Archive for the 'Travel' Category

Tripping—Part 2

(This is the second of the series called Tripping)

Our trip from the St. George, Utah airport down memory lane ended as we emerged from the courtesy van in front of the Red Mountain Resort. The usual angst kicked into gear as I considered tipping the driver, reconsidered it and finally succumbed to the basic instincts etched into my DNA; I slipped twenty bucks into Martha’s waiting hand.

We entered the reception area and were greeted by Anne who appeared well beyond almost anyone’s retirement age. My quick evaluation of her feeble stamina proved to be incorrect as she launched into a non-stop dissertation covering all aspects of our stay. It appeared that she was compensated based on the number of guests she greeted rather than the quality of her performance. I was unable to grasp much of anything other than her warning of the impending closure of the lunch hour at the restaurant and the unavailability of food until the dinner hour.

Finally, Anne whipped out a map of the resort and identified the location of the restaurant, spa, fitness center, bike rentals and other soon forgotten sights. Carefully pointing out the location of our room, she ended our visitation and wished us well.

I folded the map, shoved it into my pants pocket and promised myself that I would review it carefully before venturing out on the paths leading god knows where. It was the last time that I fondled that map.

We emerged from the reception center and, of course, had no idea where our room was. We spun on our axis and tried to divine the path to it. Martha, the van driver and a lot more sympatico than Anne the receptionist, noted our discomfiture and offered to drive us to our room in one of the dozens of electric utility vehicles that littered the landscape. My twenty bucks proved to be a worthwhile investment as Martha flawlessly piloted the cart less than a hundred feet and deposited us in front of room 226. I’ll pay better attention next time.

We held our breath, swiped the electronic card into the reader and were relieved when the lock clicked welcomingly. Room 226 was beyond our expectations.

A sleeping area with two large beds, a gargantuan TV, and sliding doors that led to a patio with a view of the mountains and a brilliant Disney designed blue sky. A bathroom with twin wash basins, and a large jacuzzi tub and separate shower suitable for intimate parties. A closeted potty that allows you to hide your most intimate functions while your spouse expels gas nearby, oblivious to your own emanations.

There was more. A short hallway led to a large living room with comfy chairs and an even larger TV (I began to wonder if anyone ever left their room), refrigerator, cooking supplies and yet another bathroom and even larger patio. Further exploration revealed a washer and dryer fully capable of satisfying Jackie’s penchant for perpetually clean clothes.

Believing that some of this expansive grandeur might be shared by the adjoining guestroom, and to avoid midnight surprises from strangers, I sheepishly phoned the front desk, “Is this all just for us?”

“Yes, Mr. Rothenberg, it is for your sole use. You deserve it. Enjoy it. And give our very best to your lovely wife, Jackie”….who was already loading a sweaty t-shirt and a pair of very cute pink socks into the bowels of the LG washer.

It was only 2pm and the adventure got into full gear with a pair of massages intended to loosen up our bodies that had been primarily sedentary since the 4am trip from home to the Santa Barbara airport, a plane change in Phoenix and a courtesy van to our present abode.

Finding the spa was surprisingly easy. It was a domed structure sitting atop a hill as though it was in charge of all the other buildings. Built much like a Pringle’s potato chip container, it had four levels. The usual Covid warnings were posted on the entry doors, windows and any other place that screamed for appropriate artwork. The welcome desk was on the top level, necessitating an uphill climb that challenged our lungs that were already struggling with the 3,000-foot elevation of the resort. I half expected to find Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay at the welcome desk or, as we dubbed it, our base camp.

Instead, we found Suzanne. She appeared much like other young women who register out-of-shape spa guests. Slim, bright-eyed, perfect makeup and impeccable dress, Suzanne looked just like you want to look.

We were relieved when Suzanne found our reservations; the ones we had made two months earlier when we booked the trip. We exhausted the ink supply in our pens as we completed the usual forms prying into our medical history, and dutifully signed the waivers that excused the resort from all sorts of potential disasters, including asteroid collision and volcanic eruption.

