Friday, April 7, 2017

This Week: Redondo Beach, CA

It’s not just the places you go, It’s the people you meet

The hotel’s website said it provided shuttle service Monday through Friday from 7 AM to 11 AM and from 4 PM to 9 PM. The site also said the shuttle had a three mile radius around the hotel. Checking Google Maps, I realized that was not going to work. I was traveling to Redondo Beach, CA, for a press trip and my hotel was the Hilton Garden Inn Redondo Beach, right off the infamous 405. It was three miles east of California’s South Bay, however, Hermosa Beach was in the way.
Redondo Beach is a quirk of geography. The boundaries on a map look like a puzzle piece. There is an eastern half that is three miles inland, sitting behind Hermosa Beach. Then like a diagonal move on a checker board, there is another square section to the south and west that is on the beach. The entire municipality is only five square miles. The Hilton Garden Inn at Marine Avenue put me at the far northeast corner while the actual beach was almost 5 miles away at the southwest corner. I would need that shuttle, but it wouldn’t get me to Redondo Beach. It would only get me to Hermosa and then it was a two mile walk. I would need a good pair of walking shoes.

My schedule for day one at Redondo Beach was paddle boarding in the morning, then lunch somewhere on the boardwalk and then dinner and beers at King Harbor Brewing Company. I asked the hotel front desk for the shuttle. The desk clerk made a phone call and said John would arrive in a few minutes.

As I waited in the lobby an older gentleman wearing khakis and denim shirt approached the front desk. The gal at the desk pointed to me.

“How far can you take me” I asked after he introduced himself. Asking exactly where I needed to go, I explained I wanted to be at King Harbor, but my understanding was the shuttle didn’t go that far. Even though I was talking to John, the desk clerk answered. I could be dropped off at Hermosa Beach and from there walk to King Harbor. John motioned for me to follow him out front. He opened the side door to the shuttle van for me to climb in. After he got in the driver’s seat, he turned around and asked me where I wanted to go. I said as close to King Harbor as he could get me.

“Where exactly do you need to be?”

“Specifically, Tarsan Paddle Rentals on North Harbor Drive.”

“Ok, I’ll just take you there,” he replied.

“You sure?”

“Yeah, it’s fine.”

Studying John in the rearview mirror I noticed he wore a tan beret and wire-rimmed glasses. Short salt and pepper hair could be seen below his cap and he had a grey mustache. I guessed he was in his late sixties. Since I like to try and figure people out, I imagined he was retired from a long career of something and driving this van was his part time gig. What I didn’t know was if he drove the van because he needed a paycheck or simply because he wanted something to do.

As he drove he plied me with questions. Where are you from? When I said Colorado he responded how beautiful he thought Colorado was. He said he had spent a vacation visiting a friend in Colorado. The friend took him to Estes Park and Rocky Mountain National Park. I mentioned that the first snow of the season had just fallen in the national park a few days ago and it was still September. John laughed. He then said that LA was going to have a mini-heat wave over the next few days. Today’s expected high was 100 degrees.

He asked what I was doing today and I told him my schedule. He then asked why I was here. I said I was a travel writer and in town as a guest of the tourist board. He chuckled saying that was some job I had. I also told him that I was a beer blogger and had a 4 PM appointment at King Harbor Brewing Company. I half joked about how I would need a ride from him that night because I would be drinking beer all afternoon. While John wouldn’t be able to drive me to the brewery because he wouldn’t be back on duty until 4 PM, he was more than happy to pick me up.

We were only into the drive a few minutes when we passed by the Redondo Beach/King Harbor city sign. A few traffic lights after that he turned onto Harbor Drive and pulled the van over into a parallel parking spot. We were at the entrance to King Harbor. Tarsan was actually a block behind me. John then handed me his business card and said his cell phone number was on it so I could call him when I was ready to return.

I now had six hours to fill. I filled them with two hours of paddle boarding, a huge lunch at Captain Kidd’s Seafood Market and then a walk to Redondo Pier. John was right; the temperature did get up to 100. I stopped inside an ice cream shop to get some chilled relief in the form of a vanilla mocha ice cream cone. Then I took Uber to the brewery.

