I started tending bar in Manhattan Beach in June of 1970 and at that point gave up my car, or blew it up, and spent seven years either walking a mile to work or riding my ten speed, did my shopping in town and lived in a large sunny studio apartment a block from the beach for eight years, paying $120 a month rent (utilities paid), which I usually covered after one or two shifts at the hot bar I worked. In those days working class people lived all along the beach, even on the Strand, could afford reasonable rents. Clientele at the bar were young men who worked as trade laborers, or in nearby aerospace plants, or in sales, and ladies who nursed, taught school, worked at aerospace or in sales or as secretaries, and the atmosphere on the beach was one of a rare camaraderie, a sense of togetherness, belonging to a community where partying took priority over everything.
We were “beach people.”
We referred to those folks on the other side of Pacific Coast Highway who came to party in our bars as “flatlanders.” The beach was a separate entity, a microcosm of the last vestiges of the hippie/beatnik era and the oncoming of yuppies. At least 20 married couples met in bars I worked over a 17 year period. It was such that when I walked or rode my bike along the strand on the way to work at 6 in the evening, passing those now extinct cottages and low level apartment houses, where wet suits and towels hung from windows and surf boards leaned against sidings and the Beach Boys blasted out tunes, young men and women in their prime years yelled at me, flashed the peace sign, informed me they'd be down later for a “brew and a sandwich.”
The bars boomed with locals. Parties were everywhere. The women walked around in bikinis and the men wore T shirts or Hawaiians, OP shorts and flip-flops. We were shaggy and often bearded and owned next to nothing, wanted for nothing, thrived in the social milieu, sharing booze and drugs, while money and status was of no account, the beach a little haven utterly separated from the dog-eat-dog world a few miles away.
It didn't last long. Maybe ten years. By 1980 the old cottages and wooden Victorians and stucco apartment buildings were being razed and replaced by three story antiseptic manses cropping up like toadstools. Gradually, the shaggy local characters were driven out by high rents. My $120 deal expired when the entire building was razed. I moved into the second oldest house in Manhattan Beach (circa 1898), 4 blocks from the bar I worked, with my first room-mate to save money. Two years later this historic home was razed, replaced by another triple decker.
By the time I moved north, and ended up in Cayucos, in 1989, the beach as I had known it was unrecognizable, and most of the people I'd shared a life with were gone, unable to afford the high-jacked rents. The beach had become a playground for the rich and the super rich—Beverly Hills on the shore. Trendy over-priced restaurants. Tanning parlors. Gym and spa fashions. Folks who walked down the street in designer togs, eyes hidden behind $200 shades, walking pedigree dogs, refusing to look at you. They had a lot to show off and a lot to lose, so they were as protective of their images and status as they were their possessions.
It was probably at this point when the police began checking the papers of anybody coming into town who was black, a Latino who wasn't a nanny or gardener, or a white man, like me, who dressed like what was perceived as a homeless person. It was all over for me. I was still just a lowly bartender and now took two weeks to cover my rent, and I wasn't having as much fun. All the characters, my friends, were gone, so I moved.
Cayucos in 1989 and throughout the 1990s and early 2000s was a throwback to what I witnessed and experienced in Hermosa and Manhattan beaches as a teenager and a young party animal. I had rediscovered funky glory days. Rents were low. The pace was slow. People were mellow. Everybody had cats and dogs, and they roamed free on the beaches and even on the streets. The little necklace of a burg of around 2000 people was comprised mostly of working class framers, electricians, plumbers, landscapers, house painters, a few college professors from Cal Poly and Cuesta colleges, a dozen or so employees at Hearst Castle, a whole bunch of cowboys (inland was stocked with ranches and dairy and avocado farms) who parked trucks with ranch dogs in the beds, and not a few retirees.
After driving a cab to make ends meet (it was easy) I worked a fisherman's bar (it no longer exists) in nearby Morro Bay, which boomed. My rent of a one bedroom cottage for 5 years was $500 a month. I moved to a one bedroom cottage on what is considered our Cayucos Riviera, across from the beach, for $600, and lived there for five years until it was sold and razed and replaced by a double-decker faux Cape Cod mini manse.
