Go East Young Man

Queensboro (59th Street) Bridge and Midtown Ma...
Queensboro (59th Street) Bridge and Midtown Manhattan at Night, NYC (Photo credit: andrew c mace)

 New York Taxi Rules:
1. Driver speaks no English.
2. Driver just got here two days ago from someplace like Senegal.
3. Driver hates you.

– Dave Barry

My first trip to New York City was in 1987.  I was 26 years old and had only known the Big Apple from gritty 1970s R rated movies like Shaft, Serpico, Death Wish and The French Connection.  (The fact I was able to see these movies with my father when I was still in elementary school is the subject of another story.) The urban citadel of New York was depicted in the flickering darkness of antiseptic California cinemas as a playground for misanthropes, heroin addicts, the criminally insane and corrupt financiers that sat firmly latched like ticks to the neck of the American economy.

Woody Allen and a few urbanized aesthetes attempted to reintroduce the perfumed notion of New York urban romance in films like Annie Hall but as far as I was concerned, the five boroughs comprised one giant petri dish overflowing with the germs spawned from an unscrupulous and unwashed humanity.  I had met kids from New York that had travelled West to attend my college.  They were infinitely more sophisticated having emerged from an entirely different elementary education.  I recall my first New York City roommate showing up with his strange music, turned up Izod collar, pink pants and penny loafers.  One spring afternoon I noticed him wearing a suit and tie one and asked him if someone important had died.  In California, neckties were only worn to church and funerals for heads of state.  He informed me that he was interviewing with Goldman Sachs for a summer internship.  I asked him why he would want to work at a department store.  I only now recognize the withering look of distain that I received.  It is a vintage eastern look that is both an intellectual rebuke and a simultaneous entreaty to God that he cull his human herd of another cripple.

My flight to New York was a seminal event to attend my older brother’s wedding.  He was, ironically, working at Goldman Sachs – presumably selling men’s clothing.  This made sense to me as he did seem to dress well.  I was alone as I lugged my massive garment bag out of Baggage to be assaulted by a gauntlet of gyspy cab and ronin limo drivers. I felt only slightly more confident than a third grader at his first sleep away camp.  I stood in a queue long enough in Los Angeles to qualify for a movie premiere. A half hour later, I was in a suspicious looking cab with a North African driver with blood-red qat eyes. Having mastered the annoying California habit of excessive friendliness, I peppered the poor cabbie with personal details and a stream of nervous questions.

“This is my first trip to NY.”

“How far is it to West 79th Street?”

“My brother’s getting married.”

I glanced at his license, a jumble of vowels interspersed between the letters “k” and “w”.  He appeared to have just walked off the set of The Naked Prey as a co-star with Cornell Wilde. I assumed his “home” must be some obscure nation in Africa.  I had been brought up in the provincial Eden of Los Angeles where Mexico was Tijuana, Canada was viewed like an unused garage apartment and the rest of the world was organized like the board game of Risk.

“So what country are you from?”

“Queens”

The cab swerved across three lanes of Van Wyck expressway brake lights moving on to Rockaway Blvd and a peristalsis of lurching commuters.  I surveyed the gated yards, orange glow of cigarettes and shadowy people tucked in among dilapidated homes and barred windows.  We were moving slowly.  I could easily be pulled from the cab and savaged by an angry mob. I felt my head retracting into my neck as I slumped down below the window.

The driver skirted a traffic jam, honked his horn and swore in a foreign language as he ran a red light.  He turned right away from Rockaway Blvd. and moved slowly down a chain linked side road.  I muttered a silent Rosary.  So this was it.  While my brother’s friends would be inquiring, “Tom, where’s your little brother?”  I would be in a garage in Queens being cut into small pieces and fed to pit bulls.  I briefly contemplated diving out of the taxi to hide in one of the canyon-sized potholes that the vehicle kept pounding across.

“Are we? I mean, is this the best way to the City?”

“Traffic’s bad.”

The lights of New York suddenly appeared to the West shimmering in the haze of the August summer night.  An hour later, I was sitting in my brother’s air condition-less Upper West Side co-op that was only slightly larger than a microwave oven.  He was exhilarated by his Lilliputian lifestyle.  I sat terrified as he described our need to take the subway to meet friends in the Village. The last movie I had seen that involved riding on the NY subway resulted in Charles Bronson shooting a car full of street thugs.

We walked down a stuffy hallway to wait for a coffin disguised as an elevator.  The lift could comfortably accommodate one person.  I hesitated as the door opened to two people.  My brother vacantly smiled and wedged in between the man and woman.  I followed, apologizing as I pressed against the young mother. She seemed nonplussed by the fact that we were practically conjoined.  I was certain when we exited the lift I would be wearing her blouse.

The doors opened and we spilled out into the hot breath of a foyer.  The doorman had his back to us watching a homeless man berate a four foot mountain of trash that was accumulating from a recent garbage strike.  August heaved up from the subway grills.  It seemed even the air had left the City for the Hamptons.

The night was an endless bachelor’s party blur of crowded nightclubs, silk dresses, shot glasses, kaleidoscope lights, superficiality and a wad of AMEX receipts.  I do remember being asked by every woman what I did for a living.  As I soon as I shared “insurance”, it was if someone had pulled a fire alarm. With each cocktail, my apprehension of New York City melted.  The mean streets slowly morphed into a neon adult playground of temptations.  I was Pinocchio running with a gang of financial Lampwicks on Pleasure Island.

The following morning, I awoke in the fetal position on floor of my brother’s dressing room apartment clothed only in underwear and dress shoes.  Aside from the roto-tiller grinding through my medulla, I noted the constant thrum of motor vehicles.  On my run through Central Park, I seemed to fixate on the mentally ill and a breed of elite, skeletal mannequins who jogged as if they were starring in an exercise video.  At that moment, I made a life pact that if I survived this dystopian weekend, I would never again cast my shadow east of the Mississippi.

