Carla stares at the computer screen. Her face is like a little girl’s.
“That they’d come all this way,” she says, “just for my birthday. I can’t believe it.”
I’m reading the email over her shoulder. It’s from my English pal Geoff (not his real name, don’t want to impose on the poor boy), a friend from back in the hitchhiking days. Asia. Middle East. Always kept in touch. Carla’s gotten to know and love him through years of emailing, the kind of intimacy that sometimes pops up online. Now Geoff and his lady — let’s call her, uh, Debby — are flying in from London, England.
“Oh, Ed,” Carla says. “You’ve got to make enough money so we can entertain them properly. Show them California. Not be ashamed…”
This all started when we were talking about a problem we have every December: Carla’s birthday. It comes just five days after Christmas, when everybody’s exhausted and broke and trying to gather their wits together to finance New Year’s. And my record hasn’t been that great in making it an occasion for Carla. Half the time, like last year, we’ve agreed silently to forget about it. Sounds bad, I know. But honestly, it’s a tough time to get anyone aroused.
So, this year we decided to make up for past transgressions. Have a party. Not expensive, but, yes, we’d do it in Carla’s beloved Coronado, at Costa Azul, and for maybe a couple dozen of her closest buddies. Why Costa Azul? ’Cause when we called all over the place, they gave us the best deal on a per-head basis, $16.
That’s when Carla zipped off the email to Geoff. “Come on over,” she wrote, “to a real Californian par-tay! Get out of the snow! Stop shivering! Don’t be English and reserved! Make your reservation!” ’Course we never expected they’d actually want to do it, right after Christmas and all. And it’s not as if we embody the American Dream. Not with my chronic finances.
So, the first thought was, how fantastic that they’d send themselves and not just an online greeting. We felt awestruck, if you want to know the truth.
The second thought was: “How long will they be here?”
“Ten days,” Carla says.
“Ten days? Jeez…wait, no, that’s great. It’ll give us time to show them around.”
“You get the money, honey, we’ve got the time,” Carla says. “But, darling, how can you stop working for ten whole days? And do you realize what they’ll want to see? Do you know how much it will cost? Disneyland, Hollywood, Wild Animal Park, the ‘World-Famous’ San Diego Zoo, SeaWorld? Whale watching, Universal Studios, Scripps Aquarium, Viejas Casino…That’s good for $1000 right there. Each. Plus we’ve got to first get through Christmas, Hanukkah, Eid, Kwanzaa, and then — have we forgotten — my birthday?”
Carla is brooding now. “We’d better email them back right away,” she says. “Nip it in the bud. I love Geoff, and it’s the most beautiful gesture, but we’d be stripped naked for all to see. All those lyrical emails about glamorous California…we’d have to deliver…”
“Look, sweetheart,” I say. “We’ll just show them everyday California, not California theme parks. We’ve got the real thing right outside. The desert, the beaches, the border, Big Bear, Balboa Park.”
But the big question thumped in my brain: How do we show off California without busting the bank?
∗ ∗ ∗
Cut to ten days later, December 28. We drive the rental to the commuter terminal at Lindbergh Field. The Bedfords, driving? Yeah. We figured it was the one thing we really needed to invest in. A rental car. Put $450 down for a week.
It’s around 8:00 p.m. Geoff and Debby missed the connection at LAX because their flight was delayed in London. Security, after the Christmas scare. Geoff almost canceled. He’s a nervous flier.
I drop Carla at the terminal to watch for flight UA 6342, while I go looking for a place to park. I swear, when you’re not doing this every day — like when you depend on stretch limos (okay, buses) to get around — it’s real easy to get lost. After three circles, I finally find the commuter parking, then sit waiting for the ticket guy to notice me. He’s in the booth, on the phone, looking at a computer screen. Five minutes, and I’m about to get out and show him what I’m made of. I back up, so I can open the door…and notice the ticket-issuing machine. D’aagh, oh, right. I feel a bit like Rip.
Van Winkle, that is.
Upshot is, by the time I get to the luggage area, they’re there. “Bedford, you’d lose your head if it wasn’t screwed on,” Carla says. She’s holding Debby by the arm. Haven’t met Debby before. Cute. Reddish-brown curly hair, green eyes, black-and-white driving jacket over a fluffy pink sweater, with a big woolly black and white scarf wrapped ’round her neck. Tired as she must be, she has quick, lively movements and a ready laugh. Standing next to her is this suave-looking guy with a longish, English-style hairdo, oversized glasses, greeny-gray turtleneck sweater, and English tweed jacket. Neat. Makes you think of Clark Kent before he goes into the telephone booth. Or Bond, James Bond. Whatever, a real country gent, toff, veddy veddy English. Only thing missing is leather-patched elbows on his jacket.
He takes too long a moment to recognize me. Well, the last time we saw each other was in, what, 1982? We were in a drunken haze in some bar on Patpong in Bangkok. Or was it quaffing soft drinks in the Doha Club in Qatar? Whatever, we got around then. Sigh. What a difference a year or 20 makes.
“I’m afraid I just about pooped in my pants the whole way over,” Geoff says, “looking for people removing their shoes.”
Guess he’s thinking shoe-bomber.
“But you made it,” I say. “You’re here. Fun starts now. Let’s go.”
∗ ∗ ∗
“Clean!” says Geoff. “This town is so clean, shiny, new. And I never realized you were such a big city. These stupendous buildings.”
It’s about 9:30 now. We’re cruising south on Harbor Drive. Must say, you become acutely aware of everything with first-time visitors in the backseat. Debby has done the East Coast thing, but this is Geoff’s first moment in America. Ever. You wonder what it all looks like to them. So far, the city’s doing all right. Seen at night, it’s glowing, subtropical, mysterious. The yachts and the winking harbor lights on the right, just a minute from Lindbergh, make for one great intro. The Santa Fe Depot and its Canary Island palms also key the atmosphere. With those two great ladies, the Hyatt and the Marriott, looming high to starboard, it looks pretty impressive to me, too. Awesome and, yes, clean.
