Even at the end of the Gregorian calendar, as the last dark days of the year pass by, this interminable heat is still as unrelenting as it is during the height of summer. What’s even more strange is this unseasonable humidity, given that this city is literally situated on a beach; the ocean breeze is always there to temper whatever heat waves or cold breaks we’d get, at least from what I remember growing up here. Cool but not chilly summers, mild but not hot winters. Rarely a change of season, rarely a change in the winds.
Spending the holidays on the beach weren’t unheard of, though nobody ever got into the water for two reasons: A) the brake water will deter anyone sane from entering, unless you’re drunk and don’t mind being dared to take a dip, growing an extra limb and getting some kind of cancer in the process (Playa de Oro is practically known for its un-swimmability, if that’s even a word), and B) the water is usually too cold anyway, unless you surf (in which case you’d have revisit point A and seriously rethink your life choices before entering that water).
But this heat is nearly unbearable. It reminds me of the summers in New York, the heat and the humidity trapped within the confines of the concrete jungle, magnified by the buildings and millions of people and narrow streets, with the heat hanging thick and low like a swarm of bees without a queen to follow. I sigh, wiping my face and using my hand to shield my eyes from the bright rays of the sun.
‘This weather is great, isn’t it?’ My new coworker, a short, raven-haired guy named Jared, smiles, taking a step forward to bathe in the sunlight as we wait on the sidewalk for a few more minutes before we are forced to get to work. ’91 in December,’ he drawls, in a distinctly southern accent. ‘That’s why I moved here. I’m spending New Years on the beach if it keeps up like this.’
The heat feels as though I’m being smothered, like I’m inhaling a lake, and the wind is dead. I have no idea what he is talking about. Still, this is my first day. I have to be careful not to rock the boat too much. Instead of responding, I glance down the street we’re on, taking in the neighborhood.
Belmont Heights, it’s called. With little antique nick-knack stores, book shops, hair salons, cafes, restaurants, bars dotting the street. It’s obviously a main thoroughfare from the looks of it, though I remember very few details of this street from when I was younger. It’s practically unrecognizable. Or maybe it was just un-memorable before. After all, I have been gone for six years and this is the first time I’ve been here since I moved back. Give it time, common sense and reason tell me. It’ll become familiar one day. Sometime soon.
We open the restaurant at ten in the morning, serving brunch until 3pm. The tiny restaurant has brick walls and a concrete floor, certainly out of place for a small city, from my first opinion. Especially with the decor: an empty barrel stands outside the door to add a rustic sense to the place, along with a red neon-lit sign with the word ‘wine’ scrawled in cursive hanging on a wall, and light bulbs strung on thick wire hanging from planks suspended from the ceiling…this place is more fitting for a metropolitan location, definitely. New York, LA, maybe even Boston or Dallas.
‘We just opened a year and a half ago,’ says Jared, while walking me through the place. ‘Our aim is definitely to be a must-go-to foodie spot.’
I suppose that makes sense, given the decor. He introduces me to Edward, the cook, a short pale skinned guy in his mid-thirties, Will, the head chef, a late twenties, ambitious but family minded guy, and Lupe, the dishwasher, whose origin I can swear is from Mexico but I can’t quite tell since he is practically mute, before we get to work. The job is pretty straight forward, of course; once a server, always a server. Always a wish granter, or genie without a lamp. Master of none. Hell, even therapist. Names change but the job is always the same. The only thing that I’ll need to work on is the menu but that’s a given.
‘That’s the one thing that trips people up the most about this place,’ says Jared, while we polish wine glasses and silverware. ‘It changes with the season, you know? We’re very farmers market to table. Whatever produce is available at the local farms is what gets put on the menu and as a result it changes every two weeks or so,’ he explains.
‘I do have a photographic memory,’ I reply, and he gives me an approving nod.
‘Good. You’ll need it here.’
Within those five hours, we get fifteen heads in the restaurant. Two four-tops, two two-tops, and three random scragglers who sat by the window to people watch. The restaurant is small enough, just 36 seats, so that anyone seated in our restaurant looks like it’s full. I smiled and got to chat with most of the people there and it was just as I suspected: all transplants, though that’s not necessarily a bad thing. One table was a family of four, the father a lawyer downtown, the mother being a teacher at the elementary school in Belmont Shore. They’re from Reno. Another family of four, newly christened parents to a set of twins; one father works for the Oro Telegram and the other paints. Originally from Charleston, South Carolina and Whistler, Canada (respectively), they met at Cal State Fullerton, got married when it finally became legal, and moved here to start their family.
