It's almost nine and I'm running for my life. Actually, I'm not running for my life, I'm running for the bathroom. Not because I really have to go; more because I'm freezing. I'm running to keep warm.
I'm also running because I have the amount of time it takes to stand in line and ride the log ride, a five-ticket attraction at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, to copmlete my task. I have to get to the bathroom, do my business and return before the Jawa gets off the ride.
With him is some random little kid he met while destroying Sandra Bullock's digestive tract on the Tornado ten minutes ago. The kid can't be older than seven, but he's brimming with confidence. Completely elated at finding someone besides his parents to accompany him on rides, he's attached himself to the Jawa.
In an hour, I'll be standing next to our car in the dark, parked at the end of a pier, marveling at two things: first, I'll be continuing to be amazed that there are cars parked here on a pier, sticking out into the ocean. Most piers have wood slats. This one has asphalt and is lined with the type of restaurants that cater to tourists by pretending they cater to locals.
Second, I'll be amazed that I managed to make it all the way to the car before reaching into my pocket and finding no keys. Having exhausted my meager 15 ride tickets (I planned it that way) by riding the Double-Shot, the weird and surreal Mine Ride and the Giant Dipper, I was elected to cut out early and get the car while Sandra Bullock and the Jawa -- minus the random little kid, who was dismissed minutes before with a callous "I'm going to hang out with my family now -- rode one more roller coaster.
They were under great pressure to do this, since they'd each spent $30 on unlimited ride wristbands. On the drive back to our terrible (and terribly disappointing) hotel in Capitola, the Jawa would calculate the value of the wristbands. "You saved five dollars," he told his mother. "I saved $26."
I didn't really mind being locked out of the car. S. Bullock and the Jawa were already on their way, and they had the keys.
I liked the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk better at a distance, anyway. From here, several hundred feet away, across a body of water, the twinkling ferris wheel lights and distant rumble of a thousand shouts of joy were something out of Springsteen, circa "Greetings From Asbury Park." I don't know if anyone was chasing the factory girls underneath the boardwalk, but from here it was difficult to see why Bruce should decide that, for him, this boardwalk life was through.
In reality, the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk is perhaps the most remarkable combination of things I don't like since the time, fourteen years ago, that I was forced to spend a night at a Bed & Breakfast in Amherst, Massachusetts. "Wow," I thought, Sandra Bullock's large green bag slung over my arm as I waited for them to ride some spinning, octopus-looking thing, "Carnival rides, bad food and hordes of scary, hard-looking people. So many great things in once place."
From the pier, you could imagine teenagers creating life-lasting memories, like I once tried twenty-four years ago, when I brought my college girlfriend here. I think I'd expected to meet Bruce Springsteen that time, too.
It's 9:30 and we're sitting at a table, eating the worst vegetarian chow mein any of us has ever tasted. We bought it primarily to force the Jawa to eat something. He's so amped up from being around rides -- his natural habitat, he claims -- that he's forgotten to eat. The last thing he had was a hot dog at two p.m.
In a desperate and final attempt to convince myself and my bride that the Santa Cruz Mountain hamlet of Boulder Creek would be a fine place to buy a vacation home (they can be had for less than $100,000 there), we'd stopped there for lunch, only to find -- again -- that the place had long since been overrun with hippies. "You'd hate it here," my wife reminded me, pointing out that even though there was a brew pub, it was decorated in whimsically Victorian style. Tiffany lamps and boas being the enemy of all that is clear-thinking and righteous, I sighed, accepted her verdict, and drove on.
Sometime over the last 10 years, the people in charge of the Santa Cruz boardwalk decided to upgrade their employees, replacing all of the scary carnies with summering college students. Which put "Adventureland," one of my favorite movies from 2009, into my head. It stayed there all night.
"Have you seen "Adventureland'?" I asked the well-groomed fellow taking our cash at the chow mein booth.
"No. What's it about?"
"It's about a kid who graduates college and ends up working at a second-rate theme park to make enough money for grad school."
"Oh, so it's about me."
Shortly after that, I was on the pier, replacing reality with my own romantic notions of what a beach boardwalk should be. Out went the overweight teenage parents, taking their Mark Ecko tank tops with them. Gone, too, were the agressively drunk shirtless boys hanging out in the arcade, looking for someone, anyone to say something or even just look at them, giving them license to start messing with them and hopefully start a good beatdown.
"I don't like it here," I said to my wife when they finally arrived at the car.
"It's full of people who want to screw with you." All of the frustration, those angry young men whose already short-circuited dreams have left them roaming aimlessly in packs, looking to find the guy responsible. And he could be anyone.
Add to them Santa Cruz' predictable clumps of burnouts, gathered in small groups, homemade tattoos faded after decades of hard living. On top of them, put the hard-partying vacationers standing cheek-to-jowl on second-floor verandes across the street, drunkenly shouting at each other and anyone else who comes into view and you can hear the clock ticking. Every minute longer that I'm here, it becomes more likely that they'll find me. It was better out on the pier.
And even better from the shore today, huddled and cold, sitting up and watching our Jawa out there with the surfers, bobbing up and down on his boogie board in his new O'Neill wetsuit and the booties his mother had to help him get on.