Robert Pinsky  

A weeklong electronic journal.
Jan. 3 1997 9:30 PM

Robert Pinsky  

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       Unlike that possibly mythical invention of a Los Angeles developer, San Diablo (of "San Diablo Hills"), Santa Monica is a genuine saint--Augustine's mother, I think, and by his account, a formidable person. The place named after her doesn't lack manifestations of Christianity today. Among the palm trees and eucalyptus across Ocean Avenue from this art deco hotel, in well-constructed three-wall huts, are Santa Monica's traditional Nativity scenes: life-size mannequins and props, sponsored by local churches and businesses, depicting scenes from the Christmas story.
       Yesterday, in a light rain, I took a walk along the cliff above the ocean, and strolled by the Nativity scenes, which are in the process of being dismantled. Some of the huts are empty; in some, the department-store mannequins that had depicted Jesus, Mary, Joseph, angels, and Magi are half-disassembled. In one scene, all of the figures had been shrouded from the waist up in black plastic garbage bags, a strangely moving sight, suggesting a museum installation dealing with political torture or some other horror.
       Someone eager to deprecate the town or the Nativity scenes would not be able to claim that they are the only visible sign of Christianity. I saw a crowd of people in the rain, just beyond where the elegantly landscaped footpath ran past the pageant of dioramas. It seemed strange weather for a street entertainer. When I got closer, I could see that it was a crowd of nearly 100 people, all men, who had lined up for free hot food and coffee from a church-sponsored soup kitchen.
       The guys who sleep on the beach in Santa Monica, under the pier footings or against the bluffs, have come inland with the bad weather, walking the streets with large sheets of plastic tied in rolls or flapping under an arm. The preferred contemporary jargon term "homeless" doesn't well describe the sense of misery about these men, with their wet clothes, their feeling of discouragement deeper than the darkest, most profound Pacific trench. More than the lack of a roof and a bed seems at stake, and aside from the ravages of alcohol, other drugs, or nameless demons, the old rejected term "derelict" comes to mind, with its sense of something neglected or abandoned.
       In fact, the last time I was here, when baby Sam was only a few weeks old, we took him onto the beach, and some of the men who sleep on it admired him, asked how old he was, and so forth. Bearded, desiccated by sun and salt, not quite dangerous and not looking for a handout, they seemed to enjoy their benign role--making much of a baby, that ordinary human ritual.
       Sleeping outdoors and living from day to day is, of course, a different matter in California than back home in Boston, where the harsh winter cruelly scours everything. Here, the elements are kinder but the decline or ordeal is exquisitely prolonged and gradated. The plastic-bag men of Santa Monica remind me of similar figures in Berkeley: The California climate is harsh enough to hurt, but not to drive people into shelters, jails, or hospitals. There was one Berkeley man who used to walk the streets with a guitar wrapped in a ragged beach towel--not a street musician, for no one had ever heard him play the instrument. One day he appeared without it, and with a bruise on his face, his clothes more tattered than ever, bereft of his tenderly wrapped symbol of pleasure. Or maybe it was a symbol of Berkeley street life, or of "the '60s"--or maybe, merely, of himself.
       People talk about the close juxtaposition of luxury and deprivation in New York, but I always feel it most sharply in California. The Berkeley guitar man could often be seen walking by Chez Panisse, that temple of understated California hedonism, on a stretch of Shattuck Avenue where begging was especially common, and across the street from the French Hotel, where the cappuccino remains for me the standard to which all others fail. The studied casualness of California, like its deceptively mild-seeming weather (mudslides, fire season), simultaneously blurs certain borders and heightens contrasts. Here in the rain, some of the homeless eat their meal while leaning on the railing above the beach, in the shelter of palm trees and the camphorous perfume of eucalyptus, gazing across the wide beach at the Pacific and the ghostly silhouette of the pier.
       For contrast, back in the hotel I get my laptop computer, and take it down to the lobby and the only phone line in the building that is available for data communications, enabling me to send these diary entries to SLATE. Most of the rooms in the hotel--charming, well-run, just a little frayed here and there, with a Raymond Chandler feeling--lack data ports, and use a fat phone jack. While I am sending my copy, a fellow-dweeb (surely a grandpa like myself cannot refer to a fellow "yuppie") appears, his laptop in his hand, both of us nervously chuckling that he is waiting in line. I have a brief vision of dozens of us waiting for our data port in the rain, plastic sheets over our heads, warming our hands by curling them around biodegradable cups of hot cappuccino.

Robert Pinsky is an American poet. His latest published work is The Figured Wheel: New and Collected Poems, 1966-1996.