I can spot the first date couple with my eyes closed, the guy eagerly checking his phone for a better offer and his date so self involved in her story about how she singlehandedly saved her cousin’s wedding two years ago that she doesn’t even notice (or maybe it’s the twenty-dollar bottle of champagne, who knows). Likewise, I can also spot the lovely couple sitting in the corner, careful not to have any public displays of affection out of respect for the patrons of restaurants, not for fear of being judged (they’re beautiful girls, and this place is called the Gayborhood for a reason, of course). I can see everything and everyone so clearly. It’s a gift I’ve learned to warmly welcome. But this only helps confirm what I know to be true: Playa de Oro has changed a lot. For the first time since I can remember, this place is finally a destination on a map that people move to. Gentrification has officially begun.
Most of the people who came in to brunch are locals, which is good. I need a community. Back in New York, I knew everyone in my neighborhood: I knew the Habibi’s at the bodega across from where I lived, who sold me cigarettes half price because their cousin trafficked them from Virginia, I knew Eve my favorite barista at Corner Cafe, I knew Chicca the Italian woman who owned the restaurant down the street from where I lived (I hold the unique privilege of being her first customer), I knew the bread baker Ernesto and his son Mac who would get his marbles stuck in the gutter every day., Paul who owned the Abbey Pub, Kevin the manager of The Local Tavern, Francesca the lead bartender there, and Sean, the Irish bartender down the road at the Ellington Cafe, Terry and Reggie who ran twin shifts at Henry’s…many faces, many voices, many lives, many stories (mainly bartenders, it sounds like, I know, I swear I know more people), revolving around each other to create their own specific community, which I was apart of. Though I’ve only moved here a few days ago, I’m itching to create yet a new community. And this place seems like a perfect place to start.
Around half past two, as people start filtering out, a short, blonde young woman walks in and takes a seat by the window, with a book in her hand. I walk over to her with a menu, and smile.
‘How’s everything going?’ I ask.
‘Good!’ She replies. Her dark lipstick contrasts her pale face, her platinum blonde hair giving her somewhat less color. Of Dutch descent, definitely, at least that’s what her cheekbones tell me. Her blue eyes sparkle as they meet mine. ‘Just grabbing a bite to eat before I head to work.’
‘You work in the area?’ I ask. The people of California are forced to answer small talk, in my experience, regardless of whether they like you or not. Back in New York, they’d excuse themselves and move on if they didn’t immediately vibe well with you, and in France they won’t even bother to acknowledge you in that case. But here, people are trapped by their own superficial niceties. I will get answers here.
‘Yeah, actually!’ She replies, with an unmistakable enthusiasm, as though she is excited at the prospect of talking about her job. ‘I’m a bartender at The Pour House,’ she points to the left of the room, ‘down the street on Redondo. Ever been?’
I shake my head, smiling, and let her know that this is my fifth day back in Playa de Oro.
‘Oh, well come on by then! I’m Aleah, by the way.’
‘Lucas,’ I say, and we shake hands. First friend. One step closer to overcoming being a stranger in a strange land.
‘Yeah, I work Thursday and weekend nights. You should stop by!’
I take her order, eggs Florentine Benedict (she’s a proud vegetarian) and I stand at the wine station, looking back at her. For a second, I see a slight silver shimmer about her. It disappears after I blink, and I turn to the orange juice in the small fridge below the counter. After a moment of hesitation, I pull out a champagne flute, fill it with a bit of orange juice and prosecco, and run it over to her carefully.
‘On the house,’ I say, careful that Jared doesn’t hear me. I know this is my first day and I should wait until I at least have a paycheck before I go shelling out free alcohol, but something told me I should offer it as a gift.
She grins, her eyes lighting up. ‘That’s so sweet, how did you know these are my weakness?’
I shrug. ‘Just a feeling.’
I look at her and the silver shimmer is back, and I can almost get a glimpse of something…familiar. A warm memory of sharing mimosas with and older woman…her mother, perhaps? The memory is blurry and sepia-toned, like an old, dusty movie of a forgotten age. I don’t force any more than what I see and I gently release the thought from my mind, bleeding it back into the air like a cloud blowing in the wind.
‘I couldn’t help but notice,’ she starts off, and then, with a stubby finger, she jabs it at the wheelbarrow.
‘Oh, yeah,’ I say, nodding. ‘It’s for decoration. Today’s my first day so I have no idea where it came from.’
She gives me a look with a crooked smile, and a cocked eyebrow. ‘The salt shaker and the lit candle are decoration too?’
‘Oh,’ I say. Somehow, I knew that out of everyone who came in she would be the only person inclined to ask. ‘That’s just for luck.’
She nods, though I can tell she’s not sold completely, as though she wants to say more than she would allow herself to say. ‘That’s good. Everybody needs a little luck these days.’
And she’s precisely right. Whether people know it or not, everybody always needs a little luck. Everybody could always use a little touch of magic.