Monday, February 21, 2011

What Happened to Place in Pop Culture?

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While listening to old music or watching antique cartoons I have noticed that certain locations, once visited with great enthusiasm and spoken about wistfully, are no longer talked about and are never the subject of wanderlust romances.

Is that the Chattanooga choo-choo? Normal

When Glenn Miller and the Modernaires performed this song they broke down the journey like the happy antithesis of Dante. The narrator is telling the listener what to expect on their journey from Penn station to Tennessee and one has the image of some freshly scrubbed yokel, bending his ear to take it all in, eager for every small, banal detail.

What about that gal in Kalamazoo?

Does anybody, guy or gal, live in Kalamazoo, Michigan anymore? Perhaps it was the “swing city” in the way Kiss made Detroit “rock city.” Perhaps the song writers (Mack Gordon and Harry Warren) just thought Kalamazoo was just too absurd a name not to write a song about.

Then there is New England. When was the last time anyone dreamily cooed to their loved one about the moonlight in Vermont or falling in love with old Cape Cod? It is hard to get the image - big maple trees and a moon, perhaps a lake. Evidently the later must have meant more than chowder and a drink made with cranberry juice and vodka (a personal favorite) to those who lived in the era when the songs were popular.

I want to speak with someone who danced to the tunes when the tunes were fresh. When I listen to the songs I imagine there must have been a longing in those bobby-sock hearts for some hidden Halcyon or a great American Shangri-La. Those young urbanites and mid-westerners would fork out their cash for those thick, hard 10" records played at 78 rpm, or at least spend hours waiting to hear those songs on the various live ballroom radio shows.

Bugs Bunny was always going on about the wrong left turn he made on his numerous excursions to the mythic land of Pismo Beach. (Always the mal-diversion was at the decidedly uneuphonious Albuquerque.) The lure was strong enough that his mortal enemy Daffy Duck went along for the ride on at least one occasion ("Brother…what a way for a duck to travel…underground!"). Was it the promise of clams? Did the rabbit golf?

Bugs would have been better off taking Route 66. This now moribund highway is not only a 20th century legend it spawned an even more legendary song that, like Chattanooga Choo-choo, takes the listener on an aural adventure into fabled lands with mid-century American enthusiasm. Plan to motor west? And who doesn't motor? I love the verb of it…it puts action back into the now tedious activity of driving. Which would you rather do, drive or motor? No one “gets kicks” anymore, not since Joe Friday arrested those glue sniffers.

No one kicks anything anymore. Not even bad habits.

And that mother road, where does it go? They were the ports-of-call of the new interstate voyagers: St. Louie, Oklahoma City, Gallup, Flagstaff, Winona, Kingman (no idea. Is it near Gorman?), Barstow, San Bernardino (I suppose Bobby Troupe could have used San Berdo, as we locals sometimes call that no mans land east of LA but the proper name sings so great!). These places must have seemed like new frontier, terra incognito, to young, impressionable minds. But this was a time when travel and leisure were first being made available to the average Joe and Jane. Your car could take you places and so could that big, beautiful train (ah, there's an American romance. If you listen to baseball players playing jazz on a cross country train trip then you have witness the real melting pot).

The lands were settled and the cowboys and Indians had all settled down and opened hospitality lodges, motor hotels, and road side cafes. The consumer takes his pleasure on the road the siren that calls him sings travel my way.

What happened to those destinations? They exist as proper nouns, not fantasies. Bugs Bunny doesn’t dig those burgs any longer. Curiosity was killed by Kerouac and Hunter Thompson pricking the sunny, Howard Johnson placemat of suburban fantasy with hypodermic needles. The best the post-moderns could do? A teeny-bopper Brit named Kim Wilde waxing paranoid about “East California” in the false tension of her New Wave hit “Kids in America.” A place just became someplace. Close enough. Good enough.

Someone got thrown under the choo-choo. The starving hobos dined on rabbit and duck.

Monday, January 31, 2011

Team Rachel 2011: Why does Jennifer Aniston thrive?

Spoiler alert... they don't want to at the start of the film, but by the end, I suspect they will be adopting Haitian orphans and getting their MS certifications.

