Chen pulled me into his stories like metal shavings to a magnet.
What happened to Zalmo was the most shocking thing we learned when we returned to Santa Cruz. But it was not the only thing that had changed.
When I moved to Santa Cruz in the mid-1990s it was a mid-size city but it had the feel of a small town. It never took more than a few minutes to get from one point in town to the next. Planted to one side of Monterey Bay, it was a hub for surfers who braved the cold sea water every day of the week. Anywhere I walked near the ocean, I saw groups of them clad in their head-to-toe black rubber suits. They carried enormous surf boards like giant wood tongue-depressors balanced on one hip.
Santa Cruz was also a university town but that was not immediately apparent, as the campus was hidden at the crest of a hill, well to the north of town. The university’s dominance meant that Santa Cruz was full of young people. That leant the town a magic air, as if its inhabitants never grew old. Despite being in my forties I never felt old because I rarely saw old faces.
Less happily, I managed to collide with university types who were too politically correct for my taste. It is the only place I have lived where not less than two presumably heterosexual men romanced me—to put the matter delicately. I was as puzzled by the idea of straight men showing an interest in a fellow male, as I was annoyed when they both suddenly became unfriendly and treated me like an annoying fly on the dinner meal.
Making light of the absurdity, I dryly mentioned the matter to a young lady, recently graduated from the university. “This town is full of an alarming number of bisexual men,” I opined. “It must be something in the water.”
The young lady’s hostile response caught me off guard. “Well,” she huffed. “I am bisexual and I find your comment offensive!”
It was a classic Santa Cruz moment. And perhaps proof that too much liberal education snuffs out a person’s sense of humor.
The Three Musketeers
Shortly before I moved to Santa Cruz my father passed away. Mom was left alone in her house far away on the East Coast. She did fine for a while. But then one day Mom passed out at home and was rushed to the hospital, where she remained in a coma for a day. As her sister later recounted, “When your mother finally opened her eyes in the hospital, the person looking back at me was not my sister.”
From then on, Mom, who had loved nothing more than solitude—became terrified of being left alone—in a room, in the house, anywhere. My new mother was now in constant emotional distress. She needed to have someone at her side 24/7. She managed to hire a nurse to provide company during the day. But from the moment the nurse arrived at her house, Mom began to worry about what would happen at the end of the day when the nurse left. Her nights were scary and sleepless.
The situation could not go on. I advised Mom to sell her place and move in with me and my partner. She flatly refused and announced she would not change her mind. But a week later she called to say she was going to live with us after all.
For the next three years, the three of us were inseparable. Given her terrible fears, we tried our best not to leave Mom at home alone. So we took daily walks together, shopped together, went to the doctor together, watched videos at home together. We were rarely seen except together. We called ourselves the Three Musketeers.
It wasn’t easy. But the great part is that Mom and I re-kindled a friendship we had started when I was six years old and my older brother died.
Back then Dad spent most of the time at work. When he was home he ignored me. Other times his indifference drifted into unkindness and occasional cruelty. So I clung to Mom.
Three years later my father suffered an injury that left him unable to work. Mom had to get a job to support us. Now she spent less time at home and when she was around she was exhausted from her demanding job and long commute to and from work. There was little time for me. Our special mother-son relationship came to a crashing halt.
My father often humiliated me in front of others and I developed an angry contempt for him. After I finished college our disagreement over my father—I complained about him, she defended him— was a high wall between us.
Now that Dad was gone and Mom and I lived together again, we continued where we had left off many years before. It was bittersweet—bitter for all the hurt along the years and sweet because it was our last ride together as buddies.
After Mom died, I looked for a house to buy. My partner and I moved to a town further down the coast. Our beautiful and sometimes painful six years in Santa Cruz were over.
But we never really left Santa Cruz…not in our hearts. So it was eighteen years later when we returned for a visit to see about buying a new place and resuming our lives in Santa Cruz. But the more time we spent in our old hometown, the more we realized that we couldn’t return.
There were the obvious changes, like the increase in car traffic. I enjoyed the new crowds at the shopping mall—-more interesting faces to see. But the streets were another matter. Before, a fifteen minute ride brought us downtown. Now the same ride took almost an hour. Before, the freeway that ran from one end of town to the other backed up during weekday rush hours, but was wide open the rest of the day. Now it was a slow crawl at all hours.
