Coffee with friends

My apologies to Joe and Lorraine.

You may recall that my last article extolled the virtues of the Java and Joe coffee shop; except for the pastries which I dubbed atrocious. Included in my scientific evaluation are several varieties of muffin including the always faithful blueberry, the hypnotic almond-poppy seed, and the stick to the soles of your shoes, multi-napkin consuming, honey bran muffin.

Abetted by an assortment of Saharan-dry scones, all the pastries have a definite made yesterday taste. Wrapped in individual plastic wrap booties, they stare forlornly and beckon the unwary to taste me. Sparsely populating a half-dozen cubby holes in Joe’s display cabinet, their lonely appearance acts as a warning, much like a sea-cliff lighthouse that warns passing ships to stay away.

In my zeal to caution you about the perils of selecting either last week’s muffin or last month’s scone, I unforgivingly neglected to mention the coffee cakes. There are two offerings that deserve at least a three-star rating and a pat on the back for the baker. The first delicacy is a sour cream, cinnamon delight, and the second is a blessedly moist zucchini pieces de resistance. Both cakes have been sliced by hand, as evidenced by their random thickness. I regularly spend time hovering above the stacked slices, looking for the one that has my name on it. I always select one from the middle of the stack and recommend them highly. Please buy some when you next visit the establishment, thereby diminishing their number and assuring me of a fresh batch the next time I frequent the shop. And tell Lorraine that I sent you.

Today began with a trip to the athletic club for an hour of vista-less, mindless treadmilling. If it were not for the availability of ubiquitous Netflix at each machine, I would have given up my mind-numbing cardiovascular efforts long ago and stayed in a warm bed. My treadmill drudgery was followed by a twenty-five-minute workout with Ralph. It’s really supposed to be a thirty-minute session, but Ralph is as bored with it as I am. I don’t blame him for cutting it short and using the extra time to preen for his 8:30 yoga class.

I showered and then made the easy decision to skip shaving. It’s too big a hassle searching for hot water at the club sinks. The porcelain beauties are fitted with those cute little cutoffs that stop the water just when you need it most. Normally cold, you can sometimes coax warm water from the spigot by shielding the sensor with your hand. A tedious task that causes low level grumbling to escape from my lips. It’s a crap shoot that all too often ends with a shock of icy water on my face. Fortunately my beard is white, matching my skin pallor and, therefore, only visible to close-up visitors. So, with the exception of Jackie, no one else seems to notice. I sometimes skip three consecutive days of shaving and only succumb to the razor when people stop me on the club steps and offer me a hand out.

I dressed, said good-bye to the nearly empty locker room, and made the three-minute trip to Java and Joe. I found Dave and Jim sitting at a table finishing their morning brews. Not wishing to interrupt them while they were debating the merits of The Wall, I simply nodded politely and ordered my usual medium-size dark roast. Adding one pack of Splenda and an inch of half and half to the already delicious brew, I turned to find Rosalie, my real estate broker, staring at me. Not wishing to embarrass her with a cascade of questions focused on why hasn’t my house sold yet, I nodded (I do a lot of that, especially when I’m not sure if I know who I’m confronting) and made my way to a table next to Dave and Jim.

Dave was in the process of rearranging the chairs that surrounded the table in order to reduce the glare from a white truck parked across from the coffee shop. Completing the most strenuous effort of his morning, Dave asked if I’d like to join them. Always one to savor the company of others, I pulled up a chair. Not the black wrought iron one that tests your glutes’ patience, but the gray basket-weave variety that gives your tush a sporting chance.

Dave is well-read and a master of trivia. The two traits give him plenty to talk about and leave me in the comforting position of needing only an occasional head nod to keep things going while I finish my coffee. I had also selected a piece of yummy zucchini cake. A nice thick one today; where the Super Glue sticky edges of the cake coat my fingers, and require a periodic lick or two.

Dave reminded us that in 2019 we are celebrating hundredth anniversary of proving Einstein’s theory of relativity. Arthur Stanley Eddington’s 1919 expedition confirmed Einstein’s prediction for the deflection of light by the Sun during the total solar eclipse of May 29, 1919. In a nutshell, Arthur proved Einstein’s theory that gravity bends light. What a relief that must have been.

