Scoring P*$$y at Baker

It has been years since I have visited  Baker Beach – the famous clothing optional strand within the San Francisco city limits – and I am excited.  SF gets nice weather – the nicest, I think – in September when fog gives way to brief, but much needed, “Indian Summer.”  Mika, the dog I am sitting, is a nudist and she is equally excited to beach while her parents are out of town.  She and I climb into Dusty, who is now furry inside, and head to the oceanfront park inside what used to be the SF Presidio.

We find parking quickly, which is unusual on a warm weekend day, and make the short walk to the shore.  As we hit the sand, Mika overflows with excitement.  She looks at me, the beach, then back at me.  Seeming to beg “let me off this leash,” I unhook her from the chains of bondage around her neck.  She takes off running down the beach after a tennis ball – the back of her butt looks like a bunny hopping feverishly down the sand; it’s cute and comical at the same time.  “Beautiful dog,” one passerby comments.

Dog on Baker

Mika loves to play catch, but with a twist.  I throw the ball, she runs bunny-butt style down the beach and even into the oncoming surf; she chomps on it a few times, turns around to look at me, then drops the ball and walks away.  “Get your ball,” I shout, to which she continues walking the other way.  As I run up to grab the ball before it is forever lost to the unforgiving sea, she turns back around (as if she hasn’t been watching), takes the ball in her mouth and takes off running down the beach.  I wonder whose game we’re playing: mine or hers?  Another person notes: “nice dog! Corgi?”

Besides the nudists, a prominent feature of Baker Beach is the view of Golden Gate Bridge.  It looms large and magnificent to the north, just beyond the rocks where nudist pose and sun themselves.  Mika’s game of catch leads us forward in that direction.  We reach the clothing optional section and notice people of all shapes, ages and colors basking in the sun.  There is different energy about a naturalist beach.  Sunbathers seem friendly and uninterested in the standard of beauty displayed on the newsstand.  It’s refreshing.  In fact, I sometimes love to check out older men, imagining for a moment what I will look like when I am eighty and naked.  I pray that I live long enough to see winkles cover my war-torn chassis and lines lay deep in the foundation of a laugh-filled face.

Looking up, I notice one man with a t-shirt, and nothing else, posing on the rocks.  He is next to fully-clothed Chinese tourists positioning themselves on the rocks with their children in front of the bridge.  They’ll rotate with one another so everyone has a chance to have their picture taken.  Naked T-shirt Man (NTM) rotates with Completely Nude Guy (CNG) as they guard and protect their claim to this area.  I snap a few pictures of the bridge, tourists and nudists.

It is not long before I am surround by a small gang or what I surmise are teenage women, maybe just barely legal or even college age (it’s hard to tell from this side of forty).  They are talking about Mika as if I am not there, which is a bit strange, in the worse form of Valley Girl dialect I have heard yet.

Girl #1: “Oh, he’s [sic] so cute, I wonder what his name is?”

Girl #2: “I wonder if he’s friendly.”

Girl #3: “Oh my gawd, I want that dawg.”

Girl #2: “Totally, I want that dawg.”

They continue this banter for a short time.  Mika ignores them and plays in the surf.  “Good dog,” I think to myself.  Finally, the threesome discuss something else – shopping, I think.

A few moments pass and the banter from the gaggle starts again.  “Man, I wish I had brought the pot that I left at home for us to smoke.”  One of the girls says this loud enough for me, and the two men (NTM & CNG) on the opposite rocks, to hear.   Some sort of San Francisco Gen Y mating call?  Another moment passes and their conversation continues, again as if I am not there:

Girl #1: “he’s kind of cute.”

Girl #2: “you mean thaaaat one in the hat?”  (I scan and I’m the only dude in visual distance wearing a hat)

Girl #1: “uh, yeah”

Girl #3: “I’d tap that.”

Girl # 1 and #2 together: “yeah, I’d definitely tap that.”