God and life love making lemonade out of sour pledges.  One’s best thinking always becomes fodder for irony.  27 years later, I would find myself living in CT and commuting into New York City.  I was now jostling in the belly of an iron beast ready to be disgorged into the stale underground of Grand Central Station.  It seemed a lifetime ago that I could drive fifteen minutes from work to Newport Beach, run along the strand and then body surf for an hour before returning home to my young family.  It had been months since I had actually seen the ocean, the sky and or a star in a night now awash with light pollution.

Fast forward ten years and I now find myself walking happily up Madison Avenue passing a mélange of restaurants, shops and businesses.  The streets teem with diversity, a giant Masai Mara of heterogeneous souls coursing across a concrete veldt.  It is early fall and a perfect ambient temperature. Everything is bathed in a soft, sequined light.  The City prefers to walk on a day like today.  A car is a burdensome utility in a place like this.  It is a racehorse or vacation property – an impulsive and underutilized possession that must be housed and boarded.  Unlike the love affair we enjoyed with our four-wheeled deities in my native California, there is no value in driving.  To park anywhere is to squeeze into a postage stamp stall deep in the bowels of a urine fragranced car park, or hand $55.00 and one’s keys to a Tunisian parking attendant who has not smiled since he immigrated to the US in 1997.

There is no place to hide from life in the City.  It finds you. Everything is shared.  I often return to the City after dark to attend a dinner, a concert or social event.  Coming down the Hudson or FDR, the city lights are strung like pearls and as with most great works of impressionism, it reveals aspects of itself only when you step back to appreciate it in its entirety.

I visit an organic juice bar for a drink that has more vitamins than five heads of raw broccoli but tastes like battery acid.  A giant rat is inflated in front of an adjacent building that is clearly engaged in behavior that a local union does not find acceptable. A poor demented soul stops to rebuke an invisible demon then attempts to make eye contact with a jet stream of bowed heads and averted glances.  In one block, I pass a lifetime of humanity – all moving with urban determination to a destination that rests like a Hobbit’s hovel somewhere tucked inside a concrete mountain.

The City will change with the seasons.  No day is guaranteed.  The weather and unforeseen disruptions will alter our routines and push us into cabs and underground.  NY is no longer a Broadway beauty or a faded actress, it is a million faces and places hiding in plain sight.  It is a midnight piano bar, a Soho nightclub or the sad saxophone of the Blue Note.  It’s a Central Park autumn jog around the reservoir and a post theatre cappuccino at the Monkey Bar.   It moves and swirls like a holiday dreidel that will not stop.

As I approach my office, I overhear a familiar conversation as a New Yorker offers directions to JFK to a man and woman.

“Now forget everything I just said. You can avoid all dat garbage by taking the downtown and Far Rockaway-bound A train. Don ‘t get on duh god damn Lefferts-bound train.  Go to the Ozone Park-Airtrain station that connects you to JFK.  It leaves da same station as da E train, but youse gotta use a different subway platform. The E and A trains have da dark blue soy-culls. Same price, the freaking A train never runs to Rockaway as much as the E to Jamaica, but it’s always good to have dat as an option.” I smile, grateful for my simple suburban commute, the NY Times crossword and the Whitestone Bridge.

I miss California the way I long to be eighteen again.  I recall the West the way a person gets nostalgic for all the firsts that come with adolescence.

Soon, it will be cold.  I am content to see each season come and am always grateful to see it go.  I endure winter to get to summer.  Spring is a myth and autumn is a joy. It is the East and it is home.

 

East Meets West

Two people on the shore of the Pacific Ocean
Image via Wikipedia

No matter what happens, travel gives you a story to tell. — Jewish Proverb

As a native Californian, I return to the Golden State each summer in an effort to imprint into my children’s psyches the wonders and weirdness of the West Coast. Each of my kids entered this world through a California pediatric ward looking glass but they are now Easterners – – preferring a lacrosse stick to a hiking staff and already developing that type-A need for constant motion and engagement.

We have worked to raise them in a household that is accented with the images and soft impressions of our native state.  I am the cultural attaché of the family, routinely using terms such as “dude” to address any member of our clan – including the dog.  I wear shorts in 20 degree weather. I am never too far from a baseball cap and flip flops.

It is important that my children remain in touch with their west coast roots. I fear that one day Los Angelinos may ascribe an unkind epithet to anyone who was born in California but cannot speak her language.   To truly grasp California ethos is to gain an appreciation for the muddied genealogy of a melting pot culture.  California is an alien nation and a bridge to a land of diametric contradictions.  It is venal and selfless.  It is a Garden of Eden with 14,000 foot peaks and rugged coastline and it is a corrupted paradise. It’s prime dialects are surfer, gangster, vegan and wannabe.  To be Californian is to embrace the narcissistic, the liberated, the tough, the organic and the cosmetically insane. The state seeps into every pore of your being.  You love it and hate it. To reside in California is the romantic equivalent of being married to a beautiful but highly unstable person.  You cannot possibly live with them but you are convinced to your tan lines that you could never leave them.

My efforts to keep some redeeming aspect of California alive in my Connecticut home are failing.  My visions of raising rabid, bi-coastal body surfers who could run with the bulls in New York while rappelling down mountain sides to catch, clean and eat their own trout have been derailed by a humid, temperamental geography of urbane, aggressive over achievers illuminated by bright, big city lights and a backdrop of militant New England individualism.

Our trips out West are always carefully planned to include a week at the beach visiting relatives followed by a week in the mountains to “get back to our roots”.  The beach is the quickest place for a native Californian to identify out of state interlopers.  Fortunately, for the us, most beach front residents are too mellow or too stoned to notice when a non-Californian violates beach etiquette.

My children pay no heed to my coaching. They race blindly across the beach front strand like it is 43rd and Madison – – inviting glares from scantily clad underwear models riding bikes up and down the fashion show thoroughfare.  The boys preoccupation with throwing a lacrosse ball, building sand castles, and attempting to boogie board four foot, neck snapping shore breaker waves – – are certain tells that they are from all parts East.  The surfers seem oblivious, vacuously watching for the next set of waves – wet suits peeled to their waists. They peer off into a deep blue distance — bleached, bare-chested sand pipers with calloused hands tucked under crossed arms.

