These are pictures you just wish would get lost.
Oh God! It's Dad and his stupid blog again. Now what the hell?
So, young man. Exactly what kind of job do you have?
Humph. I've seen some good weddings. This sure ain't one of 'em.
Oh man! Would you get a load of her dress!
Lockwoods and Woods react to Jean's singing.
Douche with Listerine and you'll never offend!!!
Yes he's cute. And he's all mine.
Why yes, I'd like a gumdrop.
My God! A perfect high "C."
Mommy! Make them all go away.
Why yes. I am related to a dentist. How did you know?
Two dentists flank the perfect smile, dismayed at the potential loss of fees.
What was I thinking? Dad! Get me out of this!
And surely it was The Great Occasion of Sam's and Kip's lives.
The park was beautiful. The guests were beautiful. The wedding party was particularly beautiful. The bride and groom were almost too beautiful to look at.
The ceremony was moving. I didn't get to see the procession because it started, by design, while I was driving Samantha to the foot of the aisle in a convertible. I somehow managed to remember to walk around to the passenger side and open the door for her. Then I walked her up the aisle, feeling the joyful grin that was splitting my face.
The ceremony was written by Samantha's friend Karen, who officiated. Kip and Sam didn't know what Karen was going to say until she said it. The result was a ceremony that transcended that Hallmark moment that so often passes for weddings these days.
Karen talked about a marriage as part of a community, of the indispensability of support from friends and family, about the reality of marriage, even in times of trouble. She made them promise to stick it out when things got rough. She reminded them that their vows were being witnessed, the unspoken predicate being that they would be accountable not only to each other, but to everyone else present at the wedding as well.
It was way more than five minutes in front of a preacher. When it was over, it was clear that Karen had torqued down the head bolts, that this marriage was off to a solid start.
The flower girls nearly stole the show.
Part of the ceremony involved acknowledging Cassie as part of their union. Samantha gave her a heart pin as a symbol of their love. As Karen talked about bringing Cassie into our family, my granddaughter Kiely spontaneously put her arms around her, a total aawww moment.
Kip was the first to cry, standing there in front of everyone with Sam. This put him at the absolute top of my list of truly fine men.
In the photo below, Jean is directing her husband, a task for which she is well-practiced, thank God.
Jean's dress was perfect; elegant, but not overdressing the mothers of the bride and groom. I am wearing a tuxedo for the first time since I was a Junior in High School.
Besides walking my daughter down the aisle, I got to make the first toast to the new couple and to have the second dance with Mrs. Lockwood.
I know this is the dream of a lifetime for Kip and especially for Sam.
It was for her father, too.
I found this object in the Santa Barbara Botanical Gardens. What is it?
I've never seen a sundial like this one—a very clever design that surely must have been known in Isaac Newton's time and probably much earlier. But it's not the kind of thing we science students got to study in the 20th Century. It's all new to me.
The dial itself is about 15" in diameter. It's made of brass. The gnomon (the fishtail shaped hook) can be rotated, moving the two arrows that point to the time.
To tell the time, you rotate the gnomon until the shadow falls on the figure eight-shaped curve engraved on the curved plate—the one that has the names of months alongside. You make the notch in the shadow line up with the section of the curve that corresponds to the current month, in this case, October.
This alignment causes the arrows to point to the correct position on the time dial. Here I have aligned the notch to fall precisely on the winter side of the curve.
Note that there are two arrows, one for Daylight Saving Time, revealing that despite its patina, this is a modern sundial.
The figure eight shape is called an analemma and is a curve generated by the tilt of the earth's axis and the fact that its orbit is elliptical, not circular. Here's the analemma for London, England.
By incorporating the analemma into a precisely crafted and sufficiently large sundial, it's possible to read the correct time to better than one second on any sunny day of the year.
An analemma is not just some abstract mathematical curve. It's an actual pattern made by the sun in the sky, and it has been photographed by opening the shutter on a fixed camera at the same time of day once a week or so for an entire year.
This pattern was known to the ancients, but to this modern-day semiconductor engineer, it was a mystery until today.
A century ago, kids were taught stuff that gets skipped over today. Can you multiply two large numbers by casting out nines? Can you extract a cube root by hand?
This couple is dining alfresco. A breakfast picnic. Nothing like a cup of coffee under the morning sky. Or a cup of whatever it was they found in those trash cans. Life is good.
The families of the bride and groom—at least four families, ('cause we're Californians)—will meet tomorrow morning for breakfast. Then we'll do the ritual last-minute frantic running around, doing all those things left undone, that ought not to be left undone. Rehearsal and the rehearsal dinner will be tomorrow night.
Saturday morning will be spent practicing mild hysteria. That afternoon, we'll hold a minor 20-minute ceremony followed by five hours consuming vast amounts of mind-altering fluids and a couple of soft drinks.
As the official FOB, I won't be taking any photographs. It would be unseemly. But at gatherings like this, you can't keep Jean away from a camera, so we'll have all the embarrassing moments to share on Monday.
Wish us all luck.
They are one of the city's defining characteristics, and they create a pleasant ambience. Seems like every other street has its tall trees.
Ancient roots crawl over curbs, making Santa Barbara look much older than it is.
While the huge old Magnolia below is not a street tree, the city owns the park it's in. Makes Jean look like a Hobbit.
Trees like this don't happen by accident. They are the result of decades of careful pruning. The tree pictured below is one that has been recently pruned—and, I might add, by experts.
All this work is performed by a full-time crew that wanders up and down the streets, year after year, shaping and thinning. They have all the cool gear: a chipper, a big truck for the chips, razor-sharp chain saws and a humongous cherry picker. I'm guessing this one reaches 40'-50', and it can be positioned rapidly and delicately. What a tool!
A city needs money to create this kind of beauty. With the average homeowner kicking in $5,000-$10,000 in property taxes, Santa Barbara can afford it.
Mission revival in style, the building fulfills a function never imagined by mission-building padres.
The theater shows movies and presents live shows.
Look at that ticket window. Arches beckon within.
I'd like to post a photo of the interior, but we didn't go inside. I recall from a previous visit, the remarkable ceiling inside. Around the periphery, silhouettes of the Santa Barbara skyline are backlit. The ceiling itself is indigo, with pinpoint lights set into it in the exact pattern of the night sky. You can make out all the familiar constellations.
Only a few of the old '20s theaters remain, but fortunately, they're being saved and restored.
Little known fact: The Arlington also serves as Santa Barbara's missile defense system.
OK. I made that up.
Actually, this is a sculpture of a hypodermic syringe.
Kip is taking the written test.
Here, Sam is displaying the Marriage Instruction Manual. Being her father's daughter, she of course won't read it.
The Department of homeland Security requires the swearing of an oath that the parties are not members of a mosque, do not know the whereabouts of Osama Bin Ladin, and in fact don't even like Moslems.
Aawww. Aren't they cute. Sam is checking to see if Kip's heart is actually beating, not wanting inadvertently to marry a non-living person.
The Brown Pelican could not be built today. Various special interest groups would hang it up in legal challenges for decades. The California Coastline Commission would never allow it.
But many years ago, someone bought a little beachfront lot just above the high tide line, in a declivity in the near-continuous line of coastal bluffs. They built a restaurant when regulations were few, and today, the place is grandfathered.
The lot is worth tens of millions of dollars, but only its original use is permitted, so no hotel, no condos, no mansion.
Tables are scattered under umbrellas on a pleasant patio. Palm fronds rattle in the gentle, warm breezes specified by the Santa Barbara Chamber of Commerce.
Jean and I went there for lunch. A surfer dude came over and said, "Hi. My name is Chad. I'll be your server today."
I wanted to smack him.
On the menu were all kinds of fresh fish, so naturally, Jean ordered a salad and I had the clam chowder, enabling us to get out of there for $25 instead of $50.
I photographed Jean, fork in hand, sitting beside a gorgeous ocean view.
Perhaps more gorgeous than Jean realized. The view beside our table was, for me, very distracting.
