Like Ants Cursing the Rain

Hillside of a golf course

“So what exactly are you saying?” Dasad asked, stirring the wasabi.  “That Star Wars should be added to the New Testament?  Some sort of sequel to Revelation?”

Murph gurgled some imperceptible response from his miso soup, inciting a sudden fit of coughing and drooling.  Dasad sighed and returned his attention to the green lump dissolving in his soy sauce.  Murphey had invited Dasad over the house for pizza and games earlier that week.  Dasad had accepted the invitation but neglected the hour-old pizza already ripped to shreds by the fraternal horde, Murphey’s younger brothers and sisters.  Sensing some internal struggle between hunger and disgust within his friend, Murph had suggested carry-out at the local sushi place.  Lenten Fridays restricted most fast food without scales and fins — excluding Taco Bell whose mushy meat remains to this day a zoological enigma.  Carting their repast home, Murph had suggested some minor alterations to 2010’s Holy Week. Continue reading

Advertisements

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’: From L.A. with Love

“The one you said was haunted?”

So having arrived in California, our first task was to get lost.  For some reason the roads leading into Disney and thus the hotel had been blocked by the Anaheim police department.  We circled the block several times, analyzing the various routes, double-checking our GPS, wondering if our room had somehow exploded and left us lodge-less for the remaining week.  On our third try, the cop moved off, allowing traffic through; Dasad and I looked at each other, shrugged, and drove on to the Disney Paradise Pier Hotel.

Upon checking in, we discovered a gas leak had closed the street when a gaggle of construction worker busied themselves with repairs at the resort.  Our concierge assured us nothing was amiss and although flammable material spewed onto the road, we were perfectly safe.  After nearly seven hours in flight and nearly one attempting to enter the resort, I would not have cared had they admitted digging for uranium with dynamite.

Now before delving into the details of our travels, I want to say something about California weather.  In Maryland, humidity can sap nearly all of one’s energy, leaving one lethargic and crawling toward the nearest air conditioner like a drowning man clawing at the sea breeze.  Yet on the West Coast, sunshine and blue skies dissipate morning fog each and every day and nearly constant breezes found us rolling down windows and anticipating long walks through nearby shops and gardens.  It’s no wonder that many of the environmental reforms stemmed from the Californian coastline; with the constant seasonal threat of humidity, hurricanes, blizzards, and floods, East Coasters have a love/hate relationship with Mother Nature, at times indifferent to whether she’s healthy or near-death.

Continue reading

Lost in Wonderland 2009

A semi-true story . . .

Dasad picked up a box, inside sat a smiling figure with long blonde hair donning a short nun’s frock and a pair of whirling yo-yos.  “How about this one?” he shouted to me as I crouched down to look at several swimsuit clad girls on the lower shelf.  “She looks cute and Catholic too.  Your family shouldn’t give you too much crap about that.”

bridgetI smiled.

“Uh sorry, no traps for me.  If you find a cute reverse trap, like Kino, I might give it a look.”

“What?”

“ ‘Traps,’” I explain before any of the nearby otaku or anime fans overhead us; aloud my explanations of otaku culture always sounded a little embarrassing.  Not that anyone really cared.  On the last day of Otakon, one of the East Coast’s biggest anime conventions, the attendees filed into the vendor hall by the thousands decked out in their finest costumes or cosplay.

“In other words, a gender bender.  Bridget there is a guy that looks like a girl, thus the ‘trap.’  I don’t recommend gazing up ‘his’ skirt.  It’s not pretty.”

“Oh,” Desad said, gently pushing the box back on the shelf.  “So a ‘reverse trap’ is . . .”

“A girl that looks like a guy, yeah.  Typically the ones in suits and hats, accessories that hide their . . . femininity.  Check out that Persona 4 wall scroll over there,” I point behind me.  Dasad gazes at the shingled wooden board painted with images of various students relaxing in a classroom. “The one in black hat and suit is a girl.”

“Looks like some badass street punk.”

“Yeah, she’s a detective in the game, but wraps up her chest like a female swordsman to make herself appear more masculine.  You see, the theme of role reversal is not limited to Shakespeare.  Many Asian . . .”

otakon2009_2“Whatever dude, are you done here?” Dasad asks impatiently, quickly evading a pair of giggling otaku fan-girls in black lace who raced cameras in-hand toward a long-haired cosplayer in blue uniform.  As my impatient friend did so, his head bumped against the outspread black wings of a sweaty thirteen year old, causing a momentarily spasm of panic akin to seven-year-old infected with cooties.  “I’m real interested in your sexual perversion and all, but my stomach’s been growling for the past hour.  Let’s grab some tacos from across the street before that guy eats them all.”

A fat pox-marked kid jiggles past us sucking on cheese-dribbled French fries; residual finger grease and ketchups stains smear a Robotech t-shirt.