Visiting the Pacific Ocean is only a prelude to our annual attempts to harmonically reunite east and west within our children. We share a deep affinity for the Sierra Nevada range – a crooked eastern spine of rigid ancient fissures that stretch 400 miles to the Cascades and south to the arid Tehachapi Pass.  Within this Range of Light, one can find the “tallest and oldest trees, deepest canyons, highest mountains and waterfalls and greatest snow depth in the contiguous US.”  As children, we spent summers deep in these conifer forests far from the light and pollution of Los Angeles learning how to camp, be self sufficient and to gain an appreciation for a sky filled with a celestial collision of stars, meteors and constellations.

As we attempt to bestow this California wilderness gift on our children, we are met with resistance. Our “perfect day” is considered a cruel, modern version of the Bataan Death March as we hike up 9,000 foot trails crossing great lupine and paint brushed meadows to eventually rest and fish alongside serene mountain lakes

On this particular mountain vacation, my teenaged Taliban have already attempted several insurrections and have filed a list of conditions around length of hikes, amount of exercise, and when one must rise in the morning.  Adhering to the Jack Bauer axiom that “we do not negotiate with terrorists,” I find myself playing the timeless “because it is my house, my car and I own your rear end until eighteen” card.  This is the parental nuclear option. While it is always guaranteed to extinguish any insurrection it often leaves the ground emotionally radioactive for some period of time..

10:00am – We have left Los Angeles to begin the six hour drive up to Mammoth Lakes. . We stop at a local juice bar to breakfast on healthy smoothies that include green tea extract, bee pollen and other “boosts” that can only be understood by a nutritional alchemist.  In a moment of great euphoria I order wheat grass shots for the entire family.  My youngest son looks closely at the watery green solution that resembles animal bile and declares, “I’m not drinking that!” I persuade him that this family journey can only be christened with a double shot of wheat grass.  “It’s like eating four pounds of vegetables” I exclaim.  This comment seems to have the opposite effect on him as he swigs the potion and immediately makes a face similar to the one he might make when he cleans the cat’s litter box.

11:30am – My youngest son has just vomited up his wheat grass, blueberry smoothie and morning bagel all over the inside of the front seat.  My older children are screaming and squeezing to the opposite side of the car. I have to admit, he warned me. After advising us that he did not feel well, he proceeded to purge his liquid breakfast with the same vigor of Linda Blair in “The Exorcist”.  The family trip is clearly not proceeding as planned.

Our route will take us through an over-built, foreclosed and now less populated Antelope Valley where super commuters still navigate two savage hours of traffic each way, each day to a job near downtown or West LA.  Just when it seems as if Highway 14 has you permanently in its suburban grasp, it releases you into a desolate stretch of never-ending horizon line known as the Mojave Desert.   My spouse and I take turns enthusiastically narrating a fifty miles stretch of box canyons, ancient burned out volcanic cinder cones and historical landmarks. My teens are unusually attentive to our travel narrative until we realize that they are all connected to iPods and have not heard a single word that we have said.

We arrive to cloudless sapphire blue skies and a brisk west to east clipper that blows determined down each afternoon from the high mountain passes.  After a first day hike into a beautiful but mosquito infested lake, the children spend the evening connecting via text and iChat presumably to complain that they are being held against their will in this prehistoric granite citadel. I overhear hushed tone expressions like “OMG – I am hiking with Satan” and “I cannot move, I am so sore…”  I smile and move to the sofa to read.

After declaring a moratorium on electronics, we spend the remainder of the week mountain biking, hiking, fishing and working out. The complaints dwindle and the family reforms each evening – – laughing, playing board games and heckling one another during low stakes Texas Hold ‘Em.  At one point, I actually see all three teens having a conversation.

To distract them from rehashing their list of hiking grievances – – the altitude, the distance, the bugs, the grade of the trail etc, we play a trivia game where they might earn credits that could be traded later for dessert, kitchen patrol exemptions and poker chips.  As we switchback our way upwards towards a hidden lake, I ask them questions ranging from world history and pop music to California factoids. The boys are hopelessly competitive and are quick to blurt out random answers to any question.  I start with any easy question that was drummed into the oldest two when they were living in England.  “Who discovered King Tut’s tomb?” Before anyone can say “Howard Carter”, my youngest son who has no recollection of living in the UK blurts out,” Brendan Frazer”.  My daughter laughs out loud. ” You idiot, he was the star of the movie, The Mummy!“

“What was Ghandi’s first name?.” My oldest daughter cringes and says, “Oh, I know this.” My oldest tson blurts out, “Jeff!” I look at him and smile. “Jeff Ghandi?”  I shake my head, “I weep for the future of this country.”  He smiles a wider grin and asks, “Was that his name?  Did I get it right?”

I ask a geography question. “Where is the Caspian Sea”. My youngests blurts out, “Narnia.” Our laughter permeates the trail. They barely notice that we have climbed to over 10,000 feet.   We crest a forested ridge and gaze down over a tear drop emerald lake surrounded by a massive 14,000 foot granite crest. The secluded lake is buffeted by lodge pole, conifer and blue spruce pines that are only interrupted by stands of sequined summer aspen.

We drop our packs and dive into the lake.  Screams echo across the silent cliffs as we shriek from the shock of the cold water.  I purify some drinking water from a stream and sit back with my reading book as the great heaving sweep of afternoon wind brushes across the water in a wrinkled sequined shimmer.  I glance over to see each kid reading a book or softly casting a rooster tailed, Mepps lure into a dark slate canyon of water that drops precipitously from our shallow rock-shelved shore.

