Live from the Golden Coast, Part 1: “Hopped off the plane at LAX…”

I figure if I spent 7 blog posts to dignify what was a chaotic and largely soul-crushing “vacation” to Peru in March, I should spend an equivalent amount of blogging about (what promises to be) a better vacation in a place that never fails to make me happy. Here goes the accounting of my weeklong California adventure.

Here’s where we begin. I’m writing from the inside of Blu Jam Cafe’s original outpost on Melrose Avenue in West Hollywood. Jazz music plays in the background as I sit in a booth next to a black and white photograph of Ella Fitzgerald.

The server, tall, white, wiry, with a hipster aesthetic (handlebar mustache, grey Levi cutoffs, a red shirt) and a genuine smile welcomes me in, asks me what I want to drink, and tells me to take my time with the menu. It’s a message I take to heart, taking my time — I can’t remember the last time anyone encouraged me to slow down and I had the leisure and the mental bandwidth to actually take the advice.

After joyfully reviewing the menu, replete with things I can actually eat since being gluten-free is a low-maintenance diet by comparison in LA, I order the Muscle Beach (egg whites, grape tomatoes, spinach, ground turkey, with some corn tortillas on the side). Even though I don’t order things at restaurants I can easily make on my own, and I could easily make a Muscle Beach at home and eat it every day, it’s the thing that’s calling to me this morning after an early morning 5K exploring the area around Melrose Avenue and down La Cienaga Boulevard. On a whim, because it’s Los Angeles and the culture of health food is strong, I add a juice shot to my order before the server walks away.

On the gently-worn wooden table before me, there’s a bottle of local hot sauce (gluten-free, says the label), and, a few minutes later, a Dixie cup shot of ginger-lemon juice with cayenne pepper. Thinking of how raspy my voice was on the phone with my mother this morning, I hope that I’m not coming down with something. If I am, it wouldn’t be surprising: there was the long flight to Los Angeles the night before, two very sleepless and stressful days in Boston the nights before that, and at least two weeks of working in proximity to cold-ridden coworkers in an open-seating, cubicle-free office.

I pound the shot in hopes of warding off the beginnings of potential sickness and text a close friend in San Francisco about meeting up with her next week. We pick a tentative date and time and she fills me in on the latest horrors of her dating life in the Bay Area as I wait for my meal. If I hadn’t gone on a run beforehand, the story would have been enough to make me lose my appetite.

Hungry, but not knowing how good what I ordered will actually be, I think “If nothing else, the meal will be a significant nutritional improvement over my “dinner” from the previous evening.” That dinner was at least four bags of complimentary PopCorners and two Diet Cokes on the JetBlue flight to LAX. Then again, if not popcorn and soda, what are you supposed to eat when you’re unwilling to spend money on the “good” airplane food and you spend most of the flight watching movies (specifically ‘It’ and ‘Gone Girl’)?

The meal comes out and it’s in three little mountains of soft corn tortillas, glistening egg scramble, and salad. Realizing it only after the fact, I feel a smile unwittingly crawl onto my face. I tear a piece of warm tortilla, pop it into my mouth, and pick up a fork for a bite of the eggs.

The dish isn’t fancy at all, but there is something deeply satisfying about it. When eating it, poking at the tortillas, then the eggs, then the salad in a delicious three-part pattern, I found myself doing the things I never find myself doing when I have a meal back home — all the savoring, smelling, tasting, appreciating of the moment of eating. I couldn’t understand how the simplest dish, and something I can easily make myself, could just taste better out here and become worth the price tag in California. I want to write it off to the magic of the first full meal of my vacation, but I think there’s something more to it that I hope, by the final day of my trip, I might be able to put into words.

Plate cleared and stomach sated, I get to thinking about the last two days and how far away the emotions associated with them feel: fighting with my boss to the point of seething silence, crying in the Wellness room at work and wondering when this role had gone from overwhelming-but-boring to downright hostile and miserable, breaking the arm of the sweetest and youngest girl at the gym while sparring, rushing to a gym friend’s cocktail event while fighting back tears at the guilt of having hurt someone else at the gym enough to send her to the hospital, rushing to the grocery store before it closed to get flowers and write a card for the girl at the hospital, inhaling a last supper of enchiladas made by my sweet boyfriend before spending a week apart from one another, frustrated and tying up loose ends at work the next morning before becoming fed up with the immaturity of one of my teams and fleeing the office to work remotely before my flight — but first, to spend my lunch break in a vacant Cambridge movie theater and watch ‘A Star is Born.’

The thousands of miles and California sun have already given me so much space and perspective from the chaos before I left. The only thing I can’t quite wipe away is the sickening ‘pop’ and the initial yelp and the subsequent groans of agony of the girl with the broken arm, but the memory isn’t as visceral now, not in full color and sound anymore. It’s in 1x as opposed to 4G LTE.