There's no place like Southern California. Sunny, warm, laid back. Nobody works after 2 PM. All out working on their tans.
The beach offers salt air breezes and recreation possibilities.
There is, however, the problem of privacy. All kinds of riffraff are allowed anywhere, in the water and on the land up to the mean high tide line.
One way to avoid the trespasser problem is to buy a house on a bluff. You want this one? Bring lots of cash. I'm guessing at least $15 million.
Scratch the beach. It's for the nouveau riche anyway. The mountains on the other hand, have a more exclusive cachet. As Matt says, they have the feel of old Pasadena.
The built-up hillside behind the large buildings is called The Riviera.
You'll still need pots of money to live here. Here's a relatively modest Riviera home that shouldn't run too much more than $7 million. What's mind-bending is that there are lots and lots of houses like this one. It's not like it's all that special—for Santa Barbara, that is.
OK. We can't afford the ocean and we can't afford the mountains. Let's look in a lower-priced neighborhood.
Now we be in the ghet-to. This place is a tear-down, and still, it'll go for more than a million when its owner finally decides to cash out.
Meanwhile it's a rental, like most houses in this neighborhood. Illegal immigrants (Oops. Undocumented aliens.), restaurant workers and such live in these places, four people to a room.
This house has maybe three bedrooms and a living room, $300 per month per person, grossing maybe $4,800 per month. Probably not quite enough to carry its present value, but selling it will be complicated by the need to build, say, four condo units on the site, each nice enough to go for $750,000 or so, so it may be awhile before a deal can be set up.
I can't afford even this dump.
So. Not the beach. Not the mountains. Not the barrio. Can you say "Lompoc?"
The adobe brickmaking project at the Santa Barbara Presidio is proceeding nicely. (See September 16th.)
The bricks have been tipped up onto their sides to present more surface area to the air. They're much dryer and harder. There's many more of them, too.
They look big. I think maybe 1' X 2' X 4". I wonder if I could lift one. Or if even the Parks Department guys could.
Naah. They'll probably use a forklift. Or a Mexican.
Beachgoers are bent on relaxing, playing, having a good time. So what better place than the beach to remind us that there is a war being fought, one in which American teenagers are dying—teenagers who should be sailing these little boats instead.
A group of Gulf War Vets have built more than 2,000 crosses, each carefully lettered with the name of an American soldier killed in Iraq. They have painstakingly erected the crosses in the sand with names arranged by date of death. A series of signs down one side of the "cemetery" indicate the timeline of the war—a timeline calibrated in deaths.
The first three signs read:
The fall of Baghdad—April 9, 2003
"Major combat operations in Iraq have ended."—May 4, 2003
"Bring 'em on."—July 2, 2003
It all seems so long ago. By the time of "Bring 'em on," fewer than 10% of our casualties had died. We've been at war now for more than three years.
This is a profoundly moving demonstration. The image of all those crosses, of that sandy graveyard, gives the lie to the TV news impression that this is a war of Iraqis bombing one another. We've already lost as many young people as half the freshman class at Stanford University.
You cannot count the number of crosses by scanning them. Too many to easily enumerate. Rows and rows of crosses lead your eye toward infinity.
And to something else. What is that out there?
Aah. Not everyone is mourning the dead. Life does go on. Some are still bent on relaxing, playing, having a good time.
Presumably, the soldiers that these crosses represent, died to make this possible.
God help us if they didn't.
Matt and I stayed up until midnight, monopolizing the conversation and paying shamefully little attention to Margaret and Jean. The next morning, we walked over to the Santa Barbara County Courthouse.
This utterly gorgeous building was built in the 1920s in the Mission Revival Style—a hallmark of Santa Barbara.
The courthouse surrounds a grassy courtyard that appears to be a favorate locale for weddings. Two ceremonies were simultaneously in progress while we were there. Dueling weddings.
A tile mural decorated an entry passageway. Here we have the noble Ortega discovering San Francisco Bay, surrounded by some goofy-looking Indians. (Oops. Indigeneros.)
Actually, it looks to me like the Native American is showing Ortega the Bay, rather than Ortega discovering it.
"Hey! What are you looking at? Over here, dummy! The Bay is over here! (White jerk. Stupid Wetback.)"
This is one of those embarrassing memorials that presents modern officials with a dilemma. The mural has historical value. But the subect is grossly patronizing toward the natives. What to do? Keep it or scrap it? Fortunately, this requires a decision on the part of government officials. They'll never manage to arrive at one. So perforce the mural will survive for the edification of future generations.
The courthouse interior is stunning. They just don't make 'em like this anymore.
Looking for the men's room, I ran across the bottom of the stairway that leads up the bell tower.
The device on the floor behind the columns is not a hexagram (Jewish) and not a pentagram (Satanic). It's an octagram, no doubt a symbol of some Southern California sun-worshipping cult. The eight points represent rays of sunlight, as in "Hey Dude. Let's catch some rays."
The courthouse is way too elegant to be wasted on trying scumbags and lowlifes. I say set up a tent in Goleta in front of Albertsons for trials. Use the courthouse building as a museum or a helluva B&B.
Here's three great people in front of the courthouse entrance.
I dunno about that shirt, Matt.
The Park Service appears to be making a concerted effort to provide facilities for the handicapped. At Sequoia National Park, several parking lots once available to all are now reserved for handicapped persons only. Here's a photo of the lot near the General Sherman Tree. It's huge.
Non-handicapped persons use a new lot a mile farther up the road and have to walk back on a trail that has a 200-step climb to get to the tree, so you have to be in fairly good shape to even get there. Definitely not for the handicapped. Sorry, bud. Take a hike. (Oops.)
The lot has maybe 10-12 parking spots. Seems like a lot to me. But who knows, maybe 10-12 handicapped persons, their attendants and families, sometimes arrive simultaneously, and God forbid they should have to wait a little until a spot opens up.
Leading from the parking lot is a paved, wide trail, so people in wheelchairs or PMDs (personal mobility devices—don't get me started) can get over to the tree.
It's easy to be critical, but all you can do is comment on the scale of the facility. You may think there should be more. Or less. But basically, this arrangement permits access to great scenic and natural places that might otherwise be denied to some people.
It ain't workin' that way.
I caught this 50-something couple walking briskly form the tree site to their car. They have one of those blue handicapped cards hanging from their rearview mirror. They're in better shape than I am. So how come they have a handicapped parking pass?
The other two cars occupying some of the 10-12 spaces also had temporary cards. I saw the couple from one of them park and fairly leap from their car in their eagerness to jog up to the tree and snap a couple of photos. Frickin' gazelles.
So, what the hell is going on, here?
1) These people talk their doctors into giving them cards, when they get bunions or something.
2) These people borrow Grandma's card, who is in a nursing home with a feeding tube and will never in her life ride in a car again.
3) These people are scumbag doctors who authorize their own cards.
4) These people make color photocopies of other people's cards.
5) These people download handicapped symbols and photoshop phony cards.
Whatever it is, this is a good idea that has gone terribly wrong.
Incidentally, a dozen other cars also parked in the Handicapped Reserved parking lot. They parked on crosshatched "No Parking" areas so they would be in compliance with the law prohibiting unauthorized use of handicapped spaces.
Lower fine that way, you see.
You run into even fewer visitors during the shoulder seasons. Gone are the screaming little monsters running up and down the trail, scaring away wildlife and throwing Pepsi bottles everywhere. They're in school. Where they should be. W. C. Fields summed up my feelings exactly: "Go away, kid. Ya bother me."
This time of year, visitors consist of retired folks—old farts like yours truly—and Germans. The first sign of the latter is the row of rented El Monte Class C motorcoaches in the parking lot. Somehow, the word is out in Germany. Ya wanna see the USA? Rent an RV and for God's sake, go in May or September. You can't believe how ungemütlich things are during the summer. The second sign is that in the hotel everyone—guests and staff alike—speak with accents. Staying with these two groups—Germans and Geezers—is very pleasant. Everyone is here to enjoy and respect nature. They're quiet, serious and reverential.
