“I’m telling you, if they don’t have the banana pancakes today I’m going to shit bricks.”
Probably not the most romantic thing for a girlfriend to say on the first hour of our trip out of Reno.
“Oh they’ll have them.” Matt says to me matter-of-factly.
Four hours from Reno, Nevada to Pacifica, California breathing in each other’s air, the smell of melted Marion berry shakes and semi trucks’ raw, relentless exhaust and all we want is to sit down at our favorite breakfast place on Linda Mar beach.
We pull in the parking lot, hop out of the 4Runner and head to our destination—Nona’s Cafe.
“Gotta eat before we go out.” Matt says. Part of me wants to argue. He sees this; he won’t let it happen. He’s an outdoorsman. A “never know when you’re gunna need to live off of the breakfast you ate this morning for three days” kind-of guy. We watch 127 hours and he analyzes James Franco’s, or technically, Aron Ralston’s every move, explaining what he could have done differently: “I wouldn’t have stepped there. Why on Earth would he step there?” or what he’s doing right: “Great idea to piss in the camelback. Just a genius, genius idea.”
Matt wins; breakfast will ensue.
The moist air instantly seeks out our dehydrated desert bodies with a salty vengeance. It wants to save us. I imagine my hair, skin, cuticles, and lips praising the lord—better yet, praising Neptune. Tiny cells baptized in humidity, reintroduced to the coastal doctrine. Born-again ocean worshipers. The boom and crackle of breaking waves taunts me. Not yet, I tell them. Banana pancakes first—for Matt’s sake.
“Are. You. Fucking. Kidding. Me?”
We stand facing an empty and disheveled Nona’s Kitchen. We press our greasy, road-tripped faces up against the glass and look in at what was. Tables and chairs awkwardly strewn about. Stainless steel looking as lonely as ever. An empty kitchen minus a few odds and ends. No people.
No people and no banana pancakes.
Three doors down we notice Nona’s kryptonite—High Tide Café and Creperie—a new restaurant that ranks half-a-star higher than Nona’s in Yelp reviews. We decide Yelp can fuck off; we’re boycotting High Tide.
“What now?” I ask.
We stand in a crowded Starbuck’s. We’re awkward. And disappointed. Awkwardly disappointed. I imagine if you took a bird’s eye photo of this place, it’d look like an arcane puzzle of ironic sweatshirts, sunglasses that serve no purpose, and oversized purses peppered with tanned limbs and empty heads.
Starbuck’s is the father of coffee and we’ve just been scolded. We hate how places like this make you feel there’s a proper way coffee—or one of the 3,000 varieties thereof—should be ordered and, then, waited for and, should one not adhere to this code, they will be hung from the forest green awning outside as a warning for all who dare enter, while the Starbucks Goddess—a fucked up hybrid of the statue of liberty and Mona Lisa—sentences the offender to a life in Starbuck’s hell, serving up one “grande frappuccino with extra whip” at a time to former-brace-faced girls turned greek-letter worshipers.
“We don’t hand you your coffee at the register; pick it up around the corner.”
Pick it up around the corner. Why are there so many corners in this place anyways? It’s a goddamn corn maze disguised as a coffee shop. It has a mix of about 90 percent locals and ten percent tourists, with Matt and I solely comprising the ten percent. I think back to the last time we were in Pacifica, just a few months before, and can't help but feel a palpable difference.
I’d never been before. Matt insisted we go together. He calls me Gidget—a nickname he proudly derived from deciding I’d be a great surfer once when we decided to swim across Tahoe, “ just from rock to rock,” on a day so choppy, if you closed your eyes you’d think you were in the Pacific. I was months in from a broken knee and torn ligament and ended up putting both my older brother and his girlfriend, who swam with the gracefulness of a tutu’d five-year-old on her first day of ballet lessons, to shame. “If you can swim, you can surf,” Matt would always say to me.
He took me to Pacifica for the first time in May of 2011.
A free-write I did in an English course right after we returned reads “Pacifica, California. Not San Francisco, Pacifica. It’s outside of the city, a hidden town that appears shy in San Francisco’s shadow. I love it. However shy, however awkward. It’s David, not Goliath. It just hasn’t won yet.”
“It’s the perfect place to learn to surf,” Matt tells me as we cruise along Highway One.
I always feel guilty talking on trips with such beautiful scenery, as if my voice—or any voice—might perhaps taint the experience, compromise the senses. We continue down Highway One, a drive that, every time I take it, makes me feel unappreciative and shallow. It’s as if there’s such a compact and awesome amount of beauty edged along that route that some piece of it is bound to be missed, bound to be taken for granted.
