Tuesday, January 27, 2009

I'm done with the border crossings! Glad to have that job beyond the Orange Curtain behind me. Driving the 405 was grinding down the bits of my soul I have tenderly nourished and regrown over the past 5 years, and I was beginning to feel less self-actualized and more like my old self, which I generally evade. Today I drive to El Cajon, and it's about the same distance in exactly the opposite direction, but I'm not so disturbed by it, despite the fact that I have to go by way of Murietta first, which is like going to Tijuana by way of Las Vegas. Oh well.

But I did get to go to my favorite LFS (live fish store), Tong's Tropical, which happened to be just around the corner from that last job. I didn't buy anything, though I could have spent $500 in 5 minutes -like Imelda Marcos in a shoe outlet. The place has more than doubled in size since I started going there in 2003, and I swear there is no place like it on all the west coast. I generally don't shop at Tong's, unless there's something I just can't find anywhere else, because the place is so far away and everything is overpriced... but it's a wonder to visit.

There are fish tanks, hundreds of them, arranged in a floor to ceiling labyrinth, and they are every size, shape and color, with many uniquely crafted and labeled for a specific animal or purpose like "shark" or "seahorse" or "jellyfish" or "clownfish breeder". The entire place is loudly abuzz with fans and lights and an array of plumbing that rivals hydroelectric dams and aircraft carriers. With all that water and electricity in one place, when you look up to find yourself at the back of the hall you wonder if you're going to make it to the exit without electrocuting yourself. It's an assault on the senses to go in there, with all its exotic curiosities, but the customers keep coming; hobbyists and professionals, children and old people, lots of restaurant owners, and more than a few bespectacled Asian men in expensive suits, muttering calculations to themselves as they pore over every display.

The coral sales tanks are more stunning than any displays I've seen in any of the major California aquariums, and it's unexpected in this non-descript mini-mall in the heart of Orange County. My only guess is that it's just too expensive for the museums to run all those metal halide lights and high-volume water pumps. I tried to take a few pictures, but those lights emphasize the blue spectrum (it penetrates water better and reaches the animals at a greater depth) and my camera wasn't set up for it. Trust me: when you get up close to the glass, you are blown away by the animated iridescent rainbow of other-wordly life before you.

How does the place stay in business with those utility and insurance bills? Not sure, but I think it has something to do with the fact that they've mastered the art of aquaculturing stoney corals. I know of nowhere else where they can get these things to grow so fast, so naturally. Tong's lab assistants break off a tiny branch the size of your fingernail, epoxy it to a little ceramic stand, stick it in a tank under super-bright lights and clean, turbulent seawater, and months later there's a branch of coral for $40. They grow them by the hundreds.

(I had my eye on that green doggie in the window, there, but resisted.)

Some Internet forums are very critical of Tong's Tropical, claiming the store has an inordinate amount of die-off and a high rate of incurable marine diseases and parasites. Perhaps they're right, but perhaps Tong's failure rate is so high because his success rate is so high. Perhaps Tong is a risk-taker, tireless in his pursuits. Perhaps his critics are jealous.

Tong himself is a tall, slightly chubby Asian kid who stands out front by the truck sucking down Rock Stars and smoking cigarettes in the shade. (It's pretty hot and humid in the store.) He needs a haircut. I don't really know Tong, but a lot of customers come in and pretend to. He seems like a rough, bookish, know-it-all who refuses to work for the Establishment, when he could be making big bucks out in the civilian market -which he does. I envision him using unorthdox procedures to procure rare specimens, and angrily answering late-night calls from museum "specialists" in a tight spot with their bleached acroporas and confounding phosphate levels. He's like the House of tropical fish, I suspect, and one day a backwater aquarium with low attendance and diminished public funding will hire Tong in a dimly lit bar somewhere, sending him on a low profile to isolated waters in the South Pacific to illegally acquire an endangered species using the recently banned turkey-baster-and-cyanide method that has the hobbiests up in arms. "I'm promoting awareness," he tells himself, like all zookeepers tell themselves, while the animals they love live out sad lives of confinement, misery, and affliction in their cages.

Some scientists claim that the coral reefs are rapidly becoming extinct, and that people like Tong are a threat to their survival, but others say Tong is a rogue of invertebrate husbandry. An unsung genius of aquaculture. A hero. A saviour.

Me, I just wish he was cheaper.