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Pizza in Cambria

It was time we did something different. Hanging around the house, getting take-outs, and occasionally meeting friends six feet removed was getting old. Even the face masks were becoming all too familiar; the allure behind the mask was waning. A refresher was in order. Something with a challenge.

Cambria is about three hours away up the Pacific Coast Highway. Just far enough to feel like you’ve gone enough miles to stay overnight, and for friends to later say, “And how was your trip?”

We packed out bags with more than we needed and loaded the car with enough snacks to open a roadside diner. Jackie loves snacking in the car and shleps a potpourri of green organic grapes, outrageously priced granola from Rainbow Bridge, and similarly priced Brazil nuts. All of which fits nicely in a Westridge Market paper bag nestled at her tiny feet, leaving ample room to lean back and devote her attention to a busy iPhone.

We hit the 101 around noon and set the cruise control for San Luis Obispo, two hours north. I’ve been in SLO a few times but find it a bit too much like Santa Barbara. With fewer attractions, its principal draws are a local shoe store selling Jackie’s favorite Uggs boots, Cal Poly University, and the California Men’s Colony a few miles west of town.

With about 4,000 guests, the state-run Men’s Colony is both a minimum and medium security facility. It has housed many notables including several members of the once popular Manson family, some of whom, like 78-year-old Bruce Davis, are serving two life sentences.

Other less murderous, but equally dangerous, notables include Charles Keating of the 1980’s savings and loan debacle fame. Timothy Leary spent some prime time there in 1970 working off his conviction for possession of marijuana; today he would have been hailed as a successful CBD salesman on Bryant Circle.

Passing the Colony, we are eventually rewarded with a look at Morro Rock, the principal reason why anyone turns their head to the left while whizzing north through a rather desolate, cold and usually overcast town.  The 581-foot-high Rock, some 23 million years old, is a volcanic plug composed of lava and petrified bird feces. Trying to lure more tourists, the citizens of Morro Bay managed to get the Rock designated a California Historical Landmark, including the guano.

Completing our glimpse of the Rock, we continued north and passed through Cayucos. The town name is a Hispanic twist on the Chumash word for kayak or canoe, used by the Indians as they fished in the bay. The town is graced with two restaurants, one of which was closed for remodeling during our last visit.

Fifteen minutes later we arrived at Cambria’s El Colibri Hotel at the south end of Moonstone Beach Road. Expecting a largely deserted metropolis due to the virus, we were amazed to see No Vacancy signs adorning the front of many of the motels along the mile and a half stretch of road.

The El Colibri had cleaned and sanitized our room; the front desk clerk promised never to come back again during our three day stay. No daily cleanings, no waste basket emptying, no morning coffee and, most depressingly, the sorely missed bedtime turndowns complete with warm chocolate chip cookies.

We spent the rest of the afternoon walking about town dodging the other vacationers who were nearly all wearing face masks. We felt guilty with our exposed faces and we dutifully covered them whenever we ventured into any of the lightly stocked, hand sanitizer possessed, overpriced gift shops.

Dinner was at Robins. Initially placed at a table for two in the restaurant industry’s equivalent to the Gulag Archipelago, Jackie rose to her full five-foot-one height and commandeered a lovely spot right next to two guys who make a living playing guitars for people who were alive prior to the advent of contemporary music, with its unintelligible lyrics. It was wonderful.

The next day included a visit to Nit Wit Ridge, an old, nearly abandoned home that looks like any one of the three wolves could blow it down. Furnished in junk rescued from the dump, it features old toilets standing at attention at the chain link fence entry to the property; the rest of the mansion’s art was less impressive. A sign announced, “Next Tour at 2.” We departed at one and proudly checked it off our bucket list.

Time for lunch. We marched from the west end of town to the east end, passing a fair number of restaurants with de rigueur outside dining. Thinking that the holy grail of restaurants must be just a few steps ahead, we walked and walked until we had exhausted all our options. A pizza place was at the end of our death march and, gasping for air, we gave our pizza order to a woman who obviously had prior experience working for the IRS, or had just gone on pension from the California Men’s Colony. We added a salad, paid for it with half our remaining vacation funds, and waited for our surprise meal.

The pizza was one of the soggy crust variety that showed little evidence of the mushroom, garlic and basil toppings for which we had paid dearly. We ate half of it and left the rest on a bus bench near a high-end homeless encampment.

We had planned to have dinner at a classier restaurant, but our visit to the elephant seals near Hearst Castle had tired us. Watching them slither along the beach with a ton of fat wobbling under their molting skin had also put a dietetic dent in our appetites. We returned to the confines of our untouched and somewhat less hygienic hotel room.

We procrastinated long enough to preclude dining out. Querying our innkeeper, we were told that, due to the hour, J J Pizza was the only food joint still delivering. We called and, discounting our noontime meal disappointment as a once-in-lifetime culinary aberration, again ordered pizza. Along with a salad, our meal arrived in J J’s arms not fifteen minutes later.

We tasted a pizza that reminded us of lunch and a salad with Italian dressing that seemed familiar. We wondered if all Cambria pizzas were made using the same recipe.  We ate half the pizza and put the rest on the top of the three-foot-high stack of used Kleenex, empty bottles and other detritus accumulating in our once pristine waste basket.

The following day opened with the prior day’s agenda. Take a hike to the end of the road under cloud laden, cold skies. Grab breakfast that had been better left on a bus bench and take another hike to the east end.

Reaching the end of the road, Jackie looked up and spotted a sign on the roof of the pizza joint that had provided yesterday’s lunch encounter with the former IRS employee. The sign boldly proclaimed, “J J Pizza.” Being quick learners, we realized that we had not only eaten lunch at this Michelin four-star diner, we had unknowingly ordered a delivered dinner from the same place six hours later.

Well at least we had a whole pizza…half for lunch and the other half for dinner. A one-for-two pricing special.

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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