Monday, March 30, 2020

The Good Old Days - Part I

[“Let Inga Tell You,” La Jolla Light, published April 1, 2020] ©2020

In the last year or so, I’ve been able to reconnect on a more positive basis with my first husband, “Fred,” from whom I’ve been divorced since 1983.  He’s been ailing and I’m probably the only one around who remembers his parents, his family home in New Jersey, and certainly his medical school years at Albert Einstein in the Bronx. 

Pleasantville, NY, where I grew up was exactly 22.8 miles from Albert Einstein but the Bronx might as well have been in another galaxy. I met Fred at a college mixer at a not-NYC school. He’d been in the area visiting his physician uncle, his mentor.  It was Yom Kippur 1967 and Fred picked me out as the most Jewish-looking girl in the room. Actually, all the real Jewish girls were home atoning. 

Fred invited me to spend the day in NYC the next weekend and, wanting to impress me on his meager medical student budget, took me to a well-known deli. Let me just say that Pleasantville was not exactly the food capital of the world, having exactly one restaurant, the Pleasantville Diner. The gastronomic delights of New York delis were unknown to me. 

So I could be forgiven for replying to his ordering bagels and lox for us with, “What’s a lock?”  I have never lived down that line. It was Fred’s first clue that I was not Jewish.  But by that time, there I was sitting across from him. 

At first I couldn’t imagine that anyone would want to eat fish for breakfast but not wanting to be rude, I ate it when it arrived.  And thus began my 50-year love affair with smoked salmon and its luscious cousin, gravlax, and in fact, fabulous food in general.  If I am to thank Fred for anything, it is for introducing me to the wonders of cheap ethnic foods of all persuasions which New York has in abundance.

I initially held out on Chinese food convinced I didn’t like it after being subjected to a dinner of canned chow mein when our family was quarantined for polio in August of 1955.  When a meal is so awful that you remember it for the rest of your life, you know it was pretty terrible.  But when you’re quarantined, the food options are pretty limited. Even if there had been Instacart, they sure as heck wouldn’t have delivered to us. Public fear of polio was second only to nuclear war.

Fred’s roommate at Einstein was a guy named Richie Wu who would direct him to hole-in-the-wall restaurants in Chinatown that were totally off the grid and would write down in Chinese what to order. So within weeks of discovering the wonders of New York delis, I was now an avid consumer of Chinese food as well. Even chow mein.

But the food that both my ex and I remember above all else were the many Italian restaurants in the Bronx – the veal and pepper sandwiches, clams casino, scungilli fra diavolo.  What’s interesting is that both my ex and I can remember favorite dishes at specific restaurants in the Bronx to this day. Just as horrible meals can be permanent imprints, so can great ones.

My food education was not without a few bumps.  The cafeteria at Einstein was kosher meaning that there were two separate kitchens, sets of dishes, and serving lines depending on whether meat or dairy was being served.  Never were the two served together. So if you wanted a cheeseburger, you were out of luck.  Certain foods – including pork and shellfish – were never served at all.  Kosher law is fascinating and the reasons for its prohibitions were hardly random.  In the Middle East in the centuries before refrigeration, shellfish went bad very quickly in the heat.  Pigs, meanwhile, were thought to be pretty indiscriminate eaters. 

But I didn’t know all that initially and so can be forgiven for going through the cafeteria lunch line at Einstein and ordering a ham sandwich. Turns out what I was pointing to was pastrami. I didn’t know from pastrami.  It was a good thing we were at a medical center because I think at least half of those cafeteria ladies needed to be resuscitated.  Hey, give me a break. It wasn’t like there was Google then where you could look this stuff up. 

What I loved about that area of the Bronx then was that most of the food emporia were little specialty food stores for meat, vegetables, baked goods, and dairy. One night Fred and I decided to have French fries with the steak we’d just purchased, and bought a single potato at the vegetable shop next door.  As the guy behind the counter rang it up, he queried drily, “Having a pahty?”  The humor came at no extra cost.

