DOWN THE COAST By Peter Nolan Smith

Skyline Drive crested a hill and the bright California sun crowned the hundreds of identical houses snaking up the streets of Daly City with a golden nimbus. Smoke from sizzling meat floated above countless backyards, as suburban families celebrated Memorial Day with holiday barbecues.

I longed for a seared hamburger, but tramped along the breakdown lane with my thumb stretched out to oncoming traffic.

Walking was getting me nowhere and I put down my bags at junction of Route 35 and the PCH. Cars slowed to 20mph on curved onramp and the wide merging lane offered a safe place to stop, however over two hundred cars passed me in thirty minutes.

The stares of female drivers convicted me of rape and many of the male motorists glared with a deep-rooted hostility, as if I had betrayed my country.

To the high school teenagers in the passing cars I was another long-haired hippie leaving San Francisco and the children of the Silent Majority shouted out, “Get a hair cut, you fucking hippie.”

I answered with the peace sign.

They flipped the bird.

At least no one had thrown any beer bottles.

The next exit was a mile away from here.

Walking on the highway was forbidden by state law. The sun was hot and my canteen was empty. I took off my leather jacket. A few drivers pointed to indicate that they were turning off the road in a short distance. I smiled back at them, wishing they offered me a ride.

Another fifty cars got on the PCH before a late-model Volvo sedan stopped on the shoulder. The young driver opened the door. His austere black suit with a pressed white shirt was out of place in California. It was also too warm to be wearing a tie.

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

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

“I’m going to Half Moon Bay.” His right hand fought to find first gear, as 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. “Where you headed, friend?”

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

“There’s a lot of ‘south’ south of here. My name’s Willard.” His papery skin was toasted to a blistered pink by the sun 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”

“You’re a Mormon?” It was a good guess. The brochures on the dashboard were blazoned with the letters LDS.

Young Mormon missionaries in similar suits walked the poor neighborhoods of Boston. I had never seen one behind the wheel of a car.

“Yes, I am.” The young man 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 a dangerous speed for him.

“Yes, sir.” He downshifted into 2rd and whistled in appreciation of his accomplishment. The radio had been torn out of the dashboard. The LDS regarded love songs as a threat to morality.

“Saving souls in San Francisco must be a challenge.”

“It is, it is. Drugs have taken over the Haight-Ashbury, North Beach’s strip clubs and massage parlors succors the wicked, and young men are transforming the Castro into Sodom.”

“You certainly know that city.” Mormon boys were reared without television, radio, or movies and forbidden any contact with young girls. Temptation was rampant back in the Bay City, but Willard smelled like a virgin.

“There are few souls to save in Utah, so you go where the sin is, plus I’ve been preparing for this mission since I was a boy, so my resolve is steel and my mission is clear.” 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.”

Having resisted the parochial school indoctrination of priests and nuns, I cut short his spiel by saying, “My great-great-great grand uncle was Joseph Smith.”

“Are you serious?” The driver examined my face to compare my features with his memory of the Founder’s portrait.

“I admit there’s not much of a resemblance.”

“Very little.”

Unlike me Joseph Smith had a long nose, but I had my ancestor’s jaw.

“His family hailed from Vermont and ours was from Maine. Winters in both states 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 and I detoured into my family history in Maine, interrupting the tale with frequent warnings about parked cars and crossing the double yellow line.

Willard 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.” The sunburnt missionary stamped on the brake with two feet, as we entered Half Moon Bay.

“I know that all too well.”

Two nights ago Reno had taught me the dangers of gambling. The small Sierra city had a hard heart.

“Drinking and fornication are also vices of the Devil.” He flicked on the left turn signal and pulled off the PCH at Route 92. “This 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.

“Are you really related to Joseph Smith?” Willard had been trained to be tempted any apparition of the Devil.

“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 my 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.” Willard drove off with gears grinding.

He had been a good listener.

I filled up my canteen at a gas station and walked over to the gravel shoulder. The bluff was covered by sun-blasted scrub brush. A steep cliff descended to the ocean. Huge swells fanned 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 with Oregon plates stopped within three minutes. The Zenith TV salesman defended Nixon’s presidency the entire ride to San Gregorio Beach, where he asked if I wanted to join him for a drink at his motel.

“There are some fun girls there, if you know what I mean.” The thirty year-old slicked back his hair with Brillcream and smelled of Aqua-Velva.

“I can imagine, but I’ll keep heading south.” Consorting with prostitutes had never been part of my budget.

“Suit yourself, but getting a ride this late is taking your life in your hands.” He pulled over to the curb and revved the engine with impatience, as I got out of the car.

“What do you mean by that?”

“People are crazy out here. Killing crazy. If you change your mind, I’ll be in the bar.

The Impala crossed the four lanes and the driver entered the lounge attached to the hotel. His talk about a killer was worrisome, but I stuck out my thumb to catch another ride.

San Gregorio Beach was well out of the suburbs and traffic on the PCH had been reduced to a car every few minutes.

Twenty minutes later a silver Porsche 911 swept onto the shoulder and 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. SOOKIE SOOKIE by Grant Green was playing on the stereo.

