I was walking down Yanonali Street the day after the spectacular summer squall of the day before on my way to an AA meeting. I wasn’t even sure there would be one since there had been so much damage done, but AA people don’t let things like unthinkable natural disasters deter them from their singleness of purpose, which after something like this is especially significant.
At Garden Street, the damage I had only partially noticed on my way back to the Mission last night became obvious and even more so because of the darkness. The street lights were out as were the traffic signals. The only light on this hot tropical morning at six o’clock through which rain was still falling came from the work lights at the 101 exchange where workmen were struggling to repair the damage done to the power lines.
Beyond that point the streets were ravaged with fallen trees still blocking the street and the standing splintered trunks of trees that had been snapped like twigs. The wind seemed to have skipped along, leaving one block virtually untouched and the next slammed.
The cloying heat and the strong smell of decay — a sweetly sickening compost smell — made me so uncomfortable that I thought I might get actually get sick.
Someone had fallen off of their top bunk at the Mission last night. The ambulance had taken him away with a probably broken nose and a couple of missing teeth. I recognized him as one of the other survivors who had huddled under the pier still shaking from the EVENT; he had offered me a cigarette and it had been a gesture that touched me.
At the 7-Eleven I ran into Jason and Billy, both soaked to the bone and shivering under a damp blanket. All of their bedding had been soaked beyond use, and they had spent the night and the rainy morning in misery. I bought them a cup of coffee and some donuts and told them I was glad they weren’t hurt. I had seen them only minutes before the whole thing began and tried unsuccessfully to find them later, so as awful as they looked, it was good to see them.
They, like most homeless people I know, wander from nowhere to nowhere else as a lifestyle, and the storm hadn’t really changed their routine much other than the discomfort.
All the regulars were at the meeting, and I expected the climatic catastrophe to be the main topic of discussion, but no one there had been affected much by it. One person shared that it was nice to have a little rain in these drought-ridden times, and that was it.
The meeting was almost over when I raised my hand and took a theatrical breath before saying, “That was NOT a little rain!” The response from the group was uneasy laughter.
Jason and Billy met me as I was crossing from the marina onto the beach toward the pier, and we stopped short at the sight that yawned before us like a debris field. I almost expected to see the wreckage of an airplane off in the distant. Stalks and skeletons of tents were sticking up out of the sand everywhere; the shredded tarps and mangled towels were littered about like the skins of exotic fish. There were shoes everywhere, only singles, no pairs, we noted, as if people had only enough time to put on one shoe before they had to run — or were lifted out of them by the wind as I had been.
I had just written a chapter of Shipwrecked I was pleased with and had put my phone into my backpack to have a cigarette and enjoy the brief reprieve of searing heat that had kept me under the pier for much of the morning when my skin had burned painfully through a shirt and even the ocean breeze was unable to balance.
The sky ahead of me was clear, but there was a drop in the temperature which I was merely grateful for and did not think of as ominous. The last thing I remember, and it was only for a moment before the rains came, was that the gulls were gone and the air curiously quiet. The rain was a complete surprise, and I couldn’t even figure out where it was coming from.
Reaching for my bag and grabbing my coat, I slipped into my shoes and started walking with purpose but not panic toward the safety of the pier. I only looked back once and thought that the people scrambling to get cover in their many tents along the beach looked comical.
Only when I saw the conical black cloud behind me toward the mountains did I get a little nervous because clouds like that don’t just appear and belch forth rain. I have survived squalls at sea and the clawing wind would come, I knew.
I was running when it hit and from the wrong side. Not off of the sea as squalls usually come. It was a wall of wet sand and chaos in seconds that found me blinded and disoriented. There was no way to stop running. I couldn’t get a foothold at all, and I was in the ocean before I knew I was off my feet. I landed on my knees and chin in waves that seemed to be breaking backward, immediately covered in sand and seaweed, just crawling and trying not to swallow too much sandy water.
I had held on to my backpack, but it had been underwater for a while. I knew everything in it had to have been ruined. My shirt had been ripped off and my shoes were gone and my bathing suit was almost to my ankles when I was able to pull it back on. I saw my hat sinking a few feet from me and was functionally rational enough to grab for it. I’m not sure I was afraid for my life. I had lived at beaches all of my life and am very comfortable in the ocean. I crawled out of it just as the wind began to leave the destruction behind.
