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No Wonder Why Tourists Love L.A.

Friday, October 21st was the first day of our annual pilgrimage to California and Arizona to see family. It being an annual event, we didn’t stray from our proven recipe of getting up before roosters have a chance to crow, and then driving to the Seattle-Tacoma Airport. Along the way, we stopped at McDonald’s for oatmeal (me), Sausage Egg McMuffin (Rich) and coffees.

We flew Alaska Airlines, which is almost always a satisfying experience. Two hours later, we landed in Ontario, California to overcast skies and tepid temperatures. After a quick stop at a mini mart for drinks, pretzels, and a bag of what turned out to be outrageously hot Ruffles Tapatío Limon chips, we headed to Anaheim.

We visited with Rich’s brother, Ralph and his caregiving Jerry for a few hours, and then headed to Huntington Beach to see Stacey’s (Rich’s daughter) apartment. Ralph, who became a quadriplegic when he was twenty due to an accident, recently underwent surgery to repair a bed sore. He was hospitalized for two months, and during that time, met many ex-gang members who were recovering from spinal cord injuries after being shot.

He said the rehab center was kept locked probably to keep rival gang members from bursting in and “finishing off the job.” He said many of the patients donned numerous tattoos and were struggling with the realization they’d never walk again. Ralph was happy to be safely home, recuperating from his surgery.

Stacey and her boyfriend Mike did an amazing job of decorating their new home in neutral tones with hip, modern furniture. They were disciplined in purchasing pieces that fit together and minimizing what’s on display.

Their apartment is one of three, built behind a small house. At one time, the area had blocks of tidy, little houses with huge yards that backed up to alleys. Today, most of the yards feature two-story, blocky structures, consisting of three or four apartments, built above or behind garages, which are entered via the original alleys.

My grandparent’s house in Burbank was similar. It was a small two-bedroom house with a detached one-car garage in the front, and a huge backyard, which could easily accommodate a small apartment building. My grandparents used the space for a garden, clothes line, patio, large workshop for my grandfather, and a small room, built behind the garage, which remained surprisingly cool, even during the summer, and was filled with old clothes, including sealskin coats, which my great grandfather, a furrier, tanned and sewed.

After seeing Stacey’s apartment, we want to Slater’s 50/50 Burgers by Design in Huntington Beach, which is famous for their hand-crafted hamburgers and 50/50 patty, consisting of 50% ground beef and 50% ground bacon. Rich went with a “generic” all-beef hamburger with “generic” toppings.

Stacey and I were more adventurous, opting for their turkey patty with brie (Stacey), mozzarella and pesto (Julie), and lots of vegetable toppings. We also shared a plate of potato and sweet potato fries with a spicy dip. Yum!

Being in two cars, we followed Stacey to a house being re-modeled. Stacey is overseeing some of the work, and helping with the painting, replacing light plugs, etc. She said in advance it was in a gated community, but hadn’t revealed it was a very exclusive community called Coral Cay in Huntington Beach. As we drove through the neighborhood, we spotted huge yachts parked in back of houses.

Many of the houses in the community have waterfront access with docks that can accommodate a 60-foot or large yacht. Rich says they dug canals in the land and then built the houses. This image from Zillow, provides an idea of how the community was constructed to create as much waterfront property as possible.

We went inside the house, which was on a surprisingly small lot but turned out to have five bedrooms/dens and four bathrooms upstairs, and a sizable kitchen, living, dining, and family room downstairs. Unlike a “typical” house, it had lots of marble, ornate woodwork and plaster, and opulent details like a curved staircase with the walls curved to match the curve of the staircase.

After spending a short time at the house, we headed to Long Beach to see Fintastic, a 61-foot yacht on which Stacey’s boyfriend Mike is the captain, and jack-of-all-trades. He was preparing the boat to drive it to Mexico the following week. The owner keeps the boat in Mexico for seven or so months a year. With Mike was Fernando (a.k.a. Taco Boy), a spunky Chihuahua who travels on the boat and in spite of weighing a few pounds, acts like a Doberman Pincher.

