Saturday Night Special

This evening I hopped on my bicycle and rode to the Stagecoach market at the Summit in Upper Ojai. I picked up a quart of milk and a can of peaches. I had to wait in line. There were two check-out cashiers. At least two people in front of me were purchasing lottery tickets. Glittery spools of tickets hung above the cash register. Someone asked for one of the new and one of the old - like some currency that had been devalued, apparently the date of issue is now relevant to the lottery. I am abysmally ignorant of the mechanics of what I have always, somewhat condescendingly, considered a tax on the poor. Time to learn....

There are five different games, Winning Numbers, Mega Millions, SuperLotto Plus, Fantasy 5 and something called Callottery Replay (your second chance to win!). Then there’s the Scratchers - that come in four flavors, $1, $2, $3 and $5. (The first four prime numbers.....). Nine ways to support California Schools. To be fair, the State returns about half the income in prize money, gives about 35% to the Schools and the rest is swallowed up in retailer rewards, marketing and overhead.

There is some evidence that selling lottery tickets reduces revenues at convenience stores due to dimiished food sales and an increased incidence of shop-lifting while cashiers are focused on selling tickets. Nationally, about 40% of gambling addicts are Lottery ‘users’. Active marketing by State lottery agencies essentially recriuts addicts many of whom it later has to support with social welfare services.

At the Stagecoach Market, the rolls of lottery tickets are fully stocked, and the beer fridge is bulging. Food is a little thin on the ground. Today there was no fresh produce. I bought the solitary can of peaches.

Their idiosyncratic wine selection appears to be gathering dust, although I did notice that they had added a few bottles of Boccalli’s Topa Topa 2008 Syrah at $22 a pop, “handcrafted in the scenic Upper Ojai valley”. I didn’t like the label and I had the frightening thought that their wine may be no better than their pizza.

In any case I doubt that it is half as good as Ojai Winery’s 2005 Syrah Bien Nacido Special Bottling which Adam Tolmach claims tastes,

“like a California version of a French Hermitage. It reveals this vineyard’s graphite/lead pencil-like character as well as lots of blackberry, cassis, licorice, plum, and incense aromas. As the wine sits in the glass, notions of smoke and earth also emerge. Dense and full-bodied, this 2005 should evolve for 15+ years.”

Robert Parker gave it 95 points. A wine for a special occasion. Thanksgiving perhaps. Absolutely worth ten $5 Scratchers, I suspect.

During 2009, first living in Ojai while we were building, and then after we moved into our Upper Ojai house we were served (and entertained) by Jeffray and Daphne Fargher, their young daughter Kamile and Jeffray’s grown daughter Brittany at the Upper Ojai Market. Jeffray had the lease for a year after the Market had opened a couple of years previously.

The store is a useful asset to the local community - the next closest convenience market is seven miles heading south to Santa Paula (the cryptically signed, ChhinaMkt) or eight to the Westridge market in Ojai but during Jeffray’s tenure it briefly threatened to become something more than a market - a real community locus, a place where upper, Upper Ojai could come together.

The Summit at around 1575’ is truly that, the high point on the Ojai-Santa Paula Road before it begins it’s dip down to Sulphur Springs. In that brief moment in time when stagecoaches ruled the road, it was indeed a stop on the Los Angeles-Santa Barbara trail. The next stop west was the Little Tower Ranch at the bottom of the grade - the one-room tower, which still stands, originally serving as a waiting room for coach passengers.

There is no remaining stage infrastructure at the Summit but the developers of the new store created a board and batten barn to reflect their idea, perhaps, of a stagecoach station. The stage lines came from (and returned to) Los Angeles via the Simi, Conejo and Santa Clara Valleys and then travelled out to Ventura through the Ojai Valley and up the coast to Santa Barbara. Initiated in the 1860’s it was replaced, less than twenty years later by a branch line of the Southern Pacific Railway that ran from Los Angeles through Saugus to Ventura (along the route of the 126).

The community that has sprung up around the Summit is spread over a few blocks of suburban development between Topa Lane and Sisar Road which themselves lie between the Elementary School and the Summit Cafe. Watts, Chumash and Tree Ranch are outlier roads to the west and Koenigstein and Osborn to the east. All this is to the north of the 150 but there is also sporadic residential development to the south amidst the oil properties.

As you leave the Summit cafe heading east, the fire station, VCFD #20,  comes first on the left, and then as you dip down the hill Rancho Tierra Bella, a distinctly redolent goat and horse property. Further down is the Ojai Oil company property which runs between Topa lane and Koenigstein and there, just above the turn-off to Koenigstein is an old stone cottage with a nodding donkey oil pump between it and the road - like a lawn ornament.

At the corner of the 150 and Koenigstein, deeper in the oaks and above a murky pond is an old and mutch patched corrugated sheet metal cottage. This last is a foreshadowing of the community along Osborne road which runs off into the chaparral beyond - a heavily oaked, fenced and rustic looking settlement with a fine collection of rotting trucks dating back to the 1940’s scattered between mostly ramshackle houses.

All-in-all, a community large and diverse enough, you’d think, (along with the weekend tourist traffic) to support a store. The beer and wine license finally came through a month or so after Jeffray’s lease was terminated but from casual observation it doesn’t seem to have made much difference to business. Most often the store is empty except, apparently, for the Saturday evening lottery ticket rush.

 Jeffray imbued the store with enormous energy and charm while Daphne made it relevant, to us at least, by stocking wonderful produce and her preserves. The market has certainly ceded any notion of being at the center of Upper Ojai. That ambition reverts to the cafe, which the Los Angeles Times claimed back in 2003,

“...exudes all the ambience of a '50s Dairy Queen -- is more than the community's sole restaurant....(it) also functions as town hall, infirmary, library, lonely hearts club, homework center, kennel and -- occasionally -- massage parlor. The place and its owner, Kathleen Weedon, are the center of Upper Ojai.....”

We used the small enclosed dining room  for our early morning meetings with the contactor when we were building. It’s a funky little space with a small library and an oil-drum wood-burning stove. The cafe opens early and serves breakfast. So yes, it briefly served as our Upper Ojai office, and we’ve eaten our share of burgers there, but that did not make it, for us, the center of Upper Ojai.

Upper Ojai is state of mind, a gestalt, a deeply individual cocktail of resonances that is unlikely to coalesce in a market or a cafe. Our houses are our individual ‘centers’; ours, like many others, is sustained by an internet connection, provisioned, by Trader Joe’s and Costco and animated by its connection to the landscape. Yes, it would be nice to have a great little restaurant and a gourmet market......but what really establishes the Summit as a place are its institutional book-ends, the Elementary School and the Fire Station; ours are the mostly dimly lit, dark-sky-observant homesteads that exist in the gravitational field of this locus.