People assume Santa Cruz is ‘weird.’ But is it—really? Our gal-about-town tells all.
A dreadlocked midwife, a transgendered Unitarian Universalist minister, and a polyamorous Republican walk into a bar … stop me if you’ve heard this one.
You’ve seen the bumper sticker. You own the bumper sticker. You’ve considered covering an entire wall in your bathroom with the catch phrase (that would, after all, be quite fitting). It could be that you, like me, have caught yourself shouting to a friend or acquaintance as you part ways, “Keep it weird!” You laugh to yourself, give a thumbs-up and go on your merry way. But do you sometimes walk away wondering, “Am I keeping it weird? Am I doing my part? Am I, as a private citizen, putting my best weird foot forward?”
We take it for granted that the assumption is true: Santa Cruz is weird. National media relies on our city council meetings, parking meter-feeding clowns and annual April 20 festivities to serve as palate cleanser in between courses of what passes as real news. We’ve even been the butt of a joke on a popular Fox animated series. (No, not that one. It was a 2008 episode of American Dad, and the quote referred to our local university’s former policy of giving in-depth evaluations to students instead of letter grades: “I’d give you an A for effort, but this isn’t UC Santa Cruz.”)
This only begs more questions. Why keep it weird? What are the alternatives? Can I really fit another bumper sticker on my car, which I don’t drive because I am reducing my carbon footprint? And for some, myself included, the biggest question of all: Are we really weird?
adj. weird·er, weird·est
1. Of, relating to, or suggestive of the preternatural or supernatural.
2. Of a strikingly odd or unusual character; strange.
3. Archaic: Of or relating to fate or the Fates.
By the Numbers
if we examine this assumption of oddness from a numbers angle, we see a daunting ledger of normalcy. Our county unemployment rate in April was 11.9 percent, which, taking into consideration the number of seasonal employees located within our tourism and agricultural borders, seems not out of step with the nation’s overall jobless rate of 9 percent. The national mean hourly wage for community and social service occupations (a local favorite) is $24.27, a mere sliver above our local average of $22.05. National figures for owner-occupied homes is 67.4 percent, and even though we have some of the most lopsided value-to-cost numbers in the country, we still manage to stay in the game with 60 percent home ownership rates.
Quite frankly, none of the numbers I found seemed to strike me as particularly weird—slightly depressing maybe, but generally within the same melancholy economic tone as the rest of the U.S. (Persons under 5, 7.5 percent locally, 6.9 percent nationally; female persons—locally 49.9 percent, 50 percent nationally; and surprisingly, despite what one might see on a Sunday stroll, white persons, 76.4 percent locally, 79.6 percent nationally.) Perhaps our oddity on the personal fiscal front is the overwhelming opinion that Santa Cruz is still, despite these factors, the greatest place on earth to call home.
Perhaps the weirdest figure came out just recently, and my gut instinct tells me this may have more relevance to the “supernatural” or “relating to fate” definition of the word than to plain old “strange;” it took me by surprise and I’m still reeling with the nonsensical ramifications. According to the latest findings by the National Low Income Housing Coalition, a full-time worker must earn $33.27 per hour to afford a modest two-bedroom rental in Santa Cruz County. Rental. In California as a whole that number is $26.17. In Arizona, you’d need just $17.45, but then you’d be in Arizona. Warning: do not play with the numbers. You will be left scratching your head, scouring the want ads, and in most cases, eying your neighbors with inquisitive suspicion. What can he/she do for an hour that is worth $33.27? Maybe the bumper sticker should read “Keep Santa Cruz Solvent.”
From the Heart
Straying from the hard numbers to the soft underbelly of community issues, let’s look at the character of Santa Cruz —what makes us tick, what calls us to action and what, for crying out loud, makes us join Facebook groups. Maybe there is a common passion running through our midst that singles us out as a town with wacky mores, causes us to be odd man out, or clearly sets us aside from the rest of our fellow Americans. Asking a random sampling of local students, parents, business owners and fellow grocery-shoppers, I found that the following axiom became abundantly clear: We, Santa Cruz, put our pants on one leg at a time, just like the rest of the country, despite our desire to be seen as card-carrying members of the “bungee-jumping off the bed and into our hemp trousers” bunch.
