Storytelling

As I mentioned in an earlier post, the boys and I had the opportunity to visit the San Diego Comic Con.  Having just returned with oodles and oodles of pictures of cosplayers, figures, and convention halls, I’m a little behind with my post about the con itself.  Luckily, while I organize myself and the details of the trip in my head, I wanted to post this little vignette from one of our afternoons at the con.  Rodney, Shannon, Kevin and I had just spent six hours in the convention center and eager for sustenance (as Thor would say), we left to grab a sandwich and a beer.  En route, Rodney relayed a brief story about a rather awkward party he had attended years ago.  Considering myself a seasoned dabbler in the storytelling trade myself, I could not stop myself from criticizing . . . a little:

“And that’s the end of the story?  You just left?”  I asked, juggling my backpack from one shoulder to the other.  “Lame.”

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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’: Feeding the Animals

Giraffes!

Giraffes!

Our second port of call was San Diego.  Having heard of its charm, beauty, and the annual comic convention – which we missed this year but desperately hope to attend next summer if I can beguile . . . er, convince Dasad – we decided to scout out the city.  We stopped first at the zoo, since it was a bit of the inspiration for Critchon’s Jurassic Park and I was curious to see if it lived up to its reputation.

“This place is more like an amusement park,” Dasad said, gazing at the map, nearly the size of a Risk game board.  Various regions color-coded by continent or climate, divided the map into pieces; animal icons indicated species-specific paddocks.  We decided to invade the ‘Urban Jungle’ first, one of more intriguing lands with rhinos and anteaters and because it was also closest to the entrance.  Along the way, we halted our expedition to take pictures of some koalas and a capybara, the largest rodent on Earth, a fact indifferent to most tourists.

“Here come take a look at this big rat,” a red-faced man said picking up a small boy, who I assume was related in some way.  “If only I had my shotgun . . .”

The pair (father and son?) walked off to join a larger group – family I suppose – the man, shouting ‘Boom! Boom! Click!’ in his wake.  The unwitting ‘rats’ continued to scamper around the cage, blissfully ignorant and sleepy.

RT2_rhinoWe made our way to the elephant paddock then, a huge pen intermingled with other animals: vultures, lions, snakes, insects, and other modern day descendents of those swallowed by tar eons ago. The elephant compound could not have been larger had the zoo built it for dinosaurs.  Large open space sparingly furnished with trees and downed logs; a gated bridge joined the two enormous pens, allowing tourists to pass beneath.  Huge steel rails, nearly as thick as a mammoth’s thigh, circled the enclosure.  I had the passing image of a rampaging bull elephant ramming against the bars, trumpeting in rage, scattering frightened tourists.

Mom once warned us after noticing the heightened police presence at the mall that we should be careful, watchful for gangs and pickpockets.  Pat and I laughed then at the irony, but looking at the huge mammals stomp across the plain, I have a greater appreciation for what Mom meant.  Despite the impressive lodgings, the dung beetles garnered larger crowds than the mammals whose waste they depended on. We fought through the crowds for just a glimpse of three black bugs the size of quarter roll dung up a hill.  Amazing.

Sodomy2Passing through a tunnel beneath the paddock, Dasad spied a large four-foot statue of a condor or an eagle, silently surveying the nearby leopard pen.  Various statues and animal busts guarded several of the enclosure throughout the park, perhaps like fiberglass owls back home, to scare away local (and thus uninteresting) wildlife from the grounds.  Nonplussed my friend attempted to ride the stone bird, but stretching his legs across the bird’s back proved dangerous, awkward, and painful – unfortunately he halted the attempt before I managed to free my camera.  Feeling quite foolish, I suppose, amid the crowds, he instead stood behind the animal and humped it.

One of the zoo officials called out to him as I took the shot.

“Hey man!”  Somehow I felt that this exhibition would signify an immediate expulsion from the park and probably several PETA fines to boot.  The fact that the animal was actually made of stone and several times larger than its model seemed a moot point.

Thus I gaped while the official high-fived Dasad and yelled, “Some days man.  Some days, I wish I could get some too . . .”

What this signified about San Diego zoo employees, I could only guess, but Dasad reacted as if he had received a medal of honor.  Worse, he had discovered an audience, and if there’s one thing I learnt from reading Batman over the years, it’s that crazy people love an audience – which is why Freud created psychologists.  Garnering strength from his new fan base, my friend proceeded to pleasure several additional stone fauna before we managed to extricate ourselves from the park.

RT2_waterOn the way down to the Seaport Village, we passed the city’s monstrous convention hall, swarming little more than a week ago with geeks and fanboys for the 2009 ComiCon.  Of the city’s many pleasures, this stood out in my mind as I’ve been meaning to attend the convention for the last few years, only to arrive now several days late and a dollar short.

While Dasad and Jay argued over suitable dining for the evening (seafood or Mexican), I gazed with rapt attention at the sizable edifice, imagining the site next year: awash with costumes, movie stars, and fans from every corner of geekdom.  Aisles glazed in plastic inserts, polished art, and one-of-a-kind sketches.  Manga and graphic novels shimmering on the racks like unpolished gold, shrouding the magnificent stories deep within their leaves. Beautiful.  Next summer when we fly back to San Diego, we’ll need to bring extra bags for . . .

“Wait, hold on dude,” Dasad interrupted as we drove north under a multitude of cranes, arching above us like medieval cathedral.  One or two cargo ships in dock sleep patiently while the mechanical arms reached down and snatched at the crates nestled snugly in their holds.  “Who said anything about coming back for ComiCon?”

“Well, I did silly.  Thought it best to mention the trip now, so you can plan out the rest of your year.  Save the date, and all that.”

