∗ ∗ ∗
“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.