I am in Santa Monica. It is a sunny April day. The temperature is 80 degrees. Perfect beach culture weather. Near the Pier and down Ocean Avenue, the beautiful Pacific view is overrun by the homeless. Mostly men, dressed in t-shirts, jeans, and slipshod sneakers. They hold half-crushed coffee cups in their hands, walk up and down the avenue. They pass the time until sunset, collecting their belongings in small suitcases, rugged backpacks, and tattered shopping bags.
Further south, the homeless disappear, and beautiful beach homes with lavish succulent gardens crowd the street and across is the beach path where people rush by on bikes, rollerblades, and on foot — opposing worlds co-existing; the world of the homeless men on Ocean, the wealthy with homes surrounded by lush gardens, the active and introspective people on the path. All are living in disharmonious worlds.
I aim my camera and capture images of tourists enjoying the sun setting over Highway 1. A young man walks a three-foot-high tightrope. Couples let go of hands and walk single file to let the skateboarders and cyclists race by them. The camera gives me distance from the material world. I ignore the sun burning the back of my neck, the pull from the rubber tie that holds my furiously curly hair up in a high ponytail, and the fear of making direct contact with other people. No one sees me. I feel free, almost blissful in this solitude.
That night, in my beachfront hotel room, l crash on the plush king-size bed. It’s not like I can afford such splendor, but I do have the credit and a day job to return to, and so I push back the nagging guilt and sleep. On family vacations, we always stayed in motels and motor lodges. We always shared one room. When I think about those long drives from New York to Florida, experiencing the rain and severe thunderstorms, the broken-down cars, the strange rest areas with parking lots full of Greyhound buses, and other working-class families making the same exact trip. When I think of my parents squabbling or me getting food poisoning from the fried chicken at Roy Rogers, when I think about all this, the credit card debt is a welcomed relief. I’d gladly spend the next six months paying off this trip.
On the road the next morning, an angry boy on a skateboard at a crosswalk on Wilshire Boulevard stares me down. I assume that what set him off is my white sedan edging too close to the crosswalk. He flashes his proud middle finger in the air as he rolls away.
Brave, stupid boy – I’m the one behind an American-made monster. I can crush his body with my fully insured rented Buick. He can be rich or poor, but it didn’t matter. He’s good-looking, tall, young, and pissed off. His actions remind me of this insidious form of privilege where you can express anger without fear of repercussions, and it’s hard to drive away without jumping out of the car and shaking this kid because so many young men are dying because of the color of their skin. But this kid will keep flipping the bird, maybe even spit on cars as they whiz by him.
The car behind me beeps. I’m the establishment now. Old enough to be this boy’s mother, and yet I still stick my middle finger up so that the car behind me gets a clear view as I zoom away.
I take Route 101 towards Oxnard. La Colonia, a working-class neighborhood in Oxnard, was the inspiration for Jaime Hernandez’s “Hoppers,” the fictional city where my favorite comic book characters lived. I had grown up reading Hernandez’s “Locas” stories in Love and Rockets. I was sixteen when I first read about Maggie, the Mechanic, and her best friend, Hopey. Like them, I snuck into dive bars to listen to punk bands. But unlike my heroines, I didn’t live on my own, and I could never get my curls to straighten out, and I had to cut out of shows early so that I could catch the last bus out of New York City to Jersey.
I met plenty of teenagers on my trips into Manhattan from the suburban town my folks had moved us to during my high school years. We moved out of Manhattan when my father was offered a job as a building porter in a garden apartment complex, and the job came with free rent. I never told anyone I met on those roaming nights my real name or where I was from, and most kids were okay with this. Some assumed I was a Puerto Rican kid from the Lower East Side, and that soothed me because I wished my background was that definitive.
The long explanation of being born in New York but having a Dominican father and an Ecuadorian mother, and that I was light-skinned because of my dad, but my mom was dark-skinned and possibly indigenous. All she knew was that her father’s family had moved from Colombia to Peru to Guayaquil and that her mother was from the highlands. Her mother’s grandfather may have been Polynesian or Chinese, but no one kept track. My father’s family was more settled and insisted my great-grandfather came from Spain and married my great-grandmother. She was a mixed-race Dominicana; that may have explained why my father was lighter than his brothers with light brown hair and hazel eyes to boot. Still, as I said, my heritage is complicated.
I spot a Chick-fil-a at a strip mall, and I hate their politics, but those folks really know how to make fried chicken sandwiches. I pick one up at the drive-thru and eat it in the car, which I park in front of the Walmart. The chicken prompts a quick trip to the Walmart bathroom. As I walk back to the car, I think about the boy who gave me the finger. What if he’s an omen of what’s to come? A young woman stops me before I reach my car.