Sequoia has got it all: granite peaks, waterfalls, alpine meadows, lakes, panoramic views. And humongous trees.
Sequoias are the other Redwood tree. Much less prolific than the Coast Redwoods, they have survived the onslaught of civilization in part because they are not as valuable commercially as the others: they tend to shatter across the grain when felled.
They are the biggest trees in the world by volume. Jean is standing here in front of the biggest of them all, named the General Sherman Tree.
In line with the theme of getting away from crowds, Jean and I hiked away from the General Sherman Tree, where maybe fifty people were gathered. In less than a mile we found ourselves in silent groves, encountering other hikers only occasionally.
Here, Jean is sharpening her tree-hugging skills. The tree appears to be unmoved.
Having implied that we did some serious back-country trekking, I have to 'fess up. The trails we walked all were paved. Even so, 99% of visitors never take them. It's so easy to get away from it all.
The Rangers are playful when they build trails. There's at least two tunnels through fallen trees along the way.
A huge wildfire is burning over near the coast, in the Los Padres National Forest near Ojai. In Santa Barbara, we awoke one morning to what looked like snowfall—ashes drifting down and blanketing cars and driveways. WIth a shift to onshore winds, smoke has been blown hundreds of miles inland, affecting views in Sequoia Park.
On the drive home, we took back roads through Tulare County, passing through the little town of Orange Cove. Nearly 100% Mexican, we felt right at home. The U. S. seems a little alien to us—in some ways at least. We went into a little tiendita, bought a coke for $0.65 (half the California normal price). Jean asked for directions to the restroom and made no headway until she switched to Spanish.
A highlight of our trip.
Somehow, I got it into my head that I also would be a central figure in planning and preparation for the wedding. The other day, at breakfast, I was thoroughly disabused of that notion.
I was the sole male at a table with, from left to right, my lovely wife Jean (the SMOB—Step Mother of the Bride), my lovely sister Suzie (the SOFOB—Sister of the Father of the Bride), and my lovely daughter Samantha (the DOFOB—Daughter of the Father of the Bride).
Now, I am not, as Ollie North's attorney complained at the Iran-Contra Hearings, a potted plant. I am accustomed to conversations revolving around me. Or at least to making key contributions, insightful observations, penetrating analyses.
But not this time.
Because they were talking about brassieres.
And try as I might, I couldn't think of a single thing to say. So I just shut up, ate my breakfast, and paid the bill.
I'm realizing that fathers have essentially nothing to contribute to planning weddings. We aren't equipped for it. We really don't understand them. Weddings, that is. Or, come to think about it, women either. Best to stay out of the way, wallet at the ready, and do pretty much whatever the women ask.
Doesn't look like much, does it? But wait a minute—the building doesn't the kind of All-American design you'd expect in this part of the country. Those hip roofs. Those sashed exterior panels. That roofed entry gate.
Yep. This building is Japanese.
We've reached the Ruth and Sherman Lee Institute for Japanese Art which, this fall, is showing exquisite baskets made by the Tanabe Family of Sakai (near Osaka). We met them on our Japan Tour this spring (see blog archive 5/17/2006). The exhibition here contains more Tanabe baskets than we saw at the home of the artists themselves.
This small museum is remarkable. Objects are not kept behind glass, so you can get as close to the work as you want (but don't touch). Magnifying glasses are set out here and there, permitting viewing of details. The lighting has been carefully designed to bring out the texture and patterns of the baskets. Even the ventilation has been designed to prevent the deposit of dust.
I could have posted scores of photographs of baskets. I chose just one image of baskets made by Tanabe Chikuunsai I, the founder of the Tanabe family of bamboo artists.
I love the old traditional Chinese designs. The work is so fine, it's hard to imagine these baskets began as hunks of bamboo stalks.
You can collect them. A couple members of our tour group bought some direct from the Tanabes. They probably got good prices that way.
But they are expensive. This Tanabe Chikuunsai I basket is, as I write, available from Tai Gallery/Textile Arts of Santa Fe for "more than $10,000."
The collection consists mostly of baskets owned by Willard G. Clark, who made his money in the international bull semen market. (Hey, I'm just reporting the facts, here.) He and his wife, true Japanophiles, live next to the museum in their Japanese-style house. Hard to imagine dry, hot valley days permitting the growing of a Japanese garden, but the Clarks are doing it.
Santa Barbara has such an enclave, which locals call The Riviera. Rich folks live here in magnificent homes.
The Riviera is situated on a hill. Steep winding streets without sidewalks deter strollers.
The neighborhood resembles Bel Air, where Jean and I once took an evening walk. As we passed house after house, motion detectors switched on security lights. Amused by the extreme security measures, I told Jean the story of the black guy getting arrested in Beverly Hills.
A security service truck zipped by. We speculated that perhaps a nervous resident had called when we triggered their lights.
A few minutes later, two cop cars came tearing up the hill. The lead car slowed and hit us with a searchlight. Seeing a middle-aged couple walking along holding hands, they sped on their way, looking for real intruders.
We cracked up, knowing that we had a good story to tell about paranoid rich people frightened by pedestrian passers-by. Then the helicopter came. Whapping away overhead, it pinned us with its million-candlepower light.
The Riviera shares a feature with Bel Air: Security service signs.
I can't imagine anyone dumb enough to try to enter one of these homes. Of course they all have alarms. The streets are narrow and winding: no fast getaway routes. The place is blanketed with cops.
All that the signs manage to accomplish is to lend a fearful, mean-spirited, hyper-protective feel to an otherwise beautiful neighborhood.
Part of what residents are protecting is their views.
They sit out on their decks and look down on the city below.
They can spot their yachts in the harbor. But letting riff-raff into the neighborhood would spoil the ambiance. Best to warn 'em off.
Surprisingly, most of these people are democrats. Lots of Toyotas in the driveways with John Kerry bumper stickers. So they're careful not to single out any one ethnic group for exclusion.
The National Guard isn't so concerned about political correctness. They want to make sure their message gets to the right people.
Adobe dissolves in rain, so adobe buildings are plastered inside and out and roofed with clay tiles. The resulting look—thick, lumpy white walls topped with red tiles—has carried down to today as the signature style of modern Santa Barbara: The Mission Revival.
California became American. The Spanish left. Over the decades, many buildings were lost as roof beams rotted and collapsed, and plaster cracked, allowing water in. Some, like the Presidio, survived.
Today, preserving California's Spanish heritage is a priority. Many buildings have been restored, and continue to undergo restoration work as needed. Traditional materials are used.
Fallen walls are rebuilt with adobe bricks. Cinder blocks would be cheaper and more durable, and would not be visible under plaster and tiles, but then everyone would know the building no longer was authentic. Bad for tourism.
To make adobe blocks, mud is forced into molds. The molds are removed and the bricks are allowed to dry in the sun. (The newly-formed bricks in the photos above have been covered with paper to protect them from an unseasonable rain.)
The original bricks were made by Chumash Indians. (Sorry. Chumash Native Americans. Or whatever.) Slave labor. Working for two meals a day. Beans and tortillas.
The new bricks are being made by State of California employees being paid, say, $50-$60,000 per year, with vacations, sick leave, major medical and retirement benefits. Given their superior compensation packages, you'd expect the State employees to put superior effort into their brick-making.
So I guess they better be changing into loincloths and digging adobe out of the yard and mixing it with water and straw or whatever. Getting their hands dirty. Hand packing that goop into molds carved with hand axes. For the authenticity, you know.
Looks like a load of highly refined adobe trucked in from the Santa Ynez Valley. And a diesel-powered cement mixer. Hmmm. The materials may be authentic, but the process sure isn't.
Man. They just don't make peons like they used to. I bet the guys making these bricks are blond surfer types with names like Derek or Justin, and are protected by OSHA regulations from carrying heavy loads or putting their hands in germy dirt. And I bet that the people mowing their lawns are descendants of those original Chumash builders.
