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The City and the Writer: In Santa Cruz with Micah Perks

By Nathalie Handal

If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.

Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities


Can you describe the mood of Santa Cruz as you feel/see it?

Santa Cruz is antic. UC Santa Cruz’s mascot is the banana slug, a bright yellow hermaphroditic creature sprawled beneath the Redwoods. The street performers on Pacific blow giant bubbles that burst on car windshields, hand out small things made out of string and straw, juggle in outrageous costumes, play the fiddle barefoot. On Westcliff by the ocean, the Hula-Hoop club meets on Friday evenings in front of the lighthouse, while below the surfers sit on their boards, the otters crack seafood on their tummies, the dolphins leap. Our wine bottles have space ships on the labels. Our sushi has cream cheese and lox in it, our ice cream is pepper-flavored. Everyone has a secret place to gather wild chanterelles. A bag of them once appeared on my doorstep. The town smells of eucalyptus, the brine of the ocean, jasmine, and weed.

What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

Children in distress, like the teenaged homeless boy with a long open gash on his arm, who makes eye contact, says, I’m hungry. The beautiful fourteen-year-old girl passed out in the bathroom at the bus station. Young people who think they are coming to paradise, that wildness has no consequences here, and then it does.

What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?

For me, bobcats have been a ghostly presence during the fifteen years I’ve lived here. With tufted ears and mottled fur, on silent, padded feet, they are always a surprise. It reminds me a little of a short story by Rebecca Lee called “Bobcat.” One morning when I came downstairs, I startled a bobcat in our backyard, who scrambled up and over our six-foot fence. On a walk in the woods, I watched an enormous bobcat flirting with a white butterfly. Once, very early in the morning I was on the beginning of a run, started jogging down some steps, and nearly stepped on a bobcat. The bobcat was crouched on the third step down, my foot hovering above it. We parted ways immediately.

What writer(s) from here should we read?

Santa Cruz is a book town. It has so many writers’ groups and book clubs. Poetry Santa Cruz, the Felix Kulpa Gallery, Bookshop Santa Cruz, Capitola book café, all have ongoing literary readings, and In Celebration of The Muse draws hundreds each year to listen to local women authors. Santa Cruz even has its own online magazine dedicated to writing, phren-Z. Karen Tei Yamashita, Elizabeth McKenzie, and Karen Joy Fowler all beautifully capture the whimsy and possibility of Santa Cruz in their fiction writing.

Is there a place here you return to often?

My partner and I go downtown several times a week. We don’t have great ethnic restaurants here or an amazing theater and dance scene, but we do have bookstores. Bookshop Santa Cruz at one end of Pacific Avenue and Logos on the other—one new, one used, both fabulous. We also have two excellent art house movie theaters, the Del Mar and the Nickelodeon, so at any given time we can choose between eight interesting movies. Plus great used clothing stores. Terrible street performers with good senses of humor. We’re overrun with Mexican and sushi restaurants. If only we had a Vietnamese restaurant, or Korean, or Peruvian . . . someone help us.

Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

The Kresge Town Hall on the UCSC campus, where writers from Adrienne Rich to Tobias Wolff to Angela Davis have read, where the Talking Heads played their first West Coast concert, and where in the late sixties and early seventies the poet William Everson taught a class called Birth of a Poet, in which students lay on mats in the town hall, practiced guided meditation, and kept dream journals.

Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?

There are intriguing cultures that I glimpse from the outside—surfer culture, the homeless culture, the Mexican-American neighborhoods.

Where does passion live here?

I think passion is undercover here. In Santa Cruz we value being laid-back, giving way, no problem, whatever. Perhaps every pastel-colored ranch house is pulsing slightly with hidden passion.

What is the title of one of your works about Santa Cruz and what inspired it exactly?

I have a short story called “The Comeback Tour” published by Chicago Quarterly Review (you can read it on my Web site)—it’s about a recently divorced middle-aged woman in Santa Cruz who is struggling to keep her Santa Cruz vibe going, even though she’s lost her husband, her house, her teenaged daughter seems to hate her, and she has various middle-aged ailments. With the aid of a magic pipe she finds in the seat cushions of her shabby rental and with the help of her daughter and her daughter’s boyfriend, she plans a Michael Jackson “Thriller” party to recover her joie de vivre. The story is both making fun of Santa Cruz culture and at the same time celebrating it. I wrote the story during my son’s senior year in high school, so I knew he would soon be gone. I’d come home from a very long grinding day of work, and he and his girlfriend would start to cook dinner for us, his sisters would join in, they’d turn music on. I’d sit down at the kitchen table in the orangey blue dusk and drink a cocktail. It felt like fleeting magic. 

Inspired by Levi, “Outside Santa Cruz does an outside exist?”

It does exist, of course, but it’s easy to forget that the world isn’t generally big-hearted and a little silly.


Micah Perks is the author of the novel We Are Gathered Here, the memoir Pagan Time, and numerous short stories. Her most recent publications include essays in Tin House and The Rumpus, a story about Houdini in Catamaran Literary Reader, and a short memoir, Alone in the Woods: Cheryl Strayed, My Daughter and Me, just out from ShebooksShe’s lived in the wilderness, in small towns, and in Santa Cruz since 1997. Perks teaches creative writing at UC Santa Cruz.

Published Jul 2, 2014   Copyright 2014 Nathalie Handal

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