High-Density Eden

The year-round vigilance of the beach city dweller

It’s autumn, and beach life has returned to normal. In Laguna Beach, for example, jaywalking townies have replaced jaywalking tourists on Pacific Coast Highway.

No one is jamming traffic to gawk at oiled bodies. No one is asking for directions to the nearest Real Housewife. At the local Starbucks, the air smells once again like coffee and ocean, as opposed to coffee and sunscreen, and the line is blessedly short—just the regulars getting one more bit of attention from Mike, the barista, before he steps outside for his cigarette break.

The off-season is quiet, which is not to say it’s peaceful. People are often surprised to hear this, but coastal living is no day at the beach. Take our neighborhood. You’d never know it to look at us, but détente is a year-round challenge. We may seem like laid-back people with good tans behind nice picket fences, but under the surface, we’re our own 24-hour peacekeeping detail.

Why? Because our lots are so small that, even without tourists, we constantly intrude on one another. One neighbor’s quick parking job is another neighbor’s blocked driveway. One homeowner’s untrimmed palm is another’s yard full of blown-down fronds. I got a contact high the last time the guy next door smoked marijuana (not that I’m complaining). Anyway, you might think the out-of-towners would be the big challenge for a resort town, but in the parts of Orange County that aren’t nice, spread-out suburbs, we know where to look for the enemy.

In fact, there he goes now—the new guy on the block, braying into his cell phone as he walks down the street. He doesn’t know it, but for months he has been the subject of neighborhood strategy sessions. Apparently no one in his old tract complained that his massive cars consumed half a block of precious curb space. Apparently his old back yard was like those of most Californians, a big, private, individual Eden. If he smoked in his McMansion, apparently no one else smelled it. When his dogs ran around sniffing and marking, their explorations apparently began and ended with his own trash and his own hedges.

You can’t fault him; it’s quintessentially Southern Californian to take space for granted. But there are the rules that govern the rest of Orange County, and then there are the rules of the beach.

This is an unappreciated facet of life here. After all, this is the edge of the continent, the start of the wide-open Pacific. People expect it to be especially free.

But it isn’t. Coastal life is an exception; it’s limited in ways that don’t apply to the rest of the region. You have to avoid feuds over blocked views, obstructed front gates, tacky lawn art, stinky cooking habits. You have to watch out for bicyclists and skateboarders and naked people who forget to close their curtains. You have to yield to pedestrians in the middle of the road and surfers on top of the water. You have to wait your turn and curb your enthusiasms and relearn your manners, because, if you don’t, little notes of reprimand will start fluttering from beneath your windshield wipers, and your neighbors will beef you to the authorities and shun you as if they were Amish.

Beach towns are as intimate and rule-bound as big, dense cities, and in that respect, you could argue that their culture is almost un-Californian. In fact, some Californians consider them more trouble to live in than they’re worth.

But there’s something about incessant contact that, sooner or later, makes you want to be a better neighbor; that’s why big cities so often turn out to be so much friendlier than suburbs. Individual Edens, like individual anything, can be lonely. So we reach out and nudge each other, because holding ourselves apart just doesn’t feel, well, normal, even here, at the end of the tourist season, at the end of the Earth.

Illustration by Brett Affrunti

This article originally appeared in the October 2011 issue.

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