Thursday, March 15, 2012

Time is the Only Difference Between a Kindergartner and a 27-Year-Old

Ok, there is puberty, and high school graduation, and trying to find a job that doesn't kill your soul until it finally does 30 years later (something I've managed to avoid thus far and work hard at keeping it that way), but all those events involve time. What is planted in your mind at a young age usually carries over to your adult body and heart. I noticed this last weekend when Mom, Dad and I were at Walmart Supercenter, but I have to start way, way back, when I was a kindergartner at Sterling Park Elementary in Casselberry, the only school I went to that was in the same neighborhood as my house.

For years, ever since writing it down when I was 8, I thought my first memory, the first time I noticed that I was alive, was when I was in line with my kindergarten class, coming back from lunch. (I remember that life was pure black all around me, until that moment, when it all faded and I saw those pictures in front of me. Since then, I've recalled memories from when I was three.) We were all waiting to go back to the classroom, and Mrs. Moffat was probably doing a head count. Next to me were drawings that older students had done and I turned to look at them. I got so absorbed in them that I didn't even notice my class had already begun walking back to the classroom way across to the other side of the rotunda. When I finally looked up, the door to the classroom was closing. I was on my own to walk back. When I got back, Mrs. Moffat noted that I was late by making me move my name, written out on a long strip of paper, from the "Happy" list to the "Sad" list on the wall.

I was acquainted with a few of my classmates, but never on such speaking terms that they would have told me it was time to go when our line started walking, or even pushed me along. It was the same for the rest of elementary school, then middle school and high school: I preferred to do things on my own, which is why I hated getting into groups for projects. I felt I could get them done faster on my own. Also, this was Mrs. Moffat's first year teaching, which explains why she didn't call me to join the line. Either she didn't think to do that, or she was secretly sadistic, taking pleasure in a student moving their name over to the "Sad" list on the wall. I don't know, and only years later did I learn from Mom that I was in Mrs. Moffat's first kindergarten class.

That close attention to artwork has not faded over time. At Walmart Supercenter, as long as I have a book with me, I can go anywhere in the store. This time, I needed a pack of Fruit of the Loom socks so I didn't have to put my dwindling sock collection in the laundry every five days so I could have clean socks.

Before that, Mom and Meridith looked at the pens in the pen aisle, and I was behind them at the head of that aisle, looking at the posters on offer. There's an artist named Christian Riese Lassen who creates such stunningly beautiful artwork that you just stand there in awe, staring, wondering on which wall of your house you can put a poster of one of his paintings. One of the posters featured at Walmart was this one, of two horses standing in front of a waterfall background. He uses stylized colors to create a scene you'd want to rush right into if you could, to bask in the tranquility and pure love of life in it. I'd seen it also at the Walmart on Kelly Johnson Parkway, the one that overlooks Six Flags Magic Mountain, and stared at it just as intently.

This time, I'd been looking at it long enough that when I finally teared myself away from it, Mom and Meridith had already left the pen aisle. I walked past it, looked to my left and found them walking past the electronics department, far from me. Once again, I was what I have always been. Paintings do that to me.

Lazy Dog Cafe vs. Chronic Tacos

Next Wednesday is my birthday, marking 28 years in this world, and the final time I'll have it in the Santa Clarita Valley. Meridith's birthday is the following Friday. She was born on March 23, 1989, and so our birthdays are separated by a day.

Last week, Mom reminded us to think about where we want to eat out on our birthdays. There's not a lot of reliable options for eating out in Santa Clarita. If you find a place you really like, such as the only decent Jersey Mike's in Santa Clarita located in Canyon Country, you stick with it forever and always. There's not much risk-taking here because there's not a lot of restaurants here to start with. If you really want to explore food of all kinds, you go to Los Angeles itself. But to go there involves navigating the usual freeway system that for years has looked like it was designed by a committee of cokeheads, and it takes time to get anywhere while feeling like you're getting nowhere. I don't mind taking time to get somewhere if I was in, say, New Mexico, but when you're trying to live day-to-day, you want convenience. We have it here, just not enough of it. Here, we have only two movie theaters in the entire valley, and Barnes & Noble is the only major bookstore left. The Signal, the exclusive newspaper of the Santa Clarita Valley, complains about the lack of everything when there's nothing to legitimately complain about in the opinion section, but nothing will get done. No businesses that would be useful here will come here because despite its growth, Santa Clarita still has a limited population and not a lot of tourists, whereas Los Angeles sees to everybody, tourists included. If you're going to deal with the same California taxes wherever you go, Los Angeles is your best bet to park your business. It's why this valley is what it has been for all these years, devoid of anything that could distinguish it interesting to visit or even live in, where the only truly interesting part is Six Flags Magic Mountain, and that's its own property, surrounded by nothing else of this valley.

