Where in the world: Carmeline Creek, a town on the far north coast of California, population not quite a thousand
Where in Carmeline Creek: Mona’s, the one and only bakery/café in town
What: I (Paul Windsor, middle-aged conversationalist) had a fascinating conversation with my friend Olaf Wickersham, recorded at the behest of my daughter Alexandra who is making movies with soundtracks composed of bits of conversations accompanied by accordion and guitar.
Olaf is sixty-seven, tall and fit, with a shaved head and sparkling brown eyes. He usually wears black clothing and bead necklaces, sometimes one necklace, sometimes several, the beads thereon for sale.
Me: Where have you been since I saw you selling your delicious fresh-squeezed orange juice on Main Street in August?
Olaf: I left Carmeline Creek on August 31, got a ride to Oakland and took the train to Los Angeles where I spent a few days in Santa Monica with friends. Then I took the train to Chicago where I visited my sister for a week, and from there I took a boat to Canada and trained to Halifax where I spent a week trading beads and visiting friends. From Halifax I sailed to Ireland on the S.S. Merveilleux.
Me: A freighter?
Olaf: Yes, a large freighter carrying lumber. I used to work on freighters to get to Europe and back, but I stopped needing to pay for my passage that way about ten years ago. Now I go as a passenger. September is usually a good month to cross the Atlantic by boat, though I have had some harrowing trips. One never knows about the ocean.
Me: How long does the crossing take?
Olaf: Two weeks, give or take.
Me: And what do you do to while away the hours?
Olaf: Read, write letters, play guitar, carve beads, walk, exercise, and I commune with my bead collection so I know what I’ve got to trade and how much I’m likely to ask for each bead.
Me: How many beads do you carry with you?
Olaf: Varies. This last time I set sail for Europe with about a thousand beads. Arizona turquoise, amethyst, tourmaline, bone.
Me: So you were in Ireland by mid-October?
Olaf: Yeah. I have a dear friend, Irene, with a small farm outside of Arklow. I stayed with her until Christmas. I’d take the train into Dublin now and then to trade beads and go to plays and hear live music, but I mostly stayed on the farm and helped Irene. Then I took the ferry to England, got a train to France, spent a week in Paris with friends, trained to Barcelona where I visited my nephew who married into a big family there, and in February I went to Morocco and spent a week in Marrakesh and a week in Fes buying and selling and trading beads. Then I went from Morocco to Mallorca for a week, and from Mallorca I went back to Barcelona to court a woman I’d fallen in love with. She was not amenable to coming with me or having me stay with her, so I soothed my aching heart by meandering along the Mediterranean to Italy and Greece, trading beads and visiting friends along the way. Then I went to Zurich where I sold several extraordinary beads to a wealthy collector, and finished my European journey in Amsterdam from where I flew non-stop to Los Angeles. And by the middle of May… well, here I am.
Me: And that is roughly what you do every year.
Olaf: That is roughly what I’ve done every year for thirty-five years, but I’m changing my pattern this year and staying in Carmeline Creek for at least a year without going anywhere.
Me: Why the change?
Olaf: I’m ready to try a different living pattern and I’d like to live on my little acre all the days of a year to really get to know the place and see how I feel about that. I’m tired of being a vagabond, though my vagabond life has gotten more comfortable with every passing year. I suspect my inability to create a satisfying long-term relationship is connected to my unwillingness to stay in one place for long, and I would really like to be in a good long-term relationship.
Me: Will you still sell fresh-squeezed orange juice on Main Street from May to September?
Olaf: No. I gave my cart to Ruben (Olaf’s longtime employee). He and Tania have done most of the hard work these last few years, while I became more the jovial barker. Fear not, there will still be fresh-squeezed orange juice available on Main Street.
Me: How did you get started in the orange juice business?
Olaf: I was living in Los Angeles trying to make it as an actor and a musician. I shared a garage with another guy behind a cruddy house in Echo Park before that area got gentrified. I had lots of part-time gigs and sold joints to tourists in Santa Monica when marijuana was still highly illegal. Just scraping by, smoking too much dope, and occasionally auditioning for a part in a low-budget movie. Then one hot summer day, I was working on a catering crew at the mansion of a big Hollywood producer, lots of movie stars and celebrities on display, and the wife of the producer, a gorgeous Mexican fashion model, had hired a couple Mexican guys to bring their cart to her mansion and make juice for the guests. They’d been selling fresh-squeezed orange juice on the boardwalk at Venice Beach for decades. They set up right next to the barbecue, and when I saw their colorful wooden cart and how fast they cut the oranges and pressed the juice out and filled those half-pint glasses—and how happy they were—I said to myself, “I’m gonna do that.”
Me: In LA?
Olaf: No, I had to get out of LA. I was dying there.
Me: How old were you?
Me: So where did you go?
