The Long Haul to the Crab Cooker
Last August, I realized that I had reached a total shit-or-get-off-the-pot moment (apologies for the unfortunate expression) in writing my dissertation. As in, if I didn’t sit down that very minute and write the darn thing, there was no reason for me to keep pretending that I was going to finish the degree I had started when, well, if not when dinosaurs walked the earth, certainly well before my looks had faded and I turned into my current, mean old crone iteration. Appropriating the title of a rather unremarkable Asian Dub Foundation song that my college boyfriend had liked, August was declared “New Way New Life.” I woke with the sun, packed a PB&J, hauled my ass to the library, and staked out my favorite carrel. I wrote, in the great words of Cheryl Strayed, like a motherfucker. All day, every day that I wasn’t at my consulting gig.
At the end of the month, my dissertation wasn’t exactly done, but I at least had enough written that I felt I would have a fighting chance to enter the fall academic job market (snort, chortle, etc.). To half-heartedly celebrate, we decided to go to the beach in Newport for an afternoon and muck around on the jetty, known in these parts as the groin. As you well know, B positively lives for any imposing rock feature that he can scramble around on. We started out about an hour before sunset, easily making our way out on the initial stretch. Close to the shore, the boulders are tight against one another, making it easy to jump from one to the next. But it’s a really, really long jetty, you guys, and as you get further out, it becomes increasingly tougher going. In a grand tradition of bad footwear decisions, I was wearing sandals and found it difficult to keep my footing on the boulders, many of which were now slick with water from the rising tide and the waves crashing against the Balboa side. Lest you think I’m kidding about the size of these waves, take a quick Google of The Wedge. It was cold, I was miserable, but we just kept going. And going. And going.
As we neared the end, we started to reach groups of fishermen, many of whom make their living by fishing daily off the groin. It was of course mortifying to watch their nimble negotiation of the jetty rocks, as I flailed and slipped and scraped my hands. Nearing the end, I made my way over a particularly gnarly stretch only to find myself suddenly face-to-face with the bloated corpses of two big manta rays, likely abandoned by a bewildered amateur fisherman days or weeks earlier. They stunk to high heaven, and I was so startled that I actually screamed when I saw their putrid, cloudy grey eyes.
I thought, of course, of this:
The whole trip had taken on a totally manic quality by that point, and I was psychically overcome with fear as we neared the furthest reaches of the jetty. Fear that if I didn’t go all the way that B would be angry and disappointed in me, fear that we wouldn’t have enough light to navigate our way all the way back to the beach, fear that the tide would come in even higher and that I would slip and fall to my death. Fear, quite frankly, that I had reached some kind of turning point in my life where all of my good luck had run out and the darkness was descending. As we reached the lighthouse—rank with fish guts and littered with trash and used condoms—B awkwardly attempted to stage a romantic moment, putting his arm around me as the wind whipped through our hair. The stench was overpowering, and I choked back fear-or-fish-smell induced vomit, smiled weakly, and said, “Great, we’re halfway there.”
Yet somehow—and this I knew from years of hiking—the turn-around point is never really halfway. It’s actually much farther along. I found myself suddenly more agile on the rocks, deftly jumping over those dead mantas and nodding happily at the disinterested fishermen. B and I began to chat, and in this direction, we weren’t just talking about the best trajectory or how miserable I was. “You’re taking me to the Crab Cooker tonight,” I declared, “and I’m getting a cold beer and entire Dungeness all to myself.” B, who was likely amazed that I hadn’t chickened out much earlier, eagerly agreed to my terms. We jokingly began to compare climbing Newport jetty to the process of writing a dissertation. “Where are you in the writing now?” he asked. “Here!” I announced, just as we reached the final section where the boulders were suddenly closer together, smooth from the many casual feet that had only ventured this far. The beach was close, and I could practically taste my crab.
The Crab Cooker, for those of you not in the know, is a Balboa Peninsula institution that opened in 1951. I suspected it was a landmark of sorts when I first arrived in Orange County back in the dark ages, as my teenage guilty-pleasure show The OC had featured a thinly veiled “Crab Shack” in many episodes. The Crab Cooker is a small seafood market and a bigger restaurant, and it’s one of those remarkable places that just keeps doing the thing that they do well, year after year, paper plate after paper plate. Nothing is fancy, and the sides are pleasantly retro, but if you want a cup of soul-soothing clam chowder, some deep-fried soft shells, or a skewer of some of the plumpest scallops you’ll ever eat, this is the place. It’s touristy, and there is often a long wait, so we don’t go very often. But, I’ll tell you what, nothing has ever tasted as good as my cold Bud and my Dungeness crab did that night after we climbed the jetty.
If you’ll continue to humor this entry’s odd metaphor for a moment, I’ll confide to you that I was of course not even remotely as close to the finish line as I thought I was that night. Sadly, I was probably only at my first glimpse of the dead manta rays, nauseous with fear and still twenty yards from the lighthouse turn-around point. I still had to spend months searching endlessly for jobs, sick with worry like clockwork every morning at four a.m. I still had months of near-misses on dream gigs, punctuated by stomach-churning rejection letters from schools in places like Pocatello, Idaho (no offense). It was a real fish-gut-and-old-condom kind of experience, if I’m being totally honest. I still had another New Way New Life period in store for three weeks this spring, days where I battened down the hatches, snarled at anyone who came near my carrel, and wrote an introduction and a last-minute chapter. I wrote again, dear reader, like a motherfucker.