By this time I had established myself in the surfing/boozing/fishing snail-pace burg and knew everybody, even as the old places started going down and the new mini manses cropped up, like toadstools, and, after 2000, all my working class friends were flushed inland like vermin to vapid mall-ridden, franchise booming, madhouse ex truck stops like Paso Robles and Atascadero—like those down south who can no longer afford beach towns headed to the deserts, or Oregon, where California transplants are scorned and hated.
In 2003 I returned to Manhattan Beach to see some friends and saw that a tiny studio apartment a block from the beach rented out for $2300 a month! So I guess things weren't so bad in Cayucos, seeing that I have paid around a grand or a little more for one bedroom apartments for almost twenty years...but I live in fear...
... because everybody I know claims I have been lucky to rent from landlords who know me, trust me, treat me like family...until they sell, and then it's all over. My current place, where I've dwelt for almost ten years, is old and creaky and nondescript and will surely be sold and razed and replaced by another mini manse, and another rental will dry up, and leave Cayucos and nearby Morro Bay with scarce rentals, with one bedrooms driven up to nearly $2,000, the going rate, and claustrophobic studios going for as much as $1500.
Why? Because nearby San Luis Obispo, that former small-town-America-college-cowboy-haven, is becoming a new techie mecca, is rapidly turning into a Santa Barbara, or a Montecito, as high end as it gets, with rents sky-rocketing to astronomical heights as the wealthy and new rich techies buy and flip homes and apartment buildings. It has branched out to Cayucos, the poisonous tentacles of the one percent invading our little beach burg like an economical pestilence. And, at 74, it is too late for me to move while subsisting on a meager combination of social security and an investment and a dwindling bank account, while, like others, I wait for the ax to fall.
The other day I was ordered to “put your dog on a leash.” I ignored them. Another guy chastised me for allowing my dog to pee on a little riding unit for kiddies on the beach, a unit that has possibly been peed on a thousand times. I threatened him and he fled. BMW's and Lexus's and Mercedes have replaced surf vans and ragged hauling pickups. People walk the beach clutching cell phones to ears, expressions of consternation on their faces as they pass, sightless, all business, stressed. In the bars, drinkers check and recheck and study their gimmicky cell phones and renounce the art of conversation and observance. Everybody seems so busy, so overcome with ferocious priorities and burdens.
Still, the beach is the beach, Cayucos is Cayucos, and a few of us manage to hang on. A bushy-bearded local of 50 years known as the Pirate comes by almost every afternoon after work as a plasterer and hurls two biscuits up on my deck for my dog, Wilbur. I always buy him a beer at the bar. A handy-man friend fixes things for me for nothing because I allow him to pack a few things in my garage. The two times I needed the EMTs to come to my place, at least six of my neighbors were at my door, relieved I needed no ambulance, just a scare. They brought me soup when I was immobilized from surgeries. We have conversations with each others' dogs. Often, on a street, we slow to a stop in our cars instead of passing and catch up, and people pass us slowly, nodding.
It will stay this way for a while, a small beach town still slow and stunningly quiet, bathed in a golden quality of light come afternoons, without franchises or 5 star plush hotels, with a restaurant called the Sea Shanty, a bar called the Tavern, a corrugated watering hole/restaurant named Schooner's Wharf, a pier and one of the last hole-in-the-wall Smokehouses (ahhh! The albacore), and a couple surf shops and gift shops on the main drag to go along with the burgeoning real estate offices and antique emporiums.
Early mornings a gaggle of hoodie-cloaked townies meet at the beach wall with their cigarettes and coffee from the local coffee house. A couple carpenters sit in their trucks in the parking lot and drink their coffee and watch the ocean before going to work. Dogs chase sticks and balls into the ocean, or chase birds. It doesn't seem like such a blissful place is disappearing, but it is. Like neighboring Morro Bay, once a rough and tumble fishing village full of bigger than life characters (but now a relentless tourist trap), the characters here in Cayucos are being replaced by a moneyed class with no clue as to the charm of small town beach life, only the glory and greed of ownership (half the new manses are empty second homes or vacation destinations), landlordship, status, and a purchasing obsession with the most precious trappings of what riches bring in America—loss of a beach town's soul.
At 74 I'm thankful I've had the beach this long, and, with friends, will find a way to stay on, and on...