I’m more of a bar person than a beach person so I usually don’t go to the beaches when I visit California, but during the summer of 2007 I went to Los Angeles from my Albuquerque home to look at a camera I was thinking of buying and I tagged on a side trip to San Diego to visit cousins. They were showing me the town and when I saw what was going on at Mission Beach, I was impressed.
The walkway along the beach was packed and everyone there was young and tan, bethonged, tattooed and/or pierced. Many had Mohawks or were bald. They were on rollerblades and skateboards and some of the girls were either topless or might as well have been. Everyone was drinking beer and smoking pot and hanging all over each other.
It felt like anarchy and I thought I want to take pictures here. I couldn’t do it then because I was going to dinner with my cousins and I was leaving the next morning, but I made a mental note to myself: Come back to Mission Beach next summer and take pictures of this mayhem, for sure.
All winter long I kept that thought and I spent time researching beach rentals and motels on the internet. For the first time in my life I was giving serious consideration to beach attire. By January I decided I’d give myself a week at the beach around what I was hoping would be a hopping Memorial Day weekend, and I made reservations at the Catamaran Hotel and Resort on the northern end of Mission.
I moved to Santa Fe in March 2008 and I considered canceling the San Diego trip. I wanted to involve myself in my new community and it seemed like folly to vacation from a home I would have only been living in for a couple of months. On the other hand, I was excited about taking the beach photos and I didn’t know what I would take pictures of in Santa Fe. Sunset and shadows of cacti on adobe walls? No, I had a new camera and I was going to the beach and make those hedonistic California beach barbarians my own.
On the Thursday before Memorial Day I rolled into San Diego. Instead of sunny and warm like I had expected, it was overcast, drizzly and cold. When I checked into the hotel, the woman at reception apologized for the dreary weather. “It’s really almost never like this in San Diego,” she said and I said “Yeah, I know that.” After settling in my room I crossed the street to the beach to look around but it was dead. It was cold and I was cold. I hadn’t even brought a jacket. All I brought was beach attire.
Friday morning the weather was worse than the day before. I ate bacon and eggs at the hotel café and stared out the window at a Mission Boulevard drenched in rain. I returned to my room and from the internet I learned it would rain all day. I found a map to the mall and drove there in the downfall. I bought a jacket at JC Penney and then I caught a noon matinee with a bunch of kids. It was still raining when the film let out, so I had lunch in the food court and returned to The Catamaran.
It was still cool and overcast on Saturday morning, the beginning of Memorial Day weekend, but at least it had stopped raining. I put on my new jacket, grabbed my new camera and hit the beach, but there weren’t any particularly bared and bronzed heathen bods to behold. It wasn’t the kind of weather in which cool people would come out to frolic I reasoned. There were just a few hardy middle-class Americans in shorts milling about on the sand and some rather dorky looking teenagers riding their bikes on the boardwalk. I walked the length of the beach and back and shot a few pictures that were okay, but they were tame and hardly what I had traveled all that way for.
Before going to dinner that evening I checked the web and saw the forecast was for a warmer, drier Sunday and Monday. Over Italian that night, I told my cousins what my plans had been and of my early travails, but I added that I was cheerful at the prospect of the swarm of freaks who would be drunkenly sunning themselves over the next few days.
“What? Haven’t you heard,” my cousins asked. Warfare had erupted between the revelers and the police the previous summer. Blood had been shed, and the authorities subsequently outlawed booze and cracked down on pot. The Dionysian debauchery, I learned, had abandoned the beach, for good.
I went back to my room and lamented that the bacchanal I had anticipated was not going to materialize even if it was sunny and warm. I reviewed the few pictures I had already shot and realized that, what the hell, I was at the beach and I still had the opportunity to assemble a good series of photos. I liked the idea of approaching it formally and shooting the gently goofy California folk in their leisurewear against the parallel background stripes formed by the sand, the sea and the sky.
Sunday morning, I scarfed down some huevos rancheros at a dive on Mission and then I hit the boardwalk. It was overcast but it was the warmest it had been since I arrived. It was early and there was only a smattering of people scattered about the sand and strolling along the promenade, but I reckoned it would warm up and more people would amass as the day progressed. I conjured up my invisible mode and began prowling for photos as again I headed south along the beach. I was just warming up, going for easy stuff – funny hats, bald heads, big breasts, whatever caught my eye.
It felt good to finally be shooting.
