The California dream might be an illusion, but it's still for sale. All those rooms, which a few months ago were vacant lots, are filled with people from who knows where, come to get their share of the lunacy.
In the early morning, when only the transients are awake, Moonlight Beach looks clean and pure, like the set for some old movie where guys in tuxedoes tap-dance under the palm trees. The cinderblock restrooms, freshly hosed, smell faintly of chlorine. The volleyball net glistens like a spider web in the dew. A pair of cast-off panties hanging from the bushes hints of some midnight romance. A runaway golden retriever, the first of the day, happily makes his rounds claiming the territory bounded by the yellow garbage cans.
At the first ray of sunlight, a drunk rolled in a pink electric blanket stretches his arms and fumbles in the sand for his sunglasses. An aging triathlete with shin splints and tendonitis drags himself from the water after swimming a mile and a half and hobbles toward his vision of full sponsorship. A harmlessly deranged jogger slogs through the surf, dragging behind him a string of tin cans, to which he turns and calls encouragement as though they were his dog. A pair of tai chi twins in black Speedos slowly gyrate through their routine in perfect unison, like kung fu weather vanes. A 70-year-old disciple of Jack LaLanne stands at the surf line and bows a hundred times to the god of youth and vigor.
Most of us who have lived here very long know that California doesn’t really exist. You can find it on all the maps, point out its crescent-shaped shoreline on a satellite photo, or walk out your door, pick up a piece of it, and sift it through your fingers. But those are just proof of a place, and California isn’t really a place — it’s a myth, an illusion, a misconception by people from somewhere else.
California was the place where American fur trappers believed a fabled river called the Buenaventura flowed from the Rocky Mountains to San Francisco Bay. It was the place where shopkeepers from St. Louis believed they could dig their fortunes from the earth, and where dustbowl Okies thought they could fin work.
And the myth still lives. Just a few years ago California was the place where hippies thought they could go barefoot all year long, and everything from drugs to love was free. California is now the place teenage runaways talk about so they’ll have some place to run to. It’s the place Navy recruiters talk about so they’ll have something to give young men in exchange for four years of their lives. It's the place Texans go when the building boom in Houston finally folds. The place where gays can have their own neighborhoods, and straights can have their own blonde. The place where pot growers believe they can take their fortunes from the earth, and impoverished Mexicans believe they can find work.
But anyone who has lived here very long knows that the myth, if not exactly a lie, is at least a distortion. We know that if we try to drive our car on the beach as they do in the car commercials, we'll get a ticket, or body rot, or both. We've seen houses worth $77,000 called "a real steal at $153,5000." After 20 years we finally found the price tag on free love — and it was herpes, penicillin-resistant gonorrhea, and AIDS. We've seen cardboard hovels where dark-skinned slaves, smuggled in to pick our flowers, huddle like dogs at the animal shelter. We've seen traffic jams on the freeway at tone o'clock in the morning and tried to understand where all these people were coming from — while they wondered the same thing about us. We've seen blond hair turn to jet black, then pink, and finally just gray.
Still, the line at the border is on the Mexican — not the California — side. Nobody's leaving here yet. Businessmen around the country still talk of a recession-proof kingdom by the sea with an economy more vigorous than all but a half-dozen countries in the world. Home prices, which have been dropping in other parts of the nation, continue to rise here. Young wanderers from all around the world still talk about a place where you can buy a station wagon with a gutsy V-8 engine for $500 and tour an 800-mile coastline, sleeping on the beach by a driftwood fire. Young trade friends and neighborhoods they have known all their lives for a condo by the beach and a "Native Californian" bumper sticker. What in God's name do they all see in this place?
To understand the attraction, and the curse, of California, you have to go to one of those rare vortexes where the lines of illusion and reality intersect. You have to go to a place where most native Californians wouldn't be caught dead. you have to go to a place like Moonlight Beach.
By noon the beach is packed 200 feet either side of the lifeguard tower. The air is filled with the smell of suntan oil, charcoal lighter, and pot. As the sun reaches its tropical intensity, steam rises from the wet sand and wafts through the crowd, stirring it into a restless mood of bored malaise. As adolescent queen in a string bikini struts across the sand like next month's centerfold — the toss of a Frisbee becomes a series of mechanical poses, and a dip in the surf becomes a scene from her first movie.
