The Essence of Miracles

I wonder sometimes what the essence of a miracle is. Is it something that is so unlikely that the laws of chance define it as miraculous, or is it, by necessity, something of the spirit that lifts us up towards transcendence? The strange thing is that although we live in a culture that seems to trade in the concept of miracles as if they were samples in a trade show, we also live in a world where we seem to feel that miracles cannot touch us. Our culture tells us that we are important, that our beliefs are crucial, that our children have to be honor students, that our country has to be number one, and that we are the chosen people.

As a country, we are told that the universe revolves around us as if we were standing at the center of a magnificent moral compass. Everyone’s tattoo is the best, every political moment, the beginning or the end of the world. We are a nation of chosen ones, yet somehow at our core I feel as if most of us believe that we cannot be chosen. That grace may brush across the brow of other people, but not us.

It is a strange and contradictory state. Miracles exist, but not for us. Other people have whatever it takes to be happy, successful, balanced, but that we are somehow removed… lacking something that would make us whole, a strange egotism where we feel we are different and separate. For years, as a youth, I would tell people I believed in them, yet deep inside myself harbored feelings of personal doubt and then one day realized that to believe in them and not myself was a complicated conceit. To tell someone that they could be an artist, while doubting my own possibilities, was not only hypocritical, but egotistical as well. Other people could be writers, but that my words were not worthy, that miracles exist in the world, but would never touch me.

Hippie House 38 years later…
Nothing has changed

In the early 70’s, Santa Cruz was a very strange place. I lived on May Ave in a beat up house full of students, artists and hippies, a place that has not changed in 38 years. Edward Kemper, whose mother worked at UCSC, had murdered not only a friend of mine, but 7 other women as well, John Frazier had killed my optometrist along with his entire family in 71, and Herbert Mullin had randomly slaughtered 13 people. There were more potters, poets, hippies, murderers, and homeless people in Santa Cruz than anywhere else in the world, or at least so it seemed to us. The press had dubbed Santa Cruz The Murder Capitol of the World and the town was alight with paranoia and the dawning of a new age of hippies.

Crazy town!

James Houston, a local author in Santa Cruz and a friend of my father’s had proposed a theory that the continental landmasses were grinding together just off the coast and emitting a strange energy that caused people to deviate. They either became mass murderers or potters. Whether it was the grinding of the plates or the superb weather Santa Cruz was vortex of interesting, unique, and creative people. A local tourist attraction called The Mystery Spot became a kind of metaphor for the town where the trees grew in corkscrew patterns and balls rolled uphill.

Zardoz! Beware of the man
behind the curtain

Santa Cruz, Where weird started!

It was a brisk October night of 1974 and a small group of friends and I had piled into a beat up classic Volkswagen van and were headed up into Felton to see the new Sean Connery movie, Zardoz. On the way, we picked up a young black man named Charles who was hitchhiking up highway 9 and seemed fascinated by the easy camaraderie in our hippie gang. I think he must have come from some larger city and was a little too slick by half. He kept remarking on how much fun we were having and what great friends we all seemed to be, as if he were a thirsty traveler skirting a fresh running stream. In those days, there was a strange divide between the freewheeling hippie culture and the rest of the world who appeared to be looking with curiosity and wistfulness into place they were not allowed to visit. When we told him where we were going, he invited himself along and after the movie, he asked for my phone number, saying we should hang out together.

I was quite surprised a couple of days later when he actually called and asked me out. I was a little uncomfortable, but agreed, and we decided to meet for Mexican at Tampico’s on the Pacific Garden Mall. As the evening progressed, things became more awkward as I realized that he expected me to cover the restaurant tab as if it were completely unquestioned.  It got even stranger when he began to go on about what great friends we were going to become and how we would be like brothers, black and white, and how we would share everything. Finally the real point of the evening was revealed when he said I should share my girlfriends with him and I realized he had thought that the easy, fun friendship I had with two of the women in the hippy bus meant that we were lovers and he expected me to give one of them to him.

Not the greatest food,
but still a SC tradition

Dinner was over, but as the night was still young and I didn’t know how to cut the meeting short, we discussed what we should do next. “Go to a bar and get drunk.” was his first suggestion. When I said I didn’t drink, he suggested we go out and “Pick up chicks.” When I said I didn’t do that either, he seemed confused.  So he asked what I wanted to do, and I said that we could go down to the boardwalk amusement park and play Air Hockey, which further confused him, but to which he agreed.