When I got near the Belmont Amusement Park I sat on the cement wall between the walkway and the beach and shot some folks as they sauntered by, and then I took a few pictures of a man taking photos of his wife and small daughter. I hopped off the wall and proceeded south when I heard a loud voice behind me shout “I saw you, I saw what you’re doing.”
I turned to see what the rumpus was and suddenly there was a guy wagging his finger in my face, his face scrunched up. “I saw you, I saw what you’re doing,” he hissed. I inquired as to what he was referring and he said, “I saw you taking pictures of children.” I told him he was mistaken and that he should mind his own business. He turned away to face the people on the beach and pointing to me he yelled out loud for everyone to hear, “This guy’s taking pictures of children.”
“Hey, shut up,” I said. “You don’t know what I’m taking pictures of.” He moved towards the guy who had been shooting snaps of his family and he said, “Hey, Mister, this guy was taking pictures of your little girl.” The young dad assumed a look of alarm on his face, clenched his fists and asked, “You taking pictures of my little girl?” I told him that no I wasn’t taking pictures of his little girl and he said, “Yeah, well you better not be.”
Before I could elaborate on the misunderstanding, another voice on my other side said, “Why you taking pictures of children, Mister?” I turned towards whoever asked that so I could tell him to bug off when another voice said, “I saw him taking pictures up the beach,” and then another voice asked, “What you doing with all these pictures of children anyway, huh?” I looked around and saw I was surrounded.
I heard a woman say, “Leave him alone, he wasn’t doing anything,” and I thought, “God bless you, lady,” but then everyone turned their attention to her. “You two work together?” someone asked and then someone else repeated, “Yeah, you two work together or something?” Still another voice said, “I bet they put the pictures on the internet.” I got a glimpse of the woman wisely and quickly beating it the hell out of there but before I had time to lament the loss of my ally there suddenly was a big guy – I mean like a really big guy – right in my face. “Give me your camera,” he said. I stepped backwards and he stepped forward and I stepped backwards again but this time I bumped into people behind me. It occurred to me that I was maybe about to get beaten to death.
All I could see were chests, shoulders, arms, necks and snarling, spewing mouths, but then off about 25 yards away I spotted three cops looking quizzically towards the kerfuffle around me. I was never so glad to see the law in my life. They looked like the cavalry and I urgently waved to them.
They started towards us and as I pushed through the crowd I gave them a relieved smile to let them know that I was the citizen in need of their judicious assistance and it was those around me who had broken the peace, but before I could say anything the mob as one started shouting their accusation: “This guy is taking pictures of children,” they each repeatedly said. Shaking my hands and my head, my smile shifted into a resigned and indulgent one, irritated yet amused at these ridiculous charges. I was confident the blind eye of justice would clear up this imbroglio in no time, but when the cops and the mob and I all reached each other, the first thing the coppers said was, “Why are you taking pictures of children, Sir?”
My shoulders sagged and I sighed. “I’m not taking pictures of children,” I said wearily, and the mob started yelling, “Yes he is, yes he is, he’s taking pictures of children.” I looked around at the crowd and an unbearable sadness overcame me. These guys were decent, hard-working Americans, my next door neighbors, doing what they thought was good, the lousy self-righteous assholes. They mowed their lawns, watched football and took the family to the beach, but they also burned witches, stoned whores and lynched black guys for looking at white girls. Now they’d caught themselves a real live predator, a pedophile, just like on MSNBC, and by God vengeance would be theirs.
At a glance they seemed bright eyed, modern men, the kind of guys who gave to The United Way, but from my particular angle I saw something else. I saw hate in their eyes – hatred for me – and I saw the power they felt from being a mob. I saw saliva dripping from their cuspids, and I could say they looked like a pack of wolves if I hadn’t also understood that they and I were of the same species, that I might just as well be one of them and any one of them could just as well be me, and I damned them in my mind for showing me that.
“Why are you taking pictures of children, Sir,” the cop repeated and the crowd railed “Yeah, yeah, why you taking pictures of children?”
“Get these people away from me,” I said. “I’m not answering any questions with a mob around me.” The three cops looked at each other and acknowledged between themselves that this was not an unreasonable request. They went into their policemen-clearing-the-crime-scene routine. “All right, keep moving, everything’s under control, nothing to see here,” they said, walking around in little circles, making clearing motions with their arms as if they were pushing through a field of hay or shoeing away the pigeons.
