IS THERE LIFE AFTER SUSHI?
Or more to the point, is there any sushi in the After-Life? Because if the answer's "NO," I don't wanna go.
This was shot by Bill Marsden, owner of Marsden's in Pasadena -- a restaurant that serves lavish comfort food. Mr. Marsden was sitting at Ai Japanese Restaurant's L-shaped sushi bar when he let it be known that he was a newbie to the scene. Regulars promptly drew him into the Circle of Love.
P.S. - I'm the blonde in the back. The woman next to me has just been showing cellphone photos of her two daughters, BOTH past Rose Bowl queens and a photo of her wedding day All Those Years Ago. Her friend is in the foreground.
"Is that all you're eating?" they'd asked me as I nursed my spicy tuna roll in the midst of severe employment drought. "She is social-iz-ing tonight," Fumito the sushi chef drawled in a singsong that formed the crust on layers of historical innuendo too vast for either of us to explain. Rose Bowl Queen Mama offered me some of her tempura shishito. Mild chile peppers rolled in a batter that's lighter than the jokes at Ai.
Ai doesn't enourage patrons to buy lots of sushi and then leave, and God bless them, they'll let an old friend sit and enjoy laughter & conversation even when she's broke.
In San Francisco I socialize with, uh, um...nobody.
Here's Fumito on the day HBO's "Madmen" was shooting in Ai's parking lot. Making sushi for the crew out back, and attending inside customers. Crew members would duck in to check on the sushi progress, walkie-talkies in hand. Hollywood meets South Pas!
I'm a slacker when it comes to spending money at Ai. Lunch specials are super cheap and I usually get the "combination" -- an array of fresh sushi for under 8 bucks. And I love their spicy tuna salad when I can afford it at 10 bucks a throw. Secret spice in the tuna. Trade secret.
I missed Ai as much as I missed Chinatown and my L.A. friends. Returning to Ai is like returning to my childhood home. Familiar, comforting. Beautifully decorated with owner Amy's amazing taste.
From '95 until I left in '04, I ate at Ai a max. of 5x/wk. Sometimes driving across town to get there from work. Customers range from Bikers to Astrophysicists (Cal Tech is nearby). Talk is usually fun stuff.
Over the years, Fumito has watched children grow up and bring their children. And as for me, I can remember when the bar sizzled with sex talk and flirtation. Now there is more talk of cancer scares and the occasional funeral.
The day I returned to Ai, they were getting ready for a funeral. Amy had sent flowers and was staying behind to hold down the fort. A longtime customer had passed away of cancer and Fumito was joining some regulars when his shift ended.
For days after, regulars discussed the man who had died. It was as if each secretly wondered if Ai would come to their funeral.
Ai is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year. Amy and Fumito haven't quite worked together for that long, but darn near it. They both gave me a warm welcome upon my return, and one fine day, I went to lunch with them in Old Town Pasadena. Croissant sandwiches. I didn't dare order fish.
I write this blog with no knowledge of my future. I have to return to San Francisco and close up my apartment. Then what? I don't know. I firmly believe that I need to be in L.A. If for no other reason than to experience warm moments like these.
Here's to friendship. And good sushi. Oh, yeah -- and great funerals.