Quiet City Greeted Two on Lonely Yule Vigil

Times Staff Writer

--This was easily our weirdest Christmas.

That's what my brother-in-law, a recent East Coast emigre to La La Land, kept saying: "This is the weirdest Christmas I've ever spent."

The statement says a lot, since he and I were once confined to a living room in Portland, Maine, for a week during a blizzard at this time of year. Up there, after you've gone to L.L. Bean (which never closes) 12 times in a week, you've pretty much run out of things to do.

This was weirder. Fear and loathing in "America's Finest City."

We are by no means night owls. My brother-in-law is a self-described "choir boy." I'm a happily married San Carlos suburbanite with a 9-month-old baby. My idea of a hot time is clear reception on ESPN.

Our predicament was live. We were headed to Lindbergh Field to pick up relatives from Boston, knowing they wouldn't be coming in at 7:45 p.m. (as scheduled). The fog was so thick we couldn't see.

"Oh, nooooooo," I, the eternal optimist, kept saying. "They'll never get here."

"In this?" my brother-in-law scoffed. He's a computer programmer with a brain the size of Turkey and an unflinching trust in modern technology. "They have instruments nowadays that'll cruise that baby right in. They won't even need to see."

I was not reassured. What kind of instruments? Pea-soup cutters?

Sure enough, Delta Airlines, they of recent litigation following a crash at Dallas-Fort Worth, were diverting the plane to Los Angeles International Airport (LAX). It would stay on the ground at LAX (one of my favorite acronyms) "maybe two hours," the smiling hostess said, then "attempt to land" in San Diego. (Curious, I thought, that American Airlines was landing some of its flights.) If San Diego was too foggy, she said, the plane would return to LAX, and everyone would bus to America's finest fog bank.

Earliest arrival would be 10:03 p.m. by sky, 2 or 3 a.m. by road. Leave the driving to us.

We had some time-killing to do.

San Carlos was too far from Lindbergh Field to go back home, we reasoned foolishly. We would simply hang out, scarf down a much-needed meal, then sample some of San Diego's night spots.

Surely, in the nation's eighth-largest city, my brother-in-law deduced, night life would glitter--even on Christmas night.

Of course, I naively spouted. Of course, of course. Why not Mexican food to start with? Let's get on the other side of some refried beans!

Old Town--dead as nuclear winter.

Swingles-oriented El Torito--Des Moines must be livelier, leaving me to wonder, "What does a swingle do on Christmas night?"

Julio's, a late-night favorite in North Park-- manana all the way.

In the course of our tooling about, cutting our way like gliding defensemen through a hockey rink of fog, we spotted the brightly lighted signs of Tower Records. Stumbling inside, we were startled to find we were hardly alone. They weren't cleaning up--they were selling records .

The Beatles were yeah-yeah-yeahing over the stereo speakers. Purple- and orange-haired lovelies were strolling about, muttering darkly to themselves about the lack of this or that compact disc (New Wave Yuppies?). And almost everyone had the appearance of having gotten a weekend pass from some of the city's finest detox centers.

We were strangers in a strange land, lost and sadly adrift on Christmas night. Ah, but what a nice bit of plastic won't fix.

We, too, cruised the aisles and pretty soon had maybe $175 of Tower Records' inventory.

The guy behind the counter, a tall sleepy-looking dude with an Afro the size of Crown Point, was asked by me why on earth they were open Christmas night. He glanced back accusingly, with a look that suggested he hadn't heard of Christmas night.

"Hey, I'm glad you are," I mumbled. "I just wondered why . . . you are."

"We're always open," he said. "Every day, 9 to midnight."

He looked at my album of "East Texas Serenaders," done by some guys from Lindale, Tex., circa 1927-1936, as though it might be a moon rock or the latest strain of Legionnaire's disease.

"Funky," he said. That's what I think he said.

My bewildered-looking brother-in-law asked about a classical album that I was sure would leave Record Man scratching his Afro. I leaned back and waited for the confirmation.

After a hollow silence, he scratched his 'fro and muttered hoarsely, "What? What's that, man?" And finally, "Did you look over there?" pointing skyward as though he had spotted Halley's Comet. His eyes resembled a street map of Tijuana.

