Another Monday in Paradise


Because there’s a limit to what can be said about the energy mess, and because it was a holiday with not much doing across California, I made my way Monday to this beach town just south of San Francisco. I wanted to see how Jim Farnsworth had made out. Three years had passed since we had sat in a motor home outside his little bungalow, wondering if his house was about to tumble into the Pacific.

It was early March, 1998. Storms fed by El Nino conditions had eaten away the sandy bluff beneath the block of 10 houses on Esplanade Drive. One house already had gone down. A few more dangled at crazy angles over the edge. Farnsworth’s place appeared to have a more solid purchase on the bluff, although his 20 feet of backyard had vanished.

National television crews swarmed the block, cameras at the ready to capture a bit of California sliding into the sea. Such imagery had become common amid what seemed to be a decade-long onslaught of natural disaster in California--earthquakes, canyon fires, mudslides, floods and now this.


“I can very well imagine that people will wonder why we all lived here to begin with, right on the edge of the cliff,” Farnsworth, a retired airline captain, had said that morning while rain pounded down hard on the metal roof of the motor home. “I can almost hear them saying, ‘Those crazy nuts. Didn’t they know this was going to happen?’ ”


Farnsworth had talked with feeling, though, about the wonder of watching from his back porch as the ocean below came alive with fish and seabirds. The best time was right after a storm. And the sunsets, he went on, the sunsets were spectacular. No, he wasn’t going to move, even if it meant dragging his house toward the front of his lot. “I’m not going anywhere,” Farnsworth assured me.

And I always assumed that was the case. The news vans departed with the last of the El Nino storms, and Pacifica and its row of still teetering houses slipped off the California radar. And then last fall, while writing an essay about California for the L.A. Times Magazine, I came across my notes from the visit with Farnsworth. I decided that his story deserved an ending, and I made a note to look him up.

Maybe we would sit on his back porch at the edge of the continent and talk about the peculiar way in which the rest of the country tends to view California whenever natural disaster strikes, almost seeming at times to root for the whole state, not just one block, to sink into the sea. Maybe we also would talk about last laughs.

Things didn’t turn out quite that way. It was midmorning Monday when I arrived at Esplanade Drive. It was a changed place. All but two of the 10 bungalows were gone. Farnsworth’s house was among the missing. So was Farnsworth. A young man emerged from one of the remaining bungalows. No, he said, he had never heard of any Farnsworth.

Across the street, another neighbor said Farnsworth’s house had gone down about a year ago. She didn’t know where he lived now, but she added vaguely that he’d been coming around the neighborhood some. I looked around but couldn’t find him. I had a hunch, though, about when to look again. I went for a drive down the coast, which was being tossed wildly by a storm. I planned to return at sunset.



He was there with his yellow dog, working in a sharp wind behind a locked fence at the edge of the bluff. After much flailing of arms on my part he finally walked over. “With these tears in my eyes,” he said, “I couldn’t tell if you were someone I knew.” He didn’t explain the tears. Maybe they were the work of the wind.

He told a not uncommon story of federal disaster programs and lawyers and disputes with neighbors across the street who, he suspected, became attached to the idea of gaining an unfettered ocean view. “I was the last to hold on,” he said. In the end, though, he accepted a federal disaster grant and let the house and land go. He described how they brought in a huge tractor and dismantled his house in two hours.

“I had that house for 21 years,” he said.

Still, Farnsworth said, he had known the score from the start: “I’ve never been surprised by Mother Nature, and I have never been mad at nature’s consequences. I have never asked anybody to save me from myself. I loved that house, but I have no regrets.”

He pulled back on sand-caked work gloves and turned toward the bluff. Farnsworth said he had come back to recover a retaining wall that had been deployed in the lost battle for his house. Since he had relocated inland, a few miles down the coast, it wasn’t clear why he might want the wall. In fact, I prefer to believe that he had returned to watch the ocean come alive one more time after a storm, to take in one more sunset. But it’s his story.