Brown mountains flecked with evergreens rise in the distance pushing away from the Pacific Ocean towards the east. This is Southern California where the Eagles sang about a hotel and Tom Petty wailed about free falling out into nothing and country music sounds like Alvis Edgar Owens, Jr. after people started calling him Buck.
Southerners stretch across this landscape just like they do in Mississippi and Georgia. You may see Morgan Freeman around here. You might hear an old sports fan still talking about Bo Jackson playing for the Raiders when they were in LA, not to be confused with Lower Alabama. You might have somebody driving a $100,000 sportscar mistake your accent for Billy Bob Thornton in “Sling Blade” and tell you so to your face.
I am far from home today, but I feel perfectly at home once I get to the Silver Dollar Pancake House in Corona, California and snuggle up to a pile of fluffy dough covered in maple syrup next to eggs drenched in Tapatio hot sauce and bacon not too crispy, but limber enough to impart the full effect of the hog.
A short, tanned fellow sits beside me at the counter, head down, the weary look of a man who had worked hard every day of his life and would likely continue.
“You a pancake specialist?” I say.
Ignoring me, he chews his hash browns and sips coffee, staring at the counter.
I’m used to being ignored by busy people, so I try another, more direct route after noticing a logo with trees on the pocket of his shirt.
“Excuse me, sir,” I say pointing past his face and out towards the morning California sun, “those Eucalyptus trees aren’t native to this area are they?”
He takes his time, swallows and sits down his cup, turning at the waist towards me.
“You must be from the South, with that accent,” he says. “I drove through there about 20 years ago heading to a job in Mobile, Alabama. I was a pipe fitter then.”
“I know Mobile well,” I say, about to mention the big MoonPie drop on New Years Eve, but he cuts me off.
“Oil rigs,” he says. “Been a lot of things in my life: plumber, construction, welder, truck driver, landscaper. That’s me now. Rich people have a lot of vegetation here. Needs tending. Run a 23 man crew. I’m Hector.”
“Mike,” I say, holding out my hand.
His hands are so thick with callouses it feels like he is wearing roughed up gloves. I remember when my hands were like that before I got lazy.
“Been a few things myself,” I say. “More than I care to remember. And may be a few more before it’s over with.”
“Building our résumés,” he grins.
The waitress refills our coffee and takes a few dishes and calls us both honey again, perhaps for the fifth time.
“You guessed right,” I say. “I’m from the South. Yes sir.”
“Me too,” he laughed. “South California. Born in San Diego, raised in Santa Ana. Live in Riverside now. Over here in Corona doing a commercial job.”
“Working on Sunday?” I say.
“Work all the time,” he says. “Already put in 3 hours this morning. Several more this week over in Irvine and down in Laguna Beach. Following the money.”
“Nixon,” I smiled. ” He said to follow the money.”
“I don’t think Nixon said that since he was the one following the money,” he laughed. “I think Deep Throat said that.”
“It was Deep Throat who told Woodward and Bernstein to follow the money, yes. Now I remember.”
“Nixon had a real nice house in San Clemente just south of here back then,” he says waving towards the south. “I know a fellow who worked his place for a while.”
“I’m driving cross country,” I say. “Work for MoonPie.”
“The little cookie snack.” he says, one eyebrow jutting up on the word cookie.
“We’ll, there’s a cookie in there with some marshmallow and covered in –”
“I know what a MoonPie is,” he smiles. “My grand kids probably don’t. Haven’t seen any in a while.”
“I can remedy that,” I say. “Got some in my truck.”
“What brings a MoonPie man way out to California?” he says.
I look out the window. A family comes through the door, deciding to wait for a table in the dining room instead of sitting at the bar seats next to the door with no wait. A lot of thoughts want to come out of my mouth, but I fight them back.
“Ain’t business, really.” I say, being more honest with a stranger than I meant to be. “Friend of mine died and I thought I’d drive out to see him one last time at his funeral. But they cremated him before I could get here. So I paid my respects to his family and a jar of ashes and figured to drive up towards Big Bear. Never seen a lake so high off the ground.”
He nodded. Neither one of us said anything for a while as he finished off his coffee with a loud slurp.
“You asked if I was a pancake expert,” he says. “I’ve had my share. This place opened in 1922. It’s been a Mexican restaurant and a Chinese place. For the last 60 or so years it’s been a pancake joint. As good as they come, if you ask me.”
“They are mighty fine,” I says. “Better than all those pancake houses in all those beach towns across the South.”
“I don’t know about that,” he says. “I guess I’m a lot like this place.”
He gets up and lays down enough cash to cover both our breakfasts.
“I guess we all are. Different people at different times,” he says.
“How about those MoonPies for your grandchildren?” I say, thanking him for paying the tab.
“Are they chocolate?”
“Chocolate, vanilla, orange, strawberry, banana, mint, peanut butter, you name it.”
“Oh well, Strawberry, I guess,” he says pursing his lips as grandfathers tend to do when trying to imagine what their grandchildren might want.
“I’ll give you a box of each flavor,” I say.
“It’s like this restaurant,” he says. ” Like you and me. Changing all the time.”