Delayed by Destiny

Many apologies for the absence of posts lately.  In my effort to see my name in print, I’ve been writing non-stop, adding some finishing touches on some of my short stories.  In some cases, the damage is minimal: a little spackle here, a new coat of paint, repair some dangling participles, done.   For others, the internal structure was a mess, infested with confusing plot, ambiguous characters, and one rather egregious split infinitive.

Anyway, if any of you can direct me to some admirable sci-fi/fantasy magazines, I’d highly appreciate it.  Ample thanks and Dasad’s first-born child will be yours.

Seeing as we’re nearing Halloween, I thought to share a little Lux Aeterna with you though until I manage to get my act together.  I’m still a little shaky on my costume this year but might take a page from Jim during this evening’s  Office.  BookFace: the popular social-networking site!

West Coastin’: Last Call

RT8_sushiIn those final days, our adventures kept us tethered close to Anaheim, cleaning our hotel rooms, gathering souvenirs, and worrying that the airport would not choose to jettison nearly a thousand dollars worth of wine (Mom’s frequent and incessant doubts, to be honest, worried me.  I imagined ourselves forced to drink thirty-six impounded bottles in the airport terminal only to miss our flight or have our stomachs pumped – whichever came first.).

At the time, we were quite content to remain within an hour of the hotel.  Mostly we focused on our stomachs, sampling local bakeries and restaurants recommended by various family and friends . . . and the internet.  I should note here that this form of research notoriously tests wills and tempers, breaking friendships and ruining meals to the tune of ‘But . . . but they said it was good!’ and ‘How can so many people be wrong?’

Advice as Tolkien writes often is a dangerous gift . . . as all courses may run ill.  Yet in the case of dining, this can be taken quite literally.  A bad meal can ruin evenings, sending the unlucky diner tumbling into the bathroom, hugging about the toilet for days.  Good advice is of course aimed to prevent this, yet even precluding sickness, the combination of high expectations, modest fare, and poor atmosphere alone may ruin any meal.

Many people have a habit of recommending hole-in-the-wall restaurants, small cramped cafes tucked away from the mainstream and thus more expensive dining halls, promising excellent fare and original tastes in exchange for unassuming environments (i.e. fly-encrusted tables and claustrophobic dining where you are practically sitting in your neighbor’s pasta bowl).  In such cases, originality and a good story or two is the true fare, not the food.  At one such diner back home, my efforts to dislodge myself from the table and visit the bathroom nearly forced the entire dining room out into the street.

I never relish throwing away money on expensive meals, yet the old maxim often holds true: you get what you pay for.

Yet as mentioned before, the driving force for this trip was food, and so we chose two restaurants recommended by friends and family back home before flying home.  In both cases, the restaurants were stationed an hour from Anaheim’s border, and so once again we boarded our Sebring for another road trip.

RT8_bakeryOur first stop gave us hope.  The Karen Krasne bakery in San Diego greeted us with dozens of freshly made cakes, pies, cookies, and assorted baked goods.  Apparently the selection constantly changes depending on the whims and moods of the cooking staff, thus no dessert menu is given; our waitress asked us to step up front and select from the gooey pastries, creamy custards, and chocolate dripped cakes.  Moreover, the entire staff was made up of well-dressed women, a charming feature for three guys on vacation.

“You guys should look in the back,” Dasad said, returning from the bathroom just as his chocolate sundae arrived layered in home-made chocolate syrup.  I dug into my own dish: shredded coconut blended with dark chocolate and molded into the shape of an evergreen tree.  Our waitress, a beautiful blonde model, smiled at three of us digging into our desserts.

“What?  Did you see them make anything?” I asked, patting the chocolate from my lips.

“No, it’s just that everyone in the back is rather . . . homely or male.  They must shuttle all the beautiful girls to the front.  Keep the . . . less than ideal staff in the back.”

“For presentation purposes?”

“Sure, helps with the elegant look, right?  If you’re running a restaurant, you don’t assign a cranky morbid waiting staff.  You get someone perky and energetic, keeps the customers happy.  Restaurants have décor, atmosphere: paint, landscapes, stained wood . . .”

“. . . basketball hoops, jungle gyms, giant rat mascots,” I added helpfully.  Jay ignored us both and stared without reserve at the bartender, drying martini glasses near the cash register.

“Shut it.  My point is why not hire attractive people too?”  Dasad asked pointing his spoon at me.

“Well, the reverse might be more accurate also,” I said, after some consideration.  “Happy competent people are more beautiful, thus more likely to serve food.”

“Perhaps.   Anyway, I’m not complaining and it’s not sleazy.  They don’t sell wings and tank tops.  The separation was just very apparent to me.”

“That’s cause you’re a perv,” I said, chewing on coconut.

“Shut it . . .”

RT8_cakesSatisfied both body and soul, we waddled outside with three slices of chocolate cake.  Our gastronomic odyssey continued.  Dasad’s cousins had made mention that a truly great roasted chicken dwelled in the heart of L.A. so after dessert we drove north to see about dinner, finding the small establishment in a small strip mall just off Sunset.  It was a little past four when we passed through Anaheim and collided with rush hour traffic into L.A.  Moreover, neither Jay nor Dasad knew where to go, and after consulting Google (Thank Heaven for the iPhone; without the maps, restaurant reviews, and Journey videos – ‘Don’t Stop Believin’ is essential for the long car rides – we would not have survived.), we located the place on the corner of what looked like a strip mall.