We care about community safety, as evidenced by support of the growing Take Back Santa Cruz movement. We insist on equitable and quality public education, as seen in the efforts of the Santa Cruz Education Foundation. We embrace and respect our environment and invest in its sustainable future, through the leadership and ingenuity of groups like Ecology Action and Food What? We think locally and we act locally. And in our spare time we give generously both nationally and globally in times of need. We are, in a nutshell, pretty awesome. However, none of this makes us awesomely weird.
From the Obvious …
Quite a few people I spoke with, when asked “What makes Santa Cruz weird?” named one or two specific people, places or events:
•The Mystery Spot.
•The mascot of UCSC, the Banana Slug.
•The preponderance of reality TV stars in our midst.
•That guy who used to wear pink.
While I agree that these are, indeed, evidence of slight eccentricities, I cannot find the critical mass that might support an entire movement or group identity for 59,946 persons.
The Mystery Spot is a mystery, but it’s not the only off-kilter locale in the country. St. Ignace, Mich. has one, as do Marblehead, Ohio, Ansted, W. Va., and a number of other nausea-inducing vortices. Our mascot on the hill may be an unassuming gastropod, but Sammy the Slug has been ranking lower on national “weird mascot” lists lately behind such stand-outs as The Scottsdale Community College Fighting Artichokes and the Heidelberg Student Princes. Our apparently high reality-star-to-commoner ratio can only be attributed to luck, talent and the feral instincts of television producers who, like animals in the wild, return to fertile and well-stocked land for future meals. And that guy in pink? One slow-paced monochromatic man with an umbrella does not a weird city make. (Tangent – is Baseball Guy the new Umbrella Man? Discuss.)
The Keep Santa Cruz Weird movement might possibly be the weirdest thing in Santa Cruz.
… to the Sublime
Ask anyone within earshot, “Is Santa Cruz weird?” and the response will be an immediate and emphatic “Yes!” Deliver the follow-up question, “Why?” and the responder will most likely inhale with a ready answer, pause, look up, exhale while dropping both shoulders in defeat and finally give in, “I don’t really know.” This series of involuntary responses will confuse even the most steadfast and long-term Santa Cruzan, raised with the notion that he or she self-identifies as weird.
If we keep asking and keep digging deeper, our collective true nature reveals itself.
Dave Lorber, local Joe, mixologist and stylist, followed this path of self-discovery, noting right off the bat that, yes, we are still weird, just “…desensitized. Looking around I think maybe not so weird anymore, but if I just came here from Ohio, then absolutely yes.” But when pressed to provide proof, he waxed poeti-demo-graphically, “On further reflection, maybe we’re just another sun-drenched, drug-infused college town. And that, unfortunately, isn’t weird.”
Has our status been grandfathered in?
“How do you define weird?” asks Teresa Landers, Library Director, Santa Cruz Public Libraries. “There’s weirdness everywhere.” She would know, having worked in public libraries for over thirty years in somewhat diverse socio-political locations such as Denver, Phoenix, Seattle and Corvalis, Oregon. In her opinion, “Santa Cruz isn’t more or less weird than anywhere else. Here there’s a willingness to accept people for who they are, and a tolerance. People have a forum because of this willingness, and may be more visible. This community prides itself on that.” She chuckles when asked about weirdness elsewhere. “Ask me about the sardine guy.” I did. I chuckled as well. Suffice to say it was behavior that would definitely not be tolerated or accepted, even here in Santa Cruz.
David Jackman, chef and owner of Chocolate on Pacific Avenue, has made downtown Santa Cruz his stomping grounds for thirty-two years, and asserts that the dancing, circling tie-dye clad crowd of the 1970’s was not so different from today’s purveyors of cultural identity. His eloquent take on our weirdness continued a popular thread that surfaced with so many people who considered our reputation.
“My impression is that the slogan is about mutual tolerance. And the concept of being liberal is being tolerant. We are known for our liberal conservatism.”
Andy Botsford, Manager of the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium, interfaces with large numbers of our local public on a regular basis. She came to similar conclusions about what makes us, you know, weird. “There might be something environmental about our weirdness. People are drawn to the unique surroundings, and especially the progressiveness of the people. Our community is more accepting, there’s an openness here that people don’t find everywhere.” The derby girls phenomenon is an example of our town’s ability to surprise her. “The weirdness of it…the passion of its fans…the grandmas with kids, and people you wouldn’t expect. The community rallied.” Citing the iconic days of the Miss America Pageant’s local ties and the vocal diatribe that was heard – from both sides, “We accept our differences.”