“Dude”, my youngest says to his older brother.  “This place is wicked.” My eldest son is more non committal to public displays of enthusiasm.  He glances across the stream that feeds this midnight blue expanse of water, alert to the day’s first hiker – a pony tailed young man accompanied by magnificent Samoyed husky. “Yep, it’s sick. You know when I am older I am going to have four dogs” My wife smiles and I glance up at my daughter who is perched like a pika on a rocky outcrop.  She is normally most likely to be offended by any overt show of family solidarity. Yet, today, she looks up at me and smiles sardonically.  “Good choice – – dude.”

Ah yes, the Nutmeg State is doing a little Golden State.  East is finally merging with West and as they say on the strand, “it’s all good.”

A Guide To The Golden State

California State Route 1 shield
Image via Wikipedia

A Guide To The Golden State

Each August, we pack two shirts, shorts, swimsuits, flip-flops and a few pair of underwear and return like swallows to California to see family, dive into the emerald Pacific and run down our self esteem comparing ourselves to legions of cosmetically altered people who resemble clothing store mannequins.

As native Californians, we often hear friends planning a trip out West. It’s always good to get an insiders perspective. To help you maximize your trip and avoid unnecessary embarrassment, I offer a primer on the Golden State – it’s psychology, its citizenry and its odd etiquette.

First, a lesson in geography. California is a fractured amalgam, comprised of semi- autonomous regions similar to Spain — the country from which we initially stole California.  Its massive GDP makes the state the 9th largest economy in world with a current debt rating just above the Ukraine and Romania.  The regions are defined by geography and a maximum allowed number of Whole Foods stores.  These Baltic bastions include: Southern Cal, Central Cal, Northern Cal and all points north of Napa Valley.

Southern Cal extends from the Mexican border crossings east to Palm Desert and north to Malibu. Orange Counts and San Diegans take exception to this unilateral annexation of their regions but other than beaches, Marines, Fashion Island and a few amusement parks, Orange County and San Diego serve as Southern Cal’s pimped out basement.

LA is an area, not a place. NYC is a place but in La-La Land there is no center. Do not go to downtown LA.  There is nothing there but street urchins, Staples Center and New York restaurants. If you are going to stay in LA, stay in Westwood, Santa Monica or Manhattan Beach.  Beverly Hills is expensive and overrated.  Do not go to the San Fernando Valley – again, nothing there.

Do not go to Malibu thinking you will bump into Matthew McConnahey frolicking with his perfect body in the surf. His beach is private and the size of a postage stamp.  If you must go to Malibu, have dinner at the Saddle Peak Lodge in Malibu Canyon. It is a 1930’s hunting lodge set back in the Santa Monica Mountains. Order the bear or buffalo. Be sure to make your reservation between the annual fire and mudslide seasons.

If you must go to Venice Beach to see the orange, veiny psychotic people who roller skate while juggling chain saws, take one hour, leave the car running and then head south to Newport Beach to walk, lie out and body surf. Go to Balboa Island and the Fun Zone. Order Mexican food – this is where nachos were invented. Attend the Sawdust festival in Laguna Beach and see the Pageant of the Masters .

When you finally visit Southern California beaches, understand there is an implicit beach towel ” no fly zone” equal in length to the heighth of the largest adult in your party.  I am not sure what it is about the Coney Island syndrome where people must connect their towels in some grotesque quilt of humanity.  People from the East Coast and other countries seem to have no problem with family style sunbathing – choosing to lay their blankets within centimeters of another group of strangers.

In addition to enduring your major violation of sunbathing personal space, the offended party gets an unsolicited stereo concert of your family dysfunction as you scold your kids, talk about your sister-in-law and comment ad nauseum about the perfect weather.  This is in addition to witnessing your alabaster folds of manatee skin as you use an entire bottle of SPF 45 on your back.

Central California begins 50 miles north and inland once you descend the desolate stretch of I-5 known as the Grape Vine. The name is a misnomer as there are no grapes here, let alone flora of any kind.  It is appears that 1-5 may have been a US Army testing ground for the defoliant, Agent Orange.  In the spring these same barren hillsides of chaparral are a rolling ocean of tangerine poppies.  Think of The Wizard of Oz and the creepy wicked witch voice,” poppies, poppies..”

Inland Central California, aka the San Joaquin Valley, is the hub for earthquakes, mortgage defaults, agriculture and long, vacant stretches of interstate as uninspired and vacuous as Paris Hilton. The Central California coast between Malibu, up to Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo and ultimately Big Sur, denies even knowing its inland sibling.  It is embarrassed to admit any affiliation and stands a bit like Barcelona and the Catalans – bold and independent. In 1968, Central Coasters attempted to create their own language but the Santa Barbarians could not unlock their jaws to enunciate the pronoun “dude” and the fleeting dialect died.

Northern Cal really begins at Carmel although geographically, San Francisco marks the center of the state.  Everything about Northern California is unique. It is home to academics, inventors, militant activists, people of every sexual orientation and Nancy Pelosi. Anything one could ever desire is within a two hour drive of San Francisco – which is quite a contrast to LA where a two hour drive gets you about five miles from Westwood to Marina Del Rey on the 405 freeway.

In a 200 miles radius, one can visit Yosemite, Lake Tahoe, Pebble Beach, Muir Woods, Sequoia National Park, and Napa as well as the Gold Country and Sutter’s Mill where in 1849, the face of America changed forever with the flash of a nugget in the rippling shallows of the American River. Northern Californians do not like Southern Californians.  So Cal steals their water through a mischievous artery called the California aqueduct.  And then just to spite them, Los Angelinos flush their toilets incessantly and keep the water on while brushing their whitened teeth. Angelinos are also arsonists, ritualistically starting brush fires each October because their homes have negative equity and they want to collect insurance.

San Francisco is ground zero for militant liberalism.  It is the most inclusive city west of Amsterdam and prides itself on sniffing out discrimination wherever its insidious tendrils may be taking root.  Legislation has actually been passed to protect the ugly (who is actually going to claim being hit with the ugly stick?), the overweight and the excessively sweaty.

