It Was a Very Good Year

Here’s my latest column for SLO City News. Enjoy.

I glanced at the calendar the other day and realized that 2007 marks 20 years since I first arrived in San Luis Obispo. Now I realize that for many of you old-timers, 20 years is nothing, a mere ripple, a minor footnote, but I’ve never lived anywhere for that amount of time and it gave me pause.

Some of you already know my story. Living in Oklahoma and trying to keep my sanity as a burned-out college professor, I saw a job posting one day for a school called Cal Poly, in a town called San Luis Obispo. I had never heard of either, but it was California, a new beginning, an escape from my personal hell. I applied, interviewed by phone, and bluffed my way into a one-year, non-renewable appointment as lecturer. That would give me enough time, I decided, to figure out my Act II.

I remember everything about my first visit to town in 1987. I drove up from LA in a rental car to check the place out before moving. Not having a city map, I picked the Broad Street exit at random, ended up by the Mission and parked downtown in the Court Street lot. Strolling down Monterey Street, I recall being impressed by the outdoor patio at Sebastian’s, now Mission Grill, because outdoor dining in Oklahoma usually meant A &W.

Continuing my random exploration, I went in search of the university, deciding that it had to be somewhere along Johnson Avenue, so I had a nice leisurely tour of residential neighborhoods before finally stumbling on the Grand Avenue entrance to campus. Cal Poly seemed enormous to me and I knew immediately that this would never work; I’d never fit in here.

This was the San Luis Obispo of Farm Boy, Chocolate Soup, pizza at Angelo’s, beer and pool at the Mustang Tavern, live music at the Spindle, and great foreign films at the Rainbow. Woodstock’s Pizza was next to McCarthy’s. You went to Michael’s Deli for thick sandwiches and Assembly Line for the best salad bar. I had more than one burger at Scrubby and Lloyd’s. The Wine Cellar was a cool place to catch a quiet drink.

You could stand at the end of Marsh Street at night and look up to see the bright neon “S” of the Safeway at Marsh and Johnson. The Williams Brothers store out on Broad Street seemed to be the edge of town. There wasn’t a single parking structure in San Luis Obispo and only one Japanese restaurant. Gaby’s and Norwood’s were still thriving as independent bookstores.

As predicted, my brief tenure at Cal Poly was a disaster. I hated teaching. I wanted out. I did everything I could that year to make sure I would never be offered another teaching position. As President Bush might say, Mission Accomplished. Every time I run into my old boss, Harry Sharp, I cringe with guilt. I didn’t burn that bridge—I torched it.

I was single then and the only people in town I knew were my colleagues in the Speech department, but I basically kept to myself. Then a local radio station sponsored a stand-up comedy contest at Wm. Randolph’s, now Quarterdeck. I entered on a whim and beat out 15 other wanna-be comics with such memorable gags as a stuffed rabbit who did impersonations of Rick Martel.

But through that contest, I made my first non-academic SLO friends in Mean Mike Veron, Dave Hungerford, and Molly May and soon I was spending less time on campus and more time in town. The Dark Room became my new haunt and we gathered there regularly to perform truly awful stand-up comedy. Mean Mike swiped one of my jokes and mailed it to Herb Caen, who promptly published it in his newspaper column. I knew then that everything was going to be just fine.

And then my best friend called from the Midwest to report that a beautiful woman I had met previously at a wedding was getting divorced and he urged me to contact Charlotte Alexander.

It gets harder and harder to find the San Luis Obispo of 1987 among the Pottery Barns and the Banana Republics that have come to town. Hudson’s and Burrito Wagon just closed. Norm has to move Old County Deli somewhere else. Linnaea sold her café. Businesses seem to be flocking out to Tank Farm Road.

But it’s still there. In my memory. In my heart. 1987. The year I found myself in San Luis Obispo.

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  1. Marilyn
    March 10, 2007 at 7:53 am

    That was great Dave.

    I came to SLO in 1986 and have similar memories. I live downtown, but I have not been to the new “Pottery Barn” and other new shops. Seen one, seen them all.

