(Originally posted: 3/10/17)
First of all, sorry for not sending out an issue last week! I’ve been moving across town and between yelling at SoCalGas and attempting to decorate my new home like Jayne Mansfield’s “Pink Palace,” I totally fell behind on my commitments.
When I started Staunchly, I envisioned that every so often, I would send out a complete, polished narrative essay—something I had spent proper time on, not just slapped together in the week prior. So that’s what I’m doing today.
The piece is called “Grand Slam.” In short, it’s about my interview to get into Princeton, which took place at a Denny’s in Culver City nearly a decade ago. But really it’s a story about expectations, money, dads, rejections, pancakes, and the distance we seek to build between our parents’ choices and our own. Mostly pancakes. I should also say, I wrote this piece last year, before I moved back to Los Angeles. There is something kind of delicious in that. Unlike the food at Denny's.
Also, this essay has absolutely nothing to do with the current administration, so it might be a nice escape. I suggest reading it with coffee one morning this weekend. Preferably not at a Denny’s.
Like Denny’s, the chain of unremarkable, roadside diners, I was a creation of Southern California trying to be taken seriously. There was a time in my life when I wanted nothing more than to be seen as a respectable establishment. I needed to have my respectability believed and validated, principally by admissions officers at the nation’s most prestigious colleges: A Serious Candidate, A Real Contender, they would say, through smeary clouds of pipe smoke, as they flipped through my paper-clipped application.
Denny’s and I were both birthed on the perimeters of today’s Los Angeles County. Me, in Santa Monica, by C-section at sunset. Denny’s, in Lakewood, by Harold Butler and Richard Jezak in 1953. Our paths crossed only once, in a winter month near the end of Bush’s second term, when I was eighteen and ravenous, when I visited a Denny’s to meet a man named Dave.
On that day, a sign, familiar ketchup-hued lettering on a mustard, hexagonal background, showed me where to pull in. I parked in the shade and waited for three o’clock. That seemed like a good hour for my life to start. The hour I would meet Dave. Dave who would do the igniting. Dave who could satisfy a certain type of hunger. Dave who wanted to learn more about me, as he’d written, through our dry yet suggestive email courtship.
I had prepared myself for the backdrop of a country club, a members-only restaurant in a historic part of town where men wore sports coats, where toothsome new wives and skirt-suited stalwarts sucked the vodka out of green olives. So, I was caught a bit off-guard when Dave asked to meet me at Denny’s, specifically the Denny’s on Jefferson Boulevard in Culver City. There, it was tacitly established, amid the sights and smells of a 24/7 breakfast republic—the bacon ribbons, ersatz eggs fried into discs, melon ball scoops of butter—he would determine if I was the right fit for Princeton University.
By the day I was to meet Dave, I had already spent the better part of a year trying to convince various people that I was the right fit for whatever institution they were guarding from unworthy boors.
Yes, I want a strong core curriculum. But of course, I’d love to build my own field of study, given the chance. Sure, I could explain that calculus grade (No, I do not suffer dyscalculia, but kind of you to enquire). That’s correct, I didn’t take biology or physics, but I do think there’s something scientific about my approach to the arts. Definitely, I’d like to live in South Chicago (Oh yeah, ha ha, those Midwest winters—but this LA girl digs seasons!). Truthfully, something about four years in a rural town with 2,000 people really speaks to the transcendentalist in me. Now that you mention it, could there be anything more exciting than having as a campus the whole of New York City?
In essays, applications, and interviews, I had covered myself in a shiny coating, a synthetic cast of charm, smarts, nerve, and appetite. I had attempted to present myself always as the glossiest, most enticing version of whatever the college wanted, like how food stylists spray pancakes with Scotch Guard, so syrup drips off them in clean rivers. I wanted to appear intellectually photogenic, sexily erudite.
I sat in my parked car, rehearsing my flirty answers for Dave. For two years, I had been seeing someone named Alex. She is not afraid to share her opinion, Alex had said of a friend who had gone to Princeton, as a way of preparing me for the interview. Alex—my therapist—said it with a smirk and a glance that suggested that this opinion wasn’t always called for, valid, or appreciated. The takeaway, however, was that Princeton women were confident, strong-voiced. They did not shy. They said their piece and felt an entitlement to be heard.
“I want to go to Princeton,” says Armory, the main character in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise. “I don’t know why but I think of all Harvard men as sissies, like I used to be, and all Yale men as wearing big blue sweaters and smoking pipes…I think of Princeton as being lazy and good-looking and aristocratic.”
Princeton held such a strong appeal to imperfect dreamers like Armory and me because it seemed like the peak, the standard-bearer against which all other collegiate experiences were measured and found inferior. I would never be insecure if I went to Princeton, I thought. I would have something that everyone knew was the best, so I could tell them, with a winky, humble-as-fuck smile, “I went to college in New Jersey.”