You go into a store and ask. The clerk makes you feel like a bum and refuses. "Sorry. It's for employees only." Bitch.
Now you're desperate. You go into a café. A sign says restrooms are for customers only. So you buy an unwanted cup of coffee, dump it in the trash, and use the facilities.
It's better in Mexico. In Mexico they understand how it is when you gotta go. In Mexico, you often have a condition that makes bathroom access urgent. In Mexico there's lots and lots of children who need the bathroom at inconvenient times. So, there's lots of public bathrooms. And nobody refuses you when you ask for one. Because these people understand. These people have been there.
At the Santa Barbara Farmers' Markets, they get it too. In a corner of the parking lot where the market is held, there's a couple of porta-potties. They unfortunately are located upwind from the the food stands, but hey—at least they're there.
They're nice modern ones, and they're clean, if a little smelly.
But wait a minute. What's that thing Jean is standing at?
Why, it's a porta-vanity!
Jeez. All these years we survived wiping our hands on our pants. Now someone in the health department has decided you gotta be able to wash up afterwards, too.
We're all getting so scared of picking up a few germs. What a bunch of pansies we're becoming.
I recently read that the reason there's so much asthma and other respiratory ailments is because kids don't get to play in dirt, so their immune systems, having nothing better to do, attack their own otherwise healthy bodies.
When I was a kid, I used to run around in the chicken coop in my bare feet, chicken shit oozing between my toes. I have never had asthma. Q. E. D.
I'm waiting for porta-showers.
To my Mexican friends this September 16th., ¡Viva la revolución. Viva México!
Yeah. It's not like the Mission District in San Francisco. The neighborhood that has grown up around the Santa Barbara Mission is where you want to live. If you can afford it.
There's a lot of houses for sale here. Most are listed by Southeby's, and you know what that means.
I checked out some listings. You can get started for around $6 million and trade your way up to $25 million. Sigh.
Last week we bought fruit at Ralph's supermarket. Mostly because it's within walking distance.
We got two perfect-looking and huge Fuji apples that apparently had been held in nitrogen or carbon dioxide or whatever for at least a year, because they were brown and mushy inside. We bought two big mangos that never ripened. (As mexican residents, we know our mangos.) We got four tasteless pluots. Two mealy peaches. A package of baby lettuce that turned slimy after one day in the fridge. A plastic container of tired, fermenting blueberries.
We wound up throwing most of this stuff away, not having a compost pile to recycle it in.
So, we've learned a lesson: Don't buy veggies at Ralph's.
Fortunately, we have two farmers' markets within walking distance of our rented townhouse; on Saturday mornings and Tuesday evenings. There's a lot of stands there that sell olive oil, honey, pistachios, frozen steaks and flowers.
I finally found some vendors that sold actual vegetables and fruit. I was pleased to see that much of it was locally grown on the Central Coast—Arroyo Grande and like that.
We bought a few things for dinner: bicolor corn, delicate lettuces, heirloom tomatoes and peaches. Man, were they good. Almost as good as Mexican produce. And certainly less contaminated by pesticides and E. coli.
But if we were expecting lower prices than Ralph's, well, forget it. What you see here cost $11. Still, it was cheaper than Ralph's, considering that all we got out of the stuff we bought there was a cantaloupe, a few lonely blueberries and a contribution for the landfill.
He's followed by a small clump of chanting, drumming protesters.
It all seemed low-key and friendly until a guy wearing desert storm fatigues riding a chopper began tracking them, revving his unmuffled engine, shattering the quiet and warmth of the street.
Street musicians played for dollars at a nearby farmers' market. The accordion player's chords were disconnected from the melody; a perfect disconnect of left and right brain.
The blues player's great sound was interrupted by an enthusiast who wanted him to hear something on his iPod—a polka no doubt.
A substantial Mexican community made us feel right at home. Up at the mission, I caught a young girl on the way to her quinceañera.
Downtown a festival of some kind was forming up. A stage with scores of speakers was setting up. Some band members waited in their natty suits for things to start.
The ear-splitting music got to Samantha's mother, Sandy, who was staying in a nearby motel. She reported that her Australian Shepherd, Harry, was frightened by the noise and wouldn't get out of the car.
Along the West Beach Esplanade, the Sunday art walk was in full swing. Here, Jean considers some bad art while the artist looks on hopefully.
Nearby, kids play in the skateboard park. The money that goes into recreational facilities is huge. In San Miguel, I doubt that there's a single soccer field with grass. In Santa Barbara, there probably isn't one without.
State Street, a pleasant street lined with cafes and restaurants, fielded the usual panhandlers and homeless.
Meanwhile, a retired gent slumbers on a bench, oblivious to passing throngs of tourists and shoppers.
He obviously places little importance on his appearance. Comfort is paramount.
Actually, it's not near-perfect right now. But it's gonna be perfect. For now, mornings are overcast, afternoons are sunny. This is a view of the city, with the ocean beyond. You can almost make them out through the fog.
The rich and famous have homes here: Oprah Winfrey, Ronald Reagan. It is a place for very privileged people. They don't tolerate weather that isn't near-perfect. Not at the kind of prices they pay to live here.
We have rented a place for the month before Sam's wedding. We found one on the Santa Barbara Craig's List that's a steal: An Alviso-style townhouse located on the edge of the Barrio for only $4,200 a month.
OK. I'm being unfair. The place is, after all, a vacation rental. It's three blocks from State Street and the heart of the downtown. It's maybe five blocks from the beach and the pier. Location, location, location. As for the nearby Barrio, we like being surrounded by Mexicans. And graffiti. And pickup trucks with decals of Calvin pissing on something.
Some books have been thoughtfully left for us in our rented townhouse. One in particular reflects Santa Barbara New Age mentality: Clear Your Clutter with Feng Shui, by one Karen Kingston. Chapter 18 is entitled "Clutter Clearing Your Body [sic]." The clutter referred to is that which is strewn about your colon. The chapter is full of nonsense about "impacted mucoid plaque" which Ms. Kingston, had she ever remained conscious through a colonoscopy, looking at the monitors, would have noted was not present. She might then have realized that it's her mind, not her colon, that is cluttered with impacted mucoid plaque.
I like the subsection entitled "The Ideal Bowel Movement," of which she lists six key properties. I won't clutter up this post with the list, leaving it instead to your well-formed imaginations.
In L. A. Story, Steve Martin's character meets a ditzy roller-skating blonde New-Ager who takes him to Santa Barbara to visit a Colon Institute for a "high colonic." As they are leaving, walking down the monumental front steps of the Institute, Steve delivers one of the better lines in cinema: "Thanks for the lunch, and... enema."
Not only are we in the nesting grounds of crystal wearers, this part of the country is the trend center of personalized license plates. Every other car sports one. None appear to be clever. Typical is the following:
The State of California has introduced several new symbols to the alphabet. The most popular appears to be the heart. This is a bad idea.
Cop: "So, did you get the license number?"
H&R Victim: "Uh... No... I think there was a heart in it. WJH-Heart. Or maybe WJH-Club. I don't see so good anymore."
Cop (into radio): "OK. We're looking for a silver Scion with a plate beginning 'WJH♥'."
Dispatcher: "Oh, how sweet..."
The illustrated plate is particularly pathetic. I mean, save your money and let the State figure out what to put on your plate. For example, BOL SÍ would be a good one. SWEE T Π would be good, too. Let's THINK about these things a little, people!
But your initials and your wife's initials separated with a heart? Is that the best you can do? You might as well have a bumper sticker that says, "I have the imagination of a liver fluke."
Here's a real shock for someone who has been out of the country for a while: Grocery prices. Jean and I went to Ralph's to stock up on basics. $200. Jeez!
Sam took me to a "better" independent grocery store. Prices there were stunning.
Looks lovely, doesn't it. The price on the left is for one bunch of celery.
