Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Dear Diary: Planespotting and Sushi in the Desert


First, "blogger.com" has a fun new feature (let's call it a bug) wherein mis pagina es en Español and the internationalisation pull down doesn't seem to feature English. Perhaps this is the "shocking" hack that ISIS swore it would perpetrate against America? Estoy temblando en mis botas.

Now we're back to English, thanks Obama.

I recently made a trek to Arizona at the behest of my old man to have a father-son adventure through the desert as a belated 40th birthday present.

Despite living in (drought stricken) California for the better part of two decades, which is to say nearly half of my entire life, I am not a huge fan of the desert the way that my dad seems to be. Yet something about the desert grows on you if you have an eye for exotic flora, technicolor sunsets and an inner ear tuned to everything from The Eagles to Kyuss.

I arrived in Tucson a night early and took a long cab ride to the very edge of town, but even in the dark of night I could see neat rows of rear stabilisers covered in white shrink-wrap plastic rising out from the horizon on either side of me as we approached the Voyager RV Resort – a hotel room I booked not realising it was an actual RV park based on the criteria that it was well reviewed, cheap, had a pool and a hot tub and was relatively close to the main attraction, me and my father's raison d'etre for this trip: the Pima Air and Space Museum.

My taxi rolled in after 10PM and the entire place was pretty dark. We rolled past row after row of RVs parked in lots following the route suggested by Google Maps until we arrived at what looked like a main lodge.

I step out into the warm night air.

Crickets, actually.

"Well, I guess you should try that main building," the cab driver offered before pulling off.

As I approached the door, I saw that the office hours were 8AM-5PM. A sign directed me toward a telephone receiver and keypad instructing me to dial security after hours. After a few rings a gentleman answered wondering how we managed to get through the gate (it was open – perhaps we were unwittingly on the heels of a tenant pulling in before us, or it was just malfunctioning).

Soon enough a stocky but jovial white-haired man in a short-sleeve button down shirt, khakis and brass company badge approached, gave me my room key, showed me to my room and told me that I'd have to register at the main office once they open in the morning.

"Pool's closed, I imagine..." I inquired.

"Ayup, but it opens at 7 and so does the restaurant and concessions store," he replied pointing across a paved cul-de-sac toward a stucco and mission tiled roofed single-story building caddy corner from the hotel.


After all that we get to the food portion of this food blog for our first foray into desert cuisine. Tucson is not famous for being a food town and for good reason. The Voyager RV Resort restaurant succeeded in disappointing me two mornings in a row, but the staff is friendly and the food was very, very cheap (one factor that might be important to note is that the RV park has a large occupancy rate of seniors – and in fact limits the time of the year and hours per day children are even permitted on site; for me and my old man, this is a bonus, but obviously this would be a blocker for families with small children).

I wandered in around 7:30 the next morning and ordered the thing that seemed most appropriately Southwestern to me: scrambled eggs with "green chiles", hash browns and cheese and a side of flour tortillas. This was a far cry from the ropa vieja I'd eat almost every morning in Phoenix during a shitty tech gig that spanned the summers of 2008 and 2009.

Breakfast, coffee and juice were just a touch over $10. Coffee and juice would get you to $10 in San Francisco, breakfast would put you past $30.

My next foray would be the very next evening when my old man finally arrived (right around the end of my work day) after himself flying into Phoenix, renting a car and driving down to Tucson. The Pima Air and Space Museum was closed by that point but we did a dusk drive-by to peek at the USAF boneyard and then round up some dinner (and hopefully catch the tail end of the Angels at the Giants – no dice, only Yankees or Diamondbacks for Tucson area cable subscribers).

Google maps was unhelpful in suggesting anything that sounded like it was a cut above TGI Fridays for me and my Dad's phone insisted there was a well-rated sushi restaurant nearby. I finally found the restaurant in question (Oishi, a misspelling of the Japanese word for delicious which is commonly Romanticised as "oishii"), which Google informed me was "permanently closed."

