Thursday, June 20, 2013

Fantasmas de San Francisco: Red Café

This is my favorite breakfast joint in the Mission. Since I never repeatedly went to this restaurant while I lived in San Francisco, I almost always order the same thing: chilaquiles. They’re the best I’ve ever had. Mi papito swears they taste like ones made in Chilangolandia. If I’m feeling indulgent, I’ll order a side of their grubbin’ casamiento to complement the chilaquiles. (Thank you, Carlisle, for introducing me to this place, and this yummy side dish.)

But The Red Café didn’t make it onto my list of fantasmas en San Pancho because of its food. Over the past four years, I have an evolving history there. A most cancerlicious one.

Shortly after I was diagnosed, I met there with my friends Judy and Carlisle. I had shared The Bad News with them a few days before. They wanted to see me as soon as they could. I remember sitting in a booth with them one weekday morning. Once I gave them a quick recap of my prognosis, I told them I was going to personify my disease. I was going to call my mortal adversary Mr. Hodgkins. To my delight, they thought it was cute that I chose to personify my disease. We laughed in our booth while we imagined what Mr. Hodgkins must be like. Though it was an unusual conversation, not one you would want to have with anyone, I am grateful that together we were able to create some light-hearted fun about my dis-ease. And I felt grateful that my friends cared. I knew I would need all the love I could get then.

A few weeks later, I returned to The Red Café with my parents after our first visit to my oncologist. I seethed in our booth, glaring off at a spot above my parents’ faces. They sat opposite me. I was fucking pissed they had to sit through a meeting scheduled for 9:45 a.m. that didn’t start until an hour later and then dragged on and on, well past noon. I was pissed because my stomach was grumbling—and I imagined my parents were hungry, too. I was pissed because now I had to rush to make it to school on time. I felt like a huge burden to my parents. And it was all my fault although I knew it was not my fault I had gotten lymphoma.

For a minute, I couldn’t say a word to them. What could I say to them after such a meeting? (Gee, who wants a drink? HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAA!!!) They snuck glances at me until I shook my head and snickered and said, “I just can’t believe that I would ever in my life—let alone when I’m thirty—have to seriously consider if I should freeze my sperm.”

My mom and dad sat quietly, hanging their heads. They looked like kids getting punished for doing something wrong.

Half a year later, my parents and mi hermanita, Carmen, and I returned to the cafe. We had a much more pleasant breakfast together before heading over to UCSF to meet my Radiation/Oncology doctor. And then three months later, right after my oncologist told me my lymphoma was in remission, I celebrated by eating a chilaquile breakfast at The Red Café. I remember sitting at the counter, reading from our Fiction class reader when a stream of wonderfulness via text messages came to my phone; they were congratulatory messages from a few friends and loved ones I had texted to tell them I could add “cancer survivor” to my resume.

A month ago, my girlfriend, Maria, accompanied me to one of my check-ups at the old oncology ward. It was wonderful to return there con mi enamorada who actually wanted to know that part of my life, my past. After we received las buenas noticias that my lymphoma remained in remission (swish!), we walked through the east side of el barrio Mission to the Red Café. It had been years since I had eaten there. All those memories still wafted there. The same kind waitress who tended the counter was still there. I ordered my usual: chilaquiles with casamiento for Mari to try.

It was one of the most magnificent meals I could have ever bargained for.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Thoughts on Game 6, 2013 NBA Finals

So the 2012-13 NBA season has come to this: a Finals showdown in Miami between the Heat and perennial contenders, The San Antonio Spurs. Whoever wins will have to accomplish something out of the ordinary—at least from the past few weeks—in order to hoist the iconic Larry O'Brien Championship Trophy.

For the Spurs to win, I believe they will have to snap Miami’s perfect 7-0 record in the 2013 playoffs in games coming after a loss. Game 6 has to be Game 7 for the Spurs, so they have to win tomorrow night if they want to win the series; I just can’t seem them winning a Game 7 on the road (plenty of historical statistics to support that as well). And for the Miami Heat to win a second championship in a row, they will have to accomplish two unusual feats, along with one unprecedented one:

1) Win two games in a row, something they have not done in the past twelve games against the Spurs and the upstart Pacers
2) Break the Spurs respective undefeated 4-0 record in these playoffs in games after a loss, and—The Big And,
3) Become the first team to beat the Spurs in the NBA Finals

Which team will break these trends to win the championship?