Moving to a loftier plain, we were introduced to Dave’s new hearing aids. The ear-trumpet of earlier years has been replaced by a miniature, transistorized marvel costing a bit more than your grandmother’s device. Our conversation was timely, as I had just yesterday made an appointment for a hearing test at our local provider.

I decided on hearing aids because I have tired of my continuous use of the word “What?” as the second most popular word in my vocabulary. In conversations that take place in settings with significant ambient noise, I find myself either saying “What?” or merely shaking my head in an assenting manner. The head shake is fraught with danger and should always immediately be followed with a shrug of the shoulders in order to confuse the true meaning of your response. I’ve become quite proficient at it.

Arlene arrived for her morning coffee. A striking, confident woman, we welcomed her with opened arms. A kiss on the cheek made our morning complete and we prepared to leave. We all had things to do, including getting older.

It was going to be a very good day.

They couldn’t care less

There are two kinds of people in the world. Those who care and those who couldn’t care less.

Last Tuesday, I made my usual 8:30 morning visit to Java and Joe. Love their dark roast coffee and the store’s second-hand thrift shop appearance. Their pastries are atrocious, and the stamped metal seats are akin to the Iron Maiden, a brutish device used by the Spaniards during the Inquisition to extract confessions from those who complained about their coffee. Nevertheless, the shop is welcoming, and one need not dress to impress. In business since 1994, the owners Joe Ruggiero and Lorraine Mariz, do their best to accommodate the weird tastes of Ojai folk who enter their domain.

It rained hard that morning and the shop was filled to capacity. A long line of dampened people stood patiently waiting their turn to place an order. My body and mind ached for that first, warm cup of coffee and I was heartened to be the third person in the queue. Not much longer now, I thought.

A young woman, no more than thirty, was at the head of the line. With an abundance of time on her hands, she embarked on a journey that tested my already thinning patience. Using the FBI’s most invasive interview techniques, she bombarded Joe with a series of questions about flavored brews that were obviously intended to extract a confession from him. Each answer proffered by Joe was followed up with another quiz show question designed to confuse and irritate. Waterboarding by the CIA would have been child’s play in her hands.

Having finally settled on the dark roast coffee of the day, she went on to the pastries. Discovering the secret contents of each became her obsession. I half expected her to ask that a banana be peeled in order to gaze detective-like at its contents. Having exhausted the full line-up of muffins, scones, cakes and bagels (with and without cream cheese), she declined all and, without any consideration for the thirst-ridden customers behind her, moved on to the pre-packaged oatmeal. She ordered the oatmeal and then, inexplicably, cancelled her order. Like an angry hippo, I began to mumble…loudly. My thirst began to worsen as I pictured myself as Humphrey Bogart in the role of the thirsty tank commander bedeviled by a bone-dry desert well in the movie Sahara. I was inconsolable.

Never having looked behind her, and why should she, the comely young woman could quite innocently assume that she was the only customer in the shop. But I believe she was fully aware of the poor unfortunates behind her. She just didn’t care. Embarking on what seemed to be a fortnight of useless coffee shop browsing, we were, at best, an annoyance to be ignored.

I eventually reached first base, ordered my coffee, combined it with a muffin that wasn’t quite as old as me, and settled down on a cold, basket-weave Iron Maiden for thirty minutes of quietly browsing the web.

Lest you think that women are the principal antagonists in this story, I finished my coffee and desiccated muffin, and moved on to Rabobank. An open teller window and it’s always friendly inhabitant, Julie, beckoned to me. I was delighted to dump the money gleaned from book sales at the Friends of Library bookstore on Julie’s counter, and wait while she verified the deposit. The machine that counts currency is fascinating and it has yet to be wrong. Counting coins by hand is another matter entirely, and takes an inordinate amount of time.

Rod entered the bank and took up the second, and last available teller window. A beaming Estelle was the teller in waiting at this cubicle. Always pleasant and efficient, young Estelle is pretty and seems to have only me in mind when I have the pleasure of trading hard currency with her. Small talk is part of the job but, aware of other customers waiting to step forward, is only appropriate while the processing of one’s business is continuing.

Rod did not readily subscribe to this informal banking rule. Instead, after concluding the successful cashing of what I’m sure was a bogus check, he launched into a discussion that was clearly intended to impress and perhaps result in an assignation with the lovely Estelle. Customers began to line up. Tempers began to mount as the passage of time seemed glacial.