So this amazing food fest was going (mostly) wonderfully until Fred decided some months later to introduce me to his parents. Stay tuned next week for “Are you trying to kill your mother?”

Monday, March 16, 2020

Building It And Getting Away With It

[“Let Inga Tell You,” La Jolla Light, published March 18, 2020] ©2020

Every time I drive by 1590 Coast Walk – the ever-burgeoning behemoth at the juncture of Prospect and Torrey Pines Road – I can only conclude that La Jolla’s motto should be “Build it and you will get away with it.” 

Of course, I’ve come to the same conclusion over a number of projects built in my own neighborhood.  When one former neighbor was queried by fellow neighbors about a massive spec home that looked nothing like the original plans, the neighbor shrugged. “Variances. And grandfathering.” As it turned out, variances are apparently not that easy to get, and certainly not the number that this multi-modified project would have required. And if this building conformed to FAR (floor-area rules, i.e. the ratio of a building's total floor area to the size of the piece of land upon which it is built.)  Alas, it wasn’t to be the last time I would encounter fuzzy FAR math – or fuzzy construction math in general.

A recent La Jolla Light article on 2/6/20 referenced another disputed project noting that “it never went through community review (La Jolla Development Review Committee and La Jolla Community Planning Association) because it didn’t need a Coastal Development Permit (CDP) due to what’s called ‘the 50-percent rule’ which classifies projects as remodels if 50 percent of the original walls are retained.” 

I’ll admit that math is not my strongest suit but over the years I’ve lived here and witnessed countless “remodels,” it always baffles me how a single standing wall constitutes 50 percent, given that the original structure was not a lean-to. 

And while I’m wondering out loud, I also keep pondering how, in this era of rights for the disabled, all these new two-story mixed-use projects are being approved with no elevators to the residential space upstairs.  The proposed project on Pearl Street (where the 76 Station was) is the latest example.  When this was queried at a meeting of a different mixed-use project, the architect maintained that only a main floor handicapped parking spot was required, no elevator.  This would assume that any handicapped person who wished to reside in that building would have to live in their car.

Now, I am aware that the people who serve on the many committees which review proposed residential and commercial properties are unpaid and work tirelessly to keep La Jolla from turning into Miami Beach. (Thank you.) But is it just my imagination that so many structures – residential and commercial – seem to end up looking a lot different than what went through – and was approved by – a local review committee?

Instead, it seems we often see another giant apartment building (and likely future AirBnB) with unaffordable studio-sized units, more vacant commercial buildings, increased traffic, fewer parking places and the loss of a public view corridor or access.

I will concede – and anyone who has been reading my column for the last 11 years knows how much I hate to concede – that all the rules for FAR, 50% of walls for a remodel, and ADA requirements are far more complicated than the general public – that would be me – understands.  An architect friend has painstakingly attempted to explain all the arcane rules of FAR – what parts of the structure are included, what parts not.  Ditto remodel and ADA rules.  Frankly, my eyes glaze over.  So, more projects are probably compliant than I might like.

Still, like many other locals, I just feel powerless about these issues. Maybe this can be an opportunity for someone in the know to explain it to a lot of inquiring minds.

As for 1590 Coast Walk, in an article in the Light from August 9, 2018, a local architect explained the changes with this example:  “If a project was approved in the Discretionary Permit process as a cake with chocolate icing, but that very same cake then goes into final drawings and remains the same cake but now with vanilla icing, this is a change that might get frowned upon by some neighbors, but would seem to certainly fit within the parameters of the City’s Substantial Conformance guidelines.” 

Frankly, to me, the 1590 Coast “cake” looks like it has evolved into a 20-foot Playdough metastasis. A letter to the Editor in the Dec. 27, 2018 issue of the Light observed, “This massive windowless blob would make the designer of a Soviet prison block blush.” 

It may be unfair, but I have come over time to a fundamental belief that most developers have the souls of garden snails and speak with forked tongues.  I absolutely do not believe that the tenants of the new mixed-use project at the old 76 station are going to be non-car-owning Uber users and that those tiny furnished apartments aren’t going to be vacation rentals.  But it’s going to be built.  And we’ll all say, “How did that happen?”