Suzanne smiled, mispronounced my name, and said we were all set. “Just go down two flights to the massage rooms. You will be greeted there.” Somewhat disappointed at having wasted a walk up two flights, we accepted her directive and looked for the stairs.

The Pringle’s design of the building included a circular stairway running through the center of the can. It was much narrower than any other circular stairway that I had encountered, and definitely was in violation of the building code even in the madcap construction frenzy rampant in St. George.

I sent Jackie ahead of me so that she might break my fall that was sure to happen.  Balance is not my strong point, having demonstrated my proclivity for falling off bicycles and collapsing in a heap while hiking Shelf Road. Looking like a whirling dervish while descending the spiral stairs only increased the probability of severely broken bones. But crap, I had already paid for this massage and I was going to get it even if it included a full body cast.

Despite having to duck my head because of stationary objects impeding my descent (surely another building code violation), we made it to the massage level where we were treated to a mediocre body thumping by women who seemed to be more interested in another job.

We exited the Pringles can and began the trip back to our room. With only two wrong turns and the addition of a thousand unexpected steps to Jackie’s FitBit, we found room 226 and swiped the magnetic key into the 21stcentury door lock. Nada. No welcoming clicks.

As we all do under these circumstances, we stared at the room number prominently displayed on the door frame to verify that this was indeed room 226. And then we swiped again. Nada. Perhaps we had disappointed Suzanne or one of the upwardly mobile massage therapists and we were being punished for our misdeeds.

To be continued…

Tripping

St. George, Utah is in the southwestern part of the state, about 450 miles from Ojai, California. Sometimes, under the right circumstances, it can feel a whole lot farther.

The city is only 118 miles from Las Vegas, making it easy to lose the money you had planned to tithe to the Mormon Church. Fortunately, Zion National Park is close by where you can sleep under the stars after you lose your home at the craps table.

 According to the census folks, there are about 90,000 people in the city; in 2005 it had the dubious distinction of being the fastest growing metropolitan area in the U.S. Based on what I saw during our trip last week, it still is.

My first exposure to St. George occurred when I took my two sons on a fishing trip to Panguitch Lake, about 120 miles north of the Saint. My older son, David, was about 19 when we went to the lake; we were both much younger and hardier 38 years ago. Driving was the only option open to us then and St. George was merely a pit-stop for a pee break, leg stretch and something to eat.

We made that trip twice, and each time we ate at Dick’s Diner, the Copacabana of St. George. We enjoyed the food; it was cheap and flavorful, with lots of fat, salt and sugar. Although the food was enough of a draw, the menu took top billing. Ignoring the dried-on food detritus, we laughed at the misspellings. For example, cigarette smoking was acceptable, but cigars were a no-no. In big print the menu shouted “No Gisar Samoking”.

We even butchered the diner’s name, by associating it with all its food offerings. Dick Burgers, Dick Fries and Dick Cokes was just the start of it. Then there was Dick Toast, Dick eggs and Dick Coffee. Our favorite, Dick Dogs, is still invoked with laughter and warmth whenever I am fortunate enough to spend a little time with son David.

We would have our fill at Dick’s, empty our bladders, fill our tank and speed right through the rest of St. George in about three nanoseconds heading north to Panguitch. Not anymore.

Being much older and less robust than when I last visited the Saint, I got down on one knee, clasped my hands together in prayer mode and implored Jackie to have pity on me by taking a plane from Santa Barbara. And we did, arriving on time even with a very short layover to make the connection in Phoenix. I congratulated myself on what then seemed like a good idea.

The Saint’s airport is a three-gate affair and is humbly designated a Regional Airport, having years ago abandoned its somewhat strained International Airport status when it stopped delivering the mail to Tijuana. 

Located in the middle of something that looks like the movie set of Flight of the Phoenix, it is surrounded by mega-hectares of sand. Our friendly Red Mountain Resort van driver, who looked a bit like Jimmy Stewart, had little of interest to point out until we had placed a reasonable distance between us and the desolate land of the dinosaurs.