“Don’t worry, I’m not drunk.” The longhaired blonde driver flicked up the lock. “I just like to drive fast. You have a problem with speed?”

“Not as long as we stay on the road.”

“I always stay between the lines.” The driver bore a remarkable resemblance to someone famous.

“One of my last rides had the opposite problem.” I dropped my bags in the narrow back seat and the driver stepped on the gas. “He was a Mormon.”

“They get around.” The driver expertly shifted through the gears, as we sped past a Pompono State Beach. Strands of silky blonde hair escaped the paisley silk scarf and the driver asked, “I’m headed to Santa Cruz. What about you?”

“Encinitas.”

A sidelong glance confirmed that the slender driver was wearing a silky mini-skirt with knee-high boots and I placed the face with a name. There was no way that ‘she’ was Peggy Lipton of THE MOD SQUAD.

“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. Every gesture mimed a woman. “Too much oil, too many cars, and cops are everywhere. You ever been there?”

“No, I have a friend waiting for me.” 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 wavered at 75 and he shut off the radio.

“He’s not that kind of friend.”

“Do tell, my name’s Maya.”

“Yesterday was my birthday.” I didn’t say my name.

“How’d you celebrate it?”

“By making a fool of myself.” 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 by Reno. I won a few more hands and then a beautiful waitress in a miniskirt served me a drink. Her name was Kim. It was the first of many.”

“I can guess the ending.”

“I vaguely remember begging my friend for money, then woke this morning next to the Truckee River. My pockets were empty and I thought that Reno had stolen my birthday.”

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

“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 this reversal of fortune.

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

“You poor baby.” Maya brushed away a strand of hair. “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 year. Our only fight had been about the Beatles. I hated HEY JUDE.

“It’s good having good friends.” The syllables purred from Maya’s throat with a Marlene Dietrich’s rasp. “How long were you in San Francisco?”

“Less than an hour. A gang of muggers attacked me in Golden Gate Park. They wanted my money as much as the casino in Reno.”

“The city was so cool before the Summer of Love. The hippies, diggers, freaks, Mexicans, and blacks were one big happy family, but the family grew too big in 1967. I was beaten up twice for who I am. Anyone who could flee the city left for the country. I made it as far as Santa Cruz.” Maya shifted into top gear south of Pescadero.

The Porsche topped a 100 on the straightaway, then swiftly 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 the horn and flashed the highbeams to warn oncoming cars. “Where you crashing tonight?”

“I was going to sleep in the redwoods.” There wasn’t much light left in the day.

“Hitching at night isn’t safe. Murderers are killing men and and women up and down the coast.”

“My last ride said something about it.”

“I don’t like being on the road late at night and I’m driving, but it’s the drivers doing the murders. Hitchhikers are the victims.” Maya glanced at my crotch. “You can stay with me. I have a spare room, steak in the fridge and wine too. You’re not afraid of me, are you?”

“No, I’m more curious than scared.”

My nights dancing at the 1270 Club in Boston had cured my fear of queers. The boys at that bar liked straight men. Shemales like Maya hung out at Boston’s Other Side. The glamorous trannies were more female than the fag hags trying to save a homo for the heterosexual cause.

“Like that movie I AM CURIOUS YELLOW. Some people say I resemble the actress.”

“They must be blind. You’re much prettier.” The Swedish film had been banned in Boston. “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.

“A regular satyr.” Maya smiled with pleasure.

“I’m a little higher up the divinity chart.”

“I’ve never met a demi-god.”

“I never claimed divinity.” I was a longtime atheist.

“How humble.”

“I’m an expert at humility.”

“How so?”

“It’s a long story.”

“Why don’t you stay the night and tell me?”

“Why not?”

Night was closing on the coast.

We entering Santa Cruz with the last rays of the day’s sun. The beach was bordered by a vintage amusement park. The pleasant main street thrived with counterculture cafes and surf shops. The 60s were not forgotten here.

“It’s a time warp from the old and the new,” Maya spoke with pride about her adopted community. She waved to several pedestrians. They smiled upon seeing her.

“Friendly.”

“Anyplace is friendly after San Francisco.”

Maya’s house was located on the banks of a forested river running down from the mountains. A grove of redwoods rose from 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. 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. I left the boob tube behind in San Francisco. Here I watch the sky and the stars.”

“I’m good with no TV. Mind if I pick out a record?” I put down my bags and eyed her collection of jazz, soul, classical, and rock stacked next to Marantz 2330b receiver, Thorens TD-165 turntable, Thorens TD-126 turntable, Frazier Model Seven speakers, and Akai GX-266D reel to reel tape deck. The system was state of the art.

Maya uncorked a bottle of wine and filled two glasses.

“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.

“And no LOLA.” The Kinks’ song had been a 1970 huge hit on AM radio.

“Most definitely not.” A shadow of anger tinted Maya’s sad voice. “You know anything about transsexuals?”

“My mother was expecting a girl, so she bought an entire pink wardrobe for a baby girl. I came instead. My father is from Maine and he didn’t see the sense of having to buy a new set of clothing, so for the first six months of my life, I was a girl.”