The mob dissolved as easily as it had gelled. The three cops turned towards me and formed a semicircle, looking expectant, waiting to hear what I had to say. They were clean and sparkling in their casual, uniformed shorts, but around their waists they each packed a pistol, a taser, mace, cuffs, a billy-club and other menacing devices. I said to myself, “Be cool, man, don’t get excited,” but then I started to wave my arms hysterically and shouting about who did those people think they were accusing me of something heinous when they couldn’t know what I was doing. I was perfectly within my rights taking photos in a public place and the cops were out of line acting towards me like I was guilty of something just because some creep made unsubstantiated allegations regarding something that wasn’t even illegal.
“You’re absolutely right, Sir,” the cop on the left said. “Would you mind showing us your identification please?”
My first thought was sure, why should I mind showing him my identification, I had nothing to hide, but then it occurred to me that if I showed him my ID, my name was certain to end up on a list of suspected sexual predators. I’d end up having to put a sign in my yard and I’d never get another date.
I explained to the cop on the left of my reservations about showing him my license but then the cop on the right said, “Hey, wait a minute. Didn’t I talk to you about this same problem a few weeks ago at the beach in La Jolla?”
“No,” I said, “I’ve never been to the beach in La Jolla,” and he said, “No, that was you, I remember you alright.”
“I said I’ve never been to the beach in La Jolla,” I said. “I’m not from around here.”
The cop on the left asked where I was from, as if he were genuinely intrigued by this wayfarer before him. “New Mexico,” I replied so as not to pinpoint myself too specifically, and the cop on the right said, “So you drive here from New Mexico and you sleep in your vehicle and come to the beach to take pictures of children, is that right?”
“Sleep in my vehicle?” I said incredulously . “I’m staying at the goddamn Catamaran.”
“We’re going to need to see that identification, Sir,” said the cop on the left. I could tell the cop on the left was the good cop because he always called me “Sir.” I looked at him and then I looked at the cop on the right and he was smiling at me like I was a cooked goose he was about to devour. He was the bad cop, the little prick. His job was just to try to rattle me. I looked at the cop in the middle. His eyes were pinned on me but his face was blank. He looked like one of those stone carvings on Easter Island. He was the morally indifferent cop. He looked like he could shoot, tase, mace and beat me while thinking about something else. I looked back at the cop on the left and he said, “If you don’t show us your ID, we’re going to have to run you in, Sir.”
I didn’t know if that was true or not but I knew I had a problem. Cops know when somebody’s dirty, and even though I was innocent of what I’d been accused, they knew there was something that wasn’t right about me. They could see at a glance that I’m not an industrious citizen. I walk around unkempt and I exude that I’m a lazy, gluttonous and lustful no-goodnik, just like my grandma said I’d be. I spend my days wandering around taking pictures, making up stories, surfing the web, laying around watching TV in my underpants, and okay, okay, I like to toke a little reefer now and then. Is that so against the law?
I’m a slacker and they could smell it.
Fortunately I had no priors or outstandings. I knew that character flaws don’t pop up in a background check and I realized that if I wanted to get away from these flatfoots anytime soon, the quickest way would be to give up my ID, let them check me out and pray that maybe, probably, hopefully it would never come back to haunt me. I took out my license and surrendered it to the good cop.
He read my particulars into the mike he had pinned to his shoulder, and then he gazed out towards the Pacific. The indifferent cop kept staring at me, waiting for me to make the wrong move, and the bad cop seemed to have lost interest. He was looking around the beach for crimes or honeys or maybe both, he didn’t care. Some static crackled from the good cop’s shoulder and he mumbled something back and there was more static and then the good cop held my license out to me and said, “Don’t take any pictures of children, Sir, just in case, and have a nice day.”
I had some things I wanted to say but I thought better of it. I snatched my license back and tried not to sound sarcastic as I said, “Thank you, Officer,” but I ended up doing a perfect Eddie Haskell. As I passed the bad cop he muttered, “Stay away from those kids now y’hear,” and I thought, “Grrrrr.”
