Sunday, January 24, 2010

Buena Park? San Juan Capistrano? Cambria? San Francisco?

Reflecting on over six years in California, I've thought about mentally pitting my favorite places against one another to see which emerges as my favorite. But that's not fair to each place, or rather, each city, and rightly so. In my nearly ten years as a film critic, I never ranked movies at year's end. I don't think there was much opportunity to do so in the publications for which I wrote, but I wouldn't have wanted to anyway. I've always been baffled at how one genre could rise above another, or how, say, a performance by an actor as a cowboy might outrank the performance by another actor as a regularly soused society dandy. I understand the desire by editors and most likely by readers for top 10 lists. They compress all the works of a year into a manageable, hopefully readable package, giving readers ideas about movies they might want to see, or books they might want to read.

But cities. How could I possibly say that City Lights Books in San Francisco was a far more religious experience for me than the small town of Cambria I wanted to live in right as I saw it? How does the tiny, comfortable, admittedly isolated main street of San Juan Capistrano proclaim itself better than Buena Park Downtown, the most honest mall I've seen from Florida to here?

I don't know if I could do it. And this is not going to progress with me suddenly striking up the courage to do so, convinced that my overall experience in Buena Park was more important to me than stopping in Salinas at The Steinbeck House to envy John Steinbeck's boyhood home being a historical landmark, wondering where I would make my own history one day. I think these four places introduced to me something true about California: As much as parts of Los Angeles are truly fake, as much as Beverly Hills tries to keep out death and undesirables, as much as Hollywood filmmaking seems so small while on location in the Santa Clarita Valley, there is a kind of heartfelt pride throughout the rest of the state about its history. That's not to say Los Angeles doesn't have its own history, what with Union Station still impressively bearing chandeliers from the 1930s, and Philippe's still serving to this day what has to be the greatest French dip sandwich in the country. But Los Angeles feels like it's so preoccupied with the current day's work, and planning ahead for the next day's work, that there's really no head turn toward the past, save for Day of the Dead festivities on Olvera Street, a most interesting tradition.

Buena Park always keeps tabs on its history. Now, granted, I haven't been beyond the city's self-named E-Zone District, where tourist attractions such as Medieval Times and Knott's Berry Farm reside, but I still feel it there too. It remembers what it was, and it keeps it in mind at all times. It is honest with itself. There are parts that feel run-down that the city seems not to mind, knowing that a city, any city, will have parts that aren't sparkling and bright-faced. It still embraces those parts as its history.

I have a book by Dean O. Dixon from the library, about Buena Park, in the "Images of America" series, and it contains photos all throughout Buena Park's history. Buena Park Downtown, my favorite mall in Southern California, and really the entire state, was built in 1961 and was first called Buena Park Mall. It doesn't look like a profitable mall, but that's what I love about it. Maybe the owners don't love that, but I love its low expectations. It knows it may not please everyone, but for those that are pleased, they are truly satisfied, as I was with a temporary bargain bookstore setting up shop and open on my birthday last year, and also back in December when I found it was occupying the second floor space where Steve & Barry's used to be (Steve & Barry's also had a first-floor space, accessible by escalator at the middle of the second floor, and elevator at one of the far ends of the store, but that's boarded up and obviously inacessible). I loved how this company figured that someone must want to buy books and though there were fewer people browsing when I was eagerly picking through the stacks at the smaller location, there were a lot more people at the bigger location, and I appreciated that. No matter what people read, at least they read.

But more than that, I think I loved Buena Park Downtown because it mirrored me. I'm not a sharp dresser. I don't believe in personal grooming habits when I'm at home at length. I shower, of course, and I use deodorant, but I don't comb my hair often. I prefer white t-shirts and lounge pants. No socks for me. Buena Park Downtown always felt the same way every time. The mall directories were there, the stores were there, and it didn't care where you went. There were no signs imploring you to go here or there for the latest sales. That was up to the stores if they wanted your business badly enough, and they kept to themselves. I think music did play throughout the mall, but it was so faint, that you only noticed it if you were actively seeking it.

I noticed on our last visit in December that nearly the entire first floor of the mall was taken up by John's Incredible Pizza Co. (, basically Chuck E. Cheese with a lot more games, no characters, and an all-you-can-eat pizza buffet. We looked in on it, walking a few feet in from the entrance, noticing that the buffet was tucked away, and you pay at the counter. For what, I'm not sure. I don't know if tokens were given out there, most likely you'd pay for the buffet there. But what most impressed me about the operation, besides there being nine locations Southern California-wide and I had never heard of the place (this isn't my regular part of SoCal anyway), was how wide it was. There used to be a uniform store on the first floor, and that probably went out of business and they knocked down that space in favor of John Parlet's business. I think the mall's owners were in favor of it because not only could they expect it to bring in more business than they had on the first floor (I also recall a small food court there that was nearly always empty), but they didn't have to be so concerned with individual spaces. This was a single operation taking up so much floor space and all responsibility for maintenance falls to this company. No floors outside stores for the mall to clean. I imagine this place will become for kids what Discovery Zone and Showbiz Pizza Place (before it became Chuck E. Cheese) were for me in Florida at those ages.

