A Life of Sundays

By Jeff McMahon
Reprinted from New Times • April 20, 1994

Arroyo de la Cruz

Do you remember where you were on the afternoon of Sunday, April 9, 1994? You should.

No president was shot, no rock star overdosed, no war began. It was just a great day in San Luis Obispo County. The temperature was perfect. The hills smoldered green. The air moved without a hint of chill. The sky soared overhead with a heavy clearness like one of those snow-filled paperweights that hasn’t been shook yet.

If you were away on April 9, you blew it. If you were home, you should remember the day for no other reason than that. I spent the afternoon sizzling on the sand of a pristine (except for a scarcely detectable scent of petroleum) South County beach, alongside lots of other wise and drowsy locals.

And I’ve been struggling with my calculator ever since, trying to figure out the dollar value of that day. It seems like heresy to assign a dollar value to something as free and basic as a day, but in order to get at the real economics of SLO County, we may have to.

The most persistent frustration of my SLO life has been making friends with phantoms, people who seem real, but who flicker in and out, and then vanish altogether. They move away. The young people of SLO County are always, it seems, in a state of exodus–leaving, getting ready to leave, thinking about leaving. It’s gotten to the point that I’m surprised when I meet one who wants to stay.

Having experienced a pretty good sample of the rest of the world, I think they’re all nuts, and I tell them so.

“You’re nuts,” I say. “It doesn’t get any better than this.”

They scowl and drive away, changing from people into parallel red lights on California’s interstates, drawn by some haunting siren who sings of prosperity.

My friend Kelly had such a wandering heart. Throughout our local friendship, she complained that she needed to leave. She often quoted her old salary in the Bay Area—45,000 effortless dollars—and she flirted with bankruptcy here.

Kelly was always leaving. Whenever we were together she was on the brink of leaving, and so a sense of impermanence lent a fragility to everything we did. Like actors in a tragedy, we knew the ending that awaited us.

Eventually, Kelly moved to San Jose, where she lives with a dude in a dark apartment on a wide street, not far from the Pink Poodle, SJ’s infamous strip club. She comes back occasionally for unsatisfying weekends, drawn by lingerings of whatever folly it was that brought her here in the first place.

The last time she visited, as we hugged goodbye, I said, “Don’t get shot.”

“I won’t,” she said.

That may sound like an odd farewell, but it was quite an appropriate thing to say. She had just told us, over a bayside breakfast at the Sandpiper Cafe, how the police shot a man to death on her street that week. He’d done something strange to some children and then barricaded himself in his house with a gun, which is a pretty sure way to get killed.

Kelly can now pay her credit card bills, but she has to dodge bullets to get them to the mailbox.

Kelly’s not the only victim of weird wanderlust. Bob, Pallas, Bea, Marty,

Christy. I imagine a long line of them winding across the landscape, refugees from paradise heading into a dark and sticky abyss.

That’s why I’m perched atop a sand dune as dusk approaches, staring at my calculator, trying to figure out how much a Sunday in SLO County is worth. If I can give them a figure, a real number they can add onto their annual salary, perhaps they’ll reconsider.

How much would you pay for a day like April 9? Looking around, this sexy Sunday goes on as far as my eyes can see. Looking up, it seems to be a great day all the way to the moon. If days were for sale, if you could run down to Daylight Gardens and buy one, I think they’d have to be kind of expensive. There’s an endless demand for good days, and there’s not much supply in the rest of the world. $10,000 maybe? $100,000? A day has got to be worth more than a house, don’t you think? It’s so much bigger, after all, and if you’ve got a good day, who needs a house? $1 million?

What’s a year of Sundays worth?

Someone out there’s grumbling about this nonsense. Growth, they’re thinking, is the answer. “If we had more development, we’d have more jobs and more money, and everyone could stay. And this moron’s trying to figure out what a Sunday’s worth.”

That’s an easy and tempting argument, but I believe it’s wrong. Because with rampant growth we might have nothing left to stay for. Because there are millions—tens of millions—of people outside of this county already lined up for those jobs. Because big employers in this county seem to prefer hiring people from far away to fill important positions. (I think they do that, incidentally, out of scarcely subconscious disdain and envy for those of us who have the guile and gall to live here already, but that’s another column.)

The phantom friends inevitably return for a visit, and they always tell us how much better the SLO life is. “Duh,” I say. My salty friend says we must be like the barnacles. We must stick it out no matter how dry it gets, clinging to our place on the rock, and wait for the tide to rise again.

Now the sun is setting, and I find myself standing in the Morro Bay delta. I drop my calculator and it sticks in the gray tidal muck. Before I’ve even determined the value of a Sunday, an orange and lavender sunset spreads like an explosion above me, with the horrible beauty of Hiroshima or Mount St. Helens, but without the violence. I feel very small, a little silhouette of a man standing at the edge of a magnificent fire. The estuary becomes a crimson mirror. The seabirds flock to the tree tops and hang their wings to dry. A wide white mist slithers down the canyons of Hollister peak. The deer of the Chorro Valley pop their heads out of the tall grass to watch the colors.

“Damn,” I say to myself, “what’s a sunset worth?”

The orange light sparkles in my wide pupils. A million miles away, the credit card bills turn to ash on my kitchen table and blow away.

I think of my college buddy Skip, the vice president of an investment firm, and his six-figure salary, and his wool suits, and his snowed-in driveway in a place where days are very brief. I realize my Sundays and my sunsets make me quite rich. Quite rich indeed.

And the IRS can’t touch them.