didn’t say and we didn’t ask. She was pale, you’d almost say wan, with lank dark hair and little extra flesh except where the baby had insisted on it; when she pulled a shift over the t-shirt and jeans she’d slept in of course it was a batik print that came almost to the floor. Peorio, too, had a health food pallor, and the sparse goatee of an adolescent mandarin. He was dressed like Layla, except for the shift.
They told us they lived in a place on the ocean north of Mill Valley, and that they’d hitched into town the day before for Layla’s monthly prenatal checkup at the free clinic. They were going to hitch back. We were going to drive over to the coast, so we offered them a ride.
We drove up Route 1, the coastal highway, in a ’67 Chevy wagon the driveaway agency in Chicago had arranged for us to pick up in California. Somewhere along the way, Peorio said we were welcome to spend the night at their place if we didn’t have other plans. We didn’t – other than to eventually head down to LA by way of Big Sur – so we said sure. We still had no idea what they meant by “a place on the ocean.”
Route 1 loops up along the coast, sometimes in view of the Pacific, sometimes snaking inland among the hills. It was on one of the seaside stretches, along the top of a brush-covered bluff, that Peorio pointed to a pulloff on the opposite side of the road. “There,” he said. “Swing over and park there.”
If we’d pictured a snug little house by the sea, we were mistaken, although, real estate being what it is and was around there, that wouldn’t have been the kind of place whose occupants hitchhiked to free clinics. Where the hell did they live? All we saw, when we got out of the car, was a break in the brush that marked the top of a trail. The trail led down the face of the bluff, into a layer of fog that blocked any sight of the ocean. But we could hear it down there, slapping against the rocks.
“Down the trail,” Peorio said, and down the trail we went. It was steep and rough, and soon we were in the fog bank. Just as soon, we were out of it, and we two Easterners had our first sight of the Pacific. But we still saw no sign of a human habitation.
The rocks had hidden it. Built hard against the largest of them, the shack stood on the only open ground set back from the surf. It wasn’t much more than a big wooden box with a metal chimney. Peorio called it a “fisherman’s shack,” although I couldn’t imagine any fisherman other than a subsistence surfcaster living there. Without any possible mooring for a boat, it couldn’t have been even a part-time home for anyone trying to make a living off the sea. What it looked like was the shack of a hermit who liked to fish, some saltwater Thoreau far less partial to passersby dropping in than Thoreau himself was. When Layla and Peorio heard about it, it was abandoned. They were squatters, and I doubt if anyone cared.
There wasn’t much to care about. Layla opened the door to reveal a single dark room with a two-tiered bunk along one wall, a big stone fireplace on another, and a table and chairs that looked like they’d finally drifted onto shore only after a long submersion. A five-gallon water jug, which I was glad I hadn’t had to carry down the path, stood in a corner. And there was a dog. Try as I might, I can’t remember if the church shelter took in dogs. If it did, then he was with them all night and rode with us to the shack. If not, he must have spent the night alone in the shack. I hope it was the former.
There were no windows. There was no source of light and no place for cooking except the fireplace, which they fed with driftwood and was somehow connected to the metal flue.
It was late February and not all that cold, but Layla got a fire going to ward off the ocean damps. Peorio asked us guests to help him build up the driftwood wood pile just outside the door, and when we had enough good dry stuff to last the night Dixon and I drifted in the opposite direction from the wood, heading west to where the ebbing tide had made it possible to walk a few yards out to a jagged jumble of rocks that would have been an island a few hours earlier. I stood on the rocks with arms outstretched, a Jersey Balboa agog with the mystical fact of the ocean extending toward the wrong horizon. When we got back to Jersey, Dixon told our friends, “You should have seen Scheller discovering the Pacific.”
Back at the shack talk turned to dinner. Talk should have turned that way when we were in the car, or before we left Mill Valley, because there wasn’t enough in the place for four people to eat. I don’t remember if there was enough for two people to eat, particularly if one of them was pregnant. There was rice, of course — the ubiquitous brown rice, which even back then I was unregenerate enough to think of as a nice side starch, nothing more. So Dixon and I volunteered to climb back up to the car and find a store. “There’s one on the way up to Bolinas,” Layla said. “They have organic.” Without thinking about it for too long, I decided that meat would be an unwelcome suggestion. The dog might have disagreed; I don’t remember what he ate.
We found the store, and they had organic. Along with carrots and onions and celery, I found a bin of plump white mushrooms, which I figured would at least give a meaty bite to a one-pot vegetarian meal. (I’d seen, as soon as we got into the shack, that there was exactly one pot.)
It was getting dark by the time we drove back, parked on the pulloff, and threaded our way down the path to the sea. Driftwood crackled in the fireplace, throwing strange shadows on the bare plank walls, and Layla had the rice going in that solitary pot. Dixon took out the Buck knife he always carried and cut up the vegetables. I tossed them in handfuls into the rice, and it all bubbled into dinner.
It was strange in those days to be doing anything, at anyone’s house, eating a meal or whatever, without listening to music. I don’t even know if it was listening; maybe “absorbing” is the better word. But here there was no music, not even a battery radio, just the sound of the tide lapping back in, maybe thirty feet from the door.
We set our cracked plates on the edge of the hearth and sat in the fully-gathered gloom as the fire died down, talking about I can’t remember what. But I eventually set Dixon up for the line of the night.
“You know,” I said to Peorio, “you could get a kerosene lamp.”
“There’s a lot of things you could get, “ Dixon piped in, “if you were into getting things.”
You’d think I had suggested they go out and buy a diesel generator and a color TV, so they could watch “Bonanza.” Or maybe a thirty-dollar Buck knife. Ah, Jimmy, you dear departed friend, you’re lucky I liked you.
We crowded into the upper bunk, fell asleep to the sound of the waves, and ate cold rice stew in the morning. Up the bluff we climbed, and off we drove. Two nights later we were in LA staying with my Aunt Doris, who baked a hell of a pie.
And where is that baby, perhaps shack-born, now crowding fifty?