Just drove passed a massive billboard advertising a new film starring Jennifer Aniston. I am not sure of the title. It’s one of those vaguely idiomatic, half-clich├ęd fragments of things people say every day like “While you were sleeping” or “She’s Got it goin’ on!” I am gob-smacked that Aniston continues to get such high profile work as none of her films – with the exception of Marley and Me, where her screen presence disappeared behind a small dog - has ever turned a much more than a marginal profit (when they didn’t outright flop). Her oeuvre is an obnoxious mush of what mainstream Hollywood feels is the leading edge of the modern romance: dumb guys, hopeless women, each with an entourage of ill-advised and ill-advising friends who all seem to know “The Secret.”

The nice thing is, you only need to ever watch one of these types of films in your life. Each generation has about 20. The two standouts of my generation were When Harry Met Sally and Sleepless in Seattle. Beyond seeing those, one can live off the gist of trailer previews and endless commercial loops. Nowadays, the billboard is more than enough.

But the question at hand is… how Aniston? At 41 she has racked up 12 films in the past 10 years, all to marginal returns at best, and bona fide bombs at worst. And yet she persists as a “star.” How does this work? Why is she still a going concern? Rachel and “Must see TV” are a long time ago, after all, and that glassly, blank stare and gormless smile is looking less and less fresh-faced as she moves into her forties.

Aniston is an example not so much of Hollywood, but of Celebrityville, that place in our culture where celebrities exist for the sake for discussion, to fill air-time between commercials, and to generate fodder for plausible scandals (often so much more interesting than the celebrity’s cultural products). Ansiston is a perfect celebrity in this regard. Her work, were it too good, might get in the way of the public narrative. Her sexiness, were it too profound, would create its own enigma and become less controllable (Angelina Jolie). As she is, Aniston is a kind of pretty, animated, somewhat sentient mannequin. During scandals she is like a deer in the headlights. During interviews she seems totally interested and engaged (“Oh, Adam Sandler is SOOOOO much fun to work with…”) She has a “just happy to be here” attitude, and enough will-to-power to keep herself viable for these dreadful film projects that no one wants to see.

This quiet amiability and easy photogenicism allows the various agents of Celebrityville to use her in a number of ways. After the love triangle between her, Brad Pitt, and Angelina Jolie, Aniston was cast as the “victim” or “nice girl” who had her man stolen away by a dark harlot. Jolie’s “oh please!” ersatz-European continence and her formidable insistence on being “important” quickly dismissed herself from the scandal, but Aniston would not, or would not be permitted, such an out. The narrative of “Jennifer Reborn!” quickly followed: “new man… new movie… new life!” makes Aniston the happy maid of redemption. The tone of triumphalism permits her public narrative to take on the aegis of the “model woman.” She’s plain enough to be passable and pretty enough to be dolled up via “make over” for whatever red carpet event she needs to show up at. And because the agents of Celebrityville (a company town for advertisers) think that the female public think of Aniston as a kind of lifestyle model, they keep her on the front pages which in turn allows casting agents to keep her busy.

I wonder if the producers of films like “The Bounty Hunter” or “Rumor Has it” ever stepped back after the film had its three week on the market before drifting into obscurity and ask themselves why… I would think they want to make lots and lots of money … make back the budget and some change. It could be that they know they will make only that amount. Maybe it won’t flop. Maybe it will do enough business overseas. I suppose this is the puzzling thing to me. Why greenlight stuff like this at all? Even if art isn’t a consideration (Aniston’s films seem to have contempt for the notion), who is really being served by these films that are just “there”?

All that energy, for what? It the one aspect of the Celebrityville/Jennifer Aniston situation that is difficult to come to terms with. But perhaps the producers are caught up in the same manufactured program that Celebrityville generates. The film industry is just a part of the cycle. Why hire Aniston? Because she’s “hot,” she’s in People, she’s on Oprah and the Today show. She’s hosting Saturday Night Live. And plus, she’s been in similar films before. ( She’s only ever been in similar films! Begging the question… why was she in those films? The snake, no matter how long it is, or how hungry, will eventually realize it’s eating its own tail.)

Aniston is unique among celebrity actresses in that, unlike Elizabeth Taylor, who for the last 45 years, really is known more for her celebrity than her cultural product, or Lindsey Lohan, who is famous for her scandals, Aniston is known as an actress. She is “Rachel” from Friends. And so endearing was that roll (for some reason) she is mentally “cast” as that sentient coif ever since. Which is why she is permitted to be “bitchy” but will never play a true villain. And it’s also why her films will never become blockbusters. Friends is what people want to see her in. And given syndication endlessly running “the one about this-and-that relationship frustration,” her films haven’t a chance.

