West Coastin’: Of Meals and Temples

‘Last scene of all

That ends this strange eventful history,

Is second childishness and mere oblivion,

Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.’

Our post-Mass breakfast

Our post-Mass breakfast

Sunday morning, crawling to the bathroom, my sense of touch had the nerve to up and leave me.  Even after stubbing my toe on one of the wine boxes, the numbing sensation in my accelerator foot had lingered long after escaping our Sebring; moreover, my sense of balance insisted that my body was floating underwater.  This of course pointed towards some livid dreamscape, and as I lay there considering the possibility of that mermaid appearing again, Dasad woke.  Damn.  Another night Ariel, my love.

“Dude, what are you doing?”

“Wondering why I lost feeling in my legs . . .”

“No, on the floor,” he yawned.

“Oh, I tripped over one of the boxes in the dark.  On the way to the bathroom.  So very dark in here,” I pondered.  “When you close the blinds like this, its amazing how inclined you are to believe it’s two in the morning.”

“It is two.  Go back to sleep.”

NOTE: I may have imagined all this.  Throughout much of the trip, the line between dream and reality continued to fade and establish itself elsewhere, like the world seen through the bottom of a wine glass.

At any rate, we woke (later?) Sunday morning quite exhausted and indescribably drained from our six-hour exodus to Anaheim, in no mood whatsoever for early morning mass.  Yet sloth could not have its way.  Mothers – especially mine – possess an innate knowledge of their children’s foibles, both mortal and venial, and before we got that phone call, I roused our troops early and ushered them out the door.

The theater at Downtown Disney

The theater at Downtown Disney

Mass in California differs little from services back home.  My presence was still something of a minority, trading in a congregation of aging seniors for young Hispanics and Asians.  Nor did I quite grasp the point of the homily, a heavily accented digression into the meaning of faith, a topic which my own pastor would have muddled with several multi-layered tangents and an unnecessary explanation of didacticism – whatever that means.  Even the church’s heavily stylized windows displays and murals complimented my own: a tangled collage of pictures and symbols buried deep within colorful stained glass, like something by Seurat broken and reassembled with Jolly Rancher shards.  Yet Anaheim’s depiction of the Annunciation of Mary gave me pause.

Along one of the walls, Mary communes with an aged angel; in their midst a dove descends, a red beam fired from the bird’s beak pierces the Blessed Mother.

“It was like a holy laser beam had been shot into her chest,” I remarked afterwards to a yawning Dasad.  “I realize the need to conceptualize the Holy Spirit as something more than swirling air currents and fireballs, but doesn’t the divine ‘pregnancy ray’ oversimplify things a little too much.  Hell, they probably stole the idea from a Superman comic.”

“You would know,” Dasad muttered.  “So what’s the plan for today?  LA?  San Diego?”

“You said something about a triple feature.  A day to kick back and watch movies.”

“Okay . . . yeah, let’s do that.  It’d be good to do nothing for one day.”

I refuse to bore you with many of the details that followed.  As is often the case, these rare relaxing moments seldom translate well as good stories, while relating our ubiquitous humiliations and regrets often prove rather interesting – if not downright amusing.  We decided on three flicks, just recently released and from various genres:

  • Ponyo – a child’s fable, but nonetheless whimsical and beautifully told
  • District 9 – awesome and intelligent; excellent science fiction
  • 500 Days of Summer – if you’ve ever downloaded specific music tracks simply to attract a girl; or abhor dating; or simply enjoy honest funny movies

So excellent was the theater fare that without realizing it, we ate little else but stories for the remainder of the day.

You see, good tales possess a unique aroma, such that one might discuss an excellent tale with the same enthusiasm some reserve for fine cuisine or century-old merlot.  This analogy may be a bit off-putting to some, like my sister Katie, who suffers through most books like a sick child with castor oil, yet for bibliophiles the metaphor is all too accurate.  In my time, many books of such excellent vintage have incited periods of prolonged fasting and isolation (the night I discovered Harry Potter springs to mind), only to emerge again physically weak but nonetheless spiritually enervated several days later.

Excellent stories, thus, provide food for the soul.  And if the soul dies, the body follows shortly, right?  Therefore, reading is more important than food . . . or breathing.  For this reason and more, my family worries for my health and sanity.

Nevertheless, having fed our souls well, we left the theater satisfied and finally able to focus on our all-too-needy stomachs.  Late night dining (a little after ten) is sketchy at best, limiting hungry patrons to stale burgers or scraped bean paste wrapped in doughy tortillas.   Luckily we found a 24-hr Subway across the street from the hotel, wedged in between a Mexican take-out and Chinese restaurant that sold grease spiced with chicken fat (noodles were extra).  Jay opted for Chinese and Dasad tempted the Fates by ordering Mexican.  All in all the movies were better, and we returned to the hotel with satisfied hearts and stomachs in need of Alka-Seltzer.

NOTE: the bathroom at the theater was enormous and clean.  This may sound like an unusual topic to mention in closing but those who have traveled far through many a gas station or rest stop restroom can appreciate the joy of stumbling across clean public bathrooms.  It was breathtaking that I actually took a picture of it (thank the weekly matinees that it was empty).

So clean!

So clean!

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West Coastin’: Geek Out

RT6_kenwoodThe next morning after a breakfast of oatmeal and microwaved egg sandwiches, we emptied our rooms of bags and wine-stuffed boxes.  Now I mentioned earlier that Dasad had rented a Chrysler Sebring for our travels, a nice unimposing number with four doors, three passengers, and no retractable hood.  The little gray wisp of a car had wandered much of the state with us and performed admirably, but loading the car that morning, the lack of space proved quite a hindrance, much like stuffing an elephant into a clown car.

“So . . . um dude,” I asked, after loading our three wine boxes.  “Where are we going to throw the bags?”

In addition to Jay’s and my bags, Dasad had brought this immense rolling sea chest, which, apart from containing all his earthly possessions, did not fold or bend very well.  In the end we stacked everything in the backseat: suitcases, book bags, food, souvenirs, maps, and somewhere at the bottom of it all, Jay.   Leaving the hotel, I imagined our car as those station wagons you see in Walmart parking lots, stuffed to the brim with bags of clothing, Tupperware, trash, blenders, and every known species of plastic dog, bobbing their heads on dashboard mounts.

We visited Kenwood and V. Sattui Wineries to fill in those extra nooks and crannies left in our boxes, and drove back to San Francisco.