With the evening approaching, we checked into our motel and took a short walk before getting ready for the rest of the evening. Our motel was a few blocks from the beach, which was practically empty, except for long stretches of white sand and an occasional bicyclist or group of kids. It’s no wonder people come to Southern California and want to stay once they see the splendid beaches.

That evening, we visited my cousin’s Mervin and Frances who live in Rancho Palos Verde. I haven’t seen them since I moved from Los Angeles, over thirty years ago! I was anxious to reconnect, and knowing they have visiting wild peafowl, I was hoping to catch a glimpse of one.

We arrived in Palos Verde half an hour early so we decided to drive down the hill to the house where Rich’s parents used to live in San Pedro. Rich couldn’t remember the exact street, but as he zigzagged through the streets, we turn in front of three peacocks and five peahens. I scarcely waited until the car stopped moving before jumping out with the camera in hand!

It’s surreal to think peacocks are wandering around the area, their majestic tails dragging behind them, looking for snakes, lizards, insects, seeds, and other tasty treats.

Music Heritage Translated to Singing in the Shower

The brother of my fraternal grandmother, Lillian, was my cousin Frances’ father, Ferenz. A Hungarian cellist, Ferenz became the principal cellist for the Portland [Oregon] Symphony Orchestra. His first daughter, Diana − whose daughters Sallie and Marcia, I regularly saw when I lived in Los Angeles − was a child prodigy who won a scholarship to the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia.

A few years later, Frances followed, winning a cello scholarship to the institute. At the age of 13, Frances appeared as a soloist with the Philadelphia Orchestra, which set the stage for numerous musical achievements, including becoming the first woman to conduct a professional orchestra from the stage of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion of the Los Angeles Music Center. I remember attending this concert and being in awe of the significance of the event.

Growing up, I attended quite a few musical performances, featuring Frances and Diana. Even though my father played the violin (Rich also played the violin), and my mother played the piano, my music talent plateaued at ear-piecing singing in the shower!

Happily, Rich and I didn’t have to be musical savvy to visit with Frances and her husband Melvin!

We had a fabulous evening discussing politics, talking about our families, seeing pictures of their daughter Sarah’s wedding, and eating scrumptious food. We enjoyed a just-out-of-the-oven peach pie and applesauce made from fruit off their trees, crispy roasted chicken with fresh herbs from their garden (I need to get a contraption that holds a chicken upright during baking), roasted carrots and potatoes, cooked mushrooms, and other tasty dishes. I thought Rich was going to burst he ate so much!

It was a memorable, long overdue visit.

Amazing Day on Catalina Island

The next day, Saturday, we got up at 5:30 to catch the 6:15 Catalina Express from Long Beach to Catalina Island. Stacey is a captain and deckhand for the company so she got us a special price… and Stacey was able to join us and serve as our tour guide for the day.

Being it was such an early hour, the boat was lightly filled, mostly with scuba divers and their equipment, couples with suitcases to spend the night or couple of days, and day visitors, some with dogs and picnic baskets.

Catalina is 22 miles off the coast of Southern California, which is lightly populated except for the main town, Avalon. The island was purchased in 1919 by William Wrigley Jr., of chewing-gum fame, who invested millions into its development, turning it into a tourist destination with a dance hall, hotel, and other amenities.

The Art Deco dance hall, called Catalina Casino, is a magnificent structure, 12-stories in height with a theater, circular ballroom, and view of the sea on three sides. I took many pictures of the breathtaking mosaics on the front of the casino. Today, the casino is primarily used for showing movies and special events. It’s also a gathering place for scuba divers, who swim around the rocks (see the Catalina photo island).

Even though it’s normally a quick one-hour trip from Long Beach to Catalina, it took over two hours because of thick fog. Along the way, we talked about boating with Rich debating with Stacey – a certified boat captain – about how to dock and tie off lines!

I’d never been to Catalina before and Rich remembers going only once so we were both in awe of the quaint shops, southern California Art Deco architecture of stucco and ornate tile work, and splendid harbor with a wide swath of beach and a hundred or so boats, tied to mooring balls, bobbing in unison in the gentle current.

