A Golden State of Mind: Chapter 3 – The Cowboy Years

At Anza Borrego State Park, circa 1987

In Chapter 2, I described my first few years in southern California. After two years of living in Newport Beach and a painfully boring stint at an apartment in Irvine itself, I was ready to make a move.

My car had finally given up the ghost and I was relegated to taking the bus. Orange County circa 1984 was not known for its plentiful and efficient public transportation. Since I only had to be on campus two or three days a week, I decided I needed to move to a place that was more interesting and provided more opportunities than sterile Irvine, and so I decided to move about 20 miles north to the city of Long Beach. I answered an ad, met and passed an “interview” and ended up moving in with an easy-going roommate named Jim who worked for an airline. The apartment was comfortable and I could either walk or hop on a bus to get pretty much anywhere I wanted within the city. A few times a week I caught up on my reading during the long bus rides to and from campus.

Long Beach was a good place to be. It has a nice beach with what appear to be strange islands floating off the coast. These “islands” are actually oil derricks that have been camouflaged with walls to make them look like apartment buildings or small skyscrapers and there were multiple palm trees planted around them. They are illuminated by colorful lights at night. It was an ingenious way to hide what would otherwise be a pretty ugly, industrial-looking eyesore. The Belmont Shores area of the city was a strip of trendy restaurants, cafes and bakeries, and the surrounding streets were lined with greenery and very upscale old California Spanish style houses. One of my favorite things about the city was the abundance of jacaranda trees throughout the city, which for a few weeks in the spring produce beautiful blue flowers, and a few weeks after that, the streets are simply paved in blue flower petals.

One of Long Beach’s Offshore Oil Islands (photo credit: donielle from los angeles, usa, CC BY-SA 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

During my first couple of years in California, I met Bernie, an undergrad student at UC Irvine. We’d actually lived only a few blocks from one another in Newport Beach, and even after I moved to Long Beach, we continued to hang out, go for walks and bike rides, meet for dinners, and eventually took some road trips across the country and around the southwest together. We also sparred a lot over basketball, as he was a die-hard L.A. Lakers fan and I was devoted to the Boston Celtics. Bernie was a charmingly naïve guy whose family emigrated from Syria to the US when he was 9 years old. Though he spoke English perfectly and with no accent, he was forever getting words and phrases mixed up or struggling to find the correct word for something. He once mentioned the upstate New York city of “Sycamore” (Syracuse). He asked about the country music group “The Southern Bitches” (the Dixie Chicks), and as he was describing a trip he’d taken as a child to a ski area he mentioned “riding the cups” which after much confusion, I finally gleaned was an aerial gondola. Once he asked what the name of one of my houseplants and when I told him it was a Dracaena, he rolled his eyes and whined, “Why can’t plants just have normal names, like John and Peter!” He was very, very funny and could make me laugh harder than just about anyone I knew. We remained good friends for the next 20 years or so.

Bernie and me, 1986

Eventually I saved enough money for a down payment on a new car and decided that with a tumultuous past of self-destructing used cars, I wanted to get something new. I opted for a Mazda pick-up truck, as they were quite popular at that time and were almost half the cost of a small sedan. Who needs a back seat?  I had considered buying something sedate in dark blue or smoke gray, until I went to the car dealership and the 7 year old boy in me screamed, “I want the RED one!”  I drove away in a fire-engine red pick-up that made me feel like I wanted to load up some hay bales and ride out to the North 40.  Meanwhile, when two or three of my fellow graduate students, who were really not terribly close friends, learned of my purchase, they took me aside and in something akin to an intervention, questioned my judgement and told me that I really could not afford such a luxury. My friend Jonie, who was also in the graduate program, and I still chuckle over this even 30 years later whenever I buy a new car. She looks at me with an expression of mock concern and judgement and asks if I really think I can afford this. And for the record, I never missed a payment on my fire-engine red toy!

The Shiny Red Pick-Up

Perhaps it was the truck that led to a mindset that left me open to one of the best experiences I had in all of my time in California. I wanted to go out and socialize, but have never been a “bar person” and more than anything, I loathed discos and loud dance music. I got wind of a gay country-western bar called Floyd’s that was only 6 blocks from my apartment. The movie Urban Cowboy had made a splash around this time and people across the country were flocking to country bars in boots and cowboy hats to learn country-western line dancing. With equal parts curiosity and apprehension, off I went to Floyd’s, and soon realized I’d found a new home. The atmosphere was friendlier than any bar I had ever been in, and the music, though I was not a country fan at the time, sounded to me like the stuff I listened to in the 1970s when true singers and songwriters produced such great music.

