What I really meant to write about last time

Last time, I’d meant to write about the Pleasure Pizza excursion only as prelude to a memory I have of an FRA from long, long ago. For the uninitiated, ‘FRA’ means “food related adventure” – a term coined by my Polie friend Michelle, traveler, veteran NaNoWriMo author and founder of the genre that includes such epics as “Trapped by Marinara”, “Bacon for Crybabies” and “The Great Cheesecake Caper”. Ask me some time.

Anyhow, driving down to Santa Cruz for a couple of slices reminded me of the late days in August, back in 1985. I’d bought my first car that summer: a faded red 75 Dodge Colt. It had taken most of an afternoon outlasting the patience of every salesman at the used car dealership out on Northeast 124th in Kirkland, but I needed a car, and the first paycheck from my summer job was still a few weeks away. I was on my own for the first time, really. Fresh out of college, I’d arrived in Redmond with nothing more than a couple of suitcases full and the promise of a summer job that would tide me over until grad school started in the fall. I didn’t know a soul for 1000 miles around.

I was renting a room in a house about 10 miles out of town and needed transportation. Cheap transportation. My landlord (hi Tena!) was eager to get out of the give-Pablo-a-ride-everywhere gig, so she’d offered to help me find my own vehicle, and together we spent a couple of weekends stalking used car dealers. I don’t know how many hours we spent on this one, taking turns wearing the salesguys down until they “remembered” that faded old Colt in the back lot. They offered it to me for $500 – I put it on my parents’ American Express card, and promised I’d pay them back when my first paycheck came.

I quickly learned to love that car. It wasn’t fast, stylish or comfortable, but it got me where I needed to go. Okay, usually got me where I needed to go; we’re going to save that story – the one about blowing the engine out miles from the nearest exit on a desolated central California stretch of I-5? – that was later, and we’re going to save it for another time.

But that summer, careening from little adventure to little adventure, the Colt was my trusty steed. That was the summer I first felt the world open up, first opened my eyes to the realization that the road ahead was only an illusion. Yes, I could follow the lines on the map, but they were only one of many paths; I could, at any point, simply spin the wheel and set out on a life uncharted.

In the end, I stayed close to the dotted lines on the map: grad school, a postdoc, marriage and the kids. But with the Colt, I did venture – just a bit.

The adventure in this case was at the end of summer; after my unenviable summer job at the ill-fated Data I/O Corp. done, with another week before I needed to report for graduate school across the lake in Seattle. My high school friend Brian had come out from Colorado with no particular agenda – back then, we did that sort of thing. He’d bought a motorcycle after graduation and was winding his way along the interstates, visiting friends.

Now, I don’t know how it came up, but somewhere around day three of Brian’s visit, we found ourselves talking about my friend Carrie, who lived just outside of Portland. Brian had corresponded with Carrie for various reasons, but hadn’t ever actually met her. With the sort of spontaneity that comes easily to those who aren’t accustomed to being bored, Brian posed the trip as an oblique question: “So… what do you have planned for the next couple of days?”

I didn’t have a good answer, so a few hours later we found ourselves southbound on I-5, equipped with a full tank of gas, a change of clothes, and not much of an idea of what was going to happen once we reached Portland. Honestly, I have no idea if we even called Carrie to check that she was around. I sort of doubt we did – that precaution carried the peril of ending this little adventure before it even got started, and we knew, Brian and I both, that the purpose of the trip wasn’t really to see Carrie – it was for the adventure.

Conversation on a roadtrip runs the full gamut. Dreams of the future, glory days of the past – yes, hard to believe that even at 22 years, we looked fondly back to the past: remember the night before graduation? Getting beat up by the football team? Okay, not all the memories were fond ones, but in our minds they’d already been embellished to heroic proportions. Yeah, those were the days.

Somewhere along the line, as the topic turned to personal hygene, Brian mentioned that he was in need of a new toothbrush. Why? Because he’d left his old one at a friend’s house in San Francisco. And, he added, it was a damned fine toothbrush. We hadn’t even crossed the Columbia before knowing that this trip wouldn’t end in Portland – San Francisco was only 10 hours further down the road.

We spent a day or two in Portland – fortunately, Carrie was around, and wasn’t at all put out by old college acquaintances appearing out of nowhere requesting lodging – then headed south again.

