By Matt Coker
By R. Scott Moxley
By Charles Lam
By Nick Schou
By Gustavo Arellano
By Gustavo Arellano
By Steve Lowery
By R. Scott Moxley
Steve Hodgson never forgot the mischievous grin on his new co-worker’s face, a crooked smile that seemed totally at odds with his flashing blue eyes centered within raccoon-like rings that evoked a world-weary wisdom beyond the stranger’s years. John Griggs was a wiry, well-groomed man who, from a distance, appeared normal enough, dressed as he was in the white polo shirt, khaki shorts and tennis shoes that formed the standard uniform of Laguna Beach’s parks-and-recreation department. But upon close inspection, nothing could disguise the fact that there was something different, something askew about him. “He had a somewhat-broken face, and it was just imprinted with this grin, a smile so large it was threatening to shatter his face,” Hodgson recalls. “His eyes were just beaming, and I didn’t know what he was smiling about.”
Hodgson, a soft-spoken, introverted film student who grew up in Pasadena, was crashing at his aunt’s house in Laguna Beach during the summer of 1966, sweeping stairs and emptying trash bins for the city. He’d taken the minimum-wage job so he could earn a few extra bucks while he waited for the fall semester to start at the University of Colorado. He clocked his time for the city during the day, and in the evenings, he made a ritual of kicking back on the bluff to watch the sun set.
He couldn’t imagine a better place in the world to hang out all summer than Laguna Beach. Hodgson considered himself a gypsy of sorts, intellectually speaking at least, and this town was the genuine bohemian article, a half-hidden enclave of painters, poets and musicians bursting with creative energy and blissfully segregated from the rest of Orange County, California’s burgeoning suburbia, by a fortress-like ring of craggy hills and canyons. With a dramatic coastline, scenic bluffs and rocky coves, Laguna Beach had long played host to artists, most famously Plein Air Movement painters such as Edgar Payne and William Wendt. In decades past, the sleepy artists’ colony served as a weekend retreat for Hollywood film stars such as Charlie Chaplin, Bette Davis, Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland.
By now, however, Laguna Beach had been transformed into a bustling resort town, teeming with art galleries and cultural celebrations, often held at an outdoor auditorium at the base of Laguna Canyon, where the local aristocrats hosted their beloved Pageant of the Masters, a quasi-feudal ritual in which local residents dressed up in costumes and re-enacted famous paintings, including Emanuel Leutze’s Washington Crossing the Delaware and Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper. An avuncular World War I veteran named Eiler Larsen—always dressed in a rumpled suit, with long gray hair and a flowing beard, known to everyone simply as “the Greeter”—would wander up and down Pacific Coast Highway, cane in hand, calling, “Hello, there” and affably waving at tourists as they drove into town.
Hodgson and another city worker were parked in their dump truck next to a row of trash cans at the top of a flight of wooden stairs that led down to a secluded beach when Griggs approached them, introduced himself as a newly minted trash collector, pulled a cigar-size joint from his pocket and stuck it in his mouth.
“You guys smoke?” he asked.
“Yeah,” Hodgson answered.
Griggs jumped in the truck, they rolled up the windows, and, a few seconds later, Hodgson got high on the job. As he drove south along the highway to the city dump, Griggs, sitting in the passenger seat, suddenly rolled down his window. “I’m driving this truck in traffic, cars are everywhere, and John is leaning out the window as far as he could reach,” Hodgson recalls. “And I’m leaning over trying to pull him back in, and he’s just waving at everyone, yelling, ‘Hello! Hello! I love you! I love you!’ and embarrassing the shit out of us.”
The next morning, Hodgson’s boss, a burly ex-barber, called him and Griggs into the office. “You guys been drinking on the job?” he barked.
“No, no, no,” Hodgson insisted.
“Well, let me smell your breath. I’ve been getting all these phone calls about someone driving one of my trucks all over town saying he loves everyone.”
Hodgson feigned bewildered ignorance, delighted at the realization that what had begun as a menial summer job had unexpectedly been transformed into a mind-altering adventure.
“John just turned you on by his presence,” Hodgson explains. “If you couldn’t stand it, you’d be out of that truck in five minutes. He was one of the most powerful people I’ve ever met in my life. He was just there, just open and eager to see you and relate to you only. Like you’re the only one in the room when he’s talking to you. I don’t think anybody could meet John for more than 10 minutes and walk away with the same skin on they had when they met him. He’d melt you down and put you back together and make you feel love, make you feel great.”