On any given day, the Avanti Shopping Center at Camden and Kooser is gritty and glorious, a definitive crumbling suburban complex.
The property sprawls along Camden, with multiple parcels owned by multiple landlords going back generations. What’s left of a CVS store anchors one portion of the complex. Another piece of the center contains the Jungle Island family fun center, formerly a Fry’s grocery store, which dates back to the original 1970 strip mall. There’s also a 50-year-old Round Table Pizza.
As always, I showed up for the ghosts and the memories, but not just the video rental store and the clock repair place. You see, CVS is contemplating a scheme to wipe out its portion of the property—the structure and the parking lot—to build an affordable housing project. CVS stores are collapsing across the country, so I’m not surprised.
This time, I can’t think of any famous former inhabitant. I’m just glad the housing project appears to save my old high school Taco Bell. And this is where hot sauce comes in.
In those days, the hot sauce packets at Taco Bell were not the squeezable kind one sees today. They were square contraptions. You peeled off the top of the container and then poured it all over your enchirito. As a charade, people would pay me 25 cents to drink one of the hot sauce packets. I don’t remember how this started. This wasn’t a regular practice, but it happened a few times. It made the bland suburbanites laugh, so they gave me a quarter to down the little portion of sauce, which wasn’t even that spicy, to be honest.
As I revisited Avanti Center, those Taco Bell memories weren’t the only ones. In 2003, across the parking lot, I shuffled into a place called House of Chu, an old-school Chinese restaurant with a gloriously seedy cocktail lounge just to the left of the entrance. I needed to bang out a few hundred words for Metro’s Cheap Eats column and the Chinese chicken salad at that place was to die for. Smoking in bars was illegal, but the lounge area wasn’t following the law. People were smoking. No one cared.
“Do you play bass for the Grateful Dead?” a grizzled barfly in a golf hat asked me, as soon as I walked in. I ordered a $5 whopping portion of Maker’s Mark bourbon and told him no. I was waiting for my Chinese chicken salad. But the drinks were damn strong and I was an occasional bourbon dude in those days.
Unfortunately, when I wrote the Cheap Eats piece, I referred to the old geezer’s hat as a baseball cap, which was wrong. He later corrected me when I returned a second time.
But that was then. House of Chu is long gone. A more vanilla place, Benedict’s, now occupies the same space. The bar area remains, although it’s less garish and less interesting.
The CVS, on the other hand, exudes despair. Inside, it looks like every other half-dead CVS. The carpets are clean and the shelves are stocked, but there are no customers. The sections of scratchy mismatched tile seem left over from when it was a Longs Drugs 25 years ago. Sure, if I needed shampoo, Almond Roca, cheap flip-flops, a coax splitter, iTunes gift cards, Stuart Woods paperbacks and 50 bottles of vitamin water, then I was in the right place.
To CVS’s credit, its side of the parking lot looked recently repaved. The other half was sun-cracked and destroyed. Palm trees highlighted the medians, where shopping carts were dumped on curbs.
Down the street toward Blossom Hill, aggressively mundane apartment complexes had names like Shamrock and Holly Oak. All of them were brown and beige. Detached tract houses dominated the rest of the scene. Anyone standing at Camden and Blossom Hill will conclude the neighborhood hasn’t evolved since 1979. It hasn’t. The only difference is the 27 bus now costs $2.50. In the ’70s, it was ten cents.
In the end, I can tell you about these things thanks to the Buddhist concept of dependent origination. The chain of karmic momentum has kept me in this town to supply an interconnected web of perspectives. I’m feeling saucier already.