Baker in Full View

Suddenly, I think I know how women feel when walking past a group of cat-calling construction workers.  I am being objectified, right here on the nude beach in San Fran.  I can’t believe what I am hearing!

Just as the future ladies of the night are about to (gasp) ask me a direct question, a wave douses Mika.  She runs up onto the beach and shakes it off.  I laugh and the girls do too.  Saved by a wave.  I walk up to get Mika.  Glancing up at the CNG on the rocks, I notice he is completely shaved down under.  I wonder to myself why guys do that – it leads to nothing but pimples and uncharacteristic scratching for me.  He nods (and I swear winks) at me knowingly and then looks at the girls.  I shudder, then collect my Corgi companion to we make our way back down the beach to the safety of Dusty.  “Pretty dog” someone shouts as we exit the beach.


Soaking Oysters at the Kabuki


I arrive back in San Francisco after a couple weeks down the coast to house and dog sit for friends who are taking their daughter to Hawaii.  “Remember, Mika [the Corgi] is our first born,” they announce on the way out the door as a reminder to stay in check while ‘the cats’ are away.  The dog looks at me, I look at her, then she heads over to her favorite spot on the dining room floor to take a nap.  I think we’ll get along brilliantly!

I’ve decided to take advantage of San Francisco while I am here for the next few weeks.  I have a bunch of adventures scheduled – at least mentally – to fill the “unstructured” time (as my friend calls it).  Day one: Japantown for lunch followed by a soak in the Kabuki Hot Springs.  I have a tattoo appointment the following day, so this will be my last chance to soak or swim for the next couple weeks while my ink heals.  After walking the dog around the block a few times, I head out of the fog to Japan Center.

Boo / ブーイング

My First stop is the newly opened Daiso, which, from the looks of it, is Japan’s version of the 99 cent store.  I decide to ‘just browse’ and take a few pictures of the packaging, which is in Japanese and English.  The Halloween costumes are my favorite: witch hats, pumpkin streamers and fake noses are displayed in neat, orderly rows.  Next to them are the plastic boxes and mesh bags, which I simply must have to organize myself.  After an hour dreaming of the ways I will package my life in the rows of cute, practical plastic gadgets, I purchase nearly $19 of the junk and some Halloween decorations for my friends’ daughter.  I guess it’s how those stores get you!

I lunch at what appears to be a popular sushi restaurant where small wooden boats float around a water fed conveyer belt displaying sushi of various types and prices: eel hand roll $2.95, california roll $1.75, clam $3.95, spicy tuna $1.95, sea urchin $5.25.  Initially, I grab items I trust: eel, tuna and seaweed salad.  Then I spy two huge oysters coming around on a $3.75 plate.  I grab them thinking I have scored.  Bringing the almost hand-sized shell up to my lips, I pause momentarily breathing in the briny essence of the bivalve.  Tossing it back like a shot of Jaegermeister, I catch it with my tongue and bite it in half.  Creamy filling explodes in my mouth and overwhelms my senses.  Normally, I chew an oyster once, twice tops, and swallow.  This one is so huge, I chomp seven or eight times before letting it slide down my throat.  I gag, but prevail.

Sushi Floats

Not wanting the sushi chef to see me choke, I decide it’s best to finish this plate quickly.  Without pausing, I down the second oyster, this time attempting to swallow it whole.  It gets stuck half way down – too big to swallow – so I spit it back up.  Slimy flesh hits my front teeth and sits there momentarily.  I imagine the oyster no longer wants to go down, having witnessed what happened to its mate.  I gag; the oyster persists.  I imagine if it had arms it would try to pry my mouth open and leap to the table.  Looking around with this fistful of flesh in my mouth I’m desperate, but then devise the perfect plan: chew like mad and follow the creamy bottom feeder with a spat of green paste and flying fish eggs.  I do this, hoping, no . . . . praying, that the small salty roe will wash away the taste of sea sludge.  It does the trick, but the wasabi is hot and my nostrils are now on fire.  I toss back some hot green tea and ask for the check.  Walking through the center, I wish I could scrape the taste of dead oyster off the roof of my mouth.

