Cafeterias

I miss cafeterias. There isn’t an honest-to-goodness old fashioned cafeteria within hundreds of miles of my house. We’ve got plenty of buffets, sure, and they offer choices, but all-you-can-eat isn’t the point. Automats are fun but they don’t come close to the cafeteria experience. Putting in your money and watching food come out of a slot is a novelty, but it can’t duplicate a cafeteria’s piping hot steam tables or the beds of crushed ice with tiny dishes set inside like jewels.

In the 1950’s, on visits from our home in the Deep South to our Glendale, California grandmother’s house, my brother and I begged to go to Clifton’s Cafeteria. At the Pacific Seas on Olive Street in downtown Los Angeles, with Gramma in the lead, we’d dash to find a seat near a waterfall.


Entrance to Clifton’s Pacific Seas, (sadly, now extinct) which also featured a giant waterfall built into the facade.



Clifton’s Pacific Seas interior featured Tiki huts and tropical sound effects. On the way out, we kids chose a toy from the Treasure Chest.

At a cafeteria you go down the line and put together your own version of the best meal you can imagine. One day you crave macaroni and cheese but you’d like a little something else on the side. Or you have a hankering for cornbread and everything else is selected in terms of how well it complements the bread. In a cafeteria, we didn’t need to explain our choices to anyone.

We learned how many kinds of puddings there are, and marveled at all the ways Jell-O can be served. In fact, the smaller than home-size dishes were part of the charm. You could go back for more, but most of the time we didn’t. A cafeteria reinforces the eyes-bigger-than-the-stomach urge. We filled our trays with an armada of tiny bowls and plates, lined them up in front of us and whatever we didn’t finish, someone else at the table always did.


Clifton’s Brookdale Cafeteria, still in business on Broadway in downtown Los Angeles. It’s called the largest public restaurant in Southern California, seating 600 at once. Still, it feels cozy inside – like the lodge in the redwoods it was created to emulate.

“Big” doesn’t begin to describe the inside of a Clifton’s. Inside the Brookdale, for instance, there are several levels for dining and a small chapel that’ll play you a recorded blessing before you leave.
Jell-O dominates the dessert table at Clifton's in downtown Los Angeles.
Jell-O at Clifton’s. Let me count the ways.

What this country needs is more cafeterias, but if that way of dining isn’t coming back, perhaps we can compromise on a tasty alternative. We could make a new rule that every town must have a small cafe or diner every few blocks. Affordable. Nothing deliberately retro-chic, just real food at real prices so it could serve a diverse clientele. And every one of these places should be required to offer a blue plate special every day, with a choice of Jell-O flavors and at least three kinds of pudding, with mandatory Tapioca. 

© By Anita Garner 2008

Denial – The Earlier The Better

I like to think I’m helping to teach our toddler a few important life lessons.  Denial, for instance, can be a useful tool.  It takes years to learn the nuances, but I’m pleased to say I see signs that the three year old is well on her way. 

I cite this example: 

It’s a long drive, the 400 mile journey to visit my family.  It’s a trip I make every few weeks.  After our initial greetings, I often like a little quiet time.

Recently I said hello and then, to the jumping, hopping, running, climbing little girl, I said Hammy is tired from the drive.  I think I might need a nap.

The very thought mobilized the three year old, who hasn’t napped since she was two.

“No!”  She was adamant.  “No nap!” 

I reassured her that no one was trying to persuade her to do such a thing. 

You don’t have to nap, I said.  You can play, but Hammy is tired.

“Will you read me a story first?”

Okay, one story.  I sat down on the couch. Why don’t you go pick a book and bring it to me?

“No, you come too.  Please, Hammy.” She skipped ahead of me and tugged at my hand.  “Let’s go to my room.” 

We started down the hall.  Making herself perfectly clear, she turned back to remind me.  “No nap.  I not tired.”  

