A Nook Where Sandy Feet and Wet Bodies Are Welcome

"There's a lot of the '60s here. There's a lot of nostalgia," Suzy Stewart said Thursday afternoon as she worked the counter at Woody's Diner in Sunset Beach.

She wasn't talking about Elvis on the jukebox, either, although the King is well represented on it.

"We're not really Orange County, and we're not really L.A. County," she said. "I've lived here for years and always called it the Twilight Zone."

I wasn't exactly playing the part of the accidental tourist in Sunset Beach, although to most people zipping past on Pacific Coast Highway it represents only a "now-you-see-it, now-you-don't" stretch between Huntington Beach and Seal Beach.

No, I hung around Sunset all day, because after the L.A. riots it seemed as if this quirky little stretch that they used to call Tin Can Beach might provide an antidote to the big-city chaos.

Driving by the burger shacks, surf shops and "Kitchenettes for Rent" signs, realizing that people still walk to the post office to get their mail and knowing that if there's a fire the volunteer firefighters spill from their homes, you get a sense of timelessness here.

It's a place where a store sports a sign, "Sandy Feet and Wet Bodies Welcome." It's a place where some businesses don't have curbs out front and have grandfather clauses so that if they don't change their structure too much, they never will. While most residents of Orange County would rush City Hall if their neighborhoods didn't have curbs, the absence of them in Sunset Beach seems wholly appropriate.

Liquor store owner Paul DesHarnais said his building has been there since the early 1950s. Aside from a place of commerce, it often serves as an informal spot to chat, much as small-town cafes do in other parts of the country.

"This is the uniform of the day," DesHarnais says, referring to his shirt and shorts. "It's what I wear year round. I own a couple pairs of long pants, but I only wear them when I go on vacation."

DesHarnais said he picked up the video "Sweet Bird of Youth" the other night, the 1962 film of the Tennessee Williams play. He got it because part of it was shot right outside the store.

What did the street look like? I asked him.

"It looked the same as it does today," he said.

"There's no sophistication here," Lenore McKenzie said proudly, talking at once about the town and the marine supply and repair shop she owns on PCH. "Everybody does their own thing."

She said she supposes that she could prettify the place, but no one seems to mind that she doesn't, nor that they're likely to find a cat sitting on the counter when they conduct business.

Dieter Bush, who works in the shop, says informality is accepted. "There's not a lot of BS here," he said. "In Irvine, people use a credit card. Here, if someone wants something, they pay with cash."

McKenzie hastened to add that they also accept checks.

But the atmosphere is definitely small-town, the kind of place where a handshake closes a deal. "We'll find a boat hitched up to the dock," Bush said, "with a note saying, 'I was in two years ago, I liked the work you did, now fix it.' "

I mentioned to McKenzie that Orange County is so accustomed to change in the name of progress that Sunset Beach seems anachronistic.

"Basically, not too many people around here want a lot of change," she said. She gets a kick out of "the guys in Irvine in their three-piece suits who come down here to this little country store. Their whole attitude changes, and the way they dress changes. They'll sit around and talk, and you'll hear about their Aunt Mabel's warts and that their dog had to go to the vet."

In a bygone era, that kind of silliness was called community. It's what the American suburbs thought they were producing, but they failed utterly in the execution. Instead, we created suburbs where moms spend most of their "quality time" driving the minivan all over creation.

That's what they've fought off in Sunset Beach. A transit line went defunct years ago, and residents resisted development plans. Instead, they have a grassy walkway and bicycle paths.

Nobody's calling Sunset Beach paradise on Earth. The beach doesn't have great waves, and pulling off PCH can require the derring-do of Evil Knievel, but (are you listening, urban planners?) you can still walk to things here. The merchants probably know you by your first name, and bad apples get the message fast from neighbors.

"Orange County is so yuppie," waitress Suzy Stewart said. "It's relatively new, and everything you touch is the latest fashion. It doesn't have the individuality. In L.A., it's got more individuality but the pace is so fast. We've got individuality here, but the pace is kickback and mellow. Nobody's in a hurry."

Kickback and mellow.

After the sensory overload of the last couple weeks from Los Angeles, you start to wonder whether those words exist in real life anymore.

The locals swear they do, and you can look it up in your postal directory:

Sunset Beach 90742.

Dana Parsons' column appears Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. Readers may reach Parsons by writing to him at The Times Orange County Edition, 1375 Sunflower Ave., Costa Mesa, Calif. 92626, or calling (714) 966-7821.

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