“My God,” says Geoff. “I had thought of San Diego as a sort of folksy seaside town, like Brighton, but this is…grand. You lied to us, Bedford.”
A trolley rolls by to the left.
“Look!” says Geoff. “Clean, shiny, red! Set in parkland. London is a great city, but, well, scruffier in places. This is like a dream. Like Rio in those ’30s movies.”
Huh. I like that.
“Ooh,” says Carla. Her head flicks rearwards. “There’s where we could go. That place in Top Gun. Where Tom Cruise and Kelly McGillis danced.”
The lights of Kansas City BBQ are blazing. Good sign, because at this hour, finding someplace to eat won’t be easy, and I don’t want to get log-jammed in the Gaslamp, ’specially with its platinum expense-account eateries.
I do a 180 and sneak in to park alongside Kansas City BBQ. We bail out and head in for the first American meal of the visit.
It’s a lucky start. Couldn’t have thought of a better introduction to Americana if we’d tried. We go in past the patio deck, where some brave souls sit under standing pole-heaters, ripping off meat from ribs like starving wolves, and into the cafe and bar area where dozens of tossed bras and hundreds of Navy ship caps fight for ceiling space. The piano where Top Gun’s “Maverick,” Tom himself, sat and guzzled a Bud with his number two, Goose, has been moved to the other side of the bar — they had a kitchen fire a couple of years back — but everything else is intact, a relief to the hundreds of Top Gun fans who make the pilgrimage here every year. For them, this is holy ground.
“I want to sit where Kelly McGillis sat,” says Debby as she plops herself into the corner seat of the first table. She leans back and spreads her arms over the red-and-white-check plastic tablecloth. “Just like the movie,” she says. “Goodness gracious…”
“…great balls of fire!” Geoff and I can’t help chorusing that one out.
“That’s it!” says Debby. “That’s what they played on that piano. And look, they have the jukebox.”
She leaps up and swings around, facing what looks like an old Wurlitzer. “F2,” she says reverently. She looks at me. “Don’t suppose you have a 25-cent piece? That’s what they used, isn’t it?”
I’ve got plenty jangling in my pocket. I hand her one.
“Quarter, dear, I think that’s what they call it,” says Geoff.
“ ‘Only dollar notes,’ ” she says. “It’s a dollar a song. Computerized. Things have certainly changed since 1986.” She finds a dollar bill in her purse and slides it in.
“All right!” says Geoff. “ ‘Great Balls of Fire.’ Want to dance, darling?”
“As long as you don’t mind a love song…” she says.
The music starts. Not “Great Balls of Fire,” but something slow.
“Watching every motion in my foolish lover’s game…”
It’s the movie’s main hit, Berlin’s “Take My Breath Away.”
Actually, what takes my breath away is that we’re going to be spending around $15 each, plus drinks. For four, looking at $80, plus a 20 percent tip. This being the first meal, Carla and I’ll pick up the tab, natch. Goodbye, C-note. Oh well, let’s at least do it right.
“You’ve got to try one of our beers,” I say.
“Budweiser?” says Geoff.
Right. Got some educating to do here. This man needs to know just how much American beer has evolved and what San Diego brewers are turning out.
“No, no, you are in the Beer Capital of America,” I say. I tell the waitress, “Get them a Stone IPA.”
That’s another Jackson, but worth every penny.
“Oh, my Lord,” says Geoff, after the first sip. He’s not being polite, he means it. “This is wondrous.” He takes a gulp. “Possibly the best beer I’ve had…ever. Perhaps because so unexpected. It’s superb.”
This is too good. It will probably be the best moment of the visit, before all the tensions and expectations and disappointments come. These ten days are going to be fraught, I know, what with Carla’s birthday, and New Year’s, and Debby’s birthday, too, which, we’ve learned, is five days later. Then there are all those days to fill in between, and with Carla and me not working — it’s gonna be a high-wire act.
I take a deep breath. “So what do you guys want to see?”
Carla shoots me a look. Maybe she’s thinking, if we just take them to cheap places they won’t ask about the expensive ones.
“Shamu, Shamu, Shamu!” says Geoff, like a kid.
“Well! We just must see Universal Studios,” says Debby. She’s a quick, nervous London gal with a ready laugh. Spirited. I like her already, but my heart goes thud. “And we can’t not do SeaWorld. And I’d love to go whale watching. And I would rah-ther like to see that fabulous Getty Museum. We’ve been reading about it on the internet, have we not, Geoff? And something to do with cowboys. And Geoff ought to learn to surf, right, darling? When in Rome…”
I notice Geoff gulp. I gulp too. My friend Joe has tried a dozen times to get me into the longboard game. But, man. It’s like snowboarding with an avalanche chasing you.
Carla’s eyes are spinning like pinwheels in a hurricane. This morning we’d done a quick scan of the obvious tourist traps. Not a pretty picture. SeaWorld: $69 each. Universal Studios, $69. Legoland, $67. Dennis Conner’s America schooner-cruise, whale watching, and Maritime Museum: $65, or $85 weekends. Sail on Stars and Stripes, plus Maritime Museum tour, $99. San Diego Zoo, $37. Wild Animal Park $37. Add, say, $15 parking at most of these. The only nice surprise was the Getty Museum up in L.A. It’s free, except for parking. But all in all, these attractions are for the rich and infamous. Carla had said, “So, if we want to, say, do one a day, that’d be…lessee…$300, $300, $300, $250, $400. And, okay, let’s say we split everything. We’re looking at $1550, divided by two — $775 each! And that’s just for the first five days. Then we’ve all got to eat and buy gas and we’ve got to pay rent, and you’ve got my birthday tomorrow, 24 guests, $16 each, another $400. We’re back up around $1200. With another whole week to go! More rental car, more tourist traps. No, Bedford, no. Those big-ticket things our guests do alone…”
“And maybe,” Debby is saying, “go and ride the cable car.”
