18 March 2011

Typical Tourists

Sunday, 6 February
At this point, We'd been on board the Norwegian Star for 24 hours. We joked that our stateroom on the Queen Mary was sure to be larger than our room would be on Norwegian Star based upon our prior experience on the Golden Princess. We were correct by about half. Our accommodations onboard this ship were nice enough, but our balcony stateroom is Lilliputian compared to the grand old ship in Long Beach.

The Observation Bar on The Queen Mary conjures up thoughts of 1930s glitz and glamour, but that ambience is all wrecked with the 1970s album rock soundtrack playing over the speaker system. The demographics were clear to me - this is a hangout for 50-something, salt-of-the-Earth locals. Yet during the second night of our stay the place was filled with conference attendees bearing Accenture name lanyards – a considerably younger, hipper crowd. This was a sharp contrast to the frizzy haired man we noticed both nights who, in the parking lot at one point said, "dude! don't do that to me!" I had gone out to the Mustang for something and hit the remote key, causing the horn to sound as he was digging around in his passenger seat adjacent to our rental. It was kinda funny, but I guess you had to be there.

Cameron and I had dinner at the Chelsea Chowder House and Bar for that night. And, since Anderton's closed a few years ago we rarely have oysters. And seeing "Oysters on the Half Shell" on the bill of fare we couldn't resist. Admittedly, these weren't the giant jewels from the Louisiana farm where Linda bought them, but I'm telling you, these little creatures were outstanding. The dozen was gone in mere seconds, it seemed. For dinner, he ordered a black cod sandwich with dressed seasonal mixed greens and balsamic vinaigrette. I ordered a rib-eye, medium-rare, Red Bliss Potatoes and the same mixed greens salad.

After dinner at Chelsea Chowder House we toured the ship for a while, snapped some photos, visited the Observation Bar and eventually turned in somewhat early so we'd be ready to see some sights the next morning. We woke up before dawn Friday and made coffee in the room. Once we were showered and dressed we headed outside to snap some photos of Queen Mary in daylight, then drove over the bridge to Long Beach looking for a Starbucks.

I'm not sure in which part of Long Beach we landed but we didn't find a Starbucks anywhere. A few blocks from the business district we began noticing that smart little shops were giving way to pawn shops and check cashing establishments. So we made a couple of rights and went back the way we came. Finally as the neighborhood improved (a little) we stopped at a Denny's and ordered breakfast and coffee.

While we ate I noticed many of the passers by possessed a certain unkempt quality. Some carried themselves in such a way that one might assume that they were mentally ill or drunk. Others toted tattered, mismatched grocery bags - the kind that twirl about the air and get caught in trees with the slightest wind - filled with what I suspect were not groceries. One character in particular, a gnome-like man wearing too many clothes, pushed a nearly overflowing grocery cart and would take a few steps, then stop, seemingly contemplating something with every pause. Then he'd begin walking again, only to stop. And, again. "Curious," I thought. I continued to chat with Cameron as I chipped away at my "NEW! Ultimate Skillet (fresh spinach, breakfast sausage, fire-roasted peppers and onions, mushrooms, grape tomatoes and seasoned red-skinned potatoes, topped with a smoky cheese blend and two eggs cooked the way you like them." Suddenly, in my peripheral vision, I realized the "garden ornament" had stopped walking altogether. And even though the sidewalk was removed by a six-foot-wide elevated grass ledge, he was standing right next to my window. Startled, I looked his way and made direct eye contact. He just stood there staring. I hastily turned my head and wondered to myself, "is there another way out of here?" This, I think, sometimes makes me think I'm a shallow asshole.

Truthfully, I'd much rather make donations to organizations that provide lasting help to the homeless/jobless/hopeless -- like guidance and counseling (in addition to food and shelter) -- rather than being accosted as I go about my mindless business. Such an intrusion is as jarring and unwelcome, perhaps, as is guidance and counseling to those who prefer not to have it. I liken the nature of this so-called help to the way I feel each time that the silly, roly-poly blonde woman accosts me in varying places on Union Avenue. I've run into her numerous times at the post office, Blockbuster, the grocery. Apparently, after more than 26 years, she's still trying to raise funds to hop a bus to Millington, you know, the suburb 20 minutes north of Memphis. At any rate, I didn't want to deny having any cash to spare. I didn't want to smell him.

Relieved, I was excused from an exchange with the Travelocity spokesperson when it was time to leave because he'd moved past the restaurant entrance by a few feet. We hastily got back to the Mustang, left Denny's and drove around the corner to Walgreen's for an eight-pack of bottled water, Kleenex and some reading glasses. I'd left my prescription pair at the hotel and I was finding it difficult to read tiny map type without some help.