Asparagus: $6 per pound. That's $13.20 per kilo—$145 pesos. We can buy the better part of a week's vegetables for $145 pesos.
Do you see some sort of crash coming?
Our driver, Manuel, arrived to pick us up at 5:50AM.
OK. I know what you're gonna say.
"They have a driver? First you tell us they have a cook and a maid and a gardener. Now you're telling me they have a driver too? Well, excu-use me!"
Would you believe that our driver is an economy measure? I thought not.
Some months ago, the former President of the San Miguel School of English, where I teach as a volunteer, told me he was going to visit the school's treasurer, who lives some miles outside of town. He said, "I'll just call my driver, and he'll take me there this morning."
I was very impressed. I said, "Bob! You have a driver! I didn't know you were a millionaire."
"I'm not," he said. "I just realized one day that having a driver was cheaper than owning and operating a car. Think about it. A taxi anywhere in town costs $15 pesos—$1.35 U. S. Rides to Costco in Querétaro cost proportionately. And if you pay a taxi driver to take you shopping there, he'll wait for you, since he's gonna make his whole day's income on that one trip. Now, if you figure depreciation and license fees and gas and the high maintenance costs that you pay, what with everything shaking loose on cobblestone roads, you can afford a whole lot of taxi rides for the cost of owning a car. Plus, if you make a deal with a driver to use him exclusively, he'll give you a deal on rates. So, I got rid of my car, and whenever I need to go someplace, I just call him on his cell. When I'm not using him, he just drives his taxi around town picking up tourists or whatever. So I save money, and he makes more than he would if I weren't in the picture."
Well, hell! The more I thought about it, the more I realized what a good idea that was. Jean and I began hailing taxis. Soon, Jean ran into Manuel, an affable 30-year-old man who speaks colloquial English that he learned while working in Missouri. He's an excellent driver, skillful and safe, and he understands gringo mentality, so there's not so much cultural confusion. Like when I order scrambled eggs and the waiter asks (in Spanish), "You want bacon with that?" and I say "Sure," and what I get is bacon crumbled into my eggs.
So, now we have a driver. And he picked us up this morning to take us to Benito Juaréz International Airport (BJX) in León.
An economy measure, you see.
Most flights out of BJX are via cramped little commuter planess. We're going to LA via Houston, 'cause that's the way it is. We go most everywhere via Houston.
It's a beautiful day for flying. The sky is full of thunderheads. The countryside is green and blooming from the rains.
The pilot sets the flaps of the Embrauer 145 to 9° and we take off. In the distance we see the mountain that overlooks the city of Guanajuato, the huge statue of El Pípila (the wanker) at its summit.
Jean complains that she wasn't allowed to bring water and chapstick into the cabin. Dehydration surely is immanent. Our flight attendant, beefy Donald Price, whose male pattern baldness shines pinkly through his gelled and spiked hair, saves her with the quickest drink service we've ever experienced. Jean lives to see another day.
We're served a breakfast that might have come out of one of those tienditas that specialize in orange styrofoam with chile sauce. Our meal consists of three cello-paks of corporate food that seems more like litter than nutrition. We got:
• New York Style Cinnamon Bagel Chips (New York Style? I don't think so. And what the hell is a bagel chip, anyway?)
• Quaker Breakfast Bars—Very Berry Muffin flavor. (Sssweeeeet! A fruit flavor not found in nature. Because Very Berries aren't found in nature. I could only manage one bite.)
• Prize brand Natural Raisins. (Probably strip-mined. They were the only thing I ate.)
Can airline food get any worse?
The two-hour ride out of Mexico was up to its usual standards: A small disintegrating aircraft bouncing around in turbulent air carrying 24 people jammed into tiny seats listening to a squalling baby.
Can air travel get any worse?
Here on the Houston-LA leg, we got upgraded to Business Class, so things are looking better. Waiting for takeoff, we're surrounded by businessmen yelling into cell phones. It's annoying, but unlike infants, they have to stop when the aircraft door closes.
Still in store for us is car rental and a drive up the PCH to Santa Barbara. I'm innocently anticipating that I'm gonna enjoy it. We'll see.
NOTORIOUS TERRORIST CAUGHT AT SFO!
San Francisco, CA—
Alert security agents at San Francisco International Airport recognized and captured notorious terrorist suspect Jean Wood, long sought by the Department of Homeland Security for questioning in regard to possible connections she might have with Osama Bin Laden, shadowy leader of Al Qaeda. Here she is pictured in booking photos taken last year when arrested at the Franklin Indiana home of Mullah Wajih al-Shamit, alleged radical Muslim cleric.
Wood drew the attention of an agent while attempting to pass through an airport security checkpoint while apparently secreting what appeared to be an IED—an Improvised Explosive Device—in her jeans...
Jean and I presented ourselves for security screening for our flight from San Francisco to Houston. I went through my routine of emptying my pockets of wallet, passport, Mexico permanent resident visa, change, keys, pen, pencil, notebook and cell phone, removing my belt (a problem since my apple-like shape leaves me no hips to impede the descent of my pants), my shoes, hat, camera bag and carry-on luggage, placing all on the entrance to the x-ray machine, and then signaling to a security agent that I could not pass through the metal detector because my implanted defibrillator would set off the alarm, and would they kindly send someone over to pat me down.
Meanwhile, Jean confidently walked through. Unfortunately, she herself set off an alarm. A discussion with a security agent ensued. Was it her wristwatch? Did she have keys or change in her pocket?
Another agent took me over to a section of floor that had two footprint outlines on which I was to stand, and began to frisk me—rather thoroughly, I might add. Many of you have had to be taken aside and wanded, in order to localize whatever it was that set off the alarms when you walked through. We pacemaker and defibrillator people can't be wanded because the wands will (briefly) shut down our implanted gadgets. So for us, getting through security is an intimate experience.
How frisking works is a rubber-gloved person of the same gender as you runs his or her hands over your body—your entire body. Interestingly, when they get to your groin, they say, "back of the hands," and then rotate their palms downward before administering a less-than-memorable hand job.
Frisking completed, and having shyly said goodbye to my agent, I looked around for Jean. I saw her standing in the middle of the security zone, surrounded by agents urgently talking into walkie talkies and cell phones. Not good. I tried walking back into the security zone to ask her what was happening, but the same beefy guard who had frisked me, the man with whom I thought I had reached a sort of understanding, blocked my path. No, I wasn't allowed back in. Even to rescue my wife. Who at this point, appeared to be some sort of suspect, to be kept carefully isolated from other passengers and her husband.
I found a chair and sat down. I watched Jean negotiating with the agents. She didn't seem to be making any headway. Twenty minutes passed. Much negotiation. Much cell phoning. Much walkie talking. Much standing around.
Finally, a supervising agent broke away from the group and came over to brief me. She told me that Jean was wearing one of those elastic knee braces, and it was that that had set off the alarm. Must have had some wire in it or something.
An Improvised Explosive Device?
Her jeans were pegged, so she couldn't roll up her pant leg to show the brace to the agents or to remove it. The agent told me the things they could not do at this point:
• They could not just frisk her, confirming by touch that it was only a knee brace.
• They could not make a reasonable judgment that she was probably not a terrorist, and just wave her through.
• They could not allow her to go to the ladies room and remove the brace. In fact, they couldn't even ask her to do this. I have no idea why not.
• They could not alllow her to go back out the entrance of the security area, there to make any adjustments needed before trying again.
After bucking the problem up toward Michael Chertoff, here's what they were told they could do:
• They could call the police who would take her into custody. The officer would then escort her out of the security area, after which she would no longer be the agents' problem. He, the officer, would then use his own judgment as to whether she had committed a crime, or simply to allow her to go on her way.
In other words, the Federal Department of Homeland Security, unable to deal with a grandmother wearing a knee brace, passed the buck to an SF Cop.
After a short wait, a policewoman arrived. (What is it with the same gender thing?) She took Jean firmly by the arm, and escorted her to the ticketing area, where she was allowed to attempt to clear security again.
Fortunately, this time she made it.
