No Quetzalcoatl or Affordable Hot Dogs in Santa Barbara

There are surprises in this complicated village green

I live in one of the most beautiful cities in the world. On the other hand I eat a lump-filled bowl of cold oatmeal at my work desk every single day. On the other hand I work right in the middle of the celebrated sun-soaked oceanfront campus of the University of California at Santa Barbara. On the other hand my office has no window and my carpet looks like someone was sloppily murdered there. And so on. These are the juxtapositions that distinguish actual living from the expensively produced, digitally deafening folderol the movie studio jackasses discuss and negotiate in clouds of bargain cigar smoke. The vast blue sparkling Pacific, which once caused my heart to quicken on sight, now fills me with a more calming, familial warmth, like an old friend in a fancy dinner jacket whom one regards with a slightly worn sigh. And despite the fact that I live in a globally celebrated beach town whose exceptional beauty once inspired a soap opera, I am balding. No, really. And I’m now more likely to fall to my knees clutching my unironed shirt than I am to spike a volleyball, more likely to stare out my front window with a bowl of off-brand cereal in hand than I am to walk a red carpet or tussle exotically with Bo Derek (a briefly famous screen siren, dear youngish reader) or the late Jane Russel (a late-period bra spokesperson, dear youngish reader). Our Town has a Coach Purse store where one can buy a handbag that is worth more cash than it will likely ever contain on any sane afternoon’s outing. Santa Barbara boasts a beautiful outdoor shopping mall the size of Pocahontas, Iowa, and a rotating crop of doomed restaurants whose cocksure proprietors never seem to get it right. There are museums and film stars and startling boob jobs and t-shirt shops and those ladies, young and old, who walk everywhere with a tiny, alarmed-looking purebred mutt built into the crook of the forearm. In some cases the bug-sized hound can be seen peeking demurely out the top of the aforementioned madly overpriced handbags. Dear killing asteroid; pick up the pace and hurry on down.

I once met Leslie Nielsen in a club here and saw fit to whisper knowingly into his ear “Monsters…from the ID!” To which cinephilic prompt he turned and replied, “What?” That captures the essence of the town. It wants to be rich and famous and seamless and self-congratulatory, but in the end is unfamiliar with its own keynote. This is its strength. Santa Barbara is a runway model with an endearing overbite and mildly wandering left eye.  Plus, an affordable hot dog is as likely to be found here as Quetzalcoatl, the gigantic, fearsome, and finally annoying flying snake the ancient Aztecs devised to threaten their kids into mowing the ziggurat. O’ this misshapen starlet of a town.