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Sidebar Deli

225 Cedar Street, Downtown San Diego

"Every day's a good day, but some days are better than others."

That's what it says on this quote staring out from below the bronze bust of one Robert K. Castetter, first dean of the California Western School of Law.

Right on, brother.

But, man, I feel out of place, beyond my nat'ral boundaries, here in the law school's courtyard, surrounded by sharp-talkin', book-totin', totally caffeinated law students, heads bobbing, fingers wagging, eyes firing blue bullets.

"Our motto? It's Lex Lata...what the law is."

"No. Lex Ferenda...what the law ought to be."

"No. Lex Schola Ferenda...what a law school ought to be."

"But that's all sub rosa..."

"You leave Rosa out of this..."

Dang. Half of me would love to be in on all that. 'Specially since, oh man, this must be the nexus of beauty and brains. What jury could disagree with some of these student babes? Hot! "Whatever she says, Your Honor..."

I read the "good day" quote again, since I am, natch, waiting for Hank. He's supposed to be here at one. Coming from the po-lice headquarters. Picking up special parking permission for a filming job he's got, lucky devil. A commercial.

A friend told me about this place. Looks private, as if it's part of the law school, but actually it's open to the Great Unwashed. Even Hank, if he'll ever turn up.

Ah. Here he is.

"Hey, it's the White Rabbit," I say, "always late. How's Alice?"

"Parking, dude," says Hank. "We gonna eat? Got pre-shoot meeting this afternoon, lighting, positions, talent line-up..."

Yeah, yeah, Martin Scorsese. Bet he's only holding some light meter for some assistant assistant camera jockey.

Whatever. But here's the secret deal. Behind smoked-glass doors on Dean Castetter's courtyard hides this little deli. The Sidebar Deli. You enter a low-ceilinged, cream-and-aqua dining area and kitchen, and you're in the clutches of Esther, Monica, Rosalinda, and Maria, four women chirping away in Spanish till you're ready to give an order.

Hank and I are looking mostly at the cold sandwiches, but they have hot ones, too, and daily specials. Today's is spaghetti and meatballs with garlic bread for $4.25. Esther says other days they have, like, California wrap, filled with turkey, ham, avocado, bacon, or maybe a teriyaki chicken. Price is always the same, $4.25.

"Sounds good," I say. "I'll go for the spaghetti and meatballs."

"Sorry, we've run out today."

"What?" I give Hank a sideways look, like, brother, if you hadn't been so late...

"We got plenty of other food," Esther says. "Soup, salad, sandwiches."

She gestures at the wall menu. I see veggie burgers ($2.95), a bunch of cold sandwiches, like BLT, turkey, roast beef, for $2.95, cheese quesadillas $2.25, and a bunch of hot sandwiches, all $3.75. Tuna melt, French dip, hot pastrami, grilled chicken. Sounds interesting, and these are my kind of prices.

"Got salad?" Hank says.

"Yessir," Esther says. "Chicken, Caesar, tuna, all $3.25."

"Give me a chicken. Hold the bread."

"Chicken, sin pan," says Esther to Maria at the prep table.

"And one of those Déjà Blue bottles of water." They're 60 cents.

Esther looks at me. I'm hungry but undecided.

"Okay," I say finally. "I'll take soup -- what is it?"

"Barley and beef, $1.25."

"And a French dip sandwich [$3.75, with side salad] and, like, could you just cut me half an avocado?"

"That will be 60 cents extra."

"Fine. And a coffee. Sixty cents, right?"

"Right, but we're out of coffee."

Jeez. Body-blow number two.

"So how much, all together?" I ask.

"Dude, I'm paying," Hank says. Normally, I'd let him, but something about his in-the-movie-biz swagger that makes me take a stand.

"This is mine," I say. "How much?"

"It's $10.88 for everything," Esther says.

"Let's not make a lawsuit of it, dude," says Hank. He's talking loud. "Remember, in Chowhound vs. the People it was clearly established: the first guy to the counter pays."

Five minutes later we've hauled it all outside to the courtyard. It's only now that I start to take in how, well, charming the space is. We're protected from the street by two levels of trees. Lilacs and others. The salmon-and-cream stucco and stone walls make it all feel warm. Interlocking triangular shapes add to the coziness. Don't ask me why.

I look around. The tables are scattered with students carrying ton-weight books and ring-binders. Some have rolling carriers with them to help with the book case-load. The conversations sound long, lively. I feel as though I'm trespassing.

I open my little soup pot. Coffee: dark, steamy hot. I pick it up and take a big gulp. Ooh. Yes. Like bouillon.

"Great," I say. "Except I don't see no barley or beef."

"May it please the court," says Hank in a tired voice. "Witness has tampered with Exhibit A, the dip for his French dip sandwich. Request a, uh, Sidebar, to discuss location of actual soup."

"Very funny," I say. I go back inside, find my soup. It's thick with barley, filling, with plenty of beef. The problem is, when I get to my French dip, I run out of the dip. I'm eating dry. My own fault, but the avocado helps. It's great with ranch dressing in the hole. And wow, such a deal.

Suddenly, it's two o'clock. I know, 'cause not only is Hank tearing off to his Very Important Meeting, but everybody else disappears too. Classes, I guess. White rabbits all, heading for their wonderlands.

Sigh. It's just me, alone in the courtyard. The one guy who still hasn't got his life together. I look back at Robert K. Castetter and his funny motto.

"Every day's a good day, but some days are better than others."

"Enough," I say, "you've made your case."

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