'Wet with cheese': Reencounters and changes in SoCal

This is why I kept a towel in my car, I thought.

After standing in the waves and watching an amazing sunset at the 17th Street beach in Huntington Beach, I was leaning against the trunk of my Corolla, brushing sand off my feet as best as I could with my hand. A thin layer of dust and fine grains still clung to my feet and calves, still caked the spaces between my toes, despite an effort to clean myself off at the beach. That’s when I remembered my sand towel. I always it kept in my car to clean my feet after visits to the beach.

It was one of those “oh, yeah…” moments when I remembered a long forgotten detail of my time on the West Coast. There were many of them during my trip to SoCal in March, along with reencounters with annoyances and loved conveniences, and noticeable changes.

One “oh, yeah…” moment happened at Zee German’s during my first night in OC. I flipped the switch by the door in the guest bedroom to turn on the light, but nothing happened. After walking in and turning on the floor lamp I saw why: there was no ceiling light.

None of my OC apartments had ceiling lights in the bedrooms, or maybe anywhere except the kitchen, dining area, and bathrooms. Why? I have no clue. It is probably a cost-cutting measure by developers. There was a faceplate in the center of the ceiling in Zee German’s guest room, so I assume there are electrical hookups for a light fixture, but one had yet to be installed.

I had forgotten that, without any ceiling light fixtures, I needed to rely on lamps to light my bedrooms.

There were a lot of macho men in HB when I lived there. They were the dudes who cut their hair short, wore tight-fitting MMA-themed shirts to show off their muscles, and tried to add as many notches to their bedpost as they could. And their ride of choice was a jacked-up truck.

Jacked-up trucks with big, knobby tires and loud exhaust systems were everywhere. They filled the lots of the Ford and Chevy dealerships and lined the streets. They always made me and my Midwestern visitors scratch our heads. Since it never snows in Orange County, there’s no need for raised vehicles, and there’s no need for the added traction of knobby tires on the asphalt of Beach Boulevard and the PCH. Their big, thirsty engines made even less sense when gas cost $5 a gallon. Some of them may have been used for off-roading in the desert, but I am sure 95 percent were not. For the most part, the jacked-up trucks of OC served as nothing more than modern day muscle cars, outward projections of toughness and manliness. They were symbols of all-American machismo.

They, along with an accompanying astronomical level of testosterone, were one of the things I did not like about Huntington Beach. (I often wonder why I did not move to another, presumably chiller, coastal city like Laguna Beach, Dana Point, or San Clemente. I may not have been able to afford to eat, but whatever.) Though Zee German told me he didn’t see many jacked-up trucks in OC anymore, I expected to see them all over the place still, rumbling down the streets and hogging all the parking, the testosterone-overloaded drivers and passengers harassing pedestrians for no good reason. Fueling that expectation was my experience driving from Las Vegas to SoCal, when jacked-up trucks towing toy haulers clogged Interstate 15. “Nothing’s changed,” I thought.

However, Zee German was right — I only saw one or two jacked-up trucks in HB.

What happened to them? Zee German and I had a couple theories: the jacked-up trucks were traded-in because they either became too expensive to own or their owners grew up and chose much more rational rides; or the macho men packed up their stuff, notched bedposts and all, and rumbled out of town in their jacked-up F-250s, Rams, and Silverados. Perhaps they relocated to the Phoenix area, where Zee German and I saw a lot of jacked-up trucks.

Regardless of what happened to them, HB felt much more chill and relaxing, much less aggressive. It was a welcome change.

Though I did not forget how courteous, chill, and well-educated drivers in SoCal are, I did forget what it is like to be among them.

It was awesome! They stop for pedestrians at crosswalks, provide room to change lanes or enter traffic, and know how to execute a zipper when two lanes merge into one, especially on freeway on-ramps.

People know how to drive in SoCal. Personally, I think a lot of it has to do with the fact everybody has the same driving experience. Everyone needs to navigate wide thoroughfares and congested, ten-lane freeways; everyone knows what to do and recognizes that they are all on the same concrete path and should treat each other as they want to be treated. There are assholes, sure, but for the most part drivers are pretty chill, drive predictably, and move with the flow. It was easy to spot out-of-state drivers when I lived there because they drove erratically, hurried, and fought for space. They did not drive with the flow like everyone else.

Also, it helps that the lane marking and directional signs in California are much better; it helps when there are giant arrows painted in each lane, telling you exactly where it leads. The markings and signage in the Midwest are pathetic by comparison.

Oh, God — how I have missed Botts’ dots!

I did not forget about Botts’ dots — the round, raised pavement markers used on roads in snow-free areas of California — either. Along with accompanying reflective markers, they provide feedback when changing lanes, which is extremely helpful at night and when it is raining. Though recessed reflectors are used in some areas of the Midwest (I have only seen them in Illinois so far), there is nothing comparable to Botts’ dots the heartland because they would be scraped off the road by snowplows — and it sucks! Botts’ dots are one of the things I miss most about living in California.

After watching the sunset on my last night in Orange County, I drove to my favorite Mexican restaurant in Huntington Beach, Las Barcas. When ordering a veggie burrito, the woman at the register asked, “Do you want it wet with cheese?”

It took me a moment to register what she meant by “wet,” but it came back to me after a moment: sauce on top.

Maybe it is done elsewhere in the country, but SoCal is the only place I have been to where one can order a burrito “wet” (topped and smothered with cheese or red sauce) or “dry” (plain with nothing on top).

I learned the hard way that I prefer my burritos wet. When I was first asked if I wanted a burrito wet, I declined. I had no clue what the term meant, perhaps envisioning a waterlogged mess of Mexican spiced ingredients on a plate. When my burrito came sans any kind of delicious topping, someone explained why. “Ah! I’m not going to make that mistake again,” I thought.

I had forgotten all about it, but thankfully remembered when it counted.

“Yes!” I told the woman at Las Barcas. “Wet with cheese!”

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