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VERY FIRST PERSON

Buffalo Burgers In Paradise

Catalina's Isthmus Is Another World. The Author Spent a Summer There as a Waitress. She Thought She'd Be as Free as a Bird.

September 17, 2000|DIANA MARCUM | Diana Marcum's last piece for the magazine was "The Busboys of San Miguel." She is currently back on the mainland, wondering if quitting her job as an isthmus waitress was the right thing to do

AN ENGLISHMAN WALKS UP TO THE OUTDOOR BAR WHERE I shuttle drinks from bartenders in Hawaiian shirts to customers in Hawaiian shirts.

"Excuse me," he says to no one in particular. "Am I still in California?"

This, I think, is a very good question, not in the category of the I-swear-truly-asked isthmus questions, including: "So is this entire island surrounded by water?" and "Which side is the Pacific Ocean?"

California, at least the mainland, is visible in the distance--an indistinct smudge, a scallop of gray between navy blue ocean and powder blue sky. Catalina Island is a different California, and the isthmus is an isolated realm unto itself. No geography whiz, I had to look up the word "isthmus": the narrowest strip of land between two bodies of water. Santa Catalina's is a half-mile wide. It's as if the island is wearing a corset. At Isthmus Cove, the side facing L.A., beachfront development is pretty much limited to a shingle-roofed dive shop, a sprawl of colorful kayaks and a picture-book pier painted white and the blue of a Fisher-Price tugboat. On the other side, Cat Harbor is as still as a lake, the most protected cove on the island. The ocean breeze that whips up in the afternoons smells of wild licorice and barbecues on boats.

Two Harbors, the community on the isthmus, has two bars, one restaurant, one snack bar and one general store, all ringed by palm trees. It's Gilligan's Island with concessions. Everyone who lives on the isthmus works for Two Harbor Enterprises, with the exception of spouses, a few county employees and a multimillionaire retired skateboarder. (The day Rocco's hot tub arrived dangling from a helicopter is a favorite isthmus memory.)

Two Harbors is so small that no one uses or even knows each other's last names. There's Dive Shop Dave, Harbor Patrol Rudy, So-and-So the Crazy One. "It's like in Bible times: Jesus of Nazareth. John the Baptist," says Restaurant Jeanine. Sabrina-From-Accounting has a theory that everyone who works on the isthmus is running from something. She recites the rumor that last summer the FBI led the breakfast cook away in handcuffs. A serial killer disguised as an amiable pancake flipper? Pumping her eyebrows as vigorously as Groucho Marx over a punch line, she asks: "Why are you really here?"

I'm not running from anything, I tell her. At the time, I think it's true.

i'm diana-the-waitress, a scheme i stumbled upon when I was here as a writer on a working vacation. The exuberant girl with a high-pitched voice who served me $18 halibut said she was really a location manager for a movie studio! But between films she came over to the island and waited tables to stay sane! What with a cell phone and FedEx, no one even knew she had fled L.A.! And she made $200 a night to boot!

"Hey, maybe I'll move to the isthmus and be a waitress," I thought, envisioning a life as Island Girl. I'd trade in khakis for flowered sarongs. My skin would turn a golden brown. I'd make cash--no more heart-dropping peeks into the mailbox looking for a check. (What do you call a freelance writer? Overdrawn). I thought about these things in the way you plan in great detail for something you never expect to do.

But then my boyfriend and I-- well, to say we broke up imparts a drama that wasn't there. One night I read him our compatibility rating from a Chinese restaurant place mat: "Rabbits seek harmony. But a rabbit-rabbit relationship may be too peaceful even for a rabbit." He laughed the way people laugh at something precisely true. So there I was: a broke, boring bunny at loose ends. Why not an island isthmus? It seemed the perfect spot for a person adrift.

my rent is $100 a month. My greatest hope as I move into these company-owned quarters in mid-May is that the roommate who has yet to join me will be a lying, cheating, incompetent who gets fired immediately, leaving the one chest of drawers to me alone. Since the room is the size of a potting shed and the refrigerator is smaller than a stereo speaker, I don't see how two people are going to fit, notwithstanding the bunk bed that will double-deck us.

But Leslie Hale, 21, is immediately likable. With huge, wide-set eyes and a long curve of eyelashes, her face follows Disney guidelines for sympathetic characters, be they mermaid, lion cub or princess. She is a straight-A valedictorian and fifth-generation native of McConnelsville, Ohio--population 2,000. But they tried to "de-valedictorianize" her after she got caught with marijuana in the school parking lot. "The evening news even had a logo with a marijuana leaf and handcuffs," Leslie says. "That was the day my mother developed a sense of humor."

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