‘Al’ is Al Jardine, the shorter blond of The Beach Boys who looks a bit like Richard Widmark. I lived on their family ranch on Pfeiffer Beach in Big Sur, took care of their animals including Wilbur the pig, the horses, cats, dogs, parrots; was the family chef, too.
My getting to Big Sur is a lesson in making dreams come true. When I was 14, new in California on a drive with my mother and brother up to SF from south, Rancho Santa Fe, we stopped and I stood on a cliff there somewhere drinking it in, stunned, and never forgot it. I left the coast at 17. I came back at 51. I ended up in my car with my animals in Big Sur forests for 2 years, lost in every way.
Meanwhile looking for any job, going to construction sites and asking for house painting work. Got hired, a good one on a house in Carmel, three weeks and good pay. A carpenter fell in love with me and took me to see Pfeiffer Beach for the first time to show me the purple sand.
I’m going to live here some day, I said,
Impossible. Nothing for rent, only for millionaires.
YES, I will.
Ten years went by, and during that time, Holman Ranch, Yosemite, Grass Valley, Pebble Beach, Cachagua, constantly asking everyone about Big Sur, visiting, walking, smelling the place, getting the IMPOSSIBLE response. Very unhappy at Carmel Valley ‘Lower Circle’ down by the river. If I’d known that’s what it was called I wouldn’t have moved in. But I had my first gardening experience there and last suburbia, and kept asking about Big Sur.
I was at a vineyard Christmas in Carmel Valley talking to a woman. She lived in Big Sur. She said she knew a place maybe coming up but couldn’t say who it belonged to because they were famous. I can do famous, I said, I almost am myself. And I knew it was the Jardines, everybody knew where they lived. She said call her in a week. She never returned my calls. I looked constantly on Craig’s list.
I was producing a radio show making $650 a week. Big Sur rentals started at $2500. I emailed a realtor. I wrote, I’ve seen your ads for six months now and these beautiful places stay empty. If anyone needs a responsible, fully employed tenant let me know. I can manage $1500. He wrote back, sorry, never less than $2000. Sigh.
Then the next day, he wrote again, There is a place, a small cabin on Pfeiffer Beach, $1850. I talked to Al, he’s expecting your call.
I nearly passed out. I looked up Jardine on the internet, there are photos on a website because of the recording studio, called Red Barn. I decided I couldn’t miss the opportunity no how even if it was a high-priced shed, and called. He was annoyed and coolish and I ignored it and we made an appointment for early Sunday afternoon next. I went bearing gifts, brought a copy of The Gandy Dancer and a bouquet of purple Iris for Al and colorful Ranunculus for Mary Ann and drove there trembling, so excited, willing to take on anything, sure it wouldn’t work. But the sun was shining, it was December and 80 degrees.
Al was on the roof of one of the little buildings when I got there, and met his wife Mary Ann, who shouted up, Al…get off the roof! It’s okay, come down and meet Barbara. I gave the Ranunculus to Mary Ann. Her favorite flower. I gave Al the Iris. His favorite flower. He loved the book, no slothful Sparhawk. She’d shown me the place. I looked at all the little buildings and sheds we approached and thought, well no, that’s their house, it must be the goat shack over there . . . then it WAS that cabin.
This? This is the house for rent? Yes. (Oh my God, every square inch was charm. When I got home I had no idea of what it really looked like and couldn’t remember the size or layout of anything except I was in love with it.)
Al and I got on very well. The first thing I said to him, shook his hand, I want you to know that your fabulous music has been an important part of my life since I was in my teens. Thank you for all you’ve done. We all hugged when I left.
I knew some people he knew, I sang a song about something, I talked about myself, I loved all the animals who came over, I was in some kind of cloud of transport to another life.
And every sentence I anticipated a reply of, Oh well, then you won’t do at all.
It never happened.
I said, Look, Al. I smoke. He turned away and held his head and thought a minute and turned back and said, I hate smoking. I take it you love tobacco. Yes. Okay, you can smoke inside the house. (unheard of).
And Al, I said next, it’s worth every cent but for me the rent’s too high.
And Al said, Hmm. Well, how much can you pay?
So we negotiated. It went from $1850 to $1550 and I’d do the feeding of the animals twice a day.
Then I said, That’s fantastic. Thank you! But I need a month. The place where I am expects 30 day’s notice and they’ve been good to me.
And Mary Ann said That’s good, we’re still painting the bedroom, what color would you like?
I met the housepainters inside, they were the Dali Lama’s documentary film crew. True. Really.
I wrote a check for the first month. More unbelievable: Nah, we don’t need a deposit, forget it.
I’m not sure how I was still breathing after all that or able to drive but I did and got home and started packing and called the people where I lived and gave notice.
I’d gotten a call from Al at midnight a week later. He was nervous about smoking. Did I smoke in bed? Not since the ’60’s I said. Okay. I liked how peculiar they were.
The day of the move was enormous tribulation, sorting, endless boxes and too small moving van, Jeep falling apart, borrowing money for every part of it, and engineered during the worst first storm of the season in gale force winds, torrential rain and floods. Sycamore Canyon Road is the old, one lane, curving road to the beach, and unpaved and rutted. The Jardine Ranch is the last house before the beach. The woodstove had four inches of water in it.
Al and Mary Ann left on tour almost immediately, and there I was alone on 80 wild acres with one storm coming in after the other (and you really feel it there), with a dozen animals to care for, this completely incompetent Brooklynite on the horse/pig front. It was fantastic.
About a month went by. I’d gotten up to Whole Foods in Monterey and stocked the pantry. They drove in that night around midnight. Al called. I said everybody was fine, welcome home. He sounded exhausted. He said it was a great tour but he was knocked out. Mary Ann had a broken arm that wasn’t healing right. I asked if they had any food in the house.
Then I said I had Chateaubriand in fried onion and Portobello mushrooms, fresh asparagus, mashed potatoes, Cheshire cheese, lemon meringue pie, ginger chocolate, a nice bottle of old Port, and after every thing he gasped and sighed, and I said give me fifteen minutes I’m bringing you dinner. I put dinner for two in a white wicker basket swaddled in red and white checked cloth and trotted it up to the Big House. After which I became their chef, they both said they never tasted anything so delish. In less than a year I quit the radio job and opened my gallery.
I happily consider myself an opportunist, or at least someone not adverse to turning down chance when it appears unexpectedly and wanting to have a life of joy. There were, as you note, a lot of maneuverings around very strong personalities required, and this breathless sense of not wanting to do wrong on my part. But there was so much for me to gain, and grow I did. Life altering, every bit of it.
And stimulating beyond belief, I never painted so much or so fast or so well in my life.
Part 1 of 3 to be posted consecutively.