Sunday, February 5, 2012

Life's a Coast

When I was a child, we used to go, not to the “beach,” but to the “coast.” I've always thought going to the coast implied something different from going to the beach. Go to the beach and the sun shines and you stroll on the sand. Go to the coast and you sidle right up to the edge of the world.

It's a radical journey, getting back to the roots of things, of relationships, leaving all the unnecessary trappings of civilized life behind. It's a wild and daring adventure. Or at least it used to be.

When I was about four, I remember arriving late at night, and my family, all six of us, joined hands and slogged into the moon-scribbled surf. Later, Dad turned his pockets inside out looking for his car keys. Not finding them, he summoned a mechanic who shattered the driver’s side window of our locked Buick and hot-wired the ignition. High drama for a four-year-old.

At the coast you couldn’t drink the water out of the tap—or at least you wouldn't want to—so we'd drive someplace inland to fill large bottles from an artesian well. We didn’t require air conditioning because we had only one window unit at home in the living room—and we never turned it on except on the sultriest Fourth of July or when company came.

At the coast my sometimes high-strung father became loose and laughing. He worked hard all his life, but he sure knew how to have a good time. In burger joints or seafood restaurants, he’d chuckle and say “Get whatever you want.”  And believe me, we did! When I’d go fishing in Cotton Bayou with my older brother, Dad would pay me a nickel for every fish I caught—the same fish more than once, no doubt, because I threw them all back. Then with the proceeds I’d buy comic books at Sunnyland Grocery.

Only at the coast could Sunnyland have been called a grocery. True, it sold bacon and eggs, and milk and bread, but alongside plastic pink flamingos, floats, fishing tackle, ice, stale bagged peanuts to put in your Coke, and—let’s see—ethyl at about twenty-nine cents a gallon.

Nowadays, you can go to any number of beaches, all with high rise condos and luxuries you couldn’t (or wouldn't want to) afford even at more reasonable prices at home. I suspect that most people have never had a real vacation. Going to the beach is one thing. Going to the coast is another.

If the coast even exists—if it wasn't just a figment of my childhood imagination—then I don't know where to look for it anymore.

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