The city is clean and white in the sun, a scoop of Spanish mission construction pinched between a cut of the Santa Ynez Mountains and the Pacific. The train stops in the station on a quiet street that runs parallel to State Street where there are shops and restaurants stuffed with kids and adults with kid faces, wearing cut-off jeans, t-shirts and sandals, some of the women in skirts and thin dresses embellished with floral designs. Not to confuse these downtowners to those of the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica were there are live performances in the street, magicians and musicians and dancers, peddlers of various religions and substances, carts selling sunglasses and Buddha or Jesus or Jim Morrison figurines at two-for-one discount, while an electric loudspeaker calls out asking if anyone wants to be saved today, and if not—then tomorrow or the next day.
But the streets in downtown Santa Barbara are clean and uncluttered in comparison. The walk ways are washed and dry and upon close inspection potentially sterile. There are no performances, no hats kicked upside down and filled with crumpled-up balls of five and one dollar bills. Instead there are fenced-in restaurants with the whispers of satellite music, no homeless in the street, and the efficient rumble of Mercedes and Lexus cars blended with the gentle purr of hybrids rising and fading down State Street. Similar to the lack of bearded vagrants in old coats, there will never be any good Mexican food in downtown Santa Barbara. There will never be any freedom in the streets. Laughter and Visa card swipes erupt and hang in the air. Like many places, downtown Santa Barbara will only and always be a beautiful place to spend money. It will only and always be a beautiful place to smile through the windows of handbag boutiques, tasting designer ice cream on your tongue and letting entire afternoons, weeks, years and decades go by unnoticed and lost in the soft lives of wealth and privilege in highly exclusive communities such as these. The Mexican food will never be any good and thank God for that. It’d be too expensive anyway. State Street in downtown Santa Barbara doesn’t deserve it anyway.
But I was a first timer so I didn’t know anything. I’d been in Los Angeles for too long. The train ride from Union Station to Santa Barbara took two hours, flashed by quickly to music on the iPod, and then we were downtown, going from hopeful to sour because we were bleeding chips just an hour in, our fake IDs confiscated by a restaurant manager at the Sandbar restaurant.
“Corona,” I had said, Mike had said, Dave had said on a patio restaurant that overlooked a pack of middle school downtown shoppers.
Then a manager was out, a radio earpiece feeding him some kind of information.
“You boys are all from California? Are you sure?”
Dave’s and Mike’s said San Bernardino. Mine said Fullerton. Mine also had a picture of me from last week, one-hundred and forty dollars earlier, when I had slicked my hair back behind my ears hoping to look older for the camera. I wanted to say Fullerton, but I will always be from the Southwest. I couldn’t have pointed to Fullerton on a map if he had held a knife to my throat and said, Prove it. I will always be a runaway from El Paso, Texas. I wondered if the manager’s earpiece was telling him all this. I couldn’t say anything. It would not have mattered if I did. I felt cheated, the guy who sold us the IDs said they were immaculate.
“Look,” the manager said. “It doesn’t matter where you’re from. These are terrible fake IDs.”
Mike said, “Are you sure?”
“We can ask the police.”
“But how do you know they’re fake?”
“Your signatures are all in the same kind of handwriting. That’s highly suspicious.”
“But they scan right? They were supposed to scan,” Dave said.
“No, they scan. They just don’t look very real.” This manager couldn’t have been older than twenty-five. I wondered if he was getting off to this. He wasn’t over twenty-one too long ago either. But maybe that made him hate us more. The most vicious people are the ones that are just a little bit older than you anyway. He was starting to smile.
“Look. You better call the police,” Dave said. “This is very inconvenient. And we’ve already ordered our food.”
“Okay.” The manager knew we were bluffing. “Do you want to call or should we?”
We were drawing an audience. All the over-twenty-one patrons were looking on, sipping their wine and nibbling on duck meat quesadillas with sour cream and guacamole in small black bowls.
“You should. I don’t want to waste my minutes,” Mike said.
The manager turned around to leave.
“We’re fucked,” I whispered to Dave.
“We can leave at any time. The IDs are toasted. We might as well give him a shitty time with it.”
“I don’t know,” I said. “There’s something about this guy. I think he really hates us.” And then, involuntarily, I came out with it:
“Okay they’re fake.”
“Of course they are.” The manager had never fully turned back to the restaurant and was now closer to our table than before. “I wasn’t going to call the police anyway. It’d be terrible for business.”
“So do we just leave now?” I said.
“You’ve ordered food. That’d be like jumping the check.”
“But we haven’t eaten any of it,” Dave said. “Have you even started to make it?”
Mike said, “Technically you owe us money. Those IDs weren’t cheap.”
Ben, his first words of the confrontation, had to offer: “Guys, we’ve already ordered. I kind of see his point.”
Ben is the oldest of the group, and the cheapest. All of his folders and notebooks are criss-crossed with black permanent marker lines running through the titles of old classes he’s taken starting since high school. His reasoning being: why get a new one when there’s still paper in the old one?
And one time Ben and I biked to Santa Monica and on the way Ben was hit by a car pulling out of driveway, rolled onto the hood, and before hitting the ground and cracking his nose managed to get one hundred and seventy dollars cash and a check for a new bike from the driver. There are certain people in the world who take an honest pride in squeezing as much as they can out of the driest lemons. But even rarer are people who bottle it and try and sell it as lemonade afterwards. So we ate our food at the Sandbar because, after all, we had already ordered it, plus there were free horchata refills and Ben must have demanded his cup be refilled twenty times before my huevos rancheros came out smoking hot but scrambled instead of sunny side up like I had asked for.