This is going to be a simple column because it has only one, simple purpose: to tell you how to spend a perfectly wonderful, low-tension Sunday afternoon in Orange County, now that the warm, sleepy weather has arrived.
If you already like trains and good, live New Orleans jazz, then all the better. If you aren't sure whether you like them, you probably will. Trust me. Besides, this isn't just an afternoon of music. There is a lot of Americana to soak up, too.
Set aside enough time to arrive in San Juan Capistrano a little after 2 p.m.. Make no further commitments for the afternoon--for possibly the evening as well, because you might be seduced into staying for dinner.
Got a pencil? OK.
Regardless of whether you're coming from the north or the south, get off the Interstate 5 Freeway at Avery Parkway in Mission Viejo, turn west and then turn left onto the frontage road, Camino Capistrano.
From here it's a short ride into town, but the scenery will begin to put you in the proper frame of mind.
If you look left, you'll see the freeway and the 20th Century, so look right and go slowly. On that side is the 19th Century: a valley carpeted with orange groves, occasional rustic outbuildings, a creek in its natural state, timeless railroad tracks and beside the road some shady farm houses that speak of Grandma and hot summer days.
Hold those images as you get into town and watch for a sign on the right that says "Capistrano Depot . . . Since 1895." Turn in, park and you've arrived.
This is a combination restaurant, bar, gift shop, newsstand and travel agency, but it is also a real train depot. In 1975, it rose around the remains of the original depot, a small, mission-style beauty built for the Santa Fe in 1895. Although Santa Fe closed it down a good many years ago, Amtrak still stops 14 trains there each day to pick up an average of 531 passengers. (Make it a perfect afternoon and arrive by train. You can catch it in Fullerton, Anaheim and Santa Ana.)
That is what separates this place from the schlocky theme restaurants that have tried the train motif. This is the real stuff.
You can still see the original buildings--a combination passenger waiting room and ticket office and an outlying freight building--from inside and outside the depot. The waiting room is the restaurant, and the freight room is the bar. They are unified into one building by train cars and a simulated covered platform. The modern overlay is expertly applied and stops short of being cute. It works quite well.
The most important thing to do now is to get a good seat--either on what used to be the freight platform (but is now the small indoor stage with tables and small dance floor) or in the refurbished club car that rests on tracks beside the platform. These seats are gone by 2:30.
At about 3, the seven-piece Golden Eagle Jazz Band begins its four-hour performance of quite good New Orleans jazz, which it has performed here nearly every Sunday for close to eight years. It's not Dixieland jazz, said band leader Dick Shooshan. Dixieland is a series of solos, but New Orleans stresses ensemble playing, he said.
This is the music you think of when you think of trains. Trains run in and out of the music's language:
Number eleven's in the station,
Number twelve is on the track,
But the 2:13 will bring my baby back.
Drink prices, which are reasonable to start with ($1 for a draft Michelob, for example), go up by only a quarter once the band starts. Waitresses circulate but do not pressure you to drink. Many people come and listen and buy nothing. Some bring their own jars of peanuts. Many bring their children, and they don't seem out of place.
Now, in this setting and listening to this music, you begin to see and hear things that are coming to you from the past.
The old people get up and dance, a curious jogging dance that I've seen only in too-fast silent footage. They seem to move nothing above the waist, only their feet, which makes them bounce as they move along the floor.
They dance for the sheer joy of it. It is neither sexy nor athletic nor pretentious; it's simply fun. It's fun to watch, for it's the perfect dance for this music--exuberant and carefree. Ask any couple with white shoes how to do it, and they'll show you.
Or you can abandon your seats and go out into the tree-shaded patio just behind the stage. Flatter the piano player and he'll open the glass doors behind the stage, allowing the music to flood out. I once saw a wedding conducted out there, timed so the reception would coincide with the free concert. (They also timed the kiss to coincide with the arrival of the 2:07, but the train was late.)
Or you can wander through the depot and soak up some of the train atmosphere. There is simply no explaining the romantic response trains provoke in people who never rode them, but those people can kill a good hour wandering to the music.
Or you can do what I love to do: Wear your grubbies, go out onto the real platform next to the real tracks, climb up onto the remains of the freight dock, lean back and listen.
Behind you is the music. To the left is the beautiful dome of the depot and its bougainvillea-covered arches. Ahead is the granite-gravel path for the train tracks. Now and then, a train rumbles in. Across the track are board fences and some of the oldest homes in this old city. They look like they were made expressly to sit beside a railroad track.
Here you can just sit all afternoon and feel suspended in time beneath a warm, glowing sun.
Ah, Mondays should be so good.