Our first stop was coffee and homemade granola bars at a cute coffee shop at the far end of the town. Fueled for the day, we walked to the casino, snapped some pictures, and then headed to Descanso Beach, which charges a small fee to use their beach and facilities. According to Stacey, it’s worth the money because it’s a perfect spot for swimming, snorkeling, and daydreaming. And you can use their bathrooms, showers, dressing rooms, beach chairs, and enjoy the music, walking paths, and other amenities.

With it being a very overcast day with low visibility, we opted to take a trip on the Nautilus, a semi-submersible vessel, which resembles the Beatles’ yellow submarine. It was rather expensive, but Stacey was able to get us a discount… she’s very good at negotiating.

It’s a charismatic vessel. I know you can’t describe a “thing” as charismatic, but the Nautilus is charming, inside-and-out. I felt as if I was descending into a giant bathtub toy, and after the trip, was relaxed and energized.

For an additional cost, you can purchase fish food torpedoes, which you fire when you enter the kelp beds. Herds of fish appear, whacking their bodies against the portholes in a mad scramble to get the pellets. Food, which isn’t consumed by the throngs of fish, falls below to bright orange Garibaldi and smaller fish.

Orange Garibaldi Damselfish are the California state marine fish. They are dazzling, underwater marigolds, which are a joy to watch weave between golden streamers of kelp.

As we approached the dock, you can climb the ladder and stand on the top of The Nautilus to take in the sights. Because it was so foggy, visibility was terrible, but we could see a giant pelican standing on a platform on the dock. I was convinced it was going to fly away before we made it back so I implored Rich, who had the camera, to snap its picture.

However, in spite of people swarming around the pelican, it didn’t budge. And it didn’t budge when we got off the Nautilus and I got within touching-distance (no I didn’t touch it, but might have if so many people weren’t watching). We must have taken two dozen pictures of the pelican using my Windows Phone and our camera!

After walking around for another hour or so, we had lunch at the outdoor patio of Antonio’s Pizzeria & Cabaret. The food was filling, and most likely was straight off a Sysco truck.

Our bellies full, we bopped into a couple of shops, wandering around some more before taking Catalina Express back to Long Beach. Along the way, Stacey was able to get us a tour of the bridge of the Catalina Express. The operation of the boat, with four huge jets, which enable it to travel at over 30 knots, was significantly more complex than the instrumentation of the 29-foot Ranger Tug we recently chartered.

Unplanned Experiences and Adventures

Back in Long Beach, we stopped at The Pike at Rainbow Harbor to meander and visit a small boat show. At one time, Long Beach was a grimy port town, known for its Navy shipyard, oil fields, fisheries, and shipping port.

Today, the Port of Long Beach is the United States’ second busiest container port and one of the world’s largest shipping ports. Downtown Long Beach has become a major southern California destination with large hotels, convention center, museums, performing arts center, aquarium, large shopping centers, and every restaurant franchise you can think of from Bubba Gump Shrimp Company to California Pizza Kitchen, Chili’s, Famous Dave’s, Gladstone’s, Hooters, Outback, and P.F. Changs.

We stayed at the boat show long enough to tour a Ranger Tug and two Catalina sailboats. I now convinced the ultimate sailboat is a 36-foot Catalina.

Our next stop was Belmont Shores to see the sidewalk chalk art contest. Every year, artists create masterpieces on pieces of paper taped to the sidewalks. We arrived late, but were able to see the drawings, which were created on one side of the main street. When we crossed to the other side, many artists were picking up their drawings; although, we got temporarily distracted by a shop selling retro candy. Within minutes, Rich and I had picked out $11 worth of Turkish Taffy, Abba-Zabba, Chick-O-Stick, cherry Zotz, and Big Cherry, which probably cost a few dollars when we were kids.

After our candy exploits, I darted to the next block to see the chalk drawings before they were all gone. When I turned around, I saw Rich carrying a drawing of three parrots. He had a smile on his face so wide that he could barely walk without tripping on it.