RT6_japantownNow as mentioned before, the driving force behind this trip lie with the stomach: to eat authentic Japanese cuisine and imbibe mass quantities of authentic Californian wine.  So far, so good.  Yet apart from the woman in Pismo with the Muppet-mouth, we encountered few instances that truly proved weird or unusual.  My soul thrives off that stuff, one of the reasons I suggested the Wizard World convention at the conclusion of our last cross-country trip.  Also because I like comics.  They make me happy.

As we retraced our steps from last night, I noticed a few of the streets had been closed off, barricaded for the festival.

“Look at the crowds here, dude.  It’s just like the con last month.”

“Yeah, but no sweaty basement dwellers.  The general public.  And if my eyes don’t deceive me, girls!”

“There were girls at the con.”

“The ones here aren’t dressed like Princess Leia.”

“Yeah, okay . . . so it isn’t perfect, but for authentic Japanese ramen, I won’t hold it against them.”

The street between the Kintetsu and Miyako malls, which we visited the previous night, and the NEW PEOPLE J-pop Center had been closed off earlier that morning to accommodate the expected crowds arriving for the center’s grand opening.  Long lines streamed out the three-story glass building, housing a menagerie of Japanese pop culture artifacts including manga, anime, art, cinema, and music.  An ideal locale to whet my otaku appetite, yet spying that the crowds nearly encompassed the entire block, we opted to return to the malls for lunch and some shopping.

"Soba, udon or ramen?"

"Soba, udon or ramen?"

Before finding the entrance, we walked through the street festival, sniffing at various foods and pouring through the works of local manga artists.  Dasad found a Bubble Tea stand, attended by kawaii girls in maid attire, who smiled and bowed as we slurped our tapioca.  In the town center, J-pop and J-rock bands sang and screamed (respectively), while nearby otaku tried forming mosh pits with proud parents and any curious visitor who happened by.  We found the mall’s entrance hidden behind a group of teens in Guy Fawkes masks, offering free hugs in addition to the sensation of being violated by a man in a mask.  No extra charge.

Inside we settled for a small ramen café near the hibachi grill from the previous evening.  Now for the record, Japanese ramen is good.  Very very good.  For those of you reading this, nodding your head with a Cup O’Noodles in your hands, I can only say that you know nothing.  The broth was delicious, the noodles fresh, the vegetables real.  I even splurged for a bowl of curried rice, as an apology to our waitress for trying to fake my way out of a language dispute.

“Ramen, udon, or soba?” our waitress asked.  Her accent and my bad hearing contributed to my confusion and ultimately not understanding what was being asked of me.

“Um . . .” I said scanning my menu for clues.  “Uh, I think I’ll try . . . white?  And an iced tea?”

Her eyes told me that I had guessed incorrectly.

“Uh . . .” I muttered, returning to the menu again.  Ummm . . .”  The type of rice?  Pick two sides?  Pork or tofu?

“She’s asking you for the type of noodles, dude,” Dasad clarified helpfully.

“Oh, uh . . . udon, please.  Thank you.”

She nodded and left gratefully, delivering the orders behind swinging door to spit in the white guy’s food unseen.

“You know, Murph,” Dasad chastened.  “You could have just asked her to repeat it instead of masking your ignorance.”

“I didn’t want to be a burden,” I sighed.

“So instead you made yourself a fool,” he noted.

“Yeah,” I groaned, my head in my hands.  “It’s just not in me to ask questions.  When in doubt, research.  If that fails, fumble about awkwardly until the question is repeated.  Thanks for the save, by the way.”

“Happy to oblige,” Dasad laughed.  “I just wish I remembered to pull out my camera and videotape the whole thing.  That lost-puppy look alone is like gold on Youtube.”

“Thanks,” I said, sighing again.

Ms. Teana-Lanster

Ms. Teana-Lanster

Despite everything, the food was quite good — with no evidence of our hostess’s displeasure.  We left then to sample some of Jay’s crepes and gaze at PVC figures of gun-toting ninjas.  Though hoping for some intriguing sculpture or game, I encountered nothing of interest, which disappointed Dasad some, I think, as my temperance afforded him no opportunity for ridicule.  Not that he refused to try anyway, drawing my attention to several poorly dressed heroines and loudly asking if I saw their pantsu, their panties.

“Oooo . . . black,” he squealed.  “Hey Murph, did you see these?  White and blue stripes! Kinky.”

I quickly left before my friend made his way to the adult ‘ero’ section.

In the next store, Jay drew our attention to the Japanese DVD release of the latest Miyazaki film, Ponyo.  The film had just been released at theaters with English dub, and I suggested we spend an afternoon at the theater soon.  My companions seemed eager to catch a flick; Dasad even suggesting we waste a whole day at the movies.

“A triple feature,” he said.  “After all the traveling up and down the coast, we could use a day to sit back and just relax.”

Stawberries, chocolate, whipped cream, and ice cream.  Mmmmm . . .

Stawberries, chocolate, whipped cream, and ice cream. Mmmmm . . .

It was close to two o’clock by the time we decided to leave.  The crowds continued to pour onto the streets, and even browsing through the claustrophobic aisles of the local supermarket proved slow work, like those squirrel mazes in the Ranger Rick magazines (Help Mr. Nibbles escape with his nuts to the old willow tree).  Our time in San Francisco had ended; we hopped into our overloaded Sebring and drove south.

Five or six hours later, just before reaching our hotel, hunger struck our small Chrysler, prompting us to stop at the local In And Out Burger in Burbank.  The parking lot was stacked with teenagers and other shady age groups including short old women in Cadillacs  and forty-year old accountants on motorcycles and mopeds.  Dasad felt certain we were going to die.  Or get robbed.  Or both and then sold to the local medical school for surgical demonstrations.

“Dude, I don’t think our car is safe here.”

“Don’t worry,” I said calmly.  “If anything happens, it’ll probably cascade into murder, not theft.”

“As long as no one takes our car, that’s fine.  Remember we still have thirty-six bottles of expensive wine in the trunk.”

Honestly, I had considered opening up a bottle for dinner that night, toasting our successful bounty from the north over burgers and fries, but glancing at the packed crowds inside, I thought better of it.  They might have insisted we share!

We ordered our burgers and sat down next to a group of college-age teens, discussing movie trivia, which I suppose is common among Burbank youth.  Jay came back with our food, and I dug into what was to be the worst burger I have ever eaten in my life.  At least for the three bucks I paid for it.  Admittedly, the vegetables were nice and fresh, but the meat, a thin sliver of beef, was non-existent, nearly half the thickness of a slider, nearly melting into the bun.  Thankfully I had ordered a milkshake too, and we quickly waddled out to the car left Burbank in our dust – which they probably collected, froze, reheated, slapped together with lettuce and tomato, and sold for three dollars.  Mmmmmm . . .

Next: Why aliens and humans will never breed, and Disneyland dreamin’.

