Nov. 30, Yuma, Arizona – More catching up as we sit in yet another outpost of the International House of Bitterness. It’s Friday night in Yuma, 23 miles from the Mexican border, and we sit here trapped in the intertwining strands of the corporate safety net.
On Tuesday afternoon, before embarking on the great Powerball pilgrimage, we were hanging out at the Starbucks in Santa Fe Springs, Calif. Before our entire L.A. stay was squandered in an ordinary strip mall 17 miles across a mind-boggling honeycomb of freeways from Los Angeles proper, we decided to head to the beach.
So many beaches in Southern California. I picked Hermosa Beach as a tribute to friend and former colleague Terry Mosher. He came out here in 1960, a young man from a small town caught up in a wave of wanderlust. Terry joined three friends from the western New York hamlet of Portville in an improvised road trip. They left the Alleghenies in the dead of winter and set out for sunny Southern California.
They were wild and young and carefree.
Behind the wheel was Dick Scott, Terry’s best friend. He was Neal Cassady to Terry’s Jack Kerouac. “On the Road” had been published just three years earlier, and it seems nearly inconceivable that none of them had at least read bits of it.
Dick Scott was 20, a veteran of ski schools and European summers. He was worldly and insouciant, a 6-foot, 4-inch, devil-may-care wildman who liked to gun his 1954 Mercury beyond the bounds of sanity and let the good times roll.
He was a year older than me, but was far more experienced with the world because of his extensive travel, and was fearless. He would do just about anything. I used to call him the Red Baron, because he drove like a mad man, full out in his 1954 Mercury. He was crazy, but in a fun way. If you remember the 3 amigo story I wrote about our trip west from Portville, you know that I went with Dick, Amos and Dave from Portville in January of 1960 and headed west to sunny California. We had a case of beans, a case of soup, and 35 dollars each we chipped in for gas.
It’s nearly 3 p.m., Nov. 28, 2012. We’re 27 miles from Hermosa Beach. We’ve got a decidedly domestic 1993 Toyota Winnebago Warrior, an 11-year-old cat named Lester, a 5-year-old boy named Max and more than enough fuel to get to Hermosa Beach. We’ve got a house going to foreclosure 1,140 miles north of here.
I’m 30 years older than Terry was when he left Portville. I am tame, old and careworn.
But if we get on the road soon, we just might miss the L.A. Freeway blues. We drive down Telegraph Road for three miles, then head up the on-ramp to 105 westbound. I swing the behemoth onto the crowded freeway, then gradually ease it across five lanes of traffic and finally into the relative safety of the carpool lane.
In the next half hour we pass by a welter of L.A. freeways which come at you like a succession of unfamiliar area codes: 605 and 710 and 110 and 405. We sidle past LAX and merge onto California 1, heading south to Hermosa Beach. We negotiate the stop-and-go traffic on Highway 1 for another five miles until we reach Hermosa Beach. I steer us gently onto Pier Avenue and we begin the slow descent toward the shoreline.
Amos and Dave got jobs first in and around LA, Dick and I headed to the coast where we lived in Manhatten Beach, Redondo Beach, and finally Hermosa. I had no clue what I was doing, but it was a beautiful memory that I cherish to this day. We would get gassed up on alcohol and get in Dick’s Mercury and go up the Harbor Freeway to LA to visit Dave and Amos at their swanky Penthouse (it’s a joke; it was a penthouse, but far from swanky). Dick would scoot in and out of six-lane travel on the Harbor. I don’t know how we didn’t get killed, although if we had it would have been painless since we were numbed by the alcohol.
We find parking on Valley Drive adjacent to Hermosa Beach City Hall. There’s plenty of public parking in Hermosa Beach, which amplifies its attractiveness. It’s a great place to visit, though you’d have to be a Powerball winner to afford a house here. They look humble enough scattered across the landscape, but you’d be hard-pressed to find one for less than a million dollars.
We gather ourselves and step out of the camper for our trek to the beach. Becky and I walk. Max mounts his $6 Goodwill scooter and wings his way down Pier Avenue. He is wild, young and carefree.
Mosher tells me Pier Avenue used to go all the way to The Strand, the paved pathway popular among bicyclists and joggers. It runs from the south end of Hermosa Beach to Santa Monica. Now the final block is a pedestrian-only square that includes a bunch of chain-type restaurants and one bona fide old-school legend, the Lighthouse Cafe.
Dick was blue-eyed, brown-haired and very good looking. Girls were crazy about him, and he them. … I don’t think any of us read Kerouac. We guys — Amos, Dave, Dick and I — were guys who were bored with small-town life. … I was still in school at Alfred, but was getting tired of accounting. What convinced me I had to move on was one night I laid in bed (I was sharing an upstairs apartment with two other guys, one from Allegheny (Jim Flynn) and another guy from New York City (I have forgotten his name). The guy from New York was playing Muddy Waters on his suitcase tape deck in the other bedroom and I was lying on my bed with a big profit-and-loss spreadsheet trying to balance it. I kept coming up a penny short and I couldn’t find it. For hours I poured over the P&L and for hours I heard Muddy Waters, over and over again. About 3 in the morning I finally got frustrated and swept the P&L off the bed onto the floor and said that’s it, I’m out of here.