The City is the home of brotherly love – literally, and it is a sight to behold when the gay pride parade courses through the Castro district.  Men dressed as high school flag girls work complex routines more adroitly than any of the girls that went to my high school. In this wonderfully nutty Eden, or Gomorrah, depending on your religious views, you can call a girl a “dude” and a guy a “chick”. It is a melting pot of ideas, cultures, mores and yes, Nancy Pelosi.

If you cross the Golden Gate, you enter magnificent Marin County home of the pony tailed, Birkenstocked aging hipsters who spike their own trees and grow their own produce.  They are Dead Heads, iconoclasts and counter-culturalists. To visit Marin and hike in the shade of twisted native oaks on Mt Tamalpais is to know serenity. If someone offers to sell you marijuana, do not accept the invitation. He/ she is most likely an undercover cop.  True Marin County residents grow their own “herbs” and give it away like tomatoes and zucchini to neighbors.

Once beyond Marin and through Napa – it gets a bit, how should we say, rustic?

You still have several hours along 1-5 to get to the Oregon border.  This is the true Northern California but most do not acknowledge it as anything other than the home of Sasquatch (Bigfoot), meth labs, pot farms and Mt Shasta.

A few simple tips when visiting the Golden State:

1) Never, ever say ” Callie” when describing the state of California.  “Callie” is the name of a 14-year=old golden retriever with bad hips. She is a horse one step from the glue factory that your children ride at a Bronx petting zoo.  To castrate the Golden state’s name is to defile it and show your provincialism with the excruciating effect of nails across a blackboard. Yes, it is a stupid and parochial reaction to an innocent abbreviation but hey, we cannot help it.

2) Do not, I repeat, ever refer to the City of San Francisco as “Frisco”.  Frisco is the guy Jack Wagner played on the soap opera “General Hospital”. Frisco is the name of a down and out character trying to change his luck on “Fantasy Island.” (The plane! the plane!)To a Northern Californian, when you reference San Francisco – you acknowledge it simply as ” The City”. I know most of you believe there is really only one “City” and it is called The Big Apple. However, there are two – and the other is a jewel by the bay.

To a Southern Californian, you are free to refer to San Francisco as the Bay Area or “that screwed up place where all the liberal nut jobs live and accuse us of stealing water.”

3) Do not get your colon cleansed, your tongue pierced or model for someone who promises to introduce you to Sting if you show a tad more skin. If driving and someone flips you off, just smile and wave.  They have a gun and have probably killed three people that same day.

In the end, do not feel out of place.  Everyone is from somewhere other than California. The difference is they are trying to be someone else. You, on the other hand, don’t care that you are wearing black socks, sneakers, and shorts and possess skin whiter than a harp seal.

Have fun and if you see Sting — give him my regards.

Kiss Me You Fool

Cover of "A Place in the Sun"
Cover of A Place in the Sun

“And what is a kiss, specifically? A pledge properly sealed, a promise seasoned to taste, a vow stamped with the immediacy of a lip, a rosy circle drawn around the verb ‘to love.’ A kiss is a message too intimate for the ear, infinity captured in the bee’s brief visit to a flower, secular communication with an aftertaste of heaven, the pulse rising from the heart to utter its name on a lover’s lip: ‘Forever.'” – Edmond Rostand, Cyrano de Bergerac, Act 3

It was a first kiss much like many other first things – awkward and tinged with an electric guilt that always accompanied the first taste from a forbidden apple.  Everyone was making out – – at least this was the scouting report from the locker room, a pubescent hot stove network of chronic adolescent liars. If I was to believe my friends wrapped in their microscopic dish rag gym towels, shivering in the cold morning air that coursed through the frosted gymnasium windows, everyone had gotten to first base – Everyone with the exception of me.

Seventh grade was a treacherous strait of hormone infested waters set against a skyline of uneven boys and girls of every imaginable height.  Each kid was a building under construction – – from awkward skyscrapers to stunted single story apartments.  Your body was in the first act of some Kafkaesque transformation and your mind was becoming ready and cautiously willing to explore the perfumed corners of a universe that suddenly seemed more complex than just one year before.  In retrospect, middle school girls were much more predatory than their more slowly evolving opposites. Girls matured faster than boys and had a greater curiosity for the strange hieroglyphics of love.  These budding drama queens were hardly advanced in the sending and receiving of the signals of attraction.  It was more that they had become in love with the idea of being in love and required a supporting actor to experiment with life’s passion play.  Boys became willing and fumbling accomplices but were ill equipped to navigate the contradictions of romance.  Inevitably, their inability to comprehend the opposite sex fated most nascent relationships to life spans measured in hours and days. At first, I lied like all the rest of them, boasting of a torrid affair with a thirty year old school teacher in Arizona while on vacation with my family at the Grand Canyon.  Upon rigorous interrogation from a cerebral cynic named David Schuck, my story shifted and became even more colorful.    Several boys “oohed” and “aahed” but David remained tortured and unconvinced, leering at me with the squinting eyes of a conflicted moral inquisitor.

My preoccupation with kissing was in fact, more deeply rooted in an early childhood spent watching classic movies with my mother who could never convince my father to watch any film that did not end with someone being shot with a 44 magnum.  We would hoist a large basket of laundry into the den and fold clothes while Bogie clutched Bacall and Gable fell for Lombard.  There was the frozen fated kiss of Lara and Zhivago and the lushly, seductive lips of Rita Hayworth corrupting a naïve Tyrone Power in “Blood and Sand”.  Yet, the best kiss – the greatest kiss of all time, was between Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor in “A Place in The Sun”.  That lip lock was a union of two magnificent forces of nature, the fated kiss of two young immortals – irresistibly drawn to one another in a timeless American tragedy that would conspire to keep them apart. Their chemistry was extraordinary and palpable enough that even a kid could understand how passion could penetrate the soul.  While most boys my age hid their eyes at such a union with a muffled groan, I tilted my head while my mouth slowly moved mimicking the kiss.  I was transfixed. All I knew is I needed to be ready when my Elizabeth Taylor came along.

