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"Get out of here!" Carla says.

"Oh, for crying out loud," I say. "I know this body of yours like the back of my hand."

"You'll get the back of mine if you don't vamoose," she says. I'm sitting on her hospital bed here in Coro-nado. It's a week since she fell and broke her right leg and her right arm. A nurse appears at the door with two hefty assistants.

"Ready for your bed-bath?"

"Go, go, eat, eat," Carla tells me. "See you in a couple of hours."

She knows I need it -- her appetite's returned. Goodbye to free hospital meals for me. So here I am heading for the ferry landing at First Street. Figure I'll take the boat back to the mainland and find some cheap chow. It's around 6:20, a sunny, breezy evening. I pass all these flash eateries. Packed. Perfect guys and their perfect babes, plates underloaded with splots of food in the middle, cobwebs of gunk squirted over the empty bits. Great business plan! Art disguises the fact that you've just paid thirty clams for, like, a two-gulp meal.

I see the ferry tootling towards the jetty. Crowd of folks waits at the barrier. I quicken my pace.

Then I see this guy. Bill. I remember him. He used to cook at the "Night and Day," Coronado's one true 24-hour greasy spoon. He's also an ex-Navy chief. He's sitting at a white plastic table in front of the Coronado Ferry Company shop, where you buy the ferry tickets.

"I come every evening," he says. "There's a group of us. Have coffee from the coffee cart over there. A couple of retired chiefs, an admiral, a colonel, and a whole lot of others. We talk. We've got all the answers to the world's problems, right here."

He laughs. I see the coffee cart over his shoulder. It's under a tree. "Kaffeen's," says the sign.

"Any place to get a meal for under 200 bucks?" I ask.

"Heck yes," says Bill. "Right behind you. Go for the fish. Dave Ghio's the owner, and he's related to the Anthony's Fish Grotto folks. So you know he knows fish."

is a wooden box with a pointed roof on a kind of island, a wide walkway, really, between two duck ponds. "Deli by the Bay." I mean, okay. We're in touristland here. Art shops selling paintings of oh-so-cute dolphins and crashing waves. Rock shops, Scottish tartans, bike rentals. The usual waterfront suspects.

But, ooh. Can't argue with the $3.99 omelets they have advertised on the wall inside, including bacon and cheese. I pop up to the counter, which is practically open-air. "Breakfast still on?" I ask. The guys there, Geoff and Rod, shake their heads. They stopped serving breakfast at one. Bummer.

"So what do most people eat this time of day?"

"Sandwiches," Dave says. "Hot dogs, corn dogs too -- but mostly fish and chips."

The menu lists the fish and chips, jumbo shrimp and chips, and clams and chips. Problem: they're all $8.99. Just a bit over my head. But there's also a fish sandwich for $4.49, a crispy chicken sandwich for $3.75. Shrimp or tuna salad for $5.49, and a bunch of standard sandwiches with, like, turkey, roast beef, or egg salad, for $4.49. Or a jumbo dog for $3.25.

I ask about the fish and chips. "It's Pacific cod," says Geoff. "We bread it ourselves, with flour, garlic, and bread crumbs." Oh, what the heck. I place my order.

Ten minutes later, Rod calls out, "Ed!?" and I go collect my polystyrene box. I open it up. Wow. Big pile of wide-cut steak fries, four pieces of fish, coleslaw, little cup of tartar sauce, and a wedge of lemon. I grab some salt, shake bottled vinegar over everything, and go looking for a table with a view of the bay. 'Cause by now, my ferry's good and gawn. I'll be eating on the island.

"Over here," calls Bill. I sit down with his group, Hank, Anne, and Ruth. Marco and Marilynn come up from Mexico every day just to hang out with their buddies here.

"It's all because of Kaffeen's," says Hank, another retired chief. "Been coming for ten years, rain or shine. Winters, I bring a portable heater."

Hans Gunder, who started Kaffeen's, is a bandleader who gets bands and groups over to the island on weekends to "practice." This gang was drawn by those free concerts under what they call "Kaffeen's tree."

Plus -- and I like this -- they all pitch in to feed the feral cats who live in the bushes.

But as I chomp down, it's the setting that knocks me out. The harbor mellows, grows bluer. Sky grows bigger. Lights twinkle across the bay. A growling tug hauls an awesome ocean-going barge out toward the harbor entrance. Yachts, rockin' party boats, glide by. Weirdly, across the water, on the mainland, a concert's starting up, loud and clear: "Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to a very special night on the bay with our special guest..."

My fish? Nice. Light and unfishy. Flavorwise, the tartar sauce and vinegar definitely help. I go grab a coffee ($1.50) from Sarah at Kaffeen's, and I think of Carla, imprisoned in bed, so close to this little paradise.

She's all washed and buffed when I get back. "How was it?" she asks.

"This Coronado," I say. "I could warm to it. If only it didn't cost an arm and a...uh...leg."

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