If you had driven down the pothole-filled streets of the west side of Princeton in the ’80s and early ’90s, you would’ve seen the decaying remnants of a working seaside town. The neighborhood, if you could call it that, was literally crawling with feral cats and wandering runaway dogs. Once a destination spot along the original Ocean Shore Railway, it had now fallen into filth darker then the most derelict of passengers.
In Princeton’s impoverished shadow of neighboring Half Moon Bay, it nuzzled up against Pillar Point Harbor and the adjacent hilled shores of the Pacific Ocean. At this end of town were several streets running parallel to the beach, of which two gave access. We lived at the end of one of them; the south road that ran alongside the little green pier. Mom had been hired as a caretaker for the beach-front property sitting quietly at the end. Seven barren lots of gravel and dirt sat unseparated behind a 2-bedroom cottage resting right on the shore. There was nothing between the house and sand except for dry patches of devil’s grass and the old rusty remains of a little metal fence that stuck out of the bordering ice-plant.
The owners only used the house on holidays and occasional weekends and had been having problems keeping people from trashing the easily accessible front lawn. Worried about damage from rebellious teens and local drunks, they employed Mom to look after things and in return we were allowed to keep – and live in – a camping trailer on the north side of their land. Back then inhabiting trailers was not uncommon, especially in that part of town. Most of the non-working boat yards were full of junkies living in their campers or cars. Partially hidden by overgrown weeds, rotting vessels, and piles of abandoned scrap metal, they were a complete eyesore compared to the more wealthy communities just across the highway.
Chaos was always waiting around every corner, and as a kid I always kept in mind that some of the “residents” here were potentially dangerous. Still, despite the ugliness of it all, Princeton did have a lot of character – and beauty – especially within it’s more attractive eastern side. The beach leading out to what locals called “The Point”, for example, was one of the most stunning stretches of land along the entire coast. With three major sections of sand bordering the frame of the harbor, it lead out to the rocky breakwater alongside trails of the nearby promontory.
I loved walking out to the Point and really feeling the emotion of living “by-the-sea.” With every breath you’d inhale the misty salty air and a bitter-sweet scent of seaweed mixed with wet sand. Every eight seconds the fog horn would coo mournfully in your ear, protecting any sea-faring folk from crashing into the nearby rocks. A truly haunting pitch that, for many of us, also provided a soothingly dependable rhythm needed to fall asleep at night. Through decades of daily fog and restless windy nights the beacon has remained strong and steady, much like my complicated love for this little corner of the world.