DOWN THE COAST By Peter Nolan Smith

Skyline Drive crested the steep bluffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean and the bright California sun crowned the hills with a golden nimbus. Hundreds of identical houses snaked up the streets of Daly City and trails of smoke floated from countless backyards, as suburban families celebrated Memorial Day with barbecues. A seared hamburger would have tasted good, but I hiked south on the dusty breakdown lane with my thumb out to traffic. No one in those houses knew my name.

To the high school teenagers in the passing cars I was another long-haired hippie leaving San Francisco. The Summer of Love had ended seven years ago and the children of the Silent Majority shouted out, “Get a hair cut.”

I held up the peace sign.

They flipped me the bird.

Walking was getting me nowhere and I put down my canvas bag at junction of Route 35 and the PCH. It seemed a good place to hitchhike.

The curved onramp required vehicles to slow down to 20 mph and the wide merging lane offered motorists a safe place to stop, however over two hundred cars passed me in thirty minutes and other than the raucous teenagers not a single driver looked in my direction. I was stranded on the PCH.

Solo female drivers convicted me of rape and many of the male motorists glared, as if I had betrayed my country. At least no one was throwing beer bottles at me.

The next exit lay a mile ahead.

Walking on the highway was forbidden by state law and I took off my leather jacket. The sun was hot and my canteen was empty. Cars passed me and a few drivers pointed to indicate that they were turning off the road in a short distance. It felt funny to be at the mercy of strangers.

Yesterday my two friends and I had crossed Nevada in a drive-away car. I had racked up over $300 at a rustic casino in Elko. My winning streak at blackjack had run hot all the way to Reno. It had been my 22nd birthday.

Another fifty cars got on the PCH before a late-model Volvo sedan stopped on the shoulder. The young driver pushed open the door.

“Excuse the mess.” Thousands of pamphlets were stacked on the rear seat. The overflow spilled onto the front seat and floor.

“No worries.” I sat with my canvas bag on my lap and my sleeping bag crammed between my legs.

“I’m only going to Half Moon Bay.” He fought to find first gear and his feet flopped up and down on the gas and clutch.

“That’s fine.” The beach town was a short ride down the coast and I joked, “I was starting to think that I was a permanent fixture back there.”

“Glad to be of help.” The driver didn’t laugh, as the Volvo lurched down the PCH. He wasn’t used to driving a stick. “Where you headed, friend?”

“South.” My final destination was Encinitas, a beach town north of San Diego.

“My name’s Evan.” His austere black suit with the pressed white shirt and black tie was out of place in California as was his papery skin toasted by the sun to a blistered pink and he paused a second before asking, “Are you a believer?”

“In what?” My lack of belief was a private affair.

“The truth. I’m on a mission to bring the word to California” The brochures on the dashboard were blazoned with LDS.

“You’re a Mormon?” It was a good guess.

Young Mormon missionaries in similar suits rode bicycles or the trolleys around Boston promoting their Church. I had never seen one in a car.

“Yes, I am.” The driver admitted with pride, as he narrowly missed the curb.

“How long you been driving?” I buckled my seatbelt.

“About two weeks. Sorry, if I’m scaring you.” His cheeks reddened with embarrassment.

“Drive slow and you’ll be fine.” 30 mph was too fast for him.

“Yes, sir.” He downshifted into 3rd and whistled in appreciation of his accomplishment. The Volvo didn’t have a radio. The LDS regarded love songs as a threat to morality.

“Saving souls in San Francisco must be a challenge.” Drugs were ravaging the Haight-Ashbury, North Beach’s strip clubs and massage parlors offered satisfaction on every levels, and hordes of young homosexuals were transforming distressed neighborhoods in their vision of Sodom.

“There are no souls to save in heaven, plus I’ve been preparing for this mission since I was a boy, so my resolve is steel and my mission is clear.” Evans’s eyes shone with an unprotected innocence. Mormon boys were reared without television, radio, or movies and their elders forbad contact of any kind with young girls. Evan even smelled like a virgin. He tapped the pamphlet in my hand and recounted Joseph Smith’s meeting his angel in 1823, as if he had been standing next to his prophet. “Morani gave him gold plates inscribed with the true history of the world.”

