Saturday, May 8, 2010

Remembering the coast's Santa

I'm often the last to know when big news hits my local area, and so I suppose I shouldn't be surprised to hear that it's been nearly a year since one of Half Moon Bay's most beloved residents, Rod Schoenlank, passed away. Rod, who died of congestive heart failure on June 26, 2009, just before his 88th birthday, was one of the first people to befriend me when I arrived on the coastside four years ago. I was confused, scared and lost. I had come here for a job that turned out to be nothing like I'd imagined. After eight excruciating months I quit. I had no plan in mind, and found myself spending my days in a local cafe, scribbling down everything I saw and heard.

Some of these notes, I began turning into short essays with a vague notion of collecting them into a book. Then life picked up again, and all of it was forgotten, except Rod himself. He continued to have his daily "coffee klatsch," and whenever I went to the local cafe I was sure to see him, sitting there surrounded by his amazing friends. He always invited me to join them, and the conversations were never dull. He was like a heavy star, holding people together through the sheer gravity of his personality.

As the pace of my life increased, I had less and less time. I rarely stopped by the cafe. A niggling feeling at the back of my mind told me he must have died--he was getting into his late eighties, after all--but I never bothered to check. Today, something told me to run a search online. Sure enough, there was an item in the Half Moon Bay Review, along with links to some remembrances.

The best is a slide show that an intern at the Half Moon Bay Review did of him a few years ago. He quotes "Hamlet" in the seamless, unconscious way of someone who knew long sections of it by heart. He is shown on his boat, the Lao Tzu, moored in Princeton Harbor for two decades. He doesn't seem old. He never did. Rather, he seemed ageless. We all knew that he'd have to walk off the stage at some point. Yet, it seems impossible that there is now a world that no longer contains him. I felt a wave of shame that I was so careless as to lose track of him, until there was no longer someone to track.

If you have the patience, below find one of the essays I wrote after an early meeting with Rod. It's not about him--he's just another local character woven into the narrative. I preserved his and everyone else's anonymity. I named him "Gary Eagle," based on a story he told me that I've since forgotten--something to do with meeting a member of the Eagle clan in his travels. The dialogue and situation were taken directly from real life, with hardly a detail changed, and I think the part that features him does him some justice. I hope so.


Princeton Harbor on Half Moon Bay is only a half hour south of San Francisco, but it might as well be on the other side of the world. Here, fishermen sell live crab from their boats, sending customers off with long plastic bags stuffed with these heavy, reddish claw-snapping delicacies. They lug the bags back to their Audis and Mazdas, and as they drive home, the interiors of their vehicles fill with the briny scent of the bay.

Just beyond the line of fish and chip shops lies a maze of narrow streets named after the Ivy League and Seven Sisters universities and colleges of the northeast. My own alma mater, Vassar, is a small, ill-paved street that unexpectedly dead ends near a pile of ancient, rotted fish netting. Harvard Avenue, Yale Way and Amherst Streets all meander here and there, taking you past vacant lots, or lots piled high with rusted hulks of various sizes, shapes, and providences. Abandoned wooden boats lie on the grass, moored among weeds that grow over them like the rivulets that once surrounded them during their useful lives. Wildflowers grow everywhere, impervious to rusty Pabst Blue Ribbon cans and discarded styrofoam clam chowder bowls, left by careless visitors anxious to return to the warmth of Hayward or Redwood City, beyond the reach of the cold, cloying fog.

Much of the area is made up of warehouses. Many are signless, and when we first arrived I wondered if they were empty, until one weekend several put out sandwich boards on the highway, enticing us with promises of inexpensive records and brick-a-brac. When this happens, we discovered, crowds descend, snapping up flat screen televisions, children’s clothing, gold-plated platters, scented candles, plastic flowers and “Dora the Explorer” lunchboxes.

All through the summer, the air here is as thick and white as milk.
It hangs in front of your eyes and clings to your clothing until everything you own is perpetually damp and cold. If you stand on the shore next to Princeton Harbor, the sea looks like a billowing sheet, white from top to bottom, completely merged with the sky. Flocks of brown pelicans move as one entity, silently skimming the water. They don't seem to mind the fog. I never hear them complaining of soggy feathers; never hear them pronounce, grouchily, to their pelican spouse, "This is our new home by the beach?"

The human residents don’t talk about the fog much either. They seem to have steeled themselves. About the only time they mention it is to laugh at tourists who come here in the summer dressed in shorts, slathering sunscreen on their shivering children.