I’m going to go out on the proverbial limb and say the Spurs will win Game 6. It’s a gut call—more intuition than anything. The root of this prediction started for me after the Heat’s Game 5 when LeBron James said, “We’re going to see if we’re a better team than we were our first year together,” alluding to their Game 6 loss in the 2010-11 NBA Finals to the visiting Dallas Mavericks. The Dallas Mavericks, up until that Dirk Nowitzki/Jason Kidd/Jason Terry/Tyson Chandler-led team, were not exactly the team you would equate to having playoff grit—not like, say, the Gregg-Popovich-coached San Antonio Spurs of the past fifteen years. Will the Heat blow another two-game homestand at American Airlines Arena? I think “Yes” simply because—though this can hardly be quantified or measured—I just can’t help but think that the Spurs want this championship more than the Heat.

I see a lot of similarities between this Spurs team and the Mavericks that upset The Decision-built Miami Heat. That Mavs championship team was lead by a 32-year-old Nowitzki, a player slowly entering the twilight of his Hall of Fame career. His window to win a first championship was narrowing. Ditto for Jason Kidd who had reached the finals twice with those Nets team who were always overmatched by their Western Conference counterparts. But that 2011 Big D team also had Jason Terry, a dynamic shooting guard who had never whiffed championship air before joining Mark Cuban’s Mavs, and they also had Shawn Marion who had been on those great D’Antoni-coached 2004-2008 Phoenix Suns teams who were on the cusp of winning a championship. Between those four players alone, there was a grand collective desire to finally win a championship. That kind of emotion has a way of percolating through a locker room, further infecting and pushing the other players to win for their teammates as well as for themselves. (Just think of the Ravens Super Bowl run last season with Ray Lewis retiring.)

Now let’s zip back to the present series: Heat versus the Spurs. One of the predominant storylines of these finals has been Tim Duncan and Manu Ginoboli, stepping into the sunset of their careers. When the Spurs lost to the new young guns in the Western Conference last year, the Oklahoma City Thunder, Duncan seemed to think that was their last best chance to win it all. At 37, the greatest power forward to ever play the game is very much at the end of his career. Without a doubt, this will be his single greatest opportunity to win a final championship. You can probably say the same for the 35-year-old Ginoboli—and I think you could argue that this might also be the best championship-winning opportunity left for Tony Parker, who still has a few good years in his tank. But at thirty-one, without The Big Fundamental, without Obi-Wan Ginoboli, this might be the best chance he has left to win with the Spurs, the only NBA team he has ever played for. I think these three stellar, Hall-of-Fame-bound players know this. And their teammates know this.

Because of this, I just think the Spurs want this championship more than the Heat, which features a nucleus of players mostly retained from last year’s team. James, Wade, and Bosh—barring any trades—will have one final year left together before that team is likely blown up. Sure, they have urgency to win as well. LeBron has a legacy he’s playing for here. He does not want to be an un-Mike-like 1-3 in Finals appearances. But they should still have one crack at it next year while this is really probably fucking it for the Spurs.