Driving away from Long Beach we hit the 405 and drove toward Santa Monica knowing that we ultimately wanted to end up in the heart of Hollywood. And this would have been easier, perhaps, if I'd opted for Hertz's "NeverLost" navigation, but every time I've added the service I have found myself doing U-turn after U-turn because the guide's instructions often require immediate action which is very often impossible in heavy traffic. Exiting the freeway at Santa Monica Boulevard, we turned north on Sepulveda and ultimately made a right on Wilshire, heading east. I resisted the urge to stop and take a snapshot of Cameron in front of one of the iconic "Beverly Hills" signs as we entered into the enclave. Approaching Highland, we found a Starbucks!

After navigating the overly-crowded parking lot, we parked, and went inside. With coffees in hand we went back outside to smoke cigarettes behind the 7-Eleven where we'd parked and look at maps on our iPhones. I realized that if we drove north on Highland from Wilshire to Hollywood and made a left we'd be within blocks of a place I'd wanted to see since I was very young: Grauman's Chinese Theater.

Arriving on Hollywood Boulevard, we drove past the theatre, hoping luck would find us an on-street parking space. That didn't happen. We circled back and parked at Hollywood and Highland Center, beneath the Kodak Theater. A short trip on the escalators took us up to ground level where we walked out to find costumed characters such as Wonder Woman and Charlie Chaplin offering photo ops for the tourists (like us). Skipping those, we weaved our way through the crowd to the storied theater. By happenstance the first concrete slab I was able to stop and focus on was that of Bette Davis. I shot it and began walking around and snapping many of the other sentiments addressed to Sid Grauman, by the likes of Joan Crawford and Clark Gable, just as one would expect from a typical tourist.

We then started walking east on the Walk of Fame where other tourists (like us) were shooting memories of themselves next the symbols of their favorite stars. Looking north at Hollywood and Highland, we saw a perfect view of the HOLLYWOOD sign in the distance. I thought this was my best chance at capturing the image as the site online describes many convoluted, dizzying routes by which to approach the nearly unapproachable sign. I zoomed in quite a bit with my handy, dandy Sony and am quite pleased with the result.

We turned back to Hollywood Boulevard and walked east, seeing Pig N Whistle and Grauman's Egyptian. As a bonus, we stumbled upon Doris Day's star on the walk. I had to capture it in memory of our beloved Doris since she was named for Ms. Day.

Back in the car we made our way up Highland to Hollywood Bowl. Even though the place -- including the museum (which the site claims is open "daytime all year round") -- was closed, we were able to walk the grounds and see the magical, art-deco shell in person.

The place reminded us both of the huge ruins of amphitheaters we saw in Pompeii and Ephesus. In spite of the museum's inexplicable closure, we learned some history, statistics and highlights about notable performances from didactic panels posted next to directional signage all over the property.

Next stop: Pasadena. For years, I'd seen articles in Old House Journal of these perfectly preserved/restored neighborhoods brimming with bungalow homes in a myriad of styles and have dreamed of being able to live there, or at the very least, see them in person. Yet by the time we arrived in the hamlet I became distracted by signs pointing to "Old Pasadena." So that's the direction in which we drove. Housed amongst the many fantastic, well preserved cast-iron facades or tiled storefronts on Colorado Boulevard were the likes of Armani|Exchange, Crate and Barrel, Design Within Reach and a host of other stores that one such as myself cannot find anywhere near home in Memphis without an internet connection. Adding H&M, Diesel, Lush and Kenneth Cole to the mix, I'm sure Cameron would know where to find me if we lived out there.

We turned south at Pasadena Avenue and then east on Green Street to drive for several blocks, just taking in the tree-lined retail area -- "Oh, look! There's a Bang & Olufsen store!" -- with me hoping to find a glimpse of the beautiful neighborhoods full of pristine Prairie, Spanish, English and Craftsman bungalows nearby. I suppose I had imagined that the whole of Pasadena was a bungalow lover's paradise. Alas, as we left the business district and things started becoming more residential, we turned south on Michigan Avenue to see one such bungalow amongst other nondescript houses. By now it was getting late (just about time for rush hour(s) to begin) so we decided we were weary and it was probably time to head back to Long Beach. We made a right on Cordova Street and found a place to pull over and take yet another look at the map when "what to our wondering eyes should appear" but a big, black and white skunk tottering along the sidewalk next to manicured lawns and sprinkler systems. I grabbed my camera, thinking, "Really? In Pasadena? In broad daylight? Amongst this sparkly, expensive real estate?" I imagined the citizenry hunting down vermin such as this with fiery pikes in the middle of the night, forcing them into cages so they could to be humanely released in less savory parts of L.A. I wish my timing had been better as the shots I recorded didn't include the portly man of African descent walking across the street to approach the malodorous alien. The skunk raised his tail at this and I thought surely the man was going to need a tomato juice bath, but, apparently, he wasn't frightening enough for the critter to expel his "fragrance."