What most impresses me about Buena Park is that it stands quietly on its own. It is adjacent to Anaheim, which contains Disneyland, Disney's California Adventure, Downtown Disney, respectable-looking hotels and motels, and shithole hovels that try to call themselves "lodging." It hopes for patronage from those who visit Anaheim, but it doesn't expect it. And when it does get it, it is a fascinating experience.

The prime example is from December, when my family and I went to Po Folks restaurant. As mentioned before, I grew up on Po Folks in Florida, introduced to it while I was in a high chair, and hooked on it ever since. In Anaheim, there are dozens of restaurants that tired Disneygoers can try. There are steakhouses and seafood-centered joints, and simple diners, and of course options on the Downtown Disney property. Yet, at Po Folks, a fairly large family arrived from Disneyland and sat at a long table diagonal from us. We were sitting in a booth. I immediately admired this family because here were all these other restaurants they could go to in the Anaheim tourist trap, and they were adventurous enough, curious enough, to choose this. Disneyland was undoubtedly fun, but they wanted to be free of the Mouse's grip for a while and see what else was nearby. They found the right place. They ordered, they looked at digital photos taken hours earlier, they talked about their experiences. I was proud that a restaurant I so loved provided such welcome relief to this family to rest for a while.

In the men's restroom at Po Folks are vintage photographs in frames of various locations in Southern California. There's a rollercoaster at Seal Beach (where our dog Tigger came from) in the 1920s, and I don't recall seeing any Buena Park photos, but the sentiment is there. Besides the Southern theming and the tablecloths printed with old catalog items most likely from the late 1920s to the early 1930s (phonographs, dolls, pots and pans, you name it), they're clearly as respectful of Southern California history as Buena Park is of its history. It still lingers. Even while watching people walk from the half-Po Folks parking lot (the other half, along with part of Po Folks's half is, I believe, extra parking) to Medieval Times across the street, the ghosts still hover. You can really feel that something may have existed before Medieval Times and before Po Folks, whereas where I live, it's impossible to imagine anything existing before these clumped-together apartment complexes.

Unlike San Juan Capistrano, Cambria, and San Francisco, I'm not sure if I would have wanted to live in Buena Park. I never felt that pull like I did in those three locales. The problem for me would have basically been Los Angeles International as the only airport to work at. I'm impressed by LAX's sheer size, but it's not my kind of airport. Sometimes I like an airport I can get lost in, but I also want to work at one that doesn't take too long to know. By that, I mean, one in which the gates and concourses are familiar within a few days, and then keep adding more to the experience with each successive day, with some new detail not previously gleaned. I remember the first time I was at LAX, after arriving there from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, thoroughly certain that LAX was not an airport; it was its own civilization.

Of course, with Buena Park located in northwestern Orange County, there's John Wayne Airport. But still, I think Buena Park was one of those few places I fiercely connected with each time. It sounds presumptuous, what with not having ventured beyond the tourist district, but Buena Park always seemed to just stand by quietly, letting you take from it whatever you wanted. I've always loved that.

(I think this works, profiling each place from my experiences. Expect more soon.)

Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Parcel Locker Saga Concludes

Whoever answered the phone on Tuesday and told me that they'd send a message to the carrier about the stuck parcel locker lock obviously didn't do their job. Or they didn't care enough to do whatever their job is there. Yesterday, the mailman opened the gate to our front-door walkway and put down packages that I thought had been from the parcel locker. Disappointing. Something from eBay for Mom, and for me, a package of DVDs from Koch Entertainment, represented by its E1 Entertainment offshoot, the only one worthwhile being a multi-disc set called Leonard Bernstein: Omnibus - The Historic TV Broadcasts, which will be out on January 26.

I called the post office in Valencia again. I gave them my address, my zip code, and was told that the locker had been vandalized. They said it would take a week for someone to come out to fix it. I told them that I had a package in there. Correction: A few days because of the package. If I didn't have my package by Monday, I should call again.

I don't expect great progress from the latest health care bill. I don't think the government will set its collective, bureaucratic mind to giving me, the middle class, a little assistance any time soon. It'd be nice if they tried to boost the poor enough to get them on their feet to make their way in the world, but we've all got the same beefs. Tax breaks, taxing banks, I don't have much confidence in it. But I still want the little things. I just wanted to have my package. That's it. In the scheme of the entire American government, that's not even a speck of sand in the heel of a formal black shoe. But it's my package.

