Monday, July 26, 2010

From the Archives - Letter from UCSB


As a college freshman, I already had a blog. Of course, I didn’t call it that or think of it that way. Blogs hadn't been invented yet, nor were college kids using the Internet, but I regularly sent printed copies of little stories and essays to friends and family. To save paper and reduce postage costs, I’d use a photocopier to reduce four pages to fit on a single piece of paper.

In the beginning, before I had a PC, I wrote these on a typewriter, so I have only paper copies of the first seven or eight stories. All the way through college I kept paper copies, which now fill a two-inch binder. Leafing through this binder recently, I came across something I found amusing, from my first month at the University of California at Santa Barbara. When I first moved to Isla Vista, the run-down, sleepy beach community near the UCSB campus, I didn’t know a soul, and struggled to fit in while dreaming of becoming a writer.

Here’s the story, written almost twenty-two years—more than half my lifetime—ago. (As I typed this into the computer, I made minor tweaks, such as changing the names of the characters.)

Letter from UCSB — September 21, 1988

So I might know just what you’re thinking: this boy is churning out page after page of micro-print material. And that’s what it is: material. I’m not even sure I like it. What is the deal here? Well, I’ve come across some advice by a fella name of Scott Rice, who has dozens of helpful hints for getting stories published. (I’m sort of leaning toward becoming a writer, perhaps by default, since bike mechanics seems to be a limited field and math and science bore me to tears.)

Rice writes, “Getting into print is simply a matter of knowing your market. At ‘Redbook’ magazine, for example, they get about 36,000 short story submissions a year, but they publish only fifty. Simple math tells you that you should be able to crack this market by submitting 720 stories annually.”

I was really inspired by those words, since even if I took five days off a year, I could submit 720 stories easily by writing only two a day. The only problem I’m having is that I’m not really writing stories at all; it’s just material. Besides, I know nothing about the subjects dealt with in “Redbook” so my one story per year might not get maximum coverage. So it’s about time I tried my hand at fiction.

The trouble is, I never know where to start with fiction. So I’ll start with some vignettes about my real life, and see if they take me in any useful fictional direction. Here goes.

* * *

oooooI just sat there on the bucket-seat style sofa of my quaint Isla Vista apartment, turning redder by the minute. My new roommates, Steve and Alex, were rambling endlessly about my apparent pure blood. Steve, a thirty-three-year-old grad student, has the uncanny ability to speak on any subject with captivating skill and ease, but excessively so, to the point that after a long discussion, you somehow feel ripped off, like after long documentary that demanded your full attention only to destroy its own credibility with a huge generalization at the end. Alex, on the other hand, came from Ethiopia three years ago, which makes him a very interesting character all around, except that in Santa Barbara there are so many beautiful girls around that our discussion usually ends up being about girls, and Alex starts going into all these babe-getting strategies that I lack the nerve to ever put into play.

oooooAnyway, the current topic of discussion was my supposedly Aryan-like features, which my roommates contended would make me virtually irresistible to the ladies. Amid comments like, “Just let me have the ones that fall off of your arms,” and “I’ll just follow you around and pick up the pieces,” I was beginning to get a bit whelmed. Not overwhelmed, mind you, but thoroughly whelmed. The most disturbing comment was, “Just don’t let us down, huh?” To think that these two are relying on me to bring home enough women for all of us almost makes me lose all hope.

* * *

Not very much scene or setting there, alas, and no action. Certainly not enough for “Redbook.” Local color, that’s the thing. I’ll try harder this time.

* * *

oooooIn return for fixing his bike, my new roommate Steve took me to lunch at a small café on Embarcadero del Norte called The Blue Dolphin. Strangely enough, its menu lacked any seafood, featuring burgers and omelettes; certainly no dolphin here. The main attraction, not on the menu, turned out to be the waitress. Working solo, she had her hands full, running from table to table clearing dishes and taking orders. For Steve or me to mention our interest in the bodacious girl was completely unnecessary.

oooooSteve lowered his voice and said, “Hey, I happen to be a very smooth operator when it comes to the ladies, so I think I can arrange to have this one introduce herself to you. Heck, I think she’s eyeing you anyway. So you can just take it from there, how about that? And hey, don’t let me down on this one.” Immediately, two things came to mind: one, he’s planning to have a little fun at my expense, or two (more frightful): he actually thinks I can make a good impression.