West Coastin’: I left my heart . . . where?

RT6_warfAfter visiting Fisherman’s Wharf for some authentic Boudin sourdough, we made our way along the water to Gheribelli Square for a tour of their modest chocolate shop. Dasad poked his head into a gourmet cupcake place, buying three small cakes for about twelve bucks.  Frankly I doubted the value of a four dollar dessert, which my mouth could consume easily in two bites, but my friend assured me it was worth the price.

“You don’t know, because you haven’t tasted.  If you did, you would know.”

“If knowing means shelling out four bucks for a lousy cupcake,” I remarked, “then ignorance is bliss, man.  I’ll take my watered down iced tea and sugar substitute any day.”

“Weirdo.”

He placed the box on the sidewalk, removing one of the small cakes and placed it atop the lid.  Then adjusting his camera, he proceeded to subject the poor dessert to a mid-street photoshoot.  Jay and I stood back and watched.  He said nothing for the next several minutes, snapping shot after shot, moving only to adjust the perspective or catch the fading daylight. In my whimsy and boredom, I imagined his interior dialogue similar to a Vogue photographer, demanding and masochistic:

“Fabulous!  Now growl for me baby.  Yeaah!  Like an animal.  Strike the sexy pose.  Beautiful!  Beat me.  Whip me!  You make me want to come over there and tear into you.  Incredible!”

Rowr!

Rowr!

Others scurried quickly by, possibly sensing the intensity of the shoot and the risk a rogue shadow or misplaced foot might incur.   Most however fled in fear, frightened that the Asian man with the cupcake might accost them with a few 8x10s and a dozen wallets.

We walked down to the waterfront then, near the Maritime National Historic Park, where swimmers weaved laps in the man-made lagoon between colored buoys; ferries, tugboats and century-old clippers bobbed up and down nearby, reminding the athletes why mankind never evolved fins.  Accustomed to the murky corpse-laden waves of the Inner Harbor, watching the divers spit water in and out of their mouths made me sick, and we decided to continue our tour along a concrete walkway that extended out into the bay, forming the north-western edge of the lagoon.  Most of the path appeared damaged, cracked and crumbling into the sea, and thus barricaded for repairs.

“Watch how you’re holding the box, Jay!” Dasad shouted as I stared across the sun-drenched fog at the Golden Gate Bridge.  “You’ll smear the icing!”

“Huh,” Jay shrugged.  “I wasn’t tilting it or anything.”

“There’s a right way and a wrong way.  I thought it was common sense.  Look half the chocolate is on the box.”

“The heat probably had something to do with it, man,” I said.  “You can’t expect to carry that stuff around without messing them up a little.  Why don’t we just eat them now?”

Dasad said nothing – I took that to mean ‘No’ – but took control of the box as we continued our walk around the Maritime Park.

By now, long time readers should be accustomed to my frequent use of hyperbole, such that my friend often criticizes (i.e. mocks) my reliance on (i.e. addiction to) superlatives:

  • ‘Dasad, come play Arkham Asylum.  It’s the best game I’ve ever played, ever,’
  • ‘Hey Dasad, did you click on that Youtube link, I sent you?  Wasn’t that AMV the greatest thing you’ve ever seen in your whole entire life?’
  • ‘Mankind, only really needs three things: iced tea, books, and a store to purchase both.  Everything else can pretty much be jettisoned into the sun.’

RT6_goldengateThus, I suppose that my opinion carries little weight in the eyes of true cynics, yet I assure you that staring at the city from the mouth of the bay ranks as one of the most beautiful sights on our trip.  San Francisco seems to roll, undulating as it approaches the water like an ocean current,  dragging its inhabitants — not unwillingly — towards the shore and out to sea.  Of all the cities this country bumpkin has visited in his short life, most thick with smog, murder, refuse, and hobos (I’m looking at you Denver), San Francisco alone captured my heart.

While my friend snapped a few shots of Alcatraz, I noticed the fog had lifted around the Golden Gate Bridge.  Sailboats gliding across the foreground made for some nice shots, and turning, my feet accidentally kicked Dasad’s cupcake box, sending it skidding a few feet and into a shallow pothole.  Oops!  Grimacing, I forced my eyes upward, but he hadn’t noticed (or decided to say nothing).  Jay had though and made for the railing to laugh.  How the collision would damage the integrity of the cake, I can’t say, but to be careful I gave the box a wide berth and made for the rail.

RT6_sanfranAfter a few hours, we left the waterside and drove eastward towards the baseball stadium to meet up with Dasad and Jay’s cousins, who live in town.  The couple who I will – with their forgiveness – name George and Alice for the sake of anonymity were quite kind and offered to take us out for dinner.  We admitted not having visited Chinatown yet, but upon hearing that our raison d’etre in California was to sample authentic Japanese cuisine, we drove off towards Japantown.

“Yeah, so the mall extends throughout the both these blocks,” George said, parking beneath an extensive shopping complex that spanned nearly two blocks, connected through various bridges and outside auditoriums.  “The food here is great, if you know where to go.  Otherwise it gets a bit touristy, though never as bad as Chinatown.”

We emerged into the mall, decorated with banzai trees and small ponds with trickling waterfalls.  Several of the signs and notices taped on store windows were written entirely in Japanese.  I recognized a few characters, but not enough to piece together the advertisement.  Still pretty awesome for an otaku, obsessed with Japanese culture.  They even had a taiyaki stand and a noodle shop and a . . .

“Jay.  Jay!” I whispered.  “Look an anime shop!”

As do I, Hello Kitty.  As do I.

As do I, Hello Kitty. As do I.

One of the local stores befitted their window display with Gundams, figures of sword hacking female ninjas, and Pokemon cards.  Further down the corridor, we passed a bookstore stacked with Japanese novels, magazines, and row upon row of un-translated manga.  Then atop the land-bridge connecting the next block’s shopping center, we passed a small sushi café, which entertained guests with Miyazaki films from hanging television screens: Kiki’s Delivery Service and Howl’s Moving Castle.  Just below shelves of translated Naruto and One Piece manga to peruse while dining, with cat-eared waitresses balancing orders in frill-laden dresses.

“Dude, I’ve died and gone to heaven.  This is where geeks go, when they’ve been good and refuse to download fan subs.  I’m sure of it.”

Jay elbowed me and pointed to several kids, feasting on fruit-wrapped crepes.  Whipped cream and chocolate left their marks on their faces, but no one seemed to mind.

“Are crepes even Japanese?” Dasad asked.

“Who cares,” Jay said, nearly licking his lips.  “They look delicious.”

