Finding a Heartbeat in Orange County: Life in the ‘Vine’

There are many qualities that I find enchanting about college life in Irvine. The fact that our mascot is an anteater tickles me immensely and the overwhelming safety is very soothing when a late-night trip to Starbucks beckons. Also, who can overlook the delight of having a Yogurtland within a five-mile radius? But UCI is not a college town. We lack the quirk and charm of small shops and hole-in-the-wall restaurants. Ironically, however, it was the city of Irvine, incorporated in 1971, that was built around the school, which was founded six years earlier, in 1965. And though Irvine is a master planned community, well organized and beautifully maintained, the cul-de-sac culture that is so abundant here can leave a void for the college student that wants more from life than wide roads and numerous shopping plazas.
Therefore, this column is for the student who willingly relocated to this city, the student who is bored to death of the seemingly limited opportunities that suburbia has to offer and most especially for the student who wants to find more things that are both close to home and far from ordinary. I know you, I am you. I willingly moved to Irvine for school, found an apartment to call home and a job to spend my time at, and I, too, have had moments when I just cannot believe that a trip to Target is all I can do with my time. It is my hope that some of my discoveries about the city we call home, the general area, and the expanses of Orange County will make you slightly less itchy about living here. This week, school has started and there are a few new souls starting their college careers and even more old souls plodding along. Excitement? Yes. New books! New people! New things to learn! Cynicism? You bet. New tricks tend to tire fast for old dogs. But fear not, for when the campus calms from the rollicking first days of the quarter, there is still more out there.
For the uber-consumer, who was thrilled to see the shiny beacons of craftiness and affordability, take a ride down to the OC Swap Meet (hop on either the 73 N or the 405 N, transition to the 55 S and exit on Fairgrounds). It has all the kitsch of the Orange County Fair and none of the crowds that Bob Dylan concerts and Deep-Fried Coca-Cola stands induce. Regardless of the lack of a living legend and artery clogging goodness, it is worth waking up before 2 p.m. on a Saturday. Why? Because the vendor fair on campus lasts only a week and sometimes you only have $8 when you want two pairs of sunglasses.
For those that could not be any more tired of mega shopping centers like the Irvine Spectrum or South Coast Plaza, despair not! Newport’s own Triangle Square (at the end of the 55 S, on Newport Blvd) features some of the more standard mall fixtures, like a Cheesecake Factory and a Jamba Juice across the street. However, a walk into the strip mall, south of the free parking structure, reveals Second Spin, a used CD/DVD store, a Halloween costume shop and more interesting storefronts to visit. (Hint: go before 5 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday).
Just down the street from South Coast Plaza, off Bristol and the 405, are the Lab and the Camp, two centers across the street from each other. The Lab is perfect for hipsters looking for secondhand goodies at the consignment store Buffalo Exchange, novelties and clothes at an array of independent boutiques or a meal that is the antithesis of In n’ Out at Gypsy Den. The Camp is more for the crunchy granola type, if being active and looking good are your shtick. But both feel decidedly more intimate than any mega-mall.
So, cheers to you, Anteaters! A new year is upon us, and the promise of more counsel and inspiration from yours truly is imminent as I blunder around the county in search of signs of life in Orange County. Until next week