Recent tragedy renews painful questions for Santa Cruz

Death has degrees.

Every death is heartbreaking in its own way. But add such elements as youth, violence and, perhaps most appalling of all, randomness – as was the case with the death of Shannon Collins last week on a Santa Cruz sidewalk – and you come to the very limits of the cruelties of fate that humans can withstand.

To those close to such a thing, the spiritual ground on which they stand falls away and suddenly there is no sense of up and down, just falling.

For the rest of us, though, given that we are sense-making animals, our rush to sorrow and empathy soon gives way to the labor of applying some handle to the unfathomable – a logic, rationale or cause-and-effect narrative.

In Santa Cruz, when these kinds of horrible things happen, there is one narrative that seems to re-emerge again and again: Because of its famous tolerance for alternative lifestyles, Santa Cruz is a magnet for dangerous people, thus making these intolerable acts more likely.

I don’t have an opinion on whether that idea is true or false or somewhere in between – at least not an informed opinion.

But, as we try to absorb this maddening crime, it might be instructive to look back at a moment when Santa Cruz’s famous tolerance came under its most intense scrutiny.

In the summer of 1981, Esquire magazine published a 5,000-word piece written by Page Stegner, then the head of the creative-writing program at UC Santa Cruz. The piece was called “The Limits of Tolerance” and it pushed Santa Cruz into the national spotlight, and not in a very good way.

Stegner’s piece was an anguished take-down of the permissive culture in Santa Cruz, and its tendency to breed the kind of anti-social criminal behavior that was turning the city in what he called “an open-air lunatic asylum.”

The response, as you might guess, was explosive. To that point, Santa Cruz had enjoyed largely favorable, even fawning coverage in the national press of sun, surf and the good life. But the Esquire story was unsparing in its indictment of Santa Cruz as a haven for transients where “deadbeat and drifters” – to use the language of the time – threatened to overwhelm the city’s public places. It was a city, said Stegner, on the edge of barbarism.

A couple of years before he died, former Santa Cruz mayor Bert Muhly gave me a copy of a letter he wrote to the editor of Esquire in response to the article. Muhly spearheaded the pushback against Stegner’s account, insisting that Santa Cruz at the time was “still a Garden of Eden” and accusing Stegner of writing “pure fiction.”

In those days before Twitter, Facebook and Internet comments, letters to the editor of the local newspaper was the prime forum for people to sound off and the editorial pages were filled with such letters, some of them blasting Stegner – the son of Wallace Stegner, the Bard of the American West – but lots more applauding him and confirming his dim view of Santa Cruz.

Stegner’s account painted a picture of permissiveness overripened into licentiousness, downtown Santa Cruz as an apocalyptic Hieronymus Bosch fever dream. While sitting outside in front of the former Cooper House, listening to live jazz music, he claimed he saw or heard people doing drug deals, sexually groping each other, urinating in public. He saw a man “swatting and swiping at an imaginary swarm of insects circling his head,” another doing an interpretative dance “though his movements seem to have less to do with the music than some internal expression of himself as a barnyard fowl.”

It’s important to remember the context of Stegner’s lament. In that post-Charles Manson period, Santa Cruz County had experienced a particularly gruesome decade of the kind of violent crime that we can barely imagine today. Frazier, Kemper and Mullin wasn’t the name of a mellow folk-rock trio (they were actually three infamous local murderers). And the now popular bumper-sticker phrase “Keep Santa Cruz Weird” would have then carried a menacing tone.

Stegner made the explicit link between the horrific crimes that once notoriously earned Santa Cruz the moniker “The Murder Capital of the World” and the craziness of what was then called the Pacific Garden Mall. It was a comparison that drove Bert Muhly into paroxyms of outrage, calling his linkage “unforgivable and totally without justification.”

The Stegner incident laid bare a painful question that resides in the heart of all liberals: Where do you draw the line between fostering freedom of lifestyle and indulging sociopathic behaviors that a peaceful society cannot abide?

What’s this have to do with the heartbreaking death of Shannon Collins? Maybe nothing. But people all over Santa Cruz are asking themselves whether this enraging incident is a product of local socio-political culture, or of the often random nature of tragedy.

Could this have happened anywhere? Or are we in for a new outbreak of Stegnerism?

Yes, we are sense-making animals. But sometimes, there is just no sense to be made.

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