Now think of the Spurs key role players: Gary Neal, Boris Diaw, Kawhi Leonard, and Danny Green. What do they have in common? None of them have won an NBA championship. In fact, there are only four players left from the 2006-07-championship Spurs team: Duncan, Ginoboli, Parker, and Matt Bonner (who lucked out and won on his first year with the Spurs). These players must want to win badly, too, especially Boris Diaw who I see in the Shawn Marion, 2011-Dallas-Mavs fold as that talented role player who played on some great teams that knocked on the championship door but never broke through. Diaw played 27 minutes in Game 5, the most he played since Game 1 of their series against the Warriors. Popovich essentially divvied the ineffective Tiago Splitter’s minutes between Diaw and Ginoboli in the last game, and I see no reason why he won’t try the same in Game 6 at Miami. Splitter & Duncan are no Hibbert & West hydra that can pummel the Heat’s small-ball lineups inside. (In fact, Splitter had a terrific series against the rugged Grizzlies but struggled mightily against the Warriors, who played similar small-ball lineups like the Heat in this series.) Even if he contributes less than double-digit points, I like the Spurs’ Diaw/Duncan line-up more than one with Splitter. The Spurs won’t shoot so well again in Game 6, but I can’t help but think that their offense will be more difficult to stop than one with Splitter in the middle. And remember, Diaw played on some very good Phoenix Suns teams that could almost lick the championship but never did. You know he wants this game badly, which is why I wouldn’t be surprised if he pops off and has a huge game. Ditto for Gary Neal, who is one of those wonderful undrafted players who will always play with a chip on his shoulder. Between Green, Neal, Diaw, and Leonard, I can see one, maybe two of those players having a significant impact on Game 6. And if Duncan, Ginoboli, and Parker play even a little off from their Game 5 performance, that just might be enough for them to steal a game in Miami—if they can limit their turnovers, which is a big question.

This deep into the playoffs, I think it comes down, more and more, to who wants it more. Popovich himself said it in his Game 5 postgame comments when he said, “At this point, it’s about competing. Players playing well, and people competing.” Who should know better than Popovich who has coached four championship teams and fifteen consecutive teams into the playoffs? Thus far, simply because he’s up 3-2 to Spoelstra, I think he’s winning the coaching battle. His small-ball lineup change in Game 5 might be one that the Heat—despite a second straight strong offensive performance from their Big Three (and Ray Allen)—will not be able to counter.

I see a Game 6 that will be similar to Game 1. The Spurs just have to keep it close for four quarters and I believe they will be able to outplay them in the final quarter for a fourth out of six games. But the beauty of these playoffs, as always, is the crapshoot element, so we’ll see if my gut is right.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Fantasmas de San Francisco: Ricci’s Market Foods

My first household in the foggy city was a flat on the east side of the Mission. It was an all-dude operation. There was Herman (a.k.a. Chaos, a.k.a. DJ Chaos, a.k.a. Punk Rock Herman, a.k.a Chiflas—Spanish for “whistling” since he liked to do just that to chubby chicks with pretty faces or skanky punk rock floosies), Roberto (a.k.a. Robbie, a.k.a. DJ Tozz Grave), and Ace (a.k.a. Hace Frio, a.k.a. Ace of Spades). Our band of hermanos were all in our early to mid-thirties then. Our flat was like a post-frat pad with heavy dabs of punk rock, Latino ska, and reggae/rocksteady to accompany the clouds of Maria Jane that swirled around the turntables in our living room. Their friends dubbed our house “Casa Pacheco”; pacheco is Mexican slang for “stoned,” which is what we often were in that flat, mostly due to the ginormous amount of marijuana that Robbiecito smoked every day, and almost always shared with whoever was around (like me!)

A typical night in Casa Pacheco—weekday or weekend—often consisted of two or three or all four of us hanging out in the living room/kitchen, drinking some beers, passing one of Robbie’s joints around, getting stoney baloney, maybe even rowdy (usually me or Herman), and taking turns playing some musical sets on DJ Chaos’ turntables. We were all fairly godless. The closest we had to religion was good music, potent joints, and greasy Mission burritos. Our altar was our turntables in the living room, The Clash’s London Calling poster looming over us. Sometimes the spirit that infuses everything—the birds chirping outside, the music these musicians created, the joy and emotion their songs would induce within us—would beat mightily within us during those nights. Sometimes DJ Chaos, Ace, and I would stay up past one in the morning on a weeknight, listening to an epic DJ set. Our poor neighbors somehow tolerated us even when Chaos and I would hoot and holler to a song that fit perfectly into the one that preceded it. It was a holy exchange.