“We’re not going to ComiCon or at least I’m not.”

“Of course, WE are.  Did you not hear what I said about the comics, the movie stars, and the graphic novels like buried gold?  Beautiful stories buried beneath piles of obsequious merchandizing?  The metaphor might be too subtle.  Maybe an allusion  . . .”

“No way.  Do you know how much the tickets to fly to Anaheim cost?”

“About $400 dollars round trip?”  For both of us, and for the moment ignoring hotel expenses.  As I said, I’ve been considering rubbing elbows with geek-elite since New Years.

“Well, San Diego is probably more.  Just to see sweaty unbathed virgins pore over stories we can buy here with the airfare we save.”

“With the rising cost of gasoline that might not be true anymore . . .”

“I can live without it,” he grumbled. For someone horny enough to violate a cement eagle, he sure had difficulty sucking it up now and then.  I penciled him in as a definite maybe, and listening to my stomach growl, refocused my efforts on finding dinner.

RT2_westWe decided on Old Town, a collection of historical houses and shops much in way of Colonial Williamsburg, back home.  I tried picturing John Wayne or Clint Eastwood walking through the streets, kicking up dust and dried blood with their six-shooters as their sides, but the green lawns and ice cream parlors suggested more Ann of Green Gables than the Man with No Name.

The surrounding area about the antiquated buildings is devoted to small Mexican markets filled with trinkets and t-shirts and restaurants, bursting with the scent of refried beans and sizzling fajitas.  Here – at least according to Jay’s iPhone – the enchiladas and burritos were considered quite authentic, and being quite techno-savvy, as well as famished, we strode the three blocks without argument to the restaurant just outside Old Town’s Plaza del Pasado, a hotel that showcased live entertainment and open-air dining with fiery brick fireplaces.  The sun had sunk behind the architecture, and the warmth of the fires was inviting.  While Jay convened with Google, Dasad and I stopped to gaze at a sign just outside the plaza.

“Haunted tours, huh?”  Dasad read.  “Nine o’clock.  ‘We know where the ghosts are.’  Sounds interesting.”

“Might be fun to simply stand in the back and scream every now and then,” I said, “Just to keep things interesting.”

“Probably isn’t much though.  Hell, we could start our own tour.  Get a list of places, research the history, and then scare the tourists with flashlights and mirrors.  Easy.  We’d get plenty of screams just having you pop out from time to time.”

“Funny,” I muttered.

RT2_city“Here boys and girls,” he shouted in his best Barnum-voice, “We have the rare treat of encountering a single American otaku, look at his pale features and large gut.  Unemployed specimens like Murph here dwell in the dungeons and cellars of their ancestors, absorbed in painting miniatures and playing with themselves.  Watch out Miss, he has not known a woman’s touch in so long . . . He might become unpredictable when aroused.”

“Look, I wouldn’t . . .” I began.

“Ewww, Mommy make it go away.  Its pasty skin . . . like it’s dead.” Dasad continued, whining in a high-pitched voice.

“Don’t worry, son.  We’ll go to the gym tomorrow or spend the day outside.  It hates sunlight and physical labor.  Otaku can’t chase us even if we jog.”

In my case, this happens to be quite true.  In his current marathon-ready state, I could never hope to catch Dasad even if he skipped up the lane (which he does, ladies, more often than any grown man should).  I returned with a few pointed jabs at Trekkies, computer consultants, and assholes until I felt that we were even.  Together we laughed at the absurdity, creating several other skits before we reached the restaurant.  Jay followed silently – clearly the most mature of our group – holding his iPhone before him as if scanning the area for clues.

Now Mexican food is a treat for me, one reserved for road trips and the occasional movie night with Dasad.  The man loves his spicy food about as much as my family hates it: the hot sauce and spices do not mix well with their strict meat and potatoes diet.    Thus, I only manage to feast on enchiladas about twice a year (I refused to eat at Taco Bell with their $.99 tacos and brown bean parfait, sluiced through an old Slushee machine and sprinkled with week-old chedder.).

Thus, I had high hopes for Casa Guadalajara.

Inside we were met with an explosion of color: paper streamers of sun-burnt oranges, reds, and blues hung loosely from the ceiling; large vases overflowed with green leaves and bombastic flowers; and striped tablecloths like hand-woven shrouds dangled from long family-sized tables.  A mariachi band played in the corner and families chattered noisily in the corner.  Kids giggled, running and ducking beneath their parents legs.  The whole place reminded me so much of home, I nearly cried.

RT2_mexfoodOur waiter sat us down and gave us our menus.  One of the principal rules for dining – much like grocery shopping – is to never ever choose anything on an empty stomach.  This might at first appear a rather faulty paradox, seeing as you arrive at a restaurant to eat, and thus rather peckish.  Yet men oft order with their eyes, thinking little of the portions their hunger demands, and before you can consider otherwise, your appetizers spread out before you several portions larger than expected.  Like the surfer praying for a wave, and ending up with a tsunami.

Such was our case.  The appetizer in addition to the free chips and salsa nearly overwhelmed us; nevertheless we dived in, scooping out soft tacos, guacamole salsa, and cheese drenched chips.  Five minutes into our feast, we abandoned our pre-game meal to the doggy bag and loosened our belts.  Our burritos and enchiladas had yet to arrive, and short of storing the meal in my cheeks, most of our entrees would have to be taken home.

In the end, we waddled from the restaurant, our arms dangled with take-home bags, our guts hanging over our belts in complete and utter satisfaction.  After a walk around the shops and market – searching in vain for an authentic pancho for Dasad – we left to drive back to Anaheim.  Tomorrow we would set up the Pacific Coast Highway, on our road to Napa Valley and a truck full of wine.