The Best Coffee Shop in the People’s Green Socialist Republic of Santa Cruz, California

At nine, two flows of humanity cross each other in front of Lulu Carpenter’s, the upscale coffee shop at the top of Pacific Avenue. Pacific Avenue is the main walking commercial thoroughfare, surprisingly well re-designed after the destruction 1989 earthquake. It’s nothing like the collection of cheap motels leading to the Boardwalk that greets the casual tourist entering Santa Cruz from high-traffic Ocean street.

Down Pacific comes the cortege of the houseless, walking from the shelter toward breakfast at the Salvation Army, a mile away. I don’t call them “homeless” because ownership of a house does not guarantee a home, and because it’s possible to make a home without a house. Also, I am sick of the sanctimoniousness of the word. Most of the houseless carry a large backpack. The smart ones also carry a guitar, or a guitar case, one of the best weapons against the city’s repressive ordinances. (See below.)

It would not take much to convince me that some of the houseless have a hangover. They are mostly silent. Those who are not harangue loudly society at large, or God, or no one in particular. One talks into a cell-phone she does not have. I know for a fact that one houseless woman in her thirties can speak perfect French with the (to me) quaint diction of what is probably a Swiss finishing school. (Trust me, I don’t have the talent to make up a detail like this.)

Up Pacific Avenue from the bus depot march Mexicans on their way to work. They converse loudly in Spanish. Many laugh or guffaw. The Mexicans all wear thick sensible jackets in dark colors, black, navy blue or gray. The houseless tend to be elaborately dressed, layer upon layer. It’s not all about the morning cold: Many women, and quite a few men, wear colorful Indian, or otherwise “ethnic” dress on top of jeans and sweaters. Every single one of the houseless is an Anglo. Perhaps, race matters, after all.

Much of residential Santa Cruz is littered. (I believe my own street is never swept by the city.) Pacific Avenue, however, the showcase artery, is cleaned every day or nearly so. There are two distinct street crews. You can tell which is coming from afar. The first crew is large, youngish, noisy and enthusiastic. It’s composed entirely of mentally handicapped people and of their minders. They make noise because they are invariably in good spirits, kidding one another endlessly and throwing good-humored insults around. When they are through, hardly a single cigarette butt has managed to conceal itself in a crack.

The other crew comprises mostly people in their forties and fifties in green uniforms who work slowly, with the dignity befitting their status as tenured city employees. They are said to be the best paid municipal employees anywhere in America. I think this is probably fair because, I suspect, most of them hold a Master’s in Comparative Literature, or of Fine Arts, from the University of California. They contribute to the gravitas of the community.

Lulu’s, the coffee shop, manages to maintain a steady truce between environmentally militant, abstemious, vegetarian types who hate tobacco, and smokers. I think this is because almost all the smokers are alternative lifestyle youths with pierced body parts, and existentialist graduate students from UCSC. No one really wants to find out how tough the pierced ones really are, and the graduate students earn respect by appearing to be in possession of profound truths that don’t even have a name in English.

By and large, the smokers are pigs: They throw cigarette filters with a half-life of twenty years on the ground although they are only ten feet from a litter box. Nobody ever complains about the littering because neatness is a bourgeois virtue incompatible with the community’s revolutionary spirit. (I think most city elections are disputed between Maoists and Trotskists, who have been in the closet elsewhere since 1971, and a few left-leaning liberals, all prosperous shopkeepers.) Besides, Lulu’s owner, who runs a tight ship, makes sure most of the butts are swept from his vicinity every night.

Shortly after nine, people come in for take-out coffee. The young ones are mostly workers from neighborhood shops who got up too late to fix their own coffee. (The result of a recurring epidemic: The young believe something tremendous will happen if only they stay up late enough.) A few customers sit down to read the paper in solitude, or they chat in groups of two or three to kick off the day with conviviality. No one knows what they do for a living. The young are probably students; the middle-aged may be teachers (like me), or independently wealthy. (Santa Cruz’ own dangerous secrets: Who is a trust fund baby? Who made a real estate fortune in the seventies?) One can easily tell the well-off from the poor because, for the former shabby clothing is de rigueur.

