I glanced at the calendar the other day and realized that 2007 marks 20 years since I first arrived in San Luis Obispo. Now I realize that for many of you old-timers, 20 years is nothing, a mere ripple, a minor footnote, but I’ve never lived anywhere for that amount of time and it gave me pause.
Some of you already know my story. Living in Oklahoma and trying to keep my sanity as a burned-out college professor, I saw a job posting one day for a school called Cal Poly, in a town called San Luis Obispo. I had never heard of either, but it was California, a new beginning, an escape from my personal hell. I applied, interviewed by phone, and bluffed my way into a one-year, non-renewable appointment as lecturer. That would give me enough time, I decided, to figure out my Act II.
I remember everything about my first visit to town in 1987. I drove up from LA in a rental car to check the place out before moving. Not having a city map, I picked the Broad Street exit at random, ended up by the Mission and parked downtown in the Court Street lot. Strolling down Monterey Street, I recall being impressed by the outdoor patio at Sebastian’s, now Mission Grill, because outdoor dining in Oklahoma usually meant A &W.
Continuing my random exploration, I went in search of the university, deciding that it had to be somewhere along Johnson Avenue, so I had a nice leisurely tour of residential neighborhoods before finally stumbling on the Grand Avenue entrance to campus. Cal Poly seemed enormous to me and I knew immediately that this would never work; I’d never fit in here.
This was the San Luis Obispo of Farm Boy, Chocolate Soup, pizza at Angelo’s, beer and pool at the Mustang Tavern, live music at the Spindle, and great foreign films at the Rainbow. Woodstock’s Pizza was next to McCarthy’s. You went to Michael’s Deli for thick sandwiches and Assembly Line for the best salad bar. I had more than one burger at Scrubby and Lloyd’s. The Wine Cellar was a cool place to catch a quiet drink.
You could stand at the end of Marsh Street at night and look up to see the bright neon “S” of the Safeway at Marsh and Johnson. The Williams Brothers store out on Broad Street seemed to be the edge of town. There wasn’t a single parking structure in San Luis Obispo and only one Japanese restaurant. Gaby’s and Norwood’s were still thriving as independent bookstores.
As predicted, my brief tenure at Cal Poly was a disaster. I hated teaching. I wanted out. I did everything I could that year to make sure I would never be offered another teaching position. As President Bush might say, Mission Accomplished. Every time I run into my old boss, Harry Sharp, I cringe with guilt. I didn’t burn that bridge—I torched it.
I was single then and the only people in town I knew were my colleagues in the Speech department, but I basically kept to myself. Then a local radio station sponsored a stand-up comedy contest at Wm. Randolph’s, now Quarterdeck. I entered on a whim and beat out 15 other wanna-be comics with such memorable gags as a stuffed rabbit who did impersonations of Rick Martel.
But through that contest, I made my first non-academic SLO friends in Mean Mike Veron, Dave Hungerford, and Molly May and soon I was spending less time on campus and more time in town. The Dark Room became my new haunt and we gathered there regularly to perform truly awful stand-up comedy. Mean Mike swiped one of my jokes and mailed it to Herb Caen, who promptly published it in his newspaper column. I knew then that everything was going to be just fine.
And then my best friend called from the Midwest to report that a beautiful woman I had met previously at a wedding was getting divorced and he urged me to contact Charlotte Alexander.
It gets harder and harder to find the San Luis Obispo of 1987 among the Pottery Barns and the Banana Republics that have come to town. Hudson’s and Burrito Wagon just closed. Norm has to move Old County Deli somewhere else. Linnaea sold her café. Businesses seem to be flocking out to Tank Farm Road.
But it’s there. In my memory. In my heart. 1987. The year I found myself in San Luis Obispo.
SLO City News (March 2007)