Sunday, September 13, 2009

Old Haunts and Unexpected Fireworks

I keep telling everybody who will listen that over Labor Day weekend, San Diego was beastly hot and humid, appallingly crowded, decidedly uncivilized... and still just heavenly.

I picked Brent up at McCarran (Las Vegas) on Wednesday night and we were promptly installed in our tiny, fabulous, mod closet of a room at the Motel 6 on Tropicana. We obtained mountains of beefy, eggy nourishment at the MGM Grand about 11 and walked to the Bellagio around 1 a.m., at which time the famed fountains did not go off, so we wandered home. I insisted on a quick swim in the salty little Motel 6 pool (perfect: very clean and cool, very uninhabited, slightly salty) Thursday morning before we found a Starbucks and hit the road.

Invariably, the first thing I do when I get to San Diego is head straight for the South Bay to get an inimitable carne asada burrito at Don Pancho's taco shack in Imperial Beach. There was no reason to break with tradition (plus we were starving; it was almost 4 p.m.), so we obtained Mexican food forthwith and got on with our vacation. First on the agenda was a tour of the scenes of my major developmental years (ages 12 through 21), including my family's house on California street, my high school, my apartment on 13th Street, the library, significant parks, pools, and promenades, and the Silver Strand, the stretch of highway that runs north from Imperial Beach to the man-made "island," Coronado, home of one crown jewel of a municipality that could not be more different from its neighbor several miles to the south.

Thursday evening we tracked down someone who could reassure me that my high school band director, Fred Lee, was in fact not dead. Kym had been told at the Symphony box office that he was in a medically-induced coma fighting some kind of bacterial infection; she had been checking the obituaries. We checked into the Hampton Inn on Pacific Highway downtown and met Brent's fantastic friend and former Disney coworker, Annie, at a British Pub in Little Italy. (I know. I'm telling you, that's why I love San Diego. Anything goes.)

Friday consisted of a late start (we discovered that some prankster among our rather sketchy fellow guests had stolen our "Do Not Disturb" sign in the night, and the maids kept trying to open the door; thank goodness for that little u-bolt doohickey, or we would have had unwanted company every morning) and breakfast at Perry's Cafe, which is authentic, always busy, located in a former Sambo's sort of perched perilously on a lonely little asphalt island between the arched overpasses of the I-8 and I-5 interchange. I love Perry's because it's not a tourist hangout (not yet, anyway) and the parade of regulars is fabulous: retirees, students, surfers, artists, families, suspected sports figures. Dad used to take us there on weekends; I love how, looking back, he fit right in among the locals slurping coffee at the bar.

We went to the Zales at Plaza Bonita (which was the hopelessly anemic skeleton of an indoor mall when I left in 2001; now it's a monster Westfield Shoppingtown) where we hoped to find the last on-site jeweler in a Zales anywhere in the country. We did, but his schedule was weird and busy, and rather than have somebody rush the job and have to wrangle our plans around, we left. We met Brent's delightful cousins at their home in El Cajon and they took us to dinner at a great Mexican place in Grossmont. There's a story behind this particular eatery, but it's long; the moral is that San Diegans are extremely loyal to small businesses, especially restaurants, and that corporations who outbid and overtake don't survive, not even in a tourist trap like the Plaza Del Mundo in Old Town, which was its original location.

We left our lovely hosts and headed to the Ferry Landing in Coronado just before 9 p.m. and found it crowded, but we elbowed into a parking space and headed for the waterfront. As we hit the rail to look out across the bay at the colorful lights of downtown, I swore I could hear Tchaikovsky's Overture 1812 from the direction of the convention center. And that's when the fireworks started. If you've never watched fireworks over water, you can't imagine how glorious it is. Especially when it's a total surprise. Turns out it was the last night of the symphony's Summer Pops series. I should have known.

Saturday was another late start and a stop at International Blends (we called it I.B. Blends, because it's in Imperial Beach), my favorite hole-in-the-wall coffee shop on Palm Avenue, two blocks from the beach. We got pastries and each ordered The Barge, an extremely sweet concoction involving espresso, cinnamon, and steamed chocolate milk. We basked for a while and did the crossword in the local paper, then drove to Coronado, skulls buzzing from the sugar.

We got round-trip tickets on the ferry to downtown (at $6.50 per adult, it's well worth it for a mild little harbor excursion, and you can get off downtown and take in Seaport Village before you head back to Coronado, or do it the other way around. If you don't do well on boats, stay on the lower level and watch the horizon, because you do get pretty tossed) but had half an hour to kill, so we sat on the grass under the jacarandas and listened to a combo playing Don't Get Around Much Anymore and some samba numbers that thrilled a few toddlers; the vocal stylings made Brent cringe. The sax player, Hans, was with the community band in Coronado when it first began; I played bass trombone with the group from the first rehearsal, as well. Hans runs the coffee cart at the Ferry Landing: Kafeen's.

