From a distance she looked younger, or maybe it just seemed that a girl on roller skates at three in the afternoon would be in her late teens, at the most. She wore a plaid blouse and jeans, and kept her eyes lowered as she moved cautiously down the boardwalk towards me. Obviously, she was not an experienced skater. But as she came nearer she looked up and flashed a smile, and I could see the years in her heavily made-up eyes, the jeans that were filled out a little too tightly at her waist. Then she was past, the rumble of her skates on the concrete fading as she continued down the deserted boardwalk.
In the summer an encounter like this one would be utterly common at the Mission Beach boardwalk, which has come to be known as the biggest and cheapest singles scene in town. But in the winter it isn’t as noisy, as jammed with people, bicycles, and dogs as it is in the summer. Men still come here to meet women (and vice versa), but their numbers are fewer and the chances not as good. The place takes on a quiet, almost elegant air, like a nightclub after it’s closed for the night. All along the ocean front, signs in windows advertise “Apartment For Rent.’’ Unused lifeguard towers rise up out of the sand, their metal railings dark and bare against the sky. Even the legend painted on them — For Emergency Call 224-2708 — seems out of tune with the prevailing atmosphere.
One resident, in describing what the area is like in the winter, said, “It’s like it’s our own beach.’’ But the character of Mission Beach has been changing over the last few years, giving the term “our” a new nebulousness. Many of the long-time residents have moved or are moving out and are being replaced increasingly by tourists or young adults attracted to the night life of the boardwalk. There are a few old-timers left, but for the most part they are people who have spent their lives here and have no intention of moving, or merchants like Harry Bushling, who appreciate the increasing crowds for the business they bring.
Harry is an institution in Mission Beach, having owned a small market (“Harry’s — The Friendly Store”) for over thirty years near the comer of Ventura Place and Mission Boulevard. He is a tall, heavily set man with a grizzled gray beard, and though he is fast approaching eighty, his blue eyes are bright behind rimless glasses. A green plastic koala bear — a souvenir from a trip to Australia a few years ago — hangs on a chain around his neck.
“I think a lot of the local people feel this way — that they don’t enjoy it [the beach ] by themselves,” Harry says. “They like people around them. Here, let me show you something.” He leads me up the sidewalk outside his store and points to a mural that covers one entire side of the building. “Seagulls, a few clouds, and lots of blue sky,” he grins, describing the mural. “Now that’s Southern California. In the summer we get 100,000 people in a single day between the South Mission Beach jetty and the Pacific Beach pier. That’s where this area ends, you know.”
Other than the tourists, Harry says a large portion of the summer crowd consists of students and young executives from all around the county. “This is a meeting place for them,” he explains. But their numbers thin out in the winter, and most days the tourists (many of whom come from Canada and the Midwest, according to Harry) have the beach pretty much to themselves. Pausing to reflect, he admits there are fewer and fewer permanent residents, and that even the unique characters who flocked to the area in the late Sixties and early Seventies seem to have moved away one by one. He himself now lives in Pacific Beach. “When I first moved into this place [two years ago he moved into a new location around the comer from his old store ], me and the wife had it in mind to live upstairs. But some boys will come by at three in the morning wanting to party, pounding on the door and shouting up for a few six packs of beer. And you know what?” He grins and taps me on the chest. “I’ll get it for them, too. So I had to move away. You need some privacy.”
Squinting into the sun, Harry recalls with relish how in the summertime busloads of people from Grossmont and El Cajon are still arriving at the corner of Mission and Ventura at three in the afternoon. “But this winter has been the worst ever,” he continues, shaking his head. “We had, oh, maybe 10,000 here just last weekend when the sun came out. But generally it’s been a lot quieter than that. The cold and the rain keeps people away.”
A walk through Mission Beach on a February afternoon confirms much of what Harry says. Overhead the sky is a dismal gray. Many of the cars parked along Mission Boulevard bear out-of-state plates: Ontario, Michigan, Illinois. A row of pinball machines in The Epicurean stands empty; no one is visible even behind the food counter. I hear footsteps on the sidewalk behind me, and when I turn, a man of perhaps twenty-five, with blond hair tied in a pony tail, overtakes me and nods curtly. “It’s a nice day,” he says. He continues on, and without turning around adds, “But it’s a chilly wind.”