“What the…” I thought.

Evidentially, Rich overheard a conversation between the artist and another woman. The artist wanted to give away her drawing. The woman wasn’t interested; Rich, however, didn’t hesitate for a moment and the drawing was his!

Highly protective of his prize, Rich wanted to immediately spray it with fixative. While Stacey and I guarded the drawing, laid out in front of a bank, Rich sprinted down the street to purchase clear varnish at True Value. After putting on three light coats, the chalk was set and didn’t smudge.

We carefully loaded the drawing into the car and headed to Stacey’s apartment to wait for Mike to come home. After he took a quick shower, we jumped back into her car to drive downtown to Philippe’s. I’d only been there once. At the time, Rich and I had been dating about a year and we were visiting his parents in California. Rich wanted to eat at Philippe’s. When I saw the place, in deep downtown Los Angeles, a block from Olvera Street, I was aghast.

It’s a skanky area, which as a child, going to my father’s garment factory on Santee Street, we avoided. Nevertheless, I was game and was intrigued by the sawdust on the floor, and the menu consisting primarily of French dip sandwiches, salads, pickles, and desserts, plopped onto paper plates.

I was hooked! And this trip, it was me who demanded we eat at Philippe’s!

Unfortunately, the trip to downtown Los Angeles, on a Saturday night, was bumper-to-bumper traffic. When we finally arrived, around 8 o’clock at night, we were all famished, and a bit cranky. Even at that time, the lines were long, with six or seven waitresses with little brown hats bobby-pinned to their heads, carving, dipping, splotching, grumbling, and bumping into each other behind a 50-foot or longer deli case, which stretches across two-thirds of the restaurant.

I had a pork French dip sandwich ($6) with a glass of lemonade (75 cents), and split with Rich a dill pickle ($1.20), and plates of cole slaw ($1.20), and potato salad ($1.20). Rich had two beef French dip sandwiches, bringing our bill to a little over $23. And I also liberally squeezed Philippe’s special hot mustard on my sandwich, making my face flush and my nose flare! Awesome! It’s no wonder Philippe’s have been going strong since 1908!

One last note, a cup of “joe” at Philippe’s is just 9-cents. At the far end of the deli case, you can order drinks and side dishes. While waiting in line, we watched many people in grungy clothes and filthy hair order cups of coffee or a bowl of soup or stew. It’s a welcoming environment where people from all-walks-of-life can eat from the same tables.

Our tummies filled, we wandered through Olvera Street. In 1781, Los Angeles was founded on a site southeast of Olvera Street near the Los Angeles River by a group of Spanish settlers. The original street was a short lane called Wine Street, which was extended and renamed in honor of Agustin Olvera, a prominent local judge in 1877. Today, along with 27 historical buildings, Olvera Street is a major attraction with street vendors, restaurants, shops, entertainment, and celebrations like Cinco de Mayo, Dia de los Muertos, Blessing of the Animals, and Mardi Gras.

Because it was after 7 o’clock when most of Olvera Streets closes for the evening, we mostly walked by shuttered carts and shops. Hearing music, we crossed the street to the Lady Queen of Angeles Catholic Community, where a festival was taking place. The food smelled wonderful and the music was infectious. By their grotto, covered in flowers, we spied of couple of feral kitten who were too distrustful to come out.

We next headed to City Hall, past streets that had radically changed since I was a child, going to my father’s garment factory, and Rich was a fingerprint classifier and crime scene investigator with the Los Angeles Police Department. Many of the older buildings have been razed and shiny new ones built. Old warehouse and factory buildings are now fancy apartments or gentrified lofts.

As we got closer to City Hall, we could hear someone giving a speech. It was Occupy Wall Street protesters. There were hundred or so tents around City Hall. A stage had been set up for speakers. It was very peaceful, but exciting to experience the protests and the united voices against the “blatant injustices perpetrated by the economic and politic elites.” Covering the lawns were signs, expressing anger towards Wall Street, Republican politicians, unemployment, and other inequities.

