Friday, April 28, 2017

My Sacramento Regret

It was early February 2006. I know this because Action!, the satirical, raunchy Hollywood comedy series starring Jay Mohr was being released on DVD by Sony late that month. I was still reviewing DVDs then, and while my dad and I were driving to Sacramento, Mom told me on the phone from Santa Clarita that it had arrived, amidst other talk, such as telling her about the open-air truck loaded down with carrots that had passed us in the right lane.

We were going to Sacramento because Dad was a member of the California Business Education Association (CBEA, which he's rejoined ahead of us moving back to California), and the organization was hosting a day for its members at the state capitol, to tour the building, and meet their representatives, to emphasize to them the importance of business education, especially in such a competitive economy as California has. This was the time of Governor Schwarzenegger, and in fact, as we walked past his offices, the door to the outer office was open and I saw straight through there to him in his office, briefly, before we moved on.

While it was impressive to me to see the state capitol, which I had never done in Tallahassee, in my native Florida, I was taken with Sacramento. We were staying at La Quinta Inn, part of Hotel Row near the skyline of downtown Sacramento. Across the way was Restaurant Row, convenient for the weary traveler who doesn't want to venture far on the first night.

Now, I don't remember if this was after what I'm about to tell you, but Dad decided to stay in that night at La Quinta Inn, flipping through the channels, and he had stopped at Crumbs, that Fred Savage sitcom on ABC that centered around the family restaurant, with Savage a Hollywood screenwriter who returns home. I decided to walk the grounds near our room and soon climbed up to the second floor landing, then the third floor landing.

When I reached the third floor landing, I was stopped short by complete peace, which I'd never known in Santa Clarita, and, to me, Los Angeles doesn't have it either.

My view was of the Sacramento skyline towards 10 p.m. And to this day, it's the only city I've been in at that hour that gently encouraged me to relax, to not worry about anything. It seemed to say that whatever you needed to do could wait until morning. Just have tonight all for yourself. I'm not sure I'd want to live in Sacramento, unless it has a strong, sturdy library system (and even then, it gets expensive in that region), but I do want to see it again, even though the Rusty Duck, the wood-paneled, fireplace-crackling restaurant where CBEA members met has long since closed. But I do wonder, idly, if the diner is still there.

So maybe it was the night before the capitol tour and the visit to our state representatives. Dad had learned from a fellow CBEA member about a barbecue joint on the outskirts of Sacramento that was worth it. He likes barbecue, I like barbecue. So let's go.

That night, we set out to find it. We drove over railroad tracks, past sprawling electrical substations, and to an area we circled, drove away from, and drove back to twice, as if we couldn't believe it, and weren't sure.

In an industrial cul-de-sac, past boat parts outside one business on the right, and what may have been a chop shop on the left, or at least a slightly illegitimate car repair business (not a euphemism. It looked somewhat ok), there was the barbecue joint.

Swinging by it and parking for a moment, we could see inside through the door. It was open, but empty, with wooden picnic tables running the length of the room. And there were the white, wide menu boards against the wall above the kitchen. Should we try it? Would it be ok even if no one was eating there?

Dad nixed the idea. And just like any brief Sacramento visitor staying at La Quinta or any other place in Hotel Row, we drove back to Restaurant Row, to what, in memory, has become a nondescript diner.

I had a cheeseburger, which has become lost in the sea of cheeseburgers I've had since then. I don't remember what Dad had. Maybe a salad? That would have been rare. But just like Casa de Fruta in Hollister, the tents of fruits and vegetables and pies and its own small restaurant that we stopped at to pick up a pie, and Hearst Castle, where we toured some of the legendary hilltop property on the way back to Santa Clarita, I still think about that missed-out-on barbecue.

We should have taken a chance. We should have tried it. With that joint being located in such an out-of-the-way place, perhaps the owners were freakishly devoted to barbecue, and that would have made it a religious experience. Or maybe not, but at least we would have tried it.