“You mean San Francisco?” says Carla.
“Yes. How long a drive is that?”
“It’s too far,” Carla says, “unless you fly. But I think the Getty’s a brilliant idea. You can go in and never get out for ten days, it’s so interesting. Don’t you agree, Bedford?”
“Yes, the Getty sounds great,” I say.
“And we want to get shoes and blue jeans while we’re here,” Debby says. “Definitely blue jeans from the land of cowboys.”
“Just remember, darling, we’re not made of money,” Geoff says.
Whew. I can’t thank him enough for that. Maybe we’re in the same boat after all.
Debby yawns. She puts an arm around Geoff. “You big stud, take me to bed or lose me forever.”
Ha, straight out of that Top Gun scene in this very room.
Guess 18 hours’ flying is catching up with them. Geoff says he feels light-headed. Me, light-pocketed. I know. Sounding mean-spirited here. ’Cause I love having them already. But jes’ recording the fact: The bill for four rib meals and drinks is $78.79. Plus tip.
∗ ∗ ∗
That’s the sound of Geoff’s skull, hitting a Russian sub.
“Oh, yeah. Feet first,” I say. “Grab the hand-holds.”
We’re trying to dive through the manhole-sized gaps between compartments, like WWII crews did when they raced to the bow, trying to weigh it down so they could submerge quickly, away from depth charges.
“Thanks,” says Geoff. “You might have mentioned that earlier.”
Fact is, I’ve been aboard this B-39 Soviet-era sub before, inspired to visit it by Das Boot, the movie about a German U-boat that has you holding your nose and clearing your ears every time they yell, “Dive, dive, dive!” For this ship, moored near the Star of India, the Soviets copied a German U-boat but made it bigger. Not that you’d ever know inside. Everything is narrow, cramped, claustrophobic.
“Good Lord,” says Geoff. He’s reading an info plaque. “They squeezed 78 crew members in here.” We’re maneuvering past a couple of torpedo racks and a whole lot of kids. “How could you make good decisions in this rat gallery? And how did you chaps get this submarine? A Soviet sub at the U.S. Navy’s largest West Coast naval base? Did you capture it?”
Actually, I think the Maritime Museum captured it.
“All right,” says Geoff. “One more time.” We wait for the kids to clear, then run through the hull, diving through the hatchways. I go first. Bonk! “I think you’ll find if you grab the hand-holds first…,” says Geoff.
This is down at the embarcadero, item #1 on our list of Things We Can Do Without Busting the Bank. We got in on tickets of $12 each. For that, we get two subs, two sailing ships — the HMS Surprise and the Star of India — and the Berkeley museum ship. Deal, really. But it doesn’t include Midway. That’d be another $18.
It’s great, but not exactly what Carla and I had planned. We’d worked out what we couldn’t afford, and then, all last night we were stewing again, still wracking our brains as to what da heck was important to do.
By then, Geoff and Debby were tucked up in their hotel. “Okay, tell me,” Carla said to me, “what kind of San Diego do we want them to see? What is San Diego exactly?”
“Uh, the ‘Gibraltar of the Pacific’?” I said. This was strictly to needle her. We’d seen this TV doc about our fair city that claimed that a fortress is what San Diego’s role in life is, and the credits weren’t rolling before Carla, with her Californio background, was frothing at the mouth, rending her garments. “Gibraltar of the Pacific? Armed to the teeth, ready to repel all invaders? What a typical Anglo idea! Is that the best they can come up with? This place has welcomed invaders since my forefathers came, back when this was New Spain. You Anglos, for instance. That’s it: We need to show Geoff and Debby real San Diego places, like Rancho Guajome up by Vista, where my great-grandfather had his rancho. And the site of the Battle of San Pasqual, where our people challenged you gun-totin’ Easterners with little more than lances. And, yes, Old Town, where Alta California began. And the Mission, Balboa Park, and also the border. This is San Diego. Not some Top Gun playground.”
“Hey, Top Gun was your idea,” I said. “But let’s face it, they’ve come for the California sun, surf, sand, and fun. The whole thing doesn’t have to be one big stern, guilt-inducing history lesson.”
“Well then,” Carla said, “the only thing I care about is cost.”
So we’d started a list, again. Lord. Lists. This must’ve been List #23.
— La Jolla, Children’s Pool, to see the seals. Free.
— Find those giant turtles off the Duke power-plant outfall in Chula Vista. Free, after cost of boat.
— Go see the wreck of the Monte Carlo, that gambling ship beached off Coronado. Free. Have them dive for the dollar coins still stuck down in the 1930s slot machines. On second thought, no. That could be dangerous.
— Walk through the Marilyn Monroe exhibit at the Hotel Del. Free.
— Drive out to the tower at In-Ko-Pah, with its views of Mexico and the Salton Sea, just before the 8 freeway plunges into Imperial County. Free, except for 120 miles’ worth of gas and a small entry fee ($3.50 adults, $2 for kids, open “sunlight hours”).
— Go see the tourmaline mines at Santa Ysabel, or outside Fallbrook, where the Empress of China sent her emissaries to find pink tourmaline for her funeral pillow. Cheap.
— Go visit Mission San Diego, overlooking Mission Valley. First mission in Alta California. Or we could visit Mission San Luis Rey, up Oceanside way. (Tours $6 adults, $4 children.)
— Drive to the Owl Cafe in El Centro. The ultimate Wild West bar, with eats on one side, drinks on the other, and gambling traditionally in the back. Up till recently, they had a sign: “Please leave your firearms at the door.”
— Find that Vallecitos stage post where the lady ghost wanders, in the Anza-Borrego Desert, on the Great Southern Overland Stage Route of 1849. Free.
— See the Hollywood stagecoach graveyard in Oak Grove, up near Pendleton. Free.
— Go drink at the Whaling Bar in La Jolla, where Raymond Chandler (creator of Philip Marlowe of The Big Sleep), and a bunch of other Hollywood celebs, like Gregory Peck, hung out.