Driving back down CA-110 was a blast in our rental. I can only imagine the same trip in the Corvette we left behind. At 75 m.p.h., I liken the drive to navigating the switchbacks in Yosemite with much looser turns, and a hell-of-a-lot faster. It was intense -- and fun! How people do this while yakking on a cell phone, putting on makeup, eating/drinking or whathaveyou befuddles me. I'm certain it happens. I saw it.

Back on Board The Queen Mary just before 5, before going to dinner, we decided to peruse some of the shops that were closed on our first night's stay. The majority of the shops I wanted to see were inside the ship on the Promenade Deck while others were on the outside on the same level. Inside, all the contents of all of the stores with exception of the one filled with "cheap Chinese embroidery" were right up my alley: Travel paraphernalia (like "vintage" luggage complete with destination stickers and luggage tags), reproduction Cunard printed materials, vintage ship collectibles (like history books, silverware and ship's models) and antique Art Deco home furnishings and clocks. I really wanted a particular model of the Queen Mary to go along with my collection of miniature architecture, but tipping the scales at over $300 I remembered I was only on the second day of my 10-day vacation and that I should be sensible with my money, perhaps. I bought some of the destination stickers and luggage tags, reproduction post cards and a T-shirt instead.

That night we ate a light dinner at the Promenade Cafe and turned in early so we could drive to the Westin LAX the next morning, where we'd meet the rest of our party of 22, and catch a chartered transfer to San Pedro for embarkation without stressing over time.

14 March 2011


We will continue our regularly scheduled program shortly. In the meantime, enjoy Florence + The Machine in this Pitron and Sanna Radio/DJ Tonic VOD remix of You've Got the Love.

03 March 2011

A Warming Trend

Chronicling our escape from hellish weather here during the first week of February has amounted to a bunch of notes sitting upon the proverbial back burner for the last couple of weeks. I'm sure I'll forget something here or there, but for now, here begins a recap of our two days in Los Angeles followed by seven days on board Norwegian Star (with 20 friends) as we cruised the Mexican Rivera. I've decided to divide this mile-long post into more digestible and hopefully more interesting bits. Here's the first:

Thursday Afternoon, 3 February, 3PM Mountain
So, this morning after checking e-mail and packing up the laptop, I loaded the car with Billie and Georgia's gear and took them to their "spa vacation" out in BFE. They were very quiet on the drive out. I suspect with the cacophony of suitcases and laundry baskets whirling around the house during the last several days they couldn't help but know that we were leaving and they wouldn't be going with us.

Their somber demeanor made me worrisome for the drive even if it made the trip a little safer because they were lying down in the back seat instead of pacing back and forth, standing on the armrests and sticking their heads out of the windows. My mind always races with each of these seemingly never-ending treks to the "country." Will Georgia behave? Will Billie be a nervous wreck the whole time we're gone? Will she eat? Will the staff remember to feed them separately? I tried clearing my mind for the uneventful thirty minute drive once we left Midtown. Finally approaching the last intersection before turning into Berryhill...

..."DAMMIT!," I cursed.

I realized that I'd been racing through these mental lists for days and in doing so left Billie's prescription eye drops at home. After breakfast every morning she gets "a tablet"* (vitamin), her "drops" and a cookie. Because I had at least an hour's loose ends to tie up before leaving the house, I stuck them back in the refrigerator (where they must be kept) and made a mental note to grab them before I got in the car. FAIL.

Inside the facility I explained to the receptionist what I'd done and asked if she could call our regular vet, ask for the dosage amount and prepare a new prescription for Billie's stay. I didn't have another hour to waste on a trip home for the medicine, a trip back to drop it off and another trip home to get ready for our flight. As the kennel attendant and I were putting the dogs' beds in the pen and getting them settled, the receptionist came back to tell me that, "yes," they could provide the medicine. However, it seemed that it would cost just under three times what I paid at Park Avenue Animal Hospital only two days ago!

I wondered, if Adequan is Adequan, what makes it so special at Berryhill that it's almost $100 when I usually pay $36? Oh, yes. I remembered. I'm at Berryhill. A Sally Beaumont enterprise. There's more to that story but we're not going there now. "Whatever," I said. I agreed pay a king's ransom for the treatment. Her eye is healing from yet a second inexplicable** injury in six months, and I don't want to delay that.

"Let's do it."

Now, at 30,000 ft. (an hour out of LAX), I'm beginning to relax in spite of Billie's last plea. Putting her "hand" through the gap between the gate and the wall of their double-wide pen, she reached out as if to say, "don't leave me here." I thought, maybe she'll relax, as I hope to, on this fine Chinese New Year day. In just a few minutes we'll get off of this 737, pick up our bags, make our way to Hertz #1 Gold Canopy Service and hop into our Camaro. I hope.

