Sunday, September 30, 2018

The Service Guy

I opened fifty restaurants in my forty years in the business. And don’t mean fifty restaurants that were opened by somebody else but on my watch. I mean physically managing the effort and handling the service training myself. God, I loved it. I loved it so much I kept opening restaurants when I should have back at headquarters running the company. I’m often asked, “Where were you in the restaurant business?” My stock answer is, “After forty years, Almost everywhere. Almost every major city.” And to that point, here is a partial list: Boston, Hartford, New York, Philadelphia, Washington D.C., Richmond, Memphis, Atlanta, Fort Lauderdale, Cleveland, Columbus, Cincinnati, Louisville, Saint Louis, Minneapolis, Indianapolis, Madison, Milwaukee, Dallas, Phoenix, Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Orange County. Whew!

I always say that opening a full service, full bar restaurant is as close to theatre as you can come without greasepaint and curtain calls. The wait staff had a script or at least an outline of same, there were twice daily rehearsals for a week and a half followed by two dress rehearsals in front of a full house; dress rehearsals bigger than any opening night could be. The theory behind slamming the kitchen and wait staff with a tsunami of customers ordering way more than paying customers would ever order was that Tuesday’s real opening for paying customers would feel like child’s play. Yes, always a Monday or Tuesday and without fanfare, a so-called soft opening. If you open a restaurant on a weekend you should be institutionalized for your protection and the protection of others. Like many of life’s lessons, you don't need a Saturday night cataclysm to learn it. Oh, then take a day off after the second dress rehearsal to take a deep breath and prep for opening night and real customers. You are ready, young misses and sirs. The formula worked 100% of the time I’m proud to say. And the so-called Friends and Family Nights, the dress rehearsals, were the key.

Kurt Kornreich and I at the opening of the Four n' 20 Pies in Northridge, California in 1969.

Training waitstaff, I say servers, was divided into two parts; the philosophy of service in which I preached the gospel according to Steve and the mechanics of service which I first dubbed “Steps to Service” in 1969 when I opened the first Four n’20 Pies in Van Nuys, California. I don’t know how I knew that telling servers what was expected of them was a good idea. I just did. The last time I preached was at pulpit of Copa Café in Lexington, Massachusetts in 2003, a span of 34 years.

Here’s the scene. Imagine you are one of 30 new servers who are seated in the dining room of the just built and furnished 250 seat Rocco’s Meat Market. The sounds of finishing touches being completed fill the air. You have been selected from 500 candidates vying for the honor of serving huge slabs of rare steak and superb wines from a Wine Spectator Award of Excellence wine list. It’s a woody emporium with leather seating red flocked wallpaper. The joint reeks of testosterone.

I lean on the proprietor for a soaring introduction. She leans on me to sell the thing called service. It’s what I do. I walk to a barstool I’ve already placed in front of the adoring throng. On my way to the barstool I casually remove my suit coat and hang it on the stool. Let’s get down to business, people. I gaze around the room with a welcoming smile.

“This my 51st restaurant opening, I opened my first at the turn of the last century in Dodge City, Kansas, Come to think of it, that was a steak house, too, but with more of a brothel theme.

Anyway, I’m a service guy. A long time ago a mentor of mine, Don Smith was his name, described a restaurant as being like a three-legged stool, that if one of the legs doesn’t hold its weight, the stool collapses.  I agree with the premise but will tell you service is the most important part of any successful restaurant experience, the most important leg. Service, how we are treated, is what we remember. In fact, I can tell you about my three or four best dining experiences, but I can’t tell you what I ate. I can tell you how I felt. I can even remember some of the dialogue.

Our first $100 meal was at the Blue Horse in Minneapolis. It was 1972. Our waiter was Bill. He was about 50 with gray hair and glasses. He had a sly, almost conspiratorial style. He smiled, was engaged and made eye contact with each of us as he took our orders. I don’t recall the dishes we ordered. They were probably from the Sixties songbook, dishes like Veal Oscar and Steak Diane. I do remember that I choose a 1964 Chambertin. Bill said, “That’s a great bottle of wine, sir.” Bill was right and he had actually called me sir. I would describe the red burgundy as a supple, round wine redolent of black cherries and new Oak. The finish lasted till tomorrow. The Blue Horse closed a long ago and Bill went to the slammer for bookmaking. Sad thing. The world lost a great waiter.