Now, the Colt was a fine car around the city, but it was undergeared for the open roads of the American West. I can still remember the uncomfortable whine that little four-banger put out when I tried to coax it above 65 on the flats of the highway. And how I gave in coming down out of the Siskiyous, just popped it out of gear and let it freewheel across the state line into California. Thinking back, the low gearing was probably a safety feature – much above 65, the steering was a bit dodgy, and maybe the Mitsubishi engineers who’d designed the thing felt maybe they ought not let the engine take people too far beyond the edge of that envelope.

Regardless, we made it. Pulled up to Mike’s apartment in the city and let Brian out, where he knocked on the door and casually announced that he’d come to retrieve his toothbrush.

But that wasn’t the end of it. Some time well before we’d crossed the Bay Bridge, talk had turned to food. It always does, doesn’t it? When you’re driving those long hours and the conversation lapses for a minute…. Anyhow, during one of those lulls, we got to talking about what we were going to eat once we got to San Francisco. We got to talking about cravings, and favorite foods.

I reminisced fondly about Tommy Burgers, one of my favorite indulgences from the summer job I’d had in LA the previous year. The reminiscence wasn’t a rational one – very little about Tommy Burgers catered to rationality. It was a visceral memory, of the weatherbeaten drive-in take-out where you’d go late at night, when your evening had gone all to hell. You’d order a Tommyburger, a stack of sandwich that was as tall as it was wide, and you’d sit on the benches outside, dripping chili, mustard, pickles and tomato goo all over yourself while you tried to eat it, because that evening, it just didn’t matter any more.

The tomato slices were big thick round things, as large as the burger you’d get in most places, and the mustard was sprayed on indiscriminately over it. But it was the chili that really made it a Tommyburger. Legend had it that the original Tommy’s chili pot had been fired up when the stand had opened up in the 50’s – and hadn’t been cleaned since. They (the legend said) just kept it stewing, topping it off each day with enough raw material to get them through to the next day. When you’re 21 and living in LA for the first time, that sort of legend – a 40 year-old pot of chili – was more than a small part of the allure.

There was a minute’s silence in the car after I finished my paean. Brian nodded thoughtfully.

“Never had one. Do they have ‘em in San Francisco?”

“Don’t think so.”

This was before the internet. Well before we could find that information anywhere short of… Come to think of it, I don’t recall how we went about finding those things out back then. But I opined that the only one I knew of for sure was in Los Angeles. 380 miles, and six hours further south, according to the AAA map I kept stashed in the Colt’s glove box. Another thoughtful silence; we knew where we were headed next.

I’m pretty sure we had an actual plan when we set out the following morning, that we were going to call Ken or Gary once we got to LA, and ask if we could stay with them for the evening. We may have even planned to call them before we got there, but I’m pretty sure it didn’t happen. I know we had a plan for laundry; recall that we’d only packed one change of clothes, and even though the driver’s side window never did roll all the way up, the Colt was a small car, and two guys driving through the central valley in August with no air conditioning could make things uncomfortable in a hurry.

Regardless, by this point, the rules of the game were obvious, and Brian searched for the next target. Sure, we’d stop in LA for the night. We’d get our Tommyburgers. But then we needed a new excuse, a new destination.

Brian looked at the map. Tijuana? I confessed that I’d never been to Tijuana – never even been to Mexico. Brian laughed triumphantly; that was almost too easy.

I think we ended up sleeping on the floor of Gary’s apartment that night. I remember feeling stiff and groggy the next morning, and not at all in the mood for our hard-earned burger. I remember thinking that maybe, just maybe, I was done with this particular game. It had been fun, but I was feeling kind of…. done. Just Done.

Brian didn’t look much better off. We found ourselves looking for excuses and found one that was sufficiently compelling to let us off the hook: I had concert tickets for the weekend – Dire Straits. And the weekend was…two days away. We had twenty hours of driving between us and Seattle, but we could make it if we drove straight through. We stopped for Tommyburgers before turning northbound on the interstate that morning; Tijuana would have to wait.


[Okay – that doesn’t feel like a very polished narrative, but thanks for making it all the way through. As I said a few posts before, I’m trying to just write more, which means that some posts are going to be – duh – less coherent than others.]

4 responses to “What I really meant to write about last time

  1. I lived in East Hollywood for a couple of years in the mid-70's and around 1980. We went to Tommy's (the nearly-original one, on Rampart) maybe two or three times. I think I still have a touch of heartburn from it.

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  2. Pingback: Rooooaaaadtrip!!! | David Pablo Cohn·

  3. Pingback: The Little Things | David Pablo Cohn·

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