I practiced on the full-length mirror in my bedroom until my little brother walked in on me and accused me of being a Homo Sapien.  I was highly offended by the allegation and punched him in the stomach.  My burst of masculinity seemed to dissuade him from casting furthering aspersions on my manhood.  But I needed to practice – resorting to kissing my arm until my mother asked me why I had so many strange bruises along my forearm.  “They almost look like… hickies” I heard her tell my father.

Yet the more I analyzed the actual art of kissing, the more disgusting it seemed. It involved opening your mouth very wide, like a basking shark and then attaching yourself to her mouth which was also open wide.  One of you would have a strained neck by the end of the process but it was necessary to attach your mouths and hold your breath for as long as possible until one of you swooned, passed out or just pulled away saying, “ no, this is all wrong”.  There were even more disturbing rumors of Kissing 2.0 which involved wandering tongues. For someone like me with a sensitive gag reflex, an unwelcome tongue could precipitate an apocalyptic disaster.  It was all so complicated and troubling. Yet, with each gym class, my biological clock was ticking louder than an aging debutante. I was convinced that everyone had “ made out”.  Even Jim Emmett, the lowest form of amoeba on the seventh grade social food chain and master of the habitual lie, purported some type of liaison with the check out girl at the Market Basket grocery store.

It was Valentine’s Day, a day I had come to loathe.  On this day, Valentines with candied Necco hearts were delivered from secret admirers and romantic interests.   To raise money, service clubs would sell the Valentines with messages like “ Be Mine” or “Love You”.  A “popular” person could receive scores of Valentines or perhaps like Charlie Brown some might be left with a single Valentine from their math tutor Mrs. Hearn.

My secret valentine arrived after fifth period social studies.  All it said was, “ Kiss Me”.   I looked around the room, hoping that by some miracle it had been sent to me by the statuesque Scandanavian goddess, Kerry Kostlan.  Our eyes met but her gaze was filled with only her normal contempt.  Brad Wetmore leaned over and whispered, “I know who sent you that Valentine.  Meet me after school.” Instead of excitement, panic immediately set in.  I glanced at the clock and it was already 2:00pm.  I had left my emergency osculation kit at home – Spearmint Binaca and English Leather cologne. At 3PM, I would most likely meet “her” and perhaps she would want her kiss.  This was not going according to plan.  Perhaps, my rite of passage could wait a tad longer.

As the bell sounded, I raced to my locker and on toward the bike racks where I would flee home on my ten speed.  As I turned the corner, I saw Bradley.  He motioned for me to come over to where he was half hidden in a shadowed passageway between the gymnasium and woodshop.  Behind him was his girlfriend, Kolynn and a shy girl with long tangled blond hair.  It was Tracy, Kolynn’s best friend. Minutes later, we were playing truth or dare and Kolynn dared me to kiss her best friend.  The moment was at hand.  It was not Elizabeth Taylor on the balcony of a Newport Rhode Island mansion.  It was a kind-eyed, chestnut-maned girl with a mouthful of steel and a horse-faced overbite. I moved toward her and she smiled the nervous half grin of a willing neophyte.  I tilted my head and squinted my eyes opening my mouth – wide, very wide.  Through the haze of my eye slits I could discern total amusement as her eyes laughed with compassion.  She moved over and grabbed my chin, closing my mouth awith the pinch of her thumb and forefinger, and pressed her lips onto mine.  My chest filled with tiger-tailed butterflies while my knees yielded to the electricity. Her mouth was warm and soft like dough frosted with cherry lip-gloss.  I held my breath and waited.  I was about to pass out as I no one had informed me that a man was allowed to breathe out of his nose while making out. She thankfully moved away, floating off and smiling.  “See you later” she giggled and whispered something to Kolynn, who laughed.

Later as Bradley and I rode our bikes home, I was triumphant.  I tried to be cool but I could not contain my enthusiasm.  I just wanted to talk.  In fact, I was talking so much, I did not notice that Bradley was no longer behind me, and had turned off a block before to go home.  “So what did she say,“ I said, as I turned around to an empty street. I did not see Bradley nor the parked car but I do remember very distinctly the metallic crash and a flash of excruciating pain in my hand.  I looked down and my finger was bent back to my hand – obviously dislocated.  There was a brutal shock of electricity up my arm as I shook my hand and suddenly felt the joint pop back into its socket.

The hand was already swelling and my bike was a mess.  As these were the days before helicopter parents and cell phones, I walked the ruined bike home, cupping my hand to my chest.  But all I could think about was that kiss.  I had finally made it to first base and joined Montgomery Clift, Clark Gable and Bogart.

In fact, I was pretty sure not even Bogie had ever held his breath as long as I held mine with Tracy.  Must be all that exercise in gym class.

Wide Open Spaces

Who doesn’t know what I’m talking about Who’s never left home, who’s never struck out To find a dream and a life of their own A place in the clouds, a foundation of stone Many precede and many will follow A young girl’s dream no longer hollow It takes the shape of a place out West But what it holds for her, she hasn’t yet guessed She needs wide open spaces — Wide Open Spaces, The Dixie Chicks

 

My summer journey is always the same. The trail climbs through deep forests of conifers, pines, birch and aspen into mountains that heave out of the ancient earth and cut across an entire horizon with jagged, saber-gray lines. The air is thin here, as elevations soar from 4,000 feet to heights almost three miles above half mile. Below these eagle’s nests of granite, an endless steppe of prairie grass sighs. It is a gulf stream of constant motion, bending and bowing to relentless winds that bullwhip down from lonely ridges and high passes. It seems that a benevolent, shadowed hand is constantly caressing this hard, muscular place.

To walk in these blue shadows is to be a character in a Russian novel, dwarfed by circumstances beyond your control, mesmerized by the sheer magnitude of nature and seduced by a relentless drumbeat whose percussion of life and death creates an irresistible cadence for every living thing.

