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Part 1. – Flight

So evidently the surgery I had last year to repair my sinus cavity and help drain the fluid from my ears didn’t work all that well, because the pain in my ears during the first leg of our flight to California was brutal.

Oh wait, let me start over. On monday, Valarie and I left for our tour of the California coast, starting with a two-flight trip to San Francisco. I booked the layover flight because the last time I was on a single flight for more than four hours, I nearly killed the 5-year-old that was kicking my seat for three hours. I also nearly killed the guy sitting next to me. He just happened to be my buddy who I was traveling with, but that’s an entirely different story.

In anticipation of the flight I – went to the doctor and had my ears flushed, took decongestant for 7 days, and chewed 3 pounds of gum on the flight whilst swallowing saliva every 90 seconds.

It didn’t work.

The only thing worse than the pain on the first flight, was the pain on the second leg of the journey. That went from brutal to excruciating.

When we landed, I said the word that would become my favorite word for the next few days.


My ears are clogged beyond belief and Val has a tendency to mumble. To the outside world, we sounded like an old jewish couple on the way to Atlantic City.

Part II – Landing.

We get off the plane and take the BART to Powell Street, which is pretty much the center of San Francisco. By the way, no one in San Francisco calls it Frisco. If you do, they look at you funny.

After we trudge our luggage 5 blocks longer than anticipated, we get to the condo and meet up with the owner. He’s a nice enough guy, and the place is spotless, so we’re really happy and raring to go an hit the town. He leaves, and we proceed to fall asleep immediately. So much for plans.
We wake in time to make it over to AT&T park, home of the San Francisco Giants. Whenever I travel, I like to add a ballpark to my resume, and if you like baseball, this park is a must. Beautiful park, terrific sight lines, easy access, decent food. Everything about the place works. Right now, of all the parks I’ve been to, Pittsburgh is the best, but this one isn’t far behind.

Part III – Tourists.

We were tourists. There was no point in hiding it. We looked the part, so we just went with it. We looked lost. We asked a lot of questions, and I was constantly looking at the map. We looked exactly like the people that piss me off when I’m traveling around NYC. But thank god for tourists; they pay the freight.

Note – SF has bums. A lot of bums. And they all panhandle, but unlike NY, very few of them are singing for their supper.

And the whole town smells like pee. Pee and pot. Lots of pot. Really good pot.

“This town smells like New York, pre-Guiliani” – Valarie Mazza

We do all the touristy things on the first day. We ride a trolley. We ride a cable car. We go to Fisherman’s Wharf. We take pictures of the Sea-Lions on pier 39. We walk up steep hills. We are exhausted by mid-day. We head back to the condo and fall asleep again. When we wake, the entire town is asleep. It’s Tuesday night. Nothing is open past 9pm. We wind up in the only place open in Chinatown. They place is huge and has pictures of several different Presidents eating there. The food is ok, but when we get home, I check yelp and every review says not to eat there…


Part IV – Haight

The next day, we wake up early and jump a bus to Haight-Ashbury.  We get there early for breakfast, so most of the residents are working, the tourists have not yet arrived, and the cretins are still asleep in the park. After breakfast, we stop in a local bookstore and after perusing the aisles for a while, I show a copy of Split Rock Road to the dude at the counter and he enthusiastically agrees to pass it along to the buyer. I leave feeling elated and validated. We walk to the Grateful Dead house to take a few pics, and then over to the Airplane house at 2400 Fulton. Valarie makes a snide comment about my love for Grace, and then she proceeds to open the gate and enter the grounds. She’s taking pictures as I scold her from the outside.

“Take it easy, Duddley.” she says.  As in Doo-right.

“If someone did that at your house, they’d get shot.” I reply.

“This ain’t Brooklyn.” She’s got a retort for everything.

We walk the three miles to the ocean and we cast our eyes on the Pacific for the first time. It’s bluer than I imagined. The sea is flat that day. Smooth as glass. You can see nothing but blue for miles and miles. I feel tiny and insignificant looking at it. The ocean doesn’t care about my problems.

We walk through the ruins of some old buildings and traverse some caves on the shoreline. We head back across town on a hot bus. It passes through several different neighborhoods, but none of them impress me, either good or bad. They all seem rather bland. For the most part, I’m not yet impressed with city of San Francisco, but for the life of me I don’t know why. Everyone I’ve ever met tells me that it’s their favorite city, but I’d rather be walking through Soho any day.

