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.)