I put down the “Smartfood” popcorn (the truthfulness of its name can be debated), pick up Matt’s Nalgene and take a fat swig. A wave of Tahoe blue washes away the compacted cheese dust from the crevices of my wisdom teeth and my tongue acts as a tool for the bits it missed. I sit up and attempt to soak in the coastal scenery to best of my ability, vowing to not take any part of it for granted, though I know it’s an unavoidable anomaly that the more I attempt to not take it for granted, the more I will.
We camp at Half Moon Bay State Beach. My knee injury got us a bright red temporary handicapped pass and, in turn, a remarkably-oversized camping space. I’d feel guilty, but it’s the middle of the week; no one is vacationing in Pacifica right now. I’ll exaggerate the limp around the rangers.
Matt takes me to a shopping center right on the edge of the beach. There’s a NorCal shop that Matt loves. I nod. I agree. It looks great. But we don’t go in. I am not surfing. Not today, not this trip. I’ve never surfed. The water’s cold. Nonetheless, Matt loves the NorCal shop. He was here a few years ago and bought one of his two surfboards from the shop. He talks about how nice the workers are and how, when you rent gear, they don’t even take a credit card as collateral because, “they’re just that trusting around here.”
Next to NorCal is Nona’s Kitchen. Nona’s is a quaint café. I’ve never been before but it’s Matt’s favorite place on Linda Mar. There are no menus, just a chalkboard with a few specials written and waitresses with great memories.
I have the banana pancakes and an orgasm.
They were, hands down, the best banana pancakes I’ve ever had. I start humming Jack Johnson at the table, like some sort of terrible cliché, but I can’t help myself. Matt has the bacon pancakes and, from the look on his face, an orgasm as well.
We vow to come to Nona’s every summer from here on out.
“Matt, your two grande coffees, Matt”
We burn our tongues and head to the Ocean. But not without stopping at NorCal first. I need my gear.
The shop has clearly expanded since the last time Matt was inside. We try to figure out what store it took over in order to expand—another restaurant, the head shop maybe? Good thing we didn’t forget rolling papers. We step inside. The place is huge. We are not greeted and, judging by the faces on the equiamounts-tanned-and-peeved employees, not welcome. None of the employees are recognizable. Perhaps because most of them have their faces buried in their cell phones behind a counter. We notice one young man who doesn’t. We approach him, but realize he’s “helping” someone else.
“Size 6, huh? That’s sexy. You have small feet.” Apparently, the new norm at NorCal is to either have your face buried in your cell phone, or a 17-year-old girl’s breasts. Matt’s disappointment is palpable and is coupled with a constant explanation of the NorCal shop that once was. The one he remembers. The one he loves. It was nicer; it was smaller; it was better.
I try to recount the reasons I always defend northern California—good vinyl shopping, Haight Ashbury, Nona’s Fucking Cafe. Suddenly, they all seem to have lost their validity. Has southern California eaten the entirety of the state alive? No, I think to myself, that’s impossible—southern California doesn’t eat.
I wander around the store for a good five minutes—you know the way you do when you don’t want to disturb anyone “working” but you figure if you can look lost and desperate enough someone will voluntarily come to your aid. No one takes the bait. Angry Birds and tits and hold their attention. I find a wetsuit; I’ve lost Matt at this point somewhere in this Sam’s Club surf shop. I head out back behind the store and grab a foam long board. 60 dollars. Matt pays--perhaps because he's acutely aware of how much pain I'll be in after surfing for the first time. Credit card on file. So much for the old honor system. We walk out to the parking lot, spend a few minutes condemning NorCal and then head to the beach right in front of us.
I half expect the ocean to be as unrecognizable as Pacifica itself—perhaps an access key card swipe and a retinal scan required before you step into the water, High Tide cafés recurring every fifteen feet in the sand, life-size iPhones sunbathing, eager to tan themselves to the point where their screen is unreadable, Starbuck's cardboard sleeves strewn about the sand, mountains of breasts with pierced-nipple peaks along the shore.
There it is, though. Looking the same as ever. Inviting and enticing and taunting me. Hungry for the flesh of my knees, the fat of my heels, the skin of my elbows. Thirsty for every inevitable drop of liquid it will effortlessly gain from me--my blood and my snot and my saliva. Begging me to hop in, let it swallow me alive, introduce me to every sharp rock and chunk of tangled seaweed it has to offer. It, unlike the locals, loves first-time surfers. I’m its nutrition for the day.
California may not eat, but the ocean is as hungry as ever. And thank God for that.