In the 1970’s, my parents owned Farenheit 451, a small bookstore in Laguna Beach, California. They had one child – my brother – and they all lived above the bookstore. They lived a carefree, hippie lifestyle. My dad would run barefoot on the beach every day until his feet bled. He drank raw juice concoctions, and he had a long, scraggly, red beard. They had a myna bird that would wolf whistle at the girls walking by. And their customers were an eclectic bunch, some of whom would come not for the books but to talk to my parents for hours. Life was interesting to say the least, but, two years in, it got even more so.
In 1974, two plain-clothed officers entered the store, purchased a Zap Comix book and then proceeded to arrest my mom who was alone in the store at the time. She was taken down to the police station where she was fingerprinted and treated like a criminal. Pregnant with my sister at the time, they wanted to strip search her, but she refused. Her crime? Selling the satirical, controversial comic books which included sex, drugs and violence – or, in other words, pornography. Their arrest marked the beginning of a two year battle with the city of Laguna Beach.
My parents, detesting censorship, reached out to the local newspapers and the community, and, fortunately, Laguna Beach responded with resounding support. The local newspaper, The Daily Pilot, gave them a voice, printing numerous articles about their case. My parents would plaster the windows of their bookstore with the articles, and when the police ordered them to remove the articles, the newspaper printed a new article about how the police were harassing them. The community attended the city hall meetings and court hearings in droves. And the ACLU – American Civil Liberties Union – took on their case, offering them legal representation for free.
Not backing down, my parents continued to sell Zap Comix in their store and even celebrated the anniversary of their arrest by printing flyers which they put everywhere, including on the police cars. On Halloween day 1976 – after two solid years of fighting – the charges against them were finally dropped. My parents had won the case. They sold the bookstore later that year, left Laguna Beach and moved to a small mountain town called Idyllwild where they both went back to teaching and where, two years later, I was born. Laguna Beach was changing, and many of the liberal hippie types were leaving, including one bus load full headed for Oregon. Inside was a group called Love Animals, Don’t Eat Them and a dentist who wrote “Liberated” across his degree and taped it to the bus.
Their case might have come to a close and Laguna Beach might have officially become a part of their past, but the arrest and subsequent two year legal battle stirred a sleeping giant and awakend a radicalism within my dad. From that point on, he started writing letters to the editors about issues that were close to his heart – first censorship and then the Drug War – and he hasn’t stopped writing since. For my dad’s 70th birthday, my sister compiled many of his letters – including all of them would have been impossible – and put them in a book. The publications in which his letters have been printed range from the Orange County Register to the New York Times and even Time magazine.
But his thoughts weren’t just confined to letters. Throughout my childhood, I listened to my dad talk for hours to anyone who would listen about how we should legalize drugs. I would roll my eyes at his passionate discourse about how the government was trying to take away our freedoms one by one. He was such a starch libertarian and always so radical in his ideas. I could never understand where this undying resistance to government came from. What made him so tirelessly angry that it drove him to attend protests, attend meetings held by libertarian candidates, and constantly make his voice and opinions heard? I could never really understand it and then something happened this year that made me catch a glimpse of the world through his perspective.
Life shapes you and molds you depending on the people you meet and the experiences you have. The person you are born as will inevitably change as life runs its course and you meet people who influence you and you confront challenges that affect you. But, oftentimes, it requires having your own life experience before you can fully understand other people’s battles – even those of the people who are closest to you. This summer has been an eye opener. In 1974, my parents were dragged into a battle. July 31st 2016 marked the beginning of our own.
It was a Sunday evening when two policemen walked through the doors of AlteArte and proceeded to fine me for the terrace tables that we had on the street directly outside. Those tables had been there from the time that AlteArte was created back in 2006. Every year, we applied for a terrace license and every year the city hall approved it. But, recently, there had been a change in government, and the new party had arbitrarily decided that it was time to start applying a 10 year old regulation, a regulation that would significantly reduce many business’s terraces – including our own. We had first received word of the reduction of the terraces in early July, but it seemed so unlikely that they would actually apply it in the middle of the high season that we didn’t pay it much attention. Plus, at the couple of meetings that we had had with the city hall, the mayor and councilman who had put the order in place, weren’t being clear about when it would start being enforced. So, naturally, we decided to continue doing business as usual. After all, removing the tables would mean significant loss since we work primarily with our terrace in the Summer.