— Or heck, jes’ wander ’round Coronado, since that’s where they’re staying, to see where Jim Morrison of the Doors grew up, son of an admiral, and where Nicky Reynolds of the Kingston Trio lived, and where Frank L. Baum wrote some of his Wizard of Oz books, near Orange Avenue. They say Orange Avenue inspired the Yellow Brick Road, and the Del and its towers became the Emerald City. Free.
∗ ∗ ∗
Except, when it comes down to it, what happened was that a bit of ye olde jet lag set in. On their first full day, Geoff and Debby want to laze around the hotel — Village Inn on Coronado — enjoy a winter that’s like summer back home, have a late breakfast at the Beach-n-Diner, and then start planning. When I finally make it over, Geoff says, “Why don’t we just look at that marvelous aircraft carrier at the port?”
“Oh, yes!” Debby says. “Truth is, for all we complain about you guys being ‘too big, too cocky, too young to handle the big toys,’ we’re a little jealous. You know, we British used to be the cock of the roost. The Royal Navy was number one. But we also understand the strain you must feel of being primus inter pares — first among equals. It’s a weight to carry. And we’ve all heard of the Midway, haven’t we, Geoff?”
“Oh, quite. My father never stopped talking about the Battle of Midway. This is an important name.”
I’m kinda surprised that they think of San Diego first as a massive Pacific naval port. Much more so than the hi-tech, surf ’n’ sand, airhead central, California-lite kind of image. Last night, when we were crossing the Coronado bridge on the way to their hotel, Debby had cried out, “Dahling! You must look. The lights of the Pacific Fleet, the greatest navy in the world!”
Except that Geoff, turns out, has a problem with heights. Getting him to open his eyes up there wasn’t easy. So I added some extra spice. “And beyond,” I said, “behold, the lights of Mexico.”
“Omygod!” said Debby. “Geoff! Open your eyes. Mexico! I never knew it was so close.” She turned to me. “Don’t you feel insecure? Drug wars, all that?”
“We can go there, if you like,” I said.
Something like fear and excitement flashed through their eyes. Tijuana is a name that registers, even in London.
But for now, for today, something simple. The Maritime Museum.
Which is how come we’re aboard the Russian sub. Afterward, we take a quick tour of HMS Surprise, surprise costar of Master and Commander with Russell Crowe. Then it’s on to the Star of India. Now, it’s nighttime. Star looks romantic like this. What stuns them, though, is that, according to the Maritime Museum, she’s the oldest active ship on this planet.
“What about our Cutty Sark?” Geoff asks. “She was a tea clipper on the China route. Built in 1869.”
“Sorry, buddy. Star was launched in 1863.”
“What about HMS Victory, 1765? She’s still in fine fettle, in Portsmouth.”
“Problem is, your guys are all anchored in concrete. Star floats. Star sails. Every year. Oldest active ship in de woild!”
Geoff seems grudgingly impressed. Like, England was supposed to have the rights to the oldest everything, while America was supposed to be the land of the chronically new. “Old” could mean cowboy era, but that’s where this renegade colony’s license ran out.
We’re sitting in the cozy saloon at the stern of the Star. Even up here, you can hear the cracking of the snapping shellfish anchored against the outside of the iron hull. We come out into the well deck, just us, alone amongst the rigging and low deck lamps. We lean on the bulwarks. A ferry passes. Waves make the black water below glint. You could almost be one of those passengers on a four-month voyage from England to New Zealand in the 1870s, when Star was the Euterpe. She rocks a little in the wash.
“Marvelous,” murmurs Geoff.
Of course, we’ve screwed around too long to make it to the Midway.
∗ ∗ ∗
“Our honored guests,” says Carla. “Welcome!” She’s standing up. Her birthday party is going really well. Geoff and Debby are easy to pick out in the crowd. He’s got on a somber jacket, tie, handkerchief in the breast pocket, and for Debby, a beautiful, long, back-dip dress. Very proper. Then this old buddy of ours is giving a birthday speech. It’s like Marco Polo speaking to the Imperial Court in Beijing. (Or was it Peking then?) “Our two countries may be very different, but when you have a lady like Carla…”
We’ve got two long rows of guests in the big, blue-lamped room at Costa Azul. My sweetie’s dressed in red, with gold earrings, sitting like a queen, dinging the glass every now and then so someone else can get up and speak. It’s formal, but the talk is wild and crazy among Carla’s relatives. Heck, they haven’t gotten together like this for years. Cousin Carly has people jaw-dropped, telling all about fighting the Witch fire. She was there, she’s a wildfire firefighter. And Cousin Tita is talking about her artists’ retreat in Sedona. Vortexes, Georgia O’Keeffe. Natch, Geoff’s leaking secrets from the wilder times he and I shared. Man, I love this guy. He could play that Paul McCartney song “Blackbird” better than any man jack I know. I sit back and relax, watching people from all over Carla’s life, old folk, kids, exchanging stories, laughs, hugs. I’m proud Geoff and Debby are seeing her Californio thing alive and well. Also, can’t believe we’re getting this whole evening — in Coronado — for about $350.
I say to Geoff, “Okay, tomorrow we’re doing Mexico.”
“Oh, Lord. You sure?”
Carla leans over. “No, Bedford, you can’t go tomorrow. It’s New Year’s Eve. We’re spending that together.”
Next day, I try to keep Mexico theme alive by having us eat at a Mexican restaurant, Miguel’s, near their inn. We split the bill. It’s about $40 per couple. That’s where Debby confesses, “We don’t actually like Mexican food very much. We’re a little bit meat, potatoes, and Brussels sprouts people. Not into the spicy thing.”
That should have been a heads-up on TJ. But, as Carla will tell you, I can get stubborn. I really want them to see the incredible spectacle of two entire civilizations butting up against each other like India colliding with Asia, back in the day. Result here: not a 30,000-foot-tall fender-bender like the Himalayas, just a 20-foot fence. Does this excursion idea have anything to do with TJ being a cheap day compared with SeaWorld? I’ll deny it all the way to the Supreme Court.
