I drove by Red Robin the other day. It sits on the corner of La Cumbre Plaza. About everything else in the mall has changed in the ten years since I last set foot in Red Robin, filling up with shi-shi boutiques to cater to the Montecito crowd. Instead of a Mrs. Field’s cookies, an Anne Taylor flanks Red Robin, a miasma of oil-scented steam rolled down the roof from the industrial scrubbers causing the noses of the pashmina-clad ladies to wrinkle.
Every mall in Santa Barbara has a Spanish name, but I never bothered learning the language. I took drafting freshman year, the perfect geometry of straight-edges and parchment substituting for the order of parts of grammar, which might as well have been French to me. Or Spanish. By sophomore year, when I had to enroll because of a district requirement, I had a copy of the teacher’s guide passed down to me from a friend who had taken it the year before – he found an old edition on ebay which only cost three dollars, and since they only added two chapters at the end, I wound up with straight A’s and two inexplicable F’s. in anticipation of summer. I would hide the educational videotapes from our teacher, Mrs. Tafoya, who would mutter in broken English, ‘Mr. Harter, you’re wily like a fox.’ She kept a plastic lawn chair beside the classroom door. They would get stolen every other week, but she had a stack in the back of her Volvo and would have me fetch them.
I don’t think I made this clear: Red Robin is a restaurant, a chain actually. I remember seeing another Red Robin off the 101 on a family trip and experiencing a brain fart – a complete seismic jolt – how could it be? I guess the shock came because the restaurant occupied such an intimate place in my mind, it couldn’t exist away from that corner, marked by block lettering and a garish red bird, perched upon it, leering at any passerby with a highball in hand and boater hat on head.
Red Robin was one of the few restaurants in Santa Barbara (the only one my parents ever took me to at least) where people could smoke. It would billow out from the bar, a converted sunroom dimmed by blinds and bedecked with red neon uncomfortably bent into the shape of birds. The room brimmed with men teetering upon pleather stools holding deeply ribbed milkshake glasses, vases in my eight-year-old hands, filled in their case with blended drinks. Alcohol as an idea didn’t exist for me yet; I’d study the drink menu, admiring the names I only knew could not be English or Spanish: Kahlua, Bailey’s, Curacao. Mudslide was my standard order, with chicken fingers and ranch. New waiters would shoot my father a panicked look, but he would be ready and mouth ‘milkshake’ back, before they’d bustle off. No one in my family actually drank; they all lacked the physiological affinity or the panache to sell the order – a scotch on the rocks might as well have been horse piss for how it sounded coming out of my father’s mouth. It was less a puritanical bent than some gut reaction, which would choke the drink order in his mouth, strangling those very same names which held such a power over me.
This allure, of the quotidian made fantastic in my eight-year-old mind, would draw me to the two arcade games every time. Crammed in front of the host’s stand it afforded me a glimpse of the bar; that and ‘Bubble Bauble.’ A line extending out from the game’s cursor predicted the flight of the bubbles, shot unceremoniously by pixilated dinosaurs, tracing perfect angles of reflection across the screen. Miniature cartoon dinosaurs, shooting like-colored bubbles at a collapsing ceiling didn’t seem that dissimilar to a punch-drunk robin hiccoughing bubbles like a Saturday morning cartoon.
Perhaps my sense of the exotic simply isn’t what it used to be. None of my college professors eat reheated enchiladas outside their offices in plastic armchairs like Mrs. Tafoya used to. I’d be worried if they did. If it wasn’t gone before, New Jersey has only contributed to deflating the strange or inviting air from watching soused couples crowded into a bar, their drinks unnecessarily shaded from the dim lights by a toothpick umbrella. I could recognize the strangeness of such a scene as such then as now, but by some alchemy – maybe the same transformation that breathes exoticism into mayonnaise as, with a sprinkle of parsley, it becomes ranch – it all seemed unique and important, beyond its rough composition of cigarette smoke, fried food and a feathered caricature. That same bird still sits precariously over the restaurant, leaning rakishly towards the boutiques of La Cumbre Plaza, and as all this flutters in my head, I can’t help but wonder if it still exists for some other child, smiling in anticipation of the chicken fingers that make the shi-shi ladies wrinkle their noses.