Jean doesn't seem particularly concerned about the incident. Clearly she fails to realize that her brush with the law may be the beginning of a slide into a life of international conspiracy and crime. Even now, her name and other information is undoubtedly in some DHS database, soon to be scrutinized by a clandestine operative with an eye toward "turning" her and inserting her as a mole into a terrorist cell. Like maybe the Al-Badhr Mujahidin Quilters' Group.
This is a Dick Cheney thing, isn't it?
Here we have all of the attendees with the exception of Sam's fiance Kip, who was taking the picture. Here's who they are.
Lower row, left to right:
• Bride-to-be Samantha
• Grandma Jean
• Granddaughter-to-be Cassie
• Granddaughter Kiely, the birthday girl, showing us a bird call
• Grandpa Gary
• Grandma Sandy
• Kiely's sister Shayla
• Grandpa John, your faithful blogger
• Grandma Betty
• Papa John
• Mama Heather
Plus 1½ no-account dogs.
Kiely is large for her age and continues to grow apace. She's bright and athletic and a bottomless font of energy. Here she is, airing out her two new bottom teeth.
She and her new cousin Cassie met for the first time, which gave Kiely a new outlet for all her energy. Cassie, who is four, is not much smaller than Kiely. They spent a lot of time doing kid stuff and ignoring adults. Kiely repeatedly picked Cassie up. The camera caught Cassie waiting for some chocolate chip mint ice cream.
This may have been Kip's first opportunity to spend much time with his new in-laws. We're just a leetle worried that, now that he knows what he's getting into, he might change his mind. Heather can attest: It's not easy joining the Woods. The wedding will be on October 7th in Santa Barbara, and we'll all be there.
Man it was HOT! 106° We huddled inside the house with the air conditioning on full blast. With twelve of us plus four dogs, it was crowded. Grandma Sandy monopolized all the dogs' attention through the devious tactic of carrying a couple of pounds of treats in her pockets. If we'd had a ref, she might have been red-carded.
From left to right, the dogs are:
All are ratty mutts, beneath any consideration by Rose, our purebred Boston Terrier, with the exception of Harry, a champion Australian Shepherd, who, like her, is descended from aristocratic bloodlines. Here she is, befittingly ensconced on expensive upholstery with a toy Boston Terrier that she likes to bite and hump.
Note her exquisite pedicure. She's relieved that she didn't have to associate with those other dogs in Nevada City. Whew!
One last picture: The future bride and groom posing with John and Matty.
Matty is looking over at Sandy, hoping for more treats. A dog hooked on treats—a tragedy.
We chose our hotel, The Stanyan Park Hotel, because it is in walking distance from their house and from the lovely Ninth Avenue restaurants, and we can walk across the street into Golden Gate Park for our daily hour of exercise.
Here, Jean is performing isometrics against a large, ancient Cypress. Better look out, Mr. Tree!
The weather is so fine and the scenery so beautiful, it's hard to imagine why we moved away.
Of course, a week from now, this will all be shrouded in fog, and a nasty, cold wind will blow through the Golden Gate. People in thick jackets will scurry along, hunched against the cold. It'll look like Moscow in winter.
How do they keep the grounds looking so colorful and neat? Gazillions of gardeners is how. In my mind, this is a proper use of tax dollars.
We walked in the incredible park, admiring the specimens in the Botanical Gardens. We visited the Japanese Tea Garden, which made us long to return to Japan, despite the lurid Chinese Moon Bridge and other cultural anomalies.
We visited the DeYoung Museum, a pretty good place although replacing the old neoclassical structure with the present hypermodern pile was a crime. The inverted pyramid is especially egregious; just as out-of-place as is I. M. Pei's jarring glass pyramid in the Louvre. It's not that I dislike modern architecture—just stupid applications of it.
The DeYoung's special exhibition was The Quilts of Gee's Bend, which was serendipitous for Jean, being the quilter she is. The exhibited quilts, crudely sewn of material from old suits and dresses, reminded me of quilts my mother made; a far cry from modern quilts made from exquisitely patterned fine cottons, machine-pieced on $5,000 sewing machines. The quilts, and the photographs of the old black Alabaman women who made them, were interesting, even arresting. The purile gushing of Volvo-driving, hemp-wearing whale-huggers was revolting; ultimately drove me out of the show. I'd have enjoyed it more if they'd rounded up about 100 of the homeless living in the southeast corner of the park, and let them view the quilts. At least, they'd know why those ladies sewed: Not to express their anger at exploitation by the white Southern aristocracy—just to keep warm.
We ate lunch at The People's Cafe on Haight Street. A score or two of young, tapped-out people camped on the sidewalk, waiting for the return of The Summer of Love. Somebody should tell them, it ain't gonna happen. The street is lined with places they can't afford to shop in: in one I saw a pair of genuine blue suede shoes—$300.
And we shopped. And shopped. And shopped. After three years in Mexico, I'm shocked by how rich the U. S. is. The Apple Store blew me away, with it's high-style computers and gadgets. We bought a Bose dock for our iPod. There's nothing remotely like The Apple Store in Mexico. A flower kiosk in the Embarcadero Center was selling lilies for $5 per stem. In San Miguel, you can buy two dozen for that. I saw a Porsche SUV.
We brought a large empty suitcase to carry home purchases, and put a large number of dollars into it. A San Miguel friend says it costs less to fly to the U. S. than to drive, because the official shopper in his family can only get about $3,000 into suitcases, but easily puts $10,000 into the Suburban.
The highlight of our San Francisco stay was our visit with Jeff and Maria, a couple who seem to be living the kind of lives everyone else would like to live. I can't see how any visitor of theirs could fail to feel warm, such is the glow in their home. Jack works just enough to meet their income needs, and spends much of the rest of his time with the kids. Maria is a full-time supermom who has created the home I would have liked to have grown up in.
Their house was badly damaged by fire a couple of years ago, and they've only recently completed the restoration and moved back. Living in temporary quarters while dealing with a major construction project must have been very hard for them, although they seem to have taken it all in stride.
They've reworked the space in their home to exactly suit their family. The entry is into an open, sunny kitchen with counter and bar stools. What once was a dining room now is an art center, and it's open to the living room, so kids can work on projects in the same space the adults are using. The kids also have a large playroom. Jeff has a large office which doubles as a guest room (guests have to be out by 9 AM) and Maria has a nook for her office. Occasional accent walls are painted in brilliant colors; Mexico-inspired? Near the entry are four little cubbyholes with outlets for charging portable electronics—one for each ember of the family. They don't use land line phones anymore: (cable?) internet and cell phones provide all the bandwidth and connectivity they need.
Ruby is turning into a sweet little girl, thanks in part to her mom who notes that she's "raising a homemaker." Jack has an artistic bent and a fascination with machines, as well as a sharp and slightly scatological sense of humor. Sitting in the playroom, I had a miniature teacup and saucer in one hand and a bunch of Legos in the other. I could feel my right and left brain separating.
We took the kids to a friend's house and went to Kabuto Sushi, one of the best sushi restaurants I've visited either here or in Japan. Four grades of maguro! It was a mellow evening with good friends whom we hope will visit us soon in Mexico.
• Cobblestone streets and many, many potholes, shaking everything loose
• Corrupt police stopping and extorting
• Dead, bloated animal carcasses littering the road
• Live, dangerous cows, horses, burros, sheep, goats and dogs wandering in front of the car
• Double parking and illegal parking, blocking streets
• Inept drivers making dangerous maneuvers
• Rude drivers
• More corrupt cops...
You get the picture.
A friend of mine sold his car, after making arrangements with a taxi driver to become his personal driver. Whenever Bob needs a ride, he calls the taxi driver's cell and asks him to come over and pick him up. The guy drops off his fare if he has one and arrives at Bob's house almost immediately. Basically, Bob has his own personal driver. He tells me that even with occasionally hiring the driver for an entire day, it costs less than owning a car. No maintenance, no fuel, no insurance, no repairs, no depreciation. And no hassles.
