Hombre Tortuga! – Part One
As I have mentioned in previous posts, I am a graduate of the University of California at Santa Cruz. At the time I attended, UCSC had some remarkable distinctions. It had no grade point average—most students were not given grades, but were instead given paragraph long narrative evaluations which clearly delineated their strengths and weaknesses. It was also a clothing optional campus; as a result “Naked Frisbee Guy” was a frequent sight at one of the colleges. It also has some exceptional and distinguished alumni—actress Maya Rudolph, filmmaker Miranda July, and writer Molly Antopol. If you are a uniquely talented female whose name begins with an “M,” UCSC is the place for you.
In spite of the fact I lacked those attributes, I still chose to attend UCSC. When I arrived in 1990, the city of Santa Cruz was still suffering the effects of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. Most recall that earthquake from the images of the collapsed Bay Bridge or the interrupted World Series. Not everyone remembers that the quake’s epicenter was Santa Cruz, and its downtown commercial district was destroyed. When I moved there, many businesses were operating out of tents as they awaited insurance and federal monies to rebuild. Some didn’t survive. One of the predictable side effects of this hardship was a lack of employment opportunities and affordable housing, which is why I ended up taking an apartment in a place known as Beach Flats.
Santa Cruz was one of those odd places that had some of their poorest citizens living close to the water (some of its wealthiest citizens also, but not in Beach Flats). The Flats was largely a neighborhood of small aging houses and neglected apartment complexes dominated by South and Central American immigrants, most of whom worked picking up trash at the nearby beach boardwalk, cleaning toilets at one of the economy hotels, or busing tables and washing dishes at a busy chain restaurant.
Being one of the few non-Latinos in the neighborhood, it wasn’t long before the representatives of the underground economy found me. Usually, a young white man walking the streets of Beach Flats was there for one reason and one reason only: to buy drugs. The first few weeks after I moved in, I was frequently asked the question “Hey, you looking for something?” After the dealers realized that I wasn’t looking for something, and that I did in fact live there, they began to leave me alone.
I had another peculiarity: I owned a pet tortoise. The people in the neighborhood knew this about me because I would sometimes take my tortoise down to the local park and let him run around. He spent most of his life in a 3 X 3 box, and while he had plenty of food and water, and was kept warm with a red ultraviolet lamp, and seemed as happy as I suppose a tortoise could be, I still liked to let him out when I could. I would thus wrap a red ribbon around his shell, and let him wander through the grass and bushes of the local park. The ribbon was so I wouldn’t lose him in the shrubbery—a tortoise’s camouflage is remarkably effective.
Down at the park, there was always a contingent of Badass Latinos in their muscle shirts and hair nets, puffing on cigarettes and successfully conveying a “Don’t fuck with me” vibe. Whenever my tortoise would stroll past them on his way to some Indian Hawthorn he fancied, the Badass Latinos’ faces would light up like children at the zoo. They would all point and shout “Tortuga!” and race off after the little guy. Sometimes the tortoise would rush back over to me, and try to bury himself underneath my hip. It was the closest to cuddling I would ever get with a reptile.
Often, one of the Badass Latinos would wander over to me. The conversation was usually some variation on this:
“Man, is that your turtle?”
“What’s his name?”
“Zorro! Man, that’s fucking hilarious! His name is Zorro!”
I didn’t realize it at the time, but not only was I giving Zorro some much-needed exercise; I was ingratiating myself with the locals. I discovered this in a surprising way one evening when it became clear one of my neighbors was trying to get my attention by shouting a phrase in Spanish:
“Hombre Tortuga! Hey, Hombre Tortuga! Donde estas?”
I had become Turtle Man.