Houses leaped at us from every direction; most looked as though they had just been unwrapped and were awaiting their owners. Condos littered the landscape. This was still the land of the great expansion. An expansion that produced multi-million-dollar homes in places formerly occupied by your retired Uncle Sid and Aunt Marge. House trailers were definitely not the in-thing. This was no longer the home of Dick’s Diner.

All manner of architectural styles were on display. Most of it built to resemble the shadings and hues of a land that is deprived of standing water. Whatever moisture I retained from living in Southern California was instantly sucked out of me by humidity levels that were well below zero. As my Ukrainian mother would say, “It may be hot, but it’s a dry heat”. There were no flies; even they need water.

Twenty minutes later we arrived at the Red Mountain Resort.

To be continued….

Snow Story

If I only knew how much fun downhill skiing could be I’d have started it years ago, long before my 81st birthday.

But let me start at the beginning when Jackie said “Let’s go to Big Bear and play in the snow, drink hot toddies, sit in front of the fireplace, and cuddle.”

The cuddling thing was enough to sell me. Jackie took over and made reservations for three nights at a moderately priced hotel in Big Bear, about a four-hour drive to Southern California’s skiing mecca. 

Aware of the fashionably responsible thing to do, we dialed up Amazon and bought ski pants, funny hats, insulated underwear and amazingly inexpensive gloves that looked thick enough to work next to a Bessemer furnace.

Amazon delivered the next day, a feat that continues to amaze me. My ski pants were wonderfully warm and heavy. If the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen had these Chinese-made pants in 1928, he would not have died in the Barents Sea after eating his sled dogs. I was confident we would survive Big Bear, a destination undoubtedly populated with multiple Starbucks and chichi pet stores offering a myriad of dog food products.

Jackie also selected a rather effeminate set of bright yellow tire chains. Living in Chicago gave me some familiarity with tire chains. They are supremely obedient when lying at ease in the dark bowels of your garage. Applying them in the midst of a snowstorm on Highway 18 is another matter best left to the local chain jockeys along the road who offer their services at a price that is non-negotiable. I decided to rely on the hired help if needed, and to practice an ancient Jewish incantation that has been known to ward off bad weather.

Things were moving along smoothly until I told Jackie about a friend who said, “Ya know, if you’re willing to drive four hours to Big Bear you might as well go to Mammoth Lakes, only another two hours away and 2,000 feet higher. A much cooler place that makes Big Bear look like a Girl Scout camp.”

Hearing this, Jackie did her own investigation and pronounced Mammoth “the place to be.” She set her sights on the Westin. Directly across the street from the gondolas that ferry skiers to the chair lifts, the Westin is considerably more expensive than other alternatives; a product of its location and the fact that there was only one room remaining. “Must be really good” she concluded and booked it.

Three days later we began the odyssey. Our plan was to devote our full attention to cross country skiing. Downhill, with its reputation for broken bones and instant paralysis brought about by head-on collisions with trees that fool you into thinking they are your friends, was out of the question.

On the first morning of our stay, we grabbed seats on a bus and headed to the Tamarack Lodge which was rumored to have all the equipment we needed. They provide groomed trails that are easy and others that are to be rigorously avoided by those who wish to survive the experience.

Cross country is what Amundsen would have done if he had more dogs to eat and a way to walk home on packed snow instead of water. You hop up on thin skis, grab a couple of ski poles and shove yourself forward on level ground until you find a downward slope. If you do it well, you look very competent and sure of yourself. If you do it poorly, you look like me.

There are no gondolas or ski lifts. You do everything under your own power. If you prolong the adventure, you breathe ever harder and become overheated. You remove most of your clothing and leave it on the trail in order to avoid a heat produced stroke. If you’re like me, you feel like you’ve been cross country…California to New York.

My second rocket-propelled fall of the morning found me flat on my back. I was sure I had cracked my skull but was strangely encouraged by the thought since it would be an acceptable excuse with which to end my misery.

