It is a Monday morning, sometime in that dark-gray yet ever-brightening hour just before daybreak. I am sitting at my dining room table on the eastside of Santa Barbara, staring down the glow of my computer screen, mildly organized stacks of papers and envelopes and assorted other debris of my modern life scattered around me. The table, it would seem, pulls double duty as a home office for both me and my wife. There are notebooks filled with interviews and observations from assorted stories still on deadline for multiple publications, architectural drawings from no less than three separate projects, the must-pay-now stack of bills with a bright-colored “Collection Agency” letter on top, the not-yet-opened envelopes of less-pressing bills and pointless correspondence from credit card companies and junk mailers, two recent paychecks, a tape recorder, pens, three dirty mugs, and a brilliantly blooming vase of night lilies that I brought home from the Farmers Market just a few days ago. Outside, a murder of crows wails from the power lines overhead as a MarBorg truck finds its way noisily into second gear on the uphill of Milpas Street. Yet another postcard-perfect day is exploding in the eastern sky, the warmth of it just starting to be reflected above the outline of the Mesa. I take it all in through the window next to me, my hunched-over reflection transposed over the entire scene. “Surviving Santa Barbara,” I say out loud to no one. “Surviving Santa Barbara.”
I first turned up in the 9310-something zip code late in the summer of 1998. A transplant from the East, I have always said that surfing brought me here, but, in the course of working on this issue of The Santa Barbara Independent, I have decided to change that answer. Life brought me here. I was 19, had recently dropped out of a prominent and disturbingly privileged New England liberal arts college, and was in dire—yet unknowing—need of something real. I had no idea what I was getting into, let alone that some 16 years later I would still be here, married to the love of my life (whom I met while waiting for the bathroom at Casa de la Guerra) and preparing to have my first child sometime this spring at Cottage Hospital. I had no idea that this little city by the sea would become my home, nor did I have any clue as to just how hard such a transition would be to pull off. Ignorance, as they say, is bliss.
I moved into a duplex on the Mesa that August. It was a real-life Real World MTV situation: seven guys in unit A and eight girls in unit B, all of us between the ages of 18 and 20. City College was our neighbor on one side, and its students were our neighbors everywhere else. I signed up for a couple of classes and somehow lucked into my first journalism job with the News-Press. Over the course of the next year, I would be evicted twice, fired from my job, witness my first and second drug overdose, and have way too much fun chasing waves and good times with new friends, exploring the wilderness that is our backyard, and being treated to ridiculously sublime sunsets nearly every day. It was a turbulent but perfect point of entry into life on the South Coast for a guy my age. Of course, the Massachusetts plates on my 1986 Chevy Corsica got me my fair share of grief in the surf world, complete with slashed tires and physical threats, but everything else, at least when looked at through the clarifying prism of hindsight, had me fast falling in love. It is said often — but only because it is Santa Barbara’s greatest truth — that this place is intoxicatingly beautiful, but a close second to the intersection of our geography and climate is the pace of life that it fosters, one that practically demands you prioritize the quality of your life or else. In transit at San Francisco Airport a handful of years ago, a guy at a barstool next to me noticed my Santa Barbara Bank & Trust credit card and offered in a direct, half-buzzed manner, “I used to live there. Unbelievable place. Nowhere like it that I have experienced before or since. From the mayor to the average guy living with three generations of his family under one roof, that whole town works to live rather than lives to work. It used to drive me crazy.” And while I know this city too well to make such a reductive comment myself, I also know exactly what this man was on about, Santa Barbarians know how to live. After all, why else would you hustle so hard to live in a certifiable paradise if you aren’t also going to take the time to enjoy it?