During our ferry ride, we got a text from Twinkie that suggested we bring fruit and firewood to her barbecue. We found a Vons in North Park and got pineapples, oranges, a watermelon, some compressed logs, a bottle of blackberry wine (that turned out to be sweet, carbonated goodness and I drank nearly the whole bottle myself with fruit mashed into it, a la sangria, since everybody else had brought their own drink of choice), and a twelve-pack of Blue Moon. We were fashionably late but had a wonderful time, roasting marshmallows and playing cards long into the night. Twinkie grilled obscene amounts of meat so it made no sense that at 10:30 p.m. when we staggered home we were hungry, but we found a pizzeria on India Street (and avoided a minor fiasco back at the hotel; the parking structure was full) that sold decadent slices with real Italian sausage and ricotta, barbecue sauce and chicken, among other combinations.

Sunday brought another trip to Perry's (I love the chewy, eggy waffles with a pile of soggy strawberries) and a pilgrimage to the rose garden in Balboa Park, which was crazy busy, and I mean nuts. While jostling for parking Puck's rubber rear bumper met the rubber front bumper of a minivan; luckily it was an older vehicle and the driver seemed fairly unconcerned, or didn't want to hassle over whose fault it was, or wasn't insured anyway, so we went on our way, and I'll have to work on the rubbed place on the corner, but it's almost not noticeable unless I point it out. I prefer Balboa nearly deserted, rainy if possible, and tourist-free, but we whipped through the botanical building and hit all the free highlights in a hurry, including an organ concert and the International Houses, which are little huts that each represent a U.N. member. They share regional food and music and pass out tourism propaganda; a lot of fun when there's room to move. Labor Day weekend, not so much.

We met Toni for coffee in the afternoon; when she saw us through the Starbucks window, she plastered herself against the glass. I'm happy to say that Brent seemed to simply fit in without any effort at all (rather than recoil in horror, which is always a potential reaction), but when I think about it, that only makes sense. Of course my guy shares many important qualities with my girls; otherwise, how could I love him?

The hours flew by and the sun went down, and we found ourselves back at the hotel adding layers of clothing and considering yet more food, so we sprinted to I.B. to see if Don Pancho's was still open, thinking In'n'Out would be our backup plan, or Luigi's again (the pizzeria, within very easy walking distance of our hotel). We found the taco shack open, obtained nachos, burritos, and horchata, and headed to the beach. I.B. has a bevy of delightful beachside parks and plazas with picnic tables, public art, and playground equipment. We swept the sand off a concrete table, chowed down, and walked up the pier one last time. It was late, almost 10 p.m., but the pier was crowded with families walking, laughing, and fishing, casting underhand into the foaming black Pacific with bobbers that glowed Kryptonite green. When we got back to the parking garage it was stuffed to the gills again, save one spot near the elevators that was inexplicably blocked by an orange traffic cone. (Before we got into the elevator, I put the errant cone back by the concrete pillar where I found it. Those things are heavier than they look.)

We were not halfway down my list of must-see San Diego, but he flew home the next morning and I made the 12-hour drive across the Mojave alone, pulling into Evanston at 11:30, having lost an hour crossing back into the Mountain time zone. (It's very weird to make that drive while on the phone with someone you dropped off at the airport in San Diego that morning only to find them happily ensconced in a living room in Kansas with a fluffy white dog by 4 p.m., while you're still slogging through the wasteland of southern Utah at 80 mph.) Labor Day traffic on I-15 south was bumper-to-bumper from Vegas to Barstow, but my drive was smooth sailing all the way.

He didn't put up much of a fight (okay, none), but San Diego has seduced far harsher critics (he had been there before, anyway, and really, it's L.A.'s pretty, unpretentious, nice-smelling little sister). I hope we wind up living there someday; there are times when I miss it so much I can hardly breathe. I miss those ubiquitous low hedges with the glossy green leaves and waxy white petals that reek of fierce perfume at night, and the pepper trees and swaying palms, and the soft pink lines of all the buildings with their mantles of ivy and bougainvillea. I miss the serenity of the beach and the energy of downtown and the fascinating rainbow of skin colors, the grab-bag of global ideologies, and the fact that no matter where you go, no matter what you're wearing, in that city you are never underdressed. Flip-flops and cargo shorts? Right this way, sir. Welcome to San Diego.

(Photos, of course, to follow.)

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