Archive for October, 2019

Chumash Revenge

I wondered about the size of their electric bill.

Lorraine’s sister Liz celebrated her sixtieth birthday this past weekend. One of four Sandoval sisters, Liz is the first to reach that scary plateau. A sweet woman, Liz was kind enough to include Jackie and me in the A-list of invitees.

We bivouacked in Solvang, a town about ninety minutes from Ojai. With a Danish flavor, Solvang is cutesy and funky, having somehow survived the move into the twenty-first techno century. Looking a bit jaded, the town offers lots of places to eat Danish pastries, shop for useless merchandise, and eventually produce a nagging feeling of so, what do I do next?

To fill the insatiable need for something to do, the Chumash Indians have conveniently provided a place to quickly address that empty feeling.

Today, the Chumash are estimated to have a population of less than 5,000 members. Many current members can trace their ancestors to the five islands of Channel Island National Park. Suffering the same fortunes as other Native Americans, their members died off rapidly with the coming of Spanish sailing ships with their cargo of influenza and smallpox, eagerly distributed by the unwelcome visitors.

As though in retribution for the damage done to them, the Chumash now inflict economic hardship on a monumental scale never envisaged by their ancestors. With neither bows and arrows nor war clubs, today’s Chumash conquer their historical oppressors in unprecedented numbers.

Highway 246, taken due east from Solvang for seven minutes, brings one to the Chumash Casino and Resort. A first-time visitor with Jackie in tow, I was concerned about missing the turn-off. My fear was unfounded as the stark white monolith dramatically appeared on the horizon. It was probably visible from the moon and beyond.

It was Saturday and the parking lot seemed filled to capacity. A drab, multi-level, solid concrete lot that defies your sense of direction, you could easily lose your car and prolong your stay. Thereby affording you another chance to win it back from the gaming tables where you had just lost it.

As with any new adventure, we clicked our heels together and blithely skipped through  the third level lot where a sign proudly proclaimed “Casino.” Not unexpectedly, we were confronted with patrons going in the opposite direction, who seemed less animated than those of us headed into the casino. Their dour, lifeless expressions did not bode us well.

Cash is a relatively unknown commodity in Jackie’s world. Plastic proliferates, while U.S treasury bills are as rare as unicorns. As we approached the bowels of the casino, Jackie proudly announced that she had twenty dollars with which to make her fortune. “I feel lucky” became the watchword of her faith. Why should I spoil her fun by reminding her that they only build these big buildings because everyone eventually contributes handsomely to that common cause? Besides, I thought, how much damage can one do with only twenty dollars?

We were confronted by a vast armada of slot machines, some 2.300 of them as proudly announced on the casino’s website. But these were not your mother’s machines. These were something designed by alien beings who intended to rob you of your senses while emptying your wallet. Some were eight feet tall. Others were eight feet wide. All were adorned with multi-colored lights and accompanied by sounds that defied description. A cacophony that allowed me to stow my hearing aids for fear of further hearing loss. Intending to further dull one’s senses, there were no clocks or windows, and no way of telling night from day.

Jackie began a quest for the one special machine that would make her financially independent.  Obstacles were thrown at her. Seeking a simple machine that had only three symbols of cherries, lemons and plums across its face seemed impossible. Most of the bandits had far more symbols, whole fruit baskets of symbols strewn over multiple rows.

Jackie’s pace quickened as she scanned the horizon. I was pressed to keep up as she raced through the rows and semi-circles filled with the electronic behemoths. A machine for nearly everyone’s economic status, they were all too willing to take your pennies, depriving you of even the barest necessities.

Hailing a passing attendant, Jackie described her needs. Three classic symbols and the ability to bet a dollar a pull. A dollar a pull? How far, I thought, would that take her twenty dollars? She repeated her requirements and was escorted to a dank, dark place where the ancients had once played.

She scanned the row of machines and then, as if it was meant to be, selected one. She plunked her cute fanny onto the comfy chair in front of it. Without any further investigation of the machine’s rules and regulations, she deftly inserted her $20 bill into the slot from which it would never again emerge. Gotta give her credit for her moxie, I thought. “Twenty Credits” popped up on the screen. So far so good.

With nary a hesitation, she punched the button that spun her future. A loser. I glanced at the place where “Twenty Credits” had once occupied a place of honor. It now read “Eleven Credits.” Wait a minute, I thought. What’s going on here. I tried to get Jackie’s attention. Too late, she punched the button again. Now only “Two Credits” appeared in the murky depths of the bandit’s screen. Horrified that she had bet $9 with each punch, Jackie emerged from her ten second reverie and entered a period of despair.

I could not stand seeing the anguish on her face. A once proud woman now bent at the knee. A life of anticipated riches disappearing in moments. I reached into my pocket and produced a twenty-dollar bill. A smile appeared on her face. Her eyes twinkled. All was right with the world.

Eventually tiring of enriching the Chumash, we began our trip back to reality by making several wrong turns that took us further into the casino, instead of the sanctuary of the parking lot. Just enough of a delay for me to marvel again at the magical sea of machines with their strident sounds and bright lights.