During these nights of immaculate stoniness, I would often, of course, get the munchies. I would announce a liquor store run and ask the guys if they wanted anything. We all reciprocated in this way. Being the little ball of energy I am I would sometimes put my fuzzy slippers on and say that I would be back in five minutes. And I would make it back in that time, no matter what I wore. If it was late into the night, it was not unusual for me to already be in my pajama pants wearing my blue bathrobe over it. I would scurry out the door, down the winding stairwell, and then out into the dark night to Ricci’s Market Foods a block from our home. This was like my Latino Duderino act—minus the long hair, goatee, and sunglasses. Once I collected my munchies of choice—Twinkies and Twix with some delicious strawberry Nestle milk to chase it—I would dart back down York Street to our flat. Once I pulled this act a few times—something I never did in Fremont—I got brazen and would stroll over to Ricci’s on the corner of 24th Street and York, hands in my bathrobe pockets with only my chonies underneath. I would parade past the beer-swilling patrons at Pop’s with this great big smirk on my face, my mind lost in the music playing through my iPod headphones (usually The Doors, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, or early Van Halen). The Middle-Eastern men who worked and probably owned Ricci’s never paid me any mind.

It was San Francisco, after all.

I was just another nutball in that wacky parade.

Now when I walk or cycle past Ricci’s Market— usually on my way to or from San Francisco General for an oncology check-up—I remember those youthful antics, my Casa Pacheco Bros (especially Herman who bequeathed me with one, if not the most treasured compliment I have ever received when he said, “You’re more punk rock than anyone I know.”), and the craziness we manufactured. Inside I always smile, wrapped in that cocoon of memory. I remember those times with fierce fondness though I could never be that version of myself again.

And thank god for that.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Fantasmas de San Francisco

This is the first entry in a new blog column I’m going to call Fantasmas de San Francisco. It’s an exercise in personal writing that I thought would work dandy within the confines of a blog where pictures and links can help to illustrate these cuentitos.

The premise of this column is simple: we all have ghosts. We all have memories tied to a specific place. It could be a house, a park, a corner store, or a neighborhood. But these memories reside within our minds, which is how they are akin to ghosts since no one else can look at, say, a particular street corner and remember, ah, yes, I used to walk by here every morning when I was so and so, or I had my first date with so and so there. I am interested in these memories bound to physical spaces. I am interested in mapping out these mental-emotional geographies we all contain inside.

I am going to focus mine on San Francisco. I figured the right place to begin would be in the beginning of my prolonged stay in that city…

First stop: La Victoria Bakery

This is a photo of my mom and pop. It was taken in early February 2005. We were standing in front of La Victoria Bakery en el barrio Mission, corner of 24th Street and Alabama. They had just helped me move out of our home in Fremont to my first pad in San Francisco, a few blocks away. I was 25. It was the first time I moved out on my own. I was the last of my siblings to leave the proverbial nest.

I remember suggesting we stop by the bakery. We were walking over to the 24th Street BART station so they could return home. Since we were in the Mission, I figured it would be a shame if they left without getting something distinct to the neighborhood. I figured a few sweet Mexican pastries would do the trick. I remember feeling a concoction of emotions as we walked down 24th Street, including a sense of guilt for leaving them, for finally making a home without them. After we finished hauling my belongings up to my room on a third-floor flat, I could sense that my mother, in particular, felt somber.

All these memories flood me whenever I see the signs for La Victoria. Now I don’t feel so sad when I look at it. For me, the bakery reminds me of the newfound freedom I felt at living on my own for the first time in my life. Oftentimes, it reminds me of the crazy first year and a half I spent living at the flat we called “Casa Pacheco,” the punk-rock, vinyl-record-spinning household I am proud and honored to have shared with my Casa Pacheco brothers. It was a thrilling, eye-opening time in my life—living in a city beautiful like the ones I saw in Europe, a vibrant neighborhood that was the antithesis of the depressing, yawn-of-a-suburban neighborhood that my restless spirit wasn’t meant for.

Buried beneath all those fuzzy memories, I still remember the sadness I felt in leaving home. In coming through a front door where my mom and dad would not greet me. It has been the opening chapter of a wild, unpredictable six and a half years I have spent in the city.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

On Ray Manzarek and Robby Krieger

Look at me mama, doing my first response blog piece! This ditty is in response to my homeboy, Justin Goldman’s piece on Ray Manzarek that you can check out aqui on his kick-ass blog.