But she is also unique because the public is not ready to reject her out of hand. They will keep “visiting” Rachel in these movies, but they won’t really get what they come for. But they also won’t feel they are watching a stranger, either. There will be something, some mannerism, a folding of the arms across the chest, a look of tooth-gritting frustration (both over how dumb dudes can be), a way of curling up on the couch with a glass of wine, or an upturned chin just after a passionate kiss that will remind the watcher of the “old” friend they used to know.

It’s an improbable way of conducting a career. But Jennifer Aniston seems to be making it happen. She is the most compliant popular celebrity in Celebrityville. She has never shown a moment of resistance in all her years in town. She cultivates her place, tends it like a garden. Tasteful dresses, non-partisan philanthropy (she is against the slaughter of dolphins), and beds schmucky, non-threatening, non-interesting dudes (Vince Vaughan, John Meyer). At this rate, she will be taking starring roles in Hallmark Movie of the Week well into her dotage.

Jennifer Aniston is glitter added to gray. Gold-leaf on a phone book. Tap water in a crystal flute.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

The US/Brazil Cotton War: A secret conflict that says much about our political myopia

Tonight while trying to keep my sanity on a gridlocked 405 freeway at rush hour, I had a chance to revisit an old friend, NPR’s All Things Considered. The flagship news program of the American public radio scene, ATC was my co-pilot and information czar during my long commutes from home to grad school. However, since the advent of the iPod, I find I seldom listen to the radio. This night, however, I had forgotten my little metal box and leash so I got get reacquainted with the pleasures of public radio.

What shows like ATC do that no other broadcast news medium does (as well) is to find the depth of the topic and explain it to the listener who, it is assumed, is an intelligent critical thinker. Case in point , evidently we are in a kind of trade war with Brazil over cotton. Brazilian farmers were having a hard time competing with American farmers because we are “breaking the rules” by giving subsidies to our cotton farmers. Brazil took the US to the WTO. The WTO found in favor of Brazil. But the WTO has no enforcement power so the US went right on giving subsidies to the cotton farmers. In other words, nothing changed.

We should mention that this was the early 2000s, during the W Bush administration . Subsidies are the dirty little secret in the world of Republicans. It is socialism by definition, but some would call it “trade promotion.”

Then the Brazilian trade commissioner discovered that the WTO ruling allowed Brazil to retaliate. But how so? The commissioner sent letters to every major American trade association and trade-related politician in the US stating that due to the US’s continued defiance of the WTO’s ruling, Brazil would, in 30 days time, begin to apply taxes on a wide range of American goods exported to Brazil.

That rang a few bells. Long story short, the Obama administration got involved. They sent a trade delegation to Brazil to discuss what can be done. Obviously, the Brazilians want the subsidy program stopped. But the thing is, the US is not in a position to do that now. Subsidies are the lynchpin of big agra in this country. For some farmers, the subsidy is all that is keeping them profitable. So while there may be some talk of phasing out subsidies in the future, it’s not to happen overnight. So, another impasse, yes?

No. The Americans offered the Brazilians a deal: for as long as we continue to pay subsidies, will pay your farmers, $147 million dollars a year. Not bad considering American tax payers front cotton farmers $3 BILLION dollars a year. $150 million seems like chump-change.

What I love about this article is the way it takes a seemingly esoteric trade policy and casts it the black light of explicit irony. These are expenditures hidden in plain sight. No one cares because no one on CNN, MSNBC, or FOX is going to talk about trade policy when it is much sexier to talk about personality politics as a horse race. Think back to all those times that John McCain would groan about ear marks… a few million hear, a few there. Did he ever mention the big fat payout to American cotton farmers who are essentially bribed to plant crops even when prices are low (thus undermining one of the major tenants of capitalism, the law of supply and demand?)