After deepening our credit card debt, we drove back to Lindbergh Field energetically. The fog was almost gone--at least from our vantage point, which is, of course, one of acute meteorological naivete.

The woman at the Delta counter--a voluble sweetheart, compared to her Luftwaffe-type colleague--said the plane definitely wasn't coming to San Diego. Everyone would arrive by bus, say, at 2:15.

Ugh.

I called my wife, who confirmed the bad news. Our guests had called, saying they were bus-bound. She agreed that we should wait it out, while she went to sleep. Our guests had many miles to go before any of us slept. Hence, we would not call back.

We would instead kill time.

We ventured out with enthusiasm to the meal we hadn't had. Of course! I exclaimed. The City Deli in Hillcrest. It has to be open. Joy to the world, hark the herald eaters sing.

Closed.

What have we? A Gentile deli?

Even bohemian Quel Fromage was locked up tighter than a wise man's incense jug. La Petite Cafe at 5th and University was strictly a no-room-at-the-inn proposition.

Turn out the lights, the party's over? Not quite.

As someone on the Nina, Pinta or Santa Maria must have said to Columbus, "Look, boss, Denny's. It's always open."

So it was. Or is.

It, too, had its share of purple hair and waxy buildup, with a curious mixture of three-piece-suited businessmen (Don't these guys ever get tired of making money?) and a handful of tired truckers who looked as though a few soothing words from Dolly Parton had better come fast.

The waitress was wonderful, saying she was working Christmas night 'cause she had to, but also because "my ex -best friend" gave her 3-year-old a set of drums for Christmas.

"I would have come in, even if I was off," she bellowed, with a voice that sounded like sandpaper, gravel and molasses.

Plump and pretty, in a roadside waitress sort of way, she walked with a husky gait that even William (The Refrigerator) Perry of the Chicago Bears might appreciate, and discussed the menu with candor.

"What kind of beer do you have?" my brother-in-law asked.

"Any kind," she said. "Got 'em all."

"Beck's dark," he said.

"Uh, I'm not sure we have that . We may have Beck's light."

"That'll be fine."

She walked back empty-handed. "Don't got it," she said.

"What do you have?" he asked.

"Just 'bout everything, but maybe I better check."

She returned with a smile--a thin one. "Michelob on tap."

My brother-in-law hated his Mich, so she didn't even charge him. "That's my Christmas present to youse," she said, frizzy hair framing a roadside smile.

In ordering dinner, I asked how much meat was in the patty melt.

"Half a pound," she said. "But by the time that guy gets done cookin' it, maybe an ounce--if you're lucky."

She was, of course, right as rain.

Our bellies were doing roller derby, but we retreated to the car, and to Lindbergh, to fetch our Beantown guests, who I knew had visions of palm trees, tank tops and sunsets dancing in their snow-addled brains. They were probably wondering why they had even come.

The guy at the counter said the bus would arrive at 3:45; with luck and a put-the-hammer-down driver, maybe 3:15. The airport bar was closed, but we were welcome to wait. Or stare outside at the fog, which was rolling in on big cat feet.

We looked at each other, resolving this time (it was maybe 1:15) to try 45 minutes of Dirty Dan's Topless Bar on Pacific Highway, the last stop on the flight path before reaching the runway. Talk about life on the edge. It's enough to make a G-string stand up.

And then I was sure I heard my name, or a mangled mixture thereof, being sounded on the PA.

I immediately called home, only to hear my wife say our guests had decided--three hours earlier--to "crash" in L.A.

"Where have you been?" she asked. "They called back 10 minutes after you did. I've been tracking you down for three hours . I must have called every Denny's in town."

"The one in Mission Valley, near Mission Center?"

Pause.

"I didn't call that one."

Where had we been? I really don't know. Maybe a voyage through "The Twilight Zone," better known as night life in "America's Finest City" on Dec. 25. And now I wonder, how will it be tonight, or other holidays, after the sun goes down?

Is it really that dead? Are night owls doomed to Christmases of punk albums and patty melts?

As the song says, the night life ain't no good life, but it's our life.

Ho ho.

Ho.

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