We knelt by the bookcase.   I picked the first title I saw, How about ….

But before I could make a suggestion, she had quickly pulled out three different stories that cover similar subject matter – saying goodnight.  A couple of the “moon” books and another about tiny creatures in the animal kingdom getting tucked in by their parents.  

She plopped the books onto her bed and scrambled up. 

“Come on Hammy,” she said.  “Let’s read a story on my bed.”

Okay.

“Lying down.”

Okay.

“With a blanket.”

I’m so proud.  She’s already adept at denial.  Her classic I’m-a-big-girl-I-don’t-need-a-nap ploy is proof that my work has not been in vain.  

Ó By Anita Garner 2008

Adrift In Wisteria

Wisteria is in bloom everywhere I go.  The blossoms hang suspended, moving slightly in the breeze,  like lighter-than-air bunches of grapes.  Wisteria decorates the arbor in front of the drugstore.  It bends over cottage fences.  It nestles alongside gateposts and climbs on old redwood frames built long ago, out of respect for this lavender phenomenon. 

In this mild Northern California climate, Wisteria prospers, and every spring, when we’re rich in blossoms, I remember a coming-of-age visit decades ago  to one of the world’s most spectacular Wisteria displays in Southern California.

In my teens I sang many Saturday nights at a giant auditorium in downtown Los Angeles, under the auspices of Youth For Christ.  The onstage bands were composed of famous musicians mixed with young performers from all over Southern California.  A competition sponsored by the organization was announced, to decide the members of an all-star band to tour the state.  Our local group sponsor, Curtis Correll, encouraged me to enter and he worked with me on the songs I’d sing along the way. 

Our group won and the first stop on our tour was announced.  We’d be performing for teens at an outdoor stage in Sierra Madre, California.   The date of our first show arrived and as we climbed out of our caravan of cars carrying singers and musicians and instruments,  we were greeted by a wondrous sight.  It was a Wisteria vine that went on and on and on.  It was the largest plant I’d ever seen.  Later I learned the vine is world-famous.  It’s referred to as “One Of The Seven Horticultural Wonders Of  The World.” *   

Here and now in another spring, Wisteria still holds a fascination.  Breezes carry petals from the flowers into the air and on our daily errands we walk through clouds of lavender. I’m not the only one stepping over the fallen petals on the sidewalk in front of the bank, reluctant to disturb their formation.  I’m not the only one who stops to study the ways they arrange themselves on the ground.  The individual petals have massed into waves of color that look as if they’re painted there. 

Breezes will rearrange the waves many times before all the Wisteria blossoms are gone.  It’s the work of spring to create these flower pictures.  It’s also the work of spring to stir memories of a lavender-colored youth. 

*The City of Sierra Madre assures us the famous vine escaped damage in the recent fires.

Ó By Anita Garner 2008

  

 

 

Armpits & Other Questions

I’m reading a story to the three year old on the couch.  She slides down and goes to stand in front of the armoire mirror.  She holds an arm straight up over her head and looks at herself a good long while. 

“Hammy, do I have a armpit?”

“Yes,” I answer.  “Yes you do.”  (The story we’re reading has nothing to do with armpits.)  

“Is dis it?”

She indicates the small depression under the small arm.

“That’s it.”

“But I don’t see any hair.”

A grandma knows this is where adults tend to want to veer off into too many details.  Her Abba will be home soon and I’ll be sure to hand this one over to him.

She has a big crush on her Abba.  There are several hints.  She pretend-calls him on the phone and when I ask how Abba’s doing at work she flexes her arms in the classic comic book bodybuilder pose and says,

“Abba is a big strong man.”

Of course she also mimics everything her mommy does.  She’s just begun to notice the differences between an Abba and a Mommy.   Past the armpits, I will not venture.  This time it’s not my job.  I get to sit back and relax and congratulate myself on having raised the Mommy who will, along with Abba, be called on to explain many things in the near future, including the whys and wherefores of hair under the armpits of various people.  Some days it’s good to be the Hammy.

