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Surf palace for rent. Needs work, but it's close to the surf and cool in the summertime. Photo by Chris Ahrens
Columns Waterspot

Waterspot: Surf houses and overpriced whistles

The surfers I grew up with were never interested in the cars they drove or the house they occupied. They didn’t need to impress anyone; they were busy perfecting the art of living.

A house was nothing more than a place to eat and sleep. A car got you to essential surf spots. A house was a roof, a bedroom, a kitchen and a bathroom. Garages were good because you could make surfboards in them. A yard could also be useful, because in them you could clean whatever fish you might have speared and, for the more industrious among us, grow vegetables.

Before land prices in North County rivaled the national debt and condos became the rage for the upwardly mobile among us, there were some beach shacks scattered along the coast. My first one was in Encinitas, in the summer of 1970, located at the corner of 3rd and G, where a hundred bucks a month split half a dozen came along with an all-access pass to Swami’s.

Initially, I paid nothing to sleep on a couch on the front porch. When I scored a job for $2.50 per hour, however, I moved into my own bedroom and paid the rent for those who were unemployed. Years later, in it’s final gasp for life, the house earned the name “Rag Pile,” a title it held until its destruction in the late ’70s.

From 3rd and G, I alternately landed between luxury’s lap and poverty’s basement a number of times before moving into a two-bedroom shack (or palace depending on your POV) on the cliff, overlooking Swami’s. It had been part of a migrant worker’s camp and was in bad repair when we moved in and stapled visqueen where the windows had once been, built bunk beds, laid down an old piece of carpet in what passed for a front room, had the water, gas and electricity turned on and endured paradise.

Of course, devils have ways of kicking residents out of Eden and the place was mowed within a year of our moving in and turned into honeycombs with carports and locked gates where the young, nervous and upwardly mobile could find shelter from the elements that longed to free them.

Regardless of where I traveled in my endless search for surf — Hawaii, Guam, Australia and New Zealand — it was the same and I found surfers living beyond polite society, willing to sacrifice comfort for freedom.

When I think about these houses, I am reminded of a short piece by Ben Franklin called “The Whistle.” In it, Franklin tells how he once paid too much for a wooden whistle and, after learning his lesson, carried the metaphor over to life. Whenever he observed someone with an object not worth the pain of its attainment, he thought to himself that that person had “paid too much for the whistle.” Imagine Ben living in a time of $800 phones, four-buck cups of coffee and rent sucking up half your monthly salary.

Trust an old man when he says that the waves you rode and the people you were with will be alive in your memory long after your current car is a bucket of rust and your house has been demolished to make way for someone else’s dream. It’s only a whistle. Don’t blow it.

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