In my imagination, Princeton was a colony of stone buildings tied up in ivy—like some sort of leafy, WASP bondage (sadomasochism meets Brooks Brothers). Yet it also seemed to have an effortless quality to it, an excellence that came easy. It was, I assumed, a tightly-knotted and stratified social and academic structure within which kids in sports coats from good patrician families could dick around and claim their success as was their birthright. This, of course, was a distinctly naïve and Jazz Age take on Princeton, which probably played some role in the process by which I was not admitted.
More important than what Princeton was was what it was it was not. Unlike Denny’s and myself, Princeton was not Californian. Not in geography and certainly not in spirit. By eighteen, I needed to get out of California. I felt an urgency to leave usually synonymous with fugitives.
Los Angeles wasn’t serious enough for me. Los Angeles was celluloid and saline. Injections and immovable foreheads. Chihuahuas with rhinestone collars. Toddlers with cell phones. Brats with lip gloss. Los Angeles was a miles-wide shopping center dressed as a city. A Barbie Doll with no vital parts, no beating heart. Studio politics. The idea of the Pacific Palisades. Did you hear he’s shtupping his yoga instructor? Water sports (a reference to pool activities and the porn industry). It was smoggy when you needed to think clear, sunny when you wanted to be sullen. Audio that didn’t quite sync with the picture.
Most fatally, Los Angeles belonged to my father. That is unfair, because he didn’t much want it either. He spoke longingly of ranches and pastures, acres and acres of a relentless emptiness. Closing up his law firm and settling in Montana. But he had deep roots in Southern California, and would probably be doomed to spend his whole life trying to escape too.
My dad grew up in various homes around the San Fernando Valley. Of my dad’s childhood, I knew his parents divorced and he used to ride his bike in Santa Susanna Pass park (one time, he rode it straight into Charles Manson, pedaling upon—and then fast, fast away from—Spahn Ranch) and that his dad, a trial attorney of some repute, would not buy him so much as a tennis racket. This was the founding symbolism of my father. The tennis racket. The lesson from a young age that success didn’t trickle down and nothing came free or easy, which produced these rather conflicting instincts as a parent: to buy his children all we wanted (the tennis rackets et alia), then to scold us for not earning them.
Every family has a different mythology about money.
“You can have a rich dad or a nice dad,” mine would often tell me.
In my house, money took up space. And not just in the form of private school uniforms and Italian rustic four-poster beds and elaborate entertainment systems and Lalique crystal vases and Laker ticket stubs and other insignia of a certain type of privilege in a certain part of town. Money occupied vast emotional real estate, required constant reckoning with. It was half of an either/or. A substitute for paternal warmth of which we were constantly reminded. A license for my dad to scream gut-souring things if he drove us home in a Porsche or chartered a private jet to fly us to our ski house. It kept my brother and me quarantined in the not-particularly-sympathetic ward of “poor little rich kids."
My dad was cutthroat, ambitious. What’s that line in Clueless? Daddy's a litigator. Those are the scariest kind of lawyer. He was a striver, always pushing towards a higher something and never sitting to enjoy the scenery when he got there. Striving for tennis rackets and houses in good zip codes with views of the ocean and Catalina and to be better than his father. The striving, in how it represented an obvious sort of hunger, embarrassed me.
I wanted the chance to be lazy and good-looking and aristocratic. To act like money was just the salt that kept everything seasoned and preserved, not the guest at the dinner table, picking you apart for sport.
According to his email signature, Dave was Princeton class of ’44. This made him older than my grandparents, older than Jimmy Carter, older than Angela Lansbury. Dave was from the Midwest, like F. Scott Fitzgerald, and had the trademark faint or nonexistent digital footprint of most Americans born during the abbreviated Warren Harding administration.
The Denny’s building was built in a vaguely Danish style, half-timbered and low to the ground. It was a corn yellow color (between kettle and pop) with roofing and beams in a darker wood. In the winter afternoon light, against the flatness of Culver City, the punch of ficus trees on the sky, it had a sinister quality to it, an artificial cheeriness—similar to how yellow bedrooms have been shown to make babies wail with more frequency than other wall colors.
While I waited for Dave at the front entrance, I thought about my last college interview. It was in a room at 8484 Wilshire Boulevard—the once (at that time, current) Hustler offices. The building was a 10-story elliptic cylinder with rounded panels of glass that reflected the palms on Wilshire and South Hamilton Drive. I was meeting with a young alum of Columbia whose defense law practice was headquartered on the fourth floor. Our dads knew each other.
I had searched for her suite number on the lobby directory, scanning through the alphabetized list of production companies saucily named for every heterosexual male fantasy. She met me in her office and sat me down at her desk across from her. She had the aesthetic of a moody, world-weary teen in a ’90s high school comedy: dark brown hair, glasses, thinly arched eyebrows, smudged eyeliner. When she asked me what I wanted to do, I told her I wanted to write “daring short fiction”—I wasn’t no square. I did not get into Columbia.
Today, I know a fair amount about the institution of Denny’s. I know the chain began as “Danny’s Donuts.” That it originally occupied 900 square-feet at the corner of Bellflower and Del Amo Boulevards in Lakewood, a planned community north and east of Long Beach—a sort of pop-up town, where 17,500 homes sprung up from lima bean and sugar beet fields in 33 months to house working-class G-Is and their families in the early fifties.
