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Ralph Gardner Jr.: West Coast swing to visit friends was on the cheap, but rich with experiences

Gardners with director Henry Jaglom

Ralph and Deborah Gardner with movie director Henry Jaglom, center, in Santa Monica, Calif.

GHENT, N.Y. — My wife is calling our nearly monthlong visit to the West Coast “The Friends, Family and Big Trees Tour.” I’ve dubbed it, less poetically, “The Mooching Tour.”

Of the 25 days we’ll be away, we’re staying in hotels, motels, Airbnbs or other forms of paid shelter only five of those days.

Sponging off friends wasn’t our plan. It just turned out that way. My admittedly borderline morbid goal was to see a few towering redwood trees before forest fires consumed them all. My wife’s incentive was to visit our daughter in Canada. Put the two together and you get a road trip.

Were further logic required, the pandemic provided it. After two full years of rarely straying further than our local Hannaford’s we felt we’d earned a bit of wanderlust.

Why start in L.A. as we did? Because if you require verifiable proof that you’re no longer in the Hudson Valley, on the East Coast, no American city better offers an alternative than Los Angeles.

Our first morning there our host, Julie Sayres, suggested a certain bakery that makes excellent croissants. I volunteered to fetch them. It typically takes me several hours to face the world in the a.m. but the prospect of a superbly crisp croissant with a buttery center is all the incentive I require to don a pair of pants.

Recall we’re talking about L.A. Were it New York City, any food destination that required more than a five-minute walk would instantly disqualify itself. Make that 10 minutes by car upstate. Julie apologized that these croissants required a trip on the 405 freeway three exits away.

“There are lots of croissants within five minutes,” Julie explained somewhat apologetically. “Better to drive 20 minutes,” for the best croissants.

I didn’t need to be persuaded, and not just because I fancy myself a student of breakfast pastry. I welcomed the opportunity to travel her well-groomed neighborhood with its lush foliage after what I understood to be an abnormally moist, cold winter — at least by Angelinos’ creampuff standards — and then to hit the freeway in our rental Prius.

It was one of those cloudless mornings, with temperatures heading toward the mid-70’s that makes you understand, if only momentarily, while ostensibly rational human beings would risk earthquakes, forest fires and mudslides in exchange for spotless sunshine.

Exiting the freeway onto some boulevard whose name evoked the romance of Beach Boys culture — Sunset or Ventura, perhaps — there was nothing extraordinary about the endless succession of stores and banks and gas stations. Indeed, they couldn’t have been more pedestrian, even though there were few pedestrians to be seen.

But that blandness only enhanced the experience. It was as if the buildings and the slow moving traffic were saying, “With weather like this and palm trees growing like weeds why compete with nature?”

Didn’t McDonald’s start in southern California? What the state gave the world wasn’t greatness but the promise of dependable homogeneity. After spending the first couple of nights with Julie in “The Valley,” we headed to Santa Monica. I’m still unclear where “The Valley” is or what merits that description since Julie’s neighborhood, with its steep hills and canyons, doesn’t conform to any definition of a valley I learned in geography class.

I should probably note that the croissants were large and excellent, if not the best I’ve ever had — for that one requires the intangibles of Paris, in the same way that Los Angeles has it mythical allure — and that breakfast was followed by a dip in Julie’s 92 degree pool. She claims the temperature was required for physical therapy but I suspect you’d find the average L.A. pool 10 degrees warmer than one on the East Coast. Our tree-shaded specimen in Columbia County has never exceeded 80 degrees and that’s during a heat wave abetted by the pool heater.

I don’t feel particular pressure to visit tourist attractions while in Los Angeles. Or rather, I associate particular friends and relatives with the city more than places such as the Hollywood Walk of Fame or Universal Studios. They include my friend Paul Chiten, whom I met for lunch at a restaurant called Old Tony’s on the Redondo Beach Pier. Tony’s has apparently been around for a while. Some of its framed celebrity glossies — Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Barbara Streisand — are getting pretty faded.

I owe Paul many things, but one of them is a quintessential L.A. moment many years ago. I happened to be alone at his apartment when the doorbell rang. It was the mailman delivering a box of prosperity cassette tapes that were purported to send subliminal messages that, when you listened to them as you fell asleep, guaranteed financial success.

Assuming I’d ordered the cassettes the postal worker praised me for my acumen and testified that they’d worked for him. I defer to no one in my faith in the United States Postal Service and the integral role its employees play in the smooth functioning of our democracy. But when I think of financial success and celebrity, the vision of a mail carrier isn’t the first thing that comes to mind.

However, this was L.A., where dreams never feel very far out of reach.

Dinner our first and only night in Santa Monica was with Henry Jaglom, an independent movie director, and my mother’s first cousin. Henry told us the name of the cafe on Montana Avenue where he could be found after 3 p.m. And there he was when we pulled up and for the next four hours.

After picking his memory for a family memoir I’m working on, Henry somehow launched into a story about his friend “Richie” Pryor when the two were starting out in their 20s doing standup in New York City. The fledgling comics were attempting to crack each other up from the stage, Pryor smearing his face with condiments to get Henry, and one assumes the rest of the audience, to crack up. My cousin remained stone-faced even after the comedian dumped the entire contents of the relish tray on his head.

But then Pryor reached for a napkin. Instead of mopping his face, as one might expect, he took the end of the napkin and with daintily touched the corner of his mouth, the personification of perfect table etiquette. Not only did Henry lose it, but Pryor’s comic genius persuaded Henry that he wasn’t cut out for comedy and he should look for a different line of work.

Our burgers, fish tacos and replacement margaritas arrived, the sun receded behind the low-slung buildings on Montana Avenue and the waiter fired up our table’s patio heater. It felt good to be back in L.A.

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