#469 Sunland Rec Center / Casita Tacos Al Carbon

My new tennis friend R showed me where he’s from in Siberia.

“Right in the middle of Russia,” he said, beaming. He was beaming the entire time and with the brights on when he showed me his hometown.

I had translated “I’m trying to play on every public tennis court in Los Angeles” into Russian on my phone, and had it say that to him.

Я пытаюсь играть в теннис на каждом общественном корте в Лос-Анджелесе.

He got this right away and his English immediately improved by an order of magnitude. “There are only ten courts in my city and you have to reserve ahead long time and pay too much.”

The Sunland Rec Center courts are free and walk-on. Yes, both courts lack net straps, and are cracked and pebbled with loose chunks of concrete; but they were still great for rallying with R, who got better with every shot until we reached a steady flow state of long fun rallies.

The only thing disturbing our friendship and fellowship was an invisible dude hidden somewhere in the adjacent skatepark, coughing and recoughing up bits of lung. It was a combination of horrific and what-are-you-gonna-do.

I just focused on the joy of hitting back and forth with this solidly built Russian guy. It’s a very at-peace feeling to hit for the sake of hitting. All the good shots are good and the bad shots don’t matter.

At the next break, I asked, “If you were still in Russia, would you be drafted into the army?”

He nodded readily and said, “I am an officer in the Russian military.” I found this completely believable given his solid bearing.

“I got to the Mexico border of the U.S. and asked for political asylum,” he said, to which I telepathically answered WOW. We proceeded to survey international politics, then practiced serves and overheads. Mine were much, much more coordinated than usual, due to feeling so happy and fortunate to be with R, who escaped the fate of being at war to instead be here playing tennis with me, hitting back and forth, back and forth.


Casita Taco Al Carbon served up a very onion-forward birria taco; juicy, chunky, hot. What I really want to say here is juicy-juicy-juicy-juicy. The taco artists at this place are undeterred by the abutting encampment. Neither was the steady line of customers. I just sat with my back against the wall like I do everywhere, glancing from time to time at the agitated motions of the curly-haired guy outside, continuing to wonder, what are you gonna do.

Meanwhile, I developed a new taco technique which is to start with the inner tortilla and use the outer tortilla to catch the fallen morsels. Then that becomes the second taco, a coda. I have a feeling that saying I developed this technique is like a toddler saying they developed this new movement they call walking.

So be it. It is not wrong to learn things other people already know. I will go ahead and confide in you that as I’m gobbling down these far-flung tacos, I am sometimes visited by the spirit of Jonathan Gold, who savors all the flavors I simply devour.

While I’m communing with the wide-roaming sages who came before me, let me share another theory. In Blue Highways, William Least-Heat Moon proposes a system for rating country diners based on the number of local calendars on display — the more the better.

I am wondering if we can rate hole-in-the-wall taquerias by the number of un-autographed celeb photos. Casita Tacos Al Carbon had a most impressive and random display, ranging from Yeezy to John Travolta, John Wayne, Spanky and Our Gang, and campesinos from the Mexican revolution. All in all it was a hearty and delicious meal that made me feel strong for the future.

Published by MarkGozonsky

Mark Gozonsky is the author of The Gift is to the Giver: Chronicles of a 21st Century Decade (Keppie Usage, 2022). His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Sun, and Lit Hub. Mark’s essay, “Gritty All Day Long,” is anthologized by Norton and featured in Best American Sports Writing. He has been writing since his emergence as a gigantic music nerd in early-1970’s San Antonio, Texas. Stints as a regular commentator on public radio’s Marketplace and Internet 1.0 exec preceded a 20-year run as a public school teacher. Marko’s favorite writing topics include unorthodox pedagogy, well-intended gardening, and the intersection of baseball and urban bicycling. He lives with his wife in Los Angeles, where he is working on a new book about his quest to play tennis on every free public court in LA.

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