“Sorry, I don’t mean to scare you. Can you spare a dollar?” she says in perfect English, like any other child raised in the States.
When I say, “no, sorry,” she walks away. Her gaze moves over the vast parking lot, looking for another shopper. She looks like she is in her twenties, and I wonder what her story is. I wonder as I exit the parking lot, I wonder, but don’t actually ask her this question.
It’s much easier to get inside the Buick. I don’t want to think of the economic disparity that might be at the root of this woman’s life choices. I don’t want to know of the uneven playing field or the opportunities that only a few of us are presented. She looks a bit like me. Dark hair, tanned skin, full-figured. I guessed Latina but her exact heritage, hazy. And she scared me. Although when she approached me, I wasn’t scared or suspicious, but watching her easily walk away scares me. I don’t want to acknowledge how hard it is to be different. How it can fuck with your head and your self-esteem. The emotional barriers that make you feel like you are worthless. It’s tough to pull yourself up when nothing in your environment encourages you to love who you are. Maggie and Hopey would have at least offered the young woman a cigarette or a cup of coffee. I drive away.
I drive west towards State Route 1. I fumble with the radio dial, but the music is a droning wall of treble.
I’m in “The Funk Zone” near Stearns Wharf in Santa Barbara. Why? Because someone told me not to come here. “It’s not what you’re thinking,” they said. “It’s hella white.” I’m not sure why this person thought this would make a difference to me. It’s not like I need to feel like I belong. As a Latina of mixed race, I rarely meet people who share my heritage. And it’s true that if I wander around a Latino neighborhood, there’s a sense of familiarity because of the shared language. Though each Latin American culture is diverse, the Hispanic media is a unifying force. As a child, I learn to read Spanish with the help of my grandmother’s collection of tabloid magazines from different Latin American countries. When she briefly lived with us, she would let me stay up late to watch movies on TV from the Mexican Golden Era. And every Sunday, we watched Siempre en Domingo, a four-hour variety show that featured acts from Latin America, Spain, and ABBA. But even with all this, I never feel like I belong anywhere. But I supposed the deeper question is, Do I want to belong at all?
In Manhattan, I can pass for Dominican, but not Ecuadorian. In my art history class, I can pass for Brazilian, but not Argentinian. At parties, I’m Puerto Rican. In Los Angeles, I think I can pass for Mexican, though that assumption has only been made by folks who aren’t Mexican. It’s probably easier to figure out what I’m not than what I am. It’s those questions that make walking in a Latino neighborhood on the West Coast a different experience than walking in a Latino neighborhood on the East Coast. I don’t know what the expectations are, so rather than try to conform and fit in, I keep quiet and live to please myself.
In the Funk Zone, I’m a disdainful tourist. The small district is lined with wine bars, graffiti murals, trendy hotels, and cutesy storefronts. Graffitied walls are covered with generic cartoons — expressions based on mimicry. There is no connection to the violent and illicit fuel of street graffiti in larger metropolises. Instead, its transitory flourishes are the product of good weed and wine. Because this is Ronald Reagan country and the kids here are clean, educated, and eat tacos with two hands.
The order here attempts to unite through simplification, but the homogenization fails to hide the facade of the place. It’s a far cry from old-school Bushwick, but even Brooklyn can’t escape the trappings of gentrification. Still, even though the neighborhoods are changing in New York, there’s still a historical flavor that can’t be sweetened. That tension between the old and the new persists, whereas here, I’m guessing, history is more controlled. This strikes me as the type of town where a few families ruled for a long period of time, and the influence is still there, the secrets still upheld.
Here there’s relaxation without any care for those who worked hard to create this ease and leisure. And it irks me. On the streets, most people look “white,” but we all come from some place, we all have history, family, voyages taken from faraway places, we all have a mixture of blood, genes, personalities, and traumas.
As I walk around, I see young, dark-haired women and men bussing tables, taking out the trash, cleaning windows. I smile and say hello. In return, I get a nod. Sometimes there’s recognition, but rarely a direct hello back.
The curves of the Pacific Coast Highway are seductive. Its changing vistas of towns, campgrounds, hills, mountains, cliffs, and bluffs are overwhelming. I can see the ocean view between walls of green pine and succulents, and as the road descends, the waterfront city of Morro Bay opens up with its astonishing volcanic plug named Morro Rock standing at the entrance of its harbor.