I'd say Hertz has been running at about a 10% success rate when placing me in the car I've reserved over the last 10 or so years. For two different trips: "No, a Mercury Grand Marquis does not equal a Lincoln Town Car." And, no, a Toyota Sienna (seriously?) doesn't = a Pontiac G6. They did, however, give us the Chrysler Crossfire we reserved for a trip to Atlanta a few years ago. Maybe we'd have the same luck this time. Besides, I simply won't drive -- let alone pay $15/day to park -- a Kia Sephia. I'd rather take a cab to find an authentic Chinese dinner tonight.

At any rate, Long Beach and The Queen Mary, here we come!

After waiting for an eternity (close to forty minutes) for our bags to come off of the carousel we hopped on a bus to Hertz where I found my name on the #1 Gold list: [dminmem] 433. So, in space 433 we should find our Camaro. Confused by the signs we wandered through four lanes of shiny, parked cars looking for space 433. When we finally figured out where it was my thought was, "holy crap." But in this case it was a good thing.

This is not a Camaro.

Instead of finding a Camaro in our space, there sat a bright yellow Corvette Z-06 convertible. I was in shock and giddy with anticipation. Driving this machine for a couple of days would've been AWESOME. But, and there's always a "but," my imagination was immediately snapped back into reality. I knew we wouldn't get my steamer trunk-sized rollerboard in the trunk, let alone the rest of our bags. Believe me, we tried and quickly realized it was a futile exercise. I walked inside and spoke with a very sweet young lady to whom I said, "Bless you for giving us a Corvette. But our luggage won't fit in it."

Do you see that giant bag in the trunk? This was only the beginning.

"But we don't have any Camaros," she replied. "They were all recalled." After explaining that they had reached their mileage limits and were pulled from the livery, she said, "I think we have a Mustang convertible." She reworked our documents and handed me the keys to a shiny red Mustang convertible. Between the trunk and the backseat we were able to pack all of our gear and were on our way to I-405, South.

According to our previously printed map and directions, we should've expected a 20 minute drive under normal circumstances. Yet, after our delays at Hertz we hit the expressway sometime between 3:45 and 4 PM. YAY! Rush hour(s). Now, mind you, I understand that delays on Los Angeles freeways are inevitable and are fairly regular at any time of day, but God help us. Our trip on the 405 ended up being more than twice the time - :45.

I know. Quit whining - you're barely a day into vacation, dminmem.

Honestly, though, I didn't whine. Cameron and I just used that time to exhale. After all, traveling is never easy, but it can still be fun. By the time we hit 710, though, I was just about desperate to get to our hotel in Long Beach. I had to pee. And, if I hadn't been distracted with enthusiasm for having glimpsed the unmistakable bright red and black stacks of The Queen Mary as I crested a hill, I would have gotten to a toilet much more quickly. As it stood, though, I left the freeway one exit too soon, immediately did a U-turn and found the entrance back onto the freeway closed for construction. YIKES! Zig-zagging with a sense of which direction we should be traveling put us at the ship/hotel about an hour after we started the trek. I let out a sigh relief on so many levels but was about to come unglued - we were at The Queen Mary!

How incredible it was to drive up to this.

Walking through that piece of history conjured up feelings of gratitude for the vision that made its useful preservation possible. I think it's magnificent. Make no mistake -- it's not like staying at a Westin -- which is where many of our cruise mates were staying. But I hadn't tried booking a room there until after NCL's block was filled. The cruise line offered to request an additional room for us to which I said, "thanks, please do." I was instructed to call back next week. This started before Thanksgiving and dragged on for five weeks until they finally got a room for us at this ridiculous rate: $168 per person, per night. We declined. I remember saying something like "are you kidding? We can stay at The Roosevelt and rent a car for $700." With that, I logged onto and found a much better rate at the Westin in addition to some lousy reviews. Many guests complained about the cost vs. value and mentioned being nitpicked to death with additional charges like parking and internet service. Seconds before clicking "book" at The Roosevelt, which offered free wireless, I thought "I'll scroll a little further" and there was Her Majesty!

Stoic Stowaway. My handsome man.

It's fascinating for me to imagine the enthusiastic travelers on board for the ship's maiden voyage in 1936. Throughout the floating museum/hotel there are displays of china, menus and various artifacts from the ship's heyday. The Art Deco oceanliner is a shining example of the design style.

* I would like to thank my long-time friend, Greg, for introducing "tablet," in this context, into my lexicon some 26 years ago. I think I was asking for an Excedrin: "Do you need a tablet?"

** Inexplicable? Not really. Georgia plays too rough. And, I suspect that Billie's eye maladies are a result of her trying to put Georgia in her place. It's been a way of life for more than three years.