Carla sits this one out. She refuses to go to TJ on principle. It’s to do with loving it too much when she was growing up, she says, and its having changed. Whatever, moving the Statue of Liberty would be easier than persuading my sweetie to come south of the line.
∗ ∗ ∗
“Uh, Debby, probably not a good idea.”
We’ve just clanked through the turnstiles into Mexico, and Debby is taking photos of heavily armed Mexican marines wearing face masks. They do not want to be identified. We scoot her away and into the crowd.
Thus begins Disaster Day #1.
“I think Revolución is open…”
But the border-taxi driver doesn’t sound all that sure. We see what he means when he lets us off at Fifth and Revolución. Dead. Dodo dead. “Everyone’s recovering from last night,” he says. He could have added that Revolución’s on life support at the best of times, these days. Now, whatever life they’d had on New Year’s Eve is gone. People haven’t even bothered to open their stores.
The taxi drops us off near Caesar’s Hotel. It’s open, but Caesar’s Restaurant — where Caesar Cardini invented the Caesar salad back in 1924 — is closed. We stand here a moment. The little terrace area swirls with papers and cigarette stubs. No tables, no chairs. I see a guy I know, Alfonso. “Closed, my friend,” he says.
Man. This is a blow. It was one of the few aces up my sleeve. I knew Pedro, a waiter who specialized in making the Caesar salad tableside, just as the Great Man created it 85 years ago, when the likes of Rita Hayworth and Ronald Reagan would come in and order it. Pedro would squish the anchovies in the wooden bowl, right there at the table, add olive oil, doinks of salsa inglés — Lea and Perrins Worcestershire sauce — and a couple of teaspoons of chopped garlic, squish, squish, add a warmed raw egg yolk, toasted croutons, hearts of romaine, Parmesan, pepper, swirl it together, maybe add a couple of strips of grilled chicken breast, and voila! History. All this for $6, $8 if you added chicken.
“Jeez. This is one of the storied places,” I say to Geoff and Debby. “Maybe we can come back tomorrow.”
“Not tomorrow, my friend,” Alfonso says. “Caesar’s is closed forever. Kaput.”
Geoff and Debby aren’t registering the tragedy, transmitting instead a general look of “Can we go now?”
So we wander up, and we wander down. It’s like Tombstone right after the fight at the OK Corral. Not even the usual thumping of the balcony-bar boomboxes. All you can hear is this anguished donkey hee-hawing away. We find him at Fourth Street. Name’s Pepe, standing with his cart. I make us all step aboard and get a picture, even though the owner, Lucio, isn’t exactly running for our business. It’s New Year’s Day, and he forgot to bring his camera. “I’ll use yours,” he says, and slaps Tijuana sombreros on us. I know it’s touristy, cheesy and all, but I love it. “I have been right here on Revolución 60 years,” Lucio says. “I am from Zacatecas. Too far. My father brought me when I was 5. And tomorrow I will be 70.”
The rest of Revolución is just a few lost souls and us. Even the Chiki Jai is closed. The only sign of life is down at Plaza Santa Cecilia, where some musicians have taken the stage under the arches of the old city wall. A little squat guy with a mike is belting out jaunty, happy songs. Maybe 50 people stand around listening. He sees us, stops the music. “Señores, señoras, I see we have visitors from across the line! ¡Estados Unidos! Welcome! Welcome back! Thank you for coming, and know that our city is welcoming and secure. Please tell your friends that we miss you!”
“What about Oaxaca?” somebody shouts.
“From Oaxaca? You are welcome too.”
“Campeche! Anywhere else?”
“And Colombia. Welcome!”
He and the trumpets launch into a song with the rhythm of a relaxed donkey trot. Most of the words seem to be Baila, baila-la!
“We stick out like sore thumbs,” says Geoff.
He and Debby seem keen to get back while the day is young. But I want them to have one good memory of Mexico. “Let’s do one thing before we go,” I say. “Sit at a cantina, eat a taco, hear a song from some mariachis.”
“You have the taco,” Geoff says. “We’ll listen to the mariachis.”
We walk up Plaza Santa Cecilia toward Second Street, past the hotels with upstairs rooms for rent. We stop at Tradición. I order a dee-lish fish taco and a cerveza. About $2 each. Geoff and Debby share a beer. Just as I finish, up comes this pair of musicians. Pedro and Bernardo. Accordion and guitar. For a couple of bucks, they do a pretty fine “Cielito Lindo.” I love that line: “It’s better to sing than to cry.” I ask for another song from the Revolution, and they come up with “The Tomb of Pancho Villa.”
Me, I’m in fat city. This is what I like to do. This is where I like to do it. But I suddenly realize: Geoff and Debby have hardly scratched the surface of Southern California, and here I’ve brought them over the border to a city with a lot of bad publicity, on probably its deadest day of the year.
“Thanks for indulging me, guys,” I say. We jump in a cab, where the driver says he’s never known things to be so bad since he arrived here in 1963. We cross the line and head straight for a Big 5 in Imperial Beach to get a pair of (cheap! $15!) shoes for Geoff and revel in the familiar. And then on to Horton Plaza, which they really dig, for Levi jeans. " ‘Don’t come home without them.’ That’s what everyone told us before we left,” says Debby.
“All you need now is the ten-gallon hat,” I say.
On the way back to their hotel on Coronado, we pass Petco Park.
“How new is that?” asks Geoff.
“Five, six years,” I say. “And see this parking lot? It’s probably going to be a new football stadium.”
“Why? How old is the present one?”
“Forty-three years. They want a new one to fit in more fat-cat luxury boxes. That’s where the big corporate bucks are.”
“Heavens, 43 years old?” says Geoff. “Our Wembley Stadium has been going since 1880. Updated every now and then, of course. And Lords, our cricket grounds, have been working perfectly well since 1814.”