I don’t know if it’s advised to sit in a hot tub full of naked men after one has eaten oysters, but I wouldn’t have listened anyway.  The Kabuki Hot Springs is a Japanese style bath house complete with showers, hot tub, cold plunge, dry and wet saunas and relaxing areas.  The establishment provides lemon and cucumber water and slices of apple during your stay and an assortment of body products for post-soak.  Every other day, one gender is allowed clothing-optional access to the facility.  The exception is Tuesday, when everyone is invited, but bathing suits are required.

Before entering, I imagine that I will encounter elderly Japanese businessmen and maybe a Buddhist monk or two.   Like Tassajara, I am surprised by the amount of, um, white guys.  I walk in and plunge into the warm soak.  My plan is this: hot tub, cold plunge, steam sauna, rest, repeat.  After a few moments I notice the men seem to fall broadly into two categories: squinters or cruisers.  Squinters peek; cruisers gawk.  Straight or gay, men do check each other out and, I think, are interested to see what other guys have for, uh, equipment.  It’s one of the reasons we dudes think we have inadequate tools; because we see one or two in the showers who are “show-ers.”

Japantown Art

I feel a certain sexual energy in the place that is hard to describe.  Maybe the oysters are kicking in like ecstasy tabs.  If the music were pumping disco or dance, instead of Buddha lounge, I might pop into the steam room for a little wank.  There is enough room for Bette Midler to perform if she chose to resurrect her bathhouse singing career.  In light of the fact that a businessman or monk might walk in one day, the management keeps the place above board.  Attendants keep close watch on the sauna and tubs to ensure a hanky-panky-free environ.  But there are still looks, glances and stares.

I leave the Kabuki slightly frustrated – damn those briny mollusks – but, find solace in Mika when I arrive home.  She is a bundle of love.  It’s really all I want right now – some unconditional affection.  We play hide and seek where I throw a ball then take off to another part of the house to hide behind a door or piece of furniture.  She seeks, all the while smiling with her tongue hanging to one side.   When she finds me – and she gets quite good at this – she barks madly and shakes her furry, tail-less butt.  We do this over and over . . . and over.

Sitting Zazen at the Tassajara Hot Springs

“We don’t have much availability because that is the week we close for the season” the woman on the other side of the phone says. “Oh, but I can offer you a shared cabin, meaning you will be housed with someone, for $129 a night with meals included.” “I’ll take it,” I reply. I have vague childhood memories of the Tassajara Zen Buddhist Retreat Center in the middle of the Los Padres National Forrest, not far from Carmel Valley. My stepmother and father would take my stepbrother and I there in the summer to swim naked in the river and slip down the natural rock slide and waterfall.

Dusty Road to Tassajara

I spend the night in Jamesburg with close friends – Abbe, Fred, Jenny and Billy – before I start my climb (and decent) to Tassajara. It’s only 16 miles from there, but the road is unpaved, dry, dusty and hot with steep inclines and declines. “Don’t be a dumb ass and ride your brakes all the way down,” Abbe says as I wave goodbye, “all you smell is burning brakes.” And it’s true; about 30 minutes in I can smell other cars‘ flaming drums. It’s not pleasant. Dusty (my Jeep) takes the journey in stride.

Dirt is everywhere in Tassajara. By the time I arrive at the center, I can feel it in the back of my throat and down my sinuses. “You’ll be in cabin 9. Can’t miss it,” says the young, distracted blonde behind the counter. I was half expecting to find Japanese monks, but the center appears to be run mostly by, uh, white folks. My cabin is nice, on the stark side, and something I would expect at a monastery. No one else in the room, so I grab the better futon, close to the door and away from the toilet, which is separated in the room by a piece of cloth. I grab my bathing suit, camera and towel and practically skip down the path towards the Narrows and my vague childhood memory.