“Aw . . . I don’t know if I’d say that.  Kid looks like a serial eater, doesn’t have any friends to tell him otherwise.”

“Probably ‘cause he ate them all.  Let’s go.  We’ll be safe as long as the concession stands are still stocked up on nacho cheese and pork rinds.”

“Okay,” I sigh, spying no interesting figures on the shelves and still deciding on a rather ecchi Fortune Arterial artbook.  “Let me walk through this row of stands and then we’ll head out.”

And so, I – nearly – drag him through the rows of manga, art books, DVDs, posters, and cat-eared hats, my eyes like anchors latching onto the latest series box set or plastic swimsuit clad swordmen.  Occasionally I lose Dasad while taking pictures or gazing at DVDs, only to find him surrounded and petrified by uniform-donned girls gyrating to some techno-enhanced soundtrack.  He nearly collapses when we leave the vendor floor.  Considering we had scoured the figure shelves for nearly two hours amid the thick Sunday crowds of the Con, I found his patience truly commendable.

otakon2009_4“Some of those girls in the bunny suits were not girls,” he pants, sniffling slightly.  “Son of a geek must have coated himself in olive oil to fit into those fishnets.  He stunk like week old garbage left out in the sun too long.”  He sneezes.

“Moldy too.”

“Those crowds don’t help either . . . Say dude,” I say flicking through my collection of photos on the viewer.  “You want to do sushi instead of tex-mex?”

“More Japanese stuff?” he heaved, with a reluctant smile.  “Sure I don’t mind.  What places are around here?”

Near the stairs, we tiptoe through groups of otaku clustered near the walls, their bags strewn open to reveal stacks of doujinshi, art books, manga, and other swag.  Some stretch out, relaxing atop friends and bookbags reading, others fast sleep curled on fake wings and stuffed animals.  In a separate corner, a group click and stab excitedly at their pocket game systems.  I hear the familiar roar of Mario carts, lightning bolts, and bubbling lava.

“There’s someplace nearby, I think.  Further north.  Sushi Sano or something like that . . .”

“Ugh,” he groans accidentally treading on a Naruto artbook before its owner could snatch it away.  “No way.  Is there anyplace else?”

“Why?  What’s wrong?  I hear the food there is pretty good.”

“That’s the place we visited last year, remember?  They kept an aquarium right beside the bar.  Staring at the customers, ten or so live fish in a tank . . . swimming!”

“Uh yeah, they do have a nasty habit of doing that.  So?”

“So . . . any place that cuts and prepares raw fish in front of live fish is disgusting.  It’s like eating a Big Mac in front of your cows.”

“Yeah, apart from the smell of livestock comingling with good food, it’s not really that big of a deal.  I mean, the cows and the fish don’t mind, dude.”

“Well, I do.  It’s disgusting and inhumane.  Let’s pick another place.  Maybe one within walking distance . . .”

As we reach the top of the stairs, crowds of otaku flow through the doors: young and old, in all manner of costumes and thus in all levels of dress and undress.  I recognize half-a-dozen characters from my favorite series and video games; others, perhaps more out of an urge to participate, appear to have worn whatever they found on their hotel floor this morning: assorted cat ears, human-sized swords, blood splatter, bells, whips, blue hair dye, silver trays, Coke bottles, and stuffed animals duct taped onto their person. One old lady strode rapidly up the escalator dressed in white frills, her hair flailing in all directions, looking every bit the part of a burnt-out (and slightly hung over) tooth fairy.

otakon2009_3“Whoa, look at that guy,” Dasad gasps.  “Tights should not be worn on legs like that.  Every bit of my manhood just shriveled up like a popped balloon.”

“I think that was an old lady.  Nearly fifty or so.”

“Ugh, that’s even worse,” my friend sighs. “Pop!”

“Hey,” I suddenly suggest, my eyes staring at a girl in a giant open pocky box.  “We need to dress up next . . .”

“No.  Hell, no.”

“Come on . . . Look how cool that costume is.  Maybe we can start out slow, with a T-shirt and maybe a tattoo . . .”

“Nope, the only costume I have is this nerd badge,” Dasad said patting his convention ID.   Across the front, a smiling blonde soldier in an orange jumpsuit stares wistfully at a blue sky.  “And I only chose this badge ‘cause it seemed more . . . normal than any of the others.  No half-dressed girls or supped-up robot maids.”

“Ooookay,” I whine.  “Well, I have a year to convince you otherwise.”

We walk up the escalator, welcoming the open empty spaces.  Among the upper levels of the center, the crowds thin and navigating felt much more manageable.  We breathe easier too but in Dasad’s case, this is quite literal.