 

I pass along a rapidly moving creek that disappears around a quivering stand of cottonwoods and aspen. It is a glorious day. It is a moment in time where the brief promise of wide open spaces and a chance to live more deeply intermingle and move the soul. I consider a time where there are no roads or people. It is not too hard to imagine anything here. It is the cradle of possibility.

Out west, a day is a sinewed, maverick roan that is impossible to fully tame. It is not enough just to hold on. A true westerner must dig in his spurs and bring each moment to heel. It is a land of tall tales and pregnant exaggeration that constantly antagonizes the imagination. It inspires, engulfs and transforms everything while never really changing its own relentless cycle of life.

 

Each summer pilgrimage to the Western mountains is a drink from the deepest and coldest of natural springs. It reminds me that I will barely bend a blade of grass in the years that I walk this earth. The great sculpted mountains endure as silent sentinels indifferent to the foibles of governments, business and individuals. When the last financial instrument or currency crumbles into dust, these massive displaced plates of earth will remain unmoved.

The West remains my reckless, wild-haired companion relentlessly tugging at my spirit and whispering to me to follow her into a twilight of mountains and high alpine meadows. Lavender lupine, blood-red paintbrush and soft purple columbine color the edges of this world. I always return to her and find myself wrapped in her swirling hot breath and relentless gaze. She is my oxygen and my midwife. Each summer, she delivers me into the world and I am reborn.

 

Let children walk with Nature, let them see the beautiful blendings and communions of death and life, their joyous inseparable unity, as taught in woods and meadows, plains and mountains and streams of our blessed star, and they will learn that death is stingless indeed, and as beautiful as life. — John Muir

I am not alone in my love for the West. For centuries, people have found redemption, resurrection and rebirth in the Rockies and Sierra Nevada ranges. The Rocky Mountains of New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho and Montana remain the grand portal that all Americans must navigate to find the Eden of opportunity that awaits somewhere off to the west. The Teton Valley is, by all definitions, the front door to Mother Earth herself. The cathedral of peaks known as Le Grand Teton literally translate from French to mean “the large bosom.” It is a sacred place — a gateway to Yellowstone and the northern wilderness of Montana and Canada. To the south, the peaks are called the Sangre de Cristo — the “Blood of Christ.” Native Americans drew deep satisfaction from their connections to the mountains, rivers and forests. There was a common belief that these places brought sacred connection to the Great Spirit and healed the People. The prominent Tetons were called “The Four Grandmothers Standing Tall” by the Shoshone, who saw the mountains and wide open spaces as a centerpiece to a connected ecosystem where man and nature lived in symbiotic harmony.

What is life? It is the flash of a firefly in the night. It is the breath of a buffalo in the wintertime. It is the little shadow which runs across the grass and loses itself in the sunset. — Eagle Chief Letakos-Lesa of the Pawnee

There are those who come to the West wanting to become someone else and those who make a living off of being exactly who they are. A real cowboy loathes talk, loves action and speaks in grand hyperbole. “That canyon was so big, why I could yell Good morning’ at 9 o’clock at night and nine hours later, my echo would return to wake me up.” It is a kingdom of balance and diversity. The equilibrium is found in the eddies, channels and cut banks of Wyoming’s ancient Snake River that changes each day as water levels rise or fall. Balance is heard in the cries of osprey and bald eagles as they clasp cutthroat trout with black razor talons. It is fields of sage and wheat grass which move rhythmically in hot mistral winds while great moose, elk and bison move like phantoms across the grand plateau. It is the serene silence of a glacial lake fed by a thousand silver veins of frigid water as it cascades through stands of blue spruce, aspen and cottonwoods. A great owl swoops across an open marsh in search of an early dinner. A trout rises to a mayfly as the river becomes a boiling cauldron of feeding fish. A bison bays a lonely cry across an open plain. It is an anthem of renewal and return. The Tetons are the bones, skin and sinew of mother earth herself.

No matter how sophisticated you may be, a large granite mountain cannot be denied — it speaks in silence to the very core of your being. — Ansel Adams

If a person finds cause or passage beyond the spectacular Rockies, he or she will encounter the Sierra Nevada, which stands as a serrated knife-edge before gently sloping to the San Joaquin valley and the Pacific Ocean. The Sierras explode into view from the bleak high deserts of eastern California’s Owens Valley. They are the spine of California and its headstone, marking the deep fissure of earth which was its birthplace and perhaps one day might be its epicenter of destruction, the San Andreas Fault.

The heart of this magnificent expanse of mountains is Yosemite. One of the United States’ first national parks, Yosemite is a massive national monument of polished glacial domes, snow-fed waterfalls and meadows of white-tailed deer, black bear and beaver falling like celestial steps to the deep gorges carved over thousands of millennia to become the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne. Photographer Ansel Adams captured the essence of this “range of light” giving physical form to the words and journals of Scottish naturalist John Muir, who viewed these mountains as his living companion.

Each western summer eventually loses its vitality and slips into a deep, frigid sleep. The first snow comes surreptitiously, scratching at cabin doors in late September, early October. Winter lingers until the rebirth of the people and the land the following June. The mountain summer never really goes away. It hangs in the air, a dusty perfume of sage and smoke that instantly reminds of warmer days and greener grass. She is our past, present and future all intertwined across a horizon of wide open spaces.

The Body Snatchers

The Body Snatchers

I see your hair is burnin’

Hills are filled with fire

If they say I never loved you

You know they are a liar

Drivin’ down your freeways

Midnite alleys roam

Cops in cars, the topless bars

Never saw a woman…

So alone, so alone

So alone, so alone….

LA Woman, The Doors

Each summer, I travel from the Atlantic to the Pacific on an annual pilgrimage to my hometown of Los Angeles, California.  This region of ten million people and four thousand square miles is an uneven potters wheel that creates beautiful and bizarre works of art – – crazed celebrities, brilliant entrepreneurs, dysfunctional artists and a supporting cast of bronzed metro-sexuals.  It is pure entertainment against a backdrop of swaying palms, ubiquitous sunshine and a million unfulfilled dreams.

