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’.

Good Service Nowadays

“One ninety-four!”

“One ninety-four!”

The Panera Bread near the boys’ school is located in an old outlet center under construction. Golden bulldozers and backhoes decorate the parking lot, former Laundromats and Dollar Stores collapse into dust while steel skeletons of new stores emerge from their ashes, and hardhatted construction workers cut thick patchwork pieces from the asphalt like haberdashers into fresh fabric. Once finished, they trim the entire site, barricading the cut edges and broken piles with a neon-orange mesh. Driving through to as-of-yet untouched parking lot before Panera is akin to competing in an off-road obstacle course, skidding over uneven road and avoiding the sweeping necks of monstrous machines. Nevertheless, the ensuing chaos and haphazard construction does little to disrupt the flock of young businessmen and women, who congregate before Panera every morning.

I arrive at the bakery quarter of eight in the morning, after dropping the boys off at football practice, to grab a breakfast sandwich and some cold tea. The suits are all there, mingling outside the store and gossiping inside around coffee and bagels, bedecked like fashionable New York models. I order my food and within a few minutes they leave all at once, flying off to their jobs like startled pigeons migrating between park statues. The café empties and I am left with the Panera staff and an eclectic group of seniors. Most look either relieved for the return to silence or totally oblivious to the change at all.

The chef behind the counter calls my number, shoving a rolled up bag across the counter. Oblivious myself, I continue to sip iced tea and hum old tunes from the 40s, recalled from years of Bug Bunny cartoons:

“You musta been a beautiful baby, you musta been a beautiful child, when you were only startin’ to go to kindergarten I bet you drove the lil’ boys . . .”

“One ninety-four!”

“Right!” I shout and the chef glares at me simultaneously muttering “Have a nice day” with programmed absence.

Maybe my dress is not on par with the rest of the café’s patrons, but it is early on a Monday morning so I cut the guy some slack. Other encounters have not been so warm. Fast food cashiers for example never seem particularly energized. The low pay and long hours without thought probably does little to boost moral. Yet I wonder sometimes whether people work their jobs or whether people’s jobs work them. Sometimes it falls to the customer to galvanize those who serve him into action:

“WelcometoWendysmayItakeyourorder?”

Nothing about my cashier suggested anything but loathing toward me and the food consuming public as a whole. The family and I had stopped on the way down to Florida at combination gas station-Wendy’s-DairyQueen-market for food and ice cream. She – let’s call her Wendy – seemed like she wanted to kill herself and the most of humanity in one fell swoop. Her monosyllabic greeting slid from her mouth like a crash victim, slowly and with great pain. Normally I would have been taken aback. However, Wendy had mumbled the programmed welcome with such perfect fluidity and indifference that I paused before announcing my order, clearly impressed and thus resolute to pester her with cheerfulness.

“Hello, how are you today?”

“Fiiinnne . . .” she moans with a sigh. Success! Already I had struck a nerve.

“Could I get a . . . um, a chicken sandwich and . . .”

“Fried, spicy, grilled, or sautéed?”

“Oh . . . well, what would you recommend?”

At first, I get no response. Wendy glares at me incredulously. Clearly – and probably wisely too – she does not eat here. Nonetheless, she musters a response: “Um if you like spicy hot food and heartburn, get the spicy chicken. The sautéed chicken is greasy. Grilled is decent, and crispy, well . . .”

Here she paused and for a moment I spied a slight grin, mischievous and rebellious. “. . . is God-awful,” she whispers.

“Right, grilled then,” I laugh. “Oh and a large iced tea as well.”

“Right, grilled then,” I laugh.  “Oh and a large iced tea as well.”

“Oh and a large iced tea as well.”

Fast food cashiers by in large are like that, moaning and groaning like the titular characters in a George Romero zombie flick. Of course, I saw “SuperSize Me” too. If my job involved knowingly feeding the general populace fatty sauces and questionable meat, I would try to frighten away future customers far from our value meals. That reminds me, have you heard the new advertising for McDonalds’ chicken strips: now guaranteed with 100% real meat! Should we ask what kind of meat? Moreover, what exactly did I ingest several months ago? Was it animal, mineral, or vegetable? I do not envy any fast food worker, accosted with these heavy questions.

Fast food workers however are not the only ones afflicted with occupational depression. Take my recent encounter with the drink girl at the local golf course for example. Typically these maidens with their roving oases exude a pleasant cheerfulness, offering liquid hope to the heat-irradiated sportsman, yet this story involves a rare specimen. The girl seemed pleasant enough, if you ignored the bug-eyed sunglasses, petulant sarcasm, and Sunday-morning face of the late night drinker. As she drove near the green, my brother Shannon repositioned the flag and asked for a sandwich:

“Ummm . . . it’s eight o’clock in the morning,” she explained.

“Oh ok, well . . . thank you,” Shannon replied, taken aback. “But do you have any sandwiches?”

“No . . .” she sighed. “We have only few snacks and muffins. That’s it.”

“Iced tea for me,” I clamor after missing my putt.

“I’ll take a muffin,” Shannon’s friend, Chuck, says handing her a hundred dollar bill. For the next year or so, until he finishes his senior year at high school, Chuck is staying with us. The large bill represents the entirety of his spending money for the next six or so months. However, the girl clearly interprets his eagerness to pay for their drinks as futile attempt to flirt.

“I’m not impressed,” she responds, hurriedly passing him his change and driving off.

Clearly alcohol and early mornings mix as well as beer before liquor (never sicker). This alarming trend concerning those individuals in my life who prepare my food gives me pause. Luckily enough, I can always depend on those wonderful folks at my local bookstore cafe. After grabbing my daily egg sandwich at Panera, I read for a bit and then visit the book emporium before retrieving up the boys from practice. This has become a daily routine so much so that the baristas ready the iced tea as I walk in:

“Mornin’ Murph, your usual? Large iced tea again today?”

“You got it, Joel, but with a splash of raspberry syrup if you got any,” I respond, momentarily distracted by a large table of novels. “Buy 1, and purchase another for ½ off.” I remind myself to scour the titles before I leave.

“No problem, man,” Joel responds, energetically. “Scone? We just got a fresh batch of cinnamon and apple . . .”

“Well . . .” I love scones. “Oh, what the heck. Heat it up for me.” I sip my tea while Joel throws the triangular pastry into the oven.

“Did you manage to see any movies over the weekend?” Joel asks, as soon as the oven chimes. Of all the baristas who work at the café, Joel loves discussing comic books, movies, and all things geeky. Moreover, he is the epitome of the perfect barista: energetic, efficient, and friendly. I anticipate our morning discussions every day.

“I took my folks and a few of the siblings out to see “The Dark Knight” for the eighth time. Did you see it yet?”

Joel pauses and frowns. “Yeah, but I didn’t like it. The costume was all wrong, more like a SWAT gunmen than a superhero. They totally forgot about Harvey’s dual personalities, and I lost track of the characters after a while. It was all so confusing. I nearly walked out halfway through . . . Hey, dude, don’t you want your scone?!”

"I didn't like it."

"I didn't like it."

I gasp and mindlessly stagger out into stacks, my fanboy pride in tatters. No disillusioned fast food cashier could have hurt me more. Quickly, I buy a stack of novels, childrens’ lit, and five or so volumes of manga (Buy 4, Get the 5th Free) to ease my pain.

I take a long sip of iced tea to cleanse the bad taste from my mouth. Yes, it truly is a shame: the blended raspberry and the iced tea were delicious, perfectly delicious.