Where is the center of Santa Cruz? I mean, where is the exact spot where you can stand and say that this is the middle of town?
It's a matter of opinion, I'll grant you. Some say the Town Clock, some say Main Beach, some say wherever you can buy a Penny Ice Creamery cone.
I say it's the intersection of the two most prominent thoroughfares in Santa Cruz, Pacific Avenue and Soquel Avenue -- makes sense, right?
It is at this spot in downtown Santa Cruz where the Downtown Association's Santa Cruz Kiosk exists, a free-standing little building about the size of an elevator on the sidewalk just out front of New Leaf market.
It is here where you'll find one of the only places -- in this town or any other -- where you can have a pleasant interaction with an official on-the-job person behind a counter that does not involve money.
The idea is simple and certainly not unique: The kiosk, which opened in April, exists to provide information -- it says so right there on the awning -- for out-of-towners, for locals, for anyone looking for a public bathroom.
Last week, during the bizarro new-ish unofficial quasi-holiday we've come to know as Black Friday, I decided that the best place to hang out and get a sense of Santa Cruz in this post-World Series, post-election, pre-holiday period would be the kiosk.
I had spent an afternoon at the kiosk before, back in the late summer when the tourists were still swarming, and figured Black Friday would make a nice bookend to that experience.
When it comes to answering questions, the kiosk takes all comers. When I was there, the array of questions was truly impressive from the general to the granular. No one asked "Is there a God?" or "What is the sound of one hand clapping?" but I'll bet you there's a brochure in the kiosk somewhere that tackles those kinds of questions.
The Downtown Association has installed in the kiosk people with very specific skill sets. It's not enough to know downtown Santa Cruz upside down and backward, though it is essential. You have to be resourceful -- don't settle for one possible solution when you can give five. And you have to a particular common touch with people. You have to be what was once called "friendly" -- go ahead, Google it.
Last summer, I spent a day with host Vnes Dowling. Vnes -- that's pronounced "Venus" -- is the kind of person you don't soon forget when you meet her. She's a sparkplug of a personality with a little tuft of rainbow-colored hair atop a mostly closely cropped head. She lets you know right off that her heart is with the Santa Cruz Derby Girls, and she does her job as a Derby Girl might. That is to say she doesn't just sit there and wait for you to come to her.
Vnes's friendliness isn't something she keeps close to the vest. It radiates from her. From her perch in the kiosk, she often calls out hellos and howya-doin's to passers-by. And she has a sixth sense for spotting perplexed people. She often knows you have a question for her before you realize you have a question for her. And, to Vnes, information is an exchange; she'll give you all you need, but she'll want information in return. Especially for foreign tourists, she has a knack for finding out something about where they're from.
On Black Friday, I hung out with Alan Savat, another well-known face at the kiosk. Alan has been living in town since the 1970s and knows Pacific Avenue intimately. He provides a nice contrast from Vnes, in that he radiates a kind of calm, beatific vibe. They both are the kind of people who won't let you get away without coming as close to humanly possible to solving your problem.
What do people in Santa Cruz want to know? Apparently, they want to know where the ocean is. And where a good place to eat is. Hosts have to be tolerant of nonspecific answers because many times people will want someone to read their minds when it comes to what they're in the mood for.
The kiosk functions as a message center, a lost-and-found, a meeting place and even a place to talk basketball -- questions about the Santa Cruz Warriors are flying around quite a bit these days.
The old-fashioned information booth seems like a quaint nod to an older time, when we weren't all carrying around the Internet in our pockets. But anyone who's ever tried to get anywhere with Siri knows that sometimes the greatest app is another human being. That's what software is always trying to emulate anyway. Why not go for the real thing?
Locals will come by all the time to be reminded about what they can find at Bead It or what's opening at any given empty storefront. But the kiosk is most useful for out-of-towners, be they from San Jose, St. Louis or St. Petersburg. In this respect, it is the kiosk that serves as the face of Santa Cruz to the rest of the world.
Maybe the kiosk will start something in Santa Cruz. Maybe the handful of other kiosks on Pacific Avenue will try to fill other needs -- the Disinformation Kiosk can be the place to go for your latest conspiracy theories; at the Too Much Information Kiosk, there'll be someone there to overshare about their relationship history.
But the Santa Cruz Kiosk will always be there to provide the useful answers, even if it's just "Where's the bathroom?"
Contact Wallace Baine at firstname.lastname@example.org.