Mom told me late yesterday afternoon that I should wait for the mailman to come. Lately, I've been getting up earlier, usually 2 p.m. (I go to bed at 6 a.m. after writing for most of the night), so I'd be up before the mail is expected. Today, I went out with Kitty numerous times (it's her birthday, so it was more times out for the mail than the usual one), every 15 minutes or so. Finally, he came. He parked in front of the mailboxes, and I waited as he got out whatever he needed, and he saw me and told me that there were no packages today.

I showed him the key, told him that the lock was stuck, wouldn't move right or left, and he tried it. He took out the other keys reserved for the parcel lockers, finding two keys for the "A" locker---one for the customer and a spare just in case that key doesn't work---but no other "B" locker keys. He took out the master key he has on a chain to open the boxes, and opened the "B" locker. Inside was exactly what I expected, that package from McSweeney's with The Believer Book of Writers Talking to Writers inside. The mailman told me that the "A" locker lock was brand new. The locks on all the mailboxes had also been replaced some time ago. I think it was actually about a year or more ago, but still in better shape than the "B" locker. The "B" locker's lock was still the old one and hadn't been replaced like the others. He then told me that there had been a guy at the post office who immediately went out and fixed broken locks when necessary. He retired, and wanted to at least work part-time, but the boss there declined. So they have some sort of service now that takes about a week to get anything fixed. I thanked him and walked back to the house, excited about the book.

The book was newly printed. It was declared backordered because they likely didn't have any more copies. And I was probably the last one to order it off the "Bargain Books" section of the McSweeney's Store website. $5 for it. I looked at it in the "Books" section a few minutes after I opened the package, and they're selling it at a sale price of $16. The list price is $18. Not only did I get lucky with that, but also with the book's printing. I slowly flipped through it like a flipbook, listening with pleasure at pages getting used to not being stuck to each other. And the new book smell. Ohhhhhh. It smells innocent, and I intend to keep it that way. I'm very happy that this book was born for me. I want so badly to drop everything I have to do right now and later this evening and just read. Not only this book, but also Gig: Americans Talk About Their Jobs, edited by John Bowe, Marisa Bowe, and Sabin Streeter. I read the sample pages on Amazon, which begin with a Wal-Mart greeter talking about his job, and move on to a UPS driver. I have a hardcover copy stashed in my makeshift box bookshelves, and I want to pull it out and read. I know I'll disappear right into those shelves, pulling out book after book I haven't read yet and want to read all of them right away.

But it's back to writing. I have to conduct a phone interview with a Marilyn Monroe fan who holds a public memorial for her every year in Westwood, which is in West Los Angeles. The essay so far has felt like trying to drill a hole in one of those black monoliths from 2001: A Space Odyssey, and I feel like I'll go crazy if I continue writing it like that. So I plan to rewrite it, using the essay to profile the most recent Monroe memorial, noting the people who attended, the fans as deeply religious as this guy, the hucksters, also the speeches, the memories, the kind of day it was, all of that. He's a reasonable Monroe fan; he doesn't believe a majority of the outrageous "facts" spouted about her. Plus, one of his good friends is master biographer Donald Spoto, who seeks absolute proof before writing various things in his books, one of which was a biography on Monroe. Plus, he also wrote a biography about James Dean, another essay of mine, so I'm hoping also that through this guy, I can get a few minutes with Spoto on the phone. I'm really not confident speculating on my own about what Monroe and Dean might have done in their careers had they not died.

So that's it. I now have the book I've been waiting for, though I have to worry again, because I'm expecting a package of three books from ( that was shipped yesterday. The "A" locker had better be empty by the time it gets here. I just hope the same mailman that helped me today will have the package. Maybe he'll remember that problem, because the key is now stuck at the left side. It won't move like it used to, so the same problem might transpire again. Or maybe there'll be some luck and the person on the phone yesterday actually had the right address. She claimed the locker had been vandalized and needed to be fixed. It's just old, but hopefully it'll be fixed by the time the next package arrives. I don't want to wait as long for The Collected Plays of Neil Simon, Vol. 2 as I did for this book. But then, the mailman was never notified of any problem with the locker, despite that other person on the phone telling me that they'd send a message to him about it. If they had, surely he would have come to the front door and ask for the locker key. But they didn't. 90% of the time, I get efficient postal service. My Netflix DVDs arrive undamaged, my issues of The New Yorker unbent. I just want the same courtesy for packages. We shall see what comes up next.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The Key to Lead to Something

I've only known this parcel locker key for a few seconds at a time, separated by many days or weeks, taking it out of my mailbox and putting it into the keyhole of one of the lockers, turning it and opening the locker to get whatever package awaits. I usually glance quickly at the writing on the rubber rectangle the key and its two rings are attached to, and then let go after I get my package. The key stays in the lock, as is customary, and I go back to the house.