I believe that you can’t lose a customer if you give a damn. And, the corollary is true. If you care about them they’re yours forever. I think the desire to please your customer, to make them happy, comes from something that’s inside you. Having your customer enjoy their dining experience should give you pleasure, too. That’s why I believe that great servers are born not made. A friend of mine who’s a restauranteur says, “Anybody can be a server.” I disagree. Being a good server means that you’re smart, that you have a good memory and that you can handle pressure with a smile. And, most important, you like people.

Many years ago, certainly before 1976, I heard a guy named Bob Farrell speak at the NRA convention in Chicago about keeping customers. That's 'R' as in restaurant not the other 'R.' And, by the way, there’s nothing more important to a restaurant than the repeat customer. They are gold. Bob’s the one who taught me the “can’t lose a customer if you give a damn” axiom. He had started an enormously successful Gay 90s themed ice cream parlor chain in the Pacific Northwest. It was built on in your face service. Something I brought to Vinny Testa’s in Boston in the mid-90s. Bob’s first location was in Portland, Oregon. It was a rainy Sunday when the first location opened its doors. It was so busy that you had a fifty-fifty chance of getting your burger, ever. In the middle of the chaos and the lost orders and with poor Bob scrambling from the host desk to the kitchen for the missing BLT at table 20, a little old lady stood up in the middle of the room and yelled, “I’ve been waiting for my Banana Split for an hour. I’m leaving.” She headed for the door.

Farrell caught her before she got out of the building. He begged her, “I’m so sorry, ma’am.  It’s our first weekend and we’re just overwhelmed. Please give us another chance.” He gave a her a gift certificate for the next visit he hoped she’d make. He hoped. She paused a moment, reached up to touch his shoulder said, “That’s alright, young man. I’ll be back.”

I told that story at every opening I did from the mid-seventies to 2003 when I left the business. I told the story to 2,000 KFC franchisees at our national convention. You can’t lose a customer if you give a damn.” I've been known to tear up when I tell it silly as it sounds.

Then I'd continue. “When I opened my first Four n’ 20 Pies in Van Nuys in 1969 I distilled the essentials of serving the customer service down to what I called the Steps to Successful Service. There were nine steps for that simple concept, basically a coffee shop or diner. I don’t know why I placed put so much emphasis on service. I guess it mattered to me so that’s what I did. Here are the steps from Four n’ 20 Pies.

1.    Greet the customer within one minute

2.    Smile and make eye contact

3.    Take the beverage order

4.    Return with beverages and take the meal order

5.    Suggest the appropriate add-ons like French fries, salad or soup

6.    Deliver food and refill beverages

7.    Check back to see that they’re enjoying their meals.

8.    When all the guests have finished their meals, clear the table

9.    Return to the table to take pie orders. Always offer it heated and ala mode

10.  Deliver the pie and offer beverage refills

11.  When those delicious slices are eaten, return to the table. If your guests are   finished, drop the check and say “Thanks for joining us. I hope you enjoyed   yourself. You can pay me whenever you’re ready. No rush.” or words to that   effect.

12.  When your guests have tendered their payment, cash or credit, take it now.       When the money’s out it means they’re ready to go. They want to leave so get   them the hell out, so you can get another party. This is capitalism at its purest.

13.  Bring the change or credit card slip back to the table quickly and ask your   guests to come back soon. One of the best waiters I ever employed used to say,   “See you tomorrow.”

These steps are nothing more than common sense and no more than what you want as a customer.

These steps to service are the minimum we expect. They are required. Do these and you will have provided satisfactory service. Add your attitude and personal style and it will be great.”

Starting with Four n’ 20 Pies in 1969 I employed Mystery Shoppers to reinforce the importance of performing all of the steps all of the time. I used Kelly Services, formerly Kelly Girls, since there were no shopper services back then. I had sold menswear at a major department store in Phoenix when I was in college. The store used shoppers and if you didn’t Sell Up and Add On you didn’t have a job. In the restaurants that I operated we weren’t quite that heavy handed, but we did let our servers know when they had come up sort. When a server did all the steps they got a $20.00 tip cash on the barrelhead. If they didn't they got an "Oops Card" with the missed steps checked off and the message, “Better Luck Next Time.” I used a mystery shopper program of some kind till I retired.