“I know the story.” Having resisted the indoctrination of priests and nuns, I wasn’t in the mood to hear the young man’s preaching on chastity and cut short his spiel by saying, “My great-great-great grand uncle was Joseph Smith.”

“You’re joking?” The driver studied my face to compare my features with his memory of the Founder’s portrait.

“I admit that there’s not much of a resemblance.” Joseph Smith had a long nose, but my ancestor also wore his brown hair over the collar. “His family hailed from Vermont and ours was from Maine. Winters in both state are long.”

“What does winter have to do with Joseph Smith?”

“Long winters give a man time to think.” In Joseph Smith’s case too much time, but neither my aunt nor father had bothered to expand on our connection to the distant relative and I detoured off the subject into my family history in Maine, interrupting the tale with frequent warnings about parked cars and oncoming traffic. Evan was a terrible driver.

“My great-grandfather disappeared from Georgia.” My aunt had a single photo of her grandfather. He looked more like Joseph Smith than me. “He might have had gambling debts.”

“Gambling is a sin.” He stamped on the brake with two feet, as we entered Half Moon Bay.

“I know that all too well.” Yesterday I had learned the dangers of gambling the hard way.

“Drinking and fornication are vices of the Devil too.” He flicked on the left turn signal and pulled off the PCH at Route 92. “Tis is as far as I go.”

“Thanks for the ride.” I got out of the Volvo and tossed the pamphlet on the seat. It hadn’t been written for me.

“You really relate to Joseph Smith?” Evan might have been young, but his eyes peered into mine to divine the truth.

“People on the road will tell you anything you want to hear in order to get from point A to point B.” I answered his question with honesty. “As for me being related to Joseph Smith. It’s the truth as far as I know it.”

“You don’t look a thing like him at all.” Evan frowned with distrust and drove off with gears grinding. He had been a good listener and a horrible driver.

I filled up my canteen at a gas station and stood on the side of the road. The hills bordering the sea were covered by sun-blasted scrub brush. They would have been mountains back East. Huge swells spread into the crescent bay and surfers in black wetsuits skated the face of monstrous waves. I could have watched them for hours, but a 1973 Impala sedan stopped within three minutes. The Zenith TV salesman brought me as far as San Gregorio Beach. He asked if I wanted to join him drink at his motel room.

“There are some fun girls there, if you know what I mean.” The chubby thirty year-old slicked back his hair with Vaseline.

“I can guess, but I’ll keep heading south.” My funds had suffered a loss in Reno, but prostitutes were never in my budget.

“Suit yourself.” He pulled over to the curb and revved the engine with impatience, as I got out of the car. No one liked being alone on a holiday.

The Impala crossed the highway and the driver waved good-bye, as he walked into the lounge attached to the hotel.

I walked to a better spot for hitchhiking.

The high bluff offered a unbroken vista of the tumultuous expanse of water. After crossing the Isthmus of Panama the Spanish explorer Balboa had sarcastically called this body of water ‘La Pacifica’. Vengeful waves crashed on the beach without cessation. This was not a kind sea.

I stuck out my thumbs. Traffic on the PCH was less than up north. I was well out of the suburbs

Twenty minutes later a silver Porsche 911 swept onto the shoulder. I jumped out of the way, as the tires sprayed pebbles over my boots. A dust cloud swarmed over the sports coupe and I leaned over to the open window. A jazz song was playing on the stereo.

“Don’t worry, I’m not drunk.” The long-haired blonde driver flicked up the lock and sighed with mocked exasperation, “I just like to drive fast. You have a problem with speed?”

“Not as long as we stay on the road.” James Dean had been killed in a Porsche Spyder the same color. I dropped my bags in the narrow back seat and the driver stepped on the gas. He expertly shifted through the gears, as we sped past a Pomponio State Beach packed with beach-goers. California’s beach culture was impervious to the recession.

“Where you going?” The air smelled of ocean.

“I’m headed to Santa Cruz,” A paisley silk scarf was wrapped around his head and blonde strands streamed over his shoulders. The driver glanced over at me, as if she was studying my face. “What about you?”