One of Many Waterfalls on the River

I make it to the swimming hole and it is mostly as I remember. “They’re slippery,” a naked man calls out to me as I gingerly approach the river. “Thanks” I shoot back. Walking to the head of the waterfall I glance down. It is not quite as tall as I remember – though I must have been smaller when I was last here. “Can I jump,” I ask the two naked women lounging on the opposite rocks. “Yes! go for it,” they encourage. Stripping off my clothes and tossing the bathing suit aside, I take the plunge. It is nearly 100 degrees outside and the cool river feels amazing. I take a couple more leaps to get the dust out from behind my tongue and then position my body in the sun, imagining for a moment I am lizard.

Time passes quickly, or slowly, when you have no clock and no watch to check. Not only are there no clocks, but only minimal solar generated electricity on the property. At night, kerosene lamps light the walkway. My cell phone doesn’t get signal, so I turn it off and leave it in the room hidden under the futon in case someone come prowling for easy steals. I won’t touch it again until I climb back into the car for the return trip. This gives me a certain sense of satisfaction since I can now easily leave my cell phone alone. Progress!

Tassajara at Night

The next morning, I get up with the monks . . . well, ok, I get up at 5:30 when the monks are signally everyone to morning zazen. I decide to take the plunge and sit with the Buddhists – they “sit” to release attachment to thoughts and mind, which I could use a bit of. At 5:40, half asleep, I stumble into the temple gripping my large Maglite flashlight (I fear leaving it outside with my shoes that someone might take it). The traffic cop at the front of the temple asks: “cushion or chair?” “Chair,” I respond. Smiling, she points to one in the corner of the room, facing the wall. I am tempted to turn it around, but notice that everyone sits facing the wall. Now I question what I have gotten myself into; will I have to stare at a blank wall for the next hour?

As people file in, I crane my neck to see if there is anyone I recognize (from where, I have no idea). My mind is incredibly active at this hour and starts jabbering to itself about this that and the other thing. At least in church you have the backs of people’s heads at which to stare. Why do they make us face at the wall? Thank god there are other people in chairs – I am not the only one. Tomorrow I will take a cushion, instead of this training stool, it will be a challenge and I’m up to a challenge. I wonder what Buddhist sex is like?

Other people, many in plain black robes, file into the room quietly and sit on stark black cushions. They fidget with their drapery and position themselves like princes and princesses at a reception. Next there is the sounds of gongs, followed by a series of bells. We’ve begun! Sit for twenty five minutes, then a five minute minute break – I am thinking tea and cookies – followed by another twenty five minutes of sitting. I can do this!

Sitting in my chair, I suddenly feel uncomfortable. I shift my weight from one butt cheek to the other. Then my throat becomes dry and I curse myself for forgetting my stainless steel water bottle in the room as I stumbled out. I cough. Someone else sneezes, I assume in sympathy, so I don’t feel so bad. People continue to arrive; I judge them. Someone else shifts. I get bored examining the paint and texture of the wall, so close my eyes and start to mull over the things I will do today: hot tub, breakfast, chitchat with the other guests, maybe find a monk and ask him the meaning of happiness . . . or life for that matter . . . then a hike, followed by naked dip in the river . . .

As I run through my agenda, I congratulate myself for doing so well in morning zazen. I will definitely be ready to sit on a zafu tomorrow, like the robes ones next to me. Then, the gong rings, followed by a bell. I squint one of my eyes open and notice that the room has gone completely quiet and still. We are just now starting! Those I had judged so harshly just a few moments ago weren’t late – I was early. I hate being early. Damn this place with no clocks! At the break our only reward is shifting. No one gets up, there are no cookies or tea. The bells and bowls sing again. I go back to listening to the incessant chatter in my head wondering if it will ever shut up.