∗ ∗ ∗
“Listen,” says Carla. “I think you’re pushing them too hard. They need a little time to themselves. We can’t afford the whole Disneyland thing. Let them go off by themselves. They’ll probably be relieved.”
And it does sound as if they are, when I put it to them that night. “We’ve got to see some of the rest of California, after all,” says Debby. “And L.A. Can’t go without feeling the vibe up there. Stars’ homes, Universal Studios, Hollywood Walk of Stars…”
Next morning, Sunday, bright and early, I drive them to the Greyhound terminal. “We’ll save on this,” says Debby. She’s been checking it out. “It costs half what it would by train. We’ll do Universal Studios, then the stars’ homes tour. See you tonight!”
Phew. It is nice to have a bit of R&R, with a car. Carla and I spend the rest of the day fooling around, doing more cleaning, working out finances. Then we hop in the car and head to Jalisco’s in I.B. for a late lunch. They’re good…and cheap.
“I’ve been thinking,” says Carla, as we chow. “Whale watching. That’s unique, right? Debby seemed like she was all for it. And they say on Yelp it’s not that expensive. We can do the sailing one on the America, the boat that won the America’s Cup in…what?”
“1851,” I say. Don’t ask me how I remember these things. On impulse, Carla calls the outfit up on the new cell phone and starts to make a booking. Then she stops. “I forgot,” she says. “It costs $65, $85 a head on weekends.”
“Just make it the standard tourist-boat thing,” I say. “How much is that?”
Turns out it’s $30 a head, $120 all told. “At least that’s something for tomorrow,” she says. “Do you realize we’re actually getting organized? It’s like running a tour company.”
About 8:00 that night, we get a call. Geoff. “We’re back,” he says. “We’re tired. Can you suggest somewhere easy to eat? Easy and cheap?”
We meet them at Clayton’s coffee shop, on the island, even though we’ve already eaten, because it’s close to their Village Inn. They seem down. Things feel, well, pretty tense.
“L.A. was a disaster,” says Geoff. “It was supposed to be a birthday present for Debby. But the Greyhound was full, so we caught the train. Cost twice as much, and we got there late.”
“If we’d gone straight to Universal Studios by underground,” Debby says. “If Geoff hadn’t…”
“Entirely my fault,” says Geoff. “I thought it would be more interesting to go overground, by bus. Then we got lost. Hours. Walked for miles. Did find the Walk of Stars, but remarkably scuzzy. A few street performers, a decent Greek meal, but…”
“We never did make it to Universal Studios or the stars’ homes,” Debby says. “We went all that way. Waste of time and money.”
“Not to worry,” says Carla. “I’ve booked us for whale watching for tomorrow morning.”
“Out to sea?” Geoff asks.
“You’ll be able to say you’ve sailed the Pacific,” says Carla.
“Look,” says Geoff. “I’m awfully sorry, but I just can’t handle the open sea. Get sick, every time. I’ll be just miserable.”
Carla whispers to me, “How am I going to get that money back?”
“So,” says Geoff, “I’ve been asking myself what in heaven’s name I can do to make it up to Debby, to give her a decent birthday present, and I was glancing at a paper and I saw an ad. For skydiving.”
∗ ∗ ∗
“Ha! Ping-Pong and parachutes!” says Geoff. It’s next morning, about 10:00. Bright, and crackling cold, unless you’re in the sun. We’re in a kind of open hangar here at Brown Field. Carla wasn’t interested, but Debby’s all gung-ho to do something new, ’specially for her birthday. She’s getting suited up into her parachute, while Geoff and I slam away at the Ping-Pong table we’ve discovered. Heck, last time we played was in Doha, Qatar. Yeah. Doha Club. They let us longhairs in for some reason. Sweatingly hot. We never finished the final, even though the score was about 20–20. Now, here in this open hangar, the gods have given us another chance to establish, once and for all, who’s the champ of champs in the sport.
“You’re going to be sitting at the edge of the aircraft,” Jessica says to Debby. She’s the Pacific Coast Skydiving gal who’s kitting Debby out into a black parachute harness. She looks at Geoff and me. “None of you men are willing to try this?”
We shake our heads. “Ping-Pong. Much more important.”
Truth is, Geoff’s got his problem with heights. I’ve got a problem with heights and money. “We shouldn’t feel bad,” Geoff says. “This is my paramour’s birthday treat. I don’t want to spoil it by hovering as she dives out of a plane 10,000 feet in the air.”
“Quite right, and totally selfless,” I say. “Plus, you have your obligations to Ping-Pong. That, too, takes a certain type of courage.”
“Uh, darling.” Debby points toward an office. It’s right above where some guys are editing a video of the last batch of jumpers. “Got to pay first.”
“Ah, yes,” Geoff says. I follow him and Jessica up to the office.
“That’s $278.10,” says Jessica. “Credit, debit, or cash?”
“Credit,” says Geoff. He shuffles through a clutch of cards. “How much is that in pounds? A hundred and fifty? Here.”
She runs the card. We wait, as if for a doctor’s prognosis.
“Uh, I’m afraid that doesn’t seem to be happening,” Jessica says. “Let me try again.”
She slides, waits, looks up blankly.
“Here, try this one,” says Geoff. “I can’t understand…”
“These are British?”
“Yes, but we haven’t had problems. Can’t believe we’ve maxed them both out…”
Ten minutes and two cards later, Geoff says, “Edward, Eddy, old chap. If I let you win the Ping-Pong below, could you possibly try your card? Can’t let Debby know. After L.A., she’d kill me.”
“Oh, sure,” I say. “But…can you make it good this afternoon, so I can fill it up before Carla gets wind? She runs our finances like a Swiss banker. My life wouldn’t be worth a plug nickel. I mean, I’m in charge, but I let her think…”
“Yes, yes, yes. Me too. But of course. We’ll straighten it out as soon as we get to a bank.”
