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Letter from: a new beginning in Santa Cruz, America’s last hippie holdout

Letter from: a new beginning in Santa Cruz, America's last hippie holdout

When Belarusian economist-turned-journalist Kolia Sulima emigrated to Santa Cruz, he discovered a city that marches to its own beat

18 August 2014
Text Kolia Sulima

Out of all the places an emigre from Belarus could settle in the whole of the US, I stumbled upon the wildest, most bizarre, most heinously expensive town you could possibly imagine. Only someone as fresh off the boat as me could in his right mind travel to the third most expensive town in the US and decide to set up home there. “So, why Santa Cruz?” This is, without exception, the first question every American asks me. Escaping Belarus, which was turning into some sort of lifeless country in 2008, to live in one of the last bastions of hippie culture in the US, is a bit like leaving a monastery to join the circus, swapping the company of monks for bears, gypsies and sword-swallowers. But I had somewhere to stay in Santa Cruz so it seemed like a good place to start.

In Santa Cruz everything is a little bit different. To start with, the town is near the San Andreas Fault, which the locals will tell you at the first opportunity. This surely explains why everything here is a little bit topsy-turvy, right? San Jose, half an hour’s drive away on the mainland, is full of average Joes preoccupied with everyday problems like mortgages, traffic, the price of petrol and the San Francisco Giants’ umpteenth defeat. Hop over the mountain ridge and you’re in an enclave, a sanctuary for the weird and wonderful. It even has its own special “Mediterranean” climate.

There are no jobs here, especially for immigrants. The main hives of industry are old people’s homes, cafes and a theme park full of candyfloss and holidaymakers with clothes smeared in ketchup. The staff at these theme parks — hunched over and exhausted in their synthetic trousers and shirts — make the prospect of working at an old people’s home seem positively appealing.

Attending the University of California is the dream of every unemployed person in Santa Cruz but it’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than it is to win a place at this sacred shrine. Somewhere within its hip walls there are probably real people at work, but, as I’ve discovered, they have no time for a Belorussian economist with no references and an obscure past. Belarus? Is that a vegetable?

The city’s cafes and restaurants only hire rosy-cheeked students, irreproachable paradigms of virtue. They’ve honed the skill of drinking themselves into a stupor in the evening, then getting up to start work at 9am, fresh as daisies. Travelling from one watering hole to the next, filling in forms alongside these young guns, you soon grasp that your chances of finding work are about the same as winning the lottery twice in a row.

When you live in Santa Cruz, your one wish is to seal the city in a transparent dome, to stop everything from drying up and to stop the perennial sea breeze from blowing into town. From the ocean wafts the stench of rotting seaweed. From the town pier, the smell of Mexican food and sea lions. They mope beneath the pier, barking so noisily you can hear them from the town centre. The strongest smell though is of marijuana. You could go weeks without catching a whiff of tobacco smoke but the smell of marijuana assaults the nostrils from every direction, from the casual passer-by to the audience at a concert, to the fellow in a wheelchair collecting donations for his overweight cat.

Santa Cruz is arguably the last hippie stronghold in the US. It’s almost impossible to earn any money and so, paradoxically, it’s fashionable to be poor

Santa Cruz is arguably the last hippie stronghold in the US. It’s almost impossible to earn any money and so, paradoxically, in Santa Cruz it’s fashionable to be poor. The city’s full of hobos but no-one moves them on. The tramps I’m accustomed to are dirty, covered in scabs and usually not long for this world. Those in Santa Cruz are of a different breed entirely. They hover in lines along Pacific Avenue, one of the main downtown drags, and sit around the libraries frightening the readers. They wash themselves and their clothes in the public toilets, and they busk with guitars and laugh their booming laughs like out-of-tune organs. The polite Santa Cruz police put on latex gloves and engage them in leisurely conversation.

The weekly farmers’ market is also quite the scene. An amateur orchestra of 15 drummers have installed themselves under a giant sycamore tree and play an assortment of bongos, barrels, plastic buckets and maracas. There isn’t a sober face among them. They drum away from 3pm till 8pm, a smog of marijuana hanging over them like a cloud of cotton wool. A young woman, stark naked, weaves her way through the fruit stalls. Her gaze is out of focus but her nimble feet carry her beautifully.

When I wander through the city, I search in vain for its secret. Finding a place to rent here is a Herculean labour. With the money it would cost to rent a kennel or a birdhouse in Santa Cruz you could rent a house with a pool in North Carolina. People wear tattered Converse trainers held together with sticky tape but ride bikes with $500-frames. There are as many organic food stores for the 60,000 inhabitants as for the 10 million residents of New York. It is as if no one thinks about the future at all. Budget? Savings? No, haven’t heard of either of those things. For the first time in my life I have met people capable of discussing nutrition, metabolism and digestion for hours at a time.

Masseurs, yoga instructors, naturopaths, Tarot and palm readers. Meditation instructors, mediums, spiritual trainers and chiropractors. They all pay rent for their homes and businesses, they pay their taxes and still have enough left over to live on. I’m accustomed to rather more ordinary lines of work (esotericism has never been my kettle of fish), so who pays for their services is a complete mystery to me. They say the Holy Spirit won’t fill your belly, but Santa Cruz disproves this. When they’re not discerning the colour of your aura, the city’s inhabitants are out surfing. Even their dogs own wetsuits.

I grew up in a town where it rains 200 days a year. I could never have imagined that I’d miss precipitation but it’s happened. Now I leave the house hoping to catch sight of a little rain cloud to clasp to my chest like an old friend. But all I ever get is sunshine, sunshine and more sunshine. That and the seagulls that screech interminably like unoiled hinges. As the song Hotel California goes: “You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave”.

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