When the only beach you know is the one along Lake Michigan and it’s lined by high rises, summers in southern California are as foreign as a holiday in Bali. I tagged along with the beach-bum natives as best I could, keeping up just enough to fit in. I never surfed, but rode the waves in on my boogie board. I walked up and down the beach a lot, but never saw the appeal of baking under the sun on a beach towel. My hair was never quite blonde enough, my bathing suit always a one-piece. Most days I spent working at the gift shop two doors down from my dad’s office, where I dusted shelves of knick-knacks and wrote out receipts for candles and post cards, reading a book between customers.
It’s a hot, sun-drenched day in Encinitas, a San Diego suburb on the beach. I’m wandering through the center of town, a mainstreet dotted with souvenir shops, Mexican restaurants and surf shops, with the daughter of some friend of my dad’s; twenty years later, I couldn’t tell you who it is. But who it is isn’t important. What’s important is what she suggested we do that day. My dad’s gone to work, and I’m not sure where my big brother’s gone – maybe he’s back at the house with a book, maybe he’s at the house of one of dad’s friends teaching their kids, our friends for the summer, how to play Magic or learning how to play Pogs.
This day, though, nothing in our usual agenda seemed appealing enough to occupy our afternoon. So we snuck our way into La Paloma Theatre, a single-screen house dating back 80 years with a marquee that juts out over the box office and a soCal-standard terra cotta roof. The place is so close to the beach, the layer of sand on the floor in the lobby crunches under your feet and gets tracked into the aisles as you walk to your seat. Screening that day was The Endless Summer, a film about which I knew absolutely nothing, had never had any occasion to discover in land-locked Illinois. But my companion that day was adamant – We have to go in. You’ve never seen The Endless Summer? Come on!
I remember the film’s colors more than any plot, its blues and oranges and the hues in between. I remember sitting in the nearly-empty theater watching a film that seemed truly endless – minimal dialogue (if any?) and miles of surf footage, the undulating waves filling the theatre with their consistency. I remember thinking even then this film, which I now know was released in 1966, seemed dated, but in a nostalgic way, a way I found endearing. I don’t think I’d seen a documentary before. I didn’t particularly want to see this one when we first walked in, but the reprieve from the sweltering day alone was enough to keep me in the theater until the end of the film. The film’s hippy vibe and soothing imagery was just a bonus.
Afterwards, we might’ve gone for a frozen coke or wandered down the street for pizza. We might’ve headed back to her house, or gone to the beach to experience the waves for ourselves. I can’t be sure. What I do know is as we emerged from the dark auditorium, as our eyes adjusted to the sudden sun again, I knew I’d experienced something that wouldn’t soon leave me.