Maybe it's still there, maybe not. Many an idle moment at work, I've Googled "Sacramento" and "barbecue," hoping to find it, or at least a Yelp page. But that was 2006, before Yelp. Could that joint have even survived in such a location? CJ's Barbecue in Ventura does, because it's part of a cluster of shopping centers down Victoria Avenue. That's easy. It has the social infrastructure.

But this joint, this Sacramento or near-Sacramento joint, 11 years later? A part of me hopes so, so that I can have my chance in years to come.

But it's likely that I'll always be sitting in that car, looking in, and then we drive away again. Again and again. In my imagination, I could proclaim it the very best barbecue I never had. But it will always remain a possibility. What could have been. I wish we had.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Back to a Musical Hobby

Last Monday, the first day back after spring break for the Clark County School District, I looked at my pile of vacation days and, since I'm leaving at the end of the year, I decided to take the remaining Fridays of the school year off. That's 7 of them.

Then, in the middle of last week, I thought, "Well, why not Mondays, too?" That way, I'd have a four-day weekend. Therefore, with Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday being the days I'd work, I'd have three days on, four days off. Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday would therefore be "Saturday-Saturday-Saturday-Sunday" and Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday would be "Monday-Thursday-Friday," likely the only time in my career that I'll be able to do this.

I thought about starting the Mondays off at the beginning of May, but then, you know what? It doesn't matter anyway. Teachers at my school are already counting down to the end of the school year, there's the hassle of the SBAC testing, and in submitting my letter of resignation about two months ago, I've already been replaced. My successor has been hired and is ready for next school year, so I'm old hat. And I can't be sure that these vacation days will transfer to my next job, being that there's a slim chance I'll be part of another public school district. That's way down on my list of jobs I want. I want to be a member of a staff this time, not just working with one person all day.

So taking off Mondays, too, begins tomorrow, the last week of the month. And tomorrow is also the end of my first four-day weekend. In this first weekend, I've finally been able to read a book again in one sitting, the first time in many months (The Calamity Cafe by Gayle Leeson, which was so-so). Then I did it again today with There I Go Again: How I Came to Be Mr. Feeny, John Adams, Dr. Craig, KITT, & Many Others by William Daniels. Oh, I want to do this again and again and again with the weeks remaining in which I'll have these four-day weekends, but I can't do it all the time. I have another book to review for BookBrowse, I have to update my resume and scan my letters of recommendation from librarians and my former newspaper editor (This week, I'm also going to contact the first reporter I interned for at The Signal, what with all the tapes I transcribed for him, and ask for a letter of recommendation from him as well), and update my profile on EDJOIN, which educational institutions across the country look at, especially ones in California. Since we're going to be living in Ventura, those are the libraries that I want seeing my information and resume and recommendation letters.

There are also a few movies I want to catch up on, though I've grown restless with those in favor of reading. I have to dig through the many DVDs I've bought sight unseen and pull out what I want to watch this very moment. And it has to be something that really interests me, else I'll be restless again.

But one thing I finally have time for again is a hobby I started when I saw The Cosmopolitan on the Strip going downhill before Deutsche Bank sold it to the Blackstone Group, which has a reputation for buying up properties, revamping them, and selling them off again. That's what's happened to my beloved Cosmopolitan. The digital art, sculptures, paintings, murals, and music were all important in creating a unique, inspiring experience that made you want to explore more of what they had all over, wanting to see that intricate spaceship sculpture by Kris Kuksi on the 3rd floor, after the secret pizza place, down the hall, next to the piano, before those conference rooms, and wanting to go to the Art-O-Mat vending machines to see what different artists there were from across the country with different pieces of block art being sold.

I found out on a visit a few months ago that the art has become an afterthought, most of the flatscreen TVs used for the digital art are gone (save for the ones at the blackjack, roulette, and craps tables, which are used to show football and basketball games), and my dear playlist had changed over to what you hear on FM radio all the time.

So, I'm creating a playlist which, to me, represents the Old Cosmopolitan on the Strip. I listen to KUNV, the University of Nevada Las Vegas's radio station, which Mom has on during the day. Sometimes I hear a piece during the smooth jazz hours that I want to use.

