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The Bank Robber and the Sea

Writer Joe Loya dreamed of the ocean from his prison cell

Somewhere around late 1988, I drove down to San Diego County from LA to rob banks. That morning I told myself not to return home until I had $50,000.

At one point on the drive down the 5, I passed surfers at San Onofre living the Beach Boys’ “Surfin’ U.S.A.” life. I love that vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean on the right, after Dana Point. I still lived in LA County then, and OC was right next door; it was too close. Later I wouldn’t care, and would rob banks there, too, but this was early on and I was still a bank robber with principles.

I was barely past Las Pulgas Road at Camp Pendleton when I pulled over and robbed my first bank of the day. It was a quick teller robbery. As I walked outside and counted the lightweight loot the teller had handed me, I got exceedingly pissed off. So even though the cops were on the way, I decided to race into the bank next door and rob it, too. I ran out of there to my car and drove off. A clean getaway.

Normally, I’d go home, go to an expensive restaurant and order one of those seafood pastas with myriad sea meat. But this was no normal day. I still had work to do. So I chose to cruise over to Oceanside and park on The Strand. Once there, I popped the trunk and got out. This was the first time I’d entertained robbing multiple banks in a day, so it was the first time I had several outfits in the trunk. I pulled out a pair of shorts, a polo shirt, and my green Sperry oxfords. I changed my clothes standing by the driver’s door – changed into a USC baseball cap too. Young men like myself stood at their cars, peeling off wetsuits and putting their beach gear away.

I loved the smell of the beach air. Felt solidarity with the relentless crashing of the waves. Everyone knows the ocean is powerful. But at that moment, I was giving turbulent violent nature a run for its money.

I finished dressing and hopped back into my car. A third bank beckoned me. I’d hit one after that too, before returning home. In those days, I thrilled at terrorizing people, reconfiguring them. Making them small when my violence intersected with their lives.

Now, please, Reader, don’t think this is going to be one of those essays in which the thief brags about his exploits. This is actually going to be my love story with the ocean.

My 14-month bank robbery spree ended in 1989, after 30 heists. I was sent away to serve an eight-year sentence.

No more beaches. Or woods. No more golf on quiet manicured courses. It was all loud men all the time in gross crowded spaces. All I could do now was dream of freedom. And all those dreams had a sunset ocean hue.

One terribly hot summer when I was 8 years old in East LA, my father came home from work and told us to pile in the car because we were going to Seal Beach. I didn’t know what to expect. But I’ve never forgotten my rolled-up pant legs and the strange feeling of the waves receding and how my feet seemed to slide toward the ocean. I also noticed that the Caucasian kids at the beach were topless and wore bathing trunks. They jumped into the waves while we dipped our toes in the water. And they dried off with large beach towels with loud Hawaiian prints on them. We’d brought a couple of guacamole-green bath towels to share. We didn’t really need more because we wore our clothes the entire time.

But something happened in me. I wanted the water. I knew I’d just begun a long conversation with the ocean, tugged by the ocean like the ocean is tugged by the moon. My heart desired to one day swim naked in that water, to be dried off by the sun. I wanted to own that beach experience, which, for the moment, seemed alien and borrowed.

We moved to the San Fernando Valley a few years later. My junior high church friends invited me to go with their families to Zuma and Malibu beaches. And that’s where I learned to body surf.

A couple of years later I’d try to hop on a surfboard. I got up a couple of times, but never got the hang of it. I felt like the ocean rejected my lame attempts at surfing. So I never did the board dance again. Nonetheless, I could float beyond the waves on my back for hours.
The couple of times I went to summer camp at Westmont College in Montecito, trips down to the beach were the highlight.  And then my first year out of high school I visited Mariners Church in Newport Beach. That’s when I got excited about the Wedge. I’d sit on the beach and watch the body surfers succeed. Or not. I did not dare take my meager skills out there – I had a healthy respect for the water. But it was that 1980 summer that I decided I wanted to live my life in Newport Beach, and then retire to Santa Barbara.

I did make it to Santa Barbara, at least to help a friend open a restaurant on State Street. After work late at night, my two best friends and I would go to the beach and float beyond the waves and share our dreams. One night in the warm Santa Barbara ocean, we decided we missed Tommy’s Hamburgers near downtown LA. So we got out of the water, drove to the all-night spot two hours away, chowed down on our burgers like hogs, then drove back up to Santa Barbara, slept for three hours, then got to work by 6 a.m.

I mapped my life trajectory to be near the ocean smells, the coastal weather and the sound of crashing waves.

But life, as it is wont to do, had other plans for me.     

In my prison cell at night, I recalled all these gorgeous ocean memories with family and friends. I also recalled how several years after I left the restaurant business for a life of petty crime, the Santa Barbara sheriff’s office called my LA probation officer and told him I was no longer welcome in Santa Barbara. They suspected me of running a highly successful burglary ring.    

My probation officer revoked my residence status outside LA County. I was effectively kicked out of Santa Barbara. There went my retirement plan.        

Truth is that while I was flattered that the cops pinned the crime ring on me, I had absolutely nothing to do with it, which isn’t to say I wasn’t doing dirt. So I got angry and absconded on probation, amped up my crime game, then finally became a fugitive in Mexico.
Of course, I had to have beach. Lived in a condo on the water in Ensenada.

The film “The Shawshank Redemption” opened while I was behind bars. All my people told me how much they loved the movie. In the story, a banker named Andy Dufresne is given two life sentences in 1940s Maine. He tells his buddy Red that one day he is going to get out and live on the beach in Zihuatanejo, Mexico. Red thinks Andy has gone nuts from doing too much time.

That happens. You lose perspective. Hope begins to menace you. Throws your interior compass wildly off-kilter. And then you step into fantasyland.

But Andy does escape. After 40 years behind bars, Red is paroled and makes his way to Mexico where he meets Andy on a Zihuatanejo beach.

A week after I was paroled in 1996, I made it to the beach. I wept as I grabbed a fistful of sand and opened my palm and, like time, let the sand fall through my open fingers. I’d wasted so many years being confused, desperate and angry.

It wasn’t until six years later, when my memoir was due to be submitted for publication by HarperCollins, that I, like Andy and Red, made it to Zihuatanejo, where I worked feverishly on finishing the manuscript. I wrote the hell out of that thing, fully aware that my freedom was in telling that story, and my reward was the clean beach.

It’s my 54th birthday, and I’m writing this essay in a lovely beach cottage with my wife and daughter at Crystal Cove State Park. Get this: I’m just south of Newport Beach and only 30 miles north of those two Oceanside banks I twin-robbed way back in 1988.

Twenty years ago, I was in a Massachusetts prison on my 34th birthday. I had one year left before my release. I was a changed man. A writer already. In search of equanimity. In that prison cell, I dreamt a lot about this pristine beach moment, finally at peace, falling asleep to the sound of the ocean waves pounding on the compliant sand. I now relate more to the sand than to ocean waves, the way sand submits to the relentless rearrangement on the beach.

I realize that I have always lived near the water, or pined to be near it, ever since that warm 1969 night when my dad took us to Seal Beach. And now, here I am on the beach at 9 p.m., playing with my 9-year-old daughter, she and I mesmerized by the four dolphins playing nearby, just beyond the waves where I too love to be.

This is not Zihuatanejo. But that sun falling on the horizon is a kind of new
life halo.


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