Friday, August 19, 2005

Her Name is Hope

She's standing in front of me.
Just a few feet away.
She asks me to keep my eyes on her.
As she walks, she keeps looking back.
I am close behind her.
She could speed up, but she doesn't.
She's smiling.
I'm moving as fast as I can.
Hope knows this.
Hope waits for me.
Hope loves me.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

From the DMZ to Pho 99

It was 1975, the war was coming to its awful conclusion, and I was in my junior year of high school. We'd been watching newscasts from Viet Nam for as long as I could remember. There were daily body counts, stories of skirmishes and battles and peace talks and protests and war crimes. It went on and on and on, year in and year out. Finally there were those awful television images of helicopters making their last departures from Saigon, desperate refugees hanging from the runners. There were scenes of Navy men pushing helicopters over the sides of their aircraft carriers. The mission had changed; we needed room for our new passengers.

Three years later, in college, I met my first Vietnamese refugee. He was a Hmong, actually, and couldn't speak a lick of english. Not one word. My friend and I did our best to communicate with him, but we didn't have even the smallest fragment of common language to share. Nonetheless, we managed to get across to him that he was welcome at our school and that we were glad to have him.

As the years went by and our new Americans came into Southern California in increasing numbers, they began to fill the colleges and start businesses. Today Vietnamese Americans are moving out of their little Saigons into the suburbs just like any other Americans on their way up. They are an impressive people, having achieved more in a half of a generation than many native born Americans will achieve in their entire lives.

Today, I make it a point to stop in to Pho 99 from time to time. Pho 99 is a Vietnamese restaurant chain in Southern California, and my particular haunt is not much different than any other Vietnamese restaruant. After eating there ten or twelve dozen times, the food no longer seems exotic or foreign. I look into their faces and can't imagine the warriors of a generation ago.

A couple of days after September 11, 2001, I was at Pho 99 having lunch, reading a Newsweek recount of the mayhem in New York. The manager came over to me, and seeing what I was reading, looked into my eyes and said in a quiet voice, "It's so sad, isn't it?" Her accent faded away.

Go Now, Silver Moon

Shining silver moon and leafy olive shadows,
Just leave me alone.
Go to the horizon silver moon,
Bring back the darkness,
Surround me with nothing.

Balmy summer breeze and mockingbird song,
You're wasted on me.
Go south, warm winds,
Chill my soul again,
My search has only begun.

Oh silver moon how I love you,
But I look away.
Wane again, please; just go now,
Equinox awaits me,
And the sun must swing low.

Silver moon your beauty is forever,
And you will be our friend.
When you come again,
Our new song will rise to you,
And we will bathe you with our joy.

Dining on the Ninety-Nine

We'd been driving for several hours and were now moving through the Coachella Valley in slow motion. We were stricken with hunger and couldn't come to an agreement about where to stop. The Coachella Valley is now host to dozens and dozens of chain restaurants advertised by huge billboards as big as a house. But it was all so corporate and sterile. The hunt continued.

So we decided that we'd have Mexican -- I'd had a sizzling bowl of menudo for breakfast and just wanted more -- and I knew just the place. We continued a few miles futher down I-10 and got off the interstate on the outskirts of Indio. Now there's a town with charm. Right alongside the I-10 is old US Route 99, the highway of choice until I-10 came through in the early '60s and crashed the party.

As we drove south down old Route 99, I was struck by the abandoned look of everything. Here is a town, and at the same time, not a town. The sun-desiccated buildings scattered along this stretch of the highway are spread out widely, with empty lots, desert foliage and billboards as punctuation. Very few of the structures date more recently than 1965. There are plenty of googie-era coffee shops and restaurants, all of them boarded up. Abandoned gas stations continue their afterlives as sentries on the corners. On the east side of the road is the railroad right of way, and backing up to it are decrepit warehouses and loading docks. Interspersed along the route are old roadside motels, most of them gone to seed or condemned and closed. There was one that managed to limp into this century with a bright new pink paint job and an attractive sign. But it was still just a '50s era motel. If they get thirty bucks a throw I'd be surprised.

We arrived at Macario's, a non-descript, low-slung converted house right there on the main drag. As I pulled off the highway, I realized why the place has stuck in my head and become a favorite. No sidewalks, no curbs, and no paving in the parking lot. You just pull off the highway and park. I was going about ten miles per hour faster than I should have been (I was hungry) and laid on the brakes in the gravel. For a moment my wheels locked up, producing that incorrigable sound of gravel kicking up into the fenders. A cloud of dust continued off into the dirt lot as my car came to a stop. As I got out of the car, I noticed that across the lot there was the remnant of another business, now just a foundation covered in dust and tumbleweeds. Leading up to the foundation was a painted red sidewalk, its rounded corner just peeking out of the dirt and debris of decades of decline.

The restaurant had a little garden out front to provide a respite from the blazing sun. There's a little ornamental tangerine tree, a strip of astroturf, and a whitewashed fountain. The brick structure itself was also whitewashed, but needed a new coat. We headed in and were seated promptly. It was warm inside. As I looked around, I had to ask myself once again why this place keeps drawing me back. Nothing about it is impressive. The interior was rather dimly lit by two large skylights, but there weren't enough of them. There is no ceiling, just the underside of the roof, joists and all, painted aqua, a color that clashed with the loud print of the carpet squares on the floor. The faux wrought iron provided faux old world charm.

Our waitress struggled with her english. She was working from a routine and didn't seem to understand the things she was saying. "Jew ready to owe-der?" My wife asked for a mini-bottle of Sangria. The kids had Cokes and my mother-in-law was sticking with water. I asked for a Negro Modelo, taking pains to pronounce it in flawless spanish. I'm not sure why I did that, except maybe to try to best the waitress in foreign language skill. I sounded ridiculous.

The chips were thick and warm. The salsa was spicey and delicious. My beer hit the spot and began to repair the damage I had inflicted on myself the night before. Still, the food was, on the whole, unremarkable. It was a bit unnerving watching the waitress bring my hot menudo to the table as it sloshed from its bowl. I was hungry and wanted every drop. "Everything? Ees OK?" the waitress said, over and over. She was reciting from her english script.

Mediocre food and service aside, we had a fantastic lunch together. Here was a mom and pop restaurant on the edge of civilization, struggling along. So many businesses along Route 99 had folded, yet Macario's remains. Everything about the place reminds you of how it used to be, as if you were seeing the world through a black and white photograph. Macario's has nothing on El Torito, but it is real Mexican food, served by a real Mexican staff to real Mexican customers. I glanced up at the restaurant sign as we walked out to our car. Its sun-bleached corrugated plastic panels shook in the high wind. Finally, I put my finger on it. It's the timelessness of this place. No one cares that everywhere else 1953 has been buried under a relentless march of modern development. I can even see it in that decrepit sign, fighting gravity, and wind, and sun and rain, on and on and on.

As I pulled back out onto the highway, toothpick dangling from my lips, I couldn't resist the urge. I punched down on the accelerator, kicking up more gravel and another little cloud of dust, which moved silently back across the dirt parking lot.