But mainly, I get my titles from the Music Choice Channels on Cox Cable, particularly the Sounds of the Season channel which, when there isn't a holiday like St. Patrick's Day or Mardi Gras or Christmas, they play "The Pulse," which is all dance music, chillwave, dubstep, and other types of electronic music.

So far, I have 10 titles, six from Music Choice, two from M83 (one from their "Oblivion" soundtrack), "Roses" by The Chainsmokers, and my latest favorite, "Walk with Me" by Wamdue Project. I wish I could describe this kind of music better, but all of it recalls for me the Cosmopolitan I happily walked through, imagining owning it all, and keeping it exactly like this. In creating this playlist, I'm also imagining on what floors these songs would have fit, such as what would have worked on the casino floor, what would have worked in the hallway leading to the Wicked Spoon buffet, just before Rose. Rabbit. Lie., what would have sounded right on the shopping/restaurant floor, and what would have worked for the convention hall spaces.

Strangely enough, the last two times I went to Green Valley Ranch, which, to me, is Henderson's only palace, I walked through their vastly remodeled lobby. In the wide, semi-carpeted hallway with the doors looking out on the pool area, leading to the lobby, I heard exactly the playlist I heard at The Cosmopolitan, which makes me think, and even hope, that whoever programmed The Cosmopolitan now works at Green Valley Ranch, that my musical heart and soul lives on.

Even after I move back to Southern California, I'm keeping this playlist with me to also remember the parts of Las Vegas I need for the novel or two, and a play, that I want to write that are set here. Despite the hell many times over that I've been through here, none of these works will rant about Las Vegas nor rail against it. That doesn't fit my characters. There may be a gripe or two in the play, but as for the novels, my characters just exist here, and at the end of one, simply leave, never to return, which is what I'll be doing, too.

And here it is so far, with its working title: The Old Cosmopolitan Las Vegas fantasy playlist.

Monday, April 3, 2017

The Bridge to Southern California

In the next few months, my family and I will be moving back to Southern California, from Las Vegas, though not to Santa Clarita, where we lived for nine years before we moved to Las Vegas. This time, it's Ventura, where the beach life is less crowded than, say, San Diego, which works for my father, who wants to retire at or near the beach. Based on the prices we've seen for beach houses and even condos on the beach, it'll probably be near the beach, particularly one street my parents found near Ventura College, with beautiful gardens in the front yard so many of the houses, and a Little Free Library at one of them. One of the comforting things my parents found out in Ventura was that one of the employees at the Welcome Center in downtown said that she's a third-generation Venturan. Historical longevity. That's what I seek. Another thing is that the owners of the house with the Little Free Library, in a profile online about it said that they've lived in that house for 44 years, and no one has taken pictures of it. But with the Little Free Library, people stop by all the time to see it.

44 years. After living in an area where one of the biggest stories last year, broadcast live at 2 in the morning, was the implosion of the Riviera, I need to know that I'm following the many who have lived faithfully in one place. Perhaps I can find my place there, too. I'm looking forward to it, but I'm cautious. I have some minute hopes, but I'm leaving them to the side until I see more, until I learn more, until I experience more.

However, this doesn't count only for Ventura. It counts for the whole of Southern California, which I had for nine years, but didn't really think as fondly of it as I do now. First, I was in my 20s during those nine years, so I didn't know a whole hell of a lot back then. What was I to think when I was busy attending classes at College of the Canyons, interning (and then being an editor for a time) at the Signal newspaper, and at first being bored by the usual Friday errands of going to the Pavilions supermarket and then Sprouts, and on Sundays delivering empty bottles to the Target in Golden Valley for the CRV money back. It turns out, after four years in Las Vegas, that those were among the most stable times we had.

When we moved from South Florida to Southern California in 2003, we went sharply from one world to another. Different coasts, immensely different lives, overwhelming freeways. There was no bridge from one to the other, no transition to make it easier to know and get used to. Same with going from Southern California to Las Vegas. Each region keeps to itself.