I could see capsized sailboats and deserted surfboards and kayaks as the Harbor Patrol and lifeguards were running into the water, and the emergency lights of ambulances began to appear on the pier, and the sound of sirens replaced the shriek of the wind.
The walk up to the pier had been grotesque mostly because of the thick covering of sand that made me look like a gargoyle, I’m sure, in a big black hat.
The whole thing was over in 15 minutes, and in half an hour people were searching through the wreckage in the sunlight, and even a few had returned to swimming and enjoying the last day of such a perfect Santa Barbara holiday weekend.
Since my phone was ruined in the surf it has taken me a day to get to a computer and I can only use it for an hour so, to be continued …
The Day After
Such a clear sunny day in Santa Barbara on Labor Day, if you could overlook the wreckage. A 15-minute climatic anomaly the day before had transformed a perfect day into carnage.
The pier was all lit up with fire trucks and ambulances; people sodden and dumbfounded huddled underneath in the cold sand.
The rain was the last remnant of the storm, and it was giving way to a clear sky as quickly as without a whisper it had come. I walked out of the shelter and dropped my bag in the sand and ran into the sea. It was like a baptism to wash the sand off of me; I didn’t even notice the cold. Sand in my ears and eyes, thick under my arms and plastered to my legs. Sand comes off easily, and the feeling was indescribable.
I walked down the beach where’d I had been when it happened, and there was nothing there I recognized. My blanket would be found the next day and my jacket, but at the time there was nothing but pock-marked sand. I was concerned about Jason, who had all of his art on display that day, and I wondered if it had all washed out to see so I headed over there. Halfway there I encountered another phenomenon of the freak storm.
The flood control channel by the little estuary had overflowed so powerfully that it had cut a deep trough to the sea, with two magnificent waterfalls that pounded water so insistently that it was cutting and collapsing the sides of it away to about 20 yards across already. It meandered like a snake and looked like a time-lapse miniaturization of the creation of the Grand Canyon. It couldn’t be crossed; it was moving too fast, and the sand was like quicksand. I had to wade out into the ocean and cross it several feet from the shore.
Jason’s camp was in standing water and everything looked torn up, but the paintings were gone and so was he. I don’t really worry too much about Jason; he can take care of himself, and he was much further up the beach than I was when it hit, but the paintings. I walked along the shore for a while looking for any remnant of them.
I think shock accounts for a lot of the functionality of survivors, but a lot of it is just amazement that you are still alive. It came from nowhere, there was no warning of any kind, not even a shadow on the sand to herald its arrival. I understand now how those tourists on the day after Christmas in Thailand felt when suddenly there was a wave from hell bearing down on a perfect summer day. No one could see it coming, no one even knew what it was. And there you are, standing on the beach amazed and looking at ruins.
The walk to the Mission was a blind spot in my memory. I was so itchy and scraped up that walking was arduous and uncomfortable. The shirt someone had given me was wet and salty smelling; I was just starting to feel the soreness that would be crippling the next day, and no sight before me could surprise me now. I had felt the rage of nature.
The next day we found my shoes, caught in some seaweed a hundred yards apart. Jason and Billy and I recovered my crossword puzzle book (in pieces) and my sunglasses, but there were no lenses in them.
Johnny comes up to us dragging a pitchfork in the sand and wrapped in a colorful Mexican blanket. I ask him what the pitchfork is for, and he says, “I’m going to make some money.” I ask him where he thinks they need help baling hay, and he says that he is going to help with the cleanup of State Street where a lot of fallen trees had closed several blocks still the next day.
Some other people join us and someone makes a fire and we roast hot dogs on the pitchfork Johnny had brought and that’s all the use Johnny got out of that.
A pretty woman of indeterminate age shows up with a guitar as dinner is being served. In addition to the hot dogs are condiments, potato salad, soft drinks, and vodka. We sit in a circle and listen to her sing and play the guitar. She has a plaintive elastic voice that perfectly inflects songs made famous by Janis Joplin in a raw gritty voice, and then nuances James Taylor sweetly.