“Look downstairs.”  My two companions gazed where I gestured franticly.  “A noodle shop.  Like in Naruto!  We can get some honest to goodness Japanese ramen.”

“And strawberry ice-cream crepes with bananas!”

“And anime and ninja-girl figures!”

“Yeah,” Dasad sighed.  “Too bad we’re leaving tomorrow.  Shame really.”

RT6_crepeThe realization undermined our enthusiasm a bit, much like a torpedo beneath a merchant vessel.  Jay and I began to pout, when Dasad’s cousin pointed out a flyer taped on the window of the restaurant.  In bright colors and English text, we read that tomorrow Japantown would hold a Kawaii! Festival, featuring live Japanese J-pop bands, the grand opening of a museum to Japanese pop culture, and a loli fashion show.

“Hmmm . . . maybe we could stay for another afternoon,” Dasad mused poring over the leaflet.

“What changed your mind?” I asked with a smile.  “The museum opening or the nubile goth fashion show, young girls in frills and lace?”

He would never say, citing something about needing to taste authentic ramen and bubble tea, but both Jay and I suspected otherwise.  The dirty old man.

RT6_habachiFor dinner, we ate a hibachi-style restaurant, equipped with gas-powered grills in the middle of our table, where we cooked our meals ourselves.  Back home, I was more accustomed to the teppanyaki Japanese steakhouses, where chefs wheel in their carts full of raw chicken and shrimp to our table, whirling their knives and ignite billowing holocausts that left my uncle petrified and missing an eyebrow last June.  Here in San Francisco, we ordered a vast array of raw meats bathed in various sauces to be grilled ourselves over tabletop hibachis.  The concept at first struck me as rather lazy (‘So we’re paying you for the honor of cooking our own food?’) but proved rather fun in the end.

We left the restaurant long after closing, our bellies full and absent of – noticeable – E. coli poisoning (Wahoo!).  The waiters waved us off, eager I’m sure to finish cleaning our late night feast and tuck in themselves.   For our part, the hour was late, and we planned to visit one or two wineries before returning to the city; and so after many thanks to Dasad’s cousins for the tour and the excellent meal, we returned to our hotel.

Dasad opened the cupcake box then, and we held off sleep for one last midnight snack.  My friend reveled in their taste and exquisite flavor, decadent chocolate and smooth icing.  I downed mine in two bites, relishing the delicious flavor of four whole dollars sliding down my gullet.

My dreams that night were filled with exploits of zombies (a house favorite in my nocturnal theater) rampaging through the local malls, where I whittled away my hours slaying undead hordes and perusing shelves stocked with anime and video games.  A vision!  I prayed so.

Tomorrow: Japantown, Disneyland and our day of rest.

West Coastin’: Sex and Candy

RT5_beans“Dude, I’m not sure about this,” I said straightening out my chef’s hat.  “We’re the only guys here without children.  People are going to think we’re pedophiles or something.”

The line for the Jelly Belly Factory tour indeed was packed with families.  Several dozen parents stood waiting, their kids running under and through the black rope that formed the line maze.  Several would laugh as they bumped into our legs or clothesline each other by running head-on into the rope; picking themselves up, they would look to see who was watching and return to the chase.  Adults chatted with one another, relishing the general chaos which allowed their kids to create noise without admonishing them for it.

On all our heads sat white confectionary hats adorned with the Jelly Belly logo.  All groups were required to wear one, and as such embodied the sole price of admission: public humiliation.  Later we would stand before an amorphous red blob with eyes and smile foolishly as someone with a camera captures this moment for future wedding day slideshows.  It was like cult initiation time in Willie Wonka Land.  I offered the peace-sign during the photo-shoot and thus successfully managed to debase myself further, even lower than the 40-year-old just ahead of us in the “Fig Neutrons” t-shirt.

“Well if anyone looks like a pedophile, it’s you,” Dasad said, dodging a few racing ten-year-olds, who played at smacking each other with their hats.  “Chubby, pale, giddy stupid look on your face.”

“So I waved to a few toddlers, big deal.  I can’t help it.  I like kids.”

“And that’s why you’re the one the cops’ll stun-gun first.”

“Okay,” I sighed.  “Well, maybe it’ll be better if we pretend Jay is like your little brother.  Real little.  Like thirteen or so.  I mean, he is short enough . . .”

“Huh?” Jay muttered absently, pulling his face from a jelly-bean portrait of Ronald Reagan hanging on the way.  “What happened?”

“Perfect,” I said offering Jay a thumbs-up.  “Oblivious and zombie-faced.  Add some clay zits and we’ll be all set.”

RT5_reaganJay shrugged and turned his attention back to the atrium, littered with bright splotches of paint and multi-colored bean carpet as if someone had let loose several paint-bombs the night before.  Other portraits hung on the walls all made from jelly beans: Marilyn Monroe, Elvis, the bald eagle, and several additional portraits of Ronald Reagan, who we understand never began a meeting without several jars of the stuff.

As the tour began, we walked along an enclosed gangplank which circled the entire factory.  Plastic windows prevented any children from falling into the machinery below as well as the addition of hats, watches, or trash.  Dasad seemed rather disappointed by this – “My sweat is a delicacy in itself” – but seemed amused by the video presentation.  Our live tour guide said little more than ‘This way’ and ‘Please, watch this.’  She also seemed like she wanted to kill herself, but that may have been just me.

The videos delved deep into the bean-making process, explaining with saccharine condescension typically reserved for smelting rainbow-coated wishes and unicorn tears how jelly beans are packaged, cooked, and tested for ‘that one of a kind Jelly Belly taste.’

Now when Dasad suggested we visit, I never seriously considered it might resemble Willie Wonka’s factory, but perhaps the watered down, realistic inspiration for the book and movies, some half-way point between a Ford assembly line and Disney World. Needless to say, the factory workers looked less like Oompah-Loompahs and more like schoolchildren the morning after Labor Day.  Though frankly, if I had their job, my shining morning face would only reappear after dusk.

RT5_factoryMostly, the packaging workers we saw helped to funnel boxes and bags of candy from the automated machinery into bigger boxes and larger bags.  Others worked on assembly lines, stacking and packing candied corn and gummi worms into shipping crates.  Engineers monitored and repaired the automated robots, which seemed to require constant supervision.

One such device equipped with three suction funnels lifted bags of jelly beans from the conveyer belts and placed them neatly into small boxes.  After a moment, the sucking function seemed to falter, and the bags drifted past the machine, colliding into overfilled bins and on the floor.  Another, which I failed to understand entirely, ferried plastic tubes of beans into storage containers, but only proved to knock the tubes over again onto the concrete floor.