Cars pass me as I slow down to stare and admire the scenery and the civilization surrounding it. I park on the side of the road so I can take pictures. Photography is a crutch for me. Looking through a viewfinder makes the world easier to observe. It’s life captured in a snapshot that gives me satisfaction, and later when I settle in for the night, I’ll stare at the images and see the beauty in all things frozen in time and space. I’ll see the illusion of hope trapped in the frame.
As I point the camera, I can’t help but think of all the lives and all the stories confined to this amazing place and that huge rock. But rather than engage directly, I keep my distance. Imagining these people are exiles, picking this spot to spend the last of their family’s fortunes while feeding themselves with fresh fish caught at dawn. This is how fiction fills the void and sustains my necessary distance.
Below the Hearst Castle, I spot a sign for the elephant seals vista point. It’s three or four in the afternoon. I’m still two hours away from my hotel in Monterey, but I can’t resist the siren song of over one hundred female seals grotesquely snorting and grunting on the sand, letting the sun warm their scaly skins. There are only a handful of male seals among the multitude of females and cubs. I shoot photos of the seals, and then I shift my lens to the groups of people admiring the seals. I watch the young and old become enthralled by a bunch of howling and sleepy, blubbery bodies.
Reality digs at me, yet the realness of the elephant seals calms me. I’m envious of these animals enjoying their respite. Rather than retreat, they disregard their audience. Doing whatever they wish before heading out to sea.
Route 1 hugs the coast as I drive up to the cliffs and away from the Ocean. The speed limit drops, and it’s impossible to see the cars ahead of me because of the tight wind around rock and pine trees.
Entering Big Sur, the air smells cleaner, and there’s electricity in the towering pines that populate the road. A primordial and wonderful sense of peace like I’ve never experienced before surrounds me. Any extended period of time I’ve spent alone, I’ve experienced a high and a low. One minute I’m dancing around in my hotel room, the next I’m staring at my reflection in the bathroom mirror noticing all the new lines around my eyes and bracketing my lips, I see the paunch that keeps growing. I feel time disappearing, and me trying to catch up and hold on. Not too long ago, I peeled an orange for an elderly friend, and I was shocked by her ecstatic reaction as she savored the sharp smell of citrus. A few weeks later, she was gone. She left me that gift, though — the beauty of the living moment.
At this point, I’m tempted to lie and say, I stopped by a trail and followed it down to enjoy the beauty below because the truth is so uninspired. I never think of myself as acrophobic, because it’s not fear of heights that traps me inside the car. It’s fear that if I fall, no one will save me. I do stop at one designated vista point and take pictures of the scenery, the bridge, the road I still need to drive, but I never head down a hiking trail on my own. I avoid getting too close to any other tourist and stay close to the Buick. When I spot two young men taking pictures near the car, my heart pounds.
And part of this fear I can trace to my childhood in New York City, and the various warnings heeded to never talk to strangers, never follow someone down the street, never pull out my wallet or stop to help someone who’s asking for directions. These worries belong to any inner-city dweller, but most especially to immigrants because for my family, fear of persecution was always there. Innocence has little weight when you speak with a thick accent, and your clothes are bought at a discount store. Your station in life, even when not evident to others, because you can always buy better clothes and take better care of how you speak, is still always evident to you.
As the sun sets, I end a long day of driving in Monterey Bay. My hotel for the night sits in the middle of Cannery Row. Besides the spectacular view of the bay and a delicious seafood dinner at a bayside restaurant, Cannery Row offers little for my weary imagination, so I settle in for the night. The next morning, I’m back on Route 1, driving towards the Golden Gate Bridge and beyond to Petaluma.
Although I’d been to San Francisco a few times, I’ve never driven across the Golden Gate Bridge. Maybe the drive up the coast and the lack of human companionship has me in a dreamy state. But as I drive across to the other side, and the towns become vineyards, I feel dizzy. I haven’t eaten since dinner the night before, and so I stop by a Whole Foods and nosh on deviled eggs and tomato soup. I buy a couple of bottles of wine and some Melatonin because it’s the only thing that will put me to sleep after a long writing session. I’m no Hunter S. Thompson. I never was attracted to losing my mind because my mind has never felt like my own. My form of masochism is monastic and not hedonistic.
My home base in Petaluma is a modest but eclectic inn. A restored 1870s building with a colorful interior influenced by vintage French ad posters with the predominant colors of orange and royal blue on the walls. After checking in, I’m led to my domicile for the next couple of days, a fully equipped Bambi Airstream parked in the backyard of the inn.