So with all this, food choices aren't promising enough for exploration. That's why for my birthday, I'm sticking to standards. And I'm not sure which standard yet. I've narrowed my choices down to Lazy Dog Cafe or Chronic Tacos. At Lazy Dog Cafe, they allow dogs in the outside seating, yet the inside feels like you're not important enough to be there. No velvet rope, but just an air of superiority, where successful real estate agents go to laugh wildly and get hammered at the wide bar in the back and watch sports. It's a fake rustic setting, but it doesn't matter much because the food is why it's on my list. They've got a grilled cheese there made up of cheddar, gouda and jack cheeses, all melted together on parmesan sourdough toast. One bite of that and you wonder why we have diets. Yet the last time I had the sandwich, I was deep into my mental prison in late summer 2010 after that anxiety attack in Las Vegas brought on by being overweight and ingesting way too much caffeine, so I didn't enjoy it as much. I wasn't sure what was wrong with me, knew there was something was wrong with me, but too freaked out by what was wrong with me to do anything about it. It's one summer I'm glad to forget, but am also a tiny bit grateful for, because I figured out what my priorities were, that I had to take care of myself again and did it. And I became stronger from it.

Going back to Lazy Dog Cafe wouldn't trigger any of those memories. I'm never disturbed by thinking about the past. But I'm not sure if that's where I want to spend my birthday. The grilled cheese is incredible, but that should not be the only reason I go. I want to go where I feel like I can be me. Then I think about Chronic Tacos in Saugus, close to our house.

We've been there so many times and it has been my lifeline for quesadillas, first for chicken-and-cheese quesadillas, then just cheese after I lost 60 pounds and wanted to keep it that way. They have flatscreen TVs on that show some extreme sports channel that doesn't interest me regularly, but it's still amazing to watch surfers ride those waves and off-roaders going fast enough to flip any mere mortal over and over down a mountainside.

Most important to me at Chronic Tacos is that the people behind the counter know not only how to make the quesadillas and burritos and tortas and other items very well, but they also care enough to do it right. It doesn't matter who you are; they take your money equally. There's a digital-screen Coke machine in the back where you tap the screen to indicate what you want to drink (heck of a lot of choices, including Vanilla Coke), and then press the large silver button in the middle of the machine, and your drink comes out of the spigot.

That quesadilla. Oh that beautiful, beautiful quesadilla. Cheese goes on the tortilla, the guy behind the counter closes it up, puts it on the large industrial-looking grill, and closes the lid, moving on to the next order and then taking out the quesadilla about two minutes later. It's brown on all sides, the cheese always melted perfectly. I've known a lot of quesadillas, since it's one of my favorite foods, and Chronic Tacos has always produced ones that rank consistently at the top of my list of great quesadillas.

Then it got even better in early January when we went to Chronic Tacos yet again and I found out that they were offering breakfast burritos, quesadillas, and tacos. The quesadillas had eggs and potatoes in them, with a choice of bacon, chorizo, veggie, or machaca, which is shredded beef, grilled onions, and tomatoes. I chose chorizo, since I love its slight spiciness.

We sat down at a table near the door, and I remember that an episode of The Simpsons was on, and the family had gotten sick from a new environmentally-friendly burger at Krustyburger. I laughed out loud, right there at the table, when Homer puked in Lisa's saxophone. There was no sound from the TV, but you could tell pretty well what was going on. I think one or two people looked up when I laughed, but it didn't matter. I had a breakfast quesadilla in front of me (they serve it all day), and it was incredible. It was grease done right. It was so satisfying and went down so easily. Normally, what you eat in Santa Clarita doesn't matter a great deal. You only do it in order to live, as is expected with eating. But this was the one time I remember truly enjoying something I was eating. That's what food should be as much as possible. This is the rare place where it happens. Plus, that episode of The Simpsons was a bonus.

Chronic Tacos has always exuded that feeling that you can come right in, order what you want, and be guaranteed a pleasing experience. It doesn't matter who you are; everyone's welcome. I think it's where I want to go for my birthday, but it just amazes me that there aren't more eateries in this valley like this one. It's like everything else, though. If you want to do anything interesting, eat out at anywhere interesting, shop at anywhere interesting, you have to leave this valley. Always. But at least Chronic Tacos stands for always doing interesting things with Mexican fast food in a valley that could use more interesting things. I'll use it as my transition from here to Henderson, because what Chronic Tacos has in its food, in its way of doing business, is multiplied thousands of times over there, and most of the time even more creatively. It helps remind me of what I can look forward to over there.