I told myself I wasn’t going to let this unpleasant incident spoil my ocean-side photo-safari and I tried to look nonchalant as I turned back north, but inside I started shaking. I could feel those stupid motherfuckers who had surrounded me were still watching, waiting to catch me at it again. I’d like to throttle that first guy’s neck I thought. I glanced around and no one seemed to be watching me but they all looked as if they had just quickly turned away and were trying to appear natural, as if they weren’t paying attention to me. I wasn’t falling for it; I could tell they were watching and I felt exposed and humiliated. There was no way I was going to get any more shooting done there, not with my shield of invisibility stripped away. I had completely lost my mojo. I dejectedly put my camera in its bag and then, after taking one last quick look around at all the San Diegan sons of bitches on the beach, I hotfooted it back to my room, grabbing a bucket of ice on the way.
Once safely ensconced with the curtains drawn in my room, I got the Stoli from my suitcase and had a Stoli on the rocks, and then I had another. I called a friend on the East Coast and told her about what had just happened. She was outraged. What was America coming to she exclaimed. A fascist mentality pervaded everything, it’s gotten so damned oppressive here she said, and then she announced she was seriously thinking of moving to France. “Yeah, well I’m moving to Mexico,” I said.
We hung up and I called a friend in Texas and told him the story, but this time I trimmed down and hurried up some of the slow parts and I jimmied up a bit of the drama. “This country’s sick,” my friend said and nodding my head I said, “Tell me about it, man.”
I had another vodka and was beginning to feel pretty good. I called a friend in Phoenix and tears welled up in my eyes as I told her she wasn’t going to believe what just happened to me. I told the story to her very effectively because now I had gotten it down and was feeling loose. “Oh no, Honey, that’s terrible,” she said and I said, “I know, and I don’t know what to do now.” She suggested that I come to Phoenix because she was having a Memorial Day barbecue the next day. “Come on, Honey,” she said, “it will make you feel good to be around some nice people,” and since it did at least sound like a plan, I said okay I’d be there.
I hung up the phone and then I asked myself, “Who else can I call,” and then I called everyone whose number was on my cell, all over the country. It was a fun story to tell, laying on the bed in my room at the Catamaran, drinking vodka.
The next morning – Memorial Day – I went to registration and told them I was checking out early. “We hope you enjoyed your stay in San Diego,” said the lady at the desk and I said, “Oh yeah.” I threw my baggage in my wagon and drove off into the desert.
I checked into a Phoenix motel and picked up a bottle of wine to take to the barbecue. I had visited my friend enough that I had already met many of her chums at other of her soirees so I was greeted cordially by the coterie of designers and models and writers and artists with whom she hung. A dude in trunks was grilling salmon and a sprightly, bikini-clad lass was shaking martinis. The scent of sensimilla lightly wafted over the proceedings and I suspect there may have even been some toot in attendance. I tried not to act shocked and I mingled among the guests, all of us purring sweet nothings. The background music was an ambient uptempo trance or chill kind of thing and it was very groovy. We were called to dine and we took our places around a huge round table beneath the branches of an old tree. After loading our plates with salmon and veggies and salad, and topping off our glasses of wine, our hostess tapped hers with a knife and announced, “Listen everyone, Richard’s going to tell us an amazing story. Tell everyone what happened to you on the beach in San Diego, Honey.” Everyone turned their eyes towards me and said, “Oh pray tell, Richard, what happened to you on the beach?”
This was the first time I had the opportunity to tell the story in person and it was to a discerning and sophisticated audience, one to which the only currency would be an amused and ironic wit. I was going to have to be at the top of my game and at my absolute coolest. “Well,” I said as I swallowed some salmon and cleared my throat. I launched into the yarn and hit my stride from the get-go. I described the innocence with which I began my quest and the horror of being assailed by a mob and becoming a person of interest to the fuzz.
Unlike my accounts on the phone, I could facially mug and mock my tormentors, giving myself a dopey look when I imitated the people asking, “Why you taking pictures of children, Mister,” an arrogant smirk when impersonating the bad cop, and a look of shock and awe when portraying poor little old me. People laughed where they were supposed to and I was pleased it was proving usable as a good dinner-party story. I wrapped it up at the part about going back to my room and throwing down some stiff ones. A few people expressed dismay and then someone said it was a parable of our times. A redhead across the table from me, a masseuse with cleavage to die for, leaned forward, brushed aside some hair that had fallen in front of her eyes and asked, “But Richard, why were you taking pictures of children.” Everyone burst into a guffaw – hardee har har har – myself included.