This trip is not only an excursion. It’s a relapse. Those who always belonged to some group or place may never crave solitude because they never found themselves alone. But to those of us who never fit in, anywhere, or who chose not to fit in, but to fight the need to conform to some prescribed way of being, solitude is a drug.
Self-exile is much easier to maneuver than a bout of social anxiety. It’s much easier to observe than to admit that yes, I too exist, my words and voice are of value. There’s something basic, almost carnal about this desire to matter. Something that causes me great embarrassment and perhaps even some inexplicable shame.
As a Latinx writer, everything I write is political and complicated. And it does meet with resistance in the name of order and categorization. But what frustrates me more is my own complicity in allowing this to affect my self-worth. After any gathering where I see very few people that look like me, that grew up under the same social and economic conditions as I did, I retreat.
I stay in the Airstream for three rainy nights. From the bed, I can extend an arm and reach the kitchen sink. I write a few pages the first night and a few more in the morning at the local hipster cafe. Not really knowing if any of these pages will amount to much.
I drive over the Golden Gate one more time and head to the Lower Haight. This is my last stop before catching a flight back home. I visit a friend, a busy academic who greets me at the door, hands me an extra set of keys, and tells me to go out for a few hours so that he can finish up some work. I think he’s happy to see me, but we have an easy-going friendship. It’s the only kind of friendship I can handle. I’m not one to call and wish a friend a happy birthday. I’m not one to just show up at a friend’s house and assume I can ask for help with a difficult situation. I don’t ask anyone for help. It’s not a good trait; I know this.
As I drive around San Francisco, I’m struck by the lack of traffic signals. It seems like most intersections are four-way stops, which requires some faith that at least two of the other vehicles would respect your right of way. It’s a faith I don’t particularly have, but I have to muster quickly to get around the city. My panic transforms into a thrill. After a few friendly encounters with fellow motorists, I let go of the fear and drive with blind faith leading me.
By the time I return to the Lower Haight, my friend is in a more relaxed mood. He asks me about the drive up the coast.
“It was good,” I say. “I like traveling alone. I even wrote some of the time. But the solitude did start to get to me after a couple of days.”
And when I finish saying this, my friend looks at me and responds in a deadpan way, “I’m always here alone.”
His words give me pause. How do I react without sounding like a self-centered jerk? I’d spent a week alone by choice. I have a husband waiting for me back home, and I have friends and a cat, and I make more friends every day because I write and edit. And though I still have a habit of retreating into my head when I’m surrounded by people who care about me, I’m rarely alone.
My friend ignores the awkward silence. It’s what I like most about him, his patience, and his ability to banter with me despite my unwillingness to open up. As I unpack some things for the night, he goes back to his computer to read some emails.
“I can only travel alone because of my conformity,” I say out loud, but my friend isn’t interested in my attempts to justify my need to disconnect. “The nine-to-five office job, the husband, the money in the bank, credit cards,” I say.
He glances at his phone and swipes left. “Hush up,” he says.
We share a few quips about Grindr and large openings, meaning his bay windows, of course. I present him with a bottle of organic wine from the Santa Ynez Valley. We sit on the couch, relax. As I admire his view of Twin Peaks, he begins to question me. And I answer each question with a detail from my trip and the tangential thoughts that are always present with every experience I have.
That evening and the next we imbibe in gay bars. I dance with strangers. A young man twerks for me. Another handsome blond invites us to his home for a party, but we decline. We smile at a bouncer who lets us through one establishment without charging us the cover price. We engage in some more shenanigans in the Castro the next night, and I can barely get out of the sofa Monday morning to catch my flight home.
At 8 in the morning, we say our goodbyes and my friend bikes away to catch his train to work. I still have two hours to kill before heading to the airport. I find a greasy spoon diner near Page and wait at a table for the kitchen to open at 8:30. The waitress heads out for a cigarette. When she comes back five minutes later, she has her pad out and is ready to accept breakfast orders.
So here I wait for two scrambled eggs, bacon, and hash browns and outside the trucks are pulling up to drop off deliveries at each bar, convenience store, and cafe along the Haight, and I can be sitting in any of the worlds I encountered. No matter all the miles I’ve driven and all the roads I will ride later on, and all the people that I’ll never know but only encounter like those seals sunning themselves on the shore, I’ll always need the bliss of solitude. And don’t we all feel guilty for not connecting, the disappointment of not belonging, the dread of not deserving? Don’t we all seek a break so we could do this dance between what’s real and what’s imaginary?
I think of home, work, and the solitude I crave. And I think of the faith I muster every day to keep going, not knowing what new experience will reward or plague me.