There’s a certain amount of unthinking blow back to the selling parts of the Steps to Service, the contention that offering an appetizer, dessert or second glass of wine is being “pushy.”  Far from it. Offering the appropriate, the obvious, the things that will make the meal more complete are providing service, better service, service that will be remembered when it’s time to tip. The customer isn’t counting your visits to the table per se but has a general sense of how much service you’ve provided. And, and the flip side, if you did not offer me that second glass of Ramirez de la Piscina Reserva when there was an inch left in my glass I will remember it.

When you’re a server you are renting real estate in the proprietor’s restaurant. It’s her mission and yours to optimize the sales in your station and her restaurant.

Here’s a simplified example that shows the opportunity a server has for optimizing the proceeds from his or her station. For this example, I’m using a five-table station and I’m assuming three turns of the tables.

Each server in this comparison will serve 50 customers. That’s where the similarities end.

                                                                     Server One                         Server Two
Customers                          50                                         50
Average Check                 $20                                       $25
Sales                             $1,000                                  $1,250
Percentage Tip                  .17                                        .20
Total Tips                        $170                                     $250
Difference                                                                    +$80

It’s always the same servers who outperform, the same ones who are average and the same ones who come in last. You can decide to make $80 more in your five-hour shift or not. It’s entirely up to you.”

Restaurant openings are exhilarating and exhausting at the same time. The two a day training sessions are scheduled from 10am to 2pm and 6pm to 10pm to accommodate new hires who have other jobs or go to school. You hope that about half your new staff will attend each session though it rarely happens exactly that way. Two separate sessions spread out like that make for a grueling day for management staff and trainers. I worked 80 to 100 hours for two or three weeks in all of my openings. And if you include the late nights at the Donovan’s Saloon it was approximately 150 hours.

Ike Sewell, Mark Olivari and I at the opening of the Harvard Square Pizzeria Uno in 1980

When Lenny Levenson, Mark Olivari and I opened the very first Pizzeria Uno franchise in San Francisco in 1980 I learned that exercise, a shower and a change of clothes was better than a nap between training sessions. I’d take an hour run in the Presidio, do some push-ups, shower, put on fresh duds and be good as new. Mark had been a star linebacker at Tulane and was the last cut of the Pittsburgh Steelers. He was 28. His playing weight was 225 and he ran a 4.5 forty. I was 40, couldn’t make my high school football team and ran a forty in about a day. Yet he and I would run over to Chrissy Field and do matched sprints. He killed me. But, one day we went for a 12 miler through the Presidio, across the Golden Gate Bridge and back and I killed him. From the Marin side we looked back at The City shimmering in the electric November sunshine. It was one the best runs of my life. 

On November 27, 2004 Mark Olivari lost his appeal of a conspiracy charge and was sentenced to 2-1/2 half years in prison and ordered to pay $192,000 in restitution. Federal prosecutors say that he stole cargo passing through customs and sold it at a profit of tens of thousands of dollars. He tried to reach me by phone a few years back. I didn’t call back. I wish had. I really liked the guy.

It’s the camaraderie, the sense of team, that propels you through the grind of a restaurant opening but which often leads to extra-curricular activities that have consequences. Those amorous episodes are usually among staff but can reach in all directions. The wife of the owner of the San Francisco Pizzeria Uno, went after Mark Olivari like a dog to prime beef. There was a feeding frenzy over the guy. She told Mark that she hated her husband and cheating on him was payback. He deserved it. Even if he never knew about the dalliance, she would and that was enough. She picked up Mark at the Balboa Café and they escaped to Sausalito for a nightcap or something stronger.

It’s no secret that restaurant people like to party when the shift ends. And that’s even more true during an opening when the stakes are high and you’re working 80-hour weeks. Unlike my idol Anthony Bourdain I never saw drug use, but I learned that you’re never too beat for libations at your chosen watering hole. In San Francisco it was The Chestnut. In Atlanta it was The Fridays across the way. In Columbus it was Buckeye Charlie's next door. In DC it was Clyde’s with Michael Burke from Lawrence, Massachusetts behind the bar. “Another Molsons, Steve?” he’d ask. He always said Molsons not Molson. The answer was invariably, “Yes” until I switched to Saint Pauli Girl.

One time I forget to pay Michael and called him from New York the next day to offer my apologies and give him my credit card number. I over tipped even more than I usually over tip to make up for my bleary oversight.

But by 1984 when I opened restaurants for seven months my relationship with my senior partner and boss had reached its nadir. I’d reached the end of the line. The ordeal had taken a toll in a myriad of ways. In 1985 when he brought in a new president I finally said, “Enough” and began three years of hard-earned semi-retirement and a new, better and healthier life.

It was quite a ride.

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Baby steps

1967 is the year that I became a semi-adult. Real adulthood came much later. 1967 is the year that I got married, had a son and launched a career. That’s some year.

At our wedding on March 4, 1967

As reported ad nauseum, I finished college after eight long, up and down years. I had been at Arizona State so long that I ran for homecoming king when I was a first semester sophomore and you were required to a second semester junior. It was a gag proposed by a bunch of anti-establishment hooligans and I was game for pretty much anything. Okay, anything. My campaign slogan was the compelling “A Vote for Steve is a Vote for Steve.” That’s call to action if I’ve ever heard one. Wrote it myself. I came in fourth of eight behind Dale Keller, a star football player; Howie Bernstein who was just plain cute; and somebody I don’t remember.

My life experience by that time; insurance adjuster, itinerant folk singer, menswear salesman, cotton inspector, truck driver, bartender and restaurant manager set me up to interview like the fully evolved human that I wasn't and may the reason I would become the second highest paid graduate of the College of Business Administration in 1967. My salary was a munificent $700 a month at a time when a bank trainee got $350.

My interview with Harvard MBA Murray Hildebrand for the Marketing Manager position at Ryan Evans Drug Stores in Tucson went swimmingly. After I dazzled him with bullshit he asked, “How much do you want to make?” And I shot for the moon. “$700 a month” I answered. He said, “$700 works. Can you start March 15? I said yes and did. At the end of the interview he told me I’d done exactly the right thing in asking for what I wanted without hesitation. “Don’t be timid. Don’t give a range. Just name your price.”

I still a had a stupid three credit elective to actually graduate and we needed to move to Tucson forthwith. That meant that I’d have to commute from Tucson to Tempe and back every Tuesday night for two months. Since we only had one car Ryan Evans let me use one of their cool Ford Ranchero delivery trucks. The Ranchero was a low-slung pick-up built on a car chassis. Chevrolet had its version, the El Camino.

We found a trim little apartment at the Warren House on Alvernon for $25 week. It was so small that Peggy cleaned the place from floor to ceiling every single day. Between cleanings she played pool in the rec room, ate chili sizes at the Bob’s Big Boy around the corner on Speedway and a jar of pimientos encurtidos (pickled peppers) every other day. Every night she beat me at pool. She gained forty pounds and I came close. By the time she had Garrett on September 8 I weighed a lumpy 196. When she gave birth I was at Pinnacle Peak Patio having a mesquite grilled 32 ounce steak with her mother. Peggy tells people that I live to eat. The woman does not lie.

I'm the Pillsbury Doughboy on the left.

My breadth came into focus, literally, when we went camping with two other couples and somebody had the temerity to take my picture in wheat colored Levis and a gray tee shirt. There’s a cowboy description for a wide load, “Two axe handles and a Prince Albert tin.” That was me. Bulges everywhere.

After a month or so we started looking for new digs to house a threesome. We circled an ad for a large one bedroom on a ranch in the desert on the the east side of town.The 72 acre spread was called Grace Ranch. We set up a showing the following weekend.

The ranch set back from Wrightstown Road a quarter mile and at the bottom of a slight descent stood the main house, three apartments in a low-slung building, an Olympic size pool, a horse barn, race track and an airstrip abutting a dry wash. The Catalina Mountains rose to our north. We were giddy with our find.

We were greeted by Marty Fenster, the caretaker of the spread. He showed us the commodious apartment with a combination living room kitchen and dining area in front and a huge bedroom in the rear. Marty said we would have the run of the place but were not to enter the barn. Ever. Marty “The Camel” Fenster I kid you not.

There was a handprint in the cement adjacent to the pool with the word “Bats” below it. That’s Bats as in Bats Battaglia for those of you who know your Mafia kingpins. We didn’t need to be FBI agents to figure what we’d stumbled onto. And we didn’t care. We wanted that apartment.

We mentioned that the apartment needed a thorough cleaning and Marty pledged to get it done. But when we arrived to move in the following weekend, the Ranchero full of our worldly goods, we found the place locked. We were not happy or patient. Peggy broke in. And it was still a hamster cage.