“South to Encinitas.” A sidelong glance confirmed that he was wearing a silky mini-skirt with knee-high boots. For a few seconds I thought that he was someone famous, but there was no way that Peggy Lipton of THE MOD SQUAD was a man. “It’s south of LA.”

“Anything below of Santa Barbara is too square for me.” The driver passed me a burning joint. His fingernails were buffed to a sheen. “Too much oil, cars, and military.”

“I have a friend waiting for me there.” The weed tasted of Oaxaca and candy-flavored lipstick. The tip of the joint was tinted pink. California attracted all kinds.

“A friend sounds so mysterious.” The driver sighed with the grace of Tallulah Bankhead. The speedometer was wavering at 75 and he shut off the radio.. “Do tell, my name’s Maya.”

“Yesterday was my birthday.” Jack Kerouac in ON THE ROAD wrote that one of the toughest things about hitchhiking was proving to the driver that they hadn’t made a mistake picking you up and I decided to entertain Maya with my sad tale. “My friends and I were driving across Nevada. I gambled at every town and was up $1000 in Reno. A beautiful waitress in a miniskirt served me a drink. It was the first of many. I remember begging my friend for money, then the next morning I woke next to the Truckee River. My pockets were empty. I thought that Reno had stolen my birthday.”

“Casinos are good at getting your very last dollars.”

“Thankfully my friend had been lying. When we dropped off the drive-away car in Lodi, my friend returned my money.”

“So you weren’t broke?” Maya laughed at my reversal of fortune.

“ Yes.” I hadn’t thought the story was that funny this morning.

“You poor baby.” Maya brushed a strand of hair from his face. “But you were right. Your friend is really a friend. He could have told you that he had given you the money and kept it for himself?”

“AK isn’t like that.” I had been friends with the New Yorker for the past two years. Our only fight was about the Beatles. I hated HEY JUDE.

“It’s good having good friends.” Maya’s speaking like a woman wasn’t an act. Her voice quirked to a contralto, as he asked, “How long were you in San Francisco?”

“Less than an hour.” The Haight had been rough on my first two visits, but this time a gang of muggers had attacked me in Golden Gate Park. They wanted my money as much as the casino in Reno. “It’s changed a lot.”

“More than you can imagine. The city was so hip before the Summer of Love. The hippies, diggers, freaks, and blacks were one big happy family free to do anything we wanted, but the family grew too big in 1967. I was beaten up twice for being who I am. Anyone who could fled the city for the country. I made it as far as Santa Cruz.” Maya shifted into top gear on a straightaway south of Pescadero. The Porsche topped a 100, then decelerated to the speed limit coming over a hill. A CHiP’s cruiser was parked behind a tree on the other side.

“That officer is looking to ruin some family’s holiday for driving 60.” Maya beeped his horn and on the downward slope flicked his headlights at cars to warn of the speed trap. “Where you crashing tonight?”

“I was going to sleep in the redwoods.” The sun was an hour from setting in the ocean. Santa Cruz was not far away at this speed, but Big Sur was beyond my reach for today.

“You can stay with me. I have a spare room couch, steak in the fridge and wine too.” Maya was slightly older than me and her eyes looked like they had seen too much. “You’re not afraid, are you?”

My nights dancing at the 1270 Club in Boston had cured my fear of queers. The boys at that bar liked straight men. Maya was the same.

“Not at all.” Maya wasn’t an ax murderer, but my mother would pray for my salvation, if I accepted the generosity of a crossdresser. “More curious.”

“Like I AM CURIOUS YELLOW.” Maya carved a strand of hair from his face with a long fingernail. “Some people say I look like the actress.”

“They must be blind. You’re much prettier.” The Swedish film had been banned in Boston for scenes of fake intercourse. It was too slow for my tastes. “And I prefer hard-core films.”

“You’re getting better and better.”

We discussed about porno films of the early 70s for the rest of the drive to Santa Cruz. Maya was a fan of MISTY BEETHOVEN, while I preferred BEHIND THE GREEN DOOR. Both of us were critical of the smash hit DEEP THROAT.

“The actors were so hairy.” Maya shivered in his bucket seat. “You’re not hairy, are you?”

“Only my legs and ass.” I wouldn’t have had this conversation with any of my friends, but on the road I was a stranger passing through town like an extra in a porno movie.