As an employee, part of your job seemed to assure that robot #17830 puts tubes #319-610 into box #Z8.  Straightforward work, I’m sure, but watching them fiddle with the controls it felt like they were adjusting a Rube Goldberg device:  1.) tip domino, 2.) which hits the fan, 3.) which sails boat, 4.) which hits the level, 5.) which drops the ball, 6.) which scares the cat, 7.) which releases weight, 8.) which – finally – turns on light switch.

One error or problem along the conveyor belt inevitably halted production further down the line, causing spills.  The toppled jars and bags would then return to the conveyor belt, a long pointless journey into a cardboard box.

It is a strange fate that we should suffer so much fear and doubt over so small a thing. Such a little thing.

RT5_blobRegardless of the technology, it seemed loathsome repetitive work.  No catchy songs.  No choreographed dancing.  No frickin’ chocolate river.  Dasad had promised me a chocolate waterfall at least, which showered the lucky tourists in milk and chocolate.  Maybe cookies and trained squirrels too, but I dared not hope.  In Candyland, it seems that dreams form the nougat center for despair.

The tour continued, and throughout it seems as if we were inhaling sugar.  At times, I had trouble breathing.  The walkway, high above the factory, overlooked a series of round bowls, like cement mixers.  Steam or rather dust rose from the whirling barrels, attended by chefs in white masks.   We were told that they were used to mix flavors, and engrossing the jelly bean, a process that the video explained swells the bean to nearly thirty-percent of its original size.

“That little jelly bean becomes quite chubby,” the voice joyfully announced, “in three to four hours.”

Immediately, I glanced over at Dasad.  He caught my eye, and without a word, we began laughing feverishly, nearly rolling on the floor before the full audience of children and their mothers.  Some of the fathers must have guessed the innuendo as well, because we got a few dirty looks as we stood there tittering and coughing. Meanwhile, the video monitors displayed the animated jelly bean swelling in size.

“Three to four hours, huh?  Don’t you have that problem, dude?”

“Sorry baby, just one more hour.  I’m engrossing . . .”

Jay and the tour group walked off, leaving the two mature thirty-year-olds giggling at their dirty jokes.  To this day, I maintain that the aerosol sugar did something to our brains.

RT5_flavorsJelly beans of all color and flavor decorated the whole of the gift shop, watermelon and popcorn to pencil shavings and shampoo.  I learned later that the Bertie Bott’s Every Flavor Beans, marketed just before the first Harry Potter movie, were made here, incorporating the exotic essences of bagels, ink, acid, and squid.  Near the registers, a tasting station offered customers samples of their new flavors, the delicious as well as the odd.  All in all, it was pretty wild, and while Dasad and Jay went off to gather their own makeshift bean bags, I bought a few packaged assortments: Sunkist citrus mix, smoothie blend, and Superfruit mix.  The latter promised real fruit juice and anti-oxidants, while other bags packed beans with electrolytes, vitamins, and energy boosts for athletes.

I found Dasad after checking out.  Toting a large bag of beans, he appeared a bit anxious.

“I had run into a girl while grabbing some of the Sunkist beans,” he confessed.  “I said hello and she screamed and ran behind her sister.”

“Well, you are a grown man filling a bag full of candy . . . What exactly did you say?”

“Nothing creepy.  Seriously!  I just asked her what beans she liked.  ‘What is your favorite flavor?’  And she freaked.”

RT5_sampleI imagined the scene from her point of view, a thirty-something Asian, dressed in black, licking his lips and stuffing pint-sized candy into a large bag: “Hello little girrrl, do you like caaandy?  What . . . heh heh heh do you think, heh . . . taste best, little girrrl?  Ice cream? Or sour apple? Little girls, do like their candy, don’t they?”  Remembering her parents’ warnings about strange men and candy, she must have retreated to the safety of her older sister.

“Yeah man, no clue.  She must be crazy or something.”

“Right!  The kid probably eats paste . . .”  Dasad said.  “Hey did you know they have a glue-flavored jelly bean in the corner there?  I tried some.  Really authentic.”

After that we decided to leave and visit someplace a little more adult, lest any cops arrive with their court-orders and stun guns.  Frankly, I would find it difficult to explain why we tried to dress up Jay as a thirteen-year-old.  Most county judges, I find, have difficulty to extricate their minds from the gutter.  It’s sad really.

Next time: San Francisco and the Japantown.

West Coastin’: Popping Corks

RT4_grapesHaving arrived in Napa, we immediately passed out at the FairField Inn.  Just not from alcohol.  That was the second day.  The first day’s stupor resulted from the combined exhaustion of a long drive through San Francisco traffic, restless night’s sleep in a soggy Monterey motel, and irritation from discovering most hotels in Napa booked or overpriced.  Moreover, the sun seemed stronger in the heart of the valley, and after a busy morning watching fish and eating chowder, we needed a few hours to do absolutely nothing.  And a bathroom.  Again.

“So . . . uh, guys, I may have to use the loo soon,” I said as we left downtown Napa and its collection of occupied over-priced hotels.  “Just so . . . you know.”

“No prob,” Dasad said, now driving.  “Let’s check out Sonoma first.  It shouldn’t be that far away and I’m sure they’ll have something.  Can you hold it?”

“Uh, sure, I’m okay . . . for now.”

“Good.”

Of the many benefits derived from Catholic schooling, learning how to effectively hold one’s bladder ranks near the top of the list.  Leaving the classroom in the midst of lessons would often let loose Sister’s wrath, and so I learned to wait for hours ‘til break or lunch to slip out and do my business.  This skill has come into handy many times since: driving home early in the morning, sitting through organic chemistry lectures just before mid-term, The Lord of the Rings movies.  The trick is to focus your mind away from the body outwards, toward the world around you: simple things that do not require much analysis.  Like road signs.

“Welcome.  To.  Sonoma.  County.  Population.  Four-hundred.  Sixty-six. Thousand.”  Though typically, I only read aloud as a last resort.

“What are you doing?”  Dasad’s short drive to Sonoma after several lights and one slow-moving truck has taken fifteen minutes.

“Reading.  When the pressure gets too high I try to regain focus.  Otherwise . . .”

“Huh, does that really work?”

“. . . yes,” I muttered, calming myself.  We closed in on the truck.  “McDonalds.  Over One Million.  Served.”

“Shoot, okay.  Jay, look out for 12 North.”

“California.  AJ378K.”

“Should we head back?” Jay asked, laughing.  Something about my predicament seemed to humor him.

“Deally Lane.  Domaine Carneros.  Vineyards.  Next. Right.”

“Um . . .,” Dasad paused.  “No, we’ll be alright.  Hang in there Murph.”

“Love. That. Chicken from.  Popeye’s.”

