From the proper angle, as you saunter north on Pacific Avenue, you can spy the plumage of hot pink from all the way down by the Del Mar. The pink, as downtown regulars will tell you, sits atop the head of Vnes Ely, who regularly works the Downtown Association’s Information Kiosk, what she likes to call “Santa Cruz’s front door.”
Yes, her name looks funny in print. But it’s actually a mash-up of the two short-hand nicknames that the girl born Vanessa has been living with her whole life – “V” and “Nes” to make “Vnes” (pronounced “Venus”).
Vnes is one of Santa Cruz’s most high-profile ambassadors to the rest of the world. The kiosk is often the first stop for newcomers and tourists and, as a result, the first impression of Santa Cruz for many is the grinning, extroverted, pink-topped personality of Vnes.
She not only has an encyclopedic knowledge of downtown she’s eager to share with visitors, she’s just as interested in other people’s stories. “So, where are you from?” isn’t merely a nicety for Vnes, an experienced world traveler. It’s a jumping off point for a conversation.
“Sometimes tourists can be excluded by locals,” she said. “I think to tour is wonderful. And I want people to feel comfortable in Santa Cruz, and to help them plug in to the vibe and enjoy it while they’re here.”
Twenty-three years ago, it was Vnes walking down Pacific Avenue for the first time, trying to get her bearings after having driven across the country in her old Dodge Omni. It wasn’t long after the Loma Prieta Earthquake and Santa Cruz was still being rebuilt. But Vnes, who had played in a calypso band back in her hometown on Long Island, was already hearing African and Haitian drumming on the streets.
Within two hours, she was in love with the place. Within a few days, she had decided she was going to move to Santa Cruz.
Within two weeks in Santa Cruz, Vnes, at 24, had figured out that she was gay.
“I wanted to connect. I wanted to seep in and become part of this town.”
Soon, she was working at Herland, the now defunct lesbian bookstore downtown, volunteering at the Diversity Center as a Triangle Speaker advocating for gay acceptance. She lived in a Seabright house that became a social and musical meeting place informally known as the Smiling Iguana Café.
Since then, she’s become an evangelist for the Santa Cruz ethic, which made her a great candidate to work at the downtown kiosk when it opened three years ago. “It took me 20 years to get into the history of this town,” she said. “But now, I’m just insanely interested in deep Santa Cruz.”
GETTING TO KNOW
Name: Vnes Ely
Hometown: Santa Cruz
Family background: Though her sense of personal style leans more toward Santa Cruz Derby Girl, Vnes is actually a former debutante who grew up in tony Sag Harbor, N.Y. “My grandmother wanted me to go on a circuit from D.C. to Manhattan to Boston and dress up in a big dress and introduce myself to high society. I refused all the balls.”
From her matrilineal line, she is descended from a prominent blueblood New England family with deep roots in Providence, Rhode Island and in and around Boston. Though she is the self-professed “pink sheep” of her family, she has also embraced the role of family historian, finding genealogical lines that reach back generations to such figures as William the Conquerer and the Viking ruler Rollo.
Relationship with the sea: When she was 12, Vnes and her family embarked from Long Island on a year-long voyage island-hopping in the Caribbean. Throughout her early life, she had lived on her stepfather’s houseboat during the summer months in Sag Harbor. She originally came to Santa Cruz in 1992 to see a friend who had come west to oversee construction of a sailboat.
Musical background: Throughout her teenage years, Vnes played drums in a famous calypso band on Long Island known as Vivian & the Merrymakers. Since moving to Santa Cruz, she has been playing for a local band known as Frootie Flavors, a party band known for its embrace of LGBTQ values.
Time she got it wrong: Just as she was about to drive across the country to visit to Santa Cruz, she saw a friend who was once a student at UC Santa Cruz. He told her, “You are never coming back.” Her response, “Dude, I’ll be back. I’m so New York. I love Sag Harbor. I’ll live there forever.”
Read the original article at the Santa Cruz Sentinel web site. Photo credit: Dan Coyro, Santa Cruz Sentinel