Sunday, July 16, 2006

Vacation in Pismo Beach

Every two years or so, Tim and I like to rent a condo in Pismo Beach for a few days. It’s far enough from L.A. (three hours by car) to feel like we’re getting away, but close enough to retain all the comforts of home (Trader Joe’s, L.A. TV stations, etc.). Plus it’s only 10 miles from San Luis Obispo (SLO), an enlightened college town that’s always got something interesting going on.

It’s not surprising, therefore, that I jumped at an offer, several months ago, to lead a workshop in SLO this week. My only provision was that we schedule the workshop on Thursday or Friday so Tim and I could spend the weekend in Pismo. The timing couldn’t have been more perfect as it’s been hotter than hell even in Culver City, where we’re relatively close to the beach. Al Gore is right—global warming is here! Consider this a mandate to see “An Inconvenient Truth”!

As soon as the workshop date was set, Tim started hunting for a condo on the Internet. Even with two months notice, the pickin’s were slim, so we ended up with a townhouse that sleeps six. The thing was enormous—literally 500 square feet larger than our home. And it was decorated in a western motif gone berserk. The manager of the complex called it “our house of animals” and he was right. In the living room was a stuffed deer’s head, buffalo (?) horns and a huge rack of Moose antlers, that cast an eery shadow when the upstairs light was on. After a while I also noticed a pair of bookends made out of deer hooves and a stuffed armadillo poised under the staircase. The walls were covered in hand-painted murals of outdoor western scenes—a clever way to avoid hanging pictures, except in the middle of it all was something of a shrine to the owner’s mother, Catherine Kent, who apparently sang and/or acted in an all-female western troupe. Framed pictures of her (mostly of the cheesecake variety) hung along the staircase and in the dining room. Too bad we didn't have our camera.

After getting over the shock of having to spend the weekend in a Wild West museum, we decided to take a walk into “town” to see how Pismo had changed over the past two years. The drive-in burger joint, Pom & Roy, had either changed management or got a new coat of paint; otherwise, everything still looks the same. The Old West Cinnamon Roll store, which is open every day of the year but Christmas, is still there, as is the eight-lane bowling alley. Mo’s barbecue is still serving up ribs and tri-tip and The Scoop is still the place to get ice cream. It was Thursday afternoon, so things were fairly quiet. By Friday afternoon, however, the place was a zoo, with campers full of families arriving for the weekend.

The highlight of every trip to Pismo is the SLO Farmer’s Market, which starts at 6:00, Thursday evenings. Anxious to get a good parking spot, we arrived in SLO at 5:30PM and watched as vendors heated up their grills and popped their tents in preparation for that night’s hordes. Amazingly, within 20 minutes, several blocks of Higuera St., SLO’s main north-south artery, was turned into an outdoor marketplace. By 6PM, the place was swarming with tourists and locals alike.

The central coast is famous for its barbecue, so we started by walking the entire length of the market, checking out the various menus and comparing prices. Finally, we decided on pulled pork sandwiches from Mother’s Tavern and had a feast, perched on the first empty curb we could find. We then went in search of other food items that we could either eat in the condo or take home at the end of the weekend. I bought two half-pound tomatoes, which were so big it took me 20 minutes to chop them up later that night. Tim bought two jars of his favorite olallerberry jam. I was determined to buy some strawberries to munch on over the weekend, but couldn’t find any to my liking, so we treated ourselves to a scoop of outrageous blueberry cheesecake ice cream instead. By now, we’d walked up and down the market three times and so finally headed back to Pismo as it started to get dark. After snacking on organic tomatoes, we went to bed, surrounded by murals of sunflowers and cacti.

I taught the next day, so Tim ran errands between news reports of uncontrolled fires in San Bernardino and war in Israel. At 3:30, he picked me up in SLO and we returned to Pismo for an early dinner. I had noticed a new restaurant in town called Two Blocks Off the Beach—actually, I had noticed the sign outside, promising homemade desserts!—and so when Tim read a glowing review of it in the weekly newspaper, we decided to give it a try. The food was wonderful—one of the best spinach salads I’ve ever eaten. And the dessert was fabulous, as promised. Finally, a great restaurant in Pismo Beach.