My interview at the brewery lasted almost two hours, during which I sampled a variety of the brewery’s beers. And because it was Monday Night Football, the brewery had a food truck out front, Bartz BBQ. After ordering some brisket to go I called John. He needed to drop off another passenger first before getting me. I plunked down on the curb as the evening finally began to cool. Because I had eaten so much for lunch and then drank beer, I only ordered a sandwich, no sides, but as I sat on the curb waiting, the food truck proprietor approached and asked if I wanted to take some sides with me.

“I’ll have too much leftover to take home. How about some mac and cheese on the house?” An offer I couldn’t refuse. The server gave me a heaping spoonful of mac and cheese with the little crunchies on top. I love crunchies. A few minutes later, John arrived in the big white van.

“Sorry it took me so long,” he apologized as I entered the middle seat. “Ran into rush hour traffic.” I told him because of his delay I scored some free mac and cheese. He laughed and asked how my day went. I told him I came within a few feet of a sea lion on the paddle board, which was awesome. I also said the beer at the brewery was delicious. He stated Heineken was his beer of choice.

“I drink them at the Mermaid Inn with my friends. I live over in Hermosa, lived there for many years. Will you be visiting the Mermaid Inn?” Since I was a guest of Redondo Beach tourism board, I informed him I wouldn’t be visiting Mermaid, which is in Hermosa. I set up my ride for the next day and wished him good evening.  

The next morning, I awoke early, had free breakfast from the hotel and then prepped my travel bag for a day at the beach. Tuesday’s schedule was to rent a bicycle and hit the beach, then late lunch and restaurant tour of Redondo Pier. The bike shop didn’t open until 10 AM so I had plenty of time. I was in the lobby when John arrived shortly after 9:30.

“Sorry I’m late,” he said.

“You’re not late,” I said. Once again he opened the van door for me. He then asked where I was going today.

I said Marina Bike Rental on the corner of Beryl and Harbor Drive, only a few blocks south of Tarsan. Shortly after pulling out of the hotel parking lot, John’s cell phone rang. He answered the phone and put it on speaker, which meant I could hear every word. A woman on the phone asked him about a prescription. Since it wasn’t really my business, I looked out the window, trying not to hear. John talked to the woman about visiting the doctor and getting “her” a prescription. Then toward the end of the conversation, they both spoke Spanish. He finished the phone call at a stop light.  John said he was sorry about the interruption, but I said no worries. He said that it was his mother’s Medicare case worker. His mother, who he said was 93 years old, was in the care of both him and his sister and that he needed to get permission before they would approve of things like prescriptions. The case worker was verifying that his mother had seen a doctor before getting new drugs. I marveled that his mother was 93.

We were heading down Herondo Street and South Bay was at the bottom. On my right was Hermosa and on my left was Redondo. John pointed to the hill on the right where the condo buildings overlooked the bay.

“My apartment is over there.”

“That’s close to the beach.” I said impressed. John laughed his easy laugh again.

“Yeah, my sister and I went to high school here and we still have friends from those days. We all get together at either Mermaid’s or Hennessey for a few beers. That’s what I do on my days off.”

At the rental shack he pulled next to the bike lane and I exited the vehicle. I told him I would call him that evening for my ride back. He said to enjoy my day and left. It was still a few minutes early and the rental shack wasn’t open yet. I sat on the deck stairs and opened my bag to take out my camera. That is when I made a startling realization. I forgot all my restaurant coupons back at the hotel. All of them…in a little envelope…on the hotel room desk. The coupons were to pay for the restaurants on the Pier.
I considered forgoing the coupons and just paying for my meals, but then decided against it. I barely get paid for the articles I write, let alone make enough money to fully fund this trip. I needed all the freebies I could get just break even. John’s shuttle duty would end at 11 AM. I called him.

“You’re not going to believe this, but I forgot something at the hotel. Can you come back and get me?” John said he was driving another passenger and he could return when he was done.

While waiting for John to return, a large rotund gentleman pulled up to the bike shack in a red scooter with an adorable tan and white Corgi in a basket on the back. He parked the scooter under an umbrella next to the shack’s front deck and moved the Corgi from the basket to the ground. The Corgi walked over to sniff me. After the man unlocked the shack door he asked me if I was renting a bike. I said yes, but that I had to return to my hotel and would be back in about 45 minutes. He shrugged and continued his opening routine. He walked to a large metal trailer next to the shack, undid a padlock and opened a door. Then he pulled out several cruiser bikes one by one. While setting up the fifth bike, a young couple walked up to the deck. Speaking in thick Scandinavian accents, they requested some bikes. They filled out some paper work and he took their driving license and credit card info. Then he put a wire basket on the woman’s bike and off they went. 