After a quick shower, we head back to the wharf to catch a boat ride around the bay. On the way, we pass by an upscale gallery that has a collection of Leroy Neiman paintings in the window. We step inside and we are quickly greeting by a saleswoman named Sue. She’s an asian woman who also happens to be from Brooklyn, and that sets the connection. She catches us looking at a landscape from by some dude from upstate NY.  It’s a nice enough piece, but Bob Ross blows him away any day of the week. She asks if we are collectors, but I lie and say that we’re looking for something for the house that we are building in Cooperstown NY. She goes into hyper-drive. She catches Valarie looking at a Salvador Dali painting. I’m itching to leave before I get talked into buying something, but Val plays along. They talk about the piece, and she drags us into a room where she changes the lighting and talks about the piece and how it was made, and all this other pretentious artistic nonsense.  I’m starting to sweat and panic. I’m so glad that Val is with me. If I’m alone in this situation, and the broad is vaguely good looking, I’m handing over my Amex card for sure. She goes on about the frame and the value and appreciation. Val is talking the language; I’m just mumbling responses. We make it out alive. I breathe a sigh of relief.
“That’s why I can’t go into galleries alone. She woulda had me”
Val laughs.

The boat ride is amazing. We cruise under the Golden Gate into a steady, intense wind and then do a lap around Alcatraz. There is like a two-month wait for tickets to the prison, but there are places where you can score tickets on the street. Scalpers for Alcatraz. There is something ironic about that.

Part V – Leaving.

Thursday is the day we head south. I want to get an early start, and that’s not a problem because there is a construction crew digging a foundation for new condos right next door to us. They start the back-hoe up at 7am, and never let up. While Val packs up the luggage, I head to the airport to pick up a rental car. As I ride the Bart to the airport, reading my book like any other commuter, it dawns on me that I’m sorry to be leaving. San Fran is starting to grow on me, I wish we had one more day.

Of course, I had a day-full of events planned for that day so I had to squeeze them all in. The car rental takes longer than I expect. so this throws my entire plan out of whack. I get back to the condo, rush Valarie into the care and head back to Haight-ashbury for breakfast and souvenirs. As we cruise down the street, she can sense the tension in my body.

“What’s wrong?”

“Nothing.” I reply.

She gives me the face. “What’s going on in that head?”

“You really want to know?” I ask. She nods.

“I’m not sure if I should park here and walk the block, or drive right to the diner. If we can’t get a spot, then then might stop serving breakfast at 11am, in which case, we have to go somewhere else, and then we will lose time, and we’ll never make it to Monterey by nightfall.” I exhale.

“All that is in your head? Can’t you just relax on vacation?”

“My OCD doesn’t take vacation.” I reply.

Of course I get a spot, they serve breakfast all day, and everything works out fine.

After breakfast, we walk up and down the strip, It’s alive with activity now. There are people everywhere, including a young, dirty kid selling weed. He’s got three different kinds today, including purple pineapple diesel. For a minute, I wonder how I will explain to everyone back home that I now have 27 years clean, minus one day.

We head north and drive over the Golden Gate. The views are breath-taking. We walk half-way across the bridge to take some photos, then head back to hike up to the top of Hawk Hill. It’s even more impressive up there. The famed San Fran fog is starting to roll in. It really is as cold in SF as everyone says. I almost wish we had more time here. There is more that I want to explore, but it’s time to head south. We have one more stop to make.

The City Lights bookstore is one of the most famous in the country. It was basically the epicenter for the beat poets in the 50’s. I bring a copy of the book, hoping to get the same reception as I did in Haight, but no such luck. The communist behind the counter is not impressed by my kirkus review, or my indie award. I decide not to leave the book, but leave a post card instead. I leave aggravated. “I’ll show him,” runs through my head.

It’s time to go.

We head south on California SR1. The pacific coast highway.

I don’t have the words to describe how amazing this road is. The trip down to Monterey is beautiful, but the trip from Monterey to LA is off the charts. Every 30 seconds is a view more impressive than the one before. A 90 minute drive to Big Sur takes 3 hours because we stop so many times. We’ll never make L.A. by nightfall, but I’m not panicking because I’m in love with this road. The drive itself is fairly treacherous, because it’s two lanes on a winding, narrow mountain road. If you glance at something for more than a second, your tires are in danger of drifting off the road. I test this equation on more than one occasion.

Just south of Big Sur, the Santa Lucia Mountains rise out of the ground to greet the sea. It’s a fearsome sight. A steep mountain range on one side, an endless ocean on the other. They fight a never-ending battle for supremacy. But the ocean has a smug look on her face. It knows that in the end it will win. The ocean always wins. It simply has more time. All the time in the world.

Eventually, we make it back to highway 101, and multiple lanes. We can drive in a straight line now, and make up some time. Hunger overtakes us around 6pm in a town called Santa Maria. We wind up at a place called the “hometown buffet.” $12.19, all you can eat. This is the place where the “people of Walmart” go on a friday night. The entire town is either here or at Applebees. Their parking lot is equally packed.

After all is said and done, the dinner isn’t that bad. The Mac-and-cheese is a step up from Kraft, and the fresh roast beef is pretty good. We leave with full bellies and head out on the road again. Night is starting to fall, so I press the pedal to make up some time. This road is like the autobahn. People are passing me at 80 mph, shaking their fists at me.

It’s night now, the lights of Los Angeles flicker in the distance.

The city of Angels awaits.

To be continued.