Wednesday, September 30, 2015


So onward we roll in our cool mobile clubhouse, content with scenery and motion, through Rutherford and Yountville, a loop into Sonoma, Napa’s hub, which reminds me of something John Steinbeck wrote:  “American cities are like badger holes, ringed with trash.”

Steinbeck may have meant something different, but my definition of trash is strip malls and urban sprawl. 

Once penetrated, Sonoma is a gem, if difficult to appreciate outside the COW this very hot day, about 93 degrees and climbing. 

We’d planned to make it our overnight stop, but the oppressive heat points us elsewhere.  

“Let’s just keep driving,” I say to my wife.  

“But where?”

"San Francisco.  It looked so inviting from Sausalito" (where we had spent the night).  I check my wristwatch.  "We can be there by 5:30."

Entering the city via the Golden Gate Bridge, it is time for Milanese-style driving, a right on Van Ness, a left on Post, and into Union Square.

I zip into the Hyatt’s waiting zone and pop out to reception. 

“What’s your availability for tonight?”

“None.  We are completely full.”

“What’s going on?”

“Big convention at the Moscone Center.”

I cross Stockton to the Taj Compton Place.  A pretty Asian receptionist shakes her head. 

I return to my wife.  “It’s the same all over.”  My enthusiasm for a big city fix is now in tatters. Fixed, indeed, more like an overdose—quagmired in rush hour traffic.   “San Francisco is better as a view,” I add.

“What now?” 

We have been in the COW since 9:03 this morning.  Nine hours. 

I try to explain, as I did with Van Stein, it is not about the destination, but about the road, the journey.  Eventually, your destination is home.  Ultimately, it’s a grave or an incinerator.  Enjoy the ride.  It doesn’t last long.

But I am weary now, and so is my wife, and we are sandwiched by exhaust-emitting vehicles as converging lanes cause gridlock, and red lights conspire to keep us captive. 

“We’re getting out of here,” I say, getting nowhere.  

Cities, I rediscover, are dirty and oppressive.  

They are made for the young and ambitious to circulate and couple, climb a ladder and race rats, but offer little to road-trippers already coupled and beyond their careers.

We inch along three blocks, during which we witness a road rage incident after one car bumps another.  

Little damage, no details exchanged, just raw venting.

Suddenly, crossing an intersection (Market Street), the road miraculously clears.  After a few deft turns, we join 101 heading south, and I am utterly astonished that we managed to escape, as if our spiritual mentor Mark Twain intervened and parted traffic.

“Palo Alto,” I say.  I’d been to this college town (Stanford) fifteen months earlier with Van Stein to doorstep Google and Facebook and expose the social media giants as terribly unsocial.  

We can be there, I explain, in thirty minutes.

Visiting Palo Alto is like going back in time.  

Its natives dream the future while escaping to the past, evidenced by the old Stanford movie theater on University Avenue showing Remember the Night (from 1940) starring Barbara Stanwyck. 

The Epiphany, which opened its doors only seven weeks earlier, welcomes us with new beds, new sheets, new carpet, new everything.

We are where we are meant to be, right now, in the moment.

My previous visit was early January, during Stanford’s winter break.  

Now, on May Day, the streets and bars are abuzz with the world's smartest nerds, tekkied up the wazoo.  

Volumes are high in the neighborhood bars, causing our retreat to The Epiphany’s bar, which is busy, but refined, and gentler on frazzled nerves. 

Exhaustion plus a martini equals tranquility.  

Nothing matters anymore, zoned in the purity of the moment.

A 209 martini transforms exhaustion into exhilaration—a kind of delirious giddiness I now know as road fever

A table is found for us in their restaurant, Lure + Till, and here we chill, with deviled eggs so good we order another round.

Then a stroll through the Digital Capital into a time warp of what was once great about America:  

Diners, bookstores (one, with a window display of Shakespeare’s works).

En route home next morning, we ramp off in Salinas, the birthplace of John Steinbeck, now home to The National Steinbeck Center, the biggest and best museum ever built to honor a writer.


Here I pay homage to their Travels With Charley exhibit, including the actual pickup truck with bespoke camper Steinbeck drove for his 10,000-mile jaunt around the country.