"Look, Dad, I don't we're going to do better than that BBQ place we passed at the strip mall a few blocks back," I said as dad desperately tried to find non-strip mall food, a near impossibility in Arizona.

"This whole damn state, strip malls and desert."

The BrushFire BBQ restaurant was where fate deigned we would dine that night. We skipped counter service and bellied up to the bar to try to find the elusive Giant's game and ordered beers and sandwiches at the bar.

At some point a fire truck conspicuously rolled up, lights and sirens blazing, and parked itself near the front of the restaurant.

"I wish they would take that damn challenge off the menu," the bartender sighed, explaining that they have a 6-wing challenge that is so hot most people don't get through two, and people often think they are going to die from the pain. I described an experience in my 20s where I was dared to have the "second hottest wings in all of Ohio" at a bar out in Chesterland, Ohio near where I used to work. I made it about 4 wings in before being reduced to a foetal crying mess on the carpeting at the office late one night, my coworkers in tears from laughter.

I didn't try the wings, but the smoked brisket sandwich was respectable and the side order of buttery green beens were in fact green and still a bit crisp, unlike the grey-green canned slop I am used to a "authentic" BBQ establishments.

Nevertheless, I feel like my old man was determined to have sushi in the desert and we would not only the next evening but as fate would have it the evening after that.

First things first, though, we had a plane museum to catch.

Apparently Instagram thinks I took this photo in Hubei, China. Coming up on Chowbacca... pictures I took in Hubei, China that Instagram things I took in Tucson, Arizona.
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Saturday morning I was up in time to get to the pool when it opened but I insisted that I would first spend some time at the gym on the stationary bike. At 7AM there were already several residents using the gym, which opens at 6AM.

I found a machine equidistant from two groups of morning exercisers and programmed the machine for a quick 15 minute random program.  By now I was already painfully aware that both flat screens had Fox News blaring reports about Baltimore prosecutor Marilyn Mosby filing criminal charges against six Baltimore police officers for the murder of Freddie Gray.

Determined not to have this ruin my morning I set my phone in front of me and watched The Daily Show on Hulu with the volume turned up as loud as possible. Sorry, I didn't bring headphones.

The morning exercisers finished up and left, and mercifully the person who came in shut off the TVs. I put The Daily Show away, finished, swam for a few minutes, sat in the hot tub – a 20 person capacity affair with a grass thatched roof – then returned to my room to get ready to check out.

All of this was because our plan was to hit the road early and check out the Pima Air and Space Museum then hightail north to Phoenix to catch a jazz show the old man was excited about.

He was, of course, still sound asleep during all of this so when I finally went to knock on his door he sent me packing to the restaurant where he would meet me when he was showered.

Here I had the second disappointing meal (biscuits and gravy with eggs and coffee), which was cheap, and the service was delightfully sunny. I sat under an umbrella in patio pushing overly fluffy, dry biscuits around joyless sausage gravy that I augmented with a generous dash of Cholula.

Cessnas and other small planes plodded through the sky as commercial flights tagged the skies with water vapor contrails miles above the desert floor. Life moved at a lizard's pace at the RV park. We finished our coffee and made way to the museum.

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I pair my phone with the rental car as we head north on Interstate 10. Eagles, Warren Zevon, John Prine, Steely Dan, Joe Walsh... I throw in a few favorites of mine, Jason Isbell (one of he and his wife Amanda Shires covering Warren Zevon's "Mutineer"), Nick Lowe, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings.

Sand, sage and cacti blur past, the occasional butte rising out of the horizon, odd outcroppings of rocks dumped in the middle of stretches of flat without regard.

The same disregard seems to dictate when and where strip malls and outlet stores rise and fall out of the sand, some in full swing, some in various stages of being constructed or dismantled, some simply abandoned like an Old West ghost town.

Maricopa County.

In the desert my mind wanders.

I think of the awful sheriff, Joe Arpaio, famous for his crusade to keep Chicanos off the lands white people ran them off centuries ago... a man named Arpaio en Estado de Arizona. I think of two films that deal with border politics: Robert Redford's "The Milagro Beanfield War" which takes place in rural New Mexico and John Sayles' "Lone Star" which takes place in a border town in Texas.