oooooOur lunch was fairly uneventful; we sat at an outdoor table, ate burgers, and discussed the topic of laying tile (which he’d done all summer). In fact, he discussed this to death, and I decided laying tile was probably not for me. After we got the check, Steve excused himself and said, “Just wait right there. You’re my tip hostage.” Well, a few minutes later, out strutted the pretty waitress. Naturally, at this moment I was in the process of standing up to check on our bikes, and my grasshopper-like leg kicked the table, tipping over the catsup and knocking the silver napkin dispenser to the ground.

oooooAs I struggled to regain my balance, my face reddening, the waitress said, “So you’re Dana, huh? My name’s Carolyn. So, you like won the Coors Classic? You must be quite the biker then.” My roommate was nowhere in sight. I can’t believe he missed this glorious opportunity to scavenge some delight at my discomfort and embarrassment. My tongue had become as thick and fluffy as the omelettes my aunt makes (she whips the egg whites in a blender), so speech was futile. While I steadied the table with one hand, I offered the other in a handshake. It was a pretty fair handshake, really; her hand was wet from scrubbing tables, mine black with grease from fixing my roommate’s bike (which had got me into this whole mess).

oooooStill, my roommate’s words echoed through my seemingly hollow skull: “Don’t let me down on this one.” The words “Nice to meet you” fought their way out of my mouth, with surprising clarity. Originality of content, though, was at an all-time low, especially after I cleared up the little won-the-Coors-Classic fallacy. (Ever since my roommates found out that I’m going to race for UCSB, they’ve decided I’m world class and that the whole world should know it.)

oooooI felt rushed to take the conversation up a notch, because the waitress was now moving about the café with remarkable speed. In a last-ditch attempt to establish some kind of association with this pretty young thing, I moved around the restaurant with forced ease and composure. A heartfelt comment found its way to the surface: “They keep you pretty busy here, don’t they?” While her simple “Yes” was technically a response, I felt our dialog was not moving in the right direction. Another sincere thought made itself vocal: “I wonder where my friend went.” I couldn’t believe he’d missed what had just transpired. Why would he set me up and then miss the mêlée?

ooooo“He’s in the bathroom,” answered the waitress before disappearing into the kitchen. Steve arrived a moment later, looked at our table (which I had managed to restore to its original splendor), and said, “So, did the waitress clear our table?” I told him yes, she did, let’s go. Outside, the inquisition began. “So, what happened?” Steve asked. “What did she say? Did she introduce herself?”

ooooo“Yeah, she introduced herself, asked if we were into biking, I said yes, and that was about it.”

ooooo“That’s it? You didn’t talk about anything else?”

ooooo“Oh, yeah, there was something else. I asked if they kept her busy and she said yes.”

ooooo“Man, you have got to refine your technique.”

ooooo“Yeah, I guess I do,” I replied, almost relieved that, now that I had displayed my ineptitude with females, he would stop touting me as the next great hope of Apartment Seven. Little did I know that the legend was yet to be born.

* * *

Well, that bit about the “legend yet to be born” seems promising as a jumping-off point for fiction, at least at first. But on closer inspection, what, really, do I know about achieving legend status with the ladies? Nothing. And while the story only described what didn’t happen with the pretty waitress, there could be nothing more. I need to write about something I know, in a realm where I might have some chance of achieving something exciting. So, cycling it is.

* * *

oooooI figured with all the rampant rumors circulating among my new roommates about my cycling prowess, I had to at least maintain some sort of fitness so I wouldn’t humiliate myself in every aspect of life. The only problem was finding a place to ride. Southern California, as near as I can figure, is just a bunch of small towns connected by huge six-lane freeways. The UCSB campus abounds with friendly-looking roads, seeming to promise canyons and prairies, only to betray me by dead-ending after only a mile or so. Please try to understand, it is very disheartening, not knowing where my next mile will come from. Turning around does help me brush up on my bike handling skills, but it fails to leave the mind free for drifting, which is the only way to log miles without going insane.

oooooAfter an entire afternoon of gleaning one tedious out-and-back mile after another, I finally decided that the dreaded, ominous US 101 North was the only path to cycling bliss. Perhaps in hope of gaining support toward my decision, I asked my roommate Steve—who had been at UCSB for a couple of years already—what he thought about riding on US 101.

