Another rocket explodes in the smoky sky over Butterfly Beach as Thomas Van Stein, plein air artiste, stands cocked before his field easel on tar terrace.
He works quickly on the under-painting, dabbing moody blues and purples from his palette with three filbert brushes, prepping a ten-by-fourteen Masonite board for the firework display already popping over Stearns Wharf, the oldest pier on America’s west coast, one mile to the west.
Van Stein captures his prey with deft strokes, as much to catch the mood as depict a scene. This artist’s true love is moonlight. Or any source of light that illuminates darkness.
At 9:40 the firework display climaxes; high tide has claimed most of the beach and a sulphuric aroma lingers as locals close their coolers and trudge home.
The painting is done for now, requiring touch-up and varnishing in the studio.
Van Stein unhitches a Mag-Lite attached by Velcro to his Russian faux-fur infantryman hat and steps back to illuminate the masterpiece before him: an impressionistic nocturne seascape; fine art-meets-special-event; and more personally, to me, a memento of the occasion.
“I have an old buddy coming into town,” I say to Van Stein, after cutting a deal to purchase this painting, not just because I saw it painted before my eyes, but because it‘s damn good. “What do you recommend I show him?”
“You ever seen the old fig tree?” asks Van Stein.
“Been to Joe’s Café?”
“Sounds like I better show you both around.”
Santa Barbara Municipal Airport is compact, uncomplicated and passenger-friendly. You can fly to Denver without changing planes, launch to Vegas for ninety-bucks or hop to Phoenix and connect to anywhere else in the country.
A diner upstairs overlooks three short runways.
I suck on a chocolate shake topped with a dollop of whipped cream as United Airlines disgorges passengers, including my buddy Floater from Chicago.
“This is beyond cool,” says Floater, looking around, absorbing the sun, seventy-four degrees, an ocean breeze. “How are you feeling?” He squints to assess my state of mind.
“Never better,” I grin, merging my Jeep Liberty onto I-101 at 86 miles an hour.
Floater is privy to the undercover work I’d been doing for a decade; was also involved in some of it, my own recruit. So he understands why I’m walking the beach.
“Heard from anyone?” he asks gently.
“Nope. But they’re watching.”
“I know. But Montecito is the ideal place to hide out because everyone lives behind tall hedges. And anyone they send would immediately get star-struck by all the celebrities. Nobody pays attention to me.”
“What makes you think they’re interested?”
“They never release their grip. Plus they’re afraid I’ll write a book. And I might. But the more I walk the beach, the more I feel some things are best left in esoteria.”
We exit the freeway into the lower village, past a beggar with this sign: What can I say? I screwed up.
I drop Floater at the Coast Village Inn and he grabs his bag, chuckling. “You don’t have to work at life in a place like this.”
And he hasn’t seen Butterfly Beach yet.
“Settle in,” I say. “I’ll be back in an hour. An artist I know is going to show us the sights.”
At six o’clock sharp Floater and I enter Thomas Van Stein’s downtown Santa Barbara art studio, tucked inside a courtyard off West Ortega Street that housed the city’s first milk dairy.
Van Stein’s moody canvases of oil refineries at two in the morning grace the fifteen-foot walls of this sky-lit barn, part of the artist’s life mission to redeem hideously ugly industrial structures into something of beauty; in this case, urban nocturne meets baroque chiarscuro: a dramatic light-dark contrast innovated by Dutch masters Rembrandt and Vermeer.
Van Stein painted his first nocturne (of a full moon, in 1988 on Santa Cruz Island) with a flashlight taped to his Australian akubra outback hat.
Then, largely influenced by the mysterious nocturnes of Charles Rollo Peters, Van Stein devoted a one-man show to nocturnal plein air landscapes and seascapes in 1993.
He has been painting moons ever since, in addition to teaching “the color of night” at Santa Barbara City College.
The artist’s leather bomber jacket, the back of which he painted himself, dangles from a wire hanger. Van Stein is a warplane aficionado; in his spare time he paints nose art, gratis, on vintage aircraft at Camarillo Airport.
“What’s that?” I enquire about the jacket.