• Hit a pothole? Driver's problem.
• Cop on the take? Driver's problem.
• Rude driver cut you off? Driver's problem.
Bob just sits in the back seat and reads the latest Lee Child novel.
When we got to SFO at about 2 AM (Thankyew Continental), we decided to test the No Car Hypothesis. Instead of renting a car, we'd use public transportation. What with the high cost of taxis, this might cost us a little more, but we could relax in the back seat and talk or read, or... you know... whatever.
We picked up our luggage and walked out to where the airport vans congregated. A man steered us to a van marked "Bay Shuttle." Two other travelers were sitting in it, waiting to be taken to their hotels. The driver loaded our luggage and then made us wait another 15 minutes just in case another fare came along.
Anyone who has traveled much in major cities knows that one of the most popular entry-level job opportunities for those new to our shores is driving a taxi or a shuttle. Which means that travelers often have to cope with communications and cultural problems, and erratic driving.
Our driver was Chinese. He spoke very little English. He didn't know anything about San Francisco. I think he learned to drive by playing video games.
He floored the van, shot out onto the freeway nearly sideswiping a car, turned on the dome light, handed us a clipboard and asked us to write down our destinations. We four captives... er... passengers... dutifully wrote down, "Stanyan Park Hotel," or some such and handed the clipboard back. The driver, now traveling at more than 80 mph, intently studied the clipboard, wandering back into his lane only when prompted by angry horns.
He asked, "Ess... tee... Yes?"
Jean replied, "Yes. That's the Stanyan Park Hotel."
"Yesss" he said, unconvincingly.
"It's near Kezar Stadium. You know Kezar Stadium?," Jean added, hopefully.
He took the Seventh Street off ramp, pulled into a no parking zone and dialed his cell phone. Rapid-fire Cantonese ensued, interspersed with street names. "Stanya Pok! Ess... tee..."
We passengers looked at each other. This was not looking good. The male passenger asked the driver to take the single female passenger to the Omni Hotel at 500 California Avenue, because it was the nearest destination. The driver said, "Hokay. Cee aeee..."
The male passenger, now in charge, said, "Just go straight ahead up Seventh..."
The driver floored it.
Giving the driver turn-by-turn directions, we came to the Omni, which happened to be on the left side of California Avenue. Accompanied by a blare of angry horns, our diver swung a sudden U-turn across four lanes of traffic and a double yellow line, to bring his passenger right up to the hotel front door.
The female passenger got out, paid him and thanked him. The male passenger got out, told the driver there was no way he was riding with him any farther, and that he wasn't going to pay him the full $16 fare, since he was going to have to pay for a taxi to his hotel. He paid the driver $5 and stomped away.
Our driver walked back to the van, slammed the passenger-side door, got into the driver's seat and said (No kidding!), "Gloddam no pay! Fok!"
Now it was just Jean and me and an angry, inept, lost driver who spoke almost no English—except for a fair amount of profanity, that is.
I told him, "Go straight up California for a long way."
He floored it. Every time he did that, an expensive, screeching noise issued from under the van. We bounced through a red light. The van had worn out its shock absorbers 100,000 miles ago. I clamped my teeth so I wouldn't bite my tongue when we hit a bump.
At the next intersection, the driver braked for a red light. The brakes made a metallic squealing accompanied by a rumbling, ringing sound like a machine lathe turning, cutting metal. The van slewed to the left. The driver pulled on the wheel, bringing the car back over to his side of the street.
The cross-street light turned yellow. The driver floored it. We shot through the intersection. Approaching the next one, he asked, "Turr hee?"
"No. Go straight."
Clearly, he had abandoned all responsibility for navigation. Now it was up to us. Fortunately, we were familiar with the streets of San Francisco. What if this had been Philadelphia? Baltimore? Cleveland? (OK. It could never have been Cleveland.)
"Sorry. Straight. Go straight."
Running two more red lights, we reached our hotel. We collected our bags and I paid him. He looked at me, shook my hand and said, "Sorry. New Drivah. Sorry."
The next day, we hailed another cab piloted by a recent Chinese immigrant. We gave him our destination address, and he promptly took off in the wrong direction. I thought to myself that maybe he knew some short cut, some way of beating congestion by going away from our objective. I was at the point of saying something to him when he said, "Sorry. Wrong direction. I make mistake. You no pay."
Turning around, he sped down Stockton, through the tunnel. I heard a siren behind us. Motorcycle cop. Our driver pulled over. The cop walked up to the window. "You were doing 45 through the tunnel."
The cop walked back to his motorcycle to get his ticket pad. Our driver put his face in his hands and said, "Oh God." We got out, paid the amount on the meter, and walked the rest of the way to Market Street.
Our friend Maria listened to our tale of woe and gave us the name of a driver she uses in San Francisco. Jean called Raymond. I said as she was calling, "If his name is Raymond, he's probably Chinese." (In my experience, Chinese-Americans are partial to the name Raymond.)
Listening to Jean's end of the conversation, I heard:
"Yes, Raymond? Is this Raymond? I want to speak to Raymond. Yes? Raymond?"
"Uh-huh. Are you a driver?"
"Could you repeat that?"
Most people would have hung up and written off drivers forever. But we trust our friend Maria, and if she vouched for Raymond, we weren't going to write him off. Not without trying him, anyway.
The next morning, exactly at eight as promised, Raymond picked us up in a spotless, new Town Car. He was friendly, courteous, trustworthy and brave. Well, I don't know about that last, but he had the first three down pat. We had a smooth ride direct to our destination, relaxing in the back seat, talking to each other. Exactly what we'd had in mind.
They tell you it's a bad idea to hail a cab. Better to hire a driver you know.
The second half of our journey, the Houston—San Francisco leg, devolved into slapstick comedy. Sitting in the President's Club, drinking my Presidential Diet Coke and eating my Presidential Peanuts, I looked out the window at a line of planes hooked up to jetways. Through the glass, I heard the penetrating whine of some machine. Occasionally the pitch of the whine dropped, and a thick cloud of black smoke squirted into the air from somewhere behind one of the planes.
That turned out to be our plane.
As the afternoon wore on, the President's Club emptied out as one flight after another took off. In the terminal corridors, the crowds thinned. On the status monitors, the projected departure time for our flight approached, and then receded. Each time we came within a half hour of takeoff, someone set our ETD back another couple of hours.
Unaccountably, we had planned on Continental feeding us dinner. Call us crazy. We somehow thought that having been treated to a first-class upgrade would provide us with actual food. Meanwhile, we sat in the President's Club, staving off hunger with tiny bags of Eagle Brand Honey Roasted Peanuts. There were some apples in a bowl, but they were hard and underripe. I had forgotten how bad fruit in the U. S. can be.
When hunger overcame our good sense, we wandered over to a cluster of food court restaurants: Popeye's, Pizza Hut, Harlan's BBQ... Just past the cafeteria-style places, I spied a place called Bubba's Seafood Grill. It had proper tables and waiters, and a darkened, sophisticated-looking atmosphere. Inside, the atmosphere turned out to simply be bad lighting, but we prepared to seat ourselves in a crowded row of small black formica tables. As I turned sideways to squeeze between two tables, my carry-on bag brushed against a large bottle of catsup on the table behind me. The bottle fell to the ceramic tile floor and shattered explosively.
Catsup and glass coated a large part of the entry aisle. Red glop adhered to one of my shoes. My pants were splattered.
I was embarassed, feeling like a clumsy oaf. That is, until a waiter said, "No problem. That happens all the time." Then I noticed that on every table, the same trap had been set: Large bottles of catsup and hot sauce perched at the very edges, waiting to be brushed onto the hard floor.
A surly woman in a plastic smock and shower cap arrived with a broom and dust pan. She swept up most of the broken glass and smeared the catsup around. Defeated by its viscosity, she quit trying to get it off the floor and instead just placed one of those folding yellow "wet floor" signs in the middle of the aisle. Then she turned her back on the mess and slouched back to her lair.