I have one debit card, and, miracle! It goes through. Man, does this give me an edge with my buddy. He always seemed to have money. I always seemed not to have it. Now, for one brief, shining moment…
Back downstairs, Debby’s looking at a list of songs on the wall. She has to choose the theme music she wants put in over the video that Eric, her tandem instructor, will shoot from a camera held in his outstretched left hand. “Hmm… Number 5?” Debby says. “ ‘Over the Rainbow,’ Judy Garland. Rather have Freddy Mercury, really, as I will probably never do this again…Ooh. ‘We Are the Champions.’ Or maybe ‘We Will Rock You’? ‘Don’t Stop Me Now…’? Yeah, that’s the one. Disk 5, track 8, Queen. ‘Don’t Stop Me Now’!”
Jessica’s standing near a sign that says, “Jump More. Bitch Less.” Debby turns to her. “So, tell me again?”
Jessica says, “You’ll be sitting at the edge of the airplane, and your instructor’s going to be straddling you from behind. And then he’ll wiggle you to the very edge. You’ll be sitting down, arms across your chest, legs hanging out. You want to try to touch your feet to the bottom of the airplane, with your heels back and your head on Eric’s shoulder. He’ll say, ‘One, two, three, go!’ The second you feel your body start to leave the airplane, you’re going to push your hips out as far as you can.”
“Okay, Bedford, 12-14,” Geoff says. “Your serve. Unless you want to surrender now.”
“Excuse me, I win. That’s the deal, remember?”
“So it’s not your back arching,” Jessica continues, “it’s your hips. And you just try and kick your instructor in the butt, and then you’ll feel him give you a tap-tap, and then you’ll fling your arms out. And then you’re skydiving!”
“So arch…” says Debby.
“Like a banana,” says Jessica.
Eric, the tandem instructor, comes in.
“Legs back,” he says, “then tap-tap, and spread your arms out, like, ‘Hey, wasn’t me. I didn’t do it.’ ”
“All right! Fourteen-all.” This is me, in with a chance to redeem a 20-year-old Ping-Pong grudge.
“And don’t look at the ground,” says Jessica. “It’s always there. Look out and around you. Just don’t over-think it. Have fun…Hey, Errol, happy birthday!”
Turns out Errol’s the pilot. He’s never parachuted. “Fliers don’t,” he says. “Like a captain never jumps off his ship.”
“Your birthday’s the same as mine,” Debby says. “That’s a lucky sign.”
Now Debby’s heading out the door to the Cessna 206 sitting on the tarmac. She looks back at Geoff.
“You at least coming to see me off, darling? I am going to be jumping out of a plane at 10,000 feet…”
“Just be right…there, darling. So — 20-18. Ha! Die, you antiroyalist running dog!”
“Easy there,” I say. “We had a deal, remember?” But we put down our paddles and catch up with the little group walking out to the plane.
“Goodbye, Debby,” says Jessica.
“‘Goodbye’?” Debby says. “That sounds ominous.”
“It’s a good day,” says Errol. “Wind ten knots out of the west. Clear. You can see all the way to Ensenada.”
Now Debby’s being bundled into the floor-space behind Errol, sitting between Eric’s spread-eagled legs, with the engine rattling into life. “Bye, darling!” Geoff shouts. “Enjoy yourself. We’ll be waiting at the landing area.” Errol takes the brakes off, and they roll away.
I know. We should be aboard. But, hey, grudge match to the finish. Back in the hangar, Geoff doesn’t ease off as he promised. Still, I’m catching up. Score’s 20-all.
“We finish this, once and forever,” says Geoff.
Long and short of it is, Geoff does one smash after another and I’m finished just as Scott, the parachute folder, instant video-editor, and chase-van driver, comes to take us to the drop zone, four miles east. “I live with fear and danger every day,” says a sign inside the van, “but sometimes I leave her behind and go skydiving.” By the time we get there, Debby has to be at the 10,000-feet ceiling. We lurch to a stop in a field. We dash out. A little black bundle under an orange canopy is just dropping into sight. The orange canopy circles with a red parachute. They separate. Ten seconds later, Debby and Eric come skidding in to land.
“Fabulous!” Debby cries. “Eric, I wish I had your job. Thanks.”
“I’m like a legal drug dealer,” says Eric, as he gathers in the chute. “I deliver highs.”
“Bet it costs about the same too,” says Geoff.
“Darling,” says Debby. “Thanks. Best birthday present.”
∗ ∗ ∗
And from here, the visit seems to take off. The pressure to spend on those big-buck icons evaporates. After picking up the video at the hangar, we drive to the coast, Pacific Beach. We stop at a bank and Geoff comes back loaded with that do-re-mi. I take it to my bank — whew — and then we head for O.B. and Hodad’s. It’s Tuesday, late afternoon, but Hodad’s is jammin’. We get space at one of the long benches. “Oh, yes. This is the California I dreamed of,” Debby says. She’s checking out that VW combi wagon-front, where you can sit and eat. She looks at the beards and bare feet and boards all over. “Now I can say we’ve really been to California.”
The days tumble toward the end. We go to Balboa Park but only make it to one museum, the Museum of Man. I try to beef them up on the Kumeyaay exhibit. “The real San Diegans,” I say. But they’re disappointed. They want teepees, feathers, horses, pow-wows. Plains people. Movie clichés. “Not in California,” I say. They try to be interested.
Carla suggests El Prado. And that’s a hit. Actually, we spend most of the day there, jawboning and lunching. Beautiful, though another 60 bucks. We go down to Croce’s for the Gaslamp thing. Even on Monday night, a glass of Coke’s $10, but the piano band is great. “I didn’t know you had jazz on this coast,” Debby says.