I half expected a shoot-out. And I was sure Estelle would say something like “Thank you, Rod. But I think your time is up. Move on, buster.” However, I left before this second example of “I truly don’t care about you. It’s me that counts.” could reach its zenith.

Last Saturday, Jackie and I attended a Kirtan starring Julia Berkeley at the Ojai Yoga Shala. Kirtan is defined by Julia as a call and response chanting practice that clears the mind and opens the heart. I think of it as a groupie sing-along that has Indian music instead of the usual Glen Campbell and Joan Baez stuff.

It’s customary for one to sit cross-legged, your butt next to your closest neighbor, on a much too thin mat, on a hardwood floor. There comes a time during the performance when you grit your teeth, your back aches, and your ass feels like it has been denuded of all muscle and skin. However, it helps if prior to the festivities you consume one-half of those cute little licorice pieces eagerly distributed by the local pot palace on Bryant Street. Your fanny will thank you.

The young man sitting next to me, an ardent Kirtan devotee, was one of those people who I define as an over-achieving Clapper. It matters little what the song’s tempo is. Nor whether it is closer to a funeral dirge than a Pee Wee Herman ditty. His clapping, much like AK47 rifle shots, leaves me hoping for the blessed relief delivered to him by a compound stress fracture. Sometimes, the Clapper will continue his performance well after the song has ended.

My belief is that the Clapper, like his companions the Shrieker and the Whistler, lacked parental attention during his formative years. Fellow students avoided him, and members of opposite sex ran screaming from the room. Clapping brings much-needed attention to him, even if the attention is filled with death wishes.

The Clapper, in contrast to those neer-do-wells who simply ignore the sensitivities of the people around them, recognizes the availability of a ready-made audience and seeks its attention. Here again, a tiny bit of licorice tends to moderate the Clapper’s callousness. But not completely. Or maybe I’m too sensitive.

Or maybe I just need a bigger piece of licorice.

My instrument of choice

I played the trumpet in high school.

A couple of music classes led to mastering an instrument and playing in the high school band and orchestra. This avocation fit in nicely with my teenage persona which can best be described as mildly nerdy. I’m not sure how I got that way, but it probably had something to do with the friends I kept and the scarcity of girls, of any flavor, in my life. It was also abetted by my pudginess that didn’t start to evaporate until my senior year. By then it was too late to change my school mates’ perception of me.

The choice of the trumpet was made with little thought given to its complexities. After all, how difficult can it be to play the thing? It only has three valves and, given its size, is easily schlepped from home to school and back again. All I would have to worry about was the proper operation of the spit valve.

Alan, the best musician in our group, played the piano. Definitely un-schleppable, he would be dependent on the kindness of others. Realizing that playing the piano in a school parade was not in the cards, Alan also chose a backup. He latched onto the saxophone and seemed to master it over one week-end.

My other friends picked their instruments of choice before I had a chance to weigh in with my preference. Larry, a friend who always irritated me with his “My father’s car is better than your father’s car.” At the age of twelve, he was also better than me in identifying the make of any car cruising past us. Larry became an orthodox Jew aligned with the Chasidic sect; I also tend to bristle at them. Their ability to be prominently displayed in the local newspaper, while my more populous sect goes unnoticed, ticks me off. Larry chose the clarinet. Even lighter than the trumpet, his schlepping would be easier than mine. I can still see him sucking on his reed.

Russell was the smartest guy in the bunch. While others might spend their summer vacations chasing girls or playing softball. Russell read the dictionary from beginning to end. He also selected one of the most difficult instruments, the French horn. An awkward, medieval instrument, it reminds me of Marty Feldman playing the part of Igor in Young Frankenstein. Hunched over best describes both Marty and Russell. The horn is equipped with a very small mouthpiece that requires the development of a tough, untiring embouchure.

The embouchure is the way a musician applies his mouth to the mouthpiece of a brass or wind instrument. The smaller the mouthpiece, the greater the difficulty in developing a strong embouchure. While playing the king-sized tuba may seem like corralling a difficult partner, the large mouthpiece offers far less resistance and therefore is less tiring than the small mouthpiece of the comparatively smaller French horn.

Developing a strong embouchure requires practice, a lot of it. Practice requires diligence. Those who devote substantial time to practice generally develop greater skill at playing a musical instrument. And that universal truth was my Achilles heel. My practice sessions were intermittent and short. The clock moved ever so slowly. While my technique was acceptable, my lips tired easily and I struggled to complete a gig with my band mates. My trumpeting became spotty when I entered college. I’d pick up the instrument every so often, but my embouchure was shot and, like the once a month golfer, I soon became a trumpet has-been.

