Homage to Catalina 

Wednesday, Jun 30 1999
Photo by Steven Mikulan

I asked my wife this quintessentially California question in Room 406 of the Glenmore Plaza Hotel. A hum filled my ears and the floor trembled slightly -- but the disturbance seemed confined to a single doorway, ruling out seismic phenomena. Were paranormal hijinks to blame? The Glenmore, after all, is Catalina Island's oldest hotel, a Victorian behemoth with narrow staircases, slanting floors and extended wings. Still, as far as Sandra and I knew, the place was not haunted, and anyway, we'd felt the same shaking sensation
an hour before while having lunch on the promenade at the Blue Parrot.

"You know, I've wondered about that myself," the waitress at our vibrating table had said, "but I've never been able to find out what causes it." This is partly why Avalon, the island's only town, brings to mind David Lynch's Twin Peaks recast as a Fisherman's Wharf attraction. It is a paradoxical village whose Art Deco casino has never allowed gambling, whose most famous departed citizen's mausoleum stands vacant and whose Third Street is actually the town's second street -- and Avalon's only numbered street anyway.

Catalina's 3,500 permanent inhabitants live almost exclusively here, with the interior mostly populated by wild goats, bison and feral pigs. Its prehistoric beauty is guaranteed to remain unspoiled in perpetuity thanks to a conservancy that owns most of the island and preserves the place according to the wishes of its last owner, chewing-gum tycoon William Wrigley Jr. (the man not in the big mausoleum).

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Having risen from the Pacific on a separate tectonic block about 20 million years ago, Catalina, geologically speaking, is not actually part of California. Today, the island offers tourists deep-sea fishing, diving, hiking and other butch pastimes. But people from "overtown" (as the mainland is locally known) mostly come here for the total escape from L.A. that only 22 miles of ocean and a $38 round-trip boat ticket can assure.



THINGS HADN'T LOOKED THAT PROmising, however, when our hydrofoil arrived on a chilly, mist-filled afternoon. A shore-patrol launch seemed to have pulled over a boat filled with African-Americans (Sailing While Black? we wondered), and our claustrophobic, just-painted room in another hotel smelled like the inside of a thinner bottle; worse, the thud of hyperactive children rebounded off our door every few seconds as they gamboled in the hallway.

Our money cheerfully refunded, we quickly discovered the Glenmore a block away. We were lucky to find a vacancy on a "high season" weekend, and, mysterious vibrations or not, the rambling yellow hotel with a cupola proved to be an incredible bargain at $99 weekends, $79 weekdays. (We'd once stayed at Zane Grey's old ranch, which is now a charming if Spartan hotel, but were in no mood to hike up the steep hill to get to those TV-less and phoneless digs.)

Don't get me wrong. I'm no tenderfoot when it comes to travel, and my requirements abroad are simple: a bar within walking distance of my room, a Catholic church and access to strong coffee. After these, you can keep the change. That said, I must warn the caffeinated traveler that in our random searches we found no decent coffee in Avalon, which seems to be locked
in a Maxwell House time warp. Still, time warps have their benefits, and in Avalon that means no scarring graffiti or fast-food blight. (KFC and Taco Bell are sequestered into small storefronts bearing minimal
signage.) Instead, you've got a taffy-pulling town whose waitresses stand outside restaurants smoking and comparing their day's assholes; whose belligerent young men
argue with each other in the street while pulling out beers from 12-packs.

Perhaps nothing epitomizes Avalon's unreconstructed working-class ethos better than the Marlin Club, the town's one bar worth visiting. It's the kind of saloon that starts to fill up by 11 in the morning with hung-over couples requesting coffee and men just back from jumping someone's boat battery, a place where the regulars' preferred drinks are waiting for them on the bar by the time they hit their stools. If you're lucky, Brian will be on duty, a bartender-raconteur with an inexhaustible supply of tavern jokes, tricks and bar gadgets. (Ask him to show you the Bill Clinton doll that blows soap bubbles out of its ass.)

There are other things to do in town besides drink and eat, and my advice is to do them -- take all the kitschy tours you can (the guides are all well-informed characters), get lost in the lonely outback. We never learned the source of our room's vibration, though a ghost may well now haunt the Glenmore. The weekend following our visit, a teen celebrating prom night fell off the hotel's roof and died.

Reach the writer at smikulan@laweekly.com

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