It’s safe to say that when most people think of The Doors, the fleeting image that first comes to mind is Jim Morrison: The Lizard King; the white-boy shamanic, baritone-voiced, dead-in-a-bathtub-in-the-city-of-cities-at-the-age-of-27 lead singer who now lives eternally through the recordings this band left us (“We had some good times/but they’re gone”). But when I think of The Doors, I think of great music to get high to. Or music that makes you feel like you’ve shared a spliff with The Old Fart Upstairs ("Cancel my subscription to the resurrection / Send my credentials to the house of detention"). And the primary culprits for this sensation are the recently departed Ray Manzarek, and guitarist Robby Krieger—one of my favorite duos in all music. (The only other guitarist whose playing makes me feel like I’ve hit a four-foot bong in Santa Barbara is Jimi Hendrix.)

Though I’m no groupie with pictures and posters of Las Puertas all up on my walls (I’ve always enjoyed calling “The Doors” by their exact Spanish translation, though my Peruvian posse always call them “The Doors” with a cute accent), this is my favorite picture of yet another monumental band from Los Angeles.

In this photo, Manzarek is the one who commands the viewer’s initial attention. Those studious-looking glasses, those piercing eyes. What is this bookworm doing in a rock band? He should be a professor, right? But in a way, I think it can be easily argued that he occupied a similar position within The Doors. While everyone focused on Jimbo’s onstage antics, his dreamy-hot looks, or Krieger’s solos and phenomenally-diverse chops, Manzarek was The Wizard of Oz for that band. He provided the foundation for the sonic tapestry that allowed those two to reach peaks that captured their listeners. When Manzarek passed away over two weeks ago, the other member of their rhythm foundation, drummer John Densmore, said via Twitter: “There was no keyboard player on the planet more appropriate to support Jim Morrison’s words…. It was like we were of one mind, holding down the foundation for Robby and Jim to float on top of….” And as we’re finding out here in the San Francisco Bay Area, you can’t build a pretty and stable bridge without some sturdy bolts and mighty pillars to hold that baby up.

Like my buddy Justin said in his blog post, “People won’t dress up as Manzarek for Halloween.” And they won’t dress up like John Densmore or Robby Krieger with his forehead made for Happy-Gilmore-style headbutting. But yet, those two, Manzarek and Krieger, are why I continue to listen to The Doors now that I’ve mostly outgrown my hard-boozing, Morrison-felt-the-pain-I-feel phase. Manzarek and Krieger—forgive me for bringing ice skating into this (I didn’t know this was going to happen when I started to put my fingers to keyboard, believe me)—were like a pair of lyrical figure skaters who deftly painted musical tapestries of many shades and graduations. (Just think of the range encompassed within “Roadhouse Blues,” “Alabama Song,” “Strange Days,” “L.A. Woman,” and “Not to Touch the Earth.”) Think of Krieger’s slide guitar solo on “Moonlight Drive” and Manzarek’s subdued chords layered behind it. Let’s stay on “Strange Days”—my favorite Doors album; listen to the underrated “My Eyes Have Seen You” and the way that 2:30 song just continually builds on a simple but mildly frenetic riff from Krieger’s Gibson SG; the way Manzarek and Densmore build the song up to a peak for Morrison and Krieger to take the song out on. Listen to “Love Street”—how beautifully Manzarek and Krieger play simple piano and guitar melodies to conjure this idyllic soundtrack to accompany Morrison’s lyrics. Listen to their organ and guitar solos on “Light My Fire.” Or one of my favorite tiny moments—all twenty seconds of it—on their epic “When the Music's Over.” It’s that part from the 5:47-6:06 mark where Manzarek’s organ and a few atmospheric notes from Krieger’s guitar produce a sound that sounds like the “scream of the butterfly.”

I could go on and on.

These two, along with Densmore’s underrated drumming and The Lizard King, were one of those once-in-a-lifetime kind of bands. (And you can thank transcendental meditation for it!)

People may not dress like the three non-supernovas in The Doors, but their music will always live on—as long as our iPods and computers will have enough juice to play.