One of the things we most liked to do on summer evenings in LA was drive up the Pacific Coast Highway. Jamie would leave the studio late and call me from our driveway just before dusk. I’d scurry down the hill of the walkstreet and hop into the car, pulling my hair into a ponytail as soon as I’d slammed the door since a big part of the fun of the excursion was the drive itself, heading north with the top down, feeling the wind whip through, and watching the sun set in purples and golds over the ocean.
The tradition started unintentionally. Jamie had never really liked to drive in New York but he did it; he drove to job sites and meetings, but he was never a road trip kind of guy like my dad is and so many of my friends are. Oh, we drove all the places New Yorkers drive on weekends – to Vermont to ski and Wood’s Hole, MA for the ferry to the Vineyard, to the Hamptons and Fire Island for the beach, upstate to visit friends and relatives. We have even driven throughout Europe on vacations, but he has never really warmed to it, probably because he is impatient and prefers to be places rather than go places. That changed in LA when the going became nearly as pleasant as the being; now he even found it relaxing.
On my second night in Santa Monica, he called me from the car.
“Hey, you on your way?”
“Yeah, just getting on Washington. You want to meet me and we’ll go for a ride?”
“Sure. Can we eat somewhere?”
“Of course; we’ll stop somewhere in Malibu.”
I was waiting on the front steps when I saw the car slip into the driveway so I was halfway down the hill when he called. I pushed the button on my cell phone. “I saw you. I’m on my way.”
After slamming the door and kissing Jamie hello I asked where we were headed.
“North on the PCH.”
“What’s up there?”
“Beach. Malibu. You’ll like it.”
In front of the Hotel California we turned left from Ocean Avenue to the downhill access road to the PCH.
Because it was after rush hour on a weeknight, the northbound traffic was light. I looked at the backs of the houses and caught glimpses of the beach between them. Occasionally I caught a house number. Because I am an inveterate classic movie fan, I was looking for a few in particular.
“Hey, Jame, look! See those big houses? I think those are the ones that belonged to Irving Thalberg and Norma Shearer and Louis B. Mayer. Cary Grant had a house here, too. I have seen them in the Golden Age of Hollywood history books. Debbie told me that you can still see them from the beach side so I am going to borrow her bike and ride along the bike path.”
“That’ll be fun. When you go, look for the Annenberg Beach House.”
“What is it?”
“The pool was part of Randolph Hearst’s and Marian Davies’ beach estate.”
I turned to stare at him. “Really?”
He watched the red light turn green. “Yup. It’s supposed to be nice. The house is gone but the big marble pool is still there. It’s a community center now. Debbie was on the committee that created it. Go online and buy tickets and maybe we can go this weekend.”
I thought about it as we continued driving north. Observing the house numbers getting higher I suddenly thought of something. “How far up are we going?”
“I don’t know. Why?”
“Well, if we drive past the houses, up where it is just beach, there is a building that belonged to the movie actress Thelma Todd. She had a restaurant called the Sidewalk Café and she lived up a hill behind it.” My head swiveled. “It must be on my side of the road, though since that is where the mountains are.”
“What’s the number?” Jamie asked slowing for another light.
“One seventy five seventy five. It’s a pretty distinctive building, sort of small and low-rise.”
“Is that it?” Jamie slowed and pointed to the right.
“Oh, my God! It is! It looks exactly the same!” I was thrilled.
“What’s in it now?”
I squinted at the little sign. “Paulist Productions? Could that be right?”
Jamie shrugged. “I don’t know. It sounds religious, like Trappist Monks, doesn’t it?”
“There’s irony. Her nickname was Hot Toddy and supposedly the mob was involved in her death.”
We continued driving up the coast. There was so little traffic that ours was often the only car stopped at the northbound red lights. The night air was cool and smelled salty and clean. Because we had the radio off, the only sounds we heard were rushing wind, crashing ocean, and the occasional snippet of music from the roadside bars like Moonshadows. The sky was darkening quickly and the first stars were beginning to twinkle when Jamie eased into the center lane for a left turn.
I looked around. The sign read ‘Welcome to Paradise Cove’; I felt a frisson of memory tingle and wondered why it seemed so familiar. As we drove through the wooded lot I saw large mobile homes on the left and then, as the driveway expanded into a large parking lot, a beach shack restaurant came into view with the ocean beyond. Suddenly I knew where we were. “The Rockford Files!” I exclaimed. “This is where Jim Rockford lived, isn’t it?”
Jamie smiled. “I was wondering when you’d notice.”
He parked and we pulled off our shoes to walk along the all-but-deserted beach. The wind was picking up and the waves smashed onto the sand and frothed around our ankles as the water drained away. We held hands and strolled into the inky sapphire darkness where cliffs met sand.
Eventually, growing chilly, we returned to the parking lot and, after reading the menu, entered the restaurant for some homemade clam chowder. We sat for so long eating and laughing that only our car remained parked in the lot. As we drove south in the car I looked up into the blue-black sky. I knew I would like it here.