Jackie had fallen only once and, while I decided to judiciously remove and carry my skis back to the lodge, she pushed on taking tiny steps that seemed to move her backwards at a glacial pace. I urged her on hoping to get our money’s worth.

We finished our sojourn about one o’clock and were able to get some very thin, taste-free lentil soup at the lodge. Eating it was a challenge as there was no indoor dining nor any outside tables or chairs. I did not complain in light of what Amundsen must have endured.

We were determined to get back on the trail and snowshoes seemed a viable option. The lodge kindly supplied them; we strapped them on and began a walk on packed snow. Looking more like a waddle than a walk, we found them of no practical use that consumed more energy than simply walking in our street shoes. We wrote off the adventure and went back to the Westin for more appropriate winter snow events, drinking hot toddies.

Having conquered cross country and snowshoe challenges, only downhill skiing remained to complete a successful trifecta. The next day we grabbed the free gondola across the street from our hotel and took the five-minute trip up the hill. It was early afternoon, and hundreds of skiers were taking the chair lifts and whooshing down the runs.

The sun was intense, and the temperature was mild. The absence of wind allowed us to bask in the warmth of mid-day. We had found the place we had been seeking.

Jackie grabbed two unoccupied chairs that we dragged to the end of a run near the common area. We bought two cans of alcoholic beverages, mine a surprisingly delicious White Russian. Sitting and sipping produced a euphoria that allowed me to feel like I was the one on those skis. Sliding effortlessly downhill, snowplowing to a stop and congratulating myself.

I should have started this sport sooner.

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.

The Hat Makes the Man

My father wore a fedora hat. For those who may not have seen many 1940 gangster movies, yet want to see old time fedoras, I direct you to any movie starring George Raft, Jimmy Cagney or Brian Donlevy. They, and just about every man in their movies, wore a fedora, especially if there was a scene inside a police station or a newspaper office.

My sources tell me that the name “fedora” is derived from the character Fedora  Romanoff , played by Sarah Bernhardt in an 1887 play. Fedora’s etymology stems from the Greek word theodoros, meaning gift of god. Although I can’t quite see the connection, I suppose it’s better than calling it the Gaga hat in honor of the Lady of the same name. In any event, Bernhardt wore the hat in the play and it was soon adopted by other women. It wasn’t seen on men’s heads until the 1920’s, when England’s Prince Edward wore it.

There was no utilitarian reason to wear the Fedora. It did little to keep one’s head warm and provided no shielding in case some bad guy got a bead on your noggin. It was merely a fashion that for several decades found its way onto a man’s head, including that of my father.

More recently, you may have spied a fedora on Professor Henry Jones’ head, aka Indiana Jones, aka Harrison Ford. Without that hat to compliment his whip, Indiana would have looked like a two-bit lion tamer instead of the adventurous hero we all paid good money to see. His attachment to the hat was played out in multiple scenes where the wayward hat very nearly escaped his grasp, only to be snatched back by our hero in the nick of time.

My father’s hat was dark brown with a black swath of cloth, maybe silk, curled around the bottom of the crown. He seemed at ease wearing it and, despite his diminutive stature, often appeared to fit with my idea of what a dashing movie star should look like. When he died, the hat continued to be the living embodiment of him. I tried wearing it but it was late in the fedora life cycle and I felt somewhat foolish parading about with it on my inappropriate head. The hat eventually found its way into my son’s hands where it rests today in some dark corner of his closet, waiting for societal rediscovery of the pleasures of wearing one.

Jackie and I just returned from a whirlwind tour of Croatia, Edinburgh and London. It would take quite some time to explain just how that itinerary evolved. Let’s just say it happened and save the details for another day.

We ended our journey in London, where I was relieved of whatever funds remained unspoken for. We walked constantly, much like those poor survivors of the Bataan death march. Often being led astray by Google Maps and Siri, we occasionally walked in circles thereby turning a one-mile trip into a two-mile adventure. Perhaps driving on the wrong side of the English road confused the usually faithful device.