1590 Coast Walk (private home)

Monday, March 9, 2020

The Year Of The R-Word

[“Let Inga Tell You,” La Jolla Light, published March 11, 2020]  ©2020

Those who celebrated the Chinese New Year on January 25 know that this is the Year of the Rat.  I couldn’t help but reflect that in La Jolla, it is always the year of the rat.  The little buggers really like it here.

Qualities attributed to people born in the Year of the Rat (a 12-year Zodiac cycle) include intelligence, charm, ambition, quick wit, and practicality.  Good qualities all.  If you were born in 1912, 1924, 1936, 1948, 1960, 1972, 198, 1996, 2008, you were born in the Year of the Rat.

 I would never dare mention this to the care givers who provide 24/7 care for a disabled friend of ours whom Olof and I have been helping.  We can’t even mention the “r” word over there or they completely freak out.  A year ago, during a torrential rainstorm, a hungry rodent found its way into the kitchen to take advantage of food left on the counter. Two of the care givers refused to enter the kitchen after 5 p.m. for six months.

Now let me just say that I can provide no corroborating evidence that this creature was, in fact, a rat and not, say, a field mouse. In every description of the sighting of this animal, his dimensions increased, gradually assuming the size of a small dog.

Hoping to defuse the situation and to allow us to discuss the situation without using the inflammatory “r” word, I named him Bruce.

The care giver thought that Bruce might have entered through a hole in a cabinet vent which she maintained should be immediately plugged up by someone other than her. She then thankfully ended her shift and fled the house. But her replacement was even more rodent phobic than she.  Not gonna work in a house with a rat.

Given that Bruce’s demise had to be hurried along, Olof and I came over and performed Emergency E-RAT-ication Services including peanut-butter-loaded spring traps strategically placed underneath shelves where they would be heard but not seen if they went off.  We advised the care givers that we did not provide Deceased Rodential Retrieval Services between 7 p.m. and 8 a.m. 

I also acquired some sealed plastic containers that could store food items that needed to be left on the counter. I failed to mention that any self-respecting rat could chew through them if sufficiently motivated.  Sometimes illusion is as important as reality.  Getting the care givers back in the kitchen was imperative. 

Days went by and no more signs of Bruce. Olof and I began to wonder if this could be a new retiree cottage industry for us. Normalcy slowly resumed.

That was until two weeks ago.  A care giver and I were standing just outside the front door chatting when a rat suddenly dropped out of the small lemon tree right next to us. The care giver immediately ran screaming down the sidewalk.

I looked at it and said, “You had to do it right then, didn’t you?”  Full-on Rodento-Phobia was back again. 

I couldn’t help but notice that the rat – whom I dubbed Son of Bruce - seemed unwell. He was lying on the ground shaking. (Maybe he was terrified of us?)

I told the care giver that it appeared to me that Son of Bruce was on his way to the great garbage heap in the sky. I promised to come back and get him if he didn’t slither away into the bushes.  Frankly, I fully expected to see his furry corpse when I returned three hours later but he was gone.

I can’t help but notice, however, that it takes the care giver  a little extra time to open the door for me when I come over.  That’s because she has to remove the kitchen towels forcibly wedged under the front door. You can never be too careful, she says.

So no, I don’t mention that it’s the Year of the Rat when I go over to our disabled friend’s house. I don’t know what his care givers would do if they found out they’d been born in the year of the you-know-what. They’d probably insist on having their birth dates legally changed. 

And I would never mention to them that all manner of adorable rat-themed items are on sale to commemorate the Year of the Rat, including a Rat Tarot iPhone case ($39.99), cute baby rat print for your d├ęcor ($93), a rat-shaped handbag ($498), and even a comforter ($119) with a big rat graphic and floral border on it so that when you wake up in the morning, the first thing you see is a five-foot white rodent.  (I’d love to know how this one is selling.)