Rousing me from my moment of introspection, the hipster server comes back around and asks if there’s anything else he can get me. I say that I’m good and just a check will do. When he returns, again, he encourages me to take my time. I smile, looking at the receipt and pleased to see the bill is more affordable than I had expected, smile again at the notes of my dietary restrictions and the comp-ed ginger shot. I tip him generously, write a review on the little “How did we do?” card that came with my check, zip up my pockets with my wallet and phone, and make my way outside.

I start walking and find that my legs are aching. Even though it wasn’t too far, the run I’d done this morning all the way from my host’s apartment to the FabFitFun offices had left me sore. I forget about the soreness though as I pass by secondhand stores with clothing so beautiful and well-merchandised that it looks firsthand. I’m grateful that the stores are still closed at 9AM on a Saturday — I’m still sweaty and it’s too early into my trip to be spending a ton of money.

I go to 7–11 to stop for a bottle of water and an old hippie-sunglasses-wearing woman suddenly starts talking to me — and not just about the weather. She goes into about the number of mass shootings that have happened in the last year, how in her era, things were different, how her friend was a cofounder of Woodstock and just accepted a lifetime achievement award, and how even on her era’s tumult with MLK and the wars, it was about peace and love. She continued, talking about last week’s Los Angeles shootings and Sandy Hook. I felt compelled to say something, even though there’s nothing you can really say when confronted with this kind of sad, wistful, dark monologue from a complete stranger. Almost lost for words, petting her dog, whom she had called ‘her protector’ just a moment before, I said something to the effect of, “In uncertain times like these you have to hold on even more closely to the things and people you love.”

I keep walking, passing by a nail parlor, where I consider spending the next free hour-and-a-half before I leave in a car for Palm Springs, until I spot a boxing gym that had just opened called B fly (clever name, cute logo with a butterfly). I haven’t boxed in at least five years, but from the curbside glance, the gym looks small, friendly, and fun enough for me to take a closer look. It’s 9:20 and they have a class at 10 that lasts 45 minutes, giving me just enough time to get back to my host’s apartment, shower, and be ready to be picked up by my friend. I figure it’s worth investigating since I’ll be sedentary for much of the rest of the day. If I can’t do jiu-jitsu today, at least I can work on my striking. Best case scenario, it’s a decent gym. Worst case, it’s boxercise and not boxing, but I’ll still break a sweat.

But before I go off to float like a butterfly, there’s a coffee place on my radar that indulges my love of mythical creatures. It’s called Coffee for Sasquatch, and unlike most modern-aesthetic coffeeshops that can feel austere and architectural, it’s a beautiful, open space that’s white and light wood and more curves than angles. They serve a thing called a cryptid latte that uses rainbow food coloring to make it hypnotic and alluring. I choose to spend only $4 on a whole milk cortado instead of getting something bougier with plant milk and other reasons to elevate the cost to a $6+ jolt of caffeine. It hits the spot as I wrap up some writing for the morning. In love with the logo and knowing this isn’t a purchase I’ll regret, I buy a yeti shirt to remember how magical this place was. I consider getting one of the gluten-free donuts, but decide against it on the odds that I’m going to do this boxing class if the drop-in rate isn’t too pricey.

I walk back by the gym and inquire about the rate. They tell me it’s $30/class, which I’m willing to pay, since all the jiu-jitsu drop-ins I’ve been considering this trip are in the range of $20-$40. I take off my shoes, stretch a little bit, and prepare myself for whatever the next 45 minutes might throw at me.

It turns out to be a decent boxing class: a solid heart rate-raising warmup, a four-round bag work and mitt work circuit, and a brutal abs “cooldown.” Instead of being full of what you might otherwise expect in an LA boxing gym with a butterfly logo (lots of plastic-surgery boobs, botox, blond hair dye, and tight butts clad in Lululemon leggings), it’s a very ‘real’ class: one thirty-something Asian woman who had never boxed before, one thin, older, hungry-looking man who looks like he trained Muay Thai based on his kicking form, and this girl named Olivia, with, dirty-blond hair, blue eyes, and a knockout cross, already on her second or third training session of the day and a regular fighter. She’s a good, motivating measuring stick for my level of effort.

By the end of the class, expecting to be charged the $30, the instructor tells me that the first class is free. Most fight gyms don’t let you have a free class unless you’re a local who might actually sign up, so I am delighted for the free class. As I find the gym on Instagram and follow it on my walk back to my host’s, I think about what it would be like to have every Saturday morning be like this one.

Back at my host’s apartment, I tidy up my pile of blankets and pack up my things for the next 24 hours in Palm Springs to celebrate the birthday of one of my dearest friends. I lock up the apartment, throw my belongings in the trunk, and we begin the ride out of the city. Settling in for the three-hour drive, I remember the two thoughts I had upon waking up this morning:

One, this is the first pure vacation I’ve taken this year that didn’t have a wedding or a work-from-home piece attached to it.

Two, I forgot what it was like to wake up this happy and peaceful.

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Spotted on the walk somewhere after the 7–11 and before getting coffee at Coffee for Sasquatch

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