I got myself a pair of cowboy boots and started attending country line dance classes on Tuesdays, and to my surprise, I was pretty good on the dance floor. I dragged my friend Greg from UC Irvine to Floyd’s too, and we met several really wonderful people there. We became a close-knit family; there was Herb and Jim, a couple in their 50s who’d been together for over 20 years, Bill & Bill, a slightly younger couple who owned property out in the Mojave desert, and Greg soon met a guy named Fritz and they became a couple, so that made me the perennially single 7th wheel. I began spending three nights a week at Floyd’s: Tuesday was line dance lessons, Thursdays were western swing lessons, and Saturday was open dancing.

Had you walked into Floyd’s on one of these nights circa 1986 or so, you would have witnessed the following scene: the music for a particular line dance would start. The DJ, Grover, would point at me and say, “Follow him!” and I would lead off the entire dance floor with the first step at the appropriate time. I was a redheaded, country version of John Travolta’s character in Saturday Night Fever, but without the white leisure suit!  I started buying a lot of the music that I heard at the bar and before long, had become a huge fan of country music and remain so to this day.

Herb and Jim owned a luxurious motor home, and once a month or so gathered the whole gang up for a long weekend of camping. What was wonderful about this was that we went to the most remote places imaginable, but we lived in style with air conditioning, comfortable beds, music, and hot meals cooked on the stove or on a grill. I treasure these memories of carefree days playing cards, going on hikes, cooking dinner together, sharing a love of country music, and enjoying nature, whether on a beach near Santa Barbara, in the mountains north of L.A. or in the midst of enormous sand dunes in the Mojave.

Meanwhile, Bill and Bill had a small house outside of Barstow, and a plot of undeveloped land in the desert outside of town. We’d all head out that way for long weekends as well, hiding out in the air conditioning, playing cards and socializing during the 100+ degree days, and then camping out in the open up on the hill for the evening. One of my favorite memories of these nights was lying on my back in the bed of my pick-up and being unable to sleep because I couldn’t stop staring at the multitude of stars and the shooting stars that seemed to whiz across the sky at frequent intervals.

As I continued to hone my skills on the dance floor at Floyds, I also became interested in the gay rodeo circuit. Yes, two decades before the film Brokeback Mountain appeared on the silver screen, virtually every western state had its own chapter of the Gay Rodeo Association, and every couple of months there’d be one somewhere in California, or Colorado or Arizona. I was not one of the contestants, but was in the stands cheering and being quite impressed by the ability of these hard core cowboys to wrestle a steer to the ground and pin it for a few seconds (the chutedogging event) or to rope a fast moving steer from atop a fast moving horse. There were fun times, and I definitely felt as if I fit in with this scene far more comfortably than I did with the nightclub or Laguna Beach scene.

Meanwhile I continued to languish at the “Hotel California” that was UC Irvine. Academic quarters came and went, and the combination of no prodding from my dissertation advisor, coupled with the need to make money through part-time teaching at various colleges in the area meant that little progress was made in finishing my degree and moving on. When I did eventually get motivated, I devised a survey to administer to residents of various southern California communities regarding how they viewed the risk of a large earthquake and what, if anything, they had done to prepare. I also looked at a variable called “self-efficacy” (people’s feelings of power or control over being able to take various actions) to see how it impacted those perceptions of risk and intentions to prepare.

I wanted to sample people who lived right on top of some of the area’s notorious earthquake faults, and spent many days driving around the cities of Long Beach and San Bernardino (yes, San Bernardino actually reared its head again to play a role in my career!) to map out and get addresses of homes that were actually built within a fault zone. It was tedious, but also nice to be outside and to see what actually has been built on top of California’s faults. In Long Beach, the Newport Inglewood Fault underlies some golf courses and parks (good planning) but it also is topped by a long line of oil rigs interspersed with nursing homes for the elderly! It gives you a chilling idea of how we feel about the elderly! The San Andreas Fault in San Bernardino is mostly residential, and a question on my survey asked, “Are you aware that your home is located within the San Andreas Earthquake Fault Zone and if so, how did you learn about this?” My favorite answer came from a San Bernardino woman who wrote, “I live on Andreas Avenue, so it wouldn’t take a brain surgeon to figure it out.”

I continued to explore the Golden State on weekends and holiday breaks. California is an amazing place, offering just about any landscape you might want. One of my favorite places was Joshua Tree National Monument, a boulder-strewn valley filled with exotic looking Joshua Trees, spiny cactus-like trees that are actually related to yuccas and produce giant groups of whitish- yellow flowers in the spring. This landscape served as the backdrop for some scenes filmed for my old favorite TV show as a child, Lost in Space, which really appealed to the 8 year-old inside me. Another desert destination for me was Anza-Borrego State Park, inland from San Diego. I’d always stop at the small town of Julian, which is in the midst of an apple growing region, to get some delectable apple pie to go. I’d place it in the sun on the dashboard of my truck while I went hiking, and then park at an overlook to watch sunset while I enjoyed my warm slice of pie. In the early spring I’d make a trip to the Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve, about 90 minutes north of L.A. When California gets the right amount of winter rain, this whole area is covered by massive fields of wildflowers, but most commonly, the vibrantly orange state flower. It’s spectacular.