But I hope the rest of you Year of the Rat folks are enjoying your zodiac birthday and being your charming, witty, intelligent selves. Just so long as you keep it to yourselves.

Monday, March 2, 2020

Famous Family Quotes

[“Let Inga Tell You,” La Jolla Light, published March 5, 2020] ©2020

I think every family has some classic lines that everyone remembers – including and especially the person who often regrets uttering them.  Others are just shorthand for favorite family stories that can be resurrected with a single phrase.  Here’s a few from our family:

“There’s nothing to do in Europe.”  Henry, age 12, declining a trip to Europe with his father and brother. He elected to stay home and play Nintendo games. 

“If I’m lying, let lightning strike Henry.” Rory, age 7, staking his story to his five-year-old brother’s life.  (By the way, he was lying.)

“Shape up or I’ll kiss you in front of your friends.”  My ultimate threat to my young sons when they were misbehaving.

“Shape up or I’ll wear a bathing suit in front of your friends.”  Ultimate threat, teenage years. 
We had a pool, often populated by the kids and their friends, so I could easily make good on it.

“I’m not sure I could go to school in a cold climate.”  Rory, after his tour of the UC-Santa Cruz campus.  (He did go, and lives there to this day.)

“Dear, if the market goes up another 10%, could we get a new bath mat?” Olof’s plaintive plea a few weeks after we were married.  I had had so little money during my 12 years as a single parent that the house had gotten really shabby. And personally, I thought there was still life in that bathmat.

“I just called you in February!”  College sophomore Henry replying to our concern in April that we hadn’t heard from him in a long time.  (Friends with daughters often remarked that they spoke three times a day.)

“Your mother is taking nourishment. And Girl Scout cookies.”  Olof assuring our sons by email that I was finally recovering from a serious bout of flu. 

“Do people know you’re not funny in person?”  My sons’ query when I would be invited for speaking engagements. 

“Why can’t everyone just speak English?”  Henry, in high school, struggling with Spanish, the only B of his high school career.

“You’ve been like a mother to me.”  Rory’s (age 10) hand-made Mother’s Day card to me.  It has become a classic, with pretty much every bouquet of Mother’s Day flowers in the last 20 years accompanied by this message.  (I still have the card.)

“Well, off to kill some enemy operatives!”  Olof’s statement to my sons as he left the house every morning.  They had seen the Arnold Schwarzenegger movie “True Lies” about a terrorist-battling secret agent whose cover is a nerdy computer guy and they were convinced that this was Olof’s story as well.  It didn’t help that Olof’s college roommates told the kids that they were sure he had been a spy. 

“I’d like to thank my dad for teaching me to have fun.”  Henry, 17, upon receiving a hugely prestigious national award, when asked by an interviewing reporter if there was anyone he’d like to thank.  Dad – my former husband - had not driven a single car pool or done a trip to the library or medical visit or helped with even one school project in this kid’s entire school career.  For weeks afterwards, it was all I could do not to poison Henry’s lunches.

“You didn’t grow up in poverty, but you did grow up in squalor.” Olof commenting on both the kids’ assessment that they’d grown up in poverty (relative to their friends who often took holiday trips to Aspen or Hawaii), and on his affectionately-vicious assessment of my housekeeping skills.

“I love you higher than the sky and deeper than the pool.”  Rory’s pre-school valentine to me as transcribed literally by his teacher.  I never wanted to ask: the one-foot end or the eight-foot end?

“It’s only a desert if you think of it that way. I prefer to think of it as a very large beach with surf breaking on both sides.”  Olof, who spent an aggregate of four years working in Saudi Arabia, optimistically headed out for another month-long stint there.

“A closed mouth gathers no feet.”  My oft-uttered but rarely followed motto.  Usually heard as I’m berating myself for failing to stop talking five minutes earlier than I actually did.

To this day, Henry looks pained when someone revives the Europe quote, but both kids remember their terror that I’d present my chubby self out at our pool in a bathing suit.  (Must have been all those Girl Scout cookies.)