My first novel about a road trip has been acquired by Skyhorse Publishing in New York City.

It will be published in Fall 2016.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015


... Understand, we’ve been driving for over five hours, a destination nowhere in sight, yet we know we’ve got to be fresh, and in the desert, for a full moon and lunar eclipse.

I say, “If we stay on this road, cut right onto I-40 then get off and head south, we’ll be at Joshua Tree National Park.  That is supposed to be the best place in California for sky gazing.  There’s a town near the park’s entrance called 29 Palms.  That’s where we’re going.”

Van Stein shrugs, resigned to the road—certainly a few hours more of it.

From a couple miles away, 29 Palms looks unwelcoming.  But once we arrive… it’s even worse.  

No charm, no style, just another stretch of urban sprawl with strip malls and fast food shacks.

“Maybe we can find a Travelodge,” says Van Stein.

“Are you nuts?  I’m not staying in a Travelodge.  In fact, I’m not staying anywhere in this town.”

“But it was your idea!”

“And I admit, I was wrong.  I can’t stay anywhere that doesn’t at least have a Starbucks.”

“I bet there’s a Starbucks here.”

“Wouldn’t matter.”

“But you just said…”

“Look, if you can find a Starbucks here, I’ll reconsider.”

Not three blocks later, Van Stein points and cackles with delight.  “I knew it!”   

He zips into their parking lot.

“I’m still not staying here.”

“Then where?”

“Desert Hot Springs.  It’s only twenty minutes away and it’ll be better for your painting tonight.”

“Why’s that?”

“Because there are no mountains east of this place.  In Desert Hot Springs the moon will rise over the mountains.

“I don’t need mountains.”

“Doesn’t matter.  I’m still not staying here.”

“Well I need coffee.”

Starbucks obliges and we set off again; I’m behind the wheel, almost five o’clock.  

We slip through Morongo Valley, a left into Desert Hot Springs.  

No charm, no style, just another stretch of urban sprawl, strip malls and fast food shacks.

“I’m not staying here,” I say.

“But look,” says Van Stein.  “A nice hotel.”  He points out the Acqua Soleil and Mineral Water Spa.

In truth, it doesn’t look too bad.  But it’s in the middle of urban sprawl.  


“The only place left is Palm Springs,” says Van Stein.  “And I hate Palm Springs.”

“I don’t care for it, either,” I say.  “And I was just there a few weeks ago with no desire to return.  But it’s all we got left.”

“Lets just drive back to Santa Barbara.”

“Okay, if that’s what you want.  But first let's have a beer at Melvyn’s.”


“Old Palm Springs.”

Van Stein navigates us down North Canyon Drive.  

On the right I notice a tall structure, maybe six floors, pyramid style, facing east.
It’s a Hyatt, I discern, smack in the middle of everything.  

We keep going to West Ramon, cut a right—Melvyn’s.

Compared to when I first visited Melvyn’s only three weeks earlier, the ambience this cocktail hour is as funereal as our mood.  We share a Heineken.

Melvyn's:  a previous visit
Van Stein is weary—and bummed.  “What now?”

“I’ve got it figured.  Trust me.”

We’ve been on the road since 8:30 this morning and thus far gotten Pahrumped, Vegased, Bouldered, and 29 Palmed.  

All Van Stein wants at this point is to get sprung from Palm Springs, and now he’s supposed to trust me.

Our beer drained, I climb behind the wheel, steer the COW on a back street to the Hyatt I’d noted earlier, zip into its forecourt, saunter into the lobby and right up to reception.  “We need two rooms,” I boldly announce, “and one of them’s gotta be on your top floor facing east.  Okay?”

She clacks her keyboard.  “Yes, I can do that.”

“And I need your super-duper Triple A extra-special price,” I say, in deference to Van Stein’s wallet.

“A hundred seventy-nine dollars,” she says, 

“Ya see?” I say to Van Stein, rearing up behind me.  “Ya gotta trust Luna, our Goddess.”

We can scarcely believe it.  One moment, screwed, Van Stein believing he’ll have to spend hundreds of dollars and still not have a vantage point for painting the full moon getting eclipsed, next moment, a sixth floor view for under two hundred bucks.