There is, however, some small part of the Las Vegas valley that gives to those who are leaving. Maybe it's something that was meant to be eventually discovered, something that has always been in our subconscious. So yes, I know about coffee, as I am part of a coffee-drinking family. Not to an extreme degree, but me, I'm a hardcore tea drinker. French vanilla iced coffee from McDonald's, sure. Something every once in a while from Starbucks, yeah. But not a Starbucks devotee. Not a household with a constantly burbling coffee machine, or even a Keurig. I have at least 100 teabags in one of the kitchen cabinets, but nothing coffee-related. That would be my mom, who has Trader Joe's Instant Coffee Packets in the cabinet. I have a hint of coffee in my daily memories, but not total, undying devotion.

And yet, as is said, it's never too late. It wasn't Starbucks that did it, nor a certain variety that McDonald's introduced, nor what any other coffee place in Las Vegas has. It was an unassuming counter at the 99 Ranch Market on Maryland Parkway, an Asian market that caters to all different cultures there, and at that particular counter, they were offering Vietnamese iced coffee, which according to some hasty research, either a dark French roast is used, or a Vietnamese-grown French roast. Combined with sweetened condensed milk, it is my new promised land. Besides books, it's what I live for, although I don't pursue it often here because we don't live near 99 Ranch Market, and there's no other places like that vegetarian counter near me.

We went this past Saturday because we were thinking about where to eat out, and Seafood City, the Filipino supermarket across the street from 99 Ranch came to mind, especially its Jollibee fried chicken joint, which is far better than KFC can ever hope to be now. So we ate there, and then came a visit to Goodwill because my mom wanted to see if there were any tea light holders, as we're into those fake tea lights, battery-powered or otherwise. Turns out that Goodwill had a 50% off the entire store sale on April Fool's Day, so we took advantage of that for sure, even though we're moving in the coming months. Yet all that we got will fit nicely into our new household.

99 Ranch Market came after, and this was my second time having that Vietnamese iced coffee, second time in two weeks. I'm a slow learner, and it took my sister to introduce me to it. Some can meditate sitting cross-legged in total silence, but I can't. This coffee is my meditation, my calm, my zen. I've actually gone back on my diet faithfully so I can have the coffee a few more times before we go.

And yet, this is a strange city. At the same time it's kicking you in the stomach, making you double over in all kinds of pain, be it having to live in an apartment complex with more batshit crazy neighbors, or a school district that's hard to work in, it actually recognizes what you're going through, though not often enough. It only gives you a little bit of relief at an instance and then ignores you the rest of the time. I think in this case, perhaps knowing we're leaving, it threw up its hands and gave me something I can take with me to Southern California, a bridge to Southern California as it were. Because after my first time of having that Vietnamese iced coffee, I began doing research on where I could find Vietnamese iced coffee in Southern California, and found a few places, although I will not go to Rosemead. And someone told me that the Westminster area of Orange County has Vietnamese iced coffee on practically every corner. I'm there.

I just never expected this generally heartless valley to offer anything like that, to offer a bridge like this, to get me into learning at least a little more about my new area right away. Not as much as when I studied Henderson, because with all I read about Henderson, I thought it was going to be nice, going to be community-oriented, and it was nothing like that. Whatever I find about Ventura will be when I'm there, when I'm tooling around on my new bicycle. I know about CJ's Barbecue, I know about Andria's Seafood Restaurant at Ventura Harbor Village, I know about Ventura Harbor Village itself, and Salzer's music and video stores, and a few more things, but I'm only digging insofar as the job I want and where we're going to live. Everything else can come after.

I appreciate what the Las Vegas Valley has done in this, in making Vietnamese iced coffee my new heaven, in giving me something to look to in our next place. But once I cross that bridge to there, I'm burning it. I'm never coming back to Nevada for anything, nor do I want to. I hope Las Vegas understands at least that. I think it will.