So we headed off down the mall towards The Santa Cruz Beach and Boardwalk, him wearing a slick yellow leather jacket and I, a black Marine dress jacket with red piping that I had found at the Goodwill, and carrying a long walking stick with a deer’s hoof handle. The further we walked, the more I wished I had never agreed to go out with him. His topics consisted of rude remarks about women and how much money he had, although it was obvious that I would be paying our way for the evening. I was trying to explain to him that not only were the women I had been with the other night not my property, but that even to suggest that I would give one of them to him would earn me a black eye, when I noticed a man standing in the shadows across the street watching us.

I didn’t really give it much thought, but still, it stuck with me and made me a little uneasy. A minute later, as Charles and I walked along, down past the old Chinese restaurant and on towards the Prolo Chevrolet building, I heard fast footsteps coming behind us and turned to see that same man running toward us in the cold October air. I turned to Charles and remarked, “Hey, there’s this guy running down the street towards us.” And then, just as the words left my mouth and I glanced back, I realized he had gone into a crouch about 20 feet away and was pointing a gun at us… I believe my exact words were, “Holy shit he’s got a gun!” and we both started to run.

My initial thought was that he was just trying to scare us, but I decided that he was indeed scaring us and that cool or not I was going to run, although not perhaps, full out. At that point the night seemed to fill with the sound of explosions and I could see sparks flying out of the gun. All thought of jokes or pride, or even reason were flung into the night like a handful of rocks into a river and I focused all my attention on running and dodging down the street as if running before an oncoming train. As I turned my body in its headlong flight to see what was happening, I felt a hard impact on my left hip that sent me staggering down the street.

As I regained my footing and circled around behind a car parked by the intersection, I realized the gunfire had stopped and when I looked up, I saw the shooter running away, back up Pacific Street. Charles was lying in the middle of the road and I ran back to his side. With the number of shots and the suddenness of the ensuing silence, it seemed obvious that the shooter had emptied his gun and was making his escape. As I arrived at the spot where Charles was down, he looked up at me and he said, and I quote… “Call a doctor. I’ve been hit.” Something about the statement was so contrived and so ridiculous, that I reached down and pulled up the back of his jacket where I found blood pumping out of his back like water out of a hose.

So I started running up the street towards the Chinese restaurant… Maybe the Teacup, but it was so long ago that my memory is a little vague. I was running so fast, that at one point, I realized I was catching up with the shooter who was going in the same direction and it was with relief that I turned off into the restaurant to get help for Charles. As I burst into the red and gold plastic interior, everyone in the place ducked under the tables and the busy restaurant appeared to be suddenly empty. When I reached for the phone at the front desk, I realized it had one of those funny little dial locks on it that only people of my age will remember. All this time, I was shouting I needed help when out of the back one of the cooks popped out and yelled, “Police called!”

By the time I got back to Charles, he was surrounded by people from the apartments across the street and they had pressure on his wounds and blankets wrapped around his body. When the Ambulance arrived and the EMTs tried to cut off his jacket, Charles refused, saying that the coat cost $500, although it apparently now had two holes in it and was covered in blood.

To trim a rather long story, two surfers followed the shooter, whose name was Robert Petroff and whose recently deceased father had left him a run down, but well know business named Petroff’s Steam Heated Motels. They chased him down and tackled him over by the lower playing field of Santa Cruz High School, by which time he had ditched the gun under some parked cars, and which was never found. Charles had been hit twice in the small of his back with 9 millimeter rounds, one bullet passing through his stomach and coming to rest in the middle of the sidewalk further down the street like a misshapen marble. The other bullet entered his back as he fell and lodged in his hip where it might still be for all I know.

When I visited him in the hospital a couple of days later with a plate of Thanksgiving turkey and fixings, he said he had pushed me out of the way of the bullet and now we would be inseparable. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I kind of remembered pushing him when we started running, and that personally I hoped to never lay eyes on him again. In court, when Petroff took the stand and admitted to the shooting he said it was racially motivated and the reason he decided to kill both of us was that Charles had had a sarcastic laugh, which I’m afraid he did. When asked why he shot at the black man twice and evidently at me 7 times, he replied, “The white guy wouldn’t fall down.” If I had fallen on that third shot, I believe he would have killed us both.

Petroff got two counts of attempted murder, which in those days amounted to 2 consecutive terms of 5 years for each count, which seemed light to me, as if he were being rewarded for missing his targets. During the trial, the prosecutor said Petroff had a genius IQ and that it was only luck that he had been caught and not gone on to become another famous Santa Cruz serial killer.  I think he just did a few years the first time and over the next 10 years or so, he was in and out of prison for gun related charges. I finally lost track of him after the last incarceration, but often wonder what happened to him.  I never heard from Charles again.