There are some old codgers who have probably been awake for hours. I avoid them like the plague because I suspect them of wanting to induct me into their mutual misery society: You let me tell you about my colon; I will listen about your arthritis. Among those who sit alone, reading a newspaper is common. They read the local give-away sheet (surprisingly good though uneven), or the Santa Cruz Sentinel (bad spelling, good local coverage, bad international coverage), the San Jose Mercury News (there are a few techies left after the dot.com debacle), the San Francisco Chronicle (for bottom feeders like me), or the New York Times, of course. No one has the cojones to read the Wall Street Journal in public. (There is no free lunch; there would be a Hell’s worth of shunning to pay.)

The serving staff is young, friendly, and sunny. Most of them nurture a creative sideline: painting, writing, music, the pursuit of esoteric beliefs. They are all avid readers, making Lulu’s a much better literary café than Saint Germain-des-Prés ever knew. By the way, one young guy reads big post- Modernist books of French origin. I am dying to warn him. (Bad French never translates into good English.) I resist the temptation because youth must be allowed to make its own mistakes. I think the young people on the staff worry sometimes about what being the butt of customers’ jovial moods and gracious thankfulness is going to do to their long-term creativity which requires a dose of misery, as everyone knows.

There is a punk rocker who works in the kitchen. His temples are shaved and a silver stud pierces his upper chin. He is a real conservative who works two jobs so his wife can stay home and take care of their child. He is against drugs, except tobacco. I swap him stories for cigarettes. What a deal!

For months, I have been trying to devise a sociologically valid taxonomy of beverage choices. It’s tough going. The green tea drinkers are probably followers of Buddhist mysticism, and hypochondriacs to boot. The chai drinkers would like to travel; they are sure they love India because they have never been there. Once, I forced my brother-in-law, a tea-trader visiting from Calcutta, to taste Lulu’s chai. He told me that what we call “chai” in America, “tea” in most Indian languages, is a good beverage for those allergic to tea.

You can tell the hard-line leftists by the fact that they load every beverage with prodigious amounts of sugar, or often, of honey. (Self- indulgence has a way to assert itself in roundabout paths.) I can’t figure out those men who order espresso or complicated Italianate coffee drinks. (Raspberry latte? Menthe mocha?) The women who do so require no explanation: All heterosexual women are naturally chi-chi (and many who are not). Hot honey and milk is probably for those who coddle their inner child. I can’t begin to tell you how many are hairy, 200 pound, rugged-looking guys. The presence of soy milk on the menu is not surprising though: It’s the politically correct accompaniment to organically grown coffee. The drinkers of regular coffee are probably solid citizens who ended up in Santa Cruz by happenstance. I suspect they have regular jobs and pay taxes regularly; the brew helps them stay regular. A few might be closet conservatives. You never know.

I have been marveling at a classificatory mystery: Lulu’s offers simultaneously, caffè latte, café con leche, and café au lait. I believe the three sets of words mean exactly the same thing. I could try each concoction in turn, of course, in a spirit of scientific experimentation. I refrain because I am charmed by the reliable mystery of three perfectly parallel universes neatly delineated by three mutually intelligible languages.

A Tale of Two Cities (in Santa Cruz, California, USA)

There is a Veterans Hall right in downtown Santa Cruz. It’s called “Veterans Memorial,”  says so on its facade. It’s next door to the US Post Office and across the street from a marble monument to those children of the county who participated in World War One or in World War Two.

Every Wednesday morning, a group of older men and a couple of women, wearing Veteran badges and holding up a Veteran flag as well as a US flag meet near the monument to sing songs. They don’t sing especially patriotic songs but rather goodies and oldies. This morning, they gave a beautiful rendition of “Lily Marlene.” One old guy volunteered that he was sorry no one there knew the words in German. (For those of you who get your culture from Twitters: “Lily Marlene” was a rare thing, a tube sung by both sides in the European theater during the second world war.) Mostly, usually, they sing “Home on the Range’” and the like.

Another old guy told me that the group is not allowed to meet inside the Veterans building when the weather is inclement without paying the county a fee. Veterans’ Memorial is not freely available to veterans. It’s a small group; they don’t seem prosperous. Perhaps the fee is the method used by the county to keep the homeless out. It’s true that the group of singers looks a little scruffy. Some are old men who don’t live with a woman. Some are down and out homeless. Some are veterans who are homeless.

The decidedly left-wing municipal council of the City of Santa Cruz uses all kinds of artifices to contain and corral the homeless population. It wouldn’t be surprising if the county did something similar. I don’t know that it does. It sounds credible though. I will look into it.

