‘See You in Laguna’

Reconnecting with a famous friend from a bygone O.C.
Illustration by Kara Pyle

Rising early one morning to write, I found myself wasting time online again. I waded into The Wall Street Journal and a review of a new mystery by T. Jefferson Parker, a writer I’d known in my 20s simply as Jeff. I assumed his current nom de plume was a nod to Thomas Jefferson. Or maybe it was just an affectation—Wikipedia told me Jeff’s “T” didn’t stand for anything. Could that be the key to a successful writing career, abbreviating one’s given name with a single letter, as in “T. Coraghessan Boyle”? Maybe, I thought, and read on to see what Jeff was up to in his latest tome.

The book’s title, “A Thousand Steps,” alluded to a fabled local beach below Ninth Street in Laguna Beach, inaccessible but for a long crumbling set of concrete steps leading to the sandy shore below. I knew well the shops he wrote about in his book. As a teen in the late ’60s, I often thumbed rides south from Corona del Mar to spend Saturdays flipping through records at Sound Spectrum, perusing the paperbacks at Fahrenheit 451, marveling at the art nouveau-on-acid posters at the Mystic Arts World head shop, and squandering weeks of allowance on hippie accoutrements like joss sticks, tissue-thin body shirts, and a groovy leather fringed vest—all at various Aquarian boutiques lining Coast Highway. Jeff described these landmarks and others in his new book, but viewed them through a noir lens, with a title that suggested more of a link with dark thrillers like Alfred Hitchcock’s archetypal film “The 39 Steps” than with any of the black-light 1960s psychedelia I once treasured.

The review stirred memories of the reporter I knew when I worked for the Newport Ensign newspaper in the early ’80s. Jeff rambled around the area on assignment while I developed and printed photographs in the sulfurous Black Hole of Calcutta they called a darkroom. Jeff was about my age, and we shared a love of movies. He liked gritty films such as “Raging Bull,” while I admired more offbeat flicks like “The Man Who Fell to Earth.” We found common ground in a film we both liked—Robert Altman’s “The Long Goodbye”—which cast Elliott Gould as a shambling, out-of-touch Philip Marlowe bumbling about in the 1970s. 

Jeff and I clicked after I hauled a 16mm projector into the newsroom to show an award-winning film I’d made at Orange Coast College called “Triskelion.” My seven-minute animated/live-action short about three local artists and their metaphysical adventures mystified employees who gathered to watch. Jeff seemed to appreciate my little film, screened at the Port Theater, L.A. Filmex, and what was then the Newport Harbor Art Museum. 

Jeff and I left the Ensign at about the same time in the fall of 1981, he to work as a reporter for the slightly more prestigious Daily Pilot, and I to attend film school. We stayed in touch, and he generously allowed me and a band of friends into the Pilot newsroom one weekend, where we shot scenes for my first motion picture project at UCLA. 

One day, I called Jeff to grouse about my underwhelming first season showing photographs at a local art festival. I sold just one print of a famous “medieval” cliffside tower at Victoria Beach—not far from Thousand Steps. Jeff sensed a story and offered to let me vent my frustration in a column he wrote for the Pilot. At the last minute, I reconsidered, and when Jeff arrived, I told him I’d prefer a more upbeat approach. He scotched the interview, and that was the last I saw of him.

Until July of 2017. I’d returned to the festival after a long hiatus and sat at my tiny booth when I heard a voice call my name. I turned to see Jeff, who introduced me to his female companion as that “arty, cynical” guy who used to man the photo lab at the Ensign. I had opted not to enter the film industry, I told them, embarking instead on a 30-year career as a professor at Chapman University in Orange. Meanwhile, Jeff had won acclaim as a successful novelist.

 

Now I was intrigued with his latest book. I wanted to see how he’d spun his experiences in Orange County to artfully meld a murder mystery with a coming-of-age yarn. It seemed, after all those decades, Jeff and I were both making art about the place we’d grown up. Now retired, I’d taken up writing myself. 

I surfed his website and saw several local appearances scheduled, but they had passed or were canceled due to pandemic concerns. I felt driven to connect, much like his youthful hero embarking on a search for his missing sister. I almost booked a flight to Arizona to catch him at a university book fair when I learned the Newport Beach Public Library would soon host a happy hour with the novelist. I bought my ticket and a copy of “A Thousand Steps” and waited for the evening to arrive. 

I wanted to snatch a minute or two at most with Jeff and quiz him on the meaning of that mysterious “T.” With the novel tucked under my arm, I headed to the library’s patio where a small crowd gathered. I sat on a bench near a table where two women sold copies of his book. Jeff arrived unnoticed and sat beside them. It was all very low-key.

I worked up the courage to approach when I saw people start to queue up, so I waited my turn and introduced myself. Jeff seemed relaxed, and he did indeed remember me. He introduced me to the women at the table while I presented my book for his signature. He signed the title page with a short message: “For Rick, enjoy the flashback.” When I asked him about the meaning of the “T,” he promised he’d explain it later that evening. Then I handed him an envelope with this still-in-need-of-a-proper-ending magazine story inside. He placed it on the tabletop beside him with what I interpreted as a vaguely bemused response, and I wondered if I had overstepped my boundaries. I had seen many a fan push a screenplay or videotape into the hands of famous filmmakers and didn’t want to look like I wanted something from him. 

When people began to wander into the main auditorium, I found an aisle seat near the front where I had a prime view of the speaker and his interviewer. Jeff listened patiently as the young interviewer wondered aloud about how one might write about characters who couldn’t use a cellphone to help them out of a jam. He revealed his observance of a strict 7 a.m.-to-5 p.m., Monday-through-Friday schedule with an hour break for lunch. Could I do that, I wondered? According to Ken Burns, even Ernest Hemingway knocked off most afternoons after a morning of writing. I asked what prompted him to write his latest novel in present tense, and he answered: to give a greater sense of urgency to the story. “I might even write my next one in present tense, too,” he added. I still wish I’d gotten further into the book so I could have asked a meatier question.

 

When the interview ended, I lingered at the podium and wondered if I should approach him again. I chatted a little more with him on the way out and met his wife. I told him I was still exhibiting at the Festival of Arts, and as we parted in the parking lot, he reached out to shake my hand, something I’d rarely done in a year of pandemic. “Please read my story,” I said. “You’ll get a kick out of it—it’s about you.” 

“I will,” he said. “See you in Laguna this summer.” 

Thrilled as I was, I began to fret as I walked to my car. Did I commit a major faux pas, pushing my essay on him? How would he take it? Would this be the last I’d see or hear of Jeff Parker? And did I even have an ending for my story after all this?

My regrets subsided when I saw an email appear in my inbox—Jeff had read the story and wrote to say he “really enjoyed” my essay and mused about our talks about movies and our mutual memories of Laguna Beach 50 years ago. He even liked my pen name, which contained not one, but two initials. “If you have some inkling you’d like to write fiction based on your experiences,” he wrote, “you should do that. … Close-to-your-own writing is often the best.” He closed the note the same way he said goodbye after his library appearance. “See you at the Festival of Arts this summer in Laguna.”

I was stoked. As his latest protagonist (and my adolescent self) might proclaim, “Bitchin!”

And the meaning of that “T”? It wasn’t really a mystery. Indeed, it didn’t stand for anything. It was his mother’s idea. 

“It would look good on the White House door.” 

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