By the time the finishing bell rings I am elated – I feel like I am being let out of detention. I stand up and afraid that someone is going to (gasp) say something to me, I make quick exit through the door where I see several of the black-robed-ones going. Just as I exit and the door closes, I hear “you’re welcome to stay.” I grasp my Maglight close and pull on my shoes. The room starts chanting; Buddhists chant their lineage back 1000 years. I was in such a hurry to depart that I miss the second – maybe more entertaining – part of the service. I berate myself for ten seconds, then walk back to my cabin to nap before taking a morning zazen in the hot sulfur springs.

Hiking in Tassajara

I accomplish most of the other items on my mental checklist that I organized while sitting, with the exception of the meaning of life bit. That night, dinner is truly “Tassajara.” I am at a table with a lesbian therapist on my left, a nurse-turned-yoga instructor on my right, a Hollywood marketing director, a lawyer and a retired man who never reveals what he does for work across the table. It sounds like the start of a joke, but the conversation is one that I truly enjoy: intellectual and offbeat.

The next morning as a monk walks through the cabin area where I sleep banging a piece of wood to wake people up, I am determined to sit zazen on a zafu. I roll over and fall back asleep, comfortable that my intention, not realized, is good enough for today. I feel no guilt, which is tremendous progress and I am certain the Dali Lama would be proud.

Going Home

My mother and I pack her shoes and assorted bargains into the jeep and discuss our route to Carmel Valley: 280 to Highway 1, down the beautiful California coast.  I inform her that I will make frequent stops to take pictures of breathtaking scenery.  We say goodbye to our hosts and make our way south.  Having spent nearly four days in the fog, we pray for sun, which is often abundant outside of the city.  The famous Mark Twain quote – “the coldest winter I ever spent was summer in San Francisco” – runs through my head, though it’s not just SF, but the entire NorCal coast.  As we drive, we hit a wall of fog so thick that it’s hard to distinguish ocean from land.

Golden Hills

It’s about a two hour drive from the Fog City to Carmel, but it take us three and a half.  Rather than stopping to snap pictures, we stop once at an outlet mall in Half Moon Bay and once at Costco in Santa Cruz.  Making our way along the Monterey Bay, sights, sounds and smells become familiar.  We pass the county fair grounds where I rode the ferris wheel for the first time, the town in which my parents met, the hospital where I was born, the high school I didn’t graduate from.  We turn left onto Carmel Valley Road and the fog gives way to abundant, warm sunshine; the memories now flow faster.  We pass the junior high I attended intermittently, the place where we had to drive fast get through a river to visit Margie and Ellen (the time of year dictated how much water would come into the car), and the ranch my father used to manage.

Making the final harrowing turns, which made me car sick as a child, we enter the Village and see the “welcome to the Carmel Valley” sign that has greeted visitors and residents for many years.  This town is one of those special places that defy total explanation.  Originally settled by ranchers in the 18- and 1900s, it saw an influx of hippies (including my parents) in the 1960s and 70s.  Movie stars and other wealthy independents retired here, including the Brady Bunch mother Florence Henderson.  More recently, wine growers have moved into the area and planted grapes on the arid, golden hills.  This mix of people makes for good daytime – and nighttime – drama.  Ask any resident about their life and experience in the valley and you’re likely to hear an story of love, intrigue and zany adventures.

California Oak Tree

I am surprised how comforting it is to smell my hometown.  The air is sweet and full of eucalyptus, oak, and sea mist with just a hint of skunk and horse shit.  I breathe deeply and chew on it as if sampling fine wine.  It’s intoxicating – literally – and I feel slightly giddy.   They say that smell is our strongest sense when it come to memories and with the smell of the Valley they come flooding back: good, bad and ugly.

My mother and I pull up to the Blue Sky Lodge, a gem in the heart of the Village that has been run by the same family for generations.  Before we can park, a long-time family friend, Jenny, and her son greet us.  They accompany us back to the cabin to help unpack.  Next Abbe and Fred arrive, followed by Martha, Tom, and my father.  It feels like my mom and I are celebrities returning home to a town parade.  This is just one of the gifts we receive from family and friends while visiting this beautiful place.