“Listen dude,” he says without sniffing, “do you really think you’ll still be doing this next year?”

otakon2009“Well possibly . . .” I begin, momentarily distracted by a group of six or seven girls in various colored sailor-suited uniforms, all wielding bats, paper fans, bamboo swords, or in one case a pair of sub-machine guns.  At their center a uniformed boy crouches, suffering blows from the girls’ weapons across the shoulders or playfully about the head.  At each strike, the girls scream ‘Baka!’ and scowl haughtily.  The abusive circle strides past the in-house Starbucks before posing for pictures.  I snapped a few shots myself and continued walking.

“Shoot,” I curse, scanning through my shots.  “No stabilization.  All those shots look like a speeding train.”

“What was that?” Dasad asks as we cross the landbridge connecting the two halves of the convention center plaza.  “And why are we still inside, where there is no food?”

“We have to cross the street anyway,” I answer.  “Figured we could take some shots of the costumes before we leave.  If there’s any more costumes like that tsundere troop back there, we can’t miss it.”

“Is that a show?  Girls who beat guys, and the guys who love them?”

“Something like that.  Tsundere is a loose term for a character archetype, the introverted tomboyish girls, who have difficulty admitting their feelings.  Typically they tend to abuse the guy they like when they can’t express how they feel, but below that rough cruel shell, they’re actually quite kind and loving.”

“Like that girl in the Love Hina show, you liked?” he grins.

“Naru?” I laugh nervously.  “Yeah.  Personally I find it quite cute.”

“You would.”  Dasad sighs.  Someone behind us shouts ‘Marco!’ immediately followed up en mass with ‘Polo!’  This exchange continues for some minutes as more and more people join in what soon becomes a chant.  Others seem more irritated by the noise, but most of us, myself included, just grin and laugh.  Dasad looks questioningly at me.

“No clue, dude.  Just go with it.”

otakon2009_5The easternmost egress from the convention center opens onto a wide atrium brightly lit like a greenhouse by tall windows along the walls and ceilings.  Dark volcanic tile, a wide regal staircase, and a jungle of ferns and trees give the impression of a Polynesian resort; clusters of brightly colored cosplayers crowd together for pictures, chatting excitedly before the last AMV show of the Con begins in a nearby theater.  Dasad and I lean against the railing and look down from the upper floor, scanning the crowd for any interesting costumes.

I snap a few shots of Mario and Luigi as well as some of the Kingdom Hearts groups – girls with spiky hair wielding giant key-blades – meanwhile noticing that the gaming plaza had closed early.  Sunday really is not the day to visit this place.  Next year, I reminded myself I would have to get here either Friday or Saturday.  With a final sigh Dasad and I escape through the doors and walk down the street towards the harbor restaurants.

“I probably should have bought that artbook,” I mutter, glancing behind me.  “From what I’ve seen online, the art in that game is gorgeous.  Be nice to have it around in print too.”

“You’re really into this, aren’t you?” my friend says matter-of-factly.  “I suppose that you’re already thinking about next year.  Heaven knows why you like all this nonsense.”

“The whole adventure of it all,” I smile stretching my arms out wide.  “I mean look around you.  Ninjas, samurai, elves, zombies, and lovers.  They adore these characters; they love their stories.  The enthusiasm for the strange, wonderful, and heroic is contagious.  Everyone here is seeking something different, something extraordinary.”

“Something fake.  Whatever they’re looking for, they probably won’t find it.”

On the street a group of cat-eared girls run past us waving a long wooden paddle.  Japanese kanji decorate one side, on the other ‘yaoi’ is written.  Several long-haired boys in purple uniforms see them and bolt inside, like spooked antelope, nearly knocking down a group of swordsmen in blue and green tunics, who raise their swords and shields shouting ‘Varlet’ in protest.

“Yeah, but sometimes it’s enough to keep hoping anyway.  Something like . . . if we forget who we long to be, we won’t find who we really are.”

“Which is gay.”

“Yeah,” I nod.  “Yeah, I know . . .”  We cross the street and pass through a small park.  Yellow metal children twist and curl about what seems to be a lamp post, marking the city’s contribution to artistic impressionism.  Waterfalls and fountains splash against stone walls at the opposite end; brick steps lead down to turbulent pools where more costumed conventioneers pose with ornate umbrellas.

“. . . but not as gay as that.” A thin otaku wiggles past us, wagging his rear from side to side, swinging two attached raccoon tails.  A bell jingles from a collar around his neck.  He joins the crowd near the water and growls with um . . . paws raised: Rowr!

“No that takes the cake.  So what can you deduce about his hopes and dreams?”

“Whatever they are.  They best keep far away from mine,” I shudder.  “Perhaps as a house cat in La Casa de Dasad.”

“Whatever.  No one can say anything about me.  I look perfectly normal.”

“Nerd badge,” I cough quickly ducking into a nearby restaurant.  Horrified Dasad pulls off the convention badge and stuffs it into his pocket.  After a few furtive looks, he shrugs and goes inside. Another year, another con.  Resting our weary feet, we relax a bit toasting a successful morning with a large pitcher of sangria.