Coming out the midterm election cycle where issues and individuals were foisted on the public like the coming of a new fall season of television, I am even more disgusted by the low-regard politicians and pundits have for the American public. It’s as though a conspiracy of silence has been erected to keep real problems from being discussed. $3 billion dollars a year is a scandal. Bribing another country not to tax us is a scandal. Both the Bush and Obama administrations should be called to task. Instead, we get the dumbest of the dumbed down rhetoric from both sides. Politicians presented as celebrities, saviors, or the worst kind of scum. OR, if you live in states unfortunate enough to have an initiative process, you get a chance to vote on complicated and possible unconstitutional potential laws which are described in 20 second TV ads in such simplistic terms, you’d think the State capital is located on Sesame Street. It makes you wonder, perhaps briefly, but indelibly and with slightly sick twinge in the gut, whether we’re really cut out for democracy in this country. At some point we opted for a popular culture rather than a political culture. And yet, we still want to do the dance. We want to feel like we are doing something. And if things are too bad, we can have a do-over in two years. And the change of seats will be to us like the coming of a new dawn. A euphoria will overwhelm us long enough to let us forget that we ever cared at all.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Brave New World

Gliese 581 g as it faces its red dwarf sun

Just this week, astronomers have released news that they have found an Earth-sized, extra-solar planet. More importantly, the planet is orbiting its start within the so-called "Goldilock's Zone," - an orbit that is not too close, nor too far from the star. The temperatures there range from 160 degrees Fahrenheit to 25 below. Neither extreme is unfamiliar to life as we know it. In fact, consider the tubeworms of the Pacific Ocean that thrive (along with dozens of other species) next to super-hot thermal vents spewing sulpher into the surrounding water. According to one scientist, if there is water on this new planet, the chances of life are "100 percent."

The planet is 20 light years away, meaning that even communicating at light speed with the critters on the planet would take decades.

It is frustrating living in 2010. Meaningful space exploration beyond our neighborhood will not be a possibility for generations. Or at least it looks that way. The moon and Mars and the local asteroids will consume our attention for the next 100 years. Solar slings, fission drives, quarter-light speed engines are just science fiction at this point. It would be nice if our new neighbors in Gliese 581g would send power up their warp drives, take on a two year mission and get their assuredly quadrupedal butts to Sol a deliver a Care package to get us caught up. Naturally, if they are that advanced, they probably know a thing or two about us already. We are no threat to them, but we are also nowhere near being ready for first contact.

Do you ever wonder what that day will be like? When we first get "the call," the unambiguous signal from that far out somewhere just beyond the tail of Scorpio saying, "yes, we are here and your are there. We share the same universe"

Riots in the street? Break down of civilization? Or, to be optimistic, a wholesale conversion to humanism and an end to all religion and superstition.

Both outcomes seem unlikely. I think we all know what will happen:

- The news will be sensationalized
- Scientists will say they need to study the signal more
- One or many conspiracy theories will develop,followed by an equal number of conspiracy theorists and devotees
- Religious zealots will see this as science's final attempt to quash their belief by making the greeting correspond somehow to a passage in Revelation
- UFO nuts will see this as confirmation of ALL of their ideas - from flying saucers to "Grays" to abductions
- Political leaders will make uninspired, ho-hum announcements, none of which will really capture the magnitude of the moment
- The Pope will say something along the lines of the opportunity to declare "The Good News" to a whole new group of pagans (as IF!)

But the discovery will fall out of the news cycle. Lady Gaga will wear something weird. An American Idol judge will say something stupid A drunk Southerner will ride a John Deer into doughnut shop and steal a dozen glazed Cruellers. The new iPhone App will allow you to send pictures of yourself doing things you haven't done yet. The Sex and the City sequel will be dislodged by The Jersey Shore movie.

Seriously, haven't the aliens been watching our sci-fi films? We need dozens of mile-long ships hovering over Washington DC for days on end. We need mind control and menacing silver robots. We need a spectacle, not a candy-gram.

Thursday, September 02, 2010

Sympathy for the Bully: Two recent studies

Why do bullies bully? It is an evergreen question that has age old assumptions to go along with them:

- Bullies are from broken homes
- Bullies are exposed to booze
- Bullies have a low self-esteem

A recent article on LiveScience reports on a study conducted in the UK which seems conclude that the assumptions about the motivations of bullies are actually pretty much spot on. The study shoes that bullies tended to be from single, or no parent homes, had been exposed to alcohol "in the last seven days," and tended to have a low self opinion.