“Like a satyr.” Maya smiled with pleasure. Our barriers were broken by each other’s anonymity. We could be anyone to each other, because tomorrow we would be someone else.

Maya’s house was located on a forested river outside of Santa Cruz. A grove of redwoods lay at the end of a small lawn. A light breeze tickled the wind chimes on the porch. Maya opened the front door and flicked on the lights. The living room’s decor crossbred the West Coast with Asia. Some of the oriental furniture dated back to the last century. Somehow Maya had money. I was polite enough to not ask the source.

“The guest room is in the back.” Maya lit candles scented with cinnamon. “Sorry, I have no TV, but I left it behind in San Francisco. Here watch the sky and the wind”

“I’m good with no TV. Mind if I pick out a record?” I put down my bag and eyed her collection of jazz, soul, classical, and rock stacked next to an expensive stereo system.

“As long as it’s not WALK ON THE WILD SIDE.” Maya’s sigh betrayed having heard Lou Reed’s tribute to hustlers and queens too many times in too many places. “Or even worse LOLA.”

“How about Marvin Gaye?” I picked out WHAT’S GOING ON. It had been huge in 1971.

“I saw him in Oakland this year. My ears rang for a week from the shrieks of his fans.” Maya lay on the Chinese couch like an opium smoker awaiting their pipe. The concert was recorded for a live album. His pose was stolen from a Renaissance painting that I recognized from my Art History 101 class. I think it was a Klimt. “Are you planning to leave soon?”

“No.” I cued up the title track and sat by her feet. The polish on his toenails matched his fingernails.

“Then take off your jacket and make yourself comfortable.” Maya opened a jar and handed me a pill. It was a Quaalude. He pointed to a hallway. “You can even have a shower. I promise I won’t watch.”

“Thanks.” I washed down the muscle relaxant with wine.

“You’ve done these before?” Maya screwed back on the lid.

“My high school friend worked at a drug store.” Donnie stole pills for our parties. Few of us smoked pot. Weed couldn’t compare with downers and uppers.

“High school boys and Quaaludes?”

“All Catholic boys in uniforms.” It had been an all-boys school.

“Stop. Go. You’re driving me crazy.”

I put my bag in the small guest room. A clean white towel lay on the single bed, as if Maya had been expecting company. I stripped off my jeans and tee-shirt and went across the narrow corridor to a bathroom with a shower. Maya had changed the record to SOMETHING ELSE by Mlles Davis.

I took my time wading America from my skin and toweled myself dry before returning to the guest room. My clothes were folded on a chair and a black silk robe hung over the chair. Maya was offering a choice and I entered the living room in the robe. Logs were burning in the fireplace.

“I knew it was your size.” Maya stood by the stereo. His high heels lay on the floor. Without them her green eyes met mine. Maya touched my back. It had been months.

“You like some cocaine?” Four white lines were spread on a mirror.

“Why stop now?” I huffed two lines and I sat back on the sofa, expecting Maya to make a move, instead the blonde picked out an album with a familiar cover.

“You like TIME OUT?”

“Dave Brubeck. 1950s. Paul Desmond’s TAKE FIVE.” There wasn’t much better from a white man.

“So you’re smarter than you look.”

“Only a little.”

We drank wine and traded choices of music. I put on John Coltrane’s MY FAVORITE THINGS, Maya followed with SOMETHIN’ ELSE. We had steaks and rice for dinner. The second bottle of wine went slower than the first. The couch was big enough for two.

The night filled in the trees and shadows crawled from the corners of the living room. In the glow of the embers she was Peggy Lipton. Maya caressed my chest.

“Thank you for staying.”
“I really didn’;t have anywhere to go.”

“Was that all?”

“Like I said I was curious.” The first kiss was strange. Maya wasn’t neither a man nor a woman. She was something else.

“You said I was pretty before.” Maya’s hand was soft. “Did you mean it?”

“No, I should have said that you were beautiful.” I undid the bra. Maya’s chest was as flat as the girl on the cover of BLIND FAITH’s LP. The skin was smooth as ice.

“It’s not easy being me, because being me depends on being something I’m not.” Maya kept on her silk panties.