Men long past their beach prime sit on the cliffs and eat their lunches, lost in fantasies of lust, muttering obscenities into their tuna fish.
A hard-mouthed hooker, dress in imitation of high school girls half her age, leans against the corner stop sign with her thumb out and tosses her platinum hair like a horse swishing its tail.
Two young Marines with hairy bellies and Southern accents walk barefoot to the hot dog stand, dragging between them a skinny, passed-out, peroxide blonde with a Harley tattoo on her butt and a cigarette still in her lips.
A pack of pale-skinned punks, dressed all in lack, sit on a bench, hunched over and sad, like the only survivors of the nuclear holocaust.
A peeping Tom in dirty khakis lurks outside the women's restroom hoping for a glimpse of the forbidden. Next door in the men's restroom, an exhibitionist stalls at the urinal, waiting for someone to flash.
A platoon of pot-dazed surf jocks with identical hot tops and knee-length baggies stands at ease and stares out at the horizon — mute and sullen sentries.
A bawling child staggers up the beach, dragging a boogie board strapped to his ankle like a ball and chain.
A kid on a skateboard weaves his way down the asphalt trail, swinging the cast on his forearm in front of him like a club, twisting and contorting his body in pursuit of some mystical kinesthetic release.
A crew of ilegales in wet underwear passes around a court of beer and stares in wonder at the scene around them, as distant and inaccessible to them as if they were still at home watching it all on TV.
A white-chested workaholic in hell lies on his back and stares at the sky, still composing memos, returning calls, plotting strategies with his allies, foiling his foes.
A car burglar slithers one arm through a broken wind wing like a snake going down a hole.
The resident bums huddle in the bushes and glare out at the multitudes invading their turf. A nightfall they will forage out to harvest the abundance of summer and so soothe their rattled nerves.
On the cliff, a sheriff with binoculars leans against the hood of his car and ponders the crowd with his perplexity. Where all things are tolerated, can there be such a thing as crime?
This is the beach, where the ocean nibbles away at civilization's western boundary and flotsam comes in with every high tide. It's the free zone, where all things are possible, illusion and fantasy thrive, and life imitates television.
If people wanted to walk a hundred yards to the north or south, they could have a stretch of beach to themselves, in almost total seclusion — but no one does. Seclusion is a curse. Seclusion is what they have in Kansas. If anybody really wanted to be alone, he could have stayed home and locked himself in the closet. The whole point is to see and be seen. To enter the spectacle. To become the illusion. To get int eh car commercial. On TV.
So they line the beach elbow to elbow, or crotch to crotch, and crank up the rock 'n' roll to drown out the Watchman, trying to be heard over the crying baby, being serenaded by the drunken harmonica player, who is inspired by the sound of the surf.
Not so many years ago the spectacle at Moonlight Beach was strictly a limited engagement, running approximately from Memorial Day to Labor Day. After that the set was dismantled, the concession stand closed, the lifeguards put the storm shutters over the windows of the tower, and a state park maintenance crew came out with a bulldozer to push the sand back a hundred feet, out of reach from the winter storms. But nowadays it's impossible to say just when the spectacle ends — if it ends at all. Just two blocks away, a luxury hotel has been built with the elite-sounding name of Sanderling Place Inn. Next to that has appeared the more humble Budget Motel. All over the neighborhood, condominiums are popping up faster than the work of a hyperactive kid with a paper cup and a pile of wet sand. Some of them advertise an "ocean view" — a half mile away, and across eight lanes of freeway. The California dream might be an illusion, but it's still for sale. All those rooms, which just a few months ago were vacant lots, are filled with people from who knows where, come to get their fair share of the lunacy. Even on a cold day in December, they line the beach now, huddled together like football fans waiting for the game to start. And they wait until spring.
The spectacle never really ends anymore. It wanes a bit, just before and after the winter solstice. But as soon as the sun can be seen setting down Encinitas Boulevard again, the vernal equinox is near. Then it won't be long until another carload of teenagers from the East (meaning any place the other side of I-5) will pile out of a rusty Datsun and stagger to the cliff's edge. One of them, gasping with delight at the snake pit of twisted flesh below, will laugh and say, "What a show this is!"