And then there was San Francisco. I’d started to visit the City by the Bay quite often now that I was a Californian, and with each visit I became more enchanted with it. People seemed so much less superficial and judgmental than in southern California. There were endless restaurants and cafes, urban parks, and jaw-dropping views from the top of almost every hill I climbed. Over the next few years I became increasingly attached to San Francisco, and the seed was planted that someday, somehow I wanted to live there. It was a little bit of an incentive to get my degree finished so I could move on to the Bay Area’s greener pastures.

That would take a few more years and a much-needed pep talk from my former masters thesis advisor, Kelly Shaver back in Virginia. He told me sternly that I was a perfectionist and that if I did not stop it, I would never finish my dissertation. “Matt, you just need to write the damn thing!  You know more about your topic and your research than anyone on your committee, and once the thing is done, it will sit on a shelf in the library and gather dust. Stop trying to make it perfect and just WRITE it!”

These words were probably the most valuable advice I received in all my years at UC Irvine, and at long last, in December of 1990, I completed my doctorate.  I remember that as I prepared for my final orals defense, my advisor called to ask what I would be serving at the orals. “Serving?” I was told that it was customary for the doctoral candidate to provide refreshments at the orals defense. So that morning, in addition to baking scones, I created an orange Jello mold and sculpted it into the shape of California. I surrounded it with fruit salad and adorned it with tiny plastic palms trees, which when I shook the plate, vibrated as if they were responding to a 6.5 quake. I am convinced that it was this creative flair rather than any true scholarly brilliance that got me the Ph.D.

At this point I had been in school for a solid 25 years and was 32 years old. I was a little unsure what to do next, as all I’d done before was finish one degree and go for another. Now it was time to start a career, and I was drawn to the idea of teaching. I had been a part time professor for about four years by this time, and liked the classroom interactions and working with students, so it seemed to be the perfect career. It would also allow me a flexible schedule with summers and Spring Break and holidays off. My dissertation advisor at Irvine and my friend Elaine both frantically pushed me to pursue a post-doctorate and look for a high pressure faculty position in a “publish or perish” environment. Finally, I shocked them when I confessed, “I don’t want to live the way you two do. I’ve watched you over the years and you’re under constant stress, trying to write grant proposals, working on a dozen research studies simultaneously and trying to get the results published. That’s not the life I want. I’d like to be at a small school where I can focus mostly on teaching, then go home at the end of the day and have a life!’ They seemed disappointed, but also, they had to acknowledge that maybe I had the right idea.

That April, I took another trip to San Francisco. Every time I visited, I felt like crying when it was time to leave. It just touched my soul in a way that few places had up till this point in my life. After climbing to the top of Twin Peaks, the highest point in the city, to take some photos of the million dollar views of the city below, I started my descent through some of the residential areas near the summit. The neighborhood consisted mostly of box-like apartment buildings, but they all faced out on that amazing view. It was quiet and peaceful up here, even though the city’s busy neighborhoods were a 5 minute drive down the mountain. I walked along a street called Gardenside Drive and I remember thinking to myself, “How do people get to live in a place like this? I would love to live here.” But I didn’t have a job and didn’t know a soul in the city and could not imagine how I could make that wish come true. Little did I know that within just three months I’d be living in an apartment on Gardenside Drive with a view of the city from my balcony. Years later, when I was looking at a photo I’d taken from the top of Twin Peaks that day in April, I spotted my own apartment building in the foreground. I would never have imagined that I would be living my dream in such a short time. Life is indeed a fascinating journey.

5 thoughts on “A Golden State of Mind: Chapter 3 – The Cowboy Years

    1. And you are too kind! Just curious, on the groupings of photos, are you able to clickon them and see the captions? It seems to me that they are not showing up and so my readers probably have no idea who or what is in these pics. Please let me know! Thanks!

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      1. Yes, I can see the captions on the group photos after clicking on them. BTW, you have one pictured captions “Me, Sally, and Bill”. That’s not Sally in the picture, but right now her name escapes me. Thanks for the great (two-step?) walk down memory lane! Those were the days. One thing I would have added is how you would make themed playlists (before we called them playlists) on tapes and how on our long drives to and from the desert you would play a themed playlist to align with the time of day, the time of year, or where we were at.

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      2. Thanks, Greg! How silly of me to mistake GLORIA for Sally! I changed the caption! And I was touched that you remembered me playing DJ on our trips. I still love doing that, though it’s not quite the same on an Mp3 player!

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