The History of the California Burrito (Part 2 of 3)
Kevin had been the dreamer of the group, and until he bowed out I didn't realize how much I'd been caught up in the dream myself. I wanted to be a rock star now; I wasn't even a great bassist, but I'd been setting my sights on this goal. I was twenty-eight years old and working for a robotics firm on Long Island, where I'd been living for much too long. What the fuck was I doing in a dull family suburb, working a 9 to 5 job? My life had no direction, and nothing in it meant anything to me.
Not even Cindy. She'd been my girlfriend since college, but our relationship had lost its magic. When we went out to dinner I'd sit there bored, wishing to be home on my couch watching baseball. Even when we made love I was depressed. She started to notice this, and one Friday night she told me she wanted to break up. Which kind of took me by surprise. I knew our relationship had gone bad, but I also liked having a girlfriend around to remind me to eat right and buy me presents on my birthday and call my mother so I wouldn't have to do it.
Now I was really confused. I began hanging around my apartment not doing a fucking thing. I'd sit on my couch with a bag of burritos and a bong, and I'd watch pro wrestling and Knight Rider and any other shit that was on, anything to divert me from my miserable life. I lived in this marshmallow-like hellish condition for about three months, not doing laundry or cutting my hair, sitting in a dull haze at work and falling behind on my schedule, eating burritos not once a day but two and finally three times a day, for breakfast, lunch and dinner. I'd become a truly disgusting person, and I have to say thank you to my sister Suzanne, because she was the one who got me out of it. She called from California (where she now lived), and knew the moment she heard my voice that I was in a bad place. She offered to help me break my routine by coming to stay with her for a week or two.
I'd never been to California; in fact I'd never been much of anywhere. It sounded like a fun idea, and I was happy to see Suzanne again. As soon as I arrived we stopped in an airport bar for a beer and a talk, and she ended up listening to all my problems and giving me a major pep-talk in which she explained that everybody felt confused when a relationship suddenly ended, and that everything I was going through was normal and healthy. Did I mention that my sister is a professional therapist? I felt better after a few hours of this, and then we agreed to go out to dinner. She asked me what kind of food I liked and I said "Mexican."
"Really?" she said. "I love Mexican food!"
"You do? When Dad brought us to Taco Bell I thought you hated it."
"I thought you hated it."
She got excited at the idea of having a Mexican meal, and decided to buy all the ingredients and cook me up a big dinner herself. "Do you know how to cook?" I asked suspiciously. I was hungry, and I remembered Suzanne turning up some ghastly dinners back when she used to take Home-Ec in high school.
"Of course I do!" she said. "Don't you remember the dinners I used to make?"
"Yes, I do," I said sadly. We stopped at a grocery store, and my sister proceeded to buy the strangest collection of ingredients I'd ever seen: a clove of garlic, a stalk of celery, a tub of tofu, a package of bean sprouts, a can of black beans, a bag of lentils, three kinds of expensive European cheeses. "Suzanne," I said. "There are four ingredients in a Mexican meal. Meat, taco shells, sauce and cheddar cheese. Period."
"You don't know the California style," she said.
We got to her apartment, and she went into the kitchen to cook. An hour later she began the dinner by placing a dish of gigantic oven-warmed (and slightly burnt) tortillas on the table, then followed it with all the rest of the bizarre ingredients she'd bought at the store. "Okay, it's do-it-yourself," she said.
I stared at the table. "This is a nice salad," I said. "Would you please bring out the main course?"
It turned out the salad was the main course, and that's the California style. During the next few days I found myself unable to get used to this. Suzanne lived on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley and there were about ten burrito stands or tacquerias on this street, but I couldn't get a real burrito at any one of them. This made me feel alienated and homesick. The fact was, even though Suzanne's long talks were making me feel better, I was still in a very confused state.
I knew Suzanne was right that I needed to snap out of my depression, but I still needed something to provide that climactic force and make the change happen. In search of this elusive thing, I took the BART into San Francisco by myself one day while Suzanne was at work, hoping to find something in San Francisco to change my life. I thought I'd enjoy exploring the city by myself, but as soon as I stepped out of the BART station at Market Street I started to feel a crushing, panicky loneliness. I looked around at the shoe stores and donut shops of downtown San Francisco and felt lost and lonely. Suzanne and her friends had given me a long list of places to go, but I felt overwhelmed by the unfamiliarity of everything around me. Like I said, I'd never really been anywhere before.
Suzanne and her friends had told me to go to the Exploratorium first. I walked all the way over, but as soon as I stepped inside and paid my admission I realized I wasn't in the mood for a science museum after all. I left and tried to walk back to the center of town but got lost in the Presidio for an hour and a half. I reached some kind of deserted military settlement at the north end of the park and looked out over the Golden Gate Bridge. The elemental beauty of the rust-colored bridge and black rocks and crashing waves only filled me with anxiety; I wanted to see the Brooklyn Bridge again. I finally found my way out of the park by walking down some wooden stairs onto a nude beach that only got me more depressed because almost all the nude people were guys. I pulled my tourist map from my back pocket and began walking towards the Haight. It took much longer to get there than I'd thought it would, and by the time I reached the famous corner of Haight and Ashbury my feet ached and I wasn't in the mood to look at record stores or drink coffee or find the house where the Grateful Dead used to live. Now, I realized, I was in the mood for a science museum. I wandered and wandered and reached the Castro, where I watched guys kissing each other passionately on the street and wondered why they wouldn't rather be hanging out at the nude beach by the Presidio. I walked and walked, lost and dying in the scary loneliness of walking; I found Lombard Street and descended the famous "crookedest street in the world" without enjoying it; I reached Market Street again and looked up at the pointy Pyramid building and then walked on to Fisherman's Wharf. I didn't know enough at this point in my life to stop at the City Lights bookstore, and I walked right through North Beach and ended up at Fisherman's Wharf, which disappointed me because it was obviously a place no self-respecting fisherman would ever go. It was nothing but a shopping mall, with yogurt shops and crystal stands and postcard stores, all dim and deserted and closing for the night. The sky was dark now, and I looked at the hushed skyline of cold empty San Francisco and thought of the line in T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land where he says "Unreal City," just like that, with no explanation. That was what San Francisco felt like to me at that moment.