On Strand Way an old woman wearing an apron stands lost in thought. She holds a yellow plastic tub in her hands, which, judging from the huge flock of pigeons feeding nearby, was full of bread crumbs a few minutes ago. A fluffy black-and-white cat sits at her feet, staring transfixed at the fantastic sea of bobbing pigeon heads in front of it. But when the old woman disappears into a nearby doorway moments later, the cat stands up and follows her contentedly. A short while later a sports car roars down the street and comes to a sudden stop. Three young women jump out and start peering at the houses around them. “Did you call first?” asks one of them. “How do you know it’s for rent then?” Soon they get back in the car and speed away.
Up on the boardwalk a young couple clad in down jackets sits on the sea wall, gazing out at the jade-green ocean. A few bicyclists cruise by now and then, but they ’re a far cry from the crowds that are here in summer, rolling past on a variety of bicycles, skateboards, and, in particular, roller skates. The young adults who frequent the boardwalk in increasing numbers have made roller skates the hottest fad since Hawaiian shirts, and consequently, for much of the year the boardwalk now resembles a free-lance roller derby. Young men with bleached hair and sunburned faces whizz past without a note of warning; teenage girls roll by awkwardly, clutching hair brushes and laughing self-consciously. (The proliferation of roller skates helped bring about a new law banning glass containers in and around the beach, but the shattered glass here and there along the boardwalk attests both to the reason the law was enacted and the fact that it’s largely ignored.)
Ray Hamel, owner of Hamel’s Cyclery and Surf Shop on Ventura Place, doesn’t hesitate to take credit for the roller-skating craze. “We started the whole thing about two years ago,” he shrugs, referring to himself and his brother Danny. Hamel is a husky, rather brusque man of thirty-five, with copper-colored glasses and a Fu Manchu mustache. A sign on a post in his shop reads, ‘‘No Smoking—People Breathing.” Standing upstairs among racks full of beachwear, he tells me that he moved to Mission Beach twenty-five years ago and has been in business at the same location for the last twelve. On a good day he rents out about 600 pairs of skates from his ocean-front store, across Ventura Place from the now defunct Belmont Park. Unlike Harry Bushling, Hamel says he notices no seasonal variations in either the roller skaters or the beach crowd in general, but a smile crosses his lips at the question and he glances down at the people milling around outside his store on a warm winter afternoon. “They’re the same year-round, but we’ve got everything out there,” he says. “Everything you could imagine. The boardwalk is a big pick-up scene, and we’ve given people an excuse for coming down here. We created something for them to do at night.”
It’s true that roller skates figure prominently in the boardwalk’s night life, but if there were no skates most of the people would undoubtedly find another excuse for coming down here. Many of them are too young to gain entrance to legitimate nightclubs, and for them the boardwalk presents a titillating opportunity to socialize with the opposite sex. It’s also, not coincidentally, a popular place to get drunk. On a recent Friday night I watched one teenager with long, curly black hair stare down at the cement in front of him for an interminably long time. An open can of beer was perched on the sea wall nearby. A half moon rose over the silhouette of the Belmont Park roller coaster, and not far away a woman in her early twenties sat on the beach with her back against the sea wall, nervously sifting sand through her fingers. She wore a long beige sweater and green pants, and kept pushing the hair out of her eyes as she glanced furtively at nearly everyone who walked, skated, or rode past on the boardwalk behind her. But even though it was a Friday night, it was only February, and there were long periods when no one came by at all.
In the distance a car engine raced, tires squealed. A woman’s voice called out, “I love you, too!” Overhead two California gulls swept past with loud cries before vanishing into the darkness. When I looked again at the woman she had turned and was saying something to a young man who was resting his elbows on the sea wall behind her. He had dark hair, a mustache, and wore a blue hooded sweatshirt. To the north the lights of the Pacific Beach pier were twinkling in the distance; a couple of miles south was the long, low outline of the jetty at South Mission Beach. Behind me rose a dark mass of apartments, cottages, TV antennas, and telephone wires, and to the west lay the cool gray fog that, particularly at this time of year, is never very far from shore.