It gets better:  the junior suites have balconies.

Downstairs, twenty minutes later, Crystal the concierge sends us to 360 North for refreshment:  a Hendrick’s martini, BBQ ribs, and tuna tartare in the open air, followed by a stroll to a joint called Cigars & Wine, which is precisely what we want, in that order.  

Its proprietor, an Indian from Bombay, allows us to sample several wines until we decide on a hearty pinot noir.  That resolved, he recommends a mild smoke from Costa Rica, snips and sizzles, and moments later we are lounging on the front patio, watching the moon commence its rise amid a swirl of gaiety this lovely cool desert evening.

“Could you have imagined this day would end up so well?” I ask.

“I thought you were blowing smoke," says Van Stein.  "And now you really are.”

A few of the natives join us in conversation and I am giddy with nicotine and alcohol as the full moon continues its rise.

At half-ten, the first flicker of an eclipse shadows the moon’s edge.  That’s our cue to scramble back to the Hyatt so Van Stein can paint from a perch on his balcony.

By midnight, the moon is almost completely shadowed into a shade of blood orange. 

Across the street, a bar pulsates with raw energy and loud music.  No matter to me.  

I don’t even bother closing the sliding doors but quickly fall deeply asleep despite the heaving sound waves, and remain comatose until what feels like a split second later but is actually six hours, the moment a hot fiery sun breaks from behind distant mountains.

I shower, dress, text Van Stein I’m on my way to Starbucks, and when the elevator opens to the lobby, he’s standing there like a magician, smiling and satiated by his oil paint addiction.

Monday, September 28, 2015


Over breakfast, Van Stein and I reason there’s no point repeating the Death Valley experience a second night, let’s roll onward to Pahrump, which I’d been meaning to visit at a friend’s suggestion.

We loop through The Badlands, a lunar-like landscape, untouched for millions of years, and soon after roll into an odd town called Amargosa, a word that has no meaning in any language and may be the most surreal place I’ve ever visited (and I’ve visited some very surreal places).
An old children’s swing-set, without swings, sets the tone.

The backstory:  

While driving through this ghost town, a ballet dancer and artist named Marta Becket suffered a flat tire after which she suffered an epiphany:  she should buy the town and recreate it as her own installation.  

Which renders it a ghost town with herself as one of its four living ghosts.

Marta, it transpires, personifies what Van Stein and I had been searching during our seven-year Surreal Bounce odyssey:  a very fine line that exists between creativity and madness.  

It is clear Marta has toed that line, literally, for decades. 

The Amargosa Hotel is open for business but there isn’t any. 

Strolling inside, I find a kitschy time capsule with a heebie-jeebie-inducing barn-meets-junk-store odor.  

Van Stein skips around like a desert jackrabbit while I weave about, hair on end partly because I forgot to pack my hairbrush.

Onward to Pahrump, which looks exactly like its name sounds.  

Or, as it was explained to Van Stein in a text from a friend who used to live there:  It’s a shithole trailer town with a Walmart.

This is unfair.  To shitholes and trailer towns, screw Walmart.

In a matter of seconds I conclude that I will not be spending a night in Pahrump, or even much of the day, or ever returning in this life—or in any other future reincarnation.

Van Stein, conversely, sees beauty in ugliness, and therefore begs to differ.

But I’m adamant.  “Let’s go to Boulder City,” I say.  “Other side of Vegas.  Supposed to be nice.”

“Ah.  You only like nice?

“In this case, it’s what I don’t like.”

“And what’s that?”

“Tacky.  Classless.  Bedbugs.”

We stop just long enough to feed the COW, pick up some jerky, chocolate, and cans of Starbucks espresso for the road, and then its Piss off, Pahrump.  

Far ahead in the distance:  Las Vegas, with no plan, on our part, to get any nearer to it than we absolutely must.

But Vegas has other ideas.

About to circumvent Sin City on a road that is supposed to connect to the one we’re on and take us around and out, we discover to our horror no such connection exists and we have little choice but to exit on Frank Sinatra Drive… 

...which lands us smack in the middle of New York, New York.

I’m driving; Van Stein is supposedly navigating.  