Our next stop was Little Tokyo for mochi ice cream at Mikawaya. Mochi is pounded, sticky rice, which can be formed into little balls or squares or wrapped around bean paste, or for an amazing dessert, ice cream.

For a dollar, you can purchase a mochi ice cream ball, which is about the size of a small apricot. The ice cream is super rich and is magical when combined with the mochi. We each had two mochi ice cream balls. I had green tea and kona coffee. Rich stuck to mango. Mike tried the chocolate and Stacey had green tea. Heavenly!

Little Tokyo has radically changed since I was a little girl and would occasionally go there for Japanese pastries. The handful of shops and restaurants now comprises 67-acres.

As we started back to the car, we passed by an upscale coffee shop, called Demitasse. We were mesmerized by a cold brewing contraption which consisted of several large glass vessels and filters (Kyoto-style). The man behind the counter waved us into the store. By now, it was after 10 o’clock at night when party animals are at bars and not pulling up stools at coffeehouses.

We were all given a sample of the cold brewed coffee, which was very strong, but had no bitterness or unpleasant tastes. Stacey was intrigued by their peculiar coffee drippers (scroll down to the article about Demitasse) and decided to order a coffee. The process starts by adding water to a round glass vessel, which is suspended over a halogen light. Once the water boils, another glass vessel, this one rectangular, is placed on top, creating a seal with a small amount of air trapped in-between.

As this air heats, the water is forced up into the top vessel through a filter. Powdered coffee is added and stirred and allowed to boil for a few minutes. Once the vessels are removed from the heat, the coffee is sucked through the filter and back into the original container.

The barista then poured the coffee into four little acrylic glasses and told us not to drink until the coffee cooled. It tasted splendid. It was very pleasant sipping our coffee and talking to one of the baristas, a young man who four years ago moved from Texas to marry a woman he met online! He was very charming and anxious for us to taste everything Demitasse offered.

Unexpectedly, he pulled out a bag of homemade marshmallows, which they serve with hot chocolate. He skewered a chubby one on a bamboo stick and roasted it with a small torch. Between giggle, we took bites, enjoying the caramelized outside and gooey inside.

As we were getting ready to leave, the barista mentioned they toss out their pastries at the end of the night. They offered to give us a couple! While Rich was choosing two lemon and two chocolate macaroons, the barista who used to live in Texas, brought me a macaroon, which resembled a mini hamburger with a golden bun filled with scrumptious icing. The macaroons looked like these from Lette in Beverly Hills.

Just when I thought the evening was coming to an end, Rich felt we should walk by Union Station. Opened in 1939, and designed by John and Donald B. Parkinson, who also designed the Los Angeles City Hall and other landmark Los Angeles Buildings, the station is breathtaking. The floors are terra cotta mosaics, the walls travertine marble, ceilings open beam, and the giant chairs in the waiting room are upholstered in deep brown leather.

We slid into a couple of chairs and sat for a few minutes admiring the grandeur. At one time, before affordable airplane travel, the station was probably a constant hubbub of people, trains and buses. Today, several upscale restaurants are located within the station, no doubt, helping offset the expensive of keeping this magnificent landmark open.

Even though it was after 11 o’clock at night, one side of the 101 freeway was still packed with cars; although, they seemed to be going at a modest 30 to 40 miles per hour. Rich, having driven the freeways when he was in his late teens and twenties, knew the fastest route back to Long Beach, where Stacey and Mike dropped us off at our motel.

More Sun, Less Fog, and More People to See

The next morning, after sleeping deeply, we had a satisfying breakfast at iHOP and then headed to Hollywood to visit with Jerry Simon, who was my father’s best friend, and is now 94 years old. I’ve been corresponding with him for decades, and most recently started to wonder about his ability to recollect dates and events. When describing him to Rich, I mentioned, “I think he might have a photographic memory.”

Sure enough, he could name exact dates when my parents got married, when he visited various places… and then list what he did during the visit as if it was a week ago and not forty years earlier. We spent two and a half hours talking about the economy, politics, families, trips, changes in the area (Sunset Boulevard, Hollywood, etc.), vocabulary, and grammar.

