A Man's Life: Two Fun Things That I Really Don't Do Anymoreby Jeff Gordinier
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When I go back home to California these days, the experience can be humbling, and not just because so many of the West Coasters I meet seem to be training for a triathlon or making tens of millions of dollars in technology—or, worse, both. Physical perfection and insane wealth leave me in awe, sure, but they don’t intimidate me. Besides, one of the strange aspects of growing up in Southern California is that you sort of get used to rubbing elbows with beings who seem to descend from Mount Olympus whenever they’re craving a Jamba Juice.
No, the source of my humiliation is fear. More to the point, it’s the awareness—an awareness that grows more acute each year—that I am turning into a hopeless East Coast wuss. I know this because there are two quintessentially Californian things that I used to do all the time when I was a teenager, and which I now undertake only with a kind of cowering, cringing hesitation. Those things are:
1. eating tacos from taco trucks;
If growing up, at least for men, often revolves around the grand and timeless theme of doing dangerous shit that we can laugh about later, then Los Angeles is an excellent place to grow up. Consider the fact that on any given sunny day up and down the California coast, thousands of kids are bodysurfing.
If you’ve never done it, or if your only exposure to it is paddling around in one of those nice Midwestern lakes, then I’m sure it sounds harmless. Bodysurfing? What does that mean, anyway? You lie on a boogie board and bob around in the ripples?
To imagine bodysurfing in the Pacific when the summer swells are way up, think of a massive brontosaurus tail that has the power to swat and pulverize you if you’re not exactly where you’re supposed to be. Now imagine that your goal is to catch that gargantuan tail at the precise moment when doing so will give you the euphoria of having all of that power at your fingertips.
If you catch it, you can ride the tail.
But even if you are triumphant, the dinosaur will quickly drop you into a maelstrom of sand and foam, and when you finally regain your bearings and lift your head high enough out of the saltwater to gasp for air, you will look to the west and see maybe seven or eight more brontosaurus tails, each one bigger than the last, coming straight at you. Fast.
And no, you don’t have a board.
And oh, that place I mentioned—the place where you’re not supposed to be? Now you’re in it, amigo, so you’d better start swimming…
When I was 15 or 16, and even younger, I used to do this every single day of the summer. (And without a dash of sunblock on my skin, which was probably even crazier.) My father, who grew up on the Jersey shore, encouraged me and my brother to bodysurf, but I’m not sure he always knew what the heck we were doing down there at the beach. I slammed into rocks while body-surfing. I inhaled pints of seawater into my lungs. OnceI caught a wave wrong, flipped over backward like a scarecrow in a gale, banged my head into the grit on the ocean floor, came up to see a wall of water looming 20 feet above me, and realized that I did not remember my own name.
Could I have died? Yes. Frankly, I’m shocked that I didn’t.
And that’s the thing. Now that I’m in my late 30s and nowhere near as agile as I used to be, and now that I am the supposedly responsible guardian of a wife and two kids and a mortgage and a career, all I can think about when I go back to Laguna Beach and hurl myself into the breakers is: Jesus, I can’t be doing this! I could die!
Yep, I flinch. I let the big ones pass. If he ran into me now, the tan 16-year-old version of me would find it pathetic that I am admitting such a thing, but fear has entered the picture. So has sunblock.
Okay, but why should anybody be afraid of tacos?
Well, keep in mind we’re not talking about a Taco Bell Chalupa Supreme here. The pursuit of the perfect authentic taco is like a rogue religion on the West Coast, and there are rules and props that tend to sanctify the experience. Not only should the contents of each taco be held in two griddle-warmed and overlapping corn tortillas, but you must have at hand sliced limes, a spectrum of homemade salsas that range in heat from mild to throat-scalding, a fresh or pickled radish on the side of the plate, and tanks of sweet Mexican beverages such as horchata and tamarindo. And piling up your tacos with tons of cheese is totally uncool.
Californians take this seriously. On a recent trip west I dropped by a taco stand in Pasadena and overheard two young guys arguing like Talmudic scholars about where to find the best al pastor and carnitas, what’s the proper terminology for stewed goat, and whether Baja style is better than Sonora style for fish.
The people who get really deranged about tacos know that many of the best ones are dished out of aromatic trucks that can be found parked at random curbs all over Southern California. White boys like me love to pretend we’re badass by going to taco trucks at two in the morning after a night of hard drinking, but there’s nothing remotely "outlaw" about the trucks. They’re legal and they’re clean.
Still, a big reason why the taco trucks are seen as the culinary equivalent of bodysurfing is that they have an inclination to serve bizarre cuts of meat. See, a real California street taco is a simple thing: Take those two tortillas, lace them with chopped meat, sprinkle the meat with some chopped onions and cilantro, and you’re good to go. (Let me repeat: no cheese.)
The meat is usually beef or pork or chicken, yes, but the taco trucks revel in parts of the cow and the pig and the hen that you are perhaps a tad less familiar with, unless you live on a farm. For instance, if you go to one of the trucks and you overhear some guy musing, "Duuude, I dare you to eat one sesos if I eat one cabeza and one lengua," what he is saying is that he is willing to consume one tongue taco and one taco consisting of diced-up parts of a cow head as long as his friend does not hesitate to eat some brains.
Here, again, my adolescent courage is impossible to revive. I ate all of those things when I was young—I even ate them when I was sober—but these days I see brains on the menu and I can’t help but think Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy! Meaning: Sure, I can eat this taco, and it will taste delicious, but what are the chances that within a few years mad cow disease will have turned me into a drooling, gibbering nut job?
I can’t do it. I wuss out.
What worries me about these failures of nerve is not so much that I’m less of a man than I used to be. Sometimes the flip side of fear is…common sense. Since I have a family now, maybe I’m being more of a man by making intelligent self-preservation a priority. No, what worries me is that after 12 years of living on the East Coast, I am less of a Californian than I used to be. Admit it—there is something strangely radiant and hypercool about being from California, and to lose that would suck. California is about risk. California is about plunging into things that are awesome, gnarly, and rad. California is the place where terror and bliss do the dirty tango.
A few years ago I had the honor of interviewing Terry Wade, one of the unsung heroes of California bodysurfing. Terry was known for having conquered the Wedge, a notoriously perilous wave right next to a jetty in Newport Beach, but the Wedge had extracted from Terry a very high price in return. His body was a wreck. He ate painkillers like M&Ms. He was only in his 40s, but the damage—years of banging and twisting his spinal cord, his muscles, his joints, his nerves—meant that he now passed through each day in a trance of constant agony. His doctor had told him that he could not bodysurf the Wedge anymore.
"And of course you wouldn’t, would you?" I asked Terry.
His answer consisted of one word—a word that tells you everything you need to know about the essence of living in California.
Terry Wade said: "Yes."
Jeff Gordinier, a Princeton graduate, is the Editor-at-Large at Details magazine and wrote about Wabash in that magazine’s November 2005 issue. He is completing a book for Viking, and his work has appeared in Best American Nonrequired Reading 2005 and Best Food Writing 2006. He recently won the ASCAP Deems Taylor Award for two Details stories about classical music.
Illustration by David Sattler