Do you surf?”

I’ve been out of California for one day and, of the four people I’ve met in that time period, three of them have asked me if I surf. I’m starting to get an idea of what most people visualize when I tell them what state I’m from. They see me surfing to work, waving at celebrities, and partying in nightclubs. Now imagine the disappointment in their eyes when I tell them that I’m actually from Blue Bluff, California.

Even after more than two decades of living in the same town, the words “Blue Bluff, California” still don’t sound right to me. A town name like that sounds like it should be followed by “Wyoming” or “Colorado.”

Their next question is the same one you’re asking yourself right now: “Where the hell is Blue Bluff, California?” I usually answer, “near San Francisco.” But, considering I have to drive for about three hours before I’m even in the Bay Area, a more accurate reply would be “near Oregon.” Of course, the most accurate answer would be “the middle of nowhere.”

Blue Bluff isn’t the most memorable addition to the Golden State. There’s no mountains for skiing and we’re too far inland for any of this surfing I’ve been hearing so much about. Still, the town population keeps creeping closer to 1,000 residents. We’re less than ten citizens away from that milestone. That’s what made my dad’s death even more tragic for the town.

My dad grew up in Los Angeles. And yes, he surfed. He and my mom both came from money but neither of them were particularly happy in the city of angels. For them, a place like Blue Bluff represented peace and quiet. My hometown never managed to charm me the way it did my parents. Like so many of the other kids I grew up with, we dreamed of getting the hell out as soon as we were able. I always felt like there was a “real world” out there that I was missing out on. My suspicions were confirmed when I finally had a chance to visit a city.

When I was fifteen, I left Blue Bluff for the first time to visit my uncle in San Francisco. I arrived late at night and, in the morning, I took the subway to get to my uncle’s office downtown. I’ll never forget that feeling of walking out of the subway into downtown San Francisco. I had seen cities like this in movies before but everything was so different when I finally saw it with my own eyes. I had never stood under buildings that massive or walked on streets with such a bizarre and complicated history.

Maybe if I’d pulled my head out of my ass and focused on where I was going, I would’ve remembered to make a left off of Market street and not a right. In any case, I got turned around and, a few blocks later, I was in a rough part of town.

Being a naive fifteen-year-old from a small town, I ended up asking directions from a crackhead. I was hoping for quick directions back to Market street but my trusty guide began rambling and what started with a simple question resulted in a five minute conversation. I’m using the word “conversation” loosely in this context, since the interaction was a little one-sided.

Within a minute or two, I learned that the man’s name was Jimmy Dee and that he had “seen some shit.” Maybe it was because this was the first time I’d ever encountered a person under the influence of anything stronger than pot. Maybe it was because this was my first conversation with a person who wasn’t white, (again, I was from a small town.) Regardless of the reason, I was too hypnotized by Jimmy Dee to walk away.

After a few minutes, I awkwardly tried to excuse myself. Before I could go, Jimmy Dee asked me if I had any change. This was a first for me. I had seen drifters in Blue Bluff before, but I had never actually seen a person ask for money like this. It was a particularly moving experience for me as a young man. I thought about how much humility it must take for that man to beg for enough money to afford his basic needs. I thought about how many other people like him around the world relied on the kindness of strangers just to exist.

I genuinely wanted to give Jimmy Dee change but all I had on me was my iPhone and a $100 bill that my uncle had given me. Unfortunately, I felt I had to prove it to him.

I reached into my pocket and held out my iPhone in one hand and the $100 bill in the other. Before I could finish the sentence, “Sorry, but this is all I have,” Jimmy Dee swiped them both out of my hands and took off down the street. Despite wearing baggy clothes and shoes that were falling apart, Jimmy Dee covered an amazing amount of ground in just a few seconds.

I took about two steps after him before seeing Jimmy Dee cut into an alley. At this point, I did what any fifteen-year-old boy would do: I played it cool. I just turned around and casually walked in the other direction as if losing a phone and $100 was all a part of my plan. I might’ve succeeded if it hadn’t been for the homeless guy a few feet away who had seen the whole thing. It was tough to play it cool when someone was laughing at me so hard he was leaning on his shopping cart for support.

I eventually showed up to my uncle’s office and, when he asked me why I was late, I burst into tears. I told the story to my uncle in the hopes that the police would be able to track down “Jimmy Dee” of San Francisco and recover my iPhone. To my eternal shame, my uncle laughed even harder than the homeless guy.

Once I had finished the story, I wiped the tears from my eyes and whimpered, “But, Uncle Jack, if a homeless person asks you for change, what do you do?”

“Almost anything,” he said, still laughing his ass off. “Almost anything except for what you did.”

To this day, birthday gifts from my Uncle still read: “To: Jimmy Dee. From: Uncle Jack.”

When I was back home, I told some of my friends that story. After that, they were terrified of the idea of leaving Blue Bluff. I, on the other hand, became more obsessed with the outside world than ever before. I couldn’t wait to get back out into the world and become smarter than some dumbass fifteen year old who handed his iPhone to a junkie. People like Jimmy Dee still fascinate me to this day. I knew that there was a world of people just as strange, different, and interesting as him out there and I had to get out of Blue Bluff to meet them.

This began a long process of me saving money for a backpacking trip across Europe. From there, I started to dream about traveling into Asia as well. Then my dad got sick and plans were put on hold. All those long days on the beach back in LA came back to haunt him when he was diagnosed with skin cancer. The doctors gave him 18 months. The stubborn bastard lasted 19.

I miss him. For most of my life, he had always been apprehensive about me leaving Blue Bluff. The big city hadn’t been kind to him, so he saw a small town as a shelter from all that lunacy. Towards the end of his life, he started to have a change of heart. In those final months, we would sit down and plan my backpacking trip to Europe together. He even encouraged me to add more destinations. He was particularly insistent on me visiting Spain.

“There’s no way you’re missing Spain,” he told me. “That country has the best-looking women in Europe and they love American men. Especially Californians.”

And that’s the reason I’m sitting on a plane bound for Madrid.

It’s going to be a long time before I’m back in Blue Bluff. Some of my friends have joked that I’m never coming back. Pretty much everyone has told me to keep an eye out for Jimmy Dee. I don’t know what to expect from these next few months. I don’t know if I’ll be coming back as the same person I was when I left.

In the meantime, my name is Hunter Lewis, I’m 22 years old, I’m from California, and….. why the hell not…. yeah, I surf.

The story continues in...
Unprompted, Episode 2: