Saturday, October 12, 2019

Los Corrales

I keep going back to this rustic beauty near the junction of US 285 and NM 586 in Tres Piedras. The Sangre de Cristos in the distance lend an epic quality to the scene.

Corrals are among the most evocative icons of the American West. They range from sturdy metal structures back at the ranch to ramshackle affairs made from whatever's available on the prairie. The crudest and cheapest materials suffice; the trunks and branches of trees, for example, and all manner of wire even bed springs. I've observed that they are communal structures that anybody can use if idle. In a hundred westerns the corral is where the new hand proves his mettle by breaking the bronc that can't be ridden.

Another favorite is one on US 64 between Taos and Tres Piedras

On the Taos Plateau's TP 120 on the way to the John Dunn Bridge in the Rio Grande National Monument

Aaron Abeyta and Victor Hernandez closing the gate of the communal corral just north of San Antonio Mountain. 

Late afternoon in Sheep Springs, AZ

In the west corrals host cattle, sheep and horses. Whether you call them corrals, from the Spanish corrales, pens or paddocks they’re enclosures meant to keep valuable stock contained and predators out. They are photogenic contraptions for sure. Add a big sky and it's magic.

Sunday, October 06, 2019

Rare Beauty

Of my gazzilion portfolios
Sketches of Winter and the Fog Series are probably my favorites. They’re more graphic and abstracted than my other stuff. And the Fog Series which started twenty years ago keeps growing. In fact I’ve driven to the California Coast three times in the past five years to find more of the moody brew. But last time I was met by blue bird skies and had to find solace in a robust, fruit forward Turley Zinfandel in 100 degree Paso Robles. Have a fall back plan.That's my motto.

On the odd occasion the soup even finds the high desert as it did at our rancho Saturday. We don't need no stinking ocean.

Sunday, September 29, 2019

36 hours

I drove to Denver for the weekend. It’s become a regular event that started in the summer of 2017. It happens when I’m gripped by cabin fever and have to get off the island. Each time it’s been a 36 hours door to door adventure in which I soak up some urban energy, do a little street photography, ferret out a good dinner and go for a longish run on one of downtown Denver’s trails. The city has quite the trail system and I’m lifted by the community of runners, cyclists and walkers that share them. 

This time I stayed on the west side of El Centro for financial reasons. I've always stayed on the Capitol Hill side of city center but this time chose hotel on the wrong side of I-25 for a savings that approached $100 if you include parking. I was a little anxious about the hotel’s location on congested Speer Boulevard but found that I preferred my newly discovered 28th Avenue neighborhood by a mile. To get downtown I could avoid Speer completely by heading west on 28th, taking a right on 15th Street and a direct shot to Union Station, Larimer Square and the rest of Denver’s bounty.

As usual my scheme was to arrive at the hotel precisely at its 3pm check-in time, unpack and wander aimlessly downtown. So, by 3:30 I was strolling to the Denver Museum of Modern Art and on to Union Station which I had never visited. Along the way and on my return to the hotel I did smattering of street photography all the while scoping out restaurant possibilities for the evening. I considered going back to Union Station which, like San Francisco’s Ferry Building, has a host of choices including a raw bar. I've loved raw bars since our earliest days in Boston at the Union Oyster House. Then three blocks shy of my digs I saw a promising establishment called The Truffle Table at the corner of 15th and 29th. It was an airy tapas place with a welcoming neighborhood vibe. Since I’m devoted to both I decided to give to a shot. If I could get a seat at the bar I’d be all set. And I could crawl home if need be. No, wait. That was forty years ago.

The 28th Avenue Historic Neighborhood was a charmer replete with late 19th century brick houses on leafy streets and that boasted a hillside view of downtown. Along with The Truffle House was a nifty café for breakfast, a strip of saloons just down the hill and an REI flagship overlooking the confluence of the South Platte River and the Cherry Creek Trails. Everything a boy could want. I felt a rush like the one I felt on my first weekend in Boulder with a memorable run along the Boulder Creek Path. That was 1995 five or take.The combination of youth, health and hipness is a tonic. No wonder I need it every year. Or more.

I strolled through a shallow canyon of new condos flecked with renovated buildings from the Industrial revolution. And since Denver like the rest of the west was built by the railroad 15th Street was severed by tracks leading to Union Station. So, the street dipped below the tracks before ascending toward Wynkoop Street. There I turned left 1-1/2 blocks to the handsome edifice that houses Amtrak, the stylish Crawford Hotel and a bevy of restaurants, bars and cafés for every whim. Union Station, I acknowledge, is a thoroughly commercial endeavor geared to tourists but was still a treat to this country mouse.

I bought a latte and sat in the lobby and watched the world pass by. Drinkers drank at the high-top tables in the Terminal Bar while others lounged in overstuffed sofas and armchairs with beer, coffee or ice cream. Travelers pulling rollers exited trains to the rear of the building and walked briskly through the terminal to ground transportation in out front.

The full length of the station was a delightful water feature with dozens of spewing fountains. Children frolicked in the shallow pool on a perfect early autumn afternoon.

Later, after changing into appropriate attire namely jeans, sneakers and a zip tee I walked to The Truffle Table. I found a seat at the bar just as I had hoped. I saw nothing resembling a truffle on the menu. There was, however, a myriad of cheese and cured meat selections and a massive wine by the glass list that ranged from $9.00 per to $55.00 per. Yes, I do mean by the glass. That stratosphere is beyond my reach, but I encroached on the limits of my wallet with a $15 cava and a $16 tempranillo. Funny how a $55 glass of wine alters your perspective. The cava was excellent. The tempranillo was serviceable. I ordered five cheeses and five meats and a dish of warm, citrus infused olives for $40. Bread included. I’d get that spread at Parcht in Taos for $27. The final tally was $81 including tip. It'd be $51 in Taos and two of us could have shared it. Score one for the burg in the desert.

Worth noting was my visit to the Modern Art Museum on 15th. It featured a show of the photographs of Francesca Woodman who died at her own hand at 22. She’s has received much acclaim for her disturbing black and white self-portraits that were obviously posed yet offhand. Long exposures and motion blur brought an ethereal melancholy to the work. Woodman exposed herself graphically and symbolically. Many were nudes. The mood of her images is dark and seemed to reflect a preoccupation with death, a foretelling. She was active for just nine years from ages 13 to 22. In that period she produced some 10,000 negatives and 800 prints. She died in New York City in 1981.

Denver’s a boom town that to me was a backwater thirty-five years ago when I opened a restaurant in the burbs. It’s had a high-tech infusion and up and comers from Brooklyn or San Francisco can call it home for a fraction of the tariff.

Sunday, September 22, 2019

Z as in Mexican

This are some of the opening crew of Zuma Tex-Mex Café in 1991. The fellow in the red ball cap at the rear next to Peggy is Cody Baker. In front of Cody is Joe Tabone our general manager before Cody. I don't remember the name of the server next to him. Maybe Janine. On the far left is Joe Caliri who tended bar at Zuma for 25 years before quitting with a day's notice. He was an insincere jerk but one hell of a bartender. In my straw cowboy hat is Cindy Strohman and the legs in the center belong to Diana Denman who may have stolen a days receipts when she was an assistant manager several years later. We couldn't prove she took the $5,000 but it did happen after she closed one night.

We sold our Boston restaurant to Cody Baker in 2002. I’ve kept in touch with him over the years though less and less frequently as time has passed. Peggy and I owned Zuma Tex-Mex Grill for thirteen years which means Cody with 17 years and counting is the longest tenured owner. We, however, own the record as the oldest former owners. You can’t take that away from us, bucko. Cody is now 56 so he would have been 28 when he began working for us in 1991. He was our chef when we converted the original Zuma, a failing fine dining restaurant to something that might actually work. The first Zuma served a fusion of dishes from warm weather regions of the world. It's successor sold cheap Mexican and booze, lots of booze.

As Zuma numero uno was drawing its last breath and we were on the brink of ruin we took the concept way the hell down market in 13 short nights. I concluded that going the fajitas and margaritas route, emphasis on margaritas, would save our sorry asses. So, we renovated the 80-seater over two weeks without closing and opened at 11:30am one Thursday morning in April as Zuma Tex-Mex Café. Sales doubled that very day and we owned it for another decade while I pursued other endeavors including an absurdly successful six-unit Italian chain and a myriad of consulting gigs. We made finally made our exit when Cody paid us cash money to buy the joint. Money talks. 

Ten days ago I saw a headline in the Boston Globe saying that Zuma Tex-Mex was engaged in a lawsuit with another restaurant called Zuma. Further, the article said that my old establishment was going to have to change its name. But the article indicated that Cody and Zuma Tex-Mex had won the case. Something didn't compute.

Being the busy body that I am, I called last Monday morning. Cody answered the phone as he has for more than 20 years. I knew he would unless he'd gone to the bank. Monday is inventory day and, according to me, no bona fide operator would ever delegate that task. In fact, when I was operating the aforementioned Italian chain, Vinny Testa's, I joined Cody at Zuma every Monday morning for five years to help with the ending inventory. I counted and entered the numbers.

When I heard his voice I said, “So, you have to change your name. What’s it going to be?”

He replied, “Steve! I don’t know yet. We have six months to decide.”

I asked, “What the hell happened?”

He told me that he had licensed the name Zuma to the defendant a couple of years back and that the name could be used outside Massachusetts only. The company that bought the rights owned and operated high end restaurants called Zuma that were often located in upscale hotels. He told me they paid him $250,000 for limited rights to the name but then had the audacity to open a Zuma in the Four Seasons Hotel in Boston. This was clearly a violation of their agreement, so he sued them and, as I had read in the Globe, he had prevailed.

“But, you’re the one having to change your name after thirty years. How does that work?”

He said, “Well, I sold them the rights to the Zuma name.”

I asked, “Do you mind if I ask how much you got?”

He answered, “$1,350,000. $900,000 after attorney’s fees. The lawyer took the case on a contingency basis and I got almost a mil."

I gasped, “Holy crap! You struck it rich.”

He chuckled, “I guess Ben can go to any college he wants.” Ben being Cody and Annie’s 18-year old son.

“I guess he can. Where does he want to go?” I probed.

Cody said, “Tufts.”

I remembered that I had licensed the Zuma name in the mid-90s to Colorado based Zuma Fresh Mexican and I got a pathetic $10,000. That Zuma, it turns out, had originally been called Zteca but it needed a new name when they were sued by and Arizona operator who has a prior use of Zteca. So, they rented Zuma for a couple of years and when I wanted a bigger licensing fee in year three they told me to take a hike and made up the name Qdoba. There are now 700 Qdobas across the country. There could just as well have been 700 Zumas it seems to me.

And speaking of the letter Z, when I was president of a Mexican chain called Zapata which we took incoming fire heat from the Mexican-American Anti-defamation League who look askance at our depiction of Emilio Zapata as a archetypal Mexican bandido with a big sombrero, a black moustache and silver pistolas. We were stereotyping Mexicans they contended. So, we yielded and conjured up the fake and meaningless name Zantigo. True story. 

When I learned of Cody’s good fortune I was mostly happy for him. Does this mean if we'd kept Zuma Tex-Mex for another 17 years we'd have received more than a million dollars for our efforts and still own the restaurant? And what would we change the name to?

Something with a Z I'm thinking.

Sunday, September 15, 2019

Then and Now

Omaha Beach looking west

Our last nights in France were spent in Normandy so we could visit the D-Day sites at Omaha Beach and Utah Beach. Fittingly this happened just six weeks after the 75th Anniversary celebration of the Allied assault that changed the course of World War ll. From our base in the gothic town of Bayeux we drove 15 bucolic miles to Omaha Beach. We arrived in early morning as a squall blew in off the channel. For nearly an hour the rain came down in buckets and wind drove the torrent in horizontal sheets.

