Monday, April 28, 2008

Paradox Cove

The beaches of Northern Los Angeles county face south. Back when I was a teenager and tanning was good for you, this was perfection because you could lay out facing the water all day and get evenly tanned as the sun arced across the sky.

Locals know that on this part of the coastline, east is also south, and west is synonymous with north. Note to travellers in the San Fernando Valley on the US 101: Need to go north? Go west. Need to go south? Head east! (But if you're on the five, north is north. Careful. That one goes to Sacramento.)

North of Malibu and south of Point Dume there is a pretty little cove that was once paradise. Guarded from the big swells by the point, the water is calmer, the shelf is longer, the wading is easier and the wave knock-down potential is far smaller. You can see the sun rise over Santa Monica and, after a day of swimming and running and playing and tide pool discoveries, watch the sun dip down behind Point Dume and cast beautiful colors on the sky and water before darkness brings out the bright blue stars and deep hopefulness.

That's how nature made Paradox Cove, but that's not so much how it is anymore. Now there's a big restaurant with lots of gluttonous tourists who are not looking at the sea. They are looking at food, and plenty of it.

A "beach bum" nostalgia theme reckons to keep the eroding forces of the masses at bay. The decor is amended with ye olde broken downe ship parts, and black and white photos of the secluded beach that once was. But memories of paradise have been replaced by wait staff in uniform. They are unhappy. They are uninspired. Some must slog through sand to bring the feasts to the diners. It does seem they are aware of the sand, but the beach goes unnoticed, obscured by umbrellas, tables, crowdedness.

The Paradox Cove of the early 21st century is big splotch of an eatery, a fat faced fish feast fiasco where they serve giant martini glasses filled with deep fried calamari flown in from God knows what ocean, laid on beds of sogging French fries and served with ketchup (Ranch dressing available). Each vat of this appetizer is so encroyable large that to eat seventeen handfuls would put barely a dent in the mound of it, so there should be no reason to stop gorging.

The trip to the beach was for an easy dinner and escape from routine. The little friendly mom and pop fish shack further south along the coast was what I'd had in mind, but my error was indecision, as I also wanted to enjoy the drive north (and west!) during the pre-sunset afternoon. The sunlight was truly golden, sheering down through the sky and casting a magical glow over everything.

Summer had sprung out of an April Saturday and the valley was hot and dry. I simply wanted to see and sense the sea, enjoy good company, and have a little fish dinner and maybe a beer on a nice patio. The idea sounded good to my friend Montega, too, so we headed through the canyon to the beach. But Montega was just at the end of a couple days' vacation in Palm Springs and still craved the indulgences of resort living. She kept pointing out restaurants with valet parking. I missed the cue that negotiation was in order, so every idea she had, I shot down:


"No. Too pricey."

"The place we had those crab cakes!"

"Can't afford it."

Worse than my concerns about spending money I didn't have, I felt bad for stifling her happy recommendations, so I said, "Let's go wherever you want."

Paradox Cove was the next option to present itself.

Pay to park. Be sure to get validation! Enter the restaurant approach the angry hostess. "Two hour wait," she sneers as she looks away and hands us an eight inch wide plastic crab.

"Wha - - "

"It'll light up when your table's ready."

"In two hours?"

"In two hours," and she diverts her attention to the next customer - a puffy woman in a t-shirt two sizes too small who seems to perceive her fleshy overflow to be acceptable as "cleavage."

Two hours? Ease up, you're at the beach, I think, so I stand in line at the bar for a few minutes trying to struggle the crab into my purse. There is no room in my purse for a big plastic crab, so I hand it to Montega, who carries a bigger purse than I do. Tired from a long day driving from the desert, Montega takes a seat at a nearby bar table, brushing little heaps of peanut shells from the table to the floor; this is how it's done. This is Paradox Cove.

The bartender, seeing the queue of the thirsty, announces that if any of us want to have our drinks outside, we'll have to order them from the outdoor bar.

I want to go outside and watch the pink evening light absorb into the slate blue sea. So we go. Montega hands me a ten but I have a twenty and tell her I'll get this one and we can even out at dinner. She finds us a seat on a little beach couch next to where the guys with the shiny Harleys park their shiny Harleys. With a crowd as eager to be somplace as this one is, we'll have to sit tight or lose our territory. I go to the bar and greet the bartender with a friendly hello. He ignores me. He's making two Mojitos and isn't on duty for me yet.