Aimless wandering brought us to Jermyn Street near the site of the British Parliament. The street was populated with men’s shops. Dozens of them, each with a somewhat narrow focus. Suits but not shoes. Shirts but not underwear. And then there was this hat store.

Bates, Gentlemen’s Hatter since 1898 was emblazoned on the shop window. I scanned the display for a moment too long and, as a consequence, heard Jackie say, “you should get a hat.”

My hat buying experience generally goes something like this. Buy a hat, put it in the closet, let it rot. But we were on vacation and I needed a respite from marching. So we entered the store and met Ralph, a kindly, easy going salesman. Without much prompting, I said “I’d like one of those hats that lay flat on your head.”

Ralph responded, “you mean a flat cap.” Some things are too easy.

The best way of describing a flat cap is to envision the corner newsboy hawking the latest edition of the London Times. With his knickers and flat cap, he looks much like Mickey Rooney who played alongside Spencer Tracy in Boys Town. Or, on a more mature scale, any of the hundreds of coal miners descending to their death in How Green Was My Valley.

Ralph took me to a cabinet that appeared to contain hundreds of flat caps and suggested I just try one on for size. Sure I thought, I know how that goes. He lovingly cradled one in his hands and offered it to me like it had some magical properties. I put it on. It was indeed magical.

I have tried on dozens of hats. Baseball caps, wool hats, berets, straw hats and fedoras. Each fitting was always accompanied by dozens of random adjustments intended to make the hat feel comfortable on my head. The best I ever achieved was “acceptable.” Perhaps that’s why my closet is stuffed with unworn hats of all shapes and colors. Most have seen the light of day only once.

The Bates flat cap fit perfectly. It was as though I had been designed for it and had been guided from California to Croatia to Edinburgh to London to Jermyn Street to fulfill my destiny. I might never remove that hat. It was me.

I did not ask “how much.” I would have pawned Jackie’s ring to possess that hat. I lusted for it. It had a case. A case for a flat cap. Decadent. I forked over my Visa card and hoped there was enough left in reserve to cover it.

“I’ll wear it, please.” And I silently thought “forever.”

Because of you

I flew Contour Airlines from Santa Barbara to the Bay area this weekend to celebrate my buddy Harry’s 80th birthday. Two months older than me, Harry and I have been the closest of friends for more than sixty years.

I highly recommend the Santa Barbara airport and Contour Airlines. Arriving mid-afternoon on Friday after a forty-five-minute easy drive from Ojai, I parked in the half-empty long-term parking lot, took a five-minute walk to the Spanish influenced terminal building and found the airport nearly deserted. I thought that perhaps I had missed an Ebola evacuation announcement.

I got my boarding pass from a very friendly Contour employee and made my way to the dreaded TSA security gauntlet. I was one of two people in line. The super-friendly supervisor asked if I would mind being a guinea pig for the new TSA employee at the screening monitor. With time to spare, I did my civic duty and opened my toiletries bag, watched it being hand searched, worried about what illegal or embarrassing item I might have forgotten about, zipped it back up without incident, and was thanked for my participation.

With little to do in the cavernous terminal, I casually sauntered over to the customer-less Peet’s Coffee kiosk, grabbed a cup of dark roast, sat in a very comfortable chair, played with my Spell Tower game and waited for boarding to begin. Boarding started when promised, and the plane departed and landed on time in Oakland. It was nirvana.

My wife to be, Ila, and Harry’s intended, Judy, were girlfriends at Chicago’s Boone grade school in the late forties. I started dating Ila during her high school senior year and, coincidentally, fell in love with Harry. The four of us remained inseparable until sweet Ila died in 2017.

I was Harry’s roommate at the University of Illinois. Studying metallurgy, Harry endured long hours of study, late nights, and early morning risings. He had this annoying habit of setting the alarm clock well in advance of his required wake up time, and then employing the snooze feature of our clock in order to bag several ten-minute naps. Even though I could have slept later than Harry, I suffered through his chronic, snooze habit in deference to his extended study nights.