And that brings me to the crux of the story, finally. What was it that I felt hit me in the hip as I ran down the street like a hare before a fox? As the police arrived and people milled about, I could still feel my hip hurting. When no one was looking, I put my hand down my pants and felt around, as if I were looking for loose change, and I could feel a very sore place on my hip. I thought maybe I had hit myself with my walking stick as I had run, or maybe I was in shock and had been shot. I thought perhaps it was in the fat of my hip and that’s why I wasn’t bleeding, although I was as skinny as gazelle in those days. I couldn’t believe Petroff had missed me at 30 feet although I had been bouncing down the street like a pinball.

Later when I was getting into a police car to go to the station and make a statement, I heard something make a little ting ting sound on the asphalt. When I looked down I saw a small piece of metal shaped a bit like lightening bolt. It was about an inch and a half long and was slightly bent in the middle with a small hole at one end. It was shiny and smooth and I thought, I’ll just keep it and use it like a worry stone, and then as I rubbed it, I suddenly realized what it was.

I held it out to the Police officer and tried to tell him but words simply would not come out. He looked at it and said “What is it?” and I finally choked out, “It’s the screw driver from my Swiss Army knife.”

He looked at it a long time and then he said, “You are one lucky son of a bitch.” When I put my hand in my coat pocket, I found a little hole in the outside and a big hole in the inside, with little pieces of red plastic sprinkled all through the cloth. When the police sent someone back to look, they found my knife in broken chunks scattered all over the street. Evidently as I had turned, the knife had swung around and intersected the bullet in midair and then had slammed into my hip causing a nasty looking bruise, but not actually piercing skin. I had to pull down my pants while the police took pictures.

Not the original, but the same design.

My father had given me that knife with all the ritual and intent of a sacred father to son gift. It had a design of Saint Christopher inlaid in the side, right smack where the bullet hit and after the shooting my father sat me down and told me with deep gravity, “Son… God spared you for a purpose. This was a miracle.” I never really believed in Saint Christopher although afterwards as a joke, I kind of adopted him as my Patron Saint. Later when I became a cab driver in Santa Cruz I had myself canonized through the Universal Life Church as the Patron Saint of Travelers, it cost $5 and boosted my tips considerably.

It took over 35 years to stop and actually take a look at the event and recognize that perhaps it had been a miracle, although I am still not sure what exactly a miracle is. I think maybe on some level I thought that if it were a miracle then god would reveal him or herself and tell me what my purpose was. That there would be an announcement in the paper, or the clouds would part, or something. It never occurred to me that purpose might sneak up on me over the decades and that simples acts of kindness, or being present at the death bed of loved ones might be enough.

And it occurred to me that even after a miracle people get on with their lives and have to pay the rent and grow old and that their feet might hurt. Miracles and grace are so simple. They pass so close to us each day, unnoticed like a scented breeze or a bit of sunshine that warms a cheek. We are not broken, we do not have to be saints, or perfect to accept the full grace of the world. We are touched, probably every day by miracles and moments of sweet magic, if we just allow it for ourselves.

5 Responses to “The Essence of Miracles”
  1. marscrumbs says:

    Thank you Eliot, I feel as if you wrote this story just for me. Mark of a good storyteller. I vividly remember May St. where I meet you. I remember James Houston who taught me to write. I remember your knife but did not know the full tale behind it. Or anything about these crimes. Then a small synchonism, was thinking of you today, I was at the thift store where a woman was looking at two beat up stuffed pheasants with separated tails. She was about to pass on it before I told her how the individual feathers could be used. Something I recalled all these years from the masks you made and the birds on the May St. wall. A recently I meet an intense stranger who took me into his home when I was over at Sutter’s Mill Meteorite hunting, but a very nice guy. And just woke from a rare lucid dream skiing with Deb Murray, a previous angel in my life. Somehow the guardian miracles that save lives have seemed different to me from the small coincidental magic that let us know that… magic can happen. But maybe they are the same. I will ponder this all day.

  2. … Howard! It took me a moment to figure out who you were! Thank you for dropping by the humble blog. I drove by May Street last week. Boy! Talk about nostalgia!As I recall, there were 5 rooms and 13 people at one point. Remember the hitchhikers and the Scabies? I may have to write about that!

    • marscrumbs says:

      Ducks on thw wall yes. Scabies no. Five in the household when I knew you there. Sean Hennehan, Barbara. Diane? and your lady, Jennifer? don’t really remember her name. Sean use to call you idiot, probably not to your face. And you had a sword like oil seller from Shogun that you charged me with when we first meet. Hey it is Saturday morning. Time to hit the streets, nobody does yardsale on Sunday in Bishop.

  3. Deanna Jay Chu Nim says:


  4. Deanna Jay Chu Nim says:

    It’s a miracle that we didn’t all kill ourselves off accidentally…..

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