The study was a modest one. Just 666 students at 14 schools. Not nearly as robust as the one reported in July by Science Daily. SD reported on a meta-study of 153 separate studies conducted over the course of the last 30 years. Similar conclusions resonate with the British study and also seem to chime the bells of conventional wisdom. Bullies are more likely to be boys than girls, and bullies tend to have very poor problem solving skills, and will have low academic performance.

An interesting divergence between the British and American studies concerns who actually gets bullied. In the British study, kids who perform poorly in sports and in academics are libel to fall into the cross hairs of the bully. The classic bullied-victim, at least in the American conception, is the high performing male student, the "nerd." However, many of the American studies in the meta-report included both American and European students, so it may be the relatively small sample size of the British report that accounts for this rather specific bully-bette noir.

The American study further teased out details about a sub-population of bullies known as the bully-victim.
The typical bully-victim ... also has negative attitudes and beliefs about himself or herself and others... . He or she has trouble with social interaction, does not have good social problem-solving skills, performs poorly academically and is not only rejected and isolated by peers but is also negatively influenced by the peers with whom he or she interacts,

The article doesn't speculate about this profile beyond this assertion, but it is easy to imagine a "pack" of rough kids with an alpha leader and a cadre of betas and omegas. Being among the "in-group" of bullies requires adhering to a hierarchy. The one above steps on the one below, with the lowest order getting the worst of the abuse.

Fictional examples of the bullied-bully are numerous. In Grease, Danny Zuko and Kenickie compete for the alpha-dog position within the T-birds. Danny is clearly alpha at the beginning of the story, but as he attempts to win the love of Sandy by trying out for the cross-country team (a violation of the anti-establishment posture of the T-birds), Kenickie seems ready to graduate from beta status at the moment of the big car race. A subsequent injury in Kenickie re-establishes Danny's position in the clique. Meanwhile, the three remaining T-Birds, Doodie, Sonny, and Putzie, remain un-reconstructed omegas through the duration of the story, paring up sexually only with their counterpart omega-femmes in The Pink Ladies.

Similarly, in the animated world of The Simpsons, the alpha Nelson has, from time to time, crossed swords with Jimbo for control of the alpha position, while perennial omegas Kearney and Dolph must satisfy their angst by picking on the "nerds" of Springfield Elementary. Nelson is often seen keeping his "boys" in line with punches to the stomach and other acts of brutality. Acts which then filter down to the omegas and, eventually, into the society of victims ranging from Bart Simpson to Milhouse and beyond.


What do bullies do? Do they serve some sort of social function? Presumably, we'd all be a lot better off if we got along and were tolerant of each other. Maybe even the bully would agree, if he thought that "model" was a worthwhile one to follow. It seems that Nelson, et al have little faith in the "program." Already let down by parental units, given academic opportunities which he assumes set him up for failure, and then positioned within a hierarchy that rewards violence with respect (or fear), the bully settles into his role a kind of soft enforcer of social conservatism. The bully punishes the fat boy, the too effeminate kid, the “butch” girl, and the brainy “nerd,” all of whom are also loathed passively by the society at large. The bully concretizes this resentment with his jibes and his closed fists. We punish the bully, yet on some level must recognize that he is only manifesting the intolerance that becomes reflected in the culture through skinny teen models, uber-masculine “dudes,” endless heterosexual porn imagery, and a complacent culture of rampant anti-intellectualism.

The bully is society’s Mr. Hyde, its dark reflection. His pig-honesty sees the hypocrisy in our denunciations of him. His perpetual detentions and demerits only serve to underscore an ugly truth about society’s true feelings about itself.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Bright and Shiny! My new Blackberry!

I recently purchased a new mobile phone. A Blackberry Bold 9700. It is the first such purchase I have ever made. I am a very late comer to these devices. The past two models I’ve owned, a Verizon LG, and a Motorola of some sort (the latter being the epitome of compact design in my estimation) came with a packaged set up by my wife. Basically, the deals were pretty good so why not take a phone for emergencies? I have to confess, it only took being broken down and stranded on the 134 freeway at 10:30 at night to make you see the wisdom of owning a piece of cellular technology.