Ó By Anita Garner 2008

 

Science & Sales

I recently changed doctors.  In fact, I switched to two new specialists because the first two kept trying to sell me things.  It bothers me when I’m in a vulnerable state, which we always are in a doctor’s examining room, when after checking what I went there for, he/she suggests I partake of products offered for sale on the premises. 

My Dermatologist began to push expensive services which are cosmetic in nature.  I have nothing against cosmetic Dermatology, but that wasn’t the reason for my visit.  However, after he excised the suspicious sunspots on my skin, I asked about a reddish place on my face, wondering if it was anything to worry about, and by way of answering my concern, he said “Just a minute, let me bring in my laser people.” 

Before I could decline, the door to the examining room opened, the doctor exited, and a woman carrying laser brochures entered.  She looked me over and surmised that for about $5,000-$6,000 for several treatments, she could make the reddish spots disappear.  I asked, “But will they come back?” The answer was yes, “But you can always repeat the laser procedure again in the future.”

The other doctor I said goodbye to was my eye doctor.  He’d had a shop adjacent to his office for some time, but they’d never tried to sell me things, so I walked past his boutique  filled with designer eyeglass frames and headed to a less expensive dispensary to get my prescriptions filled. 

The last visit, though, consisted of one part exam and three parts sales.  First the receptionist pointed me to the shop and suggested I browse while waiting.  Then the doctor finished the exam and left the room, returning with several eyeglass frames from his selection.  I declined.  And then I declined to make another appointment there.

This isn’t new, but it’s recently begun to bother me more. It’s not that I resent doctors finding new ways to make money, especially with insurance companies paying less of the cost of care, but I want to feel that my health is more important to them than their sales.  I don’t even care if it’s true,  just so I can continue to pretend it’s so.  

Maybe you can separate science from sales, healing from hype, but I can’t.  For me, getting a sales pitch along with an exam is full-service intimidation and I’m not willing to participate in practices (pardon the lame wordplay) that make me feel unsettled when I’m trying to look after my health.  

I learned that you can Google doctors and read patient reviews.  Not that someone else’s opinion is the final word, but I did find some reviews that mention whether the doctor pushes products as often as medical care.

It’s not just doctors.  Decades ago, at a meeting with the minister who would perform our wedding ceremony, the preacher chatted with us for a few minutes, then handed us a packet containing brochures about life insurance.  He was pastoring full time, but selling insurance on the side.  We wondered, is he in touch with Someone who has knowledge of our future?  Does he know something we don’t?  There we were, young and in love, headed to our meeting with questions about the ceremony, but we left worrying about our beneficiaries.

I’m all for “additional revenue streams.”  I embrace our capitalistic society, but assuming I can find them, I’ll continue to seek out doctors (and ministers) who stick to the main product I’m there for. 

Ó By Anita Garner 2008

An Old Coot Ahead Of Time

I’m turning into a coot way ahead of schedule. 

First I had to look up that word to be sure it’s still the one I used to know and hasn’t turned into something dirty in the past little while.  Nope.  I’m safe.  A coot, according to Merriam-Webster,  is still a “harmless, simple person.” 

Back where I came up, in the Deep South, coots were a bit more complex than that.  I’m not sure they were all so simple, but they probably enjoyed being thought of that way, since it gave them greater freedom to observe the rest of us, without anyone giving a whit for their opinions.

It was a group of coots who gathered at the cafe in the morning, some of them with no place else to be and some who chose that perch because being a coot had become a full-time job and that was their workplace.

I’d call what they did gossip, except that most of them were men, and men don’t refer to themselves as gossips.  They might say they’re visiting.  Or getting together.  Or stopping by.  Or talking.  But never gossip.  

It was the old coots around home who often came up with the greatest wisdom and when they upped and said something smart, everyone acted surprised.   I don’t know why.  Certainly they’d observed more of human nature than most of the rest of us.  