Maya threw back her head with a laugh

“You had it easy. By the time I was three, I hated boy’s clothing and I had no sisters. Only three older brothers. I was expected to wear their hand-me-downs. I hated the colors. The roughness of the material. One day I stole my cousin’s Barbie and Ken dolls and dressed up Ken in her clothes.” Maya sipped her wine with a sad smile. “My mother cried for days. My father was a Detroit cop. He tried to change the way I felt; beatings, therapy, abandonment, but nothing could alter who I was, so I ran away to San Francisco at the age of 14. I never went back home.”

“As a young boy all I knew about queens was from what I read in LAST EXIT TO BROOKLYN.” Hubert Selby Jr,’s novel was a cult classic in the 60s. I read it in hiding. My mother was a good Catholic. The only men allowed to wear a dress in her faith were the priests.

“I loved that book, mostly because Georgette’s tough time with Vinnie wasn’t so far from the truth. As much as straight America hates queers, they despise transsexuals even worse. We threaten the John Wayne in every man.”

“It must have been a hard life.” The queens at Boston’s Other Side begged, borrowed, and stole to support their hormone treatments.

“I had it better than most. I was the star at a bar in the Barbary Coast, but I still had to do things about which I’m not happy about even to this day. Luckily a rich man fell in love with me. He offered me another world and here I am, but enough with the sad stories. Chose a happy record.”

A photo of Maya hung on the wall. She was dressed as a blonde go-go girl. She had been lucky to get out of that scene before it was too late to get out.

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

“I saw him in Oakland this year. I could barely hear him over the shrieks of his fans. He sang a thirty-minute version of WHAT’S GOING ON. It drove the women crazy.” Maya opened a jar and handed me a pill. It was a Quaalude.

“Are you planning to leave soon?” She kicked off the high heels.

“No.” I cued up the title track and sat on the other end of the sofa.

The polish on his toenails matched his fingernails.

“Then take off your jacket and make yourself comfortable.” Maya lay on the Chinese couch like an opium smoker awaiting their pipe.

“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?”

“Catholic boys in uniforms.” I had attended an all-boys school.

“Stop it, you’re driving me crazy.” Maya pointed to a hallway. “That’s your room. You can even have a shower. I promise I won’t watch.”

I put my bags 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 crossed the narrow corridor to a bathroom with a shower. Maya had changed the record to SOMETHING ELSE by Mlies Davis.

I spent a good fifteen minutes washing 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. Without the high heels his green eyes met mine. Maya touched my back. It had been months since anyone had caressed my skin.

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

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

“You know it?”

“Dave Brubeck. 1950s. Paul Desmond’s TAKE FIVE.”

“So you’re cooler than you look.”

“Only a little.”

We drank wine and traded offerings of music. I put on John Coltrane’s MY FAVORITE THINGS, Maya followed with Cannonball Adderly’s SOMETHIN’ ELSE, which I trumped with GETTING AROUND by Dexter Gordon. 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.

“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 that I was pretty before.” Maya’s hand was soft on my chest. “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 and the white 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, 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.

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. The holiday weekend was turning into a honeymoon. Nothing so good lasted forever. I had learned that playing Blackjack in Reno.

On the fourth morning the telephone rang. Maya answered with a finger raised to his lips. I tried to be discreet, but I heard all her conversation. The man on the other end was her lover. He was coming to visit this afternoon.

I rose 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 bags in hand.

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

“I know, but your friend might think otherwise, besides I have to get to Encinitas.” AK and I had not specified a date, but if I didn’t go now, there was a danger that I would 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 of that spell. Once more I was straight and Maya was a man. “It was good to meet you.”

“Is that all?” Maya wanted more 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 into the bedroom.

An hour later we were driving down the PCH. Maya wanted to drop me in Monterey. He was wearing a tan suede vest cinched tight by laces and matching suede pants. Mirrored sunglasses covered his eyes.

In this light Peggy Lipton was not behind the wheel.

“I could pay for you to stay in a motel for a few days and pick you up then.” Maya was having a hard time letting go.

“I’m heading south.”

“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 Monterey.

“Do you mind dropping me by the docks? I read Steinbeck’s CANNERY ROW and SWEET THURSDAY.”

“I loved those books.” We shared much in common.

Maya pulled off Route 1 and drove down to the piers. The canneries were shuttered by planks of wood and only a few fishing ships were moored in port. Tourists admired the sports car and whispered to each other. They thought Maya might be famous.

“I guess this is the end.” Maya 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.”

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

“You know you never told me your name.” Maya sounded used to that.

“It isn’t Steve.”

“You be careful about who picks you up. Not everyone is as nice as me.”

“I know that.” There were murderers on the road. Maya was not one of them.

I got out of the car and tapped the hood of the Porsche. The horn beeped once and the tires screeched out of the parking lot. The 911 disappeared within seconds.

I was once more alone and alone I was once more myself.

A fishing boat was putting out to sea. Seagulls glided over its wake. Seals swam in the kelp beds. The perfume on my skin weakened in the fresh ocean air. I hefted my bags over my shoulder and walked along the harbor.

Big Sur was less than thirty miles away.

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