But recently I’ve noticed increasing number of my friends, colleagues and students have begun preferring text messages to email messages. Still other interlink their home and office email addresses with their mobile devices. Then there are the various functions that mimic or parallel the performance of a computer, such as accessing individual websites, purchasing good and services, getting directions. I realize these aspects of use are probably as interesting as oxygen to anyone under 30. Generation Y and their little brothers and sister in Generation Z increasingly disinterested in sequestering themselves in their rooms when they could be out in the world. But they still over their technology, just as their older cohorts and Gen X elders do. But the new wave of mobile technology allows them to seamlessly integrate their virtual lives with their flesh-and-bone lives.

And yes, the attention span does suffer. Focus erodes as capacity increases. It is also unclear how pervasive this trend is. As far as I know, no formal studies of youth behavior have been conducted to account for this almost absurd level of multi-tasking. I sincerely doubt there will be a dramatic decrease in the appeal of “cocooning” one’s self in his or her office and exploring the virtual space unselfconsciously. The youngest cohorts of Gen Y (approximately born around 2000 – 2001) will be entering their teen years shortly, whereas their oldest brothers and sisters are in their late 20s by this point. The middle cohort, hovering in sophomore and junior years of high school, are stuck between the coddling restrictions of the home-place, and the promise of adult freedom of movement. Mobile technology allows for a version of freedom that allows them to feel as if their world is much more expansive than it is. Meanwhile, tech-savvy Gen X parents feel the comfort of “sustained” contact with their children, even though they really can’t be sure if their kid is actually at their friend’s house, or visiting a tattoo parlor and making friends with a 25 year old named Hawk.

I don’t remember who said it… and I don’t even really remember the quote itself, but the gist was that Americans are never happier as when they are on their way to, or leaving from, someplace they want to be. In other words, we are restless. Mobile technology seems designed to placate, endorse, and facilitate this sensibility. The oafish call of “where you at?” is a code for the real question, “are you having a better time than I am?” The technology provides ample opportunities for “escaping” a less-than-desirable destination. How many women have extricated themselves from a bad date by feigning an important phone call? How many dull lectures have students avoided with the plausible excuse of a family emergency? The pantomime of sociability, trumped by the kabuki of far-off, personal matters.

Who will be the brave soul who call “Bullshit!” to this practice? He will be honored in Sweden, surely.

The long-term implications are impossible to presage, but certainly we will become more adventurous. We have mobility on so many fronts – from the personal vehicles we drive, to the tiny digital devices that allow us to be “stationless” – that we might well simply live totally on the lamb, as it were. We won’t live anywhere anymore, we will simply “crash” where we can. (There almost certainly an app for this for the iPhone.) Perhaps the unborn late cohort of Gen Z (eta, 2015) will grow up to become a vagabond middle class. Working itinerate service-sector jobs. They can do their work from the mobile command ports at Starbucks or Pink Berry. Their social lives will run the clock out. Although, by that point, we can expect neural interfaces to usher in the something like digital pseudo-telepathy. That would such a remarkable development that the paradigm shift that would be wrought can scarcely be imagined.

Meanwhile, in mid-2010, I am searching for a tiny SIM-card among the detritus of packaging material that came with my new Blackberry. It seems our shift away from paper has created a physical-world vacuum that will be filled, if not stuffed, with discrete pieces of clear plastic, and black twist-ties.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Nostalgia & Kitsch: A Review of Bob's Big Boy Restaurant

The following is a longer version of my Yelp review of Bob's Big Boy restaurant. A new location opened in my area.

For those of you unfamiliar with the chain, Bob's is a more-or-less typical middle of the road family dining establishment. The franchise has been around in one form or another since the late 1930s. It had its hey-day in the 60s and 70s as one of a dozen or so popular restaurants that appealed to the post-War generation of parents who, in possession of surplus income, found "eating out" to be a novel family entertainment.

Bob's was very appealing to children thanks to its rotund mascot, free comic books, and amble dessert options.

The chain went into decline in the late 80s and eventually declared bankruptcy. Subsequent revivals have seen an explosion of interest such that nearly 500 Big Boy's are now a going concern in North America.

In the following review, I refer to "The Fat Vegetarian." That is my moniker on Yelp. I write all my reviews from a vegetarian perspective. I try to locate vegetarian options at "regular" restaurants.

Pea-Soup Andersens meets Johnny Rockets?