Although it only took ten minutes, it seemed like a half hour of standing in the hot California sun. I saw the white van turn down the block and leisurely pulled up alongside the curb to me. I opened the door myself and hopped in.

“Thank you so much. I can’t believe I did that!” He chuckled. He drove as fast the speed limit would allow and in less than 10 minutes we were back at the hotel. He took the opportunity to use the hotel “facilities” while I sprinted back to my room for the envelope. It was right where I left it. I sprinted back down to the lobby and outside.

“That was fast!” he said as I hopped into the van. We were off on the same route we took about an hour and half earlier. It was after 10:30 AM and soon John would be off the clock. He returned me to Marina Bike Rentals and as he opened the door for me, I handed him a five dollar bill and he tried to hand it back.

“You just saved my butt. Thank you!”

I spent the afternoon riding the Marvin Braude Bike Trail on my rented cruiser up to Manhanttan Beach and then I rode it back past the rental shop to the far southern end of Redondo Beach. I think I covered some 10 miles of the 22-mile trail. It was a beautiful Southern California day as I sat on the sand admiring the waves and the sand pipers and the few families who were away from work and school to play at the shore. After returning the bike I enjoyed a Redondo Pier bar crawl during happy hour and ended my day watching the spectacular sun set over the Pacific Ocean. I ended my evening with a dinner of crab cakes and a beer at a fancy seafood restaurant. About 8 o’clock I called John. He asked if I knew where the roundabout was on the south side of the pier. Since I had passed it on the bike, I did know where it was. He said he would pick me up there. This was way outside the boundaries of the shuttle.

I did have to wait several minutes, but there was no mistaking the big white van in the street lights when it came around the corner. I climbed in and said hello. John asked how my day was, but I turned the tables on him and said, “You know I’ve been sent to see all these places, but where do you like to go?”

He said he likes Hermosa, where he lives, and likes to hang out at Hennessey with his friends next door to Mermaid Inn. I had ridden the bike by both earlier that day. He said he and his sister went to high school in Hermosa and when he retired he wanted to return here because he loves it. He then said he was in the service and spent 35 years in Alaska before returning to Hermosa. Then the floodgate opened.

He asked if I noticed him speaking Spanish on the phone yesterday. When I said yes, he said that was because he was originally from Cuba. He was sent to Florida on a boat as a boy in 1962. He was cared for by a foster family for five years until his parents made it to Florida. From there he went to a Presbyterian school in Shenandoah, IA, for several years. He even detassled corn in the summer, something I said we had in common. From there the family moved to Hermosa and after high school he joined the service and spent some time in Virginia and then the 35 years in Alaska. He actually enjoyed his time in Alaska, but when he retired, he knew he wanted to return to sunny California.

While sitting at a stop light he told me his father had a trucking company in Cuba and it did very well until Castro and the Communists came to power in 1961. He said after his grandfather passed away his dad took some money out of the grandfather’s bank account to pay for the funeral. However, the government didn’t believe him and put him in jail for a year. His mother spent that year fighting bureaucratic red tape and had to submit and resubmit receipts to show where the money went. The communists would say the paperwork wasn’t filled out properly or that they just didn’t believe what the money was used for, even though his mother had receipts. After his father was released from jail they decided to leave.

John said he was trying to get a visa so he can return to Cuba, but since he arrived in the States before 1970, there are special regulations he needs to meet making it harder. His sister had already returned. He says his boyhood home is still there and he would like to see it. I asked him if he was scared when he came over on the boat and he said no. He said he wasn’t scared because he was so young he didn’t know any better.

When we arrived at the lobby of the hotel, he got out of the driver seat and for the last time walked over to the passenger door to let me out. He wished me a safe return to Colorado.

“Next time you do one of these trips, come to Hermosa and I’ll show you around,” he said as he waved.

“That sounds like a great idea!” I said as entered the hotel.