Sulkies at the surf line

We donned our foul weather gear and I ran toward the beach. I saw two sulkies cantering in the foam. It was an incongruous scene that looked like it could be a hundred years ago. We guessed that the riders were training their horses in the soft sand. A sulky is an ultra-light horse drawn carriage without a body but with a simple seat for the driver. It's most often used in harness racing today but originated in England the early 1800s as a vehicle for country doctors making their rounds. The term sulky is derived from the notion that the single passenger buggy was for folks who prefer their own company.

Harness racing in the United States was brought from England in the mid-19th century and is a popular sport in Normandy to this day. The Prix de Sainte-Marie du Mont in nearby Cherbourg and the Prix de Normandie in Honfleur are races in late spring that draw thousands of French fans.

From a bunker above Omaha Beach

Beside a concrete bunker with a sweeping view of the landing area

The brooding weather made the scene more poignant. One could imagine jumping from a landing craft into the boiling surf and slogging through chest high water to reach the beach only to face German guns on the hillside that overlooks the strand. Gun emplacements, part of General Erwin Rommel's Atlantic Wall that stretched from the Cape of Norway to the Spanish border, provided a commanding view of Omaha Beach. It was a shooting gallery where machine guns and heavy artillery slaughtered 238 soldiers and wounded 2,000 more on that singular day. Yet when you consider the German's advantage of fortifications on high ground and the Allies’ absolute lack of cover it seems a miracle that so few were lost of the 32,500 soldiers who attacked Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944. The scale of the onslaught is unimaginable.

Monument commemorating the First Army Division's casualties

By the time we walked up a grassy slope to a memorial obelisk the sun began to break through the gray and we looked down on the serene beach. Then we walked west along the crest of the hill toward the American Cemetery, past cows grazing in a pasture with the steeple of the church in Colleville sur Mer in the distance. I can't imagine a more tranquil scene. The irony of our sunswept July 20, 2019 and the cacophony and carnage that visited this place on D-Day was wrenching. It was hard to see this radiant place as the killing zone it was.

We’ve all seen photographs of the marble crosses perfectly set on the manicured lawns of the American Cemetery. They don’t do it justice. You have to be there to feel its power. If something manmade has achieved perfection, this may be it. This resting place of 9,400 American fighting men and women reaches into your soul and assures you'll never forget what happened in this hallowed place. It's pristine order lies in such contrast to D-Day that it's the perfect tribute. I am awed.

Sunday, September 08, 2019

Faces from Keremma

Jan Norsetter from Verona, Wisconsin
Ellen Howard of San Francisco

I photographed the painters in Brittany as they created their art on the beach in Keremma, in the villages of Plousecat, Brignagon, Moguériec, Roscoff and on the charming Isle de Batz. Out of many, many photographs these were worth sharing. Three of the artists wanted professional head shots and I didn’t step up. I'm a little embarrassed that I didn't but I was doing what I wanted to do each day. I'm like that. I was governed by whim and setting up proper portrait sessions wasn’t something I wanted to do. If we convene again I’ll come prepared to make it happen, perhaps put up a backdrop, some lights and photograph the whole crew. Or not.

Houston's Krystal Brown

Vared Pasternak, an Israeli now living in Miami, was the most insistence so I did do something approaching portraiture when the sunset provided its soft glow as it dropped into the sea at 10PM.

Vared Pasternak from Miami

Richard Lindenberg from Marin County

The others are candids. Sometimes my victims caught me in the act like with Jan from Wisconsin up top. Other times I was supremely stealthy. All but the one are of my American compatriots. Below is an elegant Keremma woman who brought her family to our show and sale for the benefit of local arts programs.

Keremma gentry

Sunday, September 01, 2019

La Valenciana

A lot happened fifty years ago. Much of it bad. The late sixties were a period of tumult and change. They were the defining time of my generation. I’ve written about the early years of my marriage in Los Angeles and a career just starting to blossom, of watching Bobby Kennedy speak at the Hollywood Bowl the night before he was assassinated and of picking up the LA Times the next morning to see a picture from the Ambassador Hotel of Rosie Grier, the Rams lineman, holding RFK’s head in his huge hands. And being in Chicago during the riots at the Democratic Convention stays with me. Innocence was gone. A pointless war continued and the nation came apart.

