Carmel-by-the-Sea is the AT&T’s real celebrity

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…Especially with no Bill Murray.

Carmel, California

Editor’s Note: This week is the AT&T Pro-am. For some it’s still the Crosby, and Jack Lemmon never did make the cut. For others, it’s a chance to catch up how the other half live now that the other half is the other .5 percent. For DPB, it’s a chance to simply see the magic green carpet on cliff’s edge that is the singular reason the California Coastal Commission came to be …but at the same time think, well, it still beats the hell out of timeshares.

This place. This Carmel.

This Carmel-by-the-Sea. Not to be confused with the Carmel-out-by-the-airport or the Carmel-near-the-water-treatment-facility, or the Carmel-right-off-the-freeway-next-to-the-business-park-and-the-Target-and-Acura-dealership.

No, it’s this Carmel. The one whose tree-protection laws are so impossible and outmoded, turns out, they were simply a century ahead of their time. Passed in 1916, the ordinance which still stands today, along with historic wind-bent pine, oak and Monterey cypress, prohibits the “cutting down, mutilating, removal of trees or shrubs on city-owned land and private property.”

And that, friends, is why if you’re in the market for a $3 million cottage with just enough room to fit a garden hoe and a can of paint in the garage and a pair of Wegners in the 600-square-foot living room; if you enjoy wrapping said protected fauna in netting and framing that will make your home resemble a Helmand Province bivouac should you decide to replace a deck’s rotting redwood with ipe or move the barbecue a few feet toward front gate; if you don’t want neighbors who are unsure whether they can afford it; if you revel in a place that is Custer’s Last Shuffle for the flickering Great Generation, a battleground of entitlement and hidden ATMs for the hand-wringing Boomers and an as-yet-undiscovered (though subject to change about 10-past-now) Barbary beer pong coast by the upwardly mobile Millennials migrating south from the Silicon Valley with their fortunes untold, unearned but certainly not under wraps in tow …you should buy in Carmel.

If, on the other hand, a granite countertop island that needs to be wiped with a Zamboni and wine bars and triple-headed showers in the master suite are your thing; if you don’t like small dogs and decide an alpaca or three to trim the weeds crawling up the Dijon clones is your vanity; if you disagree that pleats aren’t just for brunch anymore …you best look down the road a ways to Pacific Grove or Carmel Valley.

Because surviving Carmel’s Candy Land-inspired serpentine street layout requires all conform to its uniform individuality. Residents go as the village’s dwellings do, similar in their apparent uniqueness and charm and different in address only.

Want proof? The post office got so confused it will no longer deliver to individual homes. If Hansel and Gretel didn’t get pushed in the oven and instead to grew up on AutoCAD, its their Irish cottage post-adobe pink-wall-and-peaked-roof look that would best define the sea-side escape. Well, that and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Walker Residence, a copper-roofed coastal concoction built on a plot of land distinguished only by the simple fact that it juts out on a craggy corner of the Pacific better than just about any building could and is known, simply as The Point — because really, there isn’t any other beyond it.

Today’s Carmel, the tony toy village equivalent of one, single, long-standing, languid, Bloody Mary- and brisk-walk-infused Sunday morning; the only full-time population of 3,800 covered in Hollandaise sauce.

The only municipality with three sweaters (one for a mid-morning cordial, one to enjoy an afternoon cocktail, one to pair with an evening bottle of wine) for every man, woman and Wheaten Terrier (children sold separately).

Has it become more touristy over the years? Perhaps. But it seems residents who say that don’t really believe it. Else they’ve been saying it so long it’s become a part of the vernacular, like a comment on the weather, unrest with who’s currently in office or exercising caution when it comes to tech stocks. There are tourists, but they seem to disappear quickly from the town’s streets as midday shadows stitch together with afternoon permanence.

The truth of Carmel is it’s a vampire town.

When the sun bubbles down over the Pacific, there are no lights to go on on the Village main, which is Ocean Avenue. Its satellite streets with names like San Carlos, Mission and Santa Lucia all darken on cue like a curtain-drawn stage to back-of-the-house black. The moon provides the only constant light. Even the gas station, one of the only companies in town whose name is recognizable outside the living equivalent of your mother-in-law’s QVC-clearance Christmas hamlet, had to replace its neon sign with a carved logo — appropriately a sea shell.