“An A-2. For flyers. During the Second World War, the A-2 was their second set of skin.”
“Where can I get one?”
“If you want the genuine article, like mine, order it from Eastman Leather in England. Get it in horsehide. Politically incorrect, I know, but lambskin is for ladies. I’ll paint it for you. Ready? Let’s go!”
First stop, Joe’s Café on State Street. Van Stein quaffs Bass draft beer and yaks about how he bailed all his emotional garbage through The Hoffman Process.
“It’s a program designed to purge yourself of your genetic code,” says Van Stein. “It brings to the forefront of consciousness that one is the micro of the macro, that is, a product of all your ancestors. You write everything down, ink on paper.”
“That’s it?” I say.
“Everything,” says Van Stein. “Over five days.”
“And that purges you?”
“It purged me. I put the Van back in my name.”
“What do you mean?”
“My parents, my brothers–their last name is Stein. But I did some research and discovered that, originally, we were Van Steins, from Jutland.”
“So you inserted Van?”
“Yep. A legal name change”
“But isn’t the point of The Hoffman Process to purge you of family history, not revert to it?” I ask.
“No, no, no. Family history and genetic code are two different things. And anyway, I put the Van back in my name six years before I did the Hoffman Process. To be your own person, you must rid yourself of all those ancestors crowding in with compulsions and hang-ups.”
“It that why we have schizophrenia?” I ask. “Un-tamed ancestors?”
“Probably.” A drop of spittle settles on Van Stein’s lower lip, then launches when he erupts again, a trademark of sorts. “Funny! So what do you do, Floater. Hit man?”
Floater glances at me, returns to Van Stein. “Do I look like a...”
“He’s a psychological hit-man,” I insert.
Van Stein giggles nervously. “Washington, Chicago–I should have known. What’s a psychological hit man?”
“He fools people.”
“Oh.” Van Stein regards Floater for a long moment. “You’re not fooling me, are you?”
“Careful,” I say. “That’s an idea of reference.”
“When a person relates external events to himself, mental health professionals refer to him or her as having ideas of reference.”
“Are you kidding?” says Van Stein. “That sounds like everyone around here. The me generation was invented here—their sense of entitlement is mind-boggling.”
We set out on lower State Street, a plein air party zone for SB’s tri-college community (UCSB, City College and Westmont) to the train station and world’s largest fig tree, planted in 1869 by an Australian seaman.
A “gentleman’s club” called Spearmint Rhino attempts to reel us in, but a supernatural chill runs through my body between the inner and outer doors and I freeze in my tracks. “Let’s do something else,” I say.
“You felt that too?” says Van Stein.
For a moment we are attuned to some unknown danger.
Floater is too lagged to feel anything except painful blisters on his feet from a new pair of sneakers.
We stroll up State, dodging vagabonds, snippets of rock music from assorted pubs and clubs, including the James Joyce, until we settle at Intermezzo to share a bottle of pinot noir and a plate of chocolate truffles.
Van Stein rambles about a lady in town who teaches tantric sex. “My wife and I are thinking of taking lessons.”
“Wouldn’t it be more fun to leave your wife at home?”
Back in Washington I’d be in bed by this time, hypnotized to sleep by the usual murder and mayhem, bribery and corruption and self-important political punditry.
“What makes this place tick?” I ask Van Stein, knowing damn well it’s not the news, which nobody cares about, except the tide report.
“Abundance,” he replies. “There’s so much of everything here. Now, if only I could afford some.”
“I’ve noticed there’s an abundance of comedians in Montecito,” I say. “Yet nobody’s laughing.”
“You got all the world’s funniest people living within two square miles of one another, but you’re not even allowed to approach one let alone get a laugh out of them. Steve Martin looks as if he’d just as soon drop his bloomers and crap on the sidewalk than smile. And Dennis Miller walks around looking like he hasn’t had a decent dump in three days.”
“That’s funny!” says Van Stein.
“Damn right it is–yet they’re the ones making the big bucks for being funny, not me. They need to feed a little laughter back into the community. Or maybe we need to squeeze it out of them.”