“Better grab an empty Snapple bottle just in case,” Dasad said turning right.

RT4_vineyardFinally veering onto Route 12, we passed through a small town with a few banks and one or two small strip malls.  Dasad turned into an empty gas station.  I nearly tore my seat buckle off and, toppling from the car, walked quickly toward the station office.  The door did not open.  I tried it again.  And again.  Looking inside, I realized no one was there and that the station was probably closed or abandoned.  Unsure of where to go next, my feet carried my swollen body down the sidewalk, much like a sun-soaked legionnaire mindlessly chasing a mirage.  Faintly I heard Dasad yelling after me, but my legs ignored him for the bush in the adjacent yard.  Jay caught me before I drifted into traffic and pushed me back towards the car.

“There’s a Subway on the other side.  Come on!” he said.

“Five.  Dollar.  Foot.  Long.”  I mumbled seconds from exploding.

We parked, and I wandered inside, allowing Jay to order just in case the bathroom was for paying customers only.  Then I feigned nonchalance: “I’m going to use the loo real quick, while you’re ordering guys, okay?”  I stared at the cashier, daring her to stop me before ordering an Italian BMT.  Receiving no challenge, I rushed inside and experienced two minutes of pure bliss.

Dasad and Jay were hunched over, nearly laughing on the floor.  I just smiled and ordered my sub:  ‘Club sandwich, please, and a  large iced tea.’  Sometimes habit trumps wisdom, especially when tea leaves are involved.


The hills and valleys of Napa and Sonoma were rife with unexpected magic and beauty.  They were also hot as Hell, and with our bodies flush with wine, the cool breeze that arrived late in the day, as we toured Cline Vineyards came as a relief.  The cashiers at Cline’s likewise proved quite kind and generous with their samples, offering free tastes and ample volumes.  Walking off to join the tour, our glasses full with a subtle and delicious pinot grigio, Dasad and Jay began to waver some.

“Ugh, I can’t drink anymore, dude,” Dasad sighed.  “Anymore and you’re going to have to drag me to the car.”

We had began the morning at Sterling Vineyards, one of Mom’s favorite vineyards and lying farther up the road near Calistoga, the perfect place to begin our tour of the valleys.  In order to visit the vineyard, visitors must board a gondola which carries them to the hilltop facility and tasting center.  The whole ‘ride’ angle reminded me of Disney World and gave my imagination ample fodder to feed upon: Cask Mountain, Riesling of the Caribbean, and a stationary teacup ride, where you drink merlot until the world spins.

I suggested as much to Dasad, but he was busy practicing his Engrish to pay me any heed.

“Country rooooads, take me hooome . . . To da praaaace I berooooong . . .”

At Sterling, tours are self-guided with tasting stations scattered along the way.  We tasted pinot noir and an unforgettable white wine – whose name at the moment escapes me – taking pictures of steel vats and enormous barrels.  Occasionally we would . . .

“Me no want wahta.  Want ahss cream.”

Ahem, yes so . . . the Engrish. Throughout the drive, we encountered numerous non-native Americans, visiting or working here in the States.  As such, we played at mimicking accents, returning the favor for some sidelong glances at my Baltimore ‘O,’ hon.  Anyway it was a great way of wasting a few minutes, driving through the mostly unremarkable scenery from Monterey.  After several hours of hillsides and sun burnt grass, it grew into an addiction.  Then while walking to our rooms that morning, we passed an aging Asian grandmother in a roller, screaming at her grandchildren for Rocky Road.  It seems humor will always find a home reaffirming stereotypes.

“. . . ahss creeeaam.”

Our combined swag

Our combined swag

Returning to more pertinent matters  . . . between Sterling and Clines, while collecting various bottles of cabernets and merlots, I discovered the great secret behind Napa.  Wine tasting is much like shilling out $30 to knock over milk jugs at a carnival; you’ll win your Kewpie doll but still arrive home $30 lighter.  The scam is flawless.  At the wine bar, samples drizzle into your glass.  You sniff the liquid, taking in the rich bouquet – as instructed by the brochure picked up at the hotel lobby – and then sip, swirling the contents around your tongue.  If you’re naïve and sensible, you’ll swallow then.  Only connoisseurs taste and spit.

Your taste buds detect blueberries, chocolate, and burnt wood, just as the placard before you suggests.  Awesome!  The effects are immediately edifying: you feel intelligent, refined, aware.  Sherlock Holmes could not have detected as much in his first sip as you have.  Your server smiles.  A knowing wink.  No one else here can taste like you can.  In triumph, you buy ten bottles at a hundred dollars a pop to take home and flaunt before friends.

“Brian, taste this.  If you have the talent, you might just detect chocolate-covered cherries, mint and the subtle hint of 100-yr French oak.”

“Ugh, it burns my tongue.”

“That’s the oak!”

I wish we could admit we were not fooled by this shell-game, that we were smarter than these plaid-collared con artists, that we paid for our $5 glass of wine and left instead of filling our three boxes with thirty-six bottles of expensive wine that no one else, not even ourselves, can fully appreciate.

Well, we did not buy thirty-six bottles.  Dasad snuck two extra bottles into his luggage, totaling thirty-eight in full.  California is far richer because of our visit.

Still for all our ‘expertise’ the wine tasted good.  We bought what we liked, which in the end proved the true sounding rod.  Awards and all.

RT4_viewBack at Cline’s Vineyard, Dasad and Jay were pouring wine into my glass, when our tour group arrived.  A bus pulled up to the stone wall where we sat and unloaded.  The eclectic group of tourists mingled among the garden and chatted noisily just as a brisk but welcome blast of air drifted through the valley.  The air refreshed our drowned senses some and we watched the crowd, wondering if anyone here truly understood wine culture.  Judging from the dialects, most of the visitors appeared foreign: British, Australian, Chinese, Italian, and Korean.  Only a few held their glasses by the stem or sniffed subtle rose bouquets before gulping down their samples.  We relaxed.  They were like us: ignorant tourists but diligent alcoholics.

Our hosts circled the wall, filling up our glasses again with a sample of their red wine.  Dasad groaned, took a sip, and filled my glass again.  Jay poured it into the garden.  The tour guide talked for a few minutes about the wine, how it was one of his favorites, and how we could taste the subtle hints of apple and cherry wood, before beckoning us all to follow him through the winery.

Steadying Dasad who wobbled to his feet, I noticed a man walking by himself, a pink sweater tied around his neck, swirling his wine in his mouth and spitting into a large bush.  Ah, a connoisseur.  The man’s curly salt and pepper hair recalled to mind something about Leslie Nelson and Spartacus, slapstick and bare chests.  His locks fell long in the back, a trim but noticeable mullet that more than anything convinced me the man was foreign.