I think about the pink outfits Sheriff Arpaio forces inmates to wear and I think about all the white people rotting their brains watching Fox News every day in gyms and lobbies and cafés around Arizona. I superimpose Governor Jan Brewer's leathered face over Ida Lowry's stretched out face from the Terry Gilliam film "Brazil."



Soon familiar rocks jut out of the horizon and I realize that we are getting closer to Phoenix.

"I know those rocks anywhere," I tell my dad referring to the large red mesa rising in front of us.

"From the Sky Harbor approach, I bet," he replies, referring to the flight path taken when landing at Phoenix's ironically named Sky Harbor International Airport, as if sand were water and Arizona still some inland sea.

Of course, it was at one point, millions of years in the past. Far past the 6500 year birthday folks like Arpaio and Brewer and their ideological brethren claim the planet was formed. For us Europeans, the Wild West presents an opportunity to indulge in a little fiction: the earth is young, borders have meaning, the natives are illegal immigrants and the pueblas turn into strip malls and at night neon lights illuminate the caminos upon which our plastic, glass and metal caballos zip past one another.

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After checking into an AirBnB, a "condo" in a densely packed housing development at the foothills of Pointe Tapatío with a cross in every room, terracotta tiled roof and stucco outside, exposed beams inside, we had time to crash, rinse off, put our evening wear on (Dickie's navy blue slacks and a Dickie's long-sleeve button down workshirt, black) and get something quick to eat before heading to the Musical Instrument Museum for a concert.

"How about Sushi Brokers, it's in Scottsdale not far from the venue."

Again, with the sushi in the desert!

"Sure, actually, that sounds fine, it'll probably be quick."

We get there at the end of happy hour, the restaurant is full. The LA Clippers win the NBA Semifinals against the San Antonio Spurs in game 7 – a fact you would be hard pressed to ignore given the panorama of flat screen televisions. Dad tells our waiter that we are in a bit of a hurry, but that's mostly unnecessary because service is fast.

We fill out paper slips with our orders: I get a selection of three different sashimi plus a hand rolled maki and seaweed salad. I order a Moscow Mule off the cocktail menu, which arrives in the appropriate copper vessel.

Tall, buxom waitresses in short shorts parade around like cocktail waitresses at a casino or a strip club. I discover this is a theme among the bar/restaurant establishments in the Scottsdale metropolitan area.

We leave as the restaurant has emptied out from happy hour, talking heads review the best plays of tonight's basketball game and start ramping up for coverage of the upcoming Mayweather-Pacquiao bout to be shown on HBO pay-per-view. I couldn't be less interested: will the wife beater or the homophobe win?

Then it was on to the Music Instrument Museum in Scottsdale, a brand new gleaming structure nestled among the brand new gleaming structures built by the Mayo Clinic in the middle of the desert. Local favorite light jazz ensemble fronted by songstress Khani Cole would be giving a performance that night, the first in some time apparently. A well heeled crowd middle aged folks from the area gathered to see her and her backing band, featuring soprano saxophonist Marion Meadows, play a sold-out show at the museum's auditorium.



To some extent I can empathize with the frustration my roommate has for my unapologetic love of Steely Dan, a band that she hates with every fiber of her body, but at the same time I feel like I deservedly get to pat myself on the back for taking the high road when it comes to what assaults my ears and to listen critically to the content without prejudging or dismissing it.

Cole is obviously a highly trained artist with an exceptional range and powerful jazz voice – the same cannot be said for the warbly vocals of one Donald Fagan, although I argue that his keyboard arrangements and Walter Becker's jazz-geek guitar licks more than make up for Fagan's shortcomings as a singer. Plus they have the soul wookie, Michael McDonald, on backing vocals.

