Uncle Guacamole Does the O.C.

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.

Harbor House counter
Harbor House counter (doo wop, doo wop)

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.

Harbor House food
Vegetarian yumminess at the Harbor House, Sunset Beach

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.

Cote d'Azure
Cote d’Azure cafe, Balboa

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.

Dana Point
Beach at Dana Point

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.

Hennessey’s Tavern, Dana Point

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.

Aliso Beach
Aliso Beach County Park

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.

Tripping Merrily Down Memory Lane: Ah, Summertime!

Rhode Island

Today is the first day of summer, so here is a beachy, bitchy story to the set the mood.  Now what’d I do with my striped umbrella and my Igloo cooler?

I visited with my sister for the first time in two years in Los Angeles last weekend.  The pics of her cats I expected, along with the chatter about her houses (she has one in Idaho and one here in Cali) and the whiny stories about how she is so mistreated at work.

What I didn’t expect was that she would start tripping merrily down Memory Lane.  And what really surprised me is that she focused on relatively pleasant memories.  More common, particularly in the presence of my parents, would be bitter accusations, allegations and general spewing of assorted venom.

You may think I’m exaggerating, but you don’t know my sister.  Her complaints about her childhood could fill volumes.  How she was forced to wear my hand-me-down T-shirts with holes in them, how she was embarrassed because my parents only bought store brand and generic canned goods, how my father allowed my mother to perpetrate all manner of unspeakable horrors while he looked on and did nothing.  And then there’s the famous Chinese jump rope story.

This incident occurred back at Summit Park when she was in Mrs. McCandless’s fourth grade class.  My sister, who was incredibly shy, gained some serious traction in the Great Age 9 Popularity Contest after my parents bought her a Chinese jump rope.  Suddenly, there were plenty of girls who desired her company on the playground.  That is, until said fancy schmantzy jump rope absconded from its home sinside her desk, courtesy of light-fingered parties unknown.

Well, clearly it was not her fault that the coveted plaything was stolen, right?  And so, to this day, Sis sings her plaintive done- me-wrong song, featuring daggered lyrics that place the blame for the return of her social status to that of nonentity squarely on the shoulders of our heartless parents who adamantly refused to lay out more cash to replace the Golden Object.

I think you get the picture.  So I did not expect the conversation to turn to fond memories of our college days.  Sis began explaining that the impetus for her change of major from physics to biology was her inability to understand the Krebs cycle and the unwillingness of her instructor to provide the slightest bit of encouragement.  “It’s really very straightforward.  If you can’t understand it, I don’t know what to tell you.”  And here I thought all these years that she had changed majors due to the sudden death of her faculty advisor.  “Not at all,” she corrected me.  “She was not my mentor.  In fact, she was an alcoholic who showed up to class late and drunk.  They found her dead in her bed.  Now I understand why, when I visited her during office hours, she was always fumbling around for things that she never could quite find.”

After that, we were on a roll.  We began reminiscing about Our Famous, Fantabulous, Freakin’ Amazing Summer at the Beach.  My mother had taken a new job in Rhode Island, and when we went on summer break from college, we were out of our minds with joy at finding that we now lived at Misquamicut Beach.  Two blocks from the Atlantic Ocean.  Close enough to catch a snootful of salt air anytime someone opened the screen door.  Close enough to crack open the windows at night and have the sound of the breakers lull us to sleep.  Close enough to smell the greasy funnel cakes and French fries.  Teenage paradise, baby!

Both my sister and I got jobs right away.  I worked downtown, away from the beach, in the production room of the local daily newspaper.  I was the only male proofreader on the premises.  I also filled in from time to time as typesetter on ancient keyboarding equipment that would  garner sniggers in the twenty-first century.  There was no screen; you had to learn to “read” the holes in the tape you were punching.  But I was a fast typist and, man, could I fly on that infernal contraption!  When I was banging out copy at 120 words per minute, the clatter and clamor of that thing could wake the dead.  I love, love, loved it!

Meanwhile, my sister worked at a beachside snack stand and public shower, spending all day standing over the Fryolator, filling orders for hamburgers, fish fillet sandwiches, fried clams and onion rings.  She came home every day covered in grease spatter, smelling like French fries and grinning from ear to ear.  Last weekend, however, she shared with us a story that I did not know about.  One day, two guys walked into Sis’ little booth and paid for a shower.  Instead of disappearing around the corner, however, they hung around urging my sister to “go into the back room” with them (there was no back room) and generally making lewd suggestions.  When it became clear that these two Neanderthals were not going to take no for an answer, my sister picked up the phone and called the proprietor, the huge Greek guy who also owned the big restaurant next door (the one that had the dining room with a panoramic ocean view that looked for all the world like the waves were going to come crashing right through the picture window).  He came right over, opened the register, returned the creeps’ money and told them to get lost.  “But we have sandy crotches!” they protested.  “I don’t care if you have sandy crotches!  Get the *** out of here!” he yelled.

You gotta love an employer who protects his employees from predatory beach cretins.

We both envied our younger sister, who was still in high school and hence had the good fortune of living at the beach all year long.  Well, sort of good fortune.  Sure, she had lots of friends, a cute boyfriend and unlimited opportunities for partying on the sand.  But she was also the new girl in town.  And she was Jewish.

Little Sister lives in Texas these days and was not present for our LA shindig.  But Big Sister regaled us with forgotten stories about how all was not roses and cherries for Little Sis down by the ocean.  None of the students at Little Sis’ high school had ever seen anyone so exotic as a Jew.  All they knew about Jews was that they didn’t celebrate Christmas, didn’t eat ham and had killed Christ.  Her boyfriend had to take a lot of flak as well.  Some miscreant scrawled “Scott and Jew” on my sister’s locker.

It was all coming back to me as my sister rolled back the years, describing how one of Li’l Sis’ classmates, out of genuine curiosity about Jews, asked her to please part her hair so she could see her horns.

My sister made references to the various beach houses in which we lived, my mother moving us from one to another whenever the landlord raised the rent.  As she described each house, I would punctuate bites of my bagel, cream cheese and lox by yelling out the address.

“There was the big one where you had to sleep on the couch in the living room…”

“59 Shore Road!”

“…and there was the one with the Pachinko machine…”

“81 Montauk Avenue!”

“…and the tiny little one where we didn’t have a phone…”

“5 Third Street!”

It was probably a good thing she stopped short of mentioning the following summer, as then we’d have been talking about 56 Winnapaug Road and the strawberry farm up in Hope Valley and summer school at URI in Kingston and driving lessons in the station wagon and trips to Town Beach and Bee Bee’s Dairy and Awful Awfuls at Newport Creamery and Bess Eaton Donuts and Vocatura’s Pizza . . .

Have a wonderful, sandy, dandy and safe summer, everyone!