Tuesday, January 30, 2007


First of all, I agree with you. I don't like the new picture either.

My cousin Sharif recently lamented that I never write about him. I realize I don't write about anyone in too much detail on this blog. I've discovered there are dangers in saying so much in such a public forum. There was that time in July when XXXXX asked me about XXXXXX and really what was I to say to that?

So, in honor of Sharif, I'll tell a story that involves him tangentially. It's a story about a house he grew up in. A house on a corner.

I tell the story today because I'll be back in the town he grew up in, in the very near future. The reasons for this visit may be discussed here later in the week. There may even be pictures.

My cousin, his brother, and their mother (my aunt) lived in a house on a corner in the city of Orange, California. As a gawky teenager, I used to visit the Orange house. I made a few visits with my family. My final visit - before they abandoned Orange and moved to glitzy Anaheim Hills - was with my friend Patrick.

I liked these visits. During the time of the Orange house, I lived far away - first in Pennsylvania, later in Minnesota. California was new to me. Southern California - specifically early-mid-1980s Orange County - was a strange sunny paradise. The place fascinated me. I found the most interesting things exotic.

Many of my memories involve food (an odd thing considering that my distant memories are best triggered by songs not food). I vividly remember walking from the corner house to a Greek restaurant. It was a fast food place and I was in awe that you could serve Greek food fast. There was a Mexican restaurant that actually put rice in their burritos! I loved that. And most importantly there was Penguin's, the frozen yogurt place.

Penguin's was a burgeoning chain in southern California in the mid-1980s. They were everywhere and for a visiting kid like me, discovering frozen yogurt and its many many toppings was like discovering a new planet, a magical planet where unicorns roamed free and sea otters were known for their architecture, a place where children lived on trees and adults only existed when you needed them (and you could call on them by tossing an acorn into a grassy meadow.)

I liked to get a medium chocolate yogurt (large was too big) with raspberries and chocolate syrup.

Penguin's was always crowded. Orange County was a vast geographical area, seemingly with no center. But on those summer nights, it seemed like Penguin's was the town square. You would take a number upon entering. You would wait. And wait. Waiting was fun. I was usually there with my extended family. We would walk there from the house. Now, there are several people in my family who would be described as "impatient." But we weren't all that stressed or anxious waiting at Penguin's. The place was too full of joy for that to happen - the joy on a child's face upon the first syrupy Oreo-laden spoonful of their sticky pectin-packed swirl of goo, the joy of a contented Orange County housewife realizing that this is what she waited for all her life, to live in the sun-kissed suburbs and have other people make the family dessert, for the dessert to slowly trundle itself out of gleaming stainless steel machines, that it was okay if she didn't truly love her husband, that love was just something for movies and books by Russian authors, that the boy she loved back in high school - let's call him Marshall - wasn't right for her anyway, he was just a rock-and-roller, he lacked direction... no she's happier here.

The yogurt would finally come. And the walk back home on the street I can't remember the name of (perhaps I'll find out tonight) would be even better than the anticipatory walk to Penguin's. The summer sun would be setting. Later I would get to sleep on the floor in the guest room. I loved sleeping on floors. If I wasn't tired enough to sleep, I would curl up on the floor and read the basketball magazine I bought at the liquor store on the walk back (this was also foreign to me - liquor stores that sold sports magazines, liquor stores that would let in non-adults.)

Enough about frozen yogurt - what about the people I was with? Don't they count in my memories? Okay, let me think.

I've got nothing.

Penguin's would eventually over-expand, the chain falling on hard times in the 1990s and today their website doesn't even bother listing the few remaining franchises. I'm pretty sure the Orange location is gone. I've seen a handful around L.A. though, with faded signs and poor parking. As my aunt might say, they just didn't have a coherent business plan... if they only had better TQM. But really would it even matter now that this far superior frozen yogurt place with it's ridiculous website and amazing yogurt is in business?

Once, in the middle of the night, a truck drove into the house on the corner in Orange. No one was hurt. The house suffered some damage. I think they had insurance. I always thought that house was too close to the street.

On my last visit to the house, I went with my friend Patrick. We were both 20. We'd known each other since we were 7 and he was the only kid in my 2nd grade class who didn't tease me about my name or my extreme immigrant shyness. Another one of my cousins, Sandra from Austria, was visiting at the same time. Sandra seemed exotic to Patrick (older, European). To me, she seemed like a more communication-friendly version of my sister. I remember one night when Patrick and Sandra took a walk around the block late at night. They told me they were going out to talk. When they came back in, they were strangely silent. I remember not talking about the walk with either Patrick or Sandra after that.

There was a lot of walking in Orange. On my visit with Patrick, there was a lot of driving too. We went to Disneyland, Tijuana, and Sea World but mostly I remember going to Tower Records in Buena Park, where I stocked up on what I always stock up on: music. But I mostly remember the walking. I also remember listening to a lot of Paul Simon and the Bangles on that trip. Yes I could make a Walk Like an Egyptian joke here but that would be cheap. I also enjoyed the occasional punk and metal band on that visit.

As I said, my aunt and cousins left Orange for Anaheim Hills. Despite the latter's proximity to Sizzler and The Little Professor bookstore, this was a mistake. Not as great a mistake as later leaving Anaheim Hills for fucking Yorba Linda but that's Sharif's story not mine.

(I hold no real malice toward Yorba Linda but that housing development they lived in, with its Mars-like terrain and fake lake, is a terrible place to be a teenager in, as my younger cousins were.)

Was that last sentence gramatically correct? I dont' know.

One more memory of the city of Orange involves seeing Ghostbusters there in the summer of 1984. That was the summer of my big move - from Pennsylvania to Minnesota. I was 18. I had seen the movie twice in Pennsylvania and would see it again in Minnesota. But I clearly remember that third viewing of the best film of the 1980s (Blue Velvet and She's Gotta Have It are close behind.) The whole family was visiting California, some time after the Minnesota move. I was moody, having had to start my life over again. But I was excited about seeing Ghostbusters again (really it's a brilliant film - not just a well-cast financially successful mainstream comedy but a perfectly executed metaphor for Reagan-era America and the decline/ascent of the New Urbanist and yes I just made all that up but it's true.)

I saw the movie in what was then the biggest movie theater with the biggest screen I had ever experienced, on the street whose name I can't remember. And the theater parking lot stretched for miles! Okay not miles - hundreds of feet. I loved that parking lot. Maybe it was because I had just traveled with my family in a caravan of 3 cars from Buckingham, Pennsylvania to Eden Prairie, Minnesota (not making those town names up) and the vastness of America - and thus the parking lot - was comforting to me.

They tore down that theater to build a bigger one, just like they tore down the one I worked at in Edina, Minnesota in the 1980s to build a Barnes & Noble. The Greek restaurant and Penguins are long gone.

And oh yeah I had dinner in Orange in 1996 with that one friend from grad school. What happened to her?

This post needs an ending but I don't know where to find it. I'll end it on a happy note. Orange is still there, with its fruity name and cool Mid-Century architecture and clever pretty curators and why not end this post with this song, one I remember listening to while driving on.... Tustin Avenue!

1 comment:

Sharif M. said...

I think the truck smashed into the previous house we lived in. I was pretty young, but I remember our mom/your aunt whining about how it almost ran over her head when we were living in LA. I could be wrong. Memory is tricky, especially when given such great matricidal fantasy material.