A Chico memoir
The long, hot, groovy summer
I came to Chico on a whim with everything I owned piled behind me in my little Toyota Camry.
After a week of hunting for a job and room in Santa Cruz, I was running out of money. My immediate future on the West Coast wasn’t looking so good. Suffice to say, California was no longer the golden sparkle of blondes, lush mountains and surf I had imagined. It was becoming more like a flakey, New Age apocalypse of scam artists, high-priced real estate and astrology freaks bothering me during my lunch (nobody asks your sign on the East Coast—at least not where I’m from).
So, with road-bleary eyes, I headed to Chico to hook up with a friend from San Diego who was attending Chico State in the fall. Driving through the farm fields I felt like I was traveling deep into Children of the Corn country. The community radio station playing dueling banjo music only heightened my nervousness. When I finally pulled into Chico, it was a Friday evening in August of 1995.
As I got out of the car, my first thoughts were something like, “Have I entered a radioactive area? Am I on fire? Why is it this warm at 7 p.m.?”
After securing a room at the local Motel 6 (they left the light on for me), I began walking downtown via Mangrove Avenue, past what appeared in the waning light to be rows of smalltown strip malls. I didn’t even know where the downtown was, really; I just hoped to magically stumble across my friend.
When I finally arrived, Chico’s downtown looked pretty bland. I was used to an ethnically diverse, mid-sized city on the East Coast, and Chico struck me as extremely whitebread. Even the homeless people seemed more of your Merry Prankster variety, not the predatory crackheads I knew. It was nice to see so many people on bikes, but what was up with all of the attractive teen-aged girls walking everywhere with baby strollers? Or the Timothy Leary look-alikes wearing rainbow-hued short shorts? And the clean, well-fed suburban punk kids asking me for change—what was that?
Aside from some wannabe low-riders cruising in circles around downtown, the whole place seemed safe, in a Candyland board game kind of way—the type of town where college students could get drunk and pass out in alleyways without going to jail or worrying about getting rolled or raped right out of their khakis.
Just then, a hunched-over woman with a make-up job out of Mommie Dearest pushed a shopping cart by, nodding her head and mumbling as if to say, “Love it or leave it, kid.”
My first real contact came as I approached the now-defunct Mexican restaurant/bar once known as Juanita’s. Hearing the music of the Stooges and seeing tattooed folks exit, it didn’t take long to realize this was a square-free zone. A rotund white man with dreadlocks checked my ID, and I went inside. Within moments, I was scarfing down one of the best bowls of chili I’d ever tasted. Or was it the papadillas with guacamole? Maybe both, washed down with a cold Sierra Nevada Pale Ale for just a buck. At the time it was like heaven.
From my conversation with the two drunk cooks behind the bar, I learned there was a free jamband concert in the nearby park and that my “hippie” friend might be there. I left for the park with a full stomach and a light buzz, happy to be walking in that warm summer breeze on a moon- lit eve. Emphasis, once again, on the warm.
As if on cue, upon approaching the hubbub in the park, I saw my friend dancing with her 3-year old vegetarian hippie child on the grass. What luck, I thought. It had taken me only an hour and a half in a town of 90,000 to find someone completely from scratch. As I watched the mass of people gyrating like some amorphous, tie-dyed amoeba, a goofy smile stuck on my face.
I had camped in Big Sur, Monterey and Santa Cruz, but somehow this felt like Northern California for the first time. Then I realized people around me were smiling back—and I wasn’t even scared that they were crazy.
Within a week, I made several friends and contacts at the university, found a room for $200 a month and got a job at a local record store. It took a while to get used to the temperature, which hovered that August between 108 and 115. Without a fan that first month, my room was how I imagined a Chinese POW isolation tank would feel. I remember hallucinating ice cream cones out of the walls once.
Of course I quickly discovered the cool water of Bidwell Creek and spent all my free time exploring the natural wonders there. My blood pressure came back down, and my lifestyle grew mellow and relaxed.
I discovered Chico Mint ice cream at Shubert’s, cinnamon challah bread at Chico Breadworks and cheap night at The Pageant Theater and became housemates a with fun-loving columnist, Bitter Betty from the CN&R. Life was (I guess I can say it) … groovy. Especially after I met a female companion.
She was a beautiful lass with long brown hair whom I spied one morning as she walked barefoot along Flume Street, singing to herself in Spanish and picking fruit from the trees. But this was no dirt-twirler. She was a local, and she rocked my world one night beneath a blanket of stars at One Mile. Actually, now that I think about it, forget all that bitching about the heat. That was a damn good summer.