I sincerely hope that I am not writing my own obituary here. This job of mine, the comfortable nook where you find me now, is based on my offering, once a month, little bits of evidence toward proving that our humble hospitality establishment is superior to all others you might come across in the world. A question like this is difficult to prove and anyway tends to be thought of as fairly subjective, so I’ve felt pretty good up to now. I could be sure for myself, but know that I’d never convince each and every one of you and so would always have a job in trying. But now I find myself in possession of absolute, irrefutable evidence that this hotel is the coolest in the area and, in trying economic times, if I can prove the area, I might suddenly find myself superfluous.
Because I think I have no real choice, I’ll just come out and say it: Last month the Abbot of the Shaolin Monks, a Mr. Shi Yong Xin, along with a special delegation of his fellow monks, left the mystical heights of the Shaolin Temple in someplace called Songshan, China, and ended up here, in our little Grand Hotel. That’s right, the Shaolin Monks, as in the inventors of Zen Buddhism and Kung Fu, were here, walking these halls, breathing their serenity and physical perfection into our common air. We’ve had our share of minor celebrities and politicians in the past, it’s true, but the keeper of ultimate Zen wisdom and some guy who ended up winning a reality show contest are, perhaps you can agree, not quite the same thing.
A little fact: They had special dietary needs, these masters of acceptance and love (I think someone in the kitchen had to look up vegan in the dictionary). Perhaps the first step for any would-be enlightened beings out there would be to ask us to fix you some of what the monks ate.
But now you see: the coolness of our little hotel has become objective truth. And me? Maybe they’ll keep me to write all the emails saying “We’re sorry, but the hotel is fully booked at the moment.”
I am a terrible, blasphemous slanderer. I am sad and ashamed. Last month, in the very space that I am writing in now, I said cruel things about one of my childhood’s magical places: The Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk.
Notice that I did not use the word libel. It isn’t that I said anything untrue. It is dirty, loud, overcrowded and full of overpriced junk. But there I go again. There are always so many ways to describe a thing, so many different facts to give. Not to mention the power of changing the emotional frame of the same core statement, like a good political pollster. (How can so many people who don’t stand to inherit anything from anyone be so against estate taxes?)
Last month I wanted to tell you about the remarkable Natural Bridges state beach and somehow the way I found to get there involved, to borrow a great phrase from my brother, throwing my beloved Boardwalk under the bus. How unnecessary that was!
Now, I want to offer you another perspective: The Boardwalk is so full of people because it remains a great place to go. The rides are scary, especially the wooden artifact known as The Big Dipper, which is one of the world’s oldest roller coasters. This behemoth creaks and groans and drops you from 100 feet and feels miraculous every time. There is truly not a healthy morsel to be found on the premises, unless you count the apples buried underneath all that gooey caramel, but nor is there a McDonald’s or Subway or Starbucks to be seen. This is an amazing feat considering the seemingly unstoppable power of those names to find there way into, well, most every place that people go. It’s dirty because it’s the beach and beaches are not clean. The sunshine makes everything sparkle, but the cool Pacific takes the edge off the summer heat. Most of the people you see at the Boardwalk are smiling. I have been happy every single time I’ve been there and I’ve been going there my whole life. I sincerely hope that my dear Boardwalk can forgive me.
A hotel’s night auditor is one of its least visible staff members, his shift being the one that most people sleep through. Maybe you have late night check-ins or very early morning flights from time to time, and so see him in passing, but these do not tend to be the moments when travelers are at their most alert, and so the night auditor remains a kind of a ghost. Unfortunately, this means that most of you don’t know Kareem, the lone political exile on staff.
Kareem left his home originally to study abroad, but the perspective he returned with gave him increasing discomfort in his country’s shifting environment. When he left the next and final time, he had a successful veterinary practice and a young family. He had, then, ahead of him, a life of stability, if only he could shut down his unease and live by the changing rules. Instead he came to California. Initially, the plan was to continue as a veterinarian, but the language gap in such technical work eventually proved insurmountable, especially as his main effort always had to be supporting his family. And so he became a night auditor, perhaps not the job he dreamed about as a little boy. All these years later, America is still foreign and lonely for him. Extended family and community are fond, untouchable memories.
His daughter, though, is currently earning perfect marks at UCLA. She’ll be a lawyer someday soon, a professional in their adopted home. He did it, this means. It took an extra generation, but he successfully transitioned his family to this newer, freer world. His story is better than any late night television, you should go let him fill in the details I missed some sleepless night.
Travel and struggle and betrayal and death. Temptation, seduction, power. I know all of that was in there, but all I ever remember from the Odyssey is food. Droves of animals being slain and cooked over open fires. Mounds of fresh figs dripping with honey and being dropped into Odysseus’ mouth by grateful attendant goddesses. Everything, in fact, dripping with honey. Rich, sweet olive oil being drunk from goblets and used for bathing, I suppose to give the hero sweet and necessary respite from water. Wine glasses refilling themselves. It’s been so many years since I read that grand epic and I hope that any Greek scholars out there will forgive the amendments that my imagination has made to Homer’s record, but those decadent feasts will stay in my fantasies forever.
Walking into Athena, even with a raving recommendation as motivation, I did not expect to be reminded that this was the native cuisine of immortal mythology. The light is garishly bright, it is furnished entirely in white plastic with bright blue detail (the Greek flag, I know, but still there is the question of how) and I supposed that I would get Mediterranean fare that was pretty good, on account of the recommendation.
And now, I think, in lieu of describing what I ate, I will say this: Thank you Athena, goddess of wisdom, for allowing me to believe, for one brief meal, that if I cannot live as the immortal heroes before me lived, at least I can eat like them. Sounds like silly hyperbole, I know it even as I write it, and I guess it probably is, but those words come straight out of the languid torpor I left the restaurant with. Roll your eyes at my childish enthusiasm, then, if you will, but remember that it has a source that you, too, can access.
There’s something pleasantly simplistic in the Conn Creek Winery’s presentation of itself. Go to their website and the first thing that catches the eye, before any history or photo or romance of any kind, is a bold statement. “Conn Creek Winery: The Best Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon from Carneros to Calistoga.” This does not appear to be a quotation from any wine publication. It is not supported by any of the other text on the page. It simply stands alone, an assertion made by the makers of said cabernet sauvignon that they feel to be objective, stand-alone truth.
Another thing about this winery that catches my fancy is that they make a red called “anthology,” because it is made of a mixture of all the different red grapes they grow. I like this name, it reminds me of those fat, heavy tomes I lugged around in college that purported to contain the best of, say, all of American literature. Implying, as such a book did, that I need look no further than what I had already in my hands for anything of value on the subject, I felt safe in a knowledge that I was getting educated. Even if I later learned how much richer it is to read all of Leaves of Grass, instead of just the passages deemed “most significant” by those who named themselves authorities, still I appreciated being spoon-fed a little at first.
The clear and easy arrogance of this winery is comforting to me. I know that I if I choose one of their wines, I will get something good, if not deep and nuanced. I don’t always have the energy for deep and nuanced. I’m sorry to admit this if I’m alone, but I don’t think I am.