The next four days are filled with stories of the old days and catching up on lives lived.  It is fun to hear the stories from my elders who have grown wrinkled and grey.  I remember when they were younger, and just trying to survive, hold together a relationship or make the best they could for themselves.  Along the way they led a social change that is only now being realized.  I am finally able to see my parents as entirely human – no better and no worse than anyone else on the planet.  It brings me a sense of peace to have a renewed relationship with them in these years.

Carmel Mission

The only time mom and I leave the Valley, and sun, is to make a run to the Del Monte Shopping Center in Monterey to replace a phone charger that she forgot in SF.  While there, I hear words cross her lips that I never imagined possible: “I don’t want to shop anymore.”   I imagine it’s temporary and due to the weight restrictions airlines now place on luggage.  No matter, I’ll take it!  We stop briefly at the San Carlos Borroméo de Carmelo (aka, Carmel Mission), one of gems in the system of missions that run up and down the state.  They were built by spanish missionaries each about a one day horseback ride from the previous.  We joke about robes on display in the museum (they would go well with the current pope’s fashion sense), then enjoy the beauty and quiet of the grounds.

Heading back towards the sun and Village, I realize that in fact it is possible to ‘go home again,’ but doing so has nothing to do with the location and everything to do with where you are in life.

City Buy the Bay

City buy the Bay

I arrive in SF late afternoon and greet the long-time friend with whom my mother and I will stay for the next few days.  Head down, she is working intently.  Before I can get a word out and without looking up, she says: “your mother . . . (deep breath) the Queen of Clean . . .  is coming and I STILL have so much to do.”  There is fear in her voice, her eyes are wide and I detect beads of sweat on her forehead.  I approach slowly, so as not to make any sudden movements, and attempt to pry the vacuum from her cold grip.  She gives up willingly, then slumps into a chair like a crackhead who has just been confronted.

Truth be told, my mother is known by that title amongst my friends.  She maintains a spotless house – “only when visitors are coming,” she says – and will vacuum at any hour of the day or night – “dog hair doesn’t sleep, why should I?”  She claims not to hold others to the same impossible standards, but it does sometimes feel as though she will arrive with white glove in hand to dust test counter tops and windowsills.  I have come to love her visits to New York, as my apartment is cleaner, and better organized, by the time she leaves.

My high school chum and I spend a few minutes catching up, then head out to feast on Kalbi, Kimchi Pancake and other Korean delights.  On the way, we collect her daughter from pre-school; she is a rambunctious, curious four year old who demands attention.  It is difficult to refuse her; calling me “uncle,” she has a barrage of questions and statements.  Uncle, where have you been?  Uncle, will you play with me?  Uncle, I want to tell you something.  Uncle, you know what? . . .

Later that evening, I gather my mother from SF International.  Besides being known as Vacuum Mistress, she is also a self-proclaimed shopping addict.  She will spend hours – ‘on the hunt’ as she calls it – in Ross and other discount retailers.  Often, she will produce items and list their retail value, sale price, then what she paid for it.  A shirt that was originally $75 was marked down to $20 and she got it for $4.  Her current drug of choice: DSW Warehouse.  She has identified the locations in the Bay Area and lists them, from memory, along with ALL the locations of Ross, Nordstrom Rack and Trader Joe’s.

Union Square

The next morning, I strap the four year-old, my friend, and mother into the Jeep and head towards the shopping capital of SF: Union Square.  Parking is an issue as the car-top carrier means my truck is oversized, street parking in that location during the day is nearly impossible, and garages in the city maintain low clearance.  We find one with a seven foot, four inch clearance.  I hesitate, then enter.  The SportBox on my roof scrapes the garage ceiling at times and I must be careful to avoid water pipes, but I find a spot wedging my Dusty (as she is called) into a “compact” spot.  As we exit, the only thing I think of is what it would be like to be in an underground parking garage during an earthquake.