Maybe management didn't expect the heat either and didn't schedule enough staff; could be the bartender's overworked, so I play it cool. I look off to the distance for the sea but it seems only like a movie backdrop behind the many. I can't hear it. I can't smell it. I can't feel it. I'm not altogether sure it's even really there.

I watch him make the drinks and remember the experience that made me discover the Mojito: a year before, I had my first minty refreshing Caipirinha in Albuquerque (of all places), and how robustly and happily the bartender made our special, wonderful drinks of minty crisp refreshing Brazilian truth serum/love-the-world potion. The common Cuban version is the Mojito, nearly as soulful at heart if made with artistry and passion, but not here. Not this time.

He sets up the two tall glasses, drops some mint leaves into the bottom, makes attempts at crushing the leaves with the leaf crushing pestle, and squirts premixed concoctions from plastic bottles with metal spouts into the glasses. He pours the rum with a measured stinge.

He talks to a waitress about how late he worked the night before and how there are too many customers tonight. There are many words but none of them much different than the ones before.

And then my turn comes. He approaches and uses the word, "Hello."

"Hi! Two Mojitos, please!" He works in a bar area half the size of an elevator. He walks over to the other end of it and gets two glasses, just like the ones he's just doctored. On the way back, he checks his cellphone for a text, flips it closed dispassionately, wanders to several different spots behind the bar and causes the drinks to compile, one element at a time.

He pours some rum but not much, then pours a little more. He talks to his friends some more, standing still. He holds the glasses immobile as he says more words. It crosses my mind he could be distracted over the girl that didn't text or call. But no, he is not downhearted. He is weary. He has made many Mojitos.

He comes back to where I wait, sets the glasses down, puts a wilted mint sprig in one drink and a half dead one in the other, sets them in front of me and says with a cheery tone: "Twenty three ninety, miss!"

I have a twenty in my hand and another in my wallet. I give him both. There was my dinner money. I would have one taco perhaps. I peel an honest tip from the change.

Darkness falls. Here in the outdoor part of the restaurant, food is served on big futons that function as tables and diners sit on the edges and eat from appetizers piled in the middle. By now they are sorting out their bills. Montega and I keep each other amused with conversation for the time but soon we are reserving our energy, as the only thing we can think to talk about is the fact that we're hungry.

Her purse is open so that we can see the crab. Other people's crabs are flickering and glowing. Other people laugh and saunter through the sand. My drink has had its effect and has worn off. I am ready to drive again, two hours since the drink now. The shiny Harley men get on their bikes and rev the engines that sputter, fight, fart and roar into sync. The riders fade off into the night.

"I can't take it anymore." I stand up. I'm thinking of home but we've put in our two hours so I go to the host station. This time its a friendly young man with braces on his teeth. He sends me back to Montega for the crab. He needs to see its pincher to read its number.

He surmises we'd wandered too far off so the signal couldn't reach the crab. I tell him we'd been sitting at the outisde bar and other people's crabs were flickering. He offers to seat us immediately.

The food is mediocre. The customers stuff their faces beneath the big whalebone suspended from the rafters and drink many tall drinks. The waiter puts the hard sell on Montega to buy a drink she doesn't want. I plead Designated Driver and he backs off, but he puts a knee on the seat on my side of the booth, leans in toward me and seems so inspired about her having another drink I can almost swear he'll buy her one, but she knows the game. She acquiesces. He brings her a fruity martini. "How is it?"

"Better than cough syrup!" She has charm.

He laughs.

Dinner takes the rest of my money. You can't order one taco at Paradox Cove. You have to order three and they come with six tortillas.

Montega, bless her heart, is good with money and has the dollars for our parking (validation rate applies!). I shall not return to Paradox Cove unless I happen to swim past it while playing in the summer's blue blue sea. Paradox Cove, once paradise, has gone too far south for me.

* * *

They called it paradise,
I don't know why.
Call someplace paradise;
kiss it goodbye.

- Don Henley


Anonymous said...

Over $12 for a mojito!? Was the rum filtered through diamonds, giving it some kind of special character? Jean, I feel your pain - next time just head to Rubio's, grab a fish taco (only $1 after 2 p.m. on Tuesdays) and order a nice cold beer - pure satisfaction for under $5.

Oh, and I don't think I'll be eating at one of those over-priced, under-friendly oil vats again!


John O said...

Great story.

John O