Never lazy, Harry had several temporary jobs during summer vacations. Working in the Café Brauer snack-bar at the beach, he honed his not inconsiderable people skills, now in daily evidence at Noah’s bagels in Livermore, by ogling the girls who made the mistake of thinking that he was not a letch. Another summer vacation job tested Harry’s skills as a house painter. Unwilling to take the time to laboriously mask the crevices between the window and its frame, he simply made them un-openable by painting them shut at the home of my future in-laws. His follow-up job was unsealing the windows.

Graduating college and tearfully forsaking the life of a house painter while pocketing his newly minted PhD in material science, Harry began working at Argonne National Laboratories in Chicago’s southern suburbs while Ila and I set up shop in the northern suburbs. The distance between us, although minor by today’s freeway standards, tended to limit our time together.

In 1967 I accepted a job in San Francisco and we resigned ourselves to maybe seeing each other once a year. However, six months later, Harry called me and excitedly announced that he had taken a position with GE and was moving to the Bay Area. Now we could be, as nature intended, together once again. Unfortunately, I had just accepted a position in Southern California. And that’s how things have remained for over fifty years.

Though three hundred and fifty miles apart, we celebrated holidays, vacations, bar mitzvahs and other life cycle events together. Ila’s difficult illness limited those events and our time together lessened considerably. When Ila died, Harry stayed with me for days while I tried to cope with the emptiness. As always, being together was enough. Conversation to fill the vacuum was unnecessary. We had, years before, developed an alert system whenever we had something to say. Harry would reach over and touch my wrist announcing he was about to speak. I would stop whatever I was doing, straighten up and look alert. And I would listen.

Many years ago when the number of our face to face meetings was diminishing, Harry began to call me every Monday night at 7:30. A call to assure himself that everything was ok. A call to announce that he cared about me. We usually don’t have much to say during these calls. A “How are you” and “What’s new” followed by “I’m fine” and “Nothing much” often ends the call almost before it begins. But the warm feeling of reaching out lasts for the rest of the evening.

Harry’s eightieth was held in a Chinese restaurant near his Livermore home. His continuing concern for me was in evidence when we were blind-sided by the traffic and were fifteen minutes late. As we pulled into the parking lot, my cellphone rang and Harry said “Where are you? Everyone else is here.” I had been missed.

About forty people were there. Mostly old friends and close family. Many faces were familiar, but they seemed to have aged faster than I had. Harry, contrary to his preferred seat of the pants approach, had prepared some detailed remarks about the event and the people there who had touched his life. I blushed when he seemed to spend an inordinately significant portion of his presentation reminiscing about our time together.

One at a time, about half of the guests rose to say a few words. Harry’s wit and sarcasm took center stage in their remarks, and all offered anecdotes that highlighted his lasting friendship and his uniqueness. When it was my turn, I found myself stretching to say something important. Yet I found that what seemed important to me may have sounded trivial to those at the tables.

I recalled an evening in our senior year when, as a rite of passage, and surrounded by a horde of onlookers, Harry had to serenade Judy while standing outside her dorm. He had memorized and practiced that Arthur Hammerstein song for weeks on end in our small room; I could have delivered it in his stead. When his time came, he couldn’t remember the beginning of the song he had labored on as though it was his doctoral thesis. He had asked me to be his best man and I was standing beside him. He frantically leaned over to me and said, “What’s the words?”

I touched his wrist and whispered in his ear, “Because of You.”

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.

Older but wiser

My son David has religiously organized a biannual fishing trip that had its genesis in 1997 in Baja, California. It has since expanded its horizons to include other U.S. and foreign ports of call.

Named the “Chrysler”, it includes about a dozen loyal participants, all intent on drinking as much alcohol as possible, sometimes to salve the egos of those who didn’t catch fish. Eating large quantities of food often includes the raw flesh of those unfortunate fish who managed, albeit reluctantly, to become part of the bill of fare.

