Friday, December 31, 2021

Looking back, December 1971: homeless, stranded and cold

Very, very cold.

Half a century ago I was a few months into one of the greatest adventures of my young life, a Homeric struggle in terms of personal mythology, although at the time it appeared to me more in the light of a hole into which I’d fallen, or dug myself, and from which my extrication was by no means assured.

I had, two years earlier, applied for admission in 1970 to the University of California’s Santa Cruz campus. I learned later that I’d made every cut except the last, which meant that by the time I was turned away all my alternative choices—in those days one’s single application to UC permitted secondary and tertiary campus options—had all filled up, and I was remanded, to my horror, to the University’s Riverside campus, in those days the Siberia of the UC system, supplanted these latter years by its Merced campus.

I was not ready for prime time. I might have not done much better at Santa Cruz, but I flamed out in spectacular fashion at UC Riverside by my second quarter, following the conclusion of which one professor told me that he regretted giving me a failing grade—“Unfortunately the University doesn’t allow me to assign anything lower.”

Following this I was, I suppose, poised to go feral for the second time in five years, and still might have absent a couple of lucky breaks fore and aft, but in December 1971 I had been reduced—had reduced myself—to a state of discreet homelessness. Determined upon another assault of the citadel (really, went my thinking, what had I to lose at that point?) I had parked myself at UCSC, dwelling, in a fashion that would be impossible today, in the interstices of the campus residence halls, most nights in a narrow storage closet, not quite long enough to accommodate me at full length, which I shared with a couple of upright bedframes. This arrangement kept the rain off, for which I was grateful.

I had found weekend employment with the campus food service, a contractor called “Saga,” and took part of my wages in meals, which meant that I generally had no solid fare between Sunday evenings and Saturday mornings. This grew old fast, to judge from the written accounts I left, but one becomes accustomed to these things. Mind, this was not some whimsical regimen of asceticism: I needed my weeks free to hitch back to UC Riverside now and then in order to negotiate freeing my transcript from its grip. That’s a story for another time, perhaps, but I was ultimately to prevail in this unlikely enterprise, so yay, me. In the interim, though, I was near-starving.

So, in early-mid December the campus closed down between academic quarters, meaning no dishwashing for Rand and no four squares on weekends. I imagine that I could have survived three weeks without grub, but it was not an attractive proposition, and I reasoned that between the two components of my bifurcated nuclear family I could probably cadge some room and board, especially board, without wearing out my welcome at either venue. And so I prepared to depart.

I don’t know, or can’t remember, why I delayed my departure from Santa Cruz until afternoon, but I parked myself on Highway 1 with a mind to arriving in Southern California by evening.

It didn’t work out in the event. For one thing, the first ride or two slotted me onto California Highway 1, the “Pacific Coast Highway,” rather than onto the inland and more heavily-traveled Route 101. A couple of subsequent rides left me at dusk in the middle of Big Sur, with little traffic southbound.

I might mention that the previous month I had lost my cheap sleeping bag in a rainstorm on this same stretch of highway: it had become utterly soaked overnight, my attempted shelter having proved inadequate, and I was obliged to leave the sodden thing draped over a nearby barbed wire fence come the morning.

So: no sleeping bag, no rides in prospect, impending night and falling temperatures. I had a shirt, a sweater and a light jacket, nothing like enough for the bitter cold that was in prospect. I trudged down the highway, and presently caught up with, or was caught up by, a trio of teenagers similarly ill-equipped for the conditions. They presented themselves to me as “runaways,” although I imagine they were merely highschoolers on a lark. In any event, we proceeded along Highway 1, few cars passing and none prepared to pick up four passengers. Presently we arrived at a tiny settlement proclaimed by a highway sign as “Pacific Valley.”

Pacific Valley appeared to consist of a gas station and a coffee shop, neither of which were open for business. It included as well, however, an open shed enclosing a working generator, and this the teenagers and I huddled around for the rest of the night: warm air was emitted from the front end, and hot exhaust, almost certainly with a major carbon monoxide component, from a hose or pipe at some distance from the machine. One of the teens parked himself beside this, and passed out at intervals: the rest of us would drag him away until he came to, whereupon he’d reposition himself against the spew.

Dawn broke. Out came a bearded character in an army jacket with an embroidered stars & bars on the shoulder. He looked at us: “Out,” he grunted. We cleared out. We’d survived the night.

I can’t recall how I eluded my companions—perhaps they reconsidered and headed north again?—but I secured a ride by myself with an eccentric character who, as I dimly recall, hated the Hearst family. And I remember seeing whales breaching off the coast.

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