She asked me to play the guitar so I did for a while. Providing strums and picking out riffs to enhance the vibrant conversations that were taking place all around, as in every good party … no linens or party favors … actually nothing but dirt and ruined bedding … and a surfboard to serve the refreshments on.
I can’t play the guitar, so this is another inexplicable aspect of the aftermath of the storm.
We part on the day after: me to the Mission, everyone else to do some spanging (flipping signs, beg for money). Johnny, who passed out early in the party, was the only one left at the site to finally get a little rest in the mess we left him behind in.
I lost my phone, but the art was miraculously saved. Things will dry and sore limbs will heal. There were no deaths, I’m told, which makes the whole event the kind of once-in-a-life-time disaster that you were glad you experienced for the story alone.
I am still a little shell-shocked. I am anxious and nervous and a little befuddled. The Santa Barbara Summer Squall of 2017.
Things That Cannot Be Forgiven
Everything has changed since the storm. The beaches have been swept clean, MarBorg is everywhere hauling away debris. Most of the fallen trees have been removed. The city looks more or less as it did before, but it feels entirely different.
I lost my phone in the water, so I have lost all my writing and notes and contact lists and pictures. And I was now, at the worst possible time, completely out of touch with a lot of people that I should be in touch with. I view this fatalistically and make do as best I can with trips to the library until a new phone can be purchased and the rebuilding of so much stuff can begin.
I was determined not to talk at my AA meeting this morning. The topic was amends, and I didn’t get any sparks from it, although the meeting was compelling as usual, and I got a lot of insight out of it. The last call for shares was announced and someone made a brief one and in the silence afterward I heard my self say, “Derrick alcoholic,” and wonder what was going to come out of my mouth.
“You are all so lucky,” I tell them almost accusingly, “to be able to do this amazing thing: amends … ” I really have no idea where I am going with this, at all. “There are some things I simply cannot forgive myself for.”
Am I going to tell them that?
“When my mother was dying, she wanted to come and live with me. I had a big house; I could afford to care for her there. I was giving a lot of parties at the time, and I told her no. She had bought me the house.”
Oh, my God, I did tell them.
“My brother came by my house one night when I was giving one of my parties, and I was too embarrassed to let him in, so I gave him some money. That was the last time I saw him.”
“When I became homeless I thought I deserved it for denying my brother and my mother a home.
I tell them I have never told anyone that before and that it probably was a beginning of sorts to dismantling my assertion that these mistakes, that should not have been made, could never be forgiven.
I get a lot of handshakes on my way out the door. I need to breathe, to get down to the sea, and get away, so I leave them as quickly as I can.
I walk in figure eights on the sand and cry. “I’m so sorry, Mom,” I repeat over and over again and search the shore for a response.
Johnny and Jason come by, and we hang out for an hour or two, laughing mostly about the party the other night that only I remember. Johnny needs to get a job, he tells us, because he doesn’t feel like a man without a job. He still has the Mexican blanket on him, but it is considerably duller in color than the last time I saw it, and he clutches an empty vat of vodka in his hands that he credits for his current condition which he again and again apologizes for.
“I’m just a drunk,” explains, “that’s the problem.”
Johnny will probably end up in rehab one way or another. Voluntarily is the least likely of ways he will go into rehab. With all the warrants out on him now for parole violations, it is only a question of days now. I think it is a relief for him to think someone will finally stop him for a while.
Jason got a ticket last night for flipping a sign at the 101 exchange, so the police are ramping up their efforts on the oppression side of the homelessness issue. There have been no improvements at all in bed counts or number of nights available for shelter on the compassionate side.
Things are getting worse in a city with a lot of rich people and a lot of poor people who seem to be on a kind of collision course that enlightened leadership could head off. It is an election year so I am definitely speaking before the city council on Tuesday next week, if I can, which is one day before I have to leave Santa Barbara because my 15 days at the Mission will be up and the writing on the wall.
Whatever I am going to do here in Santa Barbara, whatever my impact, will have to have been accomplished by then. And I have no phone!
I wonder if my mother would forgive me. I never thought about that before.