My favorite neighborhood visiting buddy these days is a man and I don’t want to call him something he doesn’t want to own, so let’s just say we talk about nothing in particular.  Still, when our brief visits are done, I always feel better informed.  When he brings up a topic, he compares it to other things he’s witnessed in his lifetime of observing and then he draws conclusions.  Opinionated gossip is my favorite kind. 

Today I’ll phone him to ask what kind of trees are those on the corner that the trimmers are lopping off?  And does he think they’ll survive?  He’ll have an informed opinion about the way the tree-trimmers are handling the job.

Recently he asked,    

“Did you hear about the two widow ladies next door to each other who passed away one right after the other last week?” 

The second lady, he said, had just returned from a memorial service for the first and was still in the clothes she wore to the event when she expired. This week, two families are over there packing up two houses next door to each other, where two ladies who were friends and neighbors for decades both departed within a few days.     

We’ll drink coffee for a bit and then my friend will offer some pearl of wisdom about life in general based on these specifics and I’ll go back to my routine still mulling over the significance of those trees and those ladies around the corner.    

Ó By Anita Garner 2008

   

Toddler Focus Group

My favorite toddler arrived for a visit, packing her portable DVD player and a stack of choices.  Among the titles,

Barbie Mariposa And Her Butterfly Fairy Friends

Where the heck did that title come from? A visit to a Toddler Focus Group may shed some light. 

In the room with a one-way window, the table and chairs have been removed.  Twelve toddlers sit on the floor.  They’ll help marketing executives and manufacturers name a new product.  No adults are allowed in. Parents join executives looking through the glass and see that all toddlers have the perfect tool for making choices.  Each holds onto a remote with big colorful buttons.  Toddlers completely understand remotes.   They can delete anything within seconds.

A voice through speakers in the room coaxes the little ones to push buttons. Do you like butterflies?  They push the butterfly button.   Do you like fairies?  And on through a series of questions that correspond with pictures on the remote. 

Oops – some of our toddlers appear to be trying to push the buttons on a neighbor’s remote, but a few are still listening.

Do you like Barbie?  Yes.  How about friends?  That gets the biggest reaction so far.  Preschool and play-dates have already taught them that friends are the best new things of all.  They quickly push the button with the colorful outline of children holding hands. 

Wait now.  The group is drifting.  Only three toddlers are still interested in the remotes.  The rest wander around, poking each other, getting acquainted.

The voice continues to ask about magic toddler words, but all order has been lost and at the end of a session that only lasted five minutes but seemed to go on forever, advertising people string together a bunch of words and declare this new DVD title will contain several things kids seem to like. (How did “Mariposa” get in there?  I’m not sure.  I haven’t watched it yet.)  What does the title mean? No one knows.   And does it matter, really?

One very smart executive/parent asks shouldn’t we add ladybugs?  Toddlers like ladybugs even more than new friends.  Oh, all right then, maybe next time.  In fact let’s commission a script right now that includes the words Barbie and Ladybugs.   

Parents are allowed in.  A few toddlers run to them, while others act as if they’ve never seen these adults before, and continue what they were doing.  Somebody finds a Goldfish cracker in his mommy’s purse.  Now everybody wants one, but there aren’t any more. Crying begins. Another parent produces Cheerios from a baggie that will be carried everywhere until the toddler starts college.  All are pacified with the wholegrain O’s.

While the munching toddlers say goodbye or ignore each other, let’s consider a point that focus groups need to spend more time with.  What kinds of toys do grandparents want?

Here’s the Grandparent Focus Group.  Table and chairs are restored and a variety of diet and regular colas, coffee, decaf, and teas in all kinds of flavors are offered.  Treats are on a side table.  Some of the grandparents choose M & M’s while others go for the nutrition bars.  New toys to be tested are on the table.

