Twelve: Shisha in Santa Barbara

Posted: October 29, 2012 in The Road to Skid Row

Jack wanted to ditch my mother and sister and head back to the hookah place to smoke shisha. I wasn’t convinced it would go down well. Jack was adamant. He was in California and he wanted to have fun, fun, fun.

Our day trip to Santa Barbara was nearing its end. We drove up the Pacific Coast Highway that morning experiencing one of the most beautiful car journeys in the world. I was having my best day in California so far, so I didn’t want to ruin it by following one of Jack’s whims. I knew where that would lead me, where it would lead all of us.

Jack was my favourite uncle growing up and still is. Even in his fifties he has a teenage wildness, the craziness which is both his most charming and most destructive quality. If you ever wondered what Neal Cassady – inspiration for Kerouac’s manic character Dean Moriarty in On the Road – was like in real life, you should meet my uncle. I guess it helps that Jack actually is crazy – bi-polar and schizophrenia are the correct medical terms. “Mad one” is the phrase Kerouac used.

When I was a kid Jack once drove for two hours to find a roadside hot dog stand he liked on a mountain somewhere in West Virginia. The place was in the middle of nowhere and served up delicious foot-long dogs. He took us there on a whim but we were all happy at the time – crazy, seemingly pointless excursions like that broke the monotony of our stay with my grandmother in Ohio. My siblings and I loved him for it. We still do, but we’ve also seen enough of the dark side of madness to have grown slightly weary of his whims. Tonight wasn’t going to be one of those nights. Jack forgot about the idea after we ambled around long enough.

We left dusk by the pier and evening followed us up to Main Street, covering Santa Barbara in the Persian blue night of the Pacific coast. Everything was beautiful – the city crawling up the hillside, the warm ocean air, the percussive cicadas playing in the bushes. Here was a city you could walk around, a town you could drink up like the local grapes and then wander home up hillsides or down ocean paths.

What a break from LA. What a break from the parking lots they call highways and the Kingdoms they call towns. From air full of lead and nitrogen dioxide, the incessant rumble of cars and helicopters, from blustering billboards and obnoxiously illuminated fast food signs, crazy homeless people, vulgar rich people and indifferent everyone-else-people. From everything everyone loves about LA – the hustle, the bustle, the Venice Beach muscle.

Back in the car I felt like I had taken a week-long vacation. I hadn’t noticed how much the city was getting to me. As much as I love tarmac, my heart lives in the country. I slumped into the front seat and slept while Jack drove back to LA.


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