In no time, we are street-level among the major retailers of the world: Macy’s, H&M, DSW.  I love malls and shopping areas for their dream-like quality; they seem to scream “you can be anything you want (if you buy what we sell)” from their display windows.  As we walk, it feels like a brave new world.  I observe one lady: she finds something, looks at it, a smiles crosses her face.  She then puts it down and her face returns to the blank stare I see on many of the shoppers in the store.  Retail zombies!

After an hour of viewing row upon row of last year’s shoe fashions, which are displayed as carefully as museum exhibits, I step outside for some fresh air and sunshine.  On Powell Street I witness the world happening – workers step out to cop Starbucks, tourists dart in and out of stores, people go on with their lives.  I notice a half-naked, presumedly homeless man pushing his hat into the crowd on the street.  His pants fall just below his waistline and he’s thrown some of this belongings on the street next to him.  An officer approaches and asks him to move on.  Once the man in blue has turned his back, the vagabond flicks up his middle finger and makes a grotesque face.  In a few moments, another dispossessed fills the vacated spot.  He carries a sign proclaiming “Hungry.  Will you help?” I slip him a dollar, he clearly needs it today more than I.

A few minutes later I get a text: “In the basement,” it reads, “Shoe heaven. Meet me here.”  I wander downstairs thirty minutes later and mom has four pairs of shoes in her hands.  Her eyes are wide and I can smell bargains in the air.  She displays the shoes for me, but I can hardly tell the difference between them.  According to her: 1) they are all on sale (“I pay twice as much in Hawaii for these”) and 2) they each have a different variation (“this pair has twisted rope, which looks pretty, doesn’t it?”).  By the time she leaves San Francisco, my mother will have nine pairs of shoes in her possession.  Emelda Marcos would be proud.

Buy Me!

We stop for lunch at the Westfield San Francsico Centre, housed in the original Emporium on Market Street.  The food court is upscale.  No Burger King, no Panda Express (the other fast-food I secretly indulge).  For $15 I get a small bowl of pasta, which gives me gas, and an orange Pellegrino.  My friend and mother order more sensibly: kobe beef salad, steak plate.  I usually think the grass is greener when it comes to other peoples’ food, but today it’s true.  No matter, it gives us time to chat and catch up.  After a stop at the gelato stand, where we turn over more than the price of gold per ounce, we make a quick bathroom stop.  On the way out of the grazing smorgasbord, it strikes me that that we are in a windowless basement, not all that dissimilar from the garage where we parked the car, with some obvious exceptions.  Looking around, I wonder what it would be like to be in an earthquake in the underground food court.

Places I Love: Voodoo Doughnuts . . . um Portland!

City of Bridges, Rivers and Highways

I have just under 24 hours to explore Portland, OR.  Having never spent any real time here, I am curious to check out the city, its bike paths, restaurants and Powell Books.  I call my college classmate and former San Francisco roommate, Dave, and tell him I am in town.  He meets me on bike at the hip n’ cool Jupiter Hotel, where I stay for the night, and we head out on the town.

Our first stop is a local watering hole: Crush.  It’s not long before it feels like old times.  We catch up on the last 15 years of our lives; career, love, family and more.  There is a great sense of satisfaction I feel in our exchange – it is good to share life stories with a chum.  We move over to the trendy Accanto restaurant in the neighborhood of Belmont and continue our repartee.  It is great fun.

Downtown Portland, OR

Our night cap takes us on a walk to downtown Portland and Voodoo Doughnuts, where at 12:30AM there is a line of about 40 people waiting for doughnuts.  I order a caramel round and Dave gets the bacon maple bar.  We walk and eat; I notice the vibrancy of the city – Portland is alive and loud in the early morning.  Perched on our outdoor bench at the secret bar Central, we watch trendy, young club-goers, drag queens, homeless men and women and people in search of late night eats fill the streets with activity.  I head back to the hotel and climb into bed around 1AM.  I dream of sweat rings of fried cakes and seriously consider a Voodoo run at 3 AM (they open 24/7), but sleep gets the better of me.