My musical whimsy resurged ten years ago when I was bitten by the guitar bug. My son Steven, an excellent guitarist, offered to teach me this ubiquitous instrument. Watching other amateurs master it gave me the confidence to forge ahead. Most importantly, the guitar seemed less likely to tax my aging body in the way that the trumpet did. The fingers of my left hand soon taught me the error of my ways. Five minutes of playing produced searing pain in the tips of my fingers. Steven promised that the pain would subside with the development of calluses; all I needed was enough practice. My previous experience with the trumpet came streaming back.  Sadly, I gave up a promising six string career and pledged that I would someday find my sweet spot in the musical world.

Jackie’s daughter, Sammy, is devoted to the ukulele. I have watched her maneuver through a sea of humanity at the airport with a Shaquille O’neal sized backpack and the ukulele lovingly slung over her arm. She takes it everywhere and plays it well. The instrument is small, without a lip crunching mouthpiece, and only four strings, two less than the guitar. Could this be my nirvana?

Debbie, a fellow temple member, teaches a ukulele class on Wednesday afternoon at the Ojai Library. Hearing of my interest in the instrument and playing on my easily influenced brain, she lovingly invited me to attend the class. With her cute little smile, she promised, “We just do it for fun. You don’t need to know how to play. You’ll love it.”

I went to the class and borrowed a spare ukulele. Flanked by two women who proved to be the Jascha Heifetz and Yehudi Menuhin of the ukulele world, I got right into the swing of things with the “C” chord. Requiring but one finger on the fret, I marveled at the simplicity of the instrument. I became emboldened and sought out the C7 chord. Using the same finger that was already in my repertoire, I placed it on a different fret and produced another glorious sound. Was I ready for the big time?

Then, just as I was congratulating myself, Debbie handed me a xeroxed copy of Basic Ukulele Chords. There were thirty-five of them. “More to come, Freddy, after you’ve mastered the basic ones”, Debby intoned with a wry smile on her lips.

Calling up my last ounce of stick-to-it-ness, I have been practicing sort of regularly. I refuse to repeat my abortive experiences with the lip challenging trumpet and the finger searing pain inflicted by the guitar. Surely, I can master this instrument.

I can already play Happy Birthday. I hesitatingly make my way through My Darling Clementine, and I am picking through Amazing Grace. I shy away from anything that requires more than three chords. I hate the G chord and my strumming is atrocious. Simply holding the instrument without it twisting away from me like a dog that hates its master, is tougher than it looks.

So far I’m on track to star status…without sore fingers.

Pot Parade

You’ve come a long way, baby.

When I was much younger, the thought of smoking pot was very exciting. That I might be arrested and jailed for possession of the forbidden substance made it an adventure. Keeping it secret from friends and relatives only added to the enjoyment of what was, at most, a once a year habit…I swear.

My buddy Ralph and I would enjoy a joint and, when we had more time for the body to recognize the drug, ingest it baked in a brownie. I remember the first time we ate one of the forbidden desserts. We were sprawled on the floor of his den waiting for our stomachs to absorb the drug and deliver it our brain.  After ten minutes, I said “I feel nothing.”

“Me neither” he agreed. Twenty minutes later, as we were about to call it a day, I said “I feel a itty-bitty tingle in my left elbow.” And then the world turned itself on for us.

Once legally unavailable at all, clearer heads eventually prevailed, and the drug was provided to those who could conjure up a medical prescription. Thankfully, California voters in 2018, having seen the light, legalized the sale and consumption of pot, weed, grass, dope, herb, reefer and joints. As expected, a raft of regulations accompanied the burgeoning pot parade.

The California Bureau of Cannabis Control is largely responsible for promulgating and enforcing the regulations. The first paragraph of the regulations gives you some idea of what’s in store for anyone wishing to make a legal buck supplying the masses with the mind-altering substance…

  • A temporary license is a conditional license that authorizes the licensee to engage in commercial cannabis activity as would be permitted under the privileges of a non-temporary license of the same type. A temporary licensee shall follow all applicable rules and regulations as would be required if the licensee held a non-temporary license of the same type. (b) A temporary license does not obligate the Bureau to issue a non-temporary license nor does the temporary license create a vested right in the holder to either an extension of the temporary license or to the granting of a subsequent non-temporary license.