I wondered about the size of their electric bill. As if it made a difference.

I’m a Townie

The ride up the Dennison Grade last Thursday was interminable.

I had made that trip, sometimes twice a day, for nearly twenty years. More than seven thousand round trips. I start by driving one mile down Sulphur Mountain Road, carefully avoiding collisions on the all too narrow road. I turn left on Highway 150 after assuring myself that speeding cars are not lurking in the shadows of the ancient oaks that line the road. I cruise by the seasonal yellow mustard fields on the Black Mountain Ranch. I wind down the seemingly endless Dennison Grade, ticking off the twenty-three turns. I reach the bottom of the hill where Boccali’s restaurant gives me the first evidence of a civilization set apart from the Upper Ojai. Not yet finished, I drive another two miles into the middle of town. A one-way total of eight miles. Consuming thirty-six minutes of my life during each round trip.

And I had loved nearly every minute of it. Until last Thursday.

Two weeks earlier, I had sold my house on Sulphur Mountain Road and had moved into town. I traded those thirty-six driving minutes for the freedom to walk to restaurants, stores and community events. In those two weeks I thought that my car’s fuel gauge had malfunctioned; it didn’t seem to move. I walked to a friend’s house for dinner last Tuesday and thought “In twenty years I’ve never gone out to dinner without first getting into my car.”

I had lived those many years in the Sulphur Mountain house. My sweetheart and I built it. She died in it. With her death and my inevitable aging, it became clear that I needed to move from the mountain to the town. With her passing, the house seemed to have doubled in size. It had become too silent. Even the birds seemed to visit less frequently. The olive groves, once a delightful diversion, now seemed a burden. The mountain vistas lingered, but the inevitable night abruptly shut them down.

Jackie loved the spaciousness of the mountain house during her too infrequent visits. Spoiled by the advantages of town living, her zeal for dragging that very cute fanny up and down the Dennison Grade waned. Night driving on the darkened roads proved too much of a burden. She never said, “You should move.” But my feelings for her helped push me off the mountain and into “Townie” living.

It took fifteen months to sell the mountain home, and one day to buy the home in town. Escrow on both homes closed the same day; think of it as a whirlwind love affair. The town home is about half the size of the mountain home and its diminished storage capacity was a challenge. Twenty years of accumulated detritus required a hardened heart as I waded through it. And in every room, closet, drawer and cabinet I was confronted by memories. Photographs seemed to emerge from everywhere. Birthday and anniversary cards numbered in the hundreds. Like buried land mines, Ila had stowed them in dark recesses that hid them from prying eyes.

Letters between two lovers had been placed in the backs of her dresser drawers; I could not bear reading them. And in every instance a decision was needed. Toss or keep. At first, I kept nearly everything. As I realized the futility of it, I began to toss more. Would the children be deprived of some legacy if I tossed rather than kept? Probably not, I lied to myself. So I tossed more and more. Without ceremony. Without a proper burial. Like junk, the cards, letters and photos were deposited in king-sized black plastic garbage bags. Lugged to the garage, they awaited a trip to the dumpster. There were times I wanted to run after them. But didn’t.

Packing boxes soon littered the house. My god, I thought, who needs seven frying pans. A fish poacher that had been used once with disappointing results. Twelve different fruit extracts, only one of which had ever crossed our palates. What were we thinking when we saved scores of empty plastic containers with mismatched lids? Silverware that hadn’t seen the light of day more than twice in twenty years. Ten flower vases that had once held the precious flowers I sent her.

The movers arrived with the cast from Spartacus. Brawny guys, lean and mean guys and one that looked like he needed a good meal. They wrapped artwork, hung clothes in garment boxes and dragged everything onto two trucks. “It’ll never fit in the new house” I thought. But it did. All sixty-five boxes, a rowing machine and Jackie’s treadmill in a pinch.

Oliver and I unpacked. As we did so, I felt the urge to toss some more. And I did, setting aside items that might find their way into more needy hands. We filled cabinets. We stuffed clothes in bedroom dressers and filled every square inch of kitchen space with only three frying pans and a blessedly diminished horde of other items. It was sort of like running a video of the packing phase, only backwards. Empty boxes and discarded wrapping paper were enough to start an Ojai version of the Chicago Fire.

I’m settling in. I can hear cars go by. They make a whooshing sound, just like the surf rolling in off the Pacific. People are as close as a hundred feet away. Their faces visible. They stop, we chat, just like neighbors are supposed to do. There are two youngsters next door at Danni’s and James’ house. My doorbell rang last Sunday, and Danni’s brother was there asking me if it was alright to come into my yard to retrieve a ball the kids had tossed. “Sure,” I said. “Please do, and then do it some more.”

I always wanted a porch. And now I have one. It’s an overstuffed chair that cost $5 at a garage sale. It sits in my garage. I open the overhead door, grab a sandwich and sit in that chair. I can see some of the Topa Topa mountains. But more importantly, I can see and hear the sounds of life.

I drove up to the mountain house last Thursday to check my old mailbox. The ride was interminable. I’m glad I’m a Townie.


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