But the most important change was that, to us, the town had lost its soul because the people we had known were gone. There was my waiter friend Brian who placed romance ads in the papers and met new partners every week. Each time, his promising partner morphed into yet another “jerk”—to hear Brian tell it. But his stories of conquest and disillusionment added spice to my staid life.
And then there was our 70-something, but timeless, Chinese friend Chen. Everyone knew Chen. For decades he had been one of the most beloved teachers at a prominent private high school.
When Chen retired and moved to Santa Cruz he continued his teaching—informally—by offering spontaneous “workshops” to those of his crowd of friends who would listen. He often imparted his wisdom over dinners he served at his beautiful home—-Chinese cuisine, of course. I can’t remember much of his wisdom but shreds of it are stuck forever in my mind—Pilgrim’s Progress; the Queen’s English (Chen had been an English teacher); the proper use of “fish” versus “fishes”; an allegory about a fellow stranded on a rope in a ravine caught between a tiger on one side and a luscious strawberry on the other; meeting Buddha on the road.
Chen pulled me into his stories like metal shavings to a magnet. One day I ran into him downtown in front of the library. I don’t remember what led him to talk about his time as a World War II soldier on a Pacific island, battling the Japanese—-but within moments he transported me to a steamy jungle where the boom of artillery reverberated in the distance as gaggles of monkeys dangled from the trees above and screamed in fear. Another Santa Cruz moment.
Everyone I knew looked up to Chen. I did too. He was an anchor of timeless wisdom.
Years after we left Santa Cruz we were shocked to learn that, as a teacher years earlier, Chen had sexually assaulted a number of his teenage students. We read about it in the New York Times. So many years had passed that the statute of limitations shielded our friend. His only comment to the journalist who reached him on the phone was, “It all seemed so innocent at the time.”
Now, back in Santa Cruz, we found that Chen had disappeared. But his disappearance wasn’t only a physical event. The Chen we had known—the wise and compassionate teacher and friend—had disappeared when we learned about his sexual assaults. It was a double loss.
And then there was Zalmo.
Zalmo was another fixture of 1990s Santa Cruz.
His real name was Jay but all his friends called him Zalmo. Everyone in the Jewish community knew Zalmo. Everyone loved him. Many of us had been to his home for Jewish community events and had met his wife and two young daughters. He and his wife had joined their last names to form a single name, Bloombecker. I never knew which one was Bloom and which was Becker. But the combination fit them. They were inseparable.
One day we read in the paper that “noted performance artist and lawyer Jay Bloombecker” was scheduled to present a one-man show at the downtown library. I was impressed by the enormous crowd that showed up. It must have included most of the local Jewish community.
I don’t remember what Zalmo said during his performance. I think it was mostly dramatic gesturing. Burned into my memory is the image of Zalmo, careening in circles, balancing a toilet seat over his head, as his fascinated audience sat in chairs on one side of the room. After that he wagged a rubber chicken wildly in the air. All the while, his wife Linda sat in a front row seat, scribbling furiously into a small notebook. Curious about her scribbling, I took a circuit around the audience and stole a peek at Linda’s note book. I caught the words, “Next time, lose the chicken.”
Now that we were back, years later, we no longer knew anyone in Santa Cruz who could tell us anything about the Bloombeckers. So we found out from an old newspaper story.
Zalmo was an intellectual property lawyer who traveled the country consulting on copyright law. He also had another legal specialty: he helped clients get disability benefits. A disabled client, unhappy with Zalmo’s work, showed up at his office one day with a gun. He surprised Zalmo at his desk and then pumped a bullet into his chest. Sometime later, Zalmo’s girlfriend discovered his lifeless body slumped behind the desk.
Learning of this event was a double whammy for me. First the news that Zalmo, an unforgettable and larger-than-life personality, was dead. And then the knowledge that the Bloombecker pair was not, after all, inseparable. From the newspaper report I learned that a couple of years before the murder he and Linda had divorced. And he even had another child with his girlfriend. Now two women had lost their partner, three children had lost their father, and Santa Cruz was changed forever.
Now I wonder why, when I left Santa Cruz, I pretended that it would stay frozen in time.
Maybe Thomas Wolfe felt the same when he said “You can’t go home again.”
Returning to Santa Cruz I discovered that home doesn’t exist anymore.
Note: I have changed some of the names in this post in order to protect the identities of my former friends.