The voice in the speaker asks, “Does the ratchety-ratchety sound of this toy lawnmower seem authentic to you?”

It does and is that absolutely necessary?

“How about the humming noise on this pretend-vacuum cleaner?”

That is way too realistic.  Here’s an idea.  How about you make this toy with a grandparent control, an invisible one I can push from way over here so the toddler can’t see it?  When a complaint arises from the shorter person in the room, I am prepared to lie.

No, honey, I have no idea why your toy stopped working just now.

Question from the Market Research team:

“How about this pretend-cellphone/camera that rings and also makes a loud clicking sound when the toddler puts it right in your face?”

A hidden on/off switch would be good.  I’m prepared to look surprised.  

Oh, your cellphone won’t ring anymore?  Really?  I’m sure the camera still works, honey.  It probably doesn’t feel like clicking every single time.

And what of the sad little toddler face?  

Darned cellphone.  Here, give it to Hammy.  I’ll fix it later.  Let’s go eat some strawberries.

 

Ó Anita Garner 2008

World Without Cars, Amen.

I’m thinking about cars a lot lately because I’m in them a lot lately.  When I’m not in one, I’m dreading the next time I’ll have to be in one.  I’m tired of automobiles.  The affair is over.

I have a very nice car that takes me places and plays my music and feeds me news, holds my coffee cup, warms or cools me, and does everything else a car can do to help a person get around, but there isn’t a car special enough to make me fall in love with driving again.

No offense to my perfectly fine vehicle, but I dream of a walking life – some modified version of the olden days when there was a central business district and houses began right there at the edge of town.  A person could walk to accomplish most daily errands.  For longer trips, there was a family car, but it wasn’t in use all day, every day.

We keep making more people and more cars, but no more space.  We’ve already covered so much of the space we have with highways that saturation is nigh.  I’m speaking specifically of my beloved state of California.  There’s no way we can keep up with the population and the multiple vehicles each family owns.  If we cover any more of the earth with highways, there’ll be no place left for us to drive to.  

It seemed so natural, the ways in which automobile travel evolved, how new vistas opened the minute we were old enough for a driver’s license, how we defined ourselves by what we drove.  Over the past decade or so, something’s changed for me and driving doesn’t resemble freedom in the slightest.  What feels free is not driving.  That feels independent and progressive and even adventurous.

Will there come a time soon when people will look back at single-person car occupancy as a quaint and uninformed period in our history?  Maybe our descendants will laugh at our naivete and wonder at how we ever thought it could work.

Is there on the near horizon a form of mass transportation we haven’t heard about, that can function without creating a new blight on our imperiled landscape?

I expect the future will include mandatory controls about who can drive alone in a car and when.  Of course we won’t let go voluntarily, so it will likely be made into law.  Giving up the right to drive is such a fraught topic, I don’t expect to live to see a practical solution.  Maybe my daughter and granddaughter won’t see a solution either, but I do believe one is on the way. 

Ó By Anita Garner 2008

 

No Good Deed

I gave away my favorite pants by accident last week.  It was bound to happen.  When I’m cleaning the closet in a self-righteous Spring-induced charitable mood, things move fast.

I piled clothes on the bed in categories:  Things I don’t wear, new things I wish I’d never bought, (A hanging price tag is a reproach) and the biggest bunch of all, things that don’t fit anymore.  

While bundling all of this together to donate to the Family Service Thrift Store, I spotted a blouse that was a maybe – a great color – it might still work.  Better try it on before giving up on it.  I grabbed my favorite sleek black pants from the closet and put on the blouse.  Nope, still not a fit.

So, two giant armloads of clothes into the back seat and two giant armloads of clothes dropped off, and I went about my other errands.

Next day I went to the closet for my favorite pants and they weren’t there. You can see where this is headed.  Back to the thrift store.  Since they were nowhere in the house, that’s where they were likely to be.  I had delivered my custom tailored pants for resale and not on purpose.  Who does something that dumb?