Yesterday, I opened the mailbox and found the parcel locker key sitting in front of a small stack of mail, including the latest issue of The New Yorker, which, shockingly, small as it usually is, is now priced at $5.99. Used to be $4.99 I think, but I never imagined the magazine could be hemorrhaging enough money to merit a price increase. Yes, I know it's industrywide, but I think I need to renew my subscription soon, even though it's far from being over, just so I can get a lower price for two years.

I took the key out, meant for the bottom locker, and stuck it in the first keyhole. It wouldn't budge. I turned as hard as I could and it wouldn't move at all to the right. I tried the keyhole a few inches under it, reserved always for the mailman to unlock the locker with his key and take out the parcel locker key when necessary. I thought maybe if I turned that lock a certain way with the key, it might release the first lock. Still nothing. Great. I called the local post office and told them that the mailman probably didn't turn the lock to where it should be for me to open the locker. The woman who heard this problem told me that she'll note it for the mailman on the route tomorrow, which is of course today.

Bargain Book Shop ( hasn't sent my latest order yet, which includes The Collected Plays of Neil Simon Vol. 2, so I know not to anticipate that. I'm hoping that it might be The Believer Book of Writers Talking to Writers, which I ordered from McSweeney's ( at a bargain price of $5, but it was out of stock for a time, most likely until they printed a new batch. I got an e-mail notice about a week ago saying they had shipped it. However, I'd hate for this anticipation to lead to some DVD a PR firm sent me for review. I haven't requested anything in weeks, but I'm on some kind of automatic mailing list through some firms which means I get whatever's set to be released. A pleasure sometimes, but usually nothing worthwhile. I hope it's that book.

I've had the parcel locker key in the left pocket of my Rocky sleep pants from yesterday afternoon to about 20 minutes ago when I took it out and put it in front of me, across from the computer monitor. The rubber rectangle is bendable, but not Jell-o like, and after it's bended, it moves by itself back to its original state. On one side of the blue-green-colored rectangle, it has the United States Postal Service eagle logo on the left, and to the right, it says:

If found- drop in
any mailbox

On the other side, it says:


The brackets represent white space on the rectangle and are longer than what this blog program forces me to use.

Over the five years I've lived here, there had been pen writing on the "locker no." side, but it gradually faded, and the mailman used what looks like a permanent black marker to write the letter "B" and "BOTTOM". There wouldn't seem to be a lot to consider when looking at this rubber rectangle, but I think about the history it's had, like me. It's weathered days, nights, rain, heat, cold weather, and was left behind when my neighborhood and my family and I had to evacuate for that one day in October 2007 when a wildfire got frighteningly close. It's known the hands of a few, been the gateway to many expected and possibly eagerly anticipated packages, and obviously has always remained silent, just like me in living here. Silent in speech, I mean. Yet, I wonder about the years before I got here, if there were people with dirty hands who used it, if anyone else had lived across from our place before we got here. There's the landscape, the hillside, the streetlights, but really, this is the only piece of personal history my neighborhood has, closely related to us humans of this neighborhood. Weeds get trimmed, the lawn is mowed, flowers might be replanted, streets are re-tarred, and this is the only thing that really hasn't changed. I'm almost tempted to keep it as a memento of this neighborhood when my family and I move, but I want my book, if that is what's in that parcel locker. Plus, the key should obviously be left for others, serving them as well as it has served me. Just now, I noticed that there's wrapped around the middle of its right side, probably to repair some small tear I can't see, even through the tape.

I've been awed by the tall buildings of downtown Los Angeles. In San Francisco, I've wished I could live there, impressed by how many books were in stock at City Lights, and impressed at simply driving by the baseball stadium, whereas in South Florida, it took 20 minutes to get to the one in Fort Lauderdale. But I've always loved the small things more, like this parcel locker key, like the gravel kicked up by my walking in the patio, like the ripples in the community pool from a slight wind. I know the buildings in that part of L.A. have history, and so does the baseball stadium, but to me, the more interesting history lies in what doesn't dwarf us. I hope there'll be someone else in the years to come who will see this parcel locker key as I do. After the mailman comes around and fixes the lock, and I open the locker and hopefully find my book (thankfully, McSweeney's makes sure their packages are securely sealed), and I leave the key, I won't ignore it as I have in the past. I like that for at least one night out of its entire lifespan, it's been here, inside, sitting in front of me. I know. It's really nothing. It's human-made. But I still wonder. It's like the temporary bargain book store at Buena Park Downtown that closed that I'll eventually write about. I wonder where those books have been to, which stores they sat at, unclaimed, maybe flipped through once or twice, and shipped back out because no one was buying them. I wonder about the authors whose books didn't sell well, if it discouraged them or if they just shrugged their shoulders and moved on to the next idea.

All this from a parcel locker key. I like that.