Part 1 of 4
Part 1: Motion Sickness
Part 2: “Jew eat?…No. Jew?”
Part 4: Adulthood Begins: The UCLA Dorms
“Life lesson: The past will never change and you can travel with it everywhere, but when embarking on a fantastic journey into the unknown, sometimes it’s best to pack light.” – Some Old Guy
I was carsick. I remember that. And I remember thinking that if I rolled down the windows for fresh air my father was either going to think something wasn’t right or that I had gas, because I’ve always thought randomly opening a car window was just proper etiquette after an impolite gesture…whether silent and deadly or loud and effervescent. In my family that was usually the case, but not this time. I had nervous butterflies in my stomach, which most likely, were probably just pupas scared to break through their cocoons. We were in my father’s new car pulling off the 405 towards UCLA’s campus. “They’re like little schwartzes!” he chuckled and then popped a few more dark chocolate M&Ms in his mouth. It was the same chuckle people give when something surprisingly miraculous happens. Like when female gymnasts back flip and catch the balance beam between their thighs without even the slightest hint of having just experienced what it feels like to be kicked in the crotch. I think to myself “Hmm, that was interesting,” and then I move on with a little pep in my step. That was my dad. He wasn’t racist, just from a different generation and culture. A generation who felt it necessary to nickname every walk of life, a culture of old-country synonyms so they could gossip behind everyone’s back. Why he made the connection from chocolate candies to black people?…I’m still not sure. But saying it in Yiddish somehow made it sound a little less harsh and not so republican.
That car ride was on one of my “star-days.” Those are the benchmark days that precede some new path, some major alteration to one’s life course indefinitely. I call them star-days, because an astrophysicist once explained to me where stars came from while I was drunk at a party. He had this long elaborate story (which I’m sure was rational and very interesting for those who care), but I think I took away the most important sound bite….stars are made up of humans. So in my life’s constellation, I figure the stars that manifest themselves in the final grouping of my galaxic leave-behind are respectively my most pivotal days on earth. Does that make sense? Doesn’t matter. Let’s move on.
I was pretty resilient growing up. I never used to get stomach pains, and that’s probably because I never really had anything to worry about. Always had a roof over my head. There was always cheese in the fridge and ice cream in the freezer. Up until that car ride; my cake-walk-of-a-life changed, and for the first time I legitimately had something to be scared of—college!
Was it just fear and nervous knots disguised as gas? Probably. And dad breaking the seal of silence only underscored the harsh reality that in a few minutes I was going to be an undergrad. I swallowed my heart—gulp—and tried to crush those stinking butterflies. That only worsened my anxiety as memories of home quickly splashed like a Jackson Pollack across my present consciousness. I was on edge, literally the edge of my seat, and on the verge of a panic attack. I needed a calming distraction. I needed to think of happy thoughts, and I needed to think of them fast. Normally I would have tried to remember the words to “Maria” from the Sound of Music. “How do you solve a problem like Maria? How do you catch a cloud?…A clown?…A willowing wisp….damn it!” But that wasn’t working. My mind was racing, and concentrating on anything, let alone lyrics, was pointless. I needed an anchor. The equivalent of looking at the horizon line to avoid getting motion sickness in choppy waters. So I started with what was most familiar in that moment—my immediate surroundings, hoping that might jog some memories and calm my nerves. I started with the car.
The car was new, and by new I mean some US Naval Officer stationed in Guam had the mileage illegally reset to zero. “So it was new to us,” my father said, thinking he got an amazing deal. Well I’ve got news for you folks, buying a decade-old used luxury car with cash from someone off the side of a freeway exit is anything but a good deal.
I always wanted my dad to purchase a Lexus so I could feel like I was in the upper middle class; or even the lower upper class depending on whom I was talking to. I certainly felt like I belonged there. He’s an Optometrist and I knew he secretly wanted a nicer car too…so he didn’t feel like the shmendrik of his Monday night football gang, which consisted primarily of doctors and realtors…but still all shmendriks. Fast Tony (I’d tell you what Tony did for a living but nobody was ever really sure) was still the leader in immaturity and lack of success, but dad sometimes appeared to be close. I mean my father couldn’t play golf like the general practitioners, and unlike the cardiologists, he didn’t have a StarTAC cell phone… he only had a pager. He was single with three boys and a seventeen-year-old golden retriever (Her name was Dana may her soul rest in peace). Our house had a pool table on the covered back porch (with a giant rip in the green felt fabric from a soda can I swear wasn’t mine), a TV set in the living room, and some patio furniture we used as couches. I used to execute round-off-back-handsprings in the dining room area, because like most of the rooms, it was a vast empty space. The short shag carpet could have been softer, but like that saying goes, “God gives you lemons, you squeeze them in your hair and go get some highlights!” My gymnastics were never better then they were in that livingroom. Something to do with the acoustics.