Looking to Don Lane, our city’s Vice Mayor (one of my favorite official titles) for comment, similar insight was shared. He believes that “…weirdness is another way to say we are willing to be creative – individually and collectively.” Although he notes that on a daily basis we are not as weird or unique as we think we are. Fighting words for an elected official who also admits that “part of our weirdness is the self-consciousness of our weirdness.” In a city where it is roundly considered normal for a sixty-year old man to skateboard to work, for one of every two adults in a household to play in a band, and for every third person one meets to be an active member of the alternative health care industry, it would seem we might have much to be self-conscious about. However, these random observations do underscore Lane’s emphasis on good old-fashioned creativity as a key ingredient to our self-declared weirdness.
Wait for it …
We would be remiss in not going to the source for some perspective on this issue. Enter Bookshop Santa Cruz, ground zero for all things KSCW (Keep Santa Cruz Weird). First, to lay any conspiracy theories to rest, it’s true—Austin, Texas was first in weirdness keeping according to Casey Coonerty Protti, owner and manager of our nationally respected independent bookseller. Book People, an Austin bookstore whose owners were friendly with the Coonerty family, initially launched the popular slogan in Austin in 2003 to celebrate their indie music scene, street performers and independently owned stores and businesses. Santa Cruz’ own creative spirit was reflected in the motto and with full permission (and encouragement) the phrase was adopted to celebrate and support the creative, artistic and independent spirit of our own fair city.
“I believe that original idea is still the same,” states Coonerty Protti. “Santa Cruz is incredibly dedicated to its stores, its government and its institutions reflecting the views of the community. Whether people work from the inside or outside the system might change,” but she adds, “the vibrancy is always there.”
We try to define our weirdness today, and toss around the usual suspects—descriptive words that I’ve been hearing repeatedly throughout my intense and exhausting week of investigative journalism. Acceptance, willingness, openness, values, and tolerance.
“Tolerance sometimes takes on a negative aspect,” Casey declares, and I am relieved to hear her say this. As a mother of three I usually equate tolerance with putting up with bad behavior or turning a blind eye. See: “I won’t tolerate your whining any longer, young lady. Eat your peas.” We agree that acceptance and respect are more clearly what our community might be connoting in its use of the “t” word, and in no case would outright bad behavior be tolerated, accepted or respected. “Keep Santa Cruz Unique might more accurately describe the intent. But it’s not very catchy.”
Indeed, Vice Mayor Don Lane also alluded to this alternative slogan, as well as some stickers that popped up declaring “Keep Santa Cruz Safe and Clean.” Response from both Coonerty Protti and Lane? “Yes! Let’s be safe, clean and weird!”
The Aha! Moment
A few thousand words into my research for this piece it finally dawned on me what truth I was inadvertently discovering. I won’t lie—I was posed to debunk the myth of our purported strangeness. I was ready to point out every soccer mom, church choir and little league diamond to prove my point of normalcy. I stood at the ready, pen (keyboard) in hand and prepared to strike while the curling iron was hot. And then it dawned on me; the genius of the Keep Santa Cruz Weird ethos is not that we want to remain unique, strange or particularly nutty. It is not a demand to remain on the outskirts of what is considered normal in this country, in this world. It is an invitation to all onlookers to take a little bit of Santa Cruz tolerance, acceptance and balance, use it as an example, and apply it directly to their own corner of the universe.
Keep—as in “take it, it’s yours;” weird—a noun, akin to “concept or work-in –progress,” and Santa Cruz – merely a modifier, branding the gift as “hecho en Santa Cruz.”
Keep Santa Cruz Weird = Take our local brand of existence, please. (“Try it, you’ll like it!”)
The logical conclusion to this mad methodology is that someday, if we play our weird cards right, Santa Cruz will no longer be weird; it will simply be where the abiding customs of civility and respect flowered forth. On that glorious day, I propose we hand out new bumper stickers that read, “Finally, Santa Cruz is Normal,” not because we changed anything in our essence as a community, but because the rest of the country caught up to us.
Kim Luke lives a relatively weird existence with her completely normal family. Or is it the other way around? Email her at [email protected]