“It’s not easy being me either.” I had my share of problems. Maya was not one of them. “But here no one can say anything against you. No one will attack you for being you. Not with me here.”

“I can be anything for you.” Maya smelled of an expensive French perfume.

“Just be you for right now.”

“Can you pretend that I’m a woman?” Maya’s eyes shut, as if he was making a wish.

“I don’t have to pretend.” I pulled Maya close. Neither of us wanted to be anywhere, but here.

In the morning we woke in bed covered by sheets. The sun peeked through the drawn curtains. Maya was naked next to me. His hand was fondling my penis. 1974 was seven years after the Summer of Love. Our side had stopped the War in Vietnam. Sexual freedom was our reward.

I had Maya more than twice that day. We didn’t leave the house for two more days. Our weekend was turning into a honeymoon. Nothing so good lasted forever just like a winning streak at blackjack.

On the fourth morning the telephone rang, as we breakfasted in the living room. Maya answered with a finger raised to his lips. I tried to be discreet, but I heard everything.

The man on the other end was her lover. He was coming to visit this afternoon.

I got off the couch and went to the guest room. I dressed in my clothes for the first time in days and returned to the living room with my bag in hand. I sat on my couch.

“Are you going?” Maya hung up the phone and bit his lip. The silk robe slipped off his right shoulder. His skin was bruised my my hands. We had had a good time. “You’re more than welcome to stay.”

“I know, but your friend might think otherwise, besides my friend is waiting.” AK and I had not specified a date, but if I didn’t go now, there was a danger that I never go.

“Yes, we all have friends.” The sentence was tinged with jealousy. “You’re not angry, are you?”

“Angry for what?” For the last few days we had been man and woman. One phone call had broken the magic. Once more I was straight and Maya was a man. “It was good to meet you.”

“Is that all?” Maya sounded in love and love was a madness not magic.

“Maybe a little more, but it’s time for me to go.”

“Now?” Maya opened the robe.

“Not just yet.” I pulled Maya close.

An hour later we were driving down the PCH. Maya wanted to drop me south of Monterrey. He drove the Porsche 5 mph below the speed limit on the highway south from Santa Cruz.

“I could pay for you to stay in a motel for a few days and pick you up.” Maya was having a hard time letting go. He was wearing a tan suede vest cinched tight by laces and matching suede pants. Mirrored sunglasses covered his eyes.

“I’m heading south.” The California sun was harsh this morning.

“Will you come this way again?” Maya asked, as the Porsche crossed the Moss Landing Bridge.

“I don’t know.” I had no plans for my future. We didn’t speak for several miles, as the PCH coasted along the beach and then swept into the outskirts of Monterrey. “Do you mind, if you drop me by the docks. I read Steinbeck’s CANNERY ROW and SWEET THURSDAY.”

“I loved those books too.” Maya pulled off Route 1 and drove down to the piers. The canneries were deserted and only a few fishing ships were in port. He parked by a wharf converted to a restaurant. Tourists admired the sports car and whispered to each other, as if they thought Maya might be famous.

“I guess this is the end of the road.” Maya sniffed back a tear and hurriedly wrote down a phone number. “You come this way. You call me.”

“It’s a promise.” I stuck the paper in my leather jacket.

“Here’s $20 and two joints. Have lunch on me.”

“You want to have lunch here?”

“No.” Maya shook his head. “These people don’t understand me.”

“I’ll make sure they don’t say anything.”

“It’s not what they say, but I can see what they think in their eyes. This is not my town.”

“I understand.” I put the bill and the joints in the same pocket as Maya’s number.

Supposedly Sonny Barger of the Hells’ Angels said that you weren’t queer as long as money was involved in the sex. No biker had ever defended his quote. I leaned over an kiss Maya good-bye.

“I’ll see you around.” I got out of the car and tapped the hood of the Porsche. The horm beeped once and I stepped away from the car. The tires screeched out of the parking lot and the 911 disappeared into Monterrey.

A fishing boat was putting out to sea. Seagulls glided in its wake. Seals swam in the kelp beds. The perfume on my skin was faint. The smell of the ocean was strong. I hefted my bags over my shoulder and walked along the shore. I was once more alone and alone I was once more myself.

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