The next day, after a most delicious brunch at Wild Abandon, Dave and I find ourselves in line at Voodoo again; this time at the alternate location, which is bright pink and architecturally resembles a former IHOP.  It has the atmosphere of a carnival – black velvet paintings of Kenny Loggins, pinball machines, tourists and locals, and the grande dame: a four tiered, glass-enclosed doughnut case.  My eyes start to spin like a cartoon character as I consider which deep-fried ball of delight I will devour.  A closer look reveals a vegan top shelf.

The Voodoo Doughnut (yum!)

I settle on the signature doughnut – a raspberry filled, chocolate covered bar, complete with short arms and a pretzel stick used for performing black magic rituals.  “Bite the head off!,” Dave instructs me.  I do, then eat the entire body, growling as if I am King Kong or some other giant animal.  Before leaving, I decide to take a couple dozen sinkers me to the Soul Retrieval workshop I am about attend in SE Oregon – I figure that retrieving souls is hard work and people would appreciate the sustenance.  Plus, it allows me to eat two more doughnuts in the car ride to the retreat center.

I leave Portland feeling full from the dunkers and happy to have reconnected with an old friend.

Places I Love: Vancouver

Vancouver Harbour

I fall in love with Vancouver as soon as I arrive.  The mountains, bridges, glimmering high rises,  streets, and energy infects my soul and I hear my mind negotiate with my body: you won’t get much rest or sleep while here, but you will have an amazing time.  The first thing I notice is how expansive the city feels, maybe because of the mountain peaks – some still snow capped – that provide dramatic backdrop to this Northwest metropolis.  Vancouver feels open and airy.

Vancouver Convention Center

I settle into the Nelson House Bed and Breakfast in the West End and then take a spin around town.  I bike to Stanley Park, which is a 10 minute ride from the B&B; I am amazed at how quickly the city fades into trees and trails.  With exception of the road, which bisects the green space, it feels like I am in a secluded section of the Northwest.  I make my way around the seawall to witness amazing views of Vancouver harbor, downtown and the North End.

There is a different vibe to Vancouver: It is not an American city.  I realize the absurdity of this statement as I make it, but it’s true.  If cities have soul, this one certainly feels tangibly different than even the other West Coast urban centers I visit.  Although I have a hard time putting my finger on the difference, I settle on this: People are nice here, less stressed out – I notice this as I bike through the neighborhoods.  Drivers rarely honk their horns and there is a certain politeness I don’t find in the US.  There is a huge Asian influence here, but that is true in other places (for example, San Francisco).  I eat Korean food for dinner one night and Vietnamese Pho the next.

Totem at UBC MOA

One of the reasons I came to Vancouver is to experience the UBC Museum of Anthropology (MOA).  I am drawn to the repository to find out more about Inuit and First Nations’ art and mythology, a subject in which I have growing interest.  MOA is impressive; it houses literally hundreds of thousands of art pieces from indigenous artists, both modern and archaeological.  Many are stored in research display cases, resembling large, glass-covered file cabinets, giving me the opportunity to ‘discover’ works on my own (not to mention spend hours getting lost in sliding bins).  My favorite display is a covered mask on an altar.  The description says it is cloaked to represent the First Nations view that everything is not for public view.

Before I leave Canada, I stock up on my 400mg tablets of Advil and Allegra-D, both of which are over the counter.  I take a walk and cycle around the city (one of which I describe in a separate entry) and try to spend all the Canadian money I have collected while in country: I am mostly successful, except for a Loonie or two and a few CAD quarters, dimes and nickels.  I think to myself before I hit the road again that I would like to spend a month or two or three in Vancouver getting to know her.  I wonder if first impressions are always correct.

For pictures of Vancouver –> Click Here