Cole and Meadows are certainly very talented but I have a hard time connecting with any of it, and the music reminds me of the smooth jazz I would hear on hold with various telecommunications companies or waiting for corporate conference calls to start. Seeing it live reminded me that living, breathing folks create this music, do so passionately and have dedicated followers. My ideal hold music would be a combination of gangster rap and Slayer, but I could see how that would not have a very broad appeal.

My roommate brooking umbrage with the Dan has to do with how she hears it: generic elevator music. To Steely Dan fans the music is much much more, and darker and not just a little bit sinister.

Khani Cole doesn't seem to have a sinister bone in her body, although she certainly exudes a confident sexuality clearly appeals to the 40 and over crowd of which I now too am a member. Maybe I'll really push it with my roommate and get some of her stuff on vinyl – it would go nicely with my Jeffrey Osborne "On The Wings of Love" LP I use to occasionally torture those within range of home audio system.

Meadow's launches into another lengthy soprano saxophone solo, his long hair braided and collected in a light-jazz pony tail, his hours a day at the gym physique showing through a thin, shiny muscle shirt.

No. Not in my house, not on my turntable.

"I don't know why someone with her voice isn't more famous," my dad says on the car ride home. I have the car playing "Babylon Sisters" a lurid stylised blues shuffle whose male protagonist laments "We'll jog with show folk in the sand / Drink kirschwasser from a shell / San Francisco show and tell; / Well I should know by now that it's just a spasm / Like a weekend in T.J. / That it's cheap but it's never free / And that love's not a game for three."

Because a lot of folks just don't like smooth jazz, Dad. That's why.

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Determined to make up for two days of bad breakfasts we sought out well reviewed coffee shops featuring pastry or quiche or some other higher end morning food. As natives of Northeastern Ohio, both my father and I bore witness to the first of many transformations of Akron and Cleveland from its nadir in the 1970s to the comeback-kid metropolis it is now: proper breakfast.

There are many different kinds of breakfast, but the breakfast for a on-the-go Clevelander had to feature two characteristics: first, really good strong coffee and second, really good pastry.

I learned from my father that often breakfast was a meal eaten in one's car en route to work. You have your wide-bottom mug of joe and perhaps a danish or croissant wrapped in wax paper. Maybe if you want something more substantial you get a wedge of dense quiche – and make no mistake, real men absolutely do eat quiche.

In the coffee shops that lined Euclid Avenue, Mayfield Road, Coventry, Shaker and Chagrin Boulevard I learned to distinguish good coffee from bad, and bad from worse, and once in a while I'd be treated to really, really great coffee.

Is it any wonder I never slept as a child? I have caffeine coming out of my pores even before I was old enough to drink the stuff just from a contact buzz spending so many hours in Shaker Square Arabica (where I would meet one g0b0t, our fearless leader in absentia).

Is it any wonder my sisters fled to those meccas of the noble bean, Seattle and Manhattan? (The coffee's not so bad in San Francisco, for what it's worth.)

Benedict's Café in Scottsdale, only open Saturdays and Sundays (but available for catering), was the exact match to my desires for strong caffeinated drink and classed up eggs and cheese breakfast food. We sat in the sun while I sipped on cold toddy brewed coffee and tucked into an herbs and cheese omelette with a side of fresh fruit.

This healthy eating was not merely for show for the old man, who has always wished me healthier, but simply because you don't load yourself full of starch when the mercury reaches 85ºF by 9:30AM.

Soon we'd be heading back to the scene of last night's musical crimes (in all seriousness, if smooth jazz is your thing you should give Khani Cole a listen, you might love it) where we would see what the actual Music Instrument Museum had to offer.

I wasn't sure what to expect, but the following things did happen: I stood in front of a display of Fender guitars and amps listening to Sonic Youth on the headphones of a guided tour device that would pick up bluetooth signals from each display, I would have a conversation with a curator about how folks didn't get the joke of the "air guitar" display until they put an empty road case in the glass-enclosed display, I would find the "play room" and tune all of the Martin acoustic guitars they had on display for anyone that came along to pick up and play, I would be terrorized by a giant mechanical band named Apollonia and be treated by an impromptu piano recital from a tween-aged girl visiting the museum.

