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Divergent Tastes

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Jan does not care for piers. She finds them smelly and seedy and thinks they have no function other than to collect people the way tides collect debris.

“Why did they build this--there’s nothing here,” she says as we walk briskly across the old timbers of the Seal Beach Pier on a foggy winter evening.

“To sell real estate,” I tell her. “To give people a reason to get off the Red Line and look around. There used to be a roller coaster here. Shipped down from the San Francisco Fair 90 years ago. Imagine.”

Jan shrugs and shakes her head. She does not want to imagine roller coasters or the people who ride them. Jan is hungry and annoyed that I have suggested we pass the hour until our table is ready at Walt’s Wharf by walking out to the end of something that takes you nowhere and leaves you facing nothing but a vast expanse of water. She’d rather poke her head into the little shops along Main Street.

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Head tucked into her coat, hands buried in her pockets, she is in a hurry to get to the end of the pier so she can turn around and go back to the restaurant, where it is warm and nicely lit. I, however, am in no hurry.

I love piers. They remind me of my grandfather, Vincent, a Portuguese fisherman who lost his leg in a train accident before I was born and who used to take me and my friends fishing off piers like this on Sunday mornings. We’d catch corbina and sand sharks--tossing the sharks back after ogling them--and once in awhile we’d catch halibut. But not very often.

Walking down Seal Beach Pier, I hear Vincent’s voice telling me how to properly bait an anchovy--through the mouth and up through the head so it won’t break off--and I smell his peculiar scent of liniment oil and Old Spice and see his giant gnarled fingers, fingers so big that his wedding ring, which my grandmother gave me several years ago, is still too large even for my thumb.

When we get to the end of the pier, Jan and I sit down on the bench next to a family fishing together. A young boy, no more than 10, is squirming on the bench, half bored and half excited watching over a line that disappears into the dark water where, he hopes, some giant beast from the deep is looking it over. A well-dressed couple, walking a yappy terrier, passes by and the boy runs over to pet the dog.

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“Zack? Stay close to your pole, now. A shark or something hits that, you’ll lose that pole and I just gived it to you.”

This is an old man talking. Probably the boy’s grandfather. He wears a dirty gray sweatshirt and has a knit cap pulled tight over his head. Zack dutifully comes back to his pole and lightly puts one hand on it. He doesn’t say anything to the old man who, perhaps feeling he has been a little harsh, softens his tone. “I picked cotton to earn the money to buy that fishing pole 40 years ago,” he says. “I’ll bet your daddy didn’t tell you that, did he?”

This interests the boy some, and me as well, but Jan, eager to get out of the cold and fog, nudges me to go. We walk back silently to the restaurant where our table upstairs is ready. We order one of Walt’s Wharf special oak grilled artichokes and a bottle of WillaKenzie Pinot Gris because it is a nostalgic wine for us, something that reminds us of the damp Willamette Valley where we lived for a short time years ago.

Karla, our waitress, quietly refills our wine glasses, clears our plate of artichoke leaves and waits for us to signal that we are ready to order. Jan gets the rare ahi medallions with Sichuan sauce and papaya salsa. I settle on Louisiana catfish.

Neither of us can help but notice the young couple--he in a tux, she in a long red gown--seated at a table across the room. They are giggling and toasting each other, kissing every two minutes. They even hold hands while sharing a bowl of Boston clam chowder. If I had to make a guess, I’d say either he’s just proposed or is getting ready to. Their excitement is palpable, even from 15 feet away.

Jan stares at them and says, “They look so happy, don’t they? What do you think their lives will be like?”

Like ours, I tell her. Like everyone’s. Full of hope, laughter, tears. Some things will work out just as they dreamed; others will end up as disappointments. But with luck, it will all be worth it.

“ ‘Great accomplishments and great love demand great risk,’ ” Jan says, quoting a familiar line whose author I’ve forgotten.

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“Who said that?” I ask her.

“Goethe.”

Karla comes back to our table. “Are you two giving up?” she asks.

“It looks that way,” I say.

“Can I box it up for you?”

“I don’t think so,” Jan says. “Neither one of us is big on leftovers.”

The fog has worsened while we were dining. The pier now looks like it ends in a cloud.

“Think that family is still out there fishing?” I ask her.

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“Of course,” she says, laughing. “Wouldn’t you be?”

Open daily 11 a.m.; no set closing time.

David Lansing’s column is published on Fridays in Orange County Calendar. His e-mail address is occalendar@latimes.com.


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