The first dozen pages of the regulations are devoted entirely to guiding one through the arduous process of filling out an application to sell weed. Notwithstanding the not insignificant regulatory obstacles thrown in the path of anxious sellers-to-be, the demand for licenses has surged ahead with as much determination as one seeking cheap tickets to Hamilton, the musical.

There are now three pot dispensaries in Ojai. All are located on Bryant Street along with the humane society, a self-storage facility, a veterinary hospital, a fitness center and a clandestine mobile home park. If we could coax Trader Joe’s to take up residence, one might never need to leave the cozy confines of Bryant Street.

On Saturday, Jackie and I were finishing up a $43 lunch of two salads and an order of fries at Ojai’s newest touchy-feelie restaurant when she said, “It’s such a nice day. Why don’t we walk over to Bryant Street and visit one of the pot palaces.” Excitedly throwing caution to the wind, I quickly ate my last fry that I had dipped in something that pretended to be mayonnaise and leapt to my feet, ready to take on a brave new world.

No one walks down Bryant Street on Saturdays. It has no views, no trees, no sidewalk and a host of buildings that look like temporary facades put in place by a Hollywood movie crew. A perfect place to hide a pot dispensary from public view.

We arrived at 408 Bryant Circle, Unit C, the home of the Sespe Creek Collective. Unassuming from the outside, I entered expecting to find a host of shoeless young people adorned with pierced noses, eyelids and other desecrated body parts. Tattoos were sure to be front and center. Harleys were certain to be their conveyance of choice.

We found ourselves in a waiting room overseen by a very large security guard, and two normal appearing people seated behind a desk. The large guard asked me to remove my hat so that the overhead cameras could have a clear view of my smiling face. I fully expected to find myself emblazoned on a wanted poster in the next episode of HBO’s True Detective.

The acceptance process included electronic registration into Sespe’s database. No more hiding from the Feds for me. Anonymity was no longer an option. I was sure that a call for my apprehension would soon deliver the FBI to my Upper Ojai doorstep.

We waited for a few minutes. A door opened and a smiling young woman greeted us with “Hi. I’m Cathy and welcome to Sespe Creek. Come with me and I’ll give you a tour of the dispensary.” We entered a showroom that was modern, clean and tidy. A dozen customers milled about. Of various ages, none sported visible tattoos or extraordinary skin punctures. In short, they looked a lot like us.

A myriad of products met our gaze. I must have looked as wide-eyed as the kids who entered Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. Paying close attention to Cathy, I learned that there are two basic types of compounds produced by the cannabis plant. One is THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) which is the substance ingested by Ralph and me that produced various flights of fancy as we sprawled on the floor of his den. The other, CBD (cannabidiol) has no hallucinogenic properties and therefore no fun; it does, however, have purported medical benefits.

Impressed by Cathy’s abundant fact base and hoping for some improvement to my left knee, I bought some CBD infused salve that promised to reduce pain and swelling. But just in case the salve didn’t work, I bought some THC infused mind-altering bite sized licorice packed in really cool individual wrappers.

Cathy took my credit card like any other establishment would and placed my goodies in a cute paper bag that was imprinted with various cautionary statements that I dismissed out of hand. Happily, we left the facility looking forward to using our new-found goodies.

Here’s hoping my knee aches.

We missed the bus

Arriving at the San Diego airport after my seven-hour train ride, we discovered a vacant spot where fifteen minutes earlier the Rancho La Puerta chartered bus had once stood, ready to take us to the Mexican border crossing in Tecate. Our travel plans were now in disarray. We would need to find a way to get to the border on our own. Then cross it and somehow get to the Rancho, our intended spa for the next seven days.

Cellphone communications with the spa revealed that we were not alone in their missing persons file cabinet. Others, foolish enough to trust the veracity of plane and train schedules, had apparently run afoul of similar circumstances. The spa had a ready answer to how we might reach the Mexican border. “Take a taxi, it’ll cost about $100”, they said. “Call us when you get there, and we’ll send someone to collect you.” Perhaps not wholly reassuring, it was the best we could hope for given our foolhardiness in trusting Amtrak.