ooooo“Well, heck, I’d never ride on it. It’s illegal, plus you’ll get killed on top of it all. But hey, if you’re gonna represent the US in next year’s Tour de France, you might not have a choice.”

ooooo“I’m not going to ride the Tour de France, next year or any year.”

ooooo“Sure you will, at the rate you’re going. I mean, you’re the premier rider on the national champion UCSB team. Hell, I think it’s great: there you are, putting it all on the line. Risking it all for dreams of athletic godhood. I’d never do it.”

ooooo“Well, I’m going to go ahead and tackle 101.”

ooooo“Good for you. Do you feel lucky today?”

oooooI set out, very timidly at first, feeling guilty about my reckless disregard for rules intended to protect me. Despite the ten-foot shoulder, I hugged the side of the road like a street cleaner, trampling weeds or the occasional shard of tire retread. Roaring semis rattled my bones to the marrow. I was a mouse in a herd of stampeding elephants, US 101 a vast safari.

oooooGradually, however, I began to lose my fear of the crazed drivers, shifting my hatred toward the brutal headwind that threatened to tear the “beer cooler” helmet from my head. Soon I learned that an eighteen-wheel tractor trailer truck pushes a lot of wind, and can provide enough of a wind-block that I can temporarily shift up a gear. Soon I was pedaling happily away, finally free to let my mind drift. I pondered what makes good fiction. Something has to happen, I decided. Something exciting. Reading about a cyclist just pedaling along … that’s no good. He has to get in trouble. A crash might be good. And maybe a gun-wielding nut should appear on the scene!

oooooA siren wailed in the distance, then drew closer, and then a highway patrol car whizzed by—and to my amazement, because I didn’t know this was fiction—the car lurched into a half-spin, screeching to a stop right in front of me. I braked too hard, flipped over the handlebars, bounced over the hood, and flopped on the ground, flat on my back. My head spinning, I looked up to see the stubby legs of a highway patrolman, capped by the holster belt which only partially eclipsed the huge man’s ample gut. His right hand twitched above his service revolver. “Just what in the hell do you think you’re doing, son?” he demanded, his booming voice hastening me to my feet.

ooooo“I, uh, was just out for a little bike ride,” I managed, sputtering a fine mist of blood and saliva as I spoke.


ooooo“Uh, for fitness…?”

ooooo“Fitness? Well, hell, that’s why they got jazzercise shows for, you know. Raquel Welch, aerobics, and all that other calaesthetic crap.”

ooooo“Um, I prefer my bicycle.”

ooooo“You kids these days, I dunno. I had a bike once. The Schwinn Stingray. I rode it on the sidewalk, or down to the A&P now and then. Look at you, you’re what, how many years old?”


ooooo“You know what I rode when I was nineteen? A frickin’ Harley Davidson. What are you doing messing around on a highway on a danged bi-cycle?”

ooooo“It seemed like a good place to ride, sir.”

ooooo“My god, son, you’ll get hit, goin’ so dang slow out here. That’s why those little old ladies get hit!”

ooooo“Well, actually, sir, in the big scheme of things, since the earth is spinning at 600 miles per hour, I’m only going a little slower than the faster automobiles.”

ooooo“Is that right?” The officer scratched his head. “Wait a second, you aren’t tryin’ to be a smart aleck, are you?”

ooooo“No, sir, I would never do that.”

ooooo“Good. But I’m writing you a ticket anyway.”

ooooo“Okay, but Highway 101 is legal for bicycles from Goleta up to Buellton, home of Andersen’s pea soup.”

ooooo“Uh, yeah. I know that, I was just testin’ ya. Now look, the important thing is, you have fun. I mean, while you still have the chance. Hell, I was young once too. Just try to be a man about it, awright?” He got back in his car and sped away. I picked my bike up, climbed back on, and resumed pedaling, continued my reverie.


Was this enough of a plot? A cop, a bike crash, a lecture? No, not really. Rising and falling action, building to a climax before a resolution? Not quite. Does my character learn anything? No, but that’s okay, the story is at least done, it just needs to be typed. Only 719 more of these to go, and I’m on my way to a memorable career as a writer for “Redbook” magazine.

dana albert blog

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