Thursday, May 29, 2014

A love letter to Isla Vista

I lived in Isla Vista for a couple of memorable years in the mid-1980’s. Most people just called it “IV”.

IV is a small, densely populated village next to the UCSB campus, isolated by geography, demographics and culture from the nearby cities of Goleta and Santa Barbara, and more importantly, from all the harsh realities of adult life.

Photo from Pinterest

My IV, in the ‘80s, was jam-packed with young, mostly happy, mostly healthy, very decent people.  And so many people. Three to a bedroom in apartments. Two or even three balanced on beach cruisers wobbling down Pardall Rd. Dudes carrying surfboards down Embarcadero del Mar. Crowds of people chatting and studying at Espresso Roma, or drinking beer at picnic tables at Pizza Bob’s. People everywhere, and always dressed as if we had just come back from the beach.

Jim and Andy at the flea market.

The IV fashion sense was a result of the nearby beaches, and the gentle weather, but also an expression of how safe we felt. Being in IV was not quite like being out in public. The whole place felt so comfortable, so intimate.

Mornings in IV were never rushed. Since most of our classes were a 5 minute bike ride away, we never had the stress of carpooling, or fighting for parking spaces on campus. We hopped on our crappy bikes and headed over to Roma for some coffee and maybe a cinnamon twist. And then to class, eventually. Maybe.

If mornings were slow and lovely, afternoons were quietly electric. Everyone walking or on bikes or skateboards. People laughed, flirted, made plans and scrounged for food. We were the world’s most relaxed people, getting even more relaxed as the sun settled down into the Pacific.

My Isla Vista was infused with an easy, subdued joy. You never had very far to go, and never had much to do. There was no Internet, no cell phones, no shopping mall, and no multiplex. We had the Magic Lantern movie theater, which showed art films and old classics. We had a couple of book stores, the world’s first Kinko’s, and Borsodi’s coffee house, which had live music and open-mic poetry in the evening. But mostly, we just hung out at home, in the yard, or on the patio. We talked, studied, played volleyball or hacky-sack, ate, drank, listened to music, obsessed over girls, and soaked up the gentle sunshine.

The Shells, an IV band, at Borsodi’s.

Isla Vista is an historic place. It had been a flash point for political activism in the late 60’s, culminating in riots and the torching of the Bank of America building in 1970. In a perfect expression of our generation’s happy complacency, the rebuilt Bank of America was decommissioned and converted into a dance club. It was actually a pretty fun place, for a while. Despite being big and crowded, there were few fights, no parading of high fashion, no rope lines or bottle service, and no raves. Just preppy/hippy college kids getting drunk on Long Island Ice Teas and dancing to the KROQ-inspired song list.

Truth be told, I was a terrible student in high school. I always took the easiest possible classes and still managed only a C average. Then in my Junior year, I attended UCSB's Summer Juniors Program, which lets about 200 high school students attend the six week summer session while living in Santa Cruz dorm (the one next to the beach).

Jim and Paul at UCSB, Summer of 1981.

After the summer session, I went back to high school motivated as hell to get into UCSB for real. I raised my GPA just enough to get accepted. I didn’t even apply anywhere else. It was going to be UCSB or nothing. As a new freshman, I moved into Santa Rosa dorm, my home for two fantastic years. Paul, my best friend from the Summer Juniors, also ended up in Santa Rosa, and we were roommates our second year.

And then in 1984, Paul and I moved to an apartment on El Greco with our across-the-hall neighbors and new friends Chris and Chuck.

Chuck, blowing bubbles from our apartment balcony on El Greco.

We all really blossomed in IV. There was something so insular and safe and encouraging about the place. Chuck and Chris both had cars, but we hardly ever drove anywhere. You could walk, bike or skateboard wherever you needed to go.

After graduation, I decided to stick around for one last Summer in Isla Vista. I rented a room in a house on Del Playa and bought a sky blue ‘66 VW Squareback. I got a job at a roadside produce stand on an organic farm in Goleta.

Jim's beloved '66 VW Squareback.

After work, my preferred activity was to grab a book and take a little inflatable life raft down to the beach, paddle out past the surf, tie a piece of kelp to one of the oar locks to keep from drifting, and read. I’d often fall asleep. Once, I woke to find my paperback copy of Anthony Trollope’s “The Spotted Dog and Other Stories” floating in the ocean just a few feet away. I fished it out of the water with an oar. I still have it. It is wrinkled and faded and stiff with dry sea water.

When I think of Isla Vista, the first thing I see is the quality of the light itself - quite literally the atmosphere of the place. In the morning, it was always somewhere between clear and cloudy, a high ceiling of less than fog and more than haze. When that lifted, what remained was “cool sunshine” if that's even a thing. Such contradictions are only possible in magic places.

My Isla Vista was a world unto itself. It was our place, and I loved it. It was calm, and sweet, and completely, utterly safe.

I hope it feels that way again someday.