After supping we resumed drinking and gabbing in random groupings for a few hours more. Almost every conversation I subsequently participated in however included a moment when whoever I was speaking with would insert a mock-earnest variation on the redhead’s inquiry about why I photographed children. At first it was like, “Hahaha,” and then it got to be like, “Heheheh,” but by the end of the evening it was, “Yeah yeah yeah.”
Nevertheless I was abuzz when I got back to the motel, what with the booze and the get-high, the handsome men and beautiful women, the witty chatter and the success of my story all swirling together in my head. I passed out on top of the bed with my clothes and the lights on and awoke a few hours later with cottonmouth and a headache. I staggered to the bathroom, splashed my face, gargled and stumbled back to bed where I couldn’t find sleep for what seemed like the rest of the night.
I’d shut my eyes to frenzied villagers stabbing at me with pitch-forks and torches, driving me towards a cliff, while I was a hideous, growling monster, club-footed, hunch-backed, blind in one eye, clutching a screaming and squirming tyke under each of my gangly arms. I saw a battalion of armored commandos charging at me, their billy clubs flailing like a SWAT team wading into a crowd of rioters, and twittering above it all was the sound of tittering glitterati.
The next day I journeyed back to Santa Fe, and instead of sticking to the interstate, I took the diagonal road through the Tonto National Forest with its vistas overlooking deep valleys lush with chollas, saguaros and yuccas. Winding through the mountains felt like it took forever, and I couldn’t stop thinking about how dissimilar the world was now from the way it was in The Sixties, when I was in my twenties.
I was a noble soldier in an army of citizen photographers then, prowling the streets and alleys, the suburbs, the slums and even the beaches, cat-like, snatching momentary and telltale instances from the lives of earthlings, all in the service of truth and justice and art. Now it’s The Noughts and I’m in my sixties, and photographers in public have been diminished in perception to the role of debauched and degenerate deviants compulsively stalking their perverted obsessions, a menace to all that is decent and pure in the world. They – and I – had become a bane on the earth, a scourge to be expunged.
I rolled into Santa Fe at dinnertime and called my friend Joe to see if he wanted to get some grub. He was someone I had called from the Catamaran and he said, “So you drive here from California to take pictures of the children, is that right, Mister?” Yeah yeah yeah.
I saw an acquaintance the next day and she asked if I had gotten good pictures of children at the beach. I asked how she knew about that as she wasn’t someone I had called and she said that Joe had told her.
The friend in Texas who I had called sent an email that opened with a playful reference to my mania for photographing kids, doubtless to the delight of everyone at the Department of Justice.
Once again, things seemed to have gotten out of hand. The story had more resonance than I had imagined and it had started to feel like a kick-me sign pinned to my back. It had taken on a life of its own, not because the cops in San Diego had me put on a list, but rather because of my own big mouth. This was obviously an inappropriate story for me to include in my repertoire of amusing autobiographical anecdotes I realized. I tried to think to whom I had already told the story and, let’s see, there was, well, just about everyone I knew.
I should have just put that sign up in my yard and been done with it.
The next weekend I was invited to a Santa Fe luau in the back yard of an acquaintance. I didn’t know many of the guests, so after loading a plate with obscure dishes unidentifiable under the dim light of the tiny Tiki flames, I sat at a table with the woman to whom Joe had told the story. She introduced me around the table and then said to a woman sitting next to her that I was the guy she had told her about earlier, the guy who had just been in San Diego. “Ohhhhh,” the other lady said, “You’re the one who was arrested for taking pictures of children on the beach.”
“Whoa whoa whoa,” I said, “I wasn’t arrested for taking pictures of children on the beach,” and the man sitting next to her asked, “Then why were you arrested?” “I wasn’t arrested,” I said and he asked, “Why weren’t you?”
“Why wasn’t I what,” I asked and he asked, “Why weren’t you arrested if they caught you taking pictures of children?”
I looked at the guy and then noticed there was no chatter coming from the tables to either of side of us, and there were about eight or ten people staring at me, waiting to hear my response. “Oh, Jesus, here we go again,” I thought. I stood up from the table and without a word walked straight to the exit, got in my car, started the engine, banged my head on the steering wheel and wondered, “What have I wrought?’
I had to put an end to this. It didn’t make sense to call my friends and ask them to please not repeat that story any more because that too might fuel the flames, but I did vow right then and there that I would never ever tell the tale again about what happened to me at Mission Beach in San Diego the day before Memorial Day, 2008, and I haven’t.
Santa Fe, NM