“How the hell did that happen?” I holler.

“Not my fault.”  Van Stein shakes his head.  “There was no fork.”

“Yes, there is.  We’re the ones getting forked.”

Vegas sucks you in, and then you’ve got to work hard to get shat out, through the bowels of the city:  urban sprawl, which goes on for miles and miles and miles, with traffic lights at every intersection turning red just as you approach, and staying red for seven minutes to hold you captive, unless you turn around and head back to the Strip, at which point the lights all turn green and you are ushered in.

It takes time and patience to stick with red—not black, odd or even—but we loosen Vegas’s grip and roll onward to Boulder City, built as lodging for the laborers who built Hoover Dam.

We pull in.  It’s cutesy, but nothing more, maybe a look-see-for-an-hour kind of place, take a peek at Lake Mead, which is turning into a pond.  

Inside an antique shop I find precisely what we need:  a century old cowbell, made in Germany, great sound and a must-have for my COW, ring-a-ding-ding for pit stops and such.

We try to engage people, but no one seems to know nothing about anything.  

You ask them about the most prominent landmark in town and they do a blank.  If they know, they’re not saying.  

“It’s a desert-rat thing,” mutters Van Stein.

“You mean, like over time the desert dryness dehydrates their brains?” 

“That’s it.”

Over a pie at Tony’s Pizza, I clack away at the iPad to assess options, because it’s clear we’re not staying here.  

“We could go to Bullhead City,” I say, “and if that sucks, as I expect it will given my experience with Nevada casino resorts, we can keep going to Lake Havasu.”

“London Bridge,” says Van Stein.

I’m already soured on it.    “London Bridge belongs in London, not on a man-made lake.  Anyway, the moron who bought it thought he was buying Tower Bridge.”

“That’s a myth.”

“Doubt it.  There’s nothing distinctive about London Bridge, he could have built his own much cheaper than dismantling and shipping it all the way over here.”

“It’s a tourist attraction.”


I feel depressed as we head south, Van Stein behind the wheel, me navigating.

Sometime later, he says, “Hey, wasn’t that our exit for the road to Bullhead City?”

“No, keep driving.”

“I’m sure it was.”

“Okay, it was.  But we’re not going there.”

“Why not?”

“Because it’s going to suck.  We need to keep going.”

“To Lake Havasu?”

“No, not there either.  That’ll suck, too.”

“Then where?”

Understand, we’ve been driving for over five hours, a destination nowhere in sight, yet we know we’ve got to be fresh, and in the desert, for a full moon and lunar eclipse.

I say, “If we stay on this road, cut right onto I-40 then get off and head south, we’ll be at Joshua Tree National Park.  That is supposed to be the best place in California for sky gazing.  There’s a town near the park’s entrance called 29 Palms.  That’s where we’re going.”

My first novel about a road trip has been acquired by Skyhorse Publishing in New York City.

It will be published in Fall 2016.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Friday, September 25, 2015


And good thing, because few others are present.

The new decor (Turkish-bazaar-meets-Moroccan-brothel) is no crowd-pleaser.


Montecito land entitlement issues?


Only two days after returning from Big Sur, I take off with Van Stein, the artist, to Death Valley, where we plan to view the Full Blood Moon and total lunar eclipse with desert clarity.

For a whole month earlier, a rugged leather bag in Civilianaire’s display window had been talking to me.

I finally talked back and bought it, the perfect road bag, though Van Stein dubs it “rogue” bag.

We launch after quenching the COW’s thirst at the local 76 Station:  low octane gasoline and a side of engine oil.

A couple hours later we get our first taste of desert:  bright, barren, and dry.

It spills us into Mojave, a town whose name should be Fast-Food-and-Gasland—because that’s what it is, and nothing more.

We skip the grub but top up the tank. 

Before Indian Wells, we cut onto 178, a road less traveled; certainly, we seem its only travelers this cool (for the desert) spring day.  

We cruise through Trona, an old mining town (Borax) converted into a chemical plant, known by its residents as The Pit—for good reason.   

It is a No Service town, according to my iPhone, causing twangs of nomophobia.  We vow never to return, for any reason.

