I don’t know where we are. Costa Mesa, probably. Either that or Tustin. Or it may be Irvine or Santa Ana or any of a dozen other places. I really don’t know. The car headlights (or headlight, singular, in our case, as one of ours seems to have inconveniently burned out) zig and zag, now to the left, now to the right, creating crazy quilt paths as the freeways flow into each other, exit and entrance, up over one another, down under and in and out in a sexy dance that is nighttime in Orange County. That’s California, pilgrim. Home of Mickey Mouse and (quack) the Mighty Ducks.
We were trying to avoid the 405 because of what happened the previous evening. Carmageddon may be nothing but a bad memory, but we had to find out the hard way that late night construction is an ongoing process necessitating the closing of the freeway. You can’t get there from here. So tonight we stay off the interstate, instead wandering the local streets as the towns and cities melt one into another with nothing to show for themselves but all-night bodegas, gas stations and a 24-hour donut shop/Chinese take-out place. I’ll take an order of tofu with eggplant and two maple bars, please.
Following a lovely afternoon at the beach, we had returned to our hotel for a nap and now it was getting late and I wanted some decent food. My wife did not feel like going out. No, I do not want a vegetarian burrito from Del Taco across the street. Come on, let’s go. She griped and moaned, accused me of never being satisfied with anything, but ultimately went. I let Google lead us to the Harbor House by the ocean in Sunset Beach. We were both amazed by the quantity of food that they bring to the table, French toast with eggs and sausage in my wife’s case, a plateful of lovely steamed veggies and a baked potato for me. Squaw bread on the side, which turned out to be toasted deep, dark oat bread, slightly burnt and completely delicious. The fifties music made me feel as if we were on a date back in high school and should be sipping a strawberry milkshake, two straws. Born too late for you to notice me, tra-la. Ohhh, please, stay by me, Diana. Wake up, little Susie, we gotta go home. Out the window, the neon sign glowed and the cars floated by on the Pacific Coast Highway and yes, this was it, old time cruisin’ California or as close as you can get to it in the twenty-first century. I wonder what it would have been like to have grown up in this place instead of in New York.
We crawled back to the hotel on the surface streets, found the directions on my phone to not be very accurate, got lost, dead ended into a giant condo subdivision, turned around, stopped at red lights in a couple of places that looked like where you find the bodies, snaked through the quiet, late night streets until we found our way back. In five hours, I would have to haul myself out of bed, get dressed up and head to downtown Santa Ana to sit in a room full of computers with my fellow job applicants to take a test to see which of us might be called for an interview. I had done the same thing, in another such computer room in an industrial park in Irvine, on Friday.
In between, we had the weekend. On Friday afternoon, we took a leisurely drive to Newport Beach, where we had lunch at Côte d’Azure out in Balboa, near the dock where the catamaran picks up passengers and ferries them to Catalina Island, out in the middle of the ocean. We did some shopping and determined that the whipping wind made it a less than auspicious beach-going day. Besides, an email had just come in from yet another Orange County employer to which I had applied, informing me that I had used the wrong form and would be barred from further consideration unless I completed the correct application form and emailed it prior to close of business. Back to the hotel we go. Purchase wi-fi access from the front desk. Drag out the laptop. Try to cobble together the requested information from old emails since all of my paperwork was back at home, some 450 miles north. The hotel’s internet connection is horribly slow, Adobe Acrobat refuses to cooperate, I invent some interesting swear words under my breath.
By Sunday, the wind has died down some, and we head out to Laguna Beach, hoping to come upon an ideal spot to set up our beach chairs and admire the rolling waves. Clearly, this place is loaded with money. We creep past oddball boutiques, fancy cafés and surf shops, watch the beachgoers crossing the street wrapped up in towels and carrying surfboards. I feel out of place, as if I have a hell of a nerve, a hick from up north, a poseur trying to infiltrate the rarefied atmosphere of the O.C.
Heading south out of town, we end up in Dana Point and stop for lunch at Hennessey’s Tavern, where we are pleasantly surprised to find a local band playing 70s and 80s favorites, the Eagles and George Michael, on the patio.
My wife is delighted to find one of her all-time favorites on the menu, tomato soup with grilled cheese and kettle chips. I order a vegetarian sandwich minus the dairy products and dig into the jar of Grey Poupon on the table. This place has class. We split an enormous order of French fries. Full and happy, we turn north and find our spot for enjoying the sand and surf at Aliso Beach County Park. Lots of families, coolers, kite flying and sea gulls, all overseen by the trusty lifeguard on his perch. A ruddy-hued pigeon waddles right up to us as if to say hello, or perhaps just to beg for crumbs.
Up north in the Gold Country, I miss the ocean. And just now, right here in this place where children shout with glee, the gulls cry and wheel their arcs overhead and the waves roar out their approval over and over again, we know we have found a little piece of paradise.