He bought the Lexus my senior year of high school and I drove it with some friends to my winter formal. The luxury sedan and having mostly hot female friends in high school, were the only two ways I could elicit a jealous stare from the jocks. It’s the little things, right?
The Lexus came when my stepmother Rose stepped into the picture….the rest of the house’s furniture soon followed. But before the Lexus, was my first new-car memory.
“Buying a brand new car is such a waste of money because it loses value the second you drive it off the lot,” dad used to say when we told him the 1975 blue Volvo station wagon was falling apart and the back-seat’s mustard yellow foam innards were exposed. I prayed at night with my eyes closed looking out the window near my bed, for God to slap the back of his head like a Jewish grandmother with a Yiddish accent and say, “Jules are you meshuga? Whada-aya vaytin for? Car to foal apart?” So finally after the divorce, he must have hit mid life crisis a little early, or God put on her muumuu and got a little fresh.
That day he came down the hallway to our bedrooms gleaming with excitement. He rubbed his hands together fast, like he was up to something (which was typical when he got excited) and shouted, “Boys! Today we’re going to buy a new car.” The sound of his hands when I wasn’t paying attention reminded me of Mr. Miyagi and his “wax on wax off” sandpaper lesson. I learned later in life that you could develop the same muscles and blocking techniques from playing with yourself in small confined spaces like airplane lavatories and carnival portrait photo booths, but that’s neither here nor there. I jumped up and down clapping my hands in response to his announcement, and then immediately panicked about what I was going to wear to the dealership (that happens to be my excitement routine) and off we went, to buy the first new-car I’d ever been present for…. A 1990 Ford Thunderbird.
Drew Ford’s roundhouse of cars is where we went. After all, the Drew family were patients of Dr. Hall’s Optometric Center. Unfortunately, even the Rolls Royce of corrective eyewear wasn’t something you could trade for a new Ford. Braces, maybe? But a car, not so much.
I had seen the dealership from the passenger window so many times in my childhood. The roller skating rink every kid in school, but me, had their tenth birthday party at, was at the entrance to the parking lot of clean, shiny, and unused automobiles. We had spent the entire day walking around, looking at trunk space sizes, and sitting in driver’s seats scorched by the afternoon sun. A sea of silver, beige, white, black, maroon and sea-foam green with taupe and grey pleather interiors. I used to imagine getting my hands on the skeleton key that unlocked the little gray window boxes on the lot; and with it I could come back one night, dressed like Rainbow Brite (maybe someone a little more subtle and discreet) and steal them all. Ms. Brite would have been a great choice too, because in my fantasy I could always just pled insanity or homosexuality and the judge would have to let me go. You’ve got to remember that back then, kids’ faith in the American judiciary system was championed by OJ Simpson.
Dad pretty much knew he wanted a basic model, two-door, Thunderbird. He got it in silver and thank god it had automatic windows. The windows went up and down pretty fast compared to my mom’s Honda Accord. I love windows that go up and down fast. Partly because in my family that was the difference between smelling the fart at the tip of your nose and having to breath it all the way down, and high school biology taught me how smells come from tiny particles, and I didn’t like the idea of inhaling tiny bits of shit—mine, or anyone elses.
As part of the purchase, he agreed to trade in our 1978 Volvo station-wagon and got its value subtracted from the new car price. I laughed remembering how the mechanics didn’t check the Volvo very well, because it wasn’t worth the $500 they gave us for it. I didn’t know that at the time, because my good morals wouldn’t have allowed it, but dad later told me the rear tire axel was on the verge of falling off and the car was pretty much a coffin on wheels, unfit for the road, or motion for that matter. That’s the kind of business savvy thinking my father has tried to instill in my brothers and I. Smart man isn’t he? Kids dieing in a horrible freeway accident from the rear tires dislocating and no witnesses to speak of….or a few hundred dollars towards another, less used death trap? Tough decision.
I was originally convinced the Volvo garnered so little because of two obvious problems. 1.) I had jammed and stored over six years of sugar free chewing gum under the back seat (that’s all we were allowed to buy until we were older, unless it was the hard stale pale pink gum from packs of baseball cards, because that was free), and 2.) the middle seat belt always fell through the cracks and was a painful struggle to retrieve. Turns out, the car was just a piece of crap and clearly I had some guilt issues to deal with. I thank my mother for those.
It was that middle seatbelt that forced me to develop my super secret seatbelt trick. Whenever we got in the car my parents always reminded us to “buckle up,” and I figured it was better to trick them by pulling the seat belt across my lap and shoulders, and make the “click” sound with the flick of my tongue and then slowly let the belt retract when they weren’t looking, rather than actually push it into the buckle. Like father like son I guess. I laughed in the face of danger and more importantly, I hated the way seatbelts scratched my neck. This was before seatbelt lights flashed for hours annoying the hell out of an unsafe passenger, and before my growth spurt too.