We walk up Hermosa Pier’s gentle incline. Our timing is impeccable, or nearly so. As we reach the apex, the horizon opens before us. An incendiary sun hangs low on the horizon. In seconds it will disappear as if it had been sunk 20,000 deep in the Pacific Ocean. I try to scramble Becky and Max for a last-second photo, but we are too late. We’ll have to settle for the ineffable beauty caught in our mind’s eye.
We head back to the camper, which is logged in a two-hour parking spot. We decide to visit the Lighthouse Cafe, under the mistaken impression it was one of Terry’s favorite haunts. It is a legendary piece of jazz history. In 1949, bass player Howard Rumsey put together a crack ensemble known as The Lighthouse All-Stars. For the next decade or so, it would feature a who’s who of jazz talent from the West Coast and beyond.
The humble club at 30 Pier Avenue is a fixture on the jazz tourist circuit. Brick walls outlined a smoky milieu of evanescent genius. A murderer’s row of jazz greats recorded albums here, among them were Chet Baker, Gerry Mulligan, Miles Davis, Cannonball Adderly, Art Blakey and Art Pepper.
That weekend I went to Portville and hooked up with Dick, helping him change his ’54 Mercury from automatic to a stick shift so he could better be the Red Baron. We worked on his car at an old Rocket Gas Station on the back road to Eldred, about a half-mile from the NY-PA border, just across the Toll Gate Bridge in Portville. We were living on sub sandwiches and beer. I would hold Dick’s beer in one hand and fetch a wrench or whatever he would need in the other while he worked under the car rebuilding the car’s transmission. It was cold, there was snow on the ground, but we both were in seventh heaven. Then one day on a Saturday we were at the Old Rose Inn playing euchre, as we always did, and our opponents were Amos and Dave. Amos and Dave were drinking gin and tonics, I had my familiar Iroquois Beer and Dick had a mixed drink of some kind. We were four guys who no longer fit in this small-town. We had passed it by, and none of us wanted to live out our lives there with little prospect of a meaningful job or advancement of any kind. We were all becoming four sheets to the wind and discussing our useless lives when all of a sudden Dave blurted, “We can go to California.” Just as quickly, Amos leaped up from his chair, cards in one hand, his gin and tonic in the other, spilling out over the rim of his glass, dripping onto the dark and dirty wood floor of the Old Rose Inn. “Let’s Go,” Amos said, a big (bleeping) grin on his face as he staggered forward.
We make our way back to the behemoth, enjoy a happy hour appetizer featuring 2-buck Chuck and brie, then find a new parking spot. We dress in our road trip best and head out into the night.
We return to the base of Pier Avenue and the Lighthouse Cafe. It’s a long way from 1955.
Our addition raises the total population to eight, counting bartender and waitress. In a corner nook by the front door, young lovers make out without discretion. One other patron sits at the middle of the bar.
Happy hour is nearly over. We order what turn out to be watery drinks and pedestrian appetizers. It doesn’t matter. We didn’t come for the food.
We came to imbibe a bit of history.
Terry, alas, was 19 and couldn’t get into the Lighthouse. He lived a block and a half from the beach in an apartment on Pier Avenue. He body surfed by day and worked nights at a machine shop in Torrance. He sneaked in the Vogue, which is gone now, and sometimes hung around the Lighthouse doors to listen to the music.
He stayed six months, until he turned 20. He abandoned sunny Southern California for the rainy Pacific Northwest.
I went back to Portville in 1964, one year away from my degree at Western Washington. I went into the Old Rose Inn, a beer joint we hung out in. We left for California from the Old Rose Inn. The couple who owned the place were sweethearts. She used to fix me lunch (free) and we would sit in the kitchen and play cribbage. She was looking out for this vagabond. She bet the four of us that we would all return within a year. The bet was a singapore sling, which was very powerful drink. When I came back in ’64 I sat down on a bar stool and first thing she said to me, “I owe you a drink.”
We pay our tab, smile and say thank you. We are happy despite the disappointing fare. We trudge up Pier Avenue and stop in a convenience store to pick up a bottle of cheap champagne and a quart of overpriced orange juice. At the suggestion of blog friend Blind Charlie, will will sit tomorrow morning on the beach at Hermosa, chasing seagulls and sipping mimosas.
If only I could get my hands on an Iroquois beer.
I said just give me a Iroquois Beer, which was my favorite. She ran and got one, put it in front of me and before I could even take a swig I said, “What happened to Dick.” … All the blood drained from her face. In that instant I knew Dick was dead. We use to come back late in the morning from drinking and head over to his aunt’s place in Duke Center, PA. She was the postmistress there. We would crash in her living room. Coming into town there was a sharp curve with a barn on left side close to the road. Dick in his usual Red Baron mode would race around that curve in the dead of winter with ice on the road, slide around it and race into town. I finally yelled at him one night that, “If you do that again, I’m jumping out.” I told him that one night I wouldn’t be there with him and he would go around that curve, lose control and go straight through the barn and be killed. It’s exactly what happened in 1962. … For the next three days I sat at (our) favorite table, right next to the juke box, and drank until all the sadness had left me. I played our old songs on the jukebox and just sat there drinking Iroquois after Iroquios. The owners left me alone. Once in a while the woman would quietly come over and place some food on the table. It makes me sad writing this. Dick was a great, gregarious, funny guy. It’s been 50 years since he crashed into that barn and I still miss him. After three days, I finally left and never went back to the Old Rose Inn. It was done with.