Soon we enter Death Valley National Park, the hottest place on earth and the lowest elevation in the USA, 282 feet below sea level—a new low for Van Stein and me in our travels.

The road is long with dips and curves, hills and sagebrush, nature at its most stark.

There are two locations for overnight stays in Death Valley:  Stovepipe Wells and Furnace Creek.  We, of course, have reservations in neither.

Stovepipe Wells bustles as we roll in.  Its rooms are small and sparse and its saloon large and drab.  Van Stein learns they’ve got two rooms for this night, none the next, booked out for the lunar eclipse.

Let’s keep moving, we concur, amid gusty winds blowing twenty-five miles an hour.  

Thirty minutes later, Furnace Creek:  a somewhat more attractive oasis with a bustling ranch and a long queue to register for rooms we don’t have.  

And then I realize it’s the Furnace Creek Inn we want, not least because I’d read on Yelp that the Ranch is infested with bedbugs.   

“Wrong place,” I say.  “We need the Inn.”’

“Where’s that?”

“Up that hill,” says a man in front of us, pointing east.  “But you need to book months in advance.”


We jump into the COW and careen toward a castle on a hill that lords over ranch and desert, definitely my kind of place, if not Van Stein’s due to the price tag usually associated with lording over.  

But the problem this moment is availability, not price.

A tall, lanky gent greets us.  “Checking in?”

“Hope so.  Got any rooms?”

“No reservation?”   This baffles him.

“It’s against the rules,” I say.

“Whose rules?”

“COW’s Rules.”

He shakes his head, consults the computer screen, and seems slightly astonished by what he sees.  “I’ve got two rooms.”  He looks up.  “A family just cancelled, last minute.”  He eyes us. “Five hundred and twenty dollars a room.”

“They must be friggin’ great rooms,” I say.  “Suites?”

“No.  Just normal rooms.  And just the two.”

“Can we see them?”

We trudge a quarter mile.  He keys into a room that  reminds me of what I had in Jerome, Arizona at one-quarter the price.

“Other one’s exactly the same, but with a balcony,” he says, “one floor down.”

We don’t have much choice at this point without kicking fate in the teeth.  Even Van Stein, for whom this is a large chunk of change, knows we’ve got to bite this bullet. 

“Triple-A discount?”

“No, but I’ll see what I can do.”  

By the time we return to reception, he’s decided he likes our wise-cracking ways.  

“Tell you what I’ll do.” He scribbles on a notepad like a car salesman, holds it up:  $400.


He says to me, “Now he can paint and you can write.”

Van Stein scratches his head.  “How’d you know I’m an artist and he’s a writer?”

The guy shrugs.  “I don’t know.”

Luna, the Goddess of Chariots, is clearly at work this day, ensuring we are where we’re supposed to be.

We regroup at the bar, a long Bombay Sapphire moment before dining on the patio, the sun almost ready to set, while everyone else is eating inside.

“Can you imagine,” I say to Van Stein, “coming all the way to Death Valley and sitting in that drab restaurant when you can sit out here and look at the desert dusk?”

A Bulgarian waitress takes my order for a rib-eye steak with garlic mashed and spinach.

Dusk turns to night; the first star appears, followed by a second, and soon a large number of stars and constellations, Orion most prominent.  

And then an almost Full Blood Moon begins its rise, illuminating the eerily silent desert night.

Feeling creativity about to erupt, Van Stein skedaddles to paint; I content myself with a glass of cabernet, enjoying the silence and the night sky before bed.

I awaken at 12:20 a.m. to a furious wind rattling my window, blowing my curtains (not to mention an internal windiness from all the beef).  

A fitful doze follows until 1:55 when I sense a presence in the room.  I sit up and discern an elderly ghost with long gray hair in a ponytail smoking something.  

So now I’m wide-awake and realize the only sleep solution is half-a-Xanax, not because the presence of an old hippie ghost smoking weed in my room is spooky, but because I just want to sleep.

This puts me down, though I still awaken in time to witness the desert dawn followed by a sunrise reflection on the Sierras.

Thursday, September 24, 2015


Letter to the Editor

Montecito Journal

It appears that others are taking note of Montecito's self-entitled.