Staying up late is a required component of the adventure, often accompanied by participant music making late into the night, cigars, and more alcohol. Because one’s eyes are larger than one’s ability to retain the libations and sustenance put before them, many a morning has been spent kneeling before the enamel throne while praying for relief and forgiveness. Murmurings of “I’ll never do this again” often accompanies the numerous toilet flushes.

The origin of the event’s name, “Chrysler”, is somewhat hazy. It is emblazoned on the unique designs that appear on cheap tee shirts awarded to the attendees as compensation for the vast sums spent on the event. Other awards are also presented. These include the “Woody”, an ancient wooden erect penis that originally graced some long-forgotten garage sale. Presented to the member catching the largest fish, it often becomes the subject of much discussion. For example, does “largest” mean length or does it mean weight? Much alcohol has been drunk and spilled as the members attempt to fathom the meaning that the Chrysler founders intended.

Other awards such as the Dolan and Fancy Pants also dignify the proceedings; however, the Chrysler award itself is the most coveted one of them all. Cloaked in regal splendor, the Chrysler award is, in fact, a real Chrysler. Not a full-sized, fuel guzzling vehicle, but an eight-inch toy car haphazardly nailed to a plaque. Earning the right to be the current year’s Chrysler winner is no easy feat.

The criteria for gaining temporary ownership of the Chrysler is often compared to winning the Stanley Cup, the World Series pennant or the Vince Lombardy trophy. However, in contrast to those rather well-known and easily understood sporting awards, the criteria for winning the Chrysler is not stipulated. The winner of the award is often unaware why he was chosen from all the others. In some cases, he may have passed out during much of the three-day event and was therefore oblivious to the rationale for his success.

Over the years, Chrysler participants have retained or strengthened many of their characteristic traits, especially alcohol consumption. Along the way, a few lucky women joined the elite ranks previously barred to the fairer sex. Aging has taken its toll as evidenced by graying and thinning hair, a few wrinkles, a bit of a paunch and an increase in worldliness and sagacity. This includes yours truly.

I hadn’t attended a Chrysler for many years but decided to reinstate my membership this year. Approaching my seventy-ninth year, I was more than twenty years older than the average Chrysler participant. With religious fervor and with the event in mind, I have been going to the gym to improve my body and mind. My paunch hasn’t been flatter in ten years and I am able to hike significant distances and elevations without falling on my face. I regularly refuse the help of others who offer to carry my groceries or wish to relinquish their seat to me. I was sure I could keep up with the younger Chryslers. Alas, I couldn’t.

I was able to walk with the best of the Chrysler guys and lift my carry-on suitcase into the Delta overhead compartment without assistance. I stayed up reasonably late during the three-day marathon and had minimal sleep. And that’s where my prowess ended.

For example, walking down the long flight of stairs at our ante-bellum New Orleans home proved to be a challenge. Wanting to look macho as I descended the stairs, I did a poor imitation of throwing caution to the wind. With my Mr. Magoo bifocals adding an unwelcome handicap, I was a sad sight as I bumped along, gripping the railing while doing my best imitation of Walter Brennan.

Cabbing was a problem. Thirteen of us required multiple Uber vehicles, some with a third seat that necessitated clambering over or through the second row of seats. Anxious to show my agility, I usually chose the third seat and managed to squeeze my way in. Exiting was another story. I spent a good deal of time on my knees, and willingly reached out my fingers to grasp at least one helping hand that would prevent me from falling face first into the gutter. So much for balance.

As the trip wore on, I wondered why I seemed to be aging rapidly. After all, I didn’t seem to have these problems in Ojai. And then it struck me. I wasn’t getting older. No, I had just inadvertently surrounded myself with a phalanx of younger people. I was usually with people closer to my age to whom I compared favorably. I just needed to find those older people and reinsert myself into their midst.

So I came home to Ojai and went to the athletic club. I hopped onto the treadmill between two lovely older women and sneaked a furtive look at the speed and grade that they had set on their machines. I set mine a notch above theirs. At the end of my one hour, three-mile trek I smiled and felt much younger. I’ll do the same thing again tomorrow. Hope those ladies show up.

 


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