But on a trivial note as I was running Thursday morning, it dawned on me that the La Valenciana guitar I bought in Tijuana was fifty years old. Realizations happen a lot when I run. And since I run at the speed of walk, I have time for unimportant thoughts. It’s a good thing the old axe came to mind since I had no idea what to write about this week. Felíz Cumpleaños, mi guitarra.

Mi guitarra que tiene 50 anos.
El logo de 1969

One weekend in 1969 we drove from our house in Van Nuys to Tijuana. Buying the guitar is all that I remember of the trip. Avenida Revolución was chock-a-block with shops selling the likes of switch blade knives, cheap pottery and Oso Negro vodka. But there was one reputable guitar store amidst the tchotchkes. I know that because it’s where I spent the entire afternoon playing classical guitars, the ones with nylon strings. I may have been too enthusiastic because I popped the bridge on guitar numero seis while playing La Bamba. Understandably the proprietor was not pleased when I broke the guitar, but he still let me play guitarra after guitarra till the La Valenciana stole my heart like a ten-dollar hooker. I’m guessing it cost $35. 

Today Paracho guitars run from $100 to $10,000 as the small city evolves from making low-end consumer instruments to world-class guitars handmade by one of its the 2,000 luthiers. Reportedly half of Paracho's economy comes from guitar making. High end custom guitars can take more than 75 hours to complete. Many craftsmen are fourth and fifth generation guitar makers who oddly enough don’t play. In fact, there is no significant music culture in the town. Which is strange.

I knew a little about Paracho’s fabled guitars when I bought the La Valenciana. In 1960 during my ill-fated attempt to play in folk music’s big arena I ran into singer and guitarist Travis Edmundson on the Sunset Strip. Travis, of the recently disbanded folk duo Bud and Travis, told me that he had all his guitars made in Paracho and that he had his favorite luthier there copy the legendary Ramirez guitar from Spain using the same Alp Spruce for the top and Honduran Mahogany for the sides and bottom. He claimed the Mexican version was the equal of the Ramirez and was a quarter of the price. That may still be the case today.

John Ellsworth, my singing partner for six years, and I covered all of Bud and Travis’s songs and had opened for Travis in Phoenix after he went solo. Many of his sets included Mexican songs he had learned across the border from his hometown of Nogales, Arizona. Among them was Malaguena Salerosa that he called the most beautiful love song in the world. Naturally, it became part of my act when I still had a falsetto. Like John and me Travis had attended the University of Arizona though a decade earlier. His kind of playing required a classical guitar a nylon string guitar for its percussive tone and easy action. Hence my Goya G-7 which was stolen from Lynn Quayle’s Triumph Spitfire in 1965 and the La Valenciana that I bought in Tijuana in 1969.

Inspired by these memories I picked up the guitar Friday. Even played a little. It was the first time in years. I often joke that, “I play once a decade whether I need to or not.” I was more than rusty and the little guitar showed its age. It was tinny sounding and had an annoying buzz on the A string at the second fret. I’ll restring the guitar and see if that helps. I have two unopened packs of strings that could be twenty years old themselves. One set, the one I’ll probably use, are La Bella Folk Singers which were always my favorite for their ring and brightness.

La guitarra ahora
El logo hoy

Then I Googled Paracho and La Valenciana and to my amazement the guitar maker is alive and well. Little has changed. The picture of one of their guitars on their website is very similar. The logotype is unchanged though the owner today is Casa La Valenciana and it was La Casa Veerkamp half a century ago.

I think I’ll start playing again. Maybe reconstruct my ten song set from 1962. That material is so old it'll be new. It’s been on my mind for years. I’m feeling the need for a pursuit that stirs my soul. Change it up. I'd even consider a trip to the Mothership but Paracho's in the heart of cartel country and the police department is known to be complicit at best.