Those who are determined to meet the locals will eventually find their way to a cafĂ© across the street from the harbor, Cafe Classique. It is where everyone in the area goes, from the fisherman standing in their rubber boots to Mexican farm workers, to Silicon Valley engineers who live on the coast for their love of surfing or the sea. Standing in line, you move forward in fits and starts, feeling your way along as the ordered chaos dances around you. Mothers turn around and find the fathers of their children’s friends, stepping out of the line to greet them. There is talk of summer camp and carpools. Those on their way to work seem to forget themselves, stopping to chat for half an hour by the cream dispensers before glancing at their watches and making their reluctant way out, paper cup full of cooled coffee in hand.

Even on the coldest days, the locals swarm out to the deck, nursing warm mugs of coffee, or eating breakfast made from local eggs. One group of folks has been meeting here every morning at ten a.m. sharp for the past eighteen years. This is the "coffee klatsch," organized by Gary Eagle.

One morning I witnessed a conversation that I took to be fairly typical. Mr. John, a huge man wearing a battered leather cap and overalls was sitting at a small table by himself.

“Cats,” he announced, to no one in particular. “What’s wrong with them?”

“I got a few cats,” volunteered Sally, who sat at the coffee klatch table. “Sometimes, they tear up my sofa. But that’s okay because I hate my sofa. Reminds me of my ex-husband.”

“Which ex-husband?” asked Chip, who sat next to her.

“The fourth one,” she answered.

“Oh him,” said Chip, nodding.

Sally shared her raisin cake with Chip and the others at the table, who pounced on it like mice.

“Let me tell you something. I got a habit of keeping cats,” Mr. John went on. “Me and three Mexican guys. We call it our cat farm. It’s over by …” he paused, looking left and right, then continued, as if assured there were no spies, “…the yacht club. But it’s a totally secret place.”

“How many you got, Mr. John?” asked Doc.

“We’re up to twelve of them. So, let me ask you. Do you think it’s normal for a man to have that many cats?”

Doc didn’t eat the cake.
He’s very careful about sugar. A retired oral surgeon, he is single and always on the lookout. The women he dates complain that he treats them like the mouths of his former patients. As soon as they meet, he begins to drill into their pasts. He is sure he can be the one to uproot the decay and make it disappear for good. This drives them off, he knows, but he can’t stop himself.

“I don’t know, Mr. John. What’s normal or not?” asked Chip.

Chip lives in a boat in the harbor, but you rarely find him there. He’s usually housesitting or paying a friend with a house on dry land an extended visit. He doesn’t like water. He’s still not sure how he ended up owning a boat.

“A man can pick up a lot of bad habits. He can drink alcohol. He can smoke cigarettes. Hell, he can smoke crack,” Mr. John continued. “You stack those things up against cats, and I think you have to agree things are pretty good for me.”

“I had a beautiful gray dog once,” said Gary Eagle. “Now that I live on a boat, a dog’s not such a good companion. Boating life’s hard for a dog.”

A youthful eighty-six, Gary has a long, flowing white beard that makes him look like a slimmed-down Santa. His eyes twinkle and shine no matter what he is doing or saying. His face looks like it was ironed over and over, until some of the creases stayed put. Gary told me he was once the vice president of a steel company in Muskegee, Wisconsin. He keeps his old business card in his wallet to remind himself of what might have become of his life. At the height of his career, he walked out of his office, never to return.

Now Gary’s home is the Lao Tzu. He bought it two decades ago, and has managed to keep it going, despite plumbing problems, and an aging hull. Buying that boat was the best decision of his life, he tells you. The Lao Tzu shelters him through the seasons. At Christmastime, friends bring children’s stuffed animal toys to him. He gathers them on the deck of the Lao Tzu. The children arrive and he tells them to come on board and find the toy that "chooses them." To the kids, there is no doubt who he is.

A couple sat down near the regular’s table, where the topic of dogs was now in full swing. The pair were clearly not locals. It’s possible they were not even from San Francisco. Their faces were pinched, their posture as stiff as wood. Gary’s gaze fell on them, seeking their faces for a smile. The woman turned away, her cheeks going scarlet.

“You must be a regular here,” the man said, letting out a nervous laugh.

Gary laughed so hard he had to wipe a tear away.

“Oh, yes, you could say that. You could definitely say that.”

The couple spotted another empty table as far from the others as possible. They dived for it, all the while explaining themselves, as if talking to a child or a lunatic.

“This one is larger, see?” said the man. “And more comfortable.”

Gary smiled again, his eyes twinkling even more intensely than before. Santa.

The fog began to burn off, revealing sky and trees that had been shrouded. Children played on the sidewalk. An old black dog with white feet and a white nose meandered down the street. It stopped before crossing, looking out for left turners and hot rodders. Finding a large tree, it stood next to it as if taking up a sentry post. The wind picked up. A heavy, green branch above the dog fluttered jaggedly, up and down, up and down. This is not a place for those who want the easy life, I decided. Nor, is it a place for those who want to blend in and be forgotten. Even this dog is a local. And somehow, I think he knows it.

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