(Anyone wanting to report Montecito entitlement issues, or anyone desiring to object to their exposure on this site, I'm at The Honor Bar, cocktail hour, most evenings when I'm in town.)


Park on red.

Or park in Handicapped spaces.

It matters not to the self-entitled of Montecito...

Wednesday, September 23, 2015


Thomas Wolfe wrote, “You can’t go home again,” in his case (as with John Steinbeck) because people back home were not so pleased about how they (and their hometowns) had been depicted.

But it was Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. who truly explained why you can’t go home:  

“Where is home?  It’s Indianapolis when I was nine years old.  I had a brother and a sister, a cat and a dog, and a mother and a father and uncles and aunts.  And there’s no way I can get there again.”

It never stops people trying.  Me included.
I embark on a day-trip with four generations of my family inside the COW:  my elderly if spirited mother, my younger daughter, and her son.

I lived the first five years of my life in West Hollywood before moving to Beverly Hills.  

And moved again at 14 to London, England.  I didn’t miss LA, not even the sunshine and warmth, preferring four seasons and a cooler clime.

On the morning of this road trip, as on other one-day excursions to edgy LA, I begin brimming with energy and optimism.  (It would not last.)  

We launch south on 101, a stretch of coastal highway until Ventura, where the road veers inland.

The Conejo Grade, a seven percent incline, tests the COW’s strength:  Even with four persons and three heavy cases, we leave all other vehicles in our trail.  

Approaching LA, traffic slows.  

The COW’s automated soothsayer always knows about such things going on fifteen miles down the road, and officiously reports any such “traffic event."

Denser traffic and aggressive drivers signal that The City of Angels will soon consume us.  

Many years ago I developed a style of driving I call Milanese (from driving in Milano, of course), which deals it back to offensive drivers in large, crowded cities. 

The COW is intimidating by itself, but coupled with Milanese techniques, the road belongs to me.

Up and over Coldwater Canon, left onto Sunset Boulevard, a right at Doheny Drive, and past Keith Avenue, my very first home.    Next, my third—where I spent most of my childhood—North Palm Drive in Beverly Hills. 

N. Palm Drive
The house itself was razed years ago, replaced by a mini-manse.  

I lose my bearing, disorientated by many other such re-builds. 

Old neighborhoods are supposed to decay, not morph upmarket, right?  

Not this town.  It has become Tehrano (a cross between Tehran and Milano).

The pavements and lawns on my old street once teemed with more than twenty kids.   

None of us needed after-school programming or Ritalin or Adderall.  

We spontaneously invented, on a daily basis, our own activities (as children once did), without the interference of Big Pharm and all the doctors they pay-off to prescribe their meds.

Now this neighborhood is as soulless as a strip mall.

Then:  Beverly Drive
Onto Nate & Al’s, an iconic old deli on Beverly Drive that survived when J.J. Newberry did not:  rye bread, mustard, kosher pickles, potato salad, and hot pastrami—a veritable feast washed down with cream soda.

Now:  Beverly Drive
My grandson—The Dude—settles happily into a grilled cheese sandwich, fries, chocolate milk, and Mickey Mouse on the iPad, nary a complaint.  

I reward him with a romp at my old romping grounds:  Roxbury Park.  

It doesn’t take much to please a twenty-month toddler:  a slide, a swing.

I stroll the old baseball field for the first time in forty-five years, drawn to a grassy area with trees nearby where I last saw, as an eight year-old, my girlfriend.  

I’m not sure if Pam was real or imaginary (I have another vision of her in the little kids’ lunchroom at Beverly Vista Elementary); our minds, as we grow older, are just a jumble of what is real and imagined.

Rush-hour traffic starts early for Angelinos and, even though it is mid-afternoon, we roll at a mule’s pace to gain entry to the San Diego Freeway, itself a parking lot.

This is when the automated soothsayer suffers a nervous breakdown, announcing every ten seconds we are in traffic—something we already know—with many more jams ahead.  

If I were this panicked, I’d drop a Xanax.  But how does one tranquilize an automated soothsayer?

My first novel about a road trip has been acquired by Skyhorse Publishing in New York City.

It will be published in Fall 2016.