Among the shadows of towering palms along La Jolla Boulevard on the northern edges of San Diego’s Pacific Beach neighborhood sits West End. The bar is most famous for being the home base of Tom Wolfe’s Pumphouse Gang but it has much more history than that for the locals. The ghost of Wolfe is felt just walking by, the feeling of a time past, a freewheeling feeling of peace and love emanates like the odor of stale beer and sunscreen.
When I landed in San Diego, I knew I’d be staying close to West End. My friend’s apartment is just a block away. The saltwater air breezing in and out of his place like Tom Wolfe’s ghost. I had every intention of stopping in for a beer, just to say I was there and as many times as I walked by it to grab more ceviche at Oscar’s over the next few days, I never did go in. But right after I landed, we walked up the street to get an early lunch. I hadn’t eaten and wanted to put a good base down before I became soaked in pineapple juice, coconut cream, and rum.
We walked by West End and headed to a takeout Hawaiian place. I am not a religious man, but God must live in San Diego. It’s a caricature of itself, a fake southern California prop set for a movie. Taco stands and coffee houses with wide-open doors and windows lined the streets. Everyone looked like an extra in the next Hollywood blockbuster, tan thin bodies carrying surfboards and wearing leather necklaces with dangling amulets. Even the torpid winos are beautiful.
As we waited for our Musubi and Kalua Pork, a swarthy old woman in a yellow sweater strolled by, leaning on her grocery cart full of personal belongings. She said nothing, but we made brief eye contact. As she passed I offered her the money in my pocket. It was some coins and probably a dollar. She accepted gracefully but then stopped and said “I’ll trade ya”.
I couldn’t imagine what for until she threw a $20 bill at me. “Here. By lunch for you and your brother”, she said pointing at my friend and taking the change. I immediately protested. She said she really wanted my brother and I to enjoy a Hawaiian lunch on her. I threw the money back at her and she threw it back at me. We stood staring at each other in terse anticipation until it gave way to biblical repose. Then she turned, place both hands back on her grocery cart and walked away.
A nearby bystander exploded with excitement. He said he’d never seen anything like that. Hell, he’s never heard of anything like that! We batted it back and forth for about a minute. I got up to look for her and she was gone. Gone. Just like that. Into the creamy sands of Pacific Beach, possibly floating amongst the surf, swallowed by Windandsea, engulfed by Mission, lost amid palms of Bird Rock.
I hadn’t been in San Diego a few measly hours and I already had one of the strangest things happen to me. Par for the course. Another story to write about, fodder for the barstool banter, something to say when the subject arises. I didn’t think much of it until I was on my way home, miles above the ground sitting at the back of a jet, drifting in and out of sleep and reading The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.
The most probable reason for the old lady’s generous behavior is mental health, a subject that most of America just isn’t ready to talk about. But as I rode in that plane as close to the heavens as one can get without any training, I wondered if it was the ghost of Tom Wolfe. A secret mission from an eclectic writer pushing the subcultural mythologies of La Jolla onto me, to see how I’d react, to see what story would emerge, to see, to see, to see.
What if it was a test to see if I could harbor the power of an odd story, digest it, surrender to it, and recreate it? What if it was more than that? What if it was to see why I’d stop asking What If?
Life is hard. It can be boring. It can feel redundant. It has many tests. Relationships are won, lost, gained, shattered, and forgotten. Yet it still rumbles oddly forward. The message to me is clear: Don’t miss the little chances to have Tom Wolfe’s ghost buy you Hawaiian food.
This post is republished on Medium.
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