“Dude,” I said nudging Dasad, who was trying to convince the others we were Australian.

“Eh? Wot mate?”

“Take a look at that guy over there?” I pointed.  “The guy in the sandals and pink cardigan.  Doesn’t he look like Ricardo Montalban?”

Dasad stared for a minute or so before cracking up.

“KHAANN!!!”

RT4_cheeseWe stumbled . . . er walked into one of the large warehouses, behind the tasting center; Ricardo sulked off by himself to stare at the ceilings, looking devilish and European like old men in pressed suits and eye patches.  Inside large twenty-foot fermentation barrels lined the walls like giant beehives; stacks of smaller barrels sat idly on racks throughout the rest of the warehouse.  Our host offered us another sampling, merlot this time; Dasad managed to avoid the bottle by taking pictures.  I surreptitiously snapped a few myself of Ricardo, whose eyes never left the rafters: scheming warehouse infiltration and cask burglary perhaps.   Wine theft?!  Is there no end to your infamy, Khan?  From Hell’s heart I stab at thee!

We crawled out to the car – figuratively in my case, literally for the others.  Dasad threw me the keys, nearly falling asleep immediately in the back seat.  Arriving at the hotel, we pass out, our faces red from liquor and sunburn, only to awake hungry a few hours later.  Thus, we return to Sonoma for burgers and fish at Taylors, a California staple apparently.  Best fast food I have ever tasted at least.  Bellies full of fries and milkshakes, we drove back to the hotel to rest up for the Jelly Belly factory and Fisherman’s Warf.  Stay tuned . . .

West Coastin’: Castles and Misconceptions

RT3_hearstOutside Hearst Castle is a true wonder.  In truth, even if you care nothing for architecture, the view from the top is well-worth the tour fee and the yodeling bus soundtrack.  At the top, mountain peaks spread out before you in beautiful green and earthen waves; the furthest of these – now pale blue in the setting sun – we were told marks the boundary to old man Hearst’s property, back when I suppose land was cheap and plentiful. Marble statues of the gods and goddesses stare from behind curling vines and purple gardens.  Roman columns surround deep pools and fountains, adorned with faux Italian masterpieces of stone and tile.  The assorted mixture of guesthouses and buildings, a hodge-podge of various European styles, both modern and ancient, were constructed (and thus named) with specific scenery in mind: Casa del Sol, Casa del Monte, Casa del Mar.

This warmth and liveliness disappears in the gloom of the mansion interior.  Inside, the mansion feels dark and dangerous, the setting to some grisly tragedy or nightmare like a medieval dungeon.  Marble busts become pale leering faces; ancient imported wood absorbs all light; giant tapestries of forgotten wars hang from the walls, fading into the stone like ghosts.  On our way to the dining chamber, we passed through one of Hearst’s secret passages, carefully disguised as a panel in the wall.  I could imagine the castle’s master staring at his guests from peepholes in paintings, then suddenly appearing from nowhere to summon them for dinner.   Or a turn on the rack.  Our tour guide assured us that the various movie stars, celebrities, athletes, and playwrights that visited enjoyed their time here, but in the dim yellowing light, the place felt more haunted than homely.

Returning to the visitor center, the voice over the bus’ loudspeaker told us to gaze at the herds grazing outside our windows.  Hearst kept a zoo on his estate, but though most of the more exotic animals had been sold off to state zoos, many zebras and llamas still roamed about the mountains fields.  Deer too.  Our fellow tourists flattened themselves against the windows, nearly tipping the bus as they pointed and giggled at a herd of deer dining among the tall weeds.  Dasad and I simply sighed.

RT3_montereyThe average Marylander encounters white-tailed deer at least once a week, typically in the car and occasionally across its hood.   I imagine that – if anyone bothered to count – more deer scamper and frolic about here than trees . . . well, whatever trees do.  The absence of natural predators has set hind against man, antlers and muscle versus semi-automatics and SUVs.  Casualties have been inflicted on both sides, for against most automobiles, the animal’s muscular body bends as well as a brick wall.

And then we have the parasitic relationships between stags, deer ticks and sickness; the latter always stemming from the formers.   I nearly cried out to our bus driver to try aiming for a few of the bucks if he didn’t care to discover the joys of lime disease.  Movies like Bambi are clearly sending the wrong message out here.

More animal hijinxs ensued in Monterey along a tour through its famous aquarium.  After a rather restless night in a soggy EconoLodge, our room just recently cleaned leaving the carpet slightly but uncomfortably soggy, we vacated immediately to shore front.  Seeking out our morning coffees and iced teas from the local Starbucks, our path carried us to the aquarium.  Unlike its brother here in Baltimore, the Monterey Aquarium had all the trappings of a tourist destination without the dumbed-down dolphin shows, offering packed presentations of the institution’s research such as the habits of sharks and jellies.  The speaker explained how they tagged sharks and studied where they traveled and which oceanic territories they fed.  It was both intelligent and interesting.

RT3_aquariumFor the rest of the morning, we watched jellyfish bob like ghost lanterns against liquid blue walls.  Sea horse couples waltz among the seaweed, to some silent composition instinct conducts beneath the waves.  Rock-shaped crabs would come to life and snap at bits of shrimp during feeding time; Jay and I watched as their blender-like maws tossed and puree their meals in seconds.  We witnessed vine-shaped snakes, draped over thick branches.  The serpents hailed from Asia and looked as if . . .

“Hey Maw, look here at dem snakes,” a young boy shouts tapping the glass with two fingers.

“Well, I’ll be a rabid mule . . . they’re trying to escape,” the old woman said, watching as the snakes hover their heads before their plastic cell.

“Ar dey poisonous?”

“Says here dey from Asia.  Must be. Everting’s poisonous dere.”

Dasad bristled at the woman’s comment as she walked away into the otter exhibit.

“I’ll bite you lady,” he muttered glaring at her floral muumuu, as it disappeared behind a corner.  “Show you how poisonous we Asians really are.”

“A pathetic threat,” I sighed.  “Your bark is ten-times worse than your bite.  Particularly that post-burrito ‘bark’ the other day in the car.  I would have lain down with a hundred snakes than suffer that again.”

“ ‘Lain?’”

“Doc Fitz.  Senior year composition.  He had us repeating grammar rules each day for an entire year.  We’d be correcting each other while BS-ing in the locker rooms.  Even now, I manually place commas and periods when texting.”

“Freak,” Dasad said, drifting off into the gift shop, which is just as well as I heard that Asians can kill with just a glance, like basilisks.  Thus, while he’s getting me out of trouble, I try to keep him calm.  It’s safer for everyone that way.  Particularly the ignorant tourists.