The Fat Vegetarian hasn’t always been a vegetarian, but he’s always been fat. (Except for a brief but appreciated growth spurt in the mid-teen years that produced a rail-thin, Bowie-like vision that made him passable for leading a Roxy Music cover band… but I digress.) The fat begins and, evidently ends, with trips to Bob’s Big Boy, that bastion of family dining from the 1970s. Pappy Parker… Big Boy Combos… milk shakes… strawberry pie… and the infamous hot fudge cake, each were soldiers in the army that overthrew my will power for the better part of the Carter administration. (Equal blame can be laid at the feet of Sambo’s, Denny’s, Spire’s, The Park Pantry, The Parasol, JoJo’s, Norm’s, Alphy’s, and once a year, The Velvet Turtle… all those sundry middle-of-the road chains that sprouted up in suburbia between 1960 and 1980 that served predictable, inoffensive food to Boomers and their babies.) Bob’s was ubiquitous enough in the South Bay of Fat’s youth that you could drive from one location to the other and never have to turn left or right off of Hawthorne boulevard. They have always been an average, but enigmatic establishment. From the red relish to the near-perfect Thousand Island dressing, to the odd, pink glyco-gel they use to bind their strawberry pies, you were never unsure about where you were eating. The franchise, from what I can tell, has been through at least three revival attempts since the closures started in the 1980s. The “Hollywood hipster” revivals came in two phases in the 90s and seemed to coincide with the obnoxious Neo-Swing, doofus crowd converging at the Bob’s on Hollywood boulevard, and the old timey car crowd that, for whatever reason, associated Bob’s with car culture and nostalgia. But nostalgia is a poor business model. Just ask the owners of Ed Debevic’s. There has to be value and something you can’t get anywhere else. The reason Bob’s won’t die is because they use nostalgia to get old timers to visit, but they actually do provide a modestly interesting selection of unpretentious American food standards at a price comparable to the infinitely less interesting Denny’s or Carrows. (Has anyone ever desired their last meal to be catered by Carrows?)The newish location in Northridge (why is it listed as Chatsworth?) is immune to hip and keeps the kitsch to a minimum. It’s location predetermines it to be a utility player in the host of eateries up and down Corbin and Tampa. It’s traditional red and white color scheme partners it perfectly with its neighbor, Target, thus creating that all important “synergy” that businesses seek out. Load up at one, then load up at the other. The lack of hipness suggests that this location may be here to stay, and gauging by the packed house evidenced by a causal drive-by, it looks to have sparked the interest of the locals.

We went around 2:00 PM on a Thursday afternoon. There was plenty of seating.The interior is clean and bright, with lots of white surfaces and red vinyl seats . Chrome appointments accent the purposely-visible dessert station, thus providing the scene a hint of drive-in, “New Frontier” nostalgia without being pushy about it. The menus are falling apart… strange given how recently the joint opened.

From the vegetarian’s perspective, the Bob’s experience in general can be hit or miss. Not all carry veggie patties and most do not list them as an option on the menu. (Burbank being the notable exception.) And if they don’t have said-patties, the options are rather meager. Their grilled cheese sandwich is awful. The bread is never crisp and the cheese is skimpy. That being said, the Northridge location does offer the patty on request and is happy to put it on anything menu item you want. Because I was feeling jaunty I asked for a classic Big Boy combo with the veggie patty. I assumed the waitress would baulk at this idea as the classic Big Boy is a Big Mac-style burger… two patties. (When I have ordered a veggie burger at Burbank, they bring me a single-decker.) But she didn’t even blink, and a few minutes later, I had a double-decker with cheese with lightly cooked veggie and grain patties. Overcooking the veggie patty is usually a concern at restaurants, but here they were perfect. Also, the red relish was present and as tangy and tasty as I remember. I was charged extra for a second slice of cheese, which I thought was a bit cheap. Given the option of fries or onion rings I went with rings. They were fair. But frankly, the sandwich was a lot of food! This meant no room for dessert, but we did get a chance to watch many hot fudge sundaes and shakes being made. The staff looked to be very generous with the fudge sauce. Which is a positive sign.

Our waitress was very attentive. I asked for ice coffee (not on the menu) and she went to great lengths to make sure it was made the way I wanted it. She could have just said “no, we don’t do that” but she made a real effort, which is appreciated.

This Bob’s also has a modest salad bar that doubles as an all-you-can-eat breakfast buffet. Those options and the dessert intrigue made us curious to return. I suppose that is something nostalgia can’t provide... a future-tense of a place.