Jackie had reserved an airport valet parking spot at a cost almost equal to what I paid for my first car some fifty years ago. Inflation can be insidious. We pulled up to valet parking and found that the attendant, a lovely young woman, was skilled in speaking the English language. That is, she appeared skilled, until you noticed that her words did not always fit together in a meaningful way. At times, it seemed her responses were intended for someone else who was looking over my shoulder.

I’m not xenophobic. Nor do I begrudge anyone the right to make a fair living. But, when one is about to turn over a forty-thousand-dollar blemish free Mercedes for seven-day safekeeping at a uncaring airport, one might be forgiven for expecting a basic level of communication skills. I asked, “Are you the person who will park our car?”, The comely young lady responded “I’m Natasha. Can I help yourself?” Rephrasing my question, I said “Natasha, you can be of great help to us. We have a reservation for one of your parking spaces. Will you park the car for us?” Smiling, she responded “Do you have any reservations?” I wanted to say “Yes, Natasha…about you.” However, I remembered my Ukrainian-born parents, and restrained myself.

Other one syllable questions narrowed our differences. And Jackie’s penchant for retaining evidentiary materials that supported our claim to a reserved space sealed the deal. We asked where we might find a taxi. Natasha pointed her finger across the street and said “Taxi, there.” Natasha made it clear that the only way to get to the taxi stand was to go with bags in hand into the airport, take the escalator up one floor and use bridge over the street to find nirvana.

The spa had suggested we take an Orange taxi for the trip to the border. It took us a few moments to realize that Orange was the name of the taxi company, not the color of their cars. Afraid to cause mass hysteria among the drivers waiting their turn in line, we dutifully schlepped our bags past a dozen Orange taxis and arrived at the front of the lineup. A friendly face greeted us with, “I’m Boris, welcome to my taxi.” I restrained myself from asking the obvious question, “Are you all from Eastern Europe?”

Instead, I told Boris where we were headed. Forgetting the first rule about asking a cabbie how much, I said “The spa said that the ride would cost about $100.” With just the slightest hesitation he said “Yes, that’s right.” I could have kicked myself.

Boris had a lot to say. I felt true kinship as he rattled on about his two cabs whose medallions had each cost him just short of two hundred thousand dollars. And were now selling for bupkis in the age of Uber and Lyft. And his five children, each of whom had or were attending some rather expensive schools. I decided on a larger tip.

It took about forty-five minutes to reach Tecate on the Mexican border. The only evidence of an invasion by any sanctuary seeking Central Americans were two bored Mexican soldiers leaning against a wall.

We exited Boris’s taxi $100 lighter and were greeted by Raoul, the emissary from the spa. Speaking English better than I can, he said “I am here to escort you through Mexican customs and then give you a ride to Rancho La Puerta. Welcome to Mexico.” The skies brightened considerably and the weight that had been residing on my shoulders for the last ten hours suddenly began to lift.

The customs office is situated in the same complex that houses both a PayLess shoe store and a 7/11 mini-mart. Raoul led us through one of those one-way turnstiles that seems to promise to encase you for life should you stop it from spinning. We entered a small concrete block building and were introduced to Julio, the man of authority in these parts. Julio asked us to sit on plastic chairs behind a four-foot long table that bore nothing but two pencils.

We were asked to fill out some forms that would allow us to enter the country. Instructions were delivered by Julio in shotgun fashion that seemed intended to test us. I was reminded of an old World War II spy movie that might have starred Errol Flynn and Olivia De Havilland. The one where the Nazis question them in an effort to discover the names of the Resistance ring leaders. Like Danny Kaye starring in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, I felt like leaping over the table, sucker-punching Julio, grabbing Jackie and, with guns blazing, find my way back to the good old USA.

To no one’s surprise, there was the obligatory discussion about the cost of the visas that would allow us to exit Julio’s clutches. “That will be twenty-eight American dollars each.”, said Julio. I handed him three twenties. I never saw the four dollars change.

The ride with Raoul to Rancho La Puerta was made in inky darkness.

Choo, choo

We spent a week at Rancho LaPuerta over the Christmas holiday.

It started last summer under the massive oak tree that has been resting peacefully for some two hundred years in front of Jackie’s house in the Arbolada. Sitting in the two comfy chairs beneath its canopy, the blessed silence was interrupted with a question from Jackie, “Would you like to spend a week at Rancho LaPuerta?”

Recovering from my semi-stupor, I suggested that the answer to her question required some additional information, “What is Rancho LaPorta?”