Canter’s on Fairfax – Los Angeles
I may not have been ready for my freshman year of college, but I’d been practicing my whole life for the freshman 15, and my secret weapon—Canter’s Bakery and Delicatessen on Fairfax.
Not only is Canter’s open 24 hours, but they have the most amazing deli-cut french fries; the thick ones that soak up a tablespoon of ketchup on just one end. They’re the perfect sober companion after a night of drinking in West Hollywood with friends. Those and the old Russian women who waitress there, are two perfectly good reasons for going to Canter’s.
But that’s not even the best stuff they serve. They make two of my favorite desserts in the entire world: chocolate chip rugelach and chocolate dipped macaroons.
I know what you’re thinking “rugelach?…coconut macaroons? What’s the big deal?” Trust me. These are different.
First of all there’s the iconic pink box they come in. All the baked goods and pastries are served in Canter’s deli boxes, which is like some old-world Jewish version of a Tiffany’s box. Any bris, baby shower, or dinner party you go to in Los Angels that’s worth the effort, is going to have one of these somewhere in the kitchen, recycling bin, or fridge. So the next time you’re at a house party in Los Angeles, keep an eye out.
Now it’s a toss up between the chocolate chip rugelach and the chocolate dipped macaroons as to which I love more, and if I had to give up one to save my brother’s life, I’d probably sacrifice my brother! The middle brother. What? I’m just being honest.
The chocolate chip rugelach are out of control. All of their rugelach are delicious, which I suspect has something to do with cream cheese in the pastry dough (I’m guessing and don’t know for sure), because it’s always moist (never dry) and is reminiscent of the chocolate chip bagels with Philadelphia cream cheese I used to have as a kid every Sunday morning after my dad played basketball with his friends at the park. The raspberry rugelach are divine, and the almond toasted coconut are probably my third favorite flavor. Everyone likes the apple cinnamon too, but the chocolate chip is definitely the winner.
Look at how many chocolate chips there are on the outside! Aren’t you tired of seeing rugelach in the store with a mere schmear of cocoa rolled up inside dry crumbly dough? The insides of Canter’s chocolate chip rugelach are filled with chocolate too. Each one is slightly imperfect too, a testament to all the years they’ve been making them by hand.
Then there’s the macaroons. Now I know coconut is one of those ingredient people either love or hate. Jonathan doesn’t typically like anything coconut flavored. He’ll eat it, especially if it’s an afterthought and not the main attraction of a dish, but it’s not something he’ll go out of his way to order. I happen to love coconut. The coconut cupcakes from Baked and Wired in Georgetown, DC and the coconut cupcakes from Sprinkles in Beverly Hills are by fantastic.
But coconut macaroons can be a real turn off since they’re usually dry and tasteless. Canter’s coconut macaroons are different. I don’t know how they do it, I suspect with some cornstarch or sweetened condensed milk maybe, but they’ve figured out a way to get the outside caramelized, crunchy and chewy, while keeping the inside soft like marzipan. They almost taste like marzipan too, which is probably why I love them. And to gild the lily, they dip them in bitter dark chocolate giving them a smooth outer shell that slightly cuts through the sugary richness of the gooey macaroon interior.
To this day (I’ve been living in San Francisco since 2007) whenever I’m in Los Angeles, someone is coming to visit, or wants to send a gift; I have to get my fix of Caner’s chocolate chip rugelach and their chocolate covered coconut macaroons. Everyone I’ve shared them with has agreed they’re the best specimens of their respective….I don’t know…breed. And middle-aged Jews, the ones who invented delicatessen food and think they know what real good Jewish food tastes like, can agree that Canter’s has it figured out. Even my mother-in-law who doesn’t like coconut macaroons in general, asked for a second and third one. The rugelach was a no brainer, and I had to tear the box away from her before they were gone.
So the next time you find yourself in West Hollywood and your driving down Fairfax Avenue, pull over for a minute and buy yourself a small bag of each. Bring them to a friends house or selfishly binge on them while parked on the side of the road so you don’t have the share. You’ll thank me later. I promise.
And if you’ve got more than a few mouths to feed, or have the chance to try more than just the rugelach and macaroons, Canter’s has an amazing selection of bagels, breads (the rye and pumpernickel are my favorites), cookies, hamentashen, brownies, and of course cheesecakes. Everything is good, but I’ve already told you what the diamonds in the rough are.
Oh and here’s a little insiders tip so you don’t end up waiting in lines and looking like a timid fool; elbow your way up to the counter near the entrance and order whatever you want from the bakery. They’ll give you a slip so you can go pay at the old school register where people are waiting for a table to dine, and then you go back to the counter to pick up your box of goodies. Or at least that’s how it used to be….who knows, maybe it’s changed and they got fancy and started accepting paypal or venmo? You’ll have to let me know once you check it out.