Brian got married “around age 28. We had Anthony about two years afterwards and had Adriana in ’94.” Though he didn’t relish the thought of being “50 years old and worrying about [my daughter’s] virginity,” Brian realized that “I’ve got her now, and we’ll work this out.” Now 48, he is trim and tanned. His close-cropped hair is receding, there’s a little gray in his goatee, and the lines in his face seem more the result of a life lived in the sun than of age. He talks low and fast, his speech buoyed by energetic swells. There is a disarming frankness to him, along with hints of high emotion.
As it turned out, “we” didn’t last. Brian and his wife divorced in 1998. After Adriana’s birth, he recalls, “We knew [it would be] four years with her at home and me working by myself” — Brian is a hairdresser, currently working at Primo Salon and Day Spa in Poway — “and by the end of those four years, it was going to be tough. We were at the end of our ropes financially. What [my ex] could never have realized is that we were almost there, almost over the hump. If we’d stuck it out for another year, we would have been there by now. She’s got a job teaching — we would have benefits. We would have had a dual income. We’d be sitting pretty, instead of both of us having to start all over again.”
Brian started living in San Diego in 1986, when he moved to Rancho Bernardo from Minneapolis via Seattle. His in-laws were snowbirds who nested here, and when Brian and his wife made their annual visits to Rancho Bernardo, they “fell in love with it. Being from Minneapolis, it wasn’t hard to get away from that. I’ll never leave here. I’ll be forced into the ground by nature or by God.” He and his wife eventually rented a house, but now, starting over, he has landed in a two-bedroom apartment in a quiet, gateless complex near his daughter’s school.
A squat stone wall adorned with the complex’s name greets me as I arrive. A green knoll swells behind it, dotted with pines which contrast with the palms nearer the front, evidencing the developer’s hand. The knoll crests and then dips down toward the complex’s focal point, the pool. Nestled around the pool are parking lots and garages, the garages long, low-slung, and windowed, so that they look more like meeting lodges than homes for cars. Sidewalks wind around the knoll, disappear across the asphalt lots, and then resume winding about the surrounding apartment buildings. The buildings are classic Rancho Bernardo: pale yellow stucco, red-tile roof. A few are outfitted with protruding support beams, straining to give an impression of age and substance. Brian’s apartment is on the first floor; his small porch, crowded with greenery, sits at ground level.
Brian’s 17-year-old son Anthony has come home early today, so dinner is ready by the time I arrive. The apartment is mid-sized. The front door leads into the dining room, which adjoins the living room; the kitchen is off to the left. An oak entertainment center covers a chunk of one living room wall, containing a TV, a stereo, books, videos, pictures, and knick-knacks. The sofa faces the TV; a coffee table stands in between. A sliding glass door on the living room’s far wall opens onto the porch. The walls are decorated with posters, prints, and a few masks. A soft-jazz saxophone wails from the stereo.
“We’ve got a lemon-chicken dish with pasta noodles,” says Brian, “and a salad and some buns and corn on the cob.” It’s Monday, so we are joined by six-year-old Adriana, who stays with Brian on Saturdays, Sundays, and Mondays and lives the rest of the time with her mother in a nearby townhouse. “I cook when we’re all together like this, when Anthony’s not out and about with his buddies. I try to cook Monday nights and Sundays. I used to have a restaurant when I was 21, so I’m used to cooking. I was both owner and chef; it was called J’s Italian-American restaurant.”
The chicken dish is “just something I threw together, made up. I was always doing that type of stuff when I was doing the restaurant. First of all, I dipped [the chicken breasts] in egg and did the whole herb thing with bread crumbs and flour and so forth, got a crust on them, got them going. Put on onion, celery, that type of thing, get those going. Then cream of chicken, mix up the sauce, put it on there — boom. Noodles, throw that on there — all that stuff is filling.
“I try to make things for [the kids] that are going to fill them up a little bit, but I also try to keep a good enough range of different things. There’s a lot of nights when we’re doing macaroni and cheese and stuff like that, because it’s what they want. But on Monday nights, when I’ve got the day off and some time to go to the store and make a nice dinner, I’m really into cooking.”
Brian learned to cook while growing up in Minnesota, watching his mother and his Italian grandmother, who would visit from Detroit. He was one of seven children, “so we older boys ended up doing most of the cooking. Mom [would say], ‘Go make something for your brothers and sisters.’ Sunday mornings, we’d make french toast, go through a whole bag of bread. That saved us, filled us up — you each got about four pieces. A lot of it is taste and feel; it just comes from working in a restaurant. It’s like… once you know the different types of haircuts, different hairstyles, different textures of hair, and what you can and can’t do with it, boom, you can improvise. Once you know your craft, you can go off with it. It’s fun to get in there and let loose.”