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A Peninsula Kind of Afternoon (Finding Sobriety in Newport Beach)

At Twenty Three years old, on the Fifth of July Two Thousand and Thirteen, I crash landed on Balboa Peninsula. I was in an airplane and then I wasn’t. I was in a men’s drug and alcohol treatment facility housed in an old green and yellow motel and located in the low teen streets on the beach side of Balboa. I lived there “in-house” for three months before moving across the street and into the “extended care” sober living, a long and battered beach house with a red tile roof on the bay side.

Based on a series of comprehensive insurance payments and the low lying life goals that often accompany abrupt sobriety, I lived in that house for close to two years. The insurance payments were based on three urine tests I took each week, and the agreement seemed to be that if my urine was clean I could do whatever else I wanted at the beach all day. There was little or no supervision. The facility gave us all a Beach Cruiser bicycle and a new cellphone number. They made sure we were working enough to pay for our own groceries and they set us loose on the Peninsula.

View from the Balboa Pier looking at the the Peninsula from the ocean side.

Balboa Peninsula is about as wide at most places as a two lane street with four skinny houses shoulder to shoulder on both sides, tilting into the bay and the ocean respectively. It’s three miles long and bordered by two mouths: the Harbor mouth in the southeast, and the mouth of the Santa Ana River in the northeast. The Peninsula is divided into ninety eight blocks and is absolutely crammed full of houses. There are exactly as many houses as will physically fit, a fact that has turned street parking into a certified Black-Ops activity.

Everyone leaves their windows open and their doors unlocked. It’s possible to hear a private conversation with complete clarity from eight blocks away. It’s impossible though to tell what direction the conversation is coming from, and because of that no one cares. People cry, laugh, slam doors, shit talk, and scream with in Fireball brand ecstasy and Coors brand comradery every night. Like so many beautiful places in Southern California, the Peninsula is a melting pot of ecstasy. It’s old real estate money living next to a house strung with a University of Minnesota banner and littered with empties on one side, the broken family of a surf pro from the eighties on the other, and a house of beautiful young women who work in marketing but whose real occupations are fun and bulimia across the street.

Most treatment centers and sober livings are like revolving doors with a high turnover rate, after all, getting sober in Newport Beach is not for everyone. Still, most of my time in that house full of ash and sand, I lived with the same characters. Our families were overjoyed we weren’t shooting dope or drinking ourselves to death and it didn’t take much convincing to stay there. No matter what time of day, there were always a bunch of us hanging out in various states of shirtlessness and sunburn. 

We didn’t own anything and whatever we broke was replaced. Whatever we needed was nudged within our reach. We played catch with footballs the entire length of the hallway. We had small soccer matches in the living room and kitchen. We threw tennis balls into traffic from the second story. We went to the grocery store in groups, weaving in and out of traffic, maxing out the single gear of our Beach Cruisers. We were supposed to go to meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous, at least three a week, but we almost never did and we all covered each other. We all worked our own Programs. We did the kind of work on ourselves that lottery winners do; we sought a kind of existential self-actualization in the waves, the sun, and the television.

My best friend was Frank, a scene kid from Phoenix, who had a personal craigslist account with hundreds of bicycles he had taken out of people’s garages. He worked at the Starbucks in a Barnes and Noble, produced hip hop music on a pirated copy of Fruity Loops, and did semiprofessional stick and poke tattoos.

There was Anthony, an Italian kid from Riverside who everyone assumes is Mexican. At nineteen, he had a lucrative business telling people things were wrong with their cars, buying them, and flipping them for a profit. While I lived with him, he worked as a valet and played basketball with the intention of playing in Europe.

Chip was a big blond Prep School athlete from Villanova gone to pot. He worked as a dishwasher, watched the mainstream comedies of the last twenty years, and developed an extensive mental library of actor’s names.

The sweetest of us all was Nate. Nate was from Boulder and had given himself organ failure at twenty drinking Snapple and Svedka. He worked as a busser at BJ’s, chewed tobacco, watched horror movies, and was filled with positivity. He called horror movies “spook flicks” and cans of Coca-Cola “cold ones”.

Rory AKA Old Sad Rory was twenty eight and from Seattle. He worked as a server in The Olde Spaghetti Factory but was really on a lifelong tour of SoCal rehabs. OSR complained and fucked his long time ex-girlfriend in cars. He was the kind of person who knows everything about everyone because, inexplicably, people want to tell him their secrets.

The most energetic was Brendan. He had been arrested at Twenty Three in a Long Island high school parking lot with over two hundred bags of heroin, a hundred bags of cocaine, anabolic steroids and in a gun in his possession. He worked in a Frame store, enjoyed tanning, being a millionaire in even the earliest stages of his inheritance, and cooking and explaining Chi-Chi’s (a comfort food originating in prison, made of ramen noodles, Cheetos, cheese-sticks, and Slim Jims, cooked in a plastic trash bag with hot tap water).

Fat Rob was from Fort Collins where he had tried to kill himself by falling asleep in the snow in his boxers. He succeeded, but was later brought back to life and sent to Southern California in some kind of purgatory. He worked as an SAT tutor, consumed a minimum of 150 grams of protein a day, and lifted.

The youngest and most damned of us was Lewis. At Sixteen, Lewis had had a standoff with the Dallas swat team on the roof of his parent’s house after his mother had taken away his weed. When I lived with him, he worked at an organic café, played the bass, Pokemon, and Magic the Gathering. He also pursued his GED but he did it in private and without passion.

