he Sugar Bowl Cafe was on San Pedro inside the Taul Building. It was owned and operated by Japanese but the fare was mostly American. I only went there a couple of times so my memory may not be that accurate, but I have recalled this place in my dreams and daydreams more than just a few times. In my memories, it was a place that resembled what I would see on TV, a place where girls wore bobby socks and ribbons in their hair, and boys with crew cuts sported two-tone bowling shirts. And there was the occasional guy with his hair slicked back. In other words, it was a place where Japanese Americans didn’t belong.
Yet it was full of JAs. Young JAs.
And Dad was pretty old. He had married late and had me when he was 42 years old. So by the time I first went to The Sugar Bowl when I was around eight or nine, he was already 50–not too different from my current age when I think about it. We went there with some of his friends from church, members of Maryknoll’s Kibei Club. Kibei (kee-bay) were Japanese born in America but raised and educated in Japan. Except for their citizenship, there was very little that distinguished them from first generation Japanese. Since they grew up in Japan, they followed Japanese customs and their language of choice was Japanese; most of them spoke very little English, Dad among them. There was, however, one major distinction between Dad and the others. The club members were born in the 1930s and were sent to Japan mostly because of the start of WWII. I guess their parents figured they’d be safer in Japan. In any case, they were in their late twenties in the early 1960s, a good twenty years–one generation–younger than Dad.
So when any of them went with us to J-Town, he or she would sometimes suggest that we go to a place where the younger crowd hung out. At 8 years old, I considered myself part of the younger crowd too, so when John, one of the younger Kibei club members, recommended we eat lunch at the Sugar Bowl, I agreed enthusiastically. I figured he would know all the cool places, unlike Dad.
My first visit inspired awe. On the walls around the restaurant were renderings of the available fare: hamburgers with the burger and lettuce protruding out, French fries spilling over the plate, shakes in colors to that aroused the flavors of strawberry and chocolate, and an ice cold Coca Cola in a glass sweating beads of dew. Each picture was designed to make you want to taste it and I couldn’t wait to order. As we walked toward our booth, we walked by a long lunch counter, with soda dispensers and rows of Coca Cola glasses and sundae dishes in front of a mirror.
Just like in American places, I thought.
There were six of us–Dad, Mom, little sister and brother, John and me. As we reached our booth, I noticed the red vinyl benches with white trim and a red Formica table. There was a mini juke box against the wall. Well, it really wasn’t a juke box. It was connected to the juke box near the entrance, but you could put in your money and choose what songs you wanted to hear with out leaving the table! I marveled at technology. I looked around and saw and even larger table in the back corner. The bench was huge and curved to fit in the corner. I had never seen anything like it, even on TV.
“Can’t we sit over there?” I asked.
“You have to have at least seven or eight people to sit there,” John said. He knew this, I was convinced, because he was young and came to places like this on a regular basis.
Oh well, they don’t have one of those mini juke boxes anyway, I thought. The machine had staggered nibs protruding from the top. I fiddled with one and was surprised when a page inside the glass case of the machine moved. I push these to flip through the pages of lists of song, I realized. Look at all these songs! I wonder how much it cost to play one.
Dad must have sensed something as he told me to pay attention to the menu.
Oh yeah, food…