Like most beach towns, the downtown area is pretty much overrun by teenagers at night; so we turned around and went back to SLO to see the recently released documentary “Who Killed the Electric Car.” As enlightened as SLO is, most of its movie theaters show the same ol’ summer blockbusters, which we’ve already seen. The happy exception is The Palm, a tiny art house that shows nothing but independent and international films. Luckily we got there early, because the movie—shown in a theater about the size of our master bedroom—was almost sold-out. The film chronicles the creation and ultimate destruction of the popular EV-1 electric car created by General Motors in 2001. Several villains are portrayed in the film, including the oil companies, who are obviously not enthused about electric cars, GM, who saw no profit in manufacturing mass quantities of fuel-efficient cars, and the government, which bowed to the pressures placed on them by GM and the oil companies. I found myself mumbling and cursing throughout the film as the electric car’s enemies prevailed. I half-expected Tim to shush me like he did when we saw Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11” the first time. As for the rest of the audience, they were fairly subdued, until George Bush came on the screen, proposing to drill for oil in the Alaskan preserves. You would have thought Hitler himself had walked in the door for all the booing and hissing that erupted by the time Bush finished his speech. I knew then that the movie had struck the same chord in everyone else that it had struck in me.

On Saturday, we got up early and headed north to Cayucos after having a hearty breakfast at SLO’s famous Apple Farm restaurant. Cayucos, we discovered two years ago, is the antiques capital of the central coast. Still, we were quite surprised to find the place crawling with people. Turns out there was a six-mile “Rock to Pier Fun Run” that morning, from Morro Bay to the Cayucos pier, and hundreds of people had either participated or come to cheer their loved ones on. The stores weren’t open yet, so we stood on the pier watching as the last few stragglers crossed the finish line. All else was forgotten, however, when the stores opened at 10AM.

Now I collect a particular pattern of dinnerware called “Swiss Chalet.” It’s a set that was sold in supermarkets when I was a kid in the early 1960s. My mother bought a few pieces, which I took with me when I moved out of my father’s house fifteen years later. I never really gave these oddball plates and saucers much thought until I saw an entire set of them at the Rose Bowl flea market about three years ago. They were beautiful: white with small blue and green hand-painted flowers in the center. I passed them by that day, but soon became obsessed with collecting all the pieces I didn’t have. I even did a bit of research and found out that the set, called Swiss Chalet, was made by a well-known porcelain company named Marcrest. In addition to the usual plates, bowls, cups and saucers, a different manufacturer, Fire King, also made an entire series of drinking glasses, which I had never seen, and Pyrex made matching cookware. I was completely hooked and have spent many hundreds of dollars buying almost every piece of Swiss Chalet I could find.

I have never been able to find the holy grail of Swiss Chalet pieces, however: a blue pitcher which has no identifiable markings, except a Marcrest stamp on the bottom. I have seen the pitcher in pink, which of course belongs to another set altogether, but never in blue. So Tim and I were on a very specific quest in Cayucos: to find the blue Swiss Chalet pitcher! I even printed off a picture of it, which Tim kept in his pocket, just in case.

Well, after three hours, not only did we *not* find the pitcher, but we didn’t even see one single piece of Swiss Chalet, which is highly unusual. Could it be that I’ve already bought most of the inventory in the western United States?! I did find some other cool stuff, though, including a pair of two-inch plastic red-and-white salt-and-pepper shakers that perfectly match our mid-century red kitchen, plus a $3.50 brochure about Angel’s Flight, one of downtown L.A.’s most precious lost treasures. I also found an old poster of Culver City’s former raceway, which was demolished in the 1950s or ‘60s. I didn’t buy the poster on our last trip; but this time I grabbed it immediately from exactly the same spot I had left it two years ago!

From Cayucos, we went back to SLO to do yet more shopping. Tim found a wonderful set of old Hollywood postcards, circa 1965, with an astounding picture of the Hollywood freeway without a median wall! Of course, maybe a wall wasn’t necessary in those days because the postcard shows a completely uncongested freeway, with only about ten cars merrily zooming by. My, how things have changed!

We had hoped for more barbecue, but opted instead for some tasty individual pizzas from Pizza Solo, a fast-food restaurant in a newer part of downtown SLO. We also stopped by House of Bread, where free samples were generously provided. Tim almost convinced me to bring home a loaf of parmesan cheese bread, until I took a bite of my sample and ended up buying sourdough artichoke pesto bread—yum!

Exhausted, we limped back to Pismo with our treasures. We were going to see another movie later that day, but decided instead to take a stroll along the beach and happened upon a wedding. We spent the rest of the evening watching the Angels game.

We are now back home. The cats survived without us for three days and Tim is absorbed in the L.A. Times. We never did find time to eat ribs in SLO, so we’re on our way out to have Santa Maria barbecue in our own beautiful downtown Culver City. We’ve got the Taste of Larchmont tomorrow night, the Hollywood Bowl on Wednesday, and ComiCon in San Diego next weekend . . . so stay tuned for more reports soon.


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