The City of Angels was my first lens to the world.  It infused me with a comedian’s sarcasm, an appreciation for Latino culture, an aversion to anyone who spells their name phonetically, and an open mind to the metaphysical.  Alas, much of the Los Angeles of my youth has disappeared.  The Garden of Eden has been corrupted by a generation of interloping transplants who look and act like creatures out of a B movie called Invasion of the Frozen Fish Faces.   It is a spiritual and material wasteland in spite of the fact that there is a church for everyone, even those who choose to worship cruciferous vegetables. Waiting tables is still the primary occupation for aspiring actors. A star is no longer “discovered” like Lana Turner at Schwab’s soda fountain in Hollywood.  They are harvested like bacteria from a massive micro-celebrity Petri dish that feeds the cesspool of reality television.   The studios now make millions pushing faux celebrities and washed up sitcom stars seeking a first or last break.  The result is bizarre theatre of the absurd starring the intellectually challenged, the emotionally crippled and cotton candy products of plastic surgery whose exteriors have seen more shop time than a 1970 Jaguar.

The LA health club scene used to be the domain of the veiny, orange skinned body builder.  This was the birthplace of Venice’s Muscle Beach and Gold’s Gym.  In the 80’s, the grittier the health club, the better.  My most recent visit to an LA fitness club was a deep dive into a well lit, mirrored tank filled with tanned, skeleton fish people replete with silicon lungs, faces frozen in bizarre disbelief and collagen lips that could dupe a giant squid into a marriage proposal.  It seems that all the ugly or fat people were on permanent vacation.  I later learned that the LAPD is now enforcing Beautification Ordinance 2008.  The BO Law precludes ugly or overweight people from appearing in public places or on the beach until after 9 PM.  Anyone caught in broad daylight wearing XXL shirts, black socks with shorts or plus sized clothing is given the choice of spending a day in jail or taking a Greyhound to Nevada.

In the gym, I walked past a girl that was showing her friend her new tongue tattoo.  I was uneasy, certain that some perfect person would grab their cell and rat me out to the BO squad. I approached the juice bar and was bombarded with a formulary of smoothies all promising to clean my colon, raise my IQ and add years to the lives of any three people I choose.  With names like ” Gut Buster” and ” The Regular” and ingredients of wheat grass, whey, apple, creatine and Omega 3 fats, these liquid time bombs were guaranteed to produce more methane than Pacific Gas & Electric.  About two AM that morning, I was seriously considering calling my gastroenterologist for fear that I was the next Hindenburg.

Los Angeles traffic was reassuringly horrible.  The 405 freeway between the valley and LAX remained a narrow clotted artery of hybrids and merging lanes. On this trip, I did not witness a single shooting on the asphalt jungle.  It is surprisingly safe. LA drivers still possess assault weapons and higher caliber handguns than the .22 caliber peashooters that were tucked under every driver’s seat when I roamed the roads.  However, the price of gas has left many with less disposable income to purchase bullets. People brandish weapons in anger but they just do not discharge them unless, they are being shot at car or happen across someone with a Clippers jersey walking down the street.

The Lakers and USC Trojans are now the ” it” teams. The Los Angeles Rams are gone.  The Raiders were here just long enough to organize a fan club out of two time felons and those with social disorders.  The Clippers and Bruins are like poor relations that only get invited to Thanksgiving dinner. My beloved Dodgers are mere echoes of their glory days.  Tommy Lasorda has eaten his last calzone and now Joe Torre is calling signals and endorsing local banks from a surfboard. To add insult to injury, Manny Ramirez is now a Dodger. If this is not a final sign of the pending Apocalypse, I am not sure what is.  LA got its first taste of the real Man Ram a few weeks back when he failed to show for the beginning of the 9th inning due to a protracted appointment in the locker room.  Perhaps he consumed a Super Fiber smoothie before the game?

LA psychics are now more common than plastic surgeons as the true LA man employs shamans to clean up his mind, body and Karma.  In a recent poll, one in four Angelinos believed that in a past life, he/she was a magician living in a nice neighborhood in the lost city of Atlantis. As I sat waiting for take out at PF Changs in Manhattan Beach, I overheard a woman on her cell phone.   “So, after all that, I call my ‘Inuit’ and he figured out the problem ten times faster than my OBGYN.”  Inuit healers? Do they use seal fat poultices? Narwhale horn powder?  Later at a dinner with beautiful people, I tried to participate in the dog’s breakfast of subjects ranging from Scientology to the pros and cons of the one legged king pigeon yoga position.  I was on my third Red Bull and feeling no pain. I turned to the kabuki-faced woman of indistinguishable age to my left.    It was impossible to gauge whether she was experiencing pleasure or intense pain. I leaned in and casually asked, “So do you have your own Inuit?” She looked perplexed and then gave a tiny anorexic guffaw, chortling “Intuit! silly boy.  An Intuit is a holistic healer, not an Eskimo!”  Duh! It was like this everywhere.  Body snatchers had invaded Los Angeles.  I was afraid to go to sleep lest a taproot from a nearby potted plant attached itself to my ankle and the next morning I would wake up looking like Melanie Griffith.

My last night in LA was a dinner with a long time friend who is a producer for a major movie studio. As with all entertainment people, he dresses as if he has been wrestling all night with Joseph Abboud.   He loathes superficiality but cannot resist constantly glancing over my shoulder to see who is coming in to our restaurant.   He has a wickedly sinful sense of humor and regularly denounces LA claiming a move to some midwestern town is imminent.  In the end, he remains in Brentwood claiming that there is no Chin Chin chinese chicken salada in the Midwest. “I’m a demented SOB,” he laughs.  “Where else in America will they pay you just to be your sick self.”?

Hours later, my plane landed in JFK.  A fat, gypsy cab driver tried to grab my bag.  A hundred cars were honking a symphony of gridlocked anger as a cop screamed, ” move it” to an eighty year old woman.  Swear words hung like ornaments in the humid summer air.  There was not a frozen face or tan zombie to be found.

Home, sweet, home.