Olaf: Well… my younger sister, the one who now lives in Chicago, was going to college in Berkeley and lived in a commune in Oakland. So I went there, camped in her backyard, built my first cart, and started selling orange juice in Oakland. And I did really well for a couple months until I got busted for selling without a permit. Long story short, I worked farmers markets and art fairs all over the Bay Area for three years, which meant I had to have a big pickup truck to haul my cart, and what with gas and parking and insurance and rent, I hardly broke even. So I gave up for a while, went roaming around for a year or so and discovered Carmeline Creek. A few months later, I moved here, rented a shed from Dominic Andrini a block from where I set up on Main Street, sold my truck, and settled into my routine.
Me: You didn’t need your truck for hauling the oranges?
Olaf: No, I ordered my oranges through Andrini’s and they delivered right to my cart.
Me: Why Carmeline Creek?
Olaf: Why did you choose Carmeline Creek?
Me: I stumbled on the place, bought an old house for next to nothing, and here I am.
Olaf: There you go.
Me: And you made a living selling orange juice?
Olaf: On a good day I cleared three hundred dollars. Sunny summers I made enough to live and travel for a year and then some.
Me: And the beads? When did you become a bead trader?
Olaf: Ah, the beads. The short version is that when I was in my early twenties living in Santa Cruz, I had a girlfriend, Mira, the great love of my life. She made jewelry and bead necklaces and was always looking for new sources of beads. I would accompany her on her expeditions, fell in love with the bead trade, and decided to go into the business in my own idiosyncratic way. Then Mira dumped me for a man with piles of money and a mansion in Malibu, and I followed her to southern California and embarked on my struggling-actor-and-musician phase. My goal, or I should say my fantasy, was to become a huge star and win my girlfriend away from the rich guy. But that didn’t happen, and when I left LA, I got into beads again.
Me: Will you continue to trade beads while you’re living here year-round?
Olaf: Oh, yeah. People will seek me out and I’ll communicate by phone and letters with people in the trade I’ve gotten to know over the years. However, I’m rich now, so there’s no great imperative to make money. I’ll do it because I love trading beads.
Me: May I ask how you came to be rich when you were not so rich a year ago?
Olaf: I can give you the gist, but not the deep specifics.
Me: Gist is fine.
Olaf: Well… as I’m sure you can imagine, being the imaginative person you are, there are legendary beads, just as there are legendary diamonds and legendary paintings and legendary guitars worth millions of dollars. By chance I came to possess a legendary strand of beads, and after three years of extremely careful and secretive negotiations, I was able to sell that strand for what to me is a vast fortune, which is now stowed in the Carmeline Creek Credit Union earning interest more than sufficient for my simple needs.
Me: Why did it take three years of extremely careful and secretive negotiations? Why not sell the beads right away?
Olaf: Because had it been known to anyone but the very few people I negotiated with that I possessed those particular beads, I would have been dead within a week.
Me: Jesus, Olaf. Really?
Olaf: Really and truly.
Me: But why?
Olaf: (thinks for a moment) Imagine if word got around that you had a strand of beads in your house or on your person or hidden somewhere, and those beads were worth several million dollars. Would you feel safe?
Me: No, I’d put them in a safety deposit box and sell them as quick as I could.
Olaf: And how would you go about selling them?
Me: Well, I don’t know. Go to a bead trader? Put an ad in Beads Quarterly?
Olaf: Not a good idea.
Me: Why not?
Olaf: Because if more than a few trustworthy people knew you had those beads, a surprising number of powerful, resourceful, and highly unscrupulous people would try to find you and force you, in one way or another, to relinquish those beads or they would kill you.
Me: My god, Olaf, how much were they worth?
Olaf: Impossible to say. Priceless? Worthless? Only worth something because people value them? Certainly rarer than the rarest diamond.
Me: So how did you sell them?
Olaf: It was very tricky. Much trickier than selling a famous painting or a rare guitar, because the thing about beads is they aren’t Picassos or Modiglianis or Gibsons or famous diamonds once owned by the Czar. They are beads, their identities and values known to only a small number of people in the world, many of whom are not what you and I would call honorable or law-abiding.
Me: And why were these particular beads so valuable? Were they diamond-encrusted blobs of gold?
Me: Worry beads passed down from Socrates?
Olaf: (frowns curiously) What an interesting guess. And not so far off. But… no.
Me: How many beads are we talking about?
Olaf: That I can’t tell you.
Me: Why not?
Olaf: The number is indicative.
Me: But you’re safe now, so…
Olaf: Ah but the person who bought them from me will never be safe so long as he or she possesses those beads privately rather than give them to a grand art museum or the national gallery of a large and powerful nation.
Me: Oh, so they’re works of art?
Olaf: Yes, and that’s all I’ll say. But if I ever learn that those beads are in the possession of some powerful and well-known institution, I will tell you the story of how I came to possess them and how I was finally able to arrange the sale without losing my life.
Me: Okay. And congratulations. What’s on your docket for the week ahead?
Olaf: Gardening, guitar, walks on the beach, carving, and with any luck entertaining a woman friend I hope will come up from Berkeley and spend some time with me.
Me: By the way, Alexandra has started a movie company. Perhaps you would like to do some acting in one or more of our upcoming films.
Olaf: I would love to. I always wanted to be an actor, you know.