RT3_squidBefore leaving the aquarium, I bought a few shirts and a beautiful stuffed octopus, which I only mention as I’m currently wearing it on my head.  When my sister walks into the room, I scream: “Bree, the alien has latched onto my brain!  Help me before my mind turns to muusssssshhh . . .”  Not exactly the use intended by the manufacturer (nor the cute cashier I bought it from, I’d wager) but seeing as we’re driving off towards wine country, I felt that a little madness in closing would be appropriate.

Next time: wine, women and Sonoma!

West Coastin’: Rest Stops

RT3_pchAnyone who visits California must travel along Route 1, the Pacific Coast Highway, once in their life.  Frankly if you’re alive and own a car, the trip is required (the penalty is death if you refuse and own a convertible).  I associate it to a rite of passage, as sacred and necessary as receiving your first kiss, landing your first job, or watching your first Indiana Jones movie.

The road slips and glides around the western cliffs, hugging the steep rocky curves the way roads should and cars seldom can.  Signs advising 40mph wink knowingly as your car flies by, nearing twenty-more than safety dictates.  You look outside and gaze straight up or straight down.  Trees dapple the hills and mountains like an old man’s chin, while waves churn and crash on dark cliff walls, breaking stone with milky foam as dark clouds seem to flood the skies with sea.  As fog descends from unseen peaks, cloud and water merge.  The Pacific fades from view like the edge of an unfinished landscape.  At night fleeting wisps of light trace the folds in the peninsula, eventually swallowed by a valley or fold hidden in the darkness. We arrived in Monterey late, exhausted and hungry.

Several hours prior we had stopped for a tour of Hearst Castle, discovering the site during a sudden and expedient bathroom break.

“Damn it,” I cursed, nearly running down the streets of the small town.  “‘Bathrooms are for customers only.’  Do I have to pay admittance before I visit the privy or pay my toll afterwards?”

All of the various shops or cafes in town restricted bathroom use to customers only.  Signs posted in the windows clearly told me to ‘Go away!’ and ‘We don’t want your kind here.’ Or ‘Empty your bladder somewhere else and then come back and try our scones.  Delicious!’  All Dasad could manage was to giggle at my predicament, suggesting various walls and trees, which given five more minutes may have become enticing.   Moreover, he would not pay the ransom, citing something about terrorist demands and the outrageous prices on a worthless sea lion snow globe.

RT3_pch2Nearly jogging several blocks, Jay and I finally found the public bathroom, buried deep behind the local Texaco station: a concrete shack that at one time may have doubled for a bomb-shelter.  Still I wasn’t in the position to quibble.  Despite the notorious reputation of many gas-station bathrooms only a handful I have considered truly disgusting.  Most, though ill-suited for your Aunt Gertrude, are far more sanitary than most locker rooms.  However, in this forgotten town, nestled between two adjacent mountains off the Pacific Coast Highway, I encountered a chimera, something both unique and horrible.

Just imagine the worse possible scenario for each of your senses and you’ll grasp the general aura of this public facility.  Relieved but pale, I hastened outside, where Jay stood waiting.

“How is it?” he asked.

“Just don’t touch or look at anything.  I’d suggest breathing, but if the filth reaches your nose, you might collapse.  And I won’t be going in again to save you.”

I tracked down Dasad to the local candy store, ferreting for some home-made chocolate or sweets, yet most of their confections appeared boxed, mass-produced, or Hershey.  He left unimpressed and quite hungry; thus, we sat down at the local burger place for lunch.  After we had ordered, Jay returned from the bathroom, his face white and wet as if he had just fallen into the polar icecap.  Sitting down, he twisted his hands together, absently, I thought, until he pulled out an empty bottle of disinfectant and squirted it on his hands and face.

“It was full thirty minutes ago,” he said, massaging between his fingers.  When our burgers and fries arrived, he stared at his palms for a moment before picking them up, considering – I imagine – whether any impurities still lingered.

A nearby couple discussed their own vacation at the table nearby.  The conversation turned to their excellent visit to Hearst Castle, only a few miles up the road according to the road signs. Castles and ruins will capture the imagination of a twenty-nine year old as easily as a twelve-year-old, and without a word, we decided to take a gander.

Two hours later as we boarded the tour bus, Dasad and I came down with a serious case of laughing sickness, the kind that overwhelms your senses, making it nigh near impossible to stop.  It began just after the National Geographic film on the life of William Randolph Hearst and the construction of his home, the castle.

RT3_tapestryApart from the breathtaking scenes in European cathedrals and ruins, the whole presentation was essentially camp, recreating the publishing giant into some mythological figure rather than a human being: “There are many stories about William Randolph Hearst and his castle, but in order to understand the man and his genius, I’ll tell you my version.  It’s the one I enjoy the most.  It also happens to be the truth.”  The disembodied narrator, a supposedly sixty-some year-old pilot, could learn something about subtlety in his storytelling.  If they had concluded the film with Hearst curing cancer or turning lead into gold, it would not have surprised me.

So powerful was this performance that Dasad began channeling the man himself, squawking orders to our fellow tourists like a 1940s gangster.

“I’m William Randolph Hearst, see.  When I ring this bell, I want you Cary Grant to dress up like Little Orphen Annie, see.  And you Amelia Earheart shall dance for me.  Dance until I tell you to stop, see?  ‘Cause I’m the Hearst and while you’re at my castle, you’ll do as I say, see?  Or I’ll feed you to my cross-eyed polar bear, nyaeah . . .”

“Why are you talking like James Cagney?”

“ ‘Cause he’s old,” Dasad explained.  “Everyone back then talked like this . . . see?”

Something about that absurd logic and absurd movie that inspired it sent me rolling.  The two of us nearly crawled onto the bus, packed tight with tourists, who just stared quietly at the pair of giggling pot-addicts in the front seat.  When the bus started up the hillside, a train whistle erupted over the loudspeaker, followed shortly by the rest of the train: Chugga-chugga-chugga.  Whoot-whoot!  Chugga-Chugga. Welcome to the Hearst Castle Tour!  Whoot! Are you ready, pardners?

I looked at Dasad, red-faced and biting his fist.  After a few moments, it became difficult to breathe.

“If you guys don’t stop soon,” a lady beside me said with a smile, “I’m going to join you.  It’s contagious, you know.”

“S-sorry,” I giggled between my teeth, earnestly trying to master myself, until Dasad began muttering something.  All I heard was ‘. . . nyeah, see?’ and my willpower crumbled again.  We were no more good until the bus stopped just outside Hearst’s Roman pool.RT3_map