I think they all, like me, had wrecked on the Peninsula and found something sweet there. We had spent a long time together knowing it. They were some of the best friends I’ve ever had.

For a long time I thought all roads in California bottomed out into the Peninsula. I know that seems unreasonable but it’s in keeping with my proclivities; I didn’t know the order or even all of the months of the year until I was a junior in high school. I guess I had been on the 55 South once, saw it ended on Harbor Boulevard, and the idea just kind of walled itself off in my head. I didn’t have a car and I wasn’t much interested. I left the Peninsula less than a dozen times those two years. I had no idea what the surrounding cities were. I didn’t care how far I was from LA or Mexico.

It was on the Peninsula I was introduced to the beauty of weekday afternoons. I sat surrounded by water on three sides with nowhere to be almost every single eleven AM, and though I had the responsibilities of a young child, though I didn’t have to be anywhere specifically, I was never bored. I filled the afternoon up with every single thing I wanted to do except heroin, and everything I did I did with the utmost effort and interest.

I worked for six hours on Tuesdays and Thursdays unloading deliveries at a marine supply store on Thirty Second Street, but I woke up each day in accordance with the tides. If the tide was a foot and rising at five AM I woke up before sunrise. If the tide was between two and four feet later in the afternoon, I woke up around nine or ten, made strong tea, smoked three cigarettes, and watched Sportscenter on a loop with whomever was around.

I didn’t want to do heroin, it had all the appeal of a splinter in the foot on an old dock, but to walk through life sober, to deal with the extreme anxieties of simply breathing as a dry alcoholic, I had to exhaust myself. I surfed until the inside of my ears hurt. I did hours of prison exercises in my bedroom aggressively completed power yoga routines I followed on Youtube. I ran barefoot in the hot, loose sand from one end of the Peninsula to the other. I played basketball until I twisted my knees and got blisters. I skateboarded on red curbs until my ankles were so swollen they would have looked good in Hush Puppies. I rode my bike to the Wedge, a spot on the southeastern tip of the Peninsula where the last Jetty before the harbor mouth creates a curved wave that explodes onto the sand. I sat on the rocks with girls from New Jersey, smoking cigarettes and rooting against the surfers. They rooted for the Ocean and I rooted for myself.

In the life of an adult, afternoons filled with these kind of activities might seem pretty rare, but the Peninsula is filled with them. It’s a place where it always seems that almost everyone has the day off. Everywhere you go on a Tuesday afternoon, there’s a man who has a haircut that looks like it belongs in a suit but he’s wearing sandals and board shorts. There’s a middle aged man with a tan gut carrying a gigantic surfboard. There’s a woman exercising the prime of her beauty in the sun. There’s a young man, a picture of native blondness, methodically loading and unloading oceanic sports equipment from the bed of a clean Ford Ranger. There’s a kid alone in the water who is so little that it is a scientific fact that he should presently be in elementary school. There are two women who you know are mothers because of their style of plastic surgery, chatting in black SUV’s idling on opposite sides of the street. The rat race ends at the beach. There’s no hustle or bustle, it’s one of the best places in the world to have no ambition because it’s already a destination.

After two years on the Peninsula, everyone I loved was gone. No one can stay in rehab forever. It’s a place where you’ll meet the best friend you’ve ever had over and over and they all disappear because none of it is real.

Frank and Chip were kicked out and moved in together in the deep inland recesses of Huntington Beach. Frank produced Hardcore music and shot heroin and Chip waited tables, snorted Roxycodone, and went to Orange Coast College. Anthony went back to Riverside where he began to fall asleep standing up. Nate went back to Boulder and continued to flourish despite breaking his wrist the first day of snowboard season out of enthusiasm. Fat Rob moved into a house a few doors from the sober living and bought a puppy. He started shooting meth, lost over a hundred pounds, moved back to Colorado, and succeeded in killed himself. Lewis moved to Anaheim and developed an unattractive air of confidence. Old Sad Rory asked me for tinfoil one day and walked away on foot later that night. Brendan was arrested with another hundred bags of heroin in Long Island. While on bail, he started prostituting himself to men so he could afford to hire female prostitutes. He went to sex rehab in Tennessee and got married directly after completing treatment.

I stayed, and after they all had left, I was left alone with my afternoons. I threw myself into the ocean. I dove under waves and paddled hard against the current. I lay on my stomach in the sun, on top of thin short boards and kicked the water so big heavy drops showered down on my head. Even when I moved into an apartment in West Newport and got a car to go back to school, I kept as much of the early afternoons free as I could, taking classes during the evening and working at night.

I spent my afternoons all over the Peninsula. I biked to the River Jetties, or Blackies, or if the waves aren’t good anywhere, I woke up slow and rode my bike, stopping at every street to watch the ocean. No matter how bad it was, I always went back to the apartment and got my board. I hid my keys under the empty flowerpots by the door and went in the water right across the street from my apartment.

I spent a lot of time thinking about how to stay in those open afternoons on the Peninsula. I gave a lot of thought to winning the lottery. I seriously considered cashing in on an invention as well as the possibility marrying into it. I thought about the highways and strip malls of Southern California and I knew I couldn’t live out of them without either heroin or my afternoons free. The thought walled itself up in my mind like it used to. I’d be thinking about it but I wasn’t. I’d drink Arizona Green Tea and smoke a cigarette. I’d listen to the traffic on Balboa and hear the ocean in it and I’d know it really was in there somewhere. I was on the Peninsula. I’d check to see what the ocean was up to the next day. I’d go to sleep early with all my windows open and the door unlocked; a born-again local.