I’m happy to tell you that I have finally reached those smooth, evenly-set boulders. I sent my full dissertation to my committee a few weeks ago, and now I am just waiting for their scrawls of approval on my filing form. I have a bit of work to do—some copyediting, a bit of shuffling, a few citations. But I’m almost there. I think I’ll skip the climbing the jetty again and stick with the most delicious part of my reified analogy. I think you know where I’ll be going to dinner the night I officially file this damn thing. I’ll keep you posted.
I recently met up with my friend K in the city of Westminster, where she had been storing her belongings for several years while she was living in Tokyo. Yes, I totally just said that as if that is a completely normal, not absurdly fabulous way to spend a few years. Do we want K to teach us all about Japanese food, dear reader? I think so! If nothing else, I do think that she should be our guide for a Los Angeles ramen Hungerdome, yes? Let’s relentlessly pester her until this happens, Bear-Gardeners.
I can’t recommend Westminster’s self-storage facilities, as poor K’s space was vandalized during her time away. Clarence and I can, however, recommend Westminster for eating. Among the OC’s many attributes is one of the largest (the largest?) Vietnamese communities outside of Vietnam. Westminster boasts some staggeringly good Vietnamese food, though I’ve yet to find the bánh mì of my dreams. Don’t worry, I’m looking, but in the meantime, my heart remains true to this place.
We met for lunch at a place called Dat Thanh, which is a completely wonderful, family-run spot. The friendly son runs the front room, and his parents cook in back. We started off with Vietnamese iced coffees (natch), which were so delicious that we were actually warned to take our time or suffer a too-quick caffeine buzz. We started with an order of nem nuong cuon thu duc (pork sausage spring rolls) that were just the right mix of crunchy bits, pressed meat, and fresh herbs. The real standout in my opinion, however, are Dat Thanh’s broken rice dishes. K and I shared a tom nuong & ga nuong (BBQ chicken and shrimp), a positively revelatory combination of charbroiled meat and fish on some of the most addictive rice I’ve ever tasted. Neophytes that we were, the owner instructed us to mix chile paste with a sweetened, reduced fish sauce in small bowls, then pour it over the whole dish. One of the things I like best about K is that she immediately said that she wished we had gotten our own plates and not shared, which is basically how Clarence feels about everything. And at a door-busting seven bucks for the entire plate, I certainly won’t be sharing again.
Nota bene, Dat Thanh is cash only, and the owner emphasized that it really is a family-run business, so don’t be coming in at five minutes until closing and expect to sit down for an hour. The place is such a gem, and I’m literally counting the minutes until I can get back for my own plate of com tam hay bun.
Behind the Orange Curtain
People who know the social topography of Southern California are often appalled to find out that I live in Corona del Mar, the southernmost chunk of Newport Beach. It’s fancy, to be sure, but most of coastal Orange County is regarded as a kind of cultural wasteland. While much of inland OC is varied, economic, social, and racial diversity of any kind flatten as you move closer and closer to the ocean. By the time you arrive at Ocean Drive in our fair hamlet, you are suddenly confronted with a terrifying vision of twenty-first century American prosperity: orangey older men who work as “entrepreneurs” with second wives half their age, women who are uniformly blonde, nipped, tucked, and Xanax-zonked in between their numerous yoga classes. The children shriek unpleasantly while playing and otherwise act strangely morose, despite their obvious lack of want for anything. Migrant workers do virtually all of the domestic and manual labor, and there is a quiet exodus of people of color every single weekday at four p.m. While many people have observed the aggression that ordinarily placid Californians exhibit on the road, OC drivers are entirely oblivious to the presence of other vehicles, that is, when they aren’t being outright malicious in their leased Lamborghinis. The OC is a perverse realization of Louis C.K.’s funny observation of late capitalism: everything is amazing, and nobody is happy. So much so, in fact, that the phrase has become our shorthand for our neighbors’ bad behavior at the Fashion Island Whole Foods.
Kvetching aside, coastal OC is among the most beautiful places in the country, and a dream for people who enjoy being outside as much as we do. We are a five-minute drive from Crystal Cove State Park, which boast four miles of undeveloped beaches and serves as the trailhead for miles upon miles of hiking along the canyons and ridges of the hills between Newport and Laguna Beach. We hike or beach (that can be a verb, right?) there several times a week, often doing a loop in Moro Canyon that culminates with a view of the coast stretching from Dana Point all the way to the Pacific Palisades. Many of our days end with a leisurely stroll to Corona del Mar State Beach, where we watch predictably gasp-worthy sunset over Catalina Island while dolphins and seals swim around at the entrance to Newport Harbor. The green markets, especially the one at UC Irvine, are the biggest and best I’ve ever seen. Our library in Newport Beach seems to be the only public library in America that is expanding and improving as the city grows. There’s a lot to recommend Corona del Mar, even if we do often feel like anthropologists in our own community. At any rate, it appears that we are here for at least the short duration, so we might as well enjoy it.