I know the name “Danny” was originally chosen because it would ring familiar to customers, according to Harold Butler’s obituary in the Los Angeles Times, and changed because it was too often confused with the name of another restaurant: “Coffee Dan’s.” Something else mentioned in the obituary: the shop served fresh donuts with jam, not jelly. This seemed like an important distinction.
I know a lot about Denny’s because I’ve investigated it, the way we all go back and dust for fingerprints and pick for shell casings at the scenes where our lives took a particularly sharp turn in one direction or the other.
Dave was twenty minutes late. I began to panic. I searched anxiously for someone entering Denny’s who looked like class of ’44. For anyone who has never been to America’s diner on a Sunday afternoon, that is pretty much everyone. I used the sweat from my warming palms to straighten my hair, which was starting to frizz, and my shirt, which was starting to wrinkle. In an attempt at prep, I had dressed for Dave. I wore a diamond cross necklace, a carnation pink Oxford button-down with white stripes, and a cheek blush the color of Demi Moore’s apartment walls in St. Elmo’s Fire (which made me look, I realized far too late, like a Madame Alexander doll with erythema). The effect was saccharine, polished in an ’80s way (i.e. not polished by the measure of any other decade), and completely transparent.
I thought back to our emails. Yes, we had definitely agreed to meet at this time at the Denny’s on Jefferson Boulevard. How could I forget that? Denny’s; Princeton. Princeton; Denny’s. The words spun and stuck together in my brain. Like a chant. Like the lanyards I used to weave at summer camp, sitting poolside, my tankini-exposed shoulders burning and cramping as I twisted strands of colored plastic into corkscrews. I circled the restaurant, wondering if perhaps Dave was at a different entrance (waiting for me just yards away), hoping this could be the kind of harmless misunderstanding on which decades of classic comedy were built.
As I considered this possibility, my screen brightened with the siren of an unknown number. It was Dave.
“Where are you?” he asked, after some short pleasantries.
“I’m out front,” I said. “Right by the entrance.”
“Are you at the front entrance. Go to the front entrance.”
“I’m at the front entrance,” I reiterated defensively.
“Stay where you are. I’ll find you.” I heard Dave pacing.
“I just walked around the entire restaurant and I did not see you,” said Dave. “Describe where you are.”
I looked around.
“Um, there are lots of trees…shrubbery, looks like. I think I’m in a shopping center. It’s a yellow building with a dark brown roof. I don’t know…it’s a Denny’s.”
Then it hit me.
In his email, Dave had instructed me to meet him at the Denny’s on Jefferson Boulevard in Culver City off the 405 freeway. I had Googled “denny’s jefferson boulevard culver city” and directed myself to the first result. These were two different places.
(The fact of the two Denny’s on the same street in the same neighborhood, I knew even then, would claim a permanent place in my brain, like floor-bolted prison furniture. It was information I was cursed to never forget.)
Dave said he would meet me at my Denny’s. It was tacitly understood that there was no point. I had failed the first test. I had showed up at the wrong fucking Denny’s.
In the years since, I have taken a slim spoonful of comfort in knowing that Dave’s Denny’s has shuttered, while my Denny’s continues to thrive, shuffling platters of meat and carbs to rounds of expectant Culver City dwellers.
The hostess sat us at a table, although many booths were available. This to me was a clear sign that we did not exhibit the requisite chumminess of booth patrons. Whatever we were doing, whatever we were conspiring about, we did not look like we were in it together.
The waitress handed us menus: expansive, laminated assortments of stylized comestibles. They reminded me of those glossy national park brochures found in motels: doughy mountains, waffle ravines, maple streams to drown in.
Dave ordered coffee. I was fine with tap.
“So,” began Dave, begrudgingly, as the waitress poured his coffee, “Tell me about yourself.”
I stared at the table. My forehead was melty hot from the sun. Sweat was fogging it like condensation. I dabbed a droplet with my shirt cuff, smearing beige cover-up on the cotton. I cleared my throat. Maybe if I sounded like an ignition, I could start.
“Why don’t we start with this: why do you want to go to Princeton?” He asked, rubbing at his chin, prickly with short white hairs.
I mumbled some talking point about research libraries or student-teacher ratio.
Dave took a sip of his coffee. The thin, dark roast slid through his crackly lips and slapped the roof of his mouth. He pulled his eyes off my face and moved them around the restaurant. I followed. The room was full of even and oblivious people, forking bites of reasonably-priced standards, their asses soft and pancaked on channel-back leather booths.
We sat in silence for several minutes as, all around us, bacon sizzled, eggs fried, flapjacks flipped, and my future as a Princeton Tiger dissolved before us like the fiber tablets so many of Denny’s customers used to regulate their digestive tract.
I worried that, on the seesaw between Denny’s and Princeton, indigestion and eupepsia, jelly and jam, I would always sink slowly, but irredeemably, onto the wrong side.