Between the end of high school and the start of the fall quarter 1954 at Stanford there was the last, endless summer I spent on the beach. In this instance it was the beach of a resort. It was – let me use the standard euphemism de politesse – interesting. I saw a side of La Charca’s social life of which I had been only peripherally aware before that time. After due deliberation on the matter I came to the conclusion by the end of that summer that the people who belonged to this club were not necessarily the crème de la crème of Southern California society but merely the crème. For these hopefuls it was a highly desired venue imagined, in their own anxious minds, as the first step on ascent to that rarefied ultimate of the social arrivistes, in-ness.
Some people – and especially their children – seemed to make the place a sort of second home, and one quickly picked up on the obnoxious types and the decent sorts. I was hired as one of about a dozen lifeguard-beach boys whose duties did include monitoring bathers in the Pacific and the large pool at the center of the complex that was favored by younger children and their mothers. The latter was a hated assignment, for it was impossible to loaf or busy oneself with inventive make-work or hide in one of the many cabañas that dotted the beach along an extended stretch of sidewalk that lined the apartments. There were assistant managers who kept an occasional eye on the ‘beach’ as backup to the head lifeguard, an older guy who’d been around the block a few times with a lady-friend who had run her own engine a mile or two. I don’t remember much about him except that I felt he desperately wanted to be part of this hot crowd – and not a part of the staff — a goal he couldn’t have achieved in three life times. Can’t blame the guy for trying, though. He was cloyingly ingratiating to the shakers and movers and treated ‘the boys’ the way the chefs did the kitchen staff.
Thereby, incidentally, hangs a tale.
All the talk about illegal immigration and the putative efforts on the part of various government agencies from the federal to the local are for me words written on the wind and spelled on water. I speak from historical perspective. In 1954 the waiters, cleaners and dishwashers whose domain was, largely, the kitchen and the dining rooms, were almost exclusively Mexican. And illegals. Everybody knew this. Nobody ever brought more than a pro forma cosmetic concern to bear on the problem. The Mexicans were good workers, didn’t (dare to) complain, and were cheap. No wonder they were needed.
Yet, every Friday afternoon, around four or five, la migra would swoop down on the Club shouting greetings to their old friends, load the illegals into their vans, and cart them off to the Tijuana border some twenty or thirty miles or so south of La Charca. And, regular as proverbial clock-work and as predictably as sunrise, Monday morning they were all back in the kitchens, busy cleaning up after the weekend parties. And the next Friday, here comes la migra again, hello hello ¿Qué pasa?, ¿Como está? y demás, and off the vans would go for the border. This was over fifty years ago, and when people in authority who certainly know different claim that “we’ve finally got the border under control,” please forgive me if my skepticism is deeper than the Mindanao trench. One time I actually saw the familiar group lined up at the main office of the resort waiting in polite and orderly fashion for their usual ride to the border.
One need hardly be overly bright to see how this operation was a truly symbiotic one: the Mexicans were effectively allowed to work illegally, and Immigration got to keep reporting the same deportations over and over, thus satisfying the head moron in Washington that they were on the job and deporting huge numbers of illegal aliens – never mind that it was the same limited number of individuals repeatedly banished each weekend forever from our fair shores. Multiply this by thousands of businesses all over Southern California, from large ones like the one I worked at to small bodegas, and you get some sense of the deep-seated corruption that kept the system oiled. So I should believe our government today when they say the border is under control — finally? I think not, thank you.
Anyway, this lifeguard-in-charge was a good-looking guy, though you could see the crow’s feet sprouting from the corners of his eyes and the start of love handles. The ladies liked him, and he enjoyed going to the dances and partying with the wealthy populists he worked for. I don’t know what the husbands thought of all this, or even wives, for that matter, but there you are. There was something mildly pathetic about this soul who apparently had been roaming up and down the coast of Southern California working its major beach resorts probably since before WWII. What would happen to this wanderer five or ten years from now as he hit middle age?
I stayed out of his way as much as possible and was only faintly cognizant of the varied ‘action’ he had going. Some of the beach boys who had worked the club in previous summers (one of them was going back to his last year of dental school in the fall and another was a third-year medical student) also had their own little operations lined up: setups to the cabañas, reserving chairs and umbrellas on the beach, providing extra furniture for room parties, and so forth. Some of them made more money in tips this way than they did in salary, and towards the end of the summer I got in on the side of some of these gigs. But not much of the tips money, which, I noted on a number of occasions, was in plentiful supply. I admit I hated busing three scores of sand-gritty glasses with the inevitable shards of broken ones buried in the sand, and this at the imperious suggestions of some greedy operator only a couple of years older than myself and reluctant to share even a small portion of the sizeable tip he got for this task. Among the least intriguing part of this cleanup was the hassling by the head dishwasher who hated the encrusted glassware even more than I did (the sand would clog his machines), and would usually farm out the initial rinse to one of his compliant Mexican subordinates. It was real-world Darwinism at work – from the head manager of the club all the way down to first-year beach-boys like myself.
There were some movie stars who showed up from time to time at the resort, some of them doing summer repertory at the La Charca Playhouse. One time Joe McCarthy, the commie hunter, spent a weekend there, and some of us made sure that he got a very bright red umbrella to shade his setup on the beach. I remember him as a shortish paunchy pasty-skinned man of considerable swarthy hairiness. Because of the nearby Del Mar Race Track, which had an active season in the summer, a number of jockeys stayed at the hotel now and again. It was an odd sight at first, but you got used to seeing these very small men with their tall, sexy model girlfriends in tow.
One time I had what could have been a serious accident: I had been told to swim out beyond the surf line to check on some lashings that held a company raft anchored for swimmers to lie on and sunbathe. This contraption lay bobbing just beyond the surf line of the Pacific, demarcated by a long thick hawser strung through heavy wooden blocks to keep it afloat. Coming back to shore I caught a wave and started body-surfing in, but surfed right into the hard edge of one of these blocks and took a terrific bang to the right part of my head. I was momentarily stunned, and as I emerged from the water, walking up the beach, people rushed towards me. It turns out I had flayed off a large chunk of scalp and was bleeding profusely. I began to chill (literally, that is), and the lifeguard who was a medical student took me to a first aid station to wash out the wound before they sent me on up to a local hospital for suturing and further looking after.
The reason I said this might well have had a less happier outcome is that it did happen that a surfer would get hit by a surf board, knocked unconscious, and drown. This certainly could have happened to me (as it in fact sometimes did to surfers), but I imagine that the kind of agency I talk about at later points was somehow looking out for me and determined I still had a few years to go. I still have a large scar running across half of my scalp, and in later years of more literary awareness I took a kind of cryptic pleasure in likening my scar to that of that great seafarer Odysseus – although his was on a thigh, and from a boar: well, boar, board; potato, potahto; etcetera, etketera …
And there was one serendipitous and totally wonderful benefit to working at this venue that summer.
Her name was Jennifer.