    I remember when you could go down Santa Rosa Street during lunch without having to battle the lunch traffic and J.C. Penny was the only “big” store. Even Farmers’ Market was a treat in those days. I never go there any more although I live walking distance from the area.

    There is too much of a commercial and business and tourist atmosphere as opposed to a community one.

    There are way too many bars for a small town like SLO and it is a challenge walking downtown late at night sometimes trying to avoid the inebriated who are looking for a thrill.

    Even Mardi Gras and the Christmas Parades are all about commercialization (not to mention that we get locked out of our neighborhoods before, during and after the parades). I have come home from work sometimes at night and I could not drive up to my house to park because the streets we live on are off limits to our cars (but not the participants’ cars). Of course, complaints to this city council did not help because money talks and those putting on the parade have it.

    I miss the old days too.

  2. Anonymous
    March 10, 2007 at 2:05 pm

    Let’s all thank Cal Poly for dumping another out of towner on us.

  3. Anonymous
    March 10, 2007 at 2:46 pm

    Yea, i guess you are right…SLO is dead, gone caput! Now where did I put my black suit? Will there be food at the funeral, like at Mr. Madonna’s?

  4. born 1936 in slo
    March 10, 2007 at 6:49 pm

    It always makes me life to hear the “Newcomers” wish for the “old days”. Our town is here because of the growth and change that has to occur. A community is has to change and grow or it will whitter and die. I for one am happy with the look and feel of our town and county for that matter. Even though we might have some of the same retail outlets we are unique. If you can not see our uniqueness then you are not looking at the beauty of the region and that will never change. Rediscover the uniqueness and will enjoy the new days as well as the old days.

  5. steve
    March 10, 2007 at 11:23 pm

    The CalPoly carbon footprint on SLO has been ruinous.

  6. The New Tone of San Luis Obispo
    March 11, 2007 at 2:06 am

    Oh come on Dave. You think it was just so much better in San Luis back then. When exactly is back then? I find it amusing that the very people who are the slo growthers are the very people who brought on this yuppie town that we now live in.

    They are the people that demand that we have all of these services for this and that.

    Your memories are skewed amyways. Traffic has always been bad on Santa Rosa Street. Even in 1986. Johnson Ave. has always been busy on the way to SLOSH. There are more people now, mainly out near tank farm and LOVR, but much of the city has not changes tons excluding those two areas.

    Marilyn. You never have responded to the post about your terrorist organization Hezbozo and their token humanitarian acts to sway the weak of the world that they prey upon. Have courage Marilyn and respond!

  7. Shawn
    March 11, 2007 at 9:52 am

    Great piece, Dave. Would’ve loved to have read it in the actual SLO City newspaper. If I could just find one…

  8. Dave Congalton
    March 11, 2007 at 7:36 pm

    Shawn,

    Thanks. Yes, it does seem hard to find a SLO City News somewhere. Each home in SLO supposedly gets a copy. I know they have them at Rudolph’s. The paper is still in its infancy but has great potential. Glad to be part of it.

    dc

  9. Anonymous
    March 15, 2007 at 6:30 pm

    Shawn,

    Unless you live in an apartment, condo or don’t live in slo you should get one in your driveway. Let me know where you live and I will double check with my delivery guy. I will be glad to put you on the deliver list. We can aslo be found at over 60 spots around town.

    Downtown library, city hall, 2 dogs coffee, uptown espresso, Muzios, palm thearte, rudolphs, nautical bean, laguna lake bbq, budget cafe, high st deli, new frontiers, boston bagel, ben franklins, the grad, enda valley mkt, fantastic sams at marigold…on and on.

    Eventually we will have 100 or so spots.

    Thanks for looking for us.

    Christopher Gardner
    Editor at SLO City News
    chris@slocitynews.com

  10. meg
    March 16, 2007 at 1:44 am

    Shawn,
    Look in my neighborhood and you can find almost every issue 4 weeks to current laying discarded in the gutter. The carbon footprint is troubling and the cleanup bill should sent the owners

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