I am not saying there is no problem with the homeless concerning more than those who are homeless. I have spoken about it before. The methods used to deal with them just make me deeply uneasy from a constitutional standpoint. The latent hypocrisy also gets to me. More later.

Two days ago, there was a little ceremony in front of O’Neil’s  flagship store, also in downtown Santa Cruz, a block away. Yes, I mean that O’Neil, that genius of entrepreneurship, that hero of capitalism. (For those who read me from overseas: O’Neil is the brand of surfboards then, of beach apparel, you see on every beach in the world. There is actually a Mr O’Neil.) The ceremony was a  celebration of PACT. (“People for something or other.”)

PACT was celebrating  its first-year anniversary and changing its name to honor a former DA. There were representatives from the DA’s office, from the city police, a couple of social workers, others from various city departments, or county departments, almost all public employees taking paid time off work. I would venture that 90% of those who stopped there for more than one minute were on the public payroll or spouses of such. They were celebrating themselves.

PACT targets “nuisance crimes.” That’s mostly behavior of the homeless population. In its first year, a press release announced, PACT reduced “nuisance crimes” as follows:

“The program focused on 70 repeat offenders during its first year and results show a 70% decrease in arrests and citation recidivism rates. During that period, ambulance runs for those 70 DAP-focused offenders decreased 80%.”

I live downtown, in one of the areas targeted, I think. I did not notice any reduction in nuisances. How come I am not surprised that a new government program announces striking successes? The press release concludes that:

“The Santa Cruz City Council and County Board of Supervisors will be considering the expansion of PACT in their upcoming budget hearings in May and June.” (Bolding mine.)

So, I don’t want to sound persnickety and I am all for initiatives, trying new things where old methods don’t work. What I saw and read on that occasion though is not good enough. I need two more things.

First, I want to be told squarely that the methods used do not violate anyone’s constitutional rights. Even laws that have been on the book forever make me nervous. Anti-loitering laws for one. (Is any man in a conservative coat and tie ever accused of loitering when he is just waiting in the street for his friend?)

Second, to judge a publicly funded program, I always want more info than is provided here. I have no reason to doubt the PACT figures  (“70% reduction in…”) – however cherry-picked they may be. They are only performance measurements however. I want cost-benefit, input-output measurements. If a city program resulted in 100% reduction in litter on my street, I would be only guardedly happy. If I found out that my share of the real cost of this achievement was $10,000 annually, I am certain I would want to  find out about the cost of a 90% reduction in litter, and so on.

And, by the way, I want the real cost, all included, including pension funding going forward. Sometimes just asking that a bureaucracy calculate the costs of its actions and make them public is enough to alter its course. Sometimes, just demanding that it calculate those costs is enough.

Good government is largely about choosing. I want the  elements of choice to be divulged to me as a citizen and as a taxpayer. It’s not too much to ask, I think.

PS  Yes, I know, the city council was elected according to fair and clean elections. That’s not enough for me. I want it to do as little as possible on its own.

Duckshit and Bullshit in Santa Cruz, California.

Today, interestingly right before Memorial Day, thousands of residents of Santa Cruz are hiding their faces like a bunch of old nuns who would have caught sight of a naked man by mistake. (I should stop saying this; it’s may not be fair to nuns.) The cause of their emotion: a front page article in the local newspaper about one of the most obvious beaches in town being grossly polluted. The newspaper is itself a grossly  biased greenie-liberal sheet that can’t spell. (It has its good days once in a while but I can’t figure out why.)

Something like this happens regularly with the most attractive beaches in the area pointed to by the severe index of pseudo-science, or of quasi-science. The last time I looked into it, it turned out that natural lagoons had been allowed to form on the offending beaches,  stopping the flow of small creeks. Ducks and seagulls had gathered in there, of course and done  for weeks on end what waterbirds will do in the water. The solution: Breach the sand dam that allows for the lagoon;  sea water downstream then tests clean within a day or so.

At the time, local surfers organizations and many greenie mouthpieces had darkly commented as if it were a known fact that the high bacteria count near those beaches was due to human fecal matter. It was not. It matters. I would not let my grandchild swim in duck shit but the fact is that it’s less likely to infect humans with human disease bacteria than do human feces. Got it? Continue reading