However, when the cops wrote us up on July 31st because we had the two tables and eight chairs on that street when we weren’t supposed to have any, we realized that it was most definitely being enforced. The fine ranged between 750 euros and 1500 euros, depending on when we paid it. As far as we know, we were the first to receive a fine for putting out our full terrace. In the weeks that followed, more businesses got fined, one business as much as three times over three consecutive days mounting to a total of 4500 euros. That restaurant finally consented and removed their whole terrace. Another business was severely fined and forced to reduce their tables as well as the big umbrellas that were fixed securely to the ground. The only umbrellas they were allowed were ones that could be removed every night. That would have been fine except the wind can get so strong that it literally uproots the flimsier umbrellas – as we saw ourselves days after they made the switch when we drove by on our scooter and saw the customers desperately holding on to the airborn umbrella. And yet another business got their whole terrace removed. On August 30th, that business closed their doors for good.
The city deciding to make these drastic changes was one thing, but for them to decide to do it literally at the peak of the high season was utterly absurd – and it began to feel disturbingly as though we were under attack by our own city. And the worst part was that they didn’t have any clear or logical reason for doing what they were doing. They claimed that the terraces obstructed passageway and gave a bad image of Altea to the visiting tourists. Seriously?! Lively terraces surely gave a better image than the cops going up and down the street counting all the tables and chairs and talking to the owners of the businesses, which is what they did on two consecutive Fridays at 10pm when the old town was bustling and the businesses were full. They claimed they wanted to keep the quality of tourism high – unlike in Benidorm, the next town over known for its unruly and rowdy tourism. But then why start renting out inflatable ducks and slides? Didn’t that capture the very image of Benidorm?? Why spend tons of money building a beach? Hadn’t Altea been attracting a different type of tourism specifically because we didn’t offer the same as the tourist-ridden beach towns around us?
The meetings with the city hall were futile. The councilman who, apparently, was the one who had started the whole mess was just a baby. According to his Facebook page, he had just graduated from school in 2014. He was present at the first couple of meetings but then conveniently on vacation in August when the business owners were most under attack (and also the angriest), and, at subsequent meetings after that, he conveniently stayed hidden behind the mayor. The mayor was no better. Uninformed of what was happening in his own city, it was up to us, the business owners, to inform him about what was going on. His only response was that, as mayor, he didn’t have the power to put a hold on what was happening. Of course he did! The police had obviously received the orders to regulate the terraces from someone! He also insisted that all the businesses were being treated the same. Then how come some businesses (interestingly, all the foreign-owned ones) were being outright persecuted while others continued to put their full terraces out and apparently hadn’t even received a single fine?
August passed and we limped along as best we could, although we were seriously feeling the loss of our tables and chairs. And just when we were feeling tired and defeated and losing the strength to fight, some of our friends took up the fight for us, leading a sit-in protest. They sat on the stairs of Calle Santo Domingo and held the petition up explaining the situation to the tourists passing by. And they added pages of signatures. Their support at that moment was undescribable. They gave us their strength at a moment when we were lacking our own. It assured us we weren’t alone. It lifted us up in order to keep going even in the face of absurdity.
And we welcomed September with an eagerness unlike any other Summer before. Between the late nights at work, the early morning meetings, the unrelenting intensity of the high season and the draining consequences of being under attack, September couldn’t come fast enough. And when it did, we planned a protest in front of the city hall. And when the mayor was in a meeting, we stormed his office and finally got his attention and secured a date for the next meeting. And at that meeting, he finally gave us enough respect to come prepared, and he laid out a plan over the coming months to have someone come out and measure all the terraces. The battle with the city was far from over, but at least it was finally garnering some results.
And I couldn’t help but compare our experience with my parents’ fight. And, 38 years later, I finally began to understand why my dad had become the way he had. When you don’t know better, you trust the government to have our best interests in mind or, in the very least, to know what they’re doing. You innocently disregard corruption and personal connections, thinking all of that happens elsewhere. You naively believe that everyone plays on the same playing field. The summer had worn down my faith and opened my eyes to how and why things are really done the way they are done. And, for the first time in my life, I understood my parents’ battle with the Laguna Beach police for what it was – not just a story that I had heard retold countless times throughout my life, but a story about an identity-changing experience for my parents, a story about my parents’ courage and resilience in standing up for something that they believe in.
The high season was over, making the terrace reduction less financially painful, and the battle with the city hall was on hold until the next meeting. But just when we started to relax and breathe easier, we found ourselves under attack yet again. But, this time, it wasn’t the city coming after us for our terrace. This time, the enemy was even closer to home and was all around us, watching our every move…