“LaPuerta, LaPuerta, not LaPorta” she admonished. “LaPuerta means door while LaPorta means porthole.” Thank goodness for her spot-on translation. Spending a week squeezed into a porthole was definitely not my idea of fancy travelling.

Further interrogation revealed that Rancho LaPuerta is an upscale fitness spa located in Tecate, Mexico, about an hour’s drive from the San Diego airport. So far so good. Additionally, the spa served real food instead of the Bugs Bunny diet enjoyed by Jackie at her regular stomping grounds, the Optimum Health Institute. I was sold enough to suggest a phone call to the spa.

Jackie is not one to postpone tasks. Once assigned, they are quickly disposed of. Grasping her iPhone X with those cute little fingers, she deftly connected to the Rancho. Ten minutes later, my Visa card’s available balance surviving on fumes, we were booked into the Rancho.

Conveniently, Jackie’s plans immediately prior to our Rancho excursion included a one week visit to Optimum Health in San Diego. She would drive to OHI. I would then meet her in San Diego, drive her car to the San Diego airport and take the Rancho’s private bus from there to the Mexican border. To get to San Diego, I could fly from LAX, or take the Amtrak train from Ventura.

Ever since our trip to Costa Rica, I have had sufficient time to hone my dislike of airports and airplanes. The opportunity of a relaxing trip on the train was too tempting to pass up. Checking the Amtrak schedule, I found a 7:30am departure from Ventura that, five and a half hours later, would deposit me in San Diego more than two hours ahead of the Rancho’s bus trip from the airport to the border. Enough time for Jackie to scoop me up from the train and dump us at the airport. It was the last scheduled Rancho bus trip of the day, Missing the bus would cause complications too horrible to contemplate. And my Spanish is not so good, por favor.

I booked a seat on Amtrak 768. And over the next few weeks, I endured the horror stories related to me by the hapless souls who had banked on Amtrak to get them where they needed to be, yet failed miserably. No matter, surely I would be the exception to the rule.

Joy is Ojai’s airport and train station driver of choice. A delightfully gabby woman who combines wit with daredevil driving, she picked me up at 6:35am on departure day. It was Saturday and traffic on the 33 was almost non-existent. The uneventful trip brought us to the Ventura train station twenty minutes ahead of schedule. Piece of cake.

Except for an overhang, the train platform is exposed to the elements. But twenty minutes on a chilly morning seemed like a doable wait. Rolling my suitcase up the platform ramp, I deposited myself in a spot where the sun offered some warmth. There’s a digital time display on the platform that also informs riders of train arrival time. It said Train 768 will be twenty minutes late. I quickly calculated that I now had less than two hours of leeway before I would run out of time. My pulse reacted from the adrenaline rush. Then my logic took over and said “It’s only twenty minutes late, dummy. Not to worry.”

I stared at the clock as it ticked down 768’s arrival time. Then, without so much as a by your leave, the display blanked out and returned with a new arrival time…8:10am. Another twenty minutes charged to my declining spare time balance. Like a watched pot, I’m convinced that the digital clock moved ever slower as I gazed at it. Minutes seemed like hours. My life passed before my eyes.

768 arrived at 8:25, nearly an hour late. Hoping I had seen the worst, I hopped aboard, stowed my bag and found a window seat that gave me full view of the surroundings as we passed and stopped at too many stations. Oxnard, Camarillo, Moorpark, Simi Valley, Chatsworth, Van Nuys. Was there a place on earth that this train was not going to stop? At each stop I mentally shoved the passengers on and off the train, hoping to gain back some precious minutes.

And then the conductor said, “We will be making an equipment change in Los Angeles.” A what? What’s wrong with this equipment, I thought. It’s been good enough to get us this far. Why not just keep things the way they are? I’ve got no time to spare. I’ve got to catch a bus.

And so we changed equipment. Amtrak employees wandered around the train platform like lost sheep. And I lost the last remaining hour of my spare time. Not yet finished teasing me, 768 lost another twenty minutes on the last leg of the journey. I started practicing my Spanish. Donde esta el banyo?

I had been texting Jackie, keeping her updated on our lack of progress, my accelerating heart rate and my rising blood pressure. Poor sweetheart, she had been waiting anxiously at the train station like a war-time wife. When I did arrive, she embraced me like a soldier returning home from the Battle of the Bulge. Her iPhone was hot to the touch from pleading with the bus company to delay their departure.

