Just as I roll into Santa Cruz, I ring Ken up on the celfone. I'm really getting used to this instrument. I tell him the number for the kiosk guard, and he calls them up seconds before I arrive at the foggy checkpoint. The same policeman that waved me in four years ago waves me in now, with the same late-night bored expression.
Campus policy forbids parking near Ken's dorm room overnight, so I'll eventually need to move, but for now I pull into a 20-minute space in a short row of cars. This militaristic collection of buildings used to be called 'The Villiage' when it was up on the hills, but last year gigantic trucks broke the dorms apart and hauled them down to this narrow, rocky chasm near the foot of the campus. The crew did a lousy job reassembling the rooms, and the landscaping is minimal. Now this region is known as 'The Compound', and is the least desirable place to stay in all of UCSC.
When I open the car door, a column of bracing night air plunges inside to greet me. Good thing I brought boots, and two pairs of jackets. As I gather a load of luggage, a cheery voice behind me says "hello!"
I glance towards one of the dorms, and see a cluster of students and a young girl in a security uniform. They're busy unloading booze and snacks from an open car. The boy who hailed me is standing in their midst, smiling broadly. "I am soo drunk right now!" he announces.
"Really?" I say, rifling through my trunk, "Wha'd you have?"
"Tequeeeeeeela SHOTS!" he shouts, and jerks his hand up in a toasting motion. "LOTS of 'em. ... didn't seem like very much at the time!"
"Well that depends on how fast you drank them." I say, gathering an armload of blankets. In the back of my mind I'm thinking: "I'm here for less than a minute, and I see this. How often does this happen, then?"
"Oh, I had 'em all at once!" He turns to the girl next to him, breathing right into her face, and adds: "Whoooo!"
"Sounds pretty nutty..." I finish, closing the trunk. As I walk up the road to Ken's building, I hear the crew fumbling their way indoors. Guess it's one of those eternal college traditions on a Friday night. For some anyway.
Ken's room has a carved wooden mask hanging on the door. It's reptilian eyesockets flash red in steady intervals, thanks to the tiny circuitboard Ken stuffed in it's head. I smack the door with my armload of luggage.
"Come in!" says Ken.
I barge inside, almost sweeping everything off his mini-fridge. His room is an intricate clutter of student paraphenelia, with everything stacked on everything else. The microwave is resting on the television. A glacier of laundry oozes from the closet. Six gigantic plastic bags of leather scraps are wedged under the bunk.
Ken himself is at his computer, playing an emulated Playstation RPG. "Heya, chummer!" he says.
"Yo, yo, yo!"
"Back in Santa Cruz, ready to chill with mah homey, KEN MAN 2000!" I drop my suitcase, and fling my blankets on the bed.
Ken takes on a French accent, for one syllable: "Onnnnnggh!" He sets down his controller and stretches.
I pat his head. If he was wearing a tie, I would yank it a few times. "How's dorm livin'?"
"Sucks. Let's go get some grub."
"Dayum straight. First, mind if I monopolize your computer?"
This time Ken's accent is scottish: "Nae problem, laddie."
I turn pirate. "Arrrrr!"
Ken jumps up onto his bed, and starts reading a dog-eared novel. We chat and catch up, as I spend an entire hour trying to get the drivers for my portable MP3 player installed. With that done, I load some Coil and Vangelis tracks up - stuff I've never heard before - in preparation for the walk up to campus later.
Finally Ken and I get away. The guard who was supposed to ticket my car after 20 minutes has gone missing, so no problem there. We coast into Denny's just after midnight.
Our waitress is a perky young student with chopped up hair, dark at the roots. She reminds me of another reason Santa Cruz suits me ... plenty of girls with short haircuts. Around here, they can have short hair and not be implying anything by it. She leads Ken and I to a booth, and after we order, I break out a deck of playing cards.
The cards prove unneccessary. Ken and I talk nonstop, about college, philosophy, movies, and dating. I attempt to explain some of the very complex dynamics that existed between me and the woman I'd loved a year ago. At four in the morning, we realize it's time to go. I still need to park the car off-campus, and walk up to Ken's room.
Ken and I shake hands in the Compound parking lot, and I cruise back off campus. It's way too late for the kiosk guards to care. I snoop around with the heater cranked, storing warmth for the walk, while Biosphere croons from the car stereo.
Finally I locate a spot by the church, shut down, and clamor into the back seat. I lace up my hiking boots tight, wrestle my way into a leather jacket and a thick grey overcoat, pocket my keys, and run my headphone wire down my shirt to the MP3 player in the jacket.
Cold air brushes against me like a friendly cat as I lock the car, but my boots and jackets defy it. Coil pulses into my ears, and I walk away, past the bus stop with a nomad asleep on it, his shopping cart at hand. My breath trails behind my head,
I turn right up towards the campus, and eventually reach the bike path. This is a solid ribbon of tarmac passing between the empty hills, up through an oak forest. Coil drones in my head, telling me the story of a sea priestess, and her legendary symbiosis with the nautical world. Even though I was raised in the woods, the gnarled spidery limbs of the oak trees inject my private calm with a dose of the creeps. It's the very deepest core of nighttime now, and even the drunk students and the nomads have passed out. I walk the black ribbon slowly, moving beyond the trees, into a moonlit valley. When I pause the music for a moment, all I can hear is the low sigh of wind sliding quietly around my head. I press play, and sonorous bell tones ring out across the valley again.
When my music lulls, I stop, and turn a circle. I gape at the sky, my tongue pulled back, my nose open, my lungs expanded. Pure, damp air floods into me. I smell no exhaust, no smoke, no shit, no grime. This is what I always had, here. This is what I grew up surrounded by. This is what ten million people down south may never have. Do they notice it, any more? Maybe not. Maybe this is why they all smoke.
Vangelis replaces Coil on my headphones, and I turn back up the path. On my left, I notice a tarpaulin held under chunks of cold blue granite. The wrinkled cloth sparkles magically from a million shreds of frost. I brush my palm across it, captivated by the rediscovery. All the frost in Pasadena was brown and slick.
When I turn off the path into the Compound parking lot, I notice a white sheet on all of the cars. The ice is rough to my hand, like paper, but if I rest my fingers for more than an instant, it crackles into water all around them in expanding marks. The transition from ice to water is actually a vast jump in energy levels, and the water feels almost warm.
Ken is passed out on his bed. I peel off my jackets and boots, stow my mp3 player, unfold my pad, and press in some earplugs. In the afternoon I've got appointments, but there's still plenty of time for sleep.
I'm glad I came here.