By now we were approaching the middle of our third hour of exploration; hunger, museum fatigue and a gnawing desire to catch at least the second half of Cleveland's first game against the Memphis Grizzlies spelled an end to my inaugural visit to the Music Instrument Museum, but I could see returning many times if I ever found myself in Scottsdale again.















The Cavs would win, Dad and I ate bad faux-Mexican at a sports bar with waitresses even more scantily clad than the ones at Sushi Brokers the previous evening. Dad asked "whats up with tattooes" and I tried feebly to explain it, but really it's just a generational thing. I told them that they tell stories, but you still had to be invited to look closer.

He shocked me by telling me that he was fascinated with the hip-hop exhibit that featured turntables used by Kurtis Blow and Mix Master Mike.

I had only one thing left to do in Phoenix which was meet my old friend CDB (CDP, né B) for, you guessed it, sushi.

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CDB I've known since she was 13, more than 20 years ago.

Still I've always regarded her as more worldly, wiser and level headed than I ever was.

We sat and drank iced tea at a table behind RA Sushi Bar Restaurant in Tempe and talked over blaring electronic music and the sounds of jets flying at low altitude overhead on approach to Sky Harbor, over the same mesa I watched rise out of the desert driving up on I10.

It was the first time her and I had ever sat together drinking something other than an obscene amount of Maker's Mark or otherwise were under the influence of a stunning amount of narcotics or hallucinogens.

Motherhood, time and distance has changed the sullen, fatalistic teenager she once was to the woman she is now.

The waiters forgot parts of our orders, forgot to fill our drinks, and were glacially slow. We theorized they were getting high by the dumpsters, like we would have done when we were our younger, naughtier selves.

Our waitress was so distracted I had to practically wave my credit card around even though I intended to sneak it to her to cut short any squabbling over who was going to pay the bill, CDB, my father, or I.

I was going to pay the bill, and thanks to an absent minded waitress, everyone knew it.

"So, what are the chances of you coming back to Phoenix?"

"Low to infinitesimal," I stated frankly, and explained how I had spent a summer building out a multimillion dollar datacenter and the next summer dismantling it. I was laid off the next spring, and the Danger Sidekick lurched on, on life support, until I personally pulled the plug on the service as a contractor hired to decommission the entire thing a couple of years later.

Phoenix was a painful reminder of the futility of my work and the fragility of life and relationships  – a lover of mine at the time left me due to my work-related inattentiveness, found her soul mate, married, and lived happily for another 6 months before she died mere blocks from me, unbeknownst to me because I had been too stuck in my head and my bullshit to call or check up on her.

I wore the same suit to her funeral as I wore to her wedding.

Regardless of my vast array of luggage I carry with me, it was good to see CDB, a person with even more tragedy in her past that I had ever experienced but who always kept her chin up and marched on through whatever life had thrown at her. Now she had a family: a husband who dotes upon her, a bright handsome young son.

Sometimes good things do happen to good people.

The sun set on Tempe, and the next day I made my way to Sky Harbor.

American Airlines had bought US Airways forming a sort of super-America portmanteau. I looked out across the tarmac and the two terminals serving American Airlines and US Airways liveried jets: every last one of them was either an Airbus A319 or A320 – manufactured in Toulouse, France.

Viva la America!

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Voyager RV Resort
8701 S Kolb Rd,
Tucson, AZ

Pima Air and Space Museum
6000 E Valencia Rd
Tucson, AZ

BrushFire BBQ Company
2745 N Campbell Ave,
Tucson, AZ

Music Instrument Museum
4725 E Mayo Blvd,
Phoenix, AZ

Sushi Brokers
North Scottsdale,
17025 N Scottsdale Rd #190,
Scottsdale, AZ

Benedict's Café
5555 E. Bell Rd, Ste 6
Scottsdale, AZ

RA Sushi Bar Restaurant
411 S Mill Ave,
Tempe, AZ