After we had completed our penance by waiting long enough, a waitress brought our menus, addressing both of us as "Honey." It was clearly time to leave, but we were by now too hungry to be sensible.
Jean opted for the Caesar salad—always a mistake in an airport restaurant—and I ordered a shrimp cocktail (six jumbo shrimp—$11) and the meat loaf—a daring contrarian move in a seafood restaurant. The Caesar salad turned out to be leathery outside leaves of romaine tossed with Wish-Bone dressing and sprinkled with some kind of grated cheese food product. The shrimp were tired and rubbery and were served with catsup-based cocktail sauce (retribution?). The meat loaf had been prepared during the Clinton Administration.
How can you screw up meat loaf? Bubba's found a way. It had sat for so long before I ordered it, it was actually crunchy. Kind of a meat loaf beef jerky food product.
We forced our dinners down and returned to the President's Cub for another hour when our flight was finally called.
They'd given up on our original aircraft, which still sat, smoldering, at its gate. It was replaced, praise be to Allah, by an international-class 757. Our first-class upgrade meant we were gonna sit in those huge fully reclining seats and watch our choice of any of 50 movies on demand on our individual fold-out LCD screens. And, we were gonna get a gourmet meal!
The plane took off. We stretched out in our seats. Jean started to watch Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall in The Big Sleep. The flight attendant came by to take our dinner order. She said, "We've given up on the salmon. Six hours on the ground, and it's just not gonna make it. You have a choice of beef tips with rice or a salad and pizza from the back."
I went with the beef tips, which had also suffered from the six hours on the ground: stale and dry. Jean ordered the pizza. (She often makes the worst food choices.) Back came a tired, six-hour-old salad and a cello-wrapped "pizza-ette." She didn't even bother opening the package.
Disappointment and resentment derives from unrealistic expectations. Somehow, we were anticipating an improvement in our dining experiences just because we had started on our trip to SF. The truth is, there is no good food in transit between León and San Francisco. What were we thinking?
Tonight's going to be different. We're going to join my sister Suzie for dinner at a great sushi restaurant over on Ninth Avenue. Hopefully, this expectation is not unrealistic.
To get to San Francisco from San Miguel, your main option is through Houston. There used to be a direct flight to Oakland, on the other side of San Francisco Bay. Maybe there still is. But it's a redeye, sometimes it makes a stop in Zacatecas, and it terminates in... um... Oakland. I'd rather leave home at 9 AM, spend more time in transit, and wind up someplace I wanna be. Going to California is an all-day affair any way you approach it. Might as well do it in comfort.
Continental sent me an email, offering me the option to check in online. I bit, and clicked the link. Eight pages later, after making entries in several fields and clicking various buttons, I got a page that said I couldn't get my boarding passes online because the Guanajuato Airport doesn't allow online check-in. Boy, did I feel like a dummy! Trying to check in online from BJX! Duh!
Now, wait a minute. Didn't I just say that Continental sent me an email asking me to check in online? They want me to cooperate with them in this because it saves them money. But... somewhere in their system, they know that Guanajuato will not permit online check-in, because their computer served me a web page saying so. So why the hell don't they just implement a little program branch that says, "If the passenger is leaving from Guanajuato, don't bother sending him a check-in email, because it's just gonna piss him off."
Things have gone from bad to worse with luggage allowances. Some time ago, most airlines made a new rule restricting checked luggage to two pieces per passenger, neither weighing more than 50 lbs. (A far cry from the days when we carried 24 MacIntosh computers to Moscow as checked baggage, no questions asked.) You could get around the rule by paying $20 for an overweight bag. Sometimes, it was worth it.
But in the fine print, Continental warns you that at certain times of year, they won't accept overweight bags at any price, and we learned today that this restriction was now in effect. But in effect only in Guanajuato!
The check-in agents were strictly enforcing the new rule, causing in a huge back-up at the desk. Seems like everyone had overweight bags. Sometimes by ten or twelve pounds, sometimes by less than a pound. No matter. Overweight? You had to do something about it.
It was amazing. Ahead of me, a woman had her open bag on the scale. She'd managed to get six pounds of stuff transferred from her checked luggage to her carry-on. The gate agent said, "You've got another pound to go." She jammed some more stuff into her hand baggage. The agent said, "Whoah. Whoah! That's enough!"
I may have been witnessing the first regulation in Mexico ever precisely and honestly enforced. No mordida. No letting anyone slide for a few ounces.
Of course, the question is, Why? Why 50 lbs? Why only Guanajuato?
It's not like baggage handlers can't move heavy bags. They've been doing it for years. Does it have to do with some limitation of the aircraft? Maybe the runway is a little short in Guanajuato, and a full plane can't take off with too much baggage? But then why does everyone get to shuffle their stuff from bag to bag. The plane winds up taking off with the same weight on board.
I'll never understand airlines.
I visited the men's room next to Gate #3. The screen in the bottom of the urinal was advertising a deli. The slogan said, "Aaaaah. ¡Que Rico!"—"How Delicious!" What genius came up with that? Many years ago, I saw a urinal screen in a bowling alley in San Mateo, CA, that said, "Artistry in Plastics." Until today, that one was the record holder for stupidity.
Between most neighboring countries in the world, things look pretty much the same on either side of the border. This is definitely not so at the Mexican border, and you can readily see it from the air. In Tamaulipas just south of the Rio Grande, the land is sere, taupe-colored desert, a few scattered dusty towns, and narrow highways with no traffic. Just across the river in Texas, orderly green irrigated fields, prosperous communities and busy freeways define the landscape. It's startling the first time you see it. How is it possible that the same biosphere can look so different on either side of such a thin line?
Of course, what we're seeing is not so much an environmental difference as one of wealth. In 2004, the Mexican per capita income was $6,770. In the U. S., it was $41,400, six times as much. When you're poor, you can't afford to develop, to pave roads, to irrigate. You can see it at the border from the air: The color of money is green.
One of the disadvantages of living in a foreign country is that we don't get to see our families and friends enough. It's been a year since we last visited Northern California—too long. Also, we suffer from reverse culture shock. When we go north we get: frantic people, pothole-free roads, high costs, honest cops, lousy weather, sushi and "have a nice day." It's disorienting.
Today I'm acculturating myself. NetFlix has sent me Alien, one of Roger Ebert's Top 100 Movies of All Time. That Roger should include it almost makes up for his placing My Dinner with Andre on the same list. For me, what catapults Alien to greatness is the five minutes of footage of terrified Sigourney Weaver in her underpants. Pure art, if you ask me.
I'll be watching it in just a minute.
Also, I've loaded up my iPod with the oeuvre of Bo Diddley, possibly the inventor of, and certainly the greatest Rock 'n' Roller of all time, as well as a truly great American.
OK. So compared with Chuck Berry or Elvis, he was a minor figure. But I contend that this is because audiences simply could not comprehend his vision.
I first saw him on the stage of the Brooklyn Paramount Theater at an Alan Freed Rock 'n' Roll show in 1956. Dressed in a red sequined zoot-suit-length sport coat, he entered from stage left to the opening chords of that anthem of Rock 'n' Roll, "Hey Bo Diddley" while duck walking and playing a guitar shaped like a lightning bolt.
It was the defining moment of my life.
Soon he was into "Who Do You Love?" I was swept away by the sheer poetry of his lyrics:
"Take it easy, Arlene / Don't give me no lip."
"You shoulda heard / Just what I seen."
"Arlene took me / By the hand,
She said,'Ooo-eee Bo / Y'know I understand."
Some of you may disagree with my assessment of the greatness of these lines, but they were, by God, good enough for George Thurgood whose pathetically derivative cover of "Who Do You Love?" probably made him more money than Bo made in his entire career. Oh, the unfairness!
Anyway, with the iPod all loaded up, I'm good for a couple of hours of '50s Rock 'n' Roll while we're in the air, and when we land at SFO, I can hit the ground running.