At one point, he wanted his caregiver, Gloria, to find a book on the table about homonyms. I helped her look since there were eight stacks of books on the table. While looking, I found the book “Eats, Shoots, & Leaves.” I brought it back to Jerry, and he told me to look on page 9, which contained a simple sentence, punctuated two ways:

Woman, without her man, is nothing.
Woman: Without her, man is nothing.

I’m still astonished that he could remember the exact page on which the sentence was written! I’d be lucky to remember the book in which an interesting passage was written.

Needing to get to Bullhead City by dinnertime, we sadly had to say “good-bye” to Jerry; although, I hope to see him again, as does Rich.

Our trip to Bullhead City, on the Arizona side of the Colorado River was uneventful and we encountered little traffic on a Sunday afternoon. We arrived at Ted’s (Rich’s step-father) house around 5:30, and then got ready for dinner at the Riverside Resort Hotel & Casino in Laughlin, the Nevada side of the Colorado River.

It was fun catching up with what Ted has been doing and talking with Sue, who lives across the street and takes care of an elderly man named Charlie. I also enjoy looking at the lights from the Laughlin casinos reflecting off the river. Even though, it was in the low 90’s/high 80’s for most of our visit, the heat isn’t intolerable because it’s so dry. Plus, the rock formations are fantastic. It’s a picturesque place to visit.

We spent another day with Ted, visiting and driving around the area, seeing Davis Dam, and then headed to Las Vegas for 20-hours of walking around the strip (until midnight), snapping pictures, watching belching volcanoes and dueling pirates, wandering into high-end shops, eating dinner at Chipotle Grill, scurrying through dark and smoky casinos, bumping into people on the crowded sidewalks, avoiding having our hands were hustlers could place cards of female “entertainers,” riding the monorail to the architectural marvel City Center, and enjoying our stay at the sizzling pink Flamingo Hotel.

Every year, we stay at a different hotel. In the past, we stayed at Planet Hollywood and the Rio. Our room at the Flamingo, on the 18th floor, was the smallest, but the most lascivious with a white, vinyl padded headboard, mirrored light on the ceiling, white furniture, pink and brown-striped wallpaper, and a bathroom that could only make you smile with two walls painted bright pink, pink halogen lights in the ceiling, and a white marble shower with jets. Plus, there was a remote control on the bathroom counter. When I powered it on, a rectangular section of the bathroom mirror turned into a television!

In addition, we had a view of Caesar’s Palace, the Bellagio, and the non-stop action on the strip. And everywhere you walk in the Flamingo, you see splashes of bright, flamingo pink, which made me very happy. Check out this virtual tour to see the pink, pink Flamingo!

The only negative to our Las Vegas visit was towards the end of the evening when we went to McDonald’s for coffees (hey, they have good coffee and it’s cheap). Two women walked in, one with long blonde hair, a tight dress that barely covered her tush, and five-inch clear acrylic platform shoes. The other woman was in tight jeans and a t-shirt. The woman in the suggestive clothing ran up to a worker at McDonald’s, a chunky, androgynous man or woman, and gave him/her a tight hug, exclaiming “I haven’t seen you in so long.” The greeting was genuine and warm.

After the two women got their food, they sat at a table across from us. Within minutes, two men at another table started flirting with them, asking questions and trying to figure out how to “get into their pants.” The women were courteous, but were obviously not interested and simply wanted to enjoy their meal in peace.

One man, however, was relentless, leaning over to touch the woman closest to him and wanting to know how they “could get together.” He explained he came from a town of 5,400 people in Georgia where everyone knew each other. He also had a son who was the same age as the blonde. Finally, the blonde gave him a card and explained he could take a free limo to see her. She probably worked at a gentlemen’s club. I could hear the man lamenting the hassle of having to take a limo and the cost to see her take off her clothes. Groan.

Even though the woman was dressed like a slut – as are a large percentage of the women who are out partying at the plethora of Vegas bars and night clubs – she didn’t deserve to be tormented while she was trying to eat a hamburger!