Parking was sparse, but we found a space wedged against the wall of the next building, adorn with graffiti and ‘Spaces for Customers Only’ signs.  We kicked coffee cups across the small lot before entering what looked like a school cafeteria: plastic neon orange seats, wobbling tables, overhead menus misspelling chicken with the number 1.  Not exactly what I imagined but honestly, having arrived, the unassuming atmosphere excited me a great deal.

“Finally,” I thought, “A genuine culinary diamond-in-the-rough, known to few, appreciated by only the culinary elite.   The perfect fried chicken . . .”

Yeah.  So the chicken was . . . well, chicken.  Nothing particularly interesting or special.  The seasoning – if any – was on par with the local supermarkets here in Maryland.  Based upon the recommendations, we had expected something extraordinary, a gastronomic masterpiece: savory chicken rotisserie, a roasted bird dry rubbed in garlic and oregano, dribbled with succulent juices, perhaps even infused with warm stuffing or berry compote.  Instead they handed us an animal one would expect beneath the heat lamp at 7-Eleven: good but hardly worth the commendation.

Our late night snack . . .

Our late night snack . . .

The meal had a similar effect on Dasad who as I recall cried aloud at the lack of hearty seasonings.   Yet last weekend, a month after returning to Maryland (our wine arrived safely much to Mom’s chagrin and utter joy) while driving out for a late evening flick (The Invention of Lying in case you’re wondering; another disappointment) I learned that online reports seem to have affected a change of heart:

“You know that chicken wasn’t that bad,” he admitted.  “In fact, it was probably the . . . best I’ve ever had.”

“You said it sucked at the time,” I countered calmly.  “That the bird had no real flavor.  That to Californians, chicken must be some rare delicacy in order for this ‘meal’ – I believe you used the air quotes – to entice so many . . .”

“I did not use air quotes.”

“Okay . . . but you did suggest KFC might be more authentic . . .”

“Yeah but . . .”

“Also if Gordon Ramsey had visited the place, he would have F-bombed the whole block to outer rims of Hell.”

“Alright already,” Dasad said, sighing behind the wheel. “I had expected more, but so many people online praise it.  We must have missed something.  Millions of people can’t be wrong . . . whoaaaa!” The car suddenly braked, veering to the shoulder as a herd of deer bounce nonchalantly across the highway

“Millions of people oppose hunting too,” I muttered as the Acura crept tentatively onto the highway again.  “Experience is everything.  My point is you tasted the chicken and left unimpressed.  I remember that much.  How can you be swayed otherwise?”

Dasad seemed to consider this a bit, diverting his attention every so often at the trees to the right of the car.

“No . . .,” he said finally. “We probably just did not order the right thing.  Like that In & Out Burger.  Apparently there’s a secret burger that’s not on the menu.  Everyone orders it, but you have to know.  We couldn’t because we didn’t.  Yet those who have tasted the burger say it’s incredible.”

“What?  Do they press two layers of paper-thin patties together?  Add more lettuce, tomatoes, and secret sauce to make the burger appear thicker?  To hide the absence of real meat?” I asked sardonically, trying to flush out my own feelings for these on-line gourmands.  Unrivaled majority support for anything only proves to heighten my suspicions.

“Either way you order it, dude, it’s still fast-food.  They don’t keep fresh ground beef stored in the freezer waiting for some knowledgeable customer to speak the secret code and unlock the invisible menu.  Pleease . . . just accept your own first impressions.  It sucked . . . deer to the left”

“See ‘em.”  This herd feasted peacefully in the middle median, potential torpedoes ready to leap into traffic.  “So what’s for dinner?”

“Uh . . . Sushi?”

“Sure, why not?”

“Good, a month after California and I’m dying for yellowtail.  The last month has been murder too.  Wanderlust has set again . . .”

“Ha,” Dasad laughed.  “Whereto now?  Montana?  Mexico?  Europe?”

“Or Japan,” I smiled.  “You know me . . . I won’t be happy until we’ve circumnavigated the globe.  In the meantime, turn up the radio.  You can hear my warbled voice until we reach the restaurant.”


And so our journey to the West Coast ended.  We’ve only opened one bottle of the wine so far – Mom learned of the cost and refuses to open more.  I’m still considering our next destination, possibly overseas or near a comic convention.  Dasad and Jay returned to their jobs in good spirits, while I returned to my laptop and my stories.  All in all it was a great time.  In closing, I wanted to post some traveling music, a song that sped up time through wine country and back down to San Diego again in our cramped Sebring.  Thankfully our caterwauls have been excluded from this version:


West Coastin’: Daring Disney

RT7_rocksDasad, I discovered had never experienced the beautiful chaos that is the Disney theme parks.  This realization shocked me a little, as Dad has our yearly exodus to Florida planned and booked at least a year in advance (Typically, the week after returning to Maryland, growls are heard, demanding our schedules for next summer).  Visiting the familiar turnstiles and tourist-packed ‘lands’ percolate the senses the way home-baked cookies must entice wayward travelers.  The cries of children, the scent of sugar roasted almonds, and even the sight of swollen lines carried the sweet warmth of remembrance, of past adventures en mass: nearly twenty or so brothers, sisters, cousins, uncles, aunts, mothers, fathers, and grandparents.  Nearly a continent away, I walked through the park nevertheless enervated, ready to show my friends an excellent time.

Continue reading

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!

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.