A lot of people do, judging from the reaction of the volunteers at the thrift shop.  I’m happy to buy them back, I said. They were sorry, but they had already tagged last week’s merchandise, which was now hanging in the store.  Just go out there and find them.

There was half a hope my pants would still be in the store.  I’m a tough fit – very long legs.  Those pants wouldn’t interest just anybody. I looked.  I’d know my pants anywhere, and they weren’t on the racks.   Already sold.  I started to grieve immediately.  A woman and her favorite black pants – that’s a serious relationship.  

Not only did I not get a chance to say goodbye, not only did I not leave them on purpose, but because they’ve now left me and moved on to another owner, they seem so much more important in retrospect.  I tell myself it’s best to let go of the past, forget I ever knew them.  But I know I won’t. Every time I pass a woman with long legs wearing sleek black pants with a certain fit, I’ll do a double-take.   Because by now, of course, those pants have become, in memory, the best pants in the whole world and I am convinced I’ll never love any other pants again in exactly the same way.

Ó By Anita Garner

Fine Day For Ducks

Near my house there’s a footbridge over Corte Madera Creek, where I say hello to the duck families.  The ducks appear whenever they feel like it at different levels on the water, depending on the rain. Some move right along without stopping.  Some swim in slow circles under the bridge, obviously accustomed to passersby,  and some glide to a strand of rocks that’s exposed in the creek, where they waddle around for a while.  Some days the ducks aren’t there at all and I wait in vain, wondering why they’re not anywhere near as interested in us as we are in them.

The bridge curves up slightly in the middle, like the ones in storybook illustrations.  I stop at the very center, in the best duck-watching spot.  Coming toward me on the path is a young boy with a white-haired lady close behind.  He’s small, with a mop of dark hair and a handsome face highlighted by Harry Potter glasses in a bright color, with a professorial band around the back to hold them in place.

He speaks up like a person very much at home in the world.  He says hello and takes a spot next to me at the railing.  I move over a bit so he can have the center.  I mention I haven’t seen any ducks today.  

He says, “My name is Oscar. The ducks were here earlier.”  He adds, in a wistful voice, “Maybe they’ll come back later.” He brightens and announces,  “We’re having burritos for lunch.”

The woman with the pretty white hair approaches and the three of us watch the water. 

Oscar says,  “We’re eating at the burrito place because they’re so big.  It’s hard to walk home with them.”

The lady nods, “That’s right.”

“Grandson?” I ask.

“Yes,” she smiles and Oscar says,

“Granny, we better get going.” 

He turns back to reassure me.  “Maybe the ducks will be here when we come back.”

For a second I’m puzzled at why such a young boy with a pleasant smile is so serious today.  It occurs to me that he’s repeating answers he’s heard in response to questions he must have asked many times.  Can we go see the ducks?  Can we eat at a table outside today?  Will the ducks be there when we come back?  Can we have one of the big burritos?

My granddaughter, who’s three, has questions every time we ask her to go get her shoes.  She’s learning that the world can be complicated.  Just because you set out on a walk with your grandma to see the ducks, that doesn’t mean the ducks will always be there.  Just because you like to eat at a table outside, where the birds will pester you for part of your lunch, that doesn’t mean an outside table will always be open.  

I ask the departing Granny, “Does Oscar live close to you?” She says yes, just across the bay in Berkeley.  I tell her how lucky she is and add, in the way that all fairly new grandmas do when talking to strangers, how much I miss the little girl who lives a few hundred miles away.  She says, “Yes, I am lucky,” and she makes a circle with her arms, “Oscar is close enough to get my arms around him a couple of days a week.”

Normally this would make me sad, but not today.  Next weekend is Easter and my girl is coming to visit.  The first thing we’ll do is put on our walking shoes and go looking for ducks.

Ó By Anita Garner 2008