She drove to the airport like a woman possessed, only to see the bus already making its way to the Mexican border. It was, like in the movies, all I could do to stop her from blocking the twenty-ton bus with her tiny car.

And I thought, where was Mussolini when you really needed him?

 

Bargain Hotel

I hadn’t been up to the Bay Area since Ila died. It was time.

On December 30, Jackie and I returned from a week in Tecate, Mexico. That gave us two days to do laundry, spend New Year’s eve with friends and then hop back in the car for the seven hour drive to Berkeley on New Year’s day.

Highway 101 seemed very retro and uncrowded. The sun shone on the rolling hills and I felt the increasing anticipation of a visit too long postponed. Jackie made the trip even more enjoyable as I often glanced at her next to me, bundled up in a tight little package of loveliness.

We had originally planned to stay at Berkeley’s Claremont hotel. A staid, posh establishment that has stood the years gracefully and elegantly. But eleven hundred dollars plus extras for two nights’ lodging seemed like extravagance run amok.

Enlisting son David in my search for comfortable lodging at a reasonable price, he suggested the Durant Hotel near the University. A google search revealed that the hotel had been re-christened the Graduate Berkeley. Booking a room at a fraction of the Claremont’s budget busting rates took little effort.

We arrived at the hotel mid-afternoon and entered a lobby that seemed eerily devoid of other human beings. A relatively dark interior, coupled with comfortable but out-of-style furniture, added to the feeling that we had been transported to the mansion featured in the Rocky Horror Picture Show. A kindly desk clerk, without a hump, took my credit card, handed us two keys and pointed to the one operating elevator; the other being out of service for the foreseeable future.

Before schlepping our bags to our room, we did a whirlwind tour of the lobby and environs. The restaurant was cold, both in appearance and temperature. No problem, as the University campus is populated by a flotilla of eating establishments. The twenty-four-hour fitness center, which appeared cavernous on the hotel’s website, contained one elliptical machine, one treadmill and one other multi-purpose device that might have seen service in the Spanish Inquisition. And it too was cold.

Finishing our tour, and yet to encounter another guest, we rode the elevator to the sixth floor, found room 623 and entered a suite that could best be described as quaint. Unable to pass each other in the aisle separating the bed from the wall, we adopted a you first methodology that prevented serious injury. An inspection of the bathroom brought back childhood memories of my parent’s Chicago apartment in Albany Park. The floor was covered by those same tiny white hexagon tiles that look like it took forever to create. The sink (no double plumbing here) seemed designed for Lilliputians. Brushing one’s teeth would prove to be a challenge, focused on preventing a flood of biblical proportions.

I did the usual manly inspection of the heating and air conditioning system. The room had one of those units mounted high up on the wall. The kind you wave your hand at above your head to see if the unit is running, much less delivering the proper air flow. I eyed the thermostat on the wall and did the usual random clicking. There appeared to be only two settings, off and cooling. Surely, I thought, there must be a heat setting. After several dozen repetitive clicks that predictably produced the same results, I cast aside my manliness and phoned the front desk.

“Hi, I’m cold and can’t seem to get the wall unit to dispense any life-sustaining warmth.” The same young man who had directed us away from the non-functioning elevator said, “The wall unit does not dispense heat.” He continued, “There is a radiator in the corner of the room. It delivers heat.”

I had noted the radiator in question but had dismissed it as merely an historic artifact, abandoned in favor of the 1980’s wall unit. The type of radiator that had last been seen at my Bar Mitzvah, celebrated in my parent’s Albany Park apartment. Surely he was jesting about delivering heat through this potentially explosive device. Silly me.

The young man continued, “You just crank the knob at the end of the radiator to regulate the heat.” Feeling I had little choice, I surrendered and said, “Thanks, my mother would be pleased with my newfound skill.” But the young man was not finished. “The heat will only be available at 5:30 this afternoon and every afternoon.” At first, I thought he was joking or pretending we were subject to some sort of World War II rationing. Then I realized he was quite serious.

It was now 4pm and I said, “But I’m cold now. By 5:30 I will have frostbite. You will be responsible for the maiming of an old, cold man who had only asked for a little heat to ward off the aging process.” The young man relented, “I can send up a space heater.” He did, and I stayed very close to it, and to Jackie.

The Claremont seemed like a bargain.


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