There is the Pine Cone. The little rag that could and the paper of record here since 1915. An almost century-old tradition limping to the end of the flat-earthed medium with its rapid-fire letter writers and national treasure police blotter dutifully reporting these covert comings-and-goings: Monday, January 13, 2014: A concerned citizen reported hearing the sound of a loud argument coming from an apartment on Dolores Street. Contact made with the occupants of the unit. One of the occupants admitted to yelling withal on the phone with family members over another immediate family member suffering from a severe illness. The subject agreed to resolve the matter in a calm fashion. No further action required.

There is the ordinance to keep weekenders restricted to the uncomfortable spaces of the small shag-carpeted motels that dot the grid like green Monopoly houses, also in effect for decades. No home owner can rent his cottage to an interloper.

The law is currently being challenged by a number of upstarts, new to the area and the notion that VRBO does not inspire community and stewardship of the surrounds. This rule of Carmel will stand, just as the cottages and their tree groves have. Because time and technology don’t seem to stand a chance against tradition and, well, the kind of money that doesn’t require renters.

That said, Carmel has not been impervious to the many tiny influencers of the outside world. The guttural cough of the Benz’s exhaust has been replaced with the golf cart electric whir of the Tesla. Distracted texters have replaced blind birders as the greatest threat to crosswalk traffic. Denizens of the naked woman bronze sculpture galleries have made their way to more than a dozen creamy coastal chardonnay tasting rooms with the hard-to-distinguish cursive signage.

But the core of the town — from the Spyglass caddies, all raccoon eyes and drawn faces pouring slack jaws and insurance-free futures into IPA pints at Brophy’s Tavern, to their erstwhile duffer charges toasting to themselves quenching chapped lips in the refurbished snack-shack-sized bar at Hog’s Breath Inn — they remain the same as the town does, suspended in a kind of severe weather-free snow globe anime where one but wish it and it comes true.

As they file in this week, to get a glimpse at Tom Brady’s chin or Don Cheadle’s backhanded compliments and unforgiving backswing. To pour one out for clown prince Bill, who won’t be forced to do his Carl impression on the 17th this year. To the Fox newsers who stop shouting at the camera for a few afternoons to see what nature’s resolve looks like and maybe that’ll cease the identity theft canard for at least the time it takes to enjoy a round with (or on) Jeb Bush.

Look, it’s Lefty who’s out here for the golf, man, and Ray Romano who still has a look on his face that says “I can’t believe I lucked in to being …Ray Romano.” There’s Andy Garcia whose cheeky grimace can scare a ball (almost) into the cup and there’s Kenny G. Yes, you can make fun of Kenny G all you want, but the fact is only one of you is playing Pebble for free, has sold 75 million albums and can sustain a note for 45 minutes. Lest we forget a pair of Great Ones on the water, Gretzky of the frozen and Kelly Slater of the frothy, will busy themselves taking divots from the land.

There is a ghost story here about a distressed mistress who wandered off in the middle of the night in search of her lover. Since there are no lights to mark the way, she, simply clad in her nightgown, wandered in the late-night dampness of Carmel, disoriented and alone. She tired and perhaps crawled up under a tree or was swept away by the waiting sea. She was never seen or heard from again, but roams still the vining and glossy streets. On dark nights, she stomps in the puddles of the potholes and road rivets from the rooty giants above. Locals warn if you see her nightgown shining its bright light, do not follow.

To me, that is a story simply about someone who could have left and probably decided it better that she stay, so she did. Forever. And then there’s you. And there’s this place. This Carmel.

Go there this week and you will think, maybe I should stay too.

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  1. […] Think of Carmel as the last house on the street of homes that were built pre-World War II and have all been, one by one, bleached by remodel. Stripped of their character: Built-ins replaced with center islands. Granite for tile. Where once there was a place to wash hands and do dishes there is now a kiddie pool-sized farm basin sink. Extra rooms turned into master closets and hidden attic nooks that became media centers. Character exchanged for convenience and homogeneousness. Strolling through the curvy grid of central Carmel—even though there are more than a handful of Tuscan-inspired nightmares—underneath the verdant-yet-fading canopy of Coast live oak and Monterey pine, lies a spirit of something lost. […]