I’ve been begging Geoff to let me play a round of golf with him, ’cause he’s good. Even propose Torrey Pines, though, Lord, green fees range from $156 to $279, just to play a single round. He takes me aside, like a boss about to fire his favorite employee. “Look, old son,” he says. “You may be almost good at Ping-Pong, but golf, one has to have standards. If I was caught out there playing with you, flailing from bush to pond, I could never show my face again on a decent course, no matter what side of the Atlantic. I’m sure you understand. What’s your handicap?”
“See? There’s your handicap right there. Listen. No tears. We’ll find a driving range somewhere. Besides, it’s more affordable. After that skydiving lark, we’re starting to run low. Best all ’round, don’t you think?”
We find a driving range in Del Mar, the Del Mar Golf Center, lay out $9 for a bucket of 75 golf balls and a couple of clubs, and start whacking. And if I do say so myself, I zing those suckers out. Okay, not like Geoff. He’s a damned machine. Full distance, sailing aloft each time. ’Course, I knew that already, when we tried this in the desert outside Doha. You’d fire across the sands to browns, not greens — oil-soaked circles of sand with a flag in the middle. Natural hazards were the camels. Obviously, he’s gotten more serious since then. If I’d thought of it, I’d’ve been better off challenging him to a game of Frisbee golf at Morley Field, ’specially as it has green fees even I can handle — $3.
Afterward, we head to Fidel’s, up in the hills. They love that atmosphere. And I love that during happy hour Fidel’s has $2 taco bargains. They even try one between them. As we say, poco a poco…
Second-to-the-last night we take them through the awesome Hotel Del. Just because it’s the Grande Dame, part of early California, and has a whimsicality I like. Like the guys, Babcock and Story, who dreamed it up and built it in 1887, scribbling plans on paper napkins as they went and building the whole monster in 11 months and making it the first electric-lit hotel in the world. Geoff and Debby loved that Prince Edward and Wally Simpson may have got their romance going here. And the whole Marilyn/Some Like It Hot and Peter O’Toole/The Stuntman exhibit had them oohing and aahing.
Best part, though, is ending up at the open-pit cocktail area by the ocean-view lawn. Sunset Bar. They say the Del has the best view for sunsets anywhere on the coast. We’re just in time for a full-on show with rosy clouds, then a clear, deep-blue sky with stars a-twinkling. The whole California deal. It definitely blows Geoff and Debby away. Must admit, though, that when the check comes, the prices blow us all away. I mean, my cocktail cost $15. Carla’s iced tea, bless her, cost $4. So drinks: around $45, two — dee-licious — appetizers, Carlsbad mussels in a white-wine garlicky slurp ($16) and a plate of cured meats ($15), took it to, say, $75, and with tax and tip, think 90 buckeroos. Mind boggles, if we were staying on for din-dins. At that price, it had better be the best damned sunset view in the country.
I think we all feel a little shell-shocked, so Carla cooks up a bowl of spaghetti for dinner, and nobody complains.
∗ ∗ ∗
The biggest surprise comes on the last day. We drive up to Julian. It really does feel like cowboy country, with its ranchettes and meadows and forests of native oaks. As dusk starts coming on, we roll into town.
“Oh, my God,” says Debby. “Oh, my GOD. This is the West we dream of. The gold-mining town, the western-frontier town. Why didn’t you tell us about this before?”
When you look at it through their fresh eyes, it does feel like the real thing. Houses and shops with front porches, li’l old town hall, all cheek by jowl. And, yes, you do expect cowboys to come roaring through. We’re too late for the Eagle mine, but we sneak into the Julian Hotel because I want them to meet Albert Robinson, who’d been a slave in Missouri. He started this hotel with his wife Margaret in 1897.
Oh, Lord. It looks so cozy, with its lamps and easy chairs on the front porch. We sneak up the steps and click through the door into a room that feels like my own grandma’s place. Flowers and flags and wicker chairs with big cushions, and rich fabrics and heavy curtains.
Gal named Holly comes out. “Can I help?”
“We just wanted to see the photo of the Robinsons,” I say.
“Oh, right here,” she says, and points to a black-and-white picture in a big, polished wood frame. The Robinsons are wearing hats and fancy go-to-church clothes. “Sorry about Disneyland and Universal Studios,” I say to Geoff and Debby, “but to my mind this beats them hands-down. Here’s a man in the 1800s who had a dream, to own a bakery and a hotel. He’d been a slave. Yes, there was prejudice, but he and Margaret made it. They were beloved. And well-to-do. Right here in Julian. Only in America, dude. That’s what I like best about Southern California. It has a good heart.”
Jeez. I’m getting choked up at my own speech. I must mean it.
When we get back down from the mountains, all four of us go to McP’s, the unofficial HQ for off-duty Navy SEALs. Band’s playing. First thing Debby does is buy them all drinks. Then, boy, do they sing. Kingston Trio, Marty Robbins, you name it. We all down burgers, slowly, because we know this is the last night.
∗ ∗ ∗
“People are so open in California,” says Debby next morning. We’re having breakfast at Denny’s, at China Camp, near the airport. “I think your food’s more expensive here than at home, but that’s my only complaint. You don’t realize how beautiful and pristine all this looks to us.”
We’re chowing down on all the bad things: bacon, sausages, pancakes, syrup. They have half an hour to check in. “Seriously,” Geoff says, “we hope we didn’t cost you guys too much. We know you’re not made of it, but you did us proud.” He hesitates a moment. “Still, shame about Shamu, and your Ping-Pong wasn’t up to my expectations. Work on that, will you?”
Guess they did cost us a bit. Car rental was $737.38 in all. But, hey, they flew across the Atlantic for us. They put their jobs on hold too. And they paid for the last three days on that rental car. I think the books are pretty much balanced.
Afterward, Carla and I try and see where we’re at. Guess the visit cost $1000, max. Would have been a lot more with SeaWorld, the Zoo, Wild Animal Park, and Universal Studios. But what it has done is, well, priceless. It got us back together with our old buddy. And here’s the odd thing: it’s shown us what Southern Cal’s really all about. Honestly, it’s been quite an education. We owe those two, big time.