When Marty arrived late and full of apologies, we gave him a piece of our mind and he swore to clean the place that afternoon. His Mexican maid got the place ready as promised this time. We moved in that evening and spent the balance of 1967 in an idyllic desert oasis that we'll never forget. 

One day the owner of the ranch, Pete Licavoli, arrived on the scene. We were out on our patio, so Marty brought him over to meet us. He introduced us to the gray, empty eyed Don of the Detroit Purple Gang. Licavoli shook hands like a dead fish. Dead fish. Sleep with the fishes. Cement overshoes. Forgive my stream of consciousness. We’d have been more obsequious if we’d we known then that Licavoli had been accused, arrested or tried for murder on seven separate occasions. He served a total of 5-1/2 years in prison for four crimes: bribing a Canadian border guide in the gang’s rum-running operation; income tax evasion; contempt of Congress for refusing to answer questions from a Senate rackets investigating committee and possession of a stolen 15th century painting. His last 13-month prison term for the later felony ended in July 1981, thirteen years after we left Grace Ranch. He was 77 years old when he got out and died four years later. It’s hard to imagine that little man doing hard time at my age. But not as hard as me doing hard time at my age.

And speaking of paintings, Marty knowing Peggy was an artist, came to the apartment one day and told her, “You know Mr. Licavoli has a lot of paintings at his house.” He asked, “Would you like to hang some in your apartment?” He invited us to Licavoli’s place to take our pick. The living room walls were covered with ornately framed Italian art. There were paintings leaning against the furniture. Some pieces we were huge, 6x10 feet or more. We were pretty sure they were hot. Peggy said, “Marty, we don’t have a wall big enough. Thank you though. It was really thoughtful of you.” Was one of the paintings we saw in 1967 the stolen 15th century painting that Pete tried to sell to an undercover FBI agent in 1976? We'd like to think so.

One day I was lounging by the pool when I saw a caravan of black Cadillac’s driving down the road to the ranch. When they arrived a football team of very large, very swarthy men in black suits and thin black ties exited the vehicles. Being quick on the uptake, I computed that hanging out at the pool this particular Saturday was a risky business. I exited stage left.

At $700 a month we were so flush that we, along with aforementioned expectant couple, rented a cabin on Mount Lemmon. Our little A-frame at 10,000 feet was a piney respite from the 100 plus degree temperatures that scorch Tucson from April to November.

Mr. Immel and his menu

On the work front, I started by redesigning the seven Ryan Evans seven drug stores in Tucson which meant I had to find affordable ways to move the company into the discount world ala CVS which was the model used by Hildebrand. Once the stores were prepared for the change I went to work on designing ads for the newly positioned Ryan Evans. About that time I pitched Hildebrand on remaking our lunch counters. I called them Sunburst Restaurants, remodeled them in an ersatz southwestern motif, and designed a menu that took the cafés into three meals a day territory. I didn’t know my place and the attitude that I should present to the middle-aged female lifers who managed the places. I encouraged them to call me Mr. Immel. Only later did I learn that if employees choose to call you Mister it’s one thing but that if you demand it it’s something else entirely. The business doubled but it was a sophomoric attempt that didn't keep me employed.
Al the time I worked at Ryan Evans I was exploring another idea with a co-worker. It was a restaurant concept built around a juicy shredded beef taco I learned to make while I was in college. My buddy Chuck Fridenmaker from the copper mining town of Globe, Arizona showed me how to take canned beef in gravy from Argentina and mix it with mashed potatoes to absorb the rich sauce. It was a cost savings measure that stretched the beef and tasted incredible. Chuck made a very spicy pico de gallo with lots of cilantro. He prepared soft tacos by twirling the corn tortilla in sizzling oil in a frying pan, folding it over before it got crisp, draining it on a paper towel, filling the shell with the beef mixture, topping it with shredded jack cheese, the pico de gallo and lettuce. The best tacos I ever had. We tested the tacos, three to the plate with beans and rice in the dining room of the Congress Hotel in downtown Tucson every Thursday for months. They were the number one seller every time. We knew we were on to something.

Since we had no money I had the bright idea of approaching the local distributor of Lindal Homes, the builder of A-frame buildings, with a partnership idea. We’d provide the knowhow and management and they’d pony up the building and equipment. We’d go 50-50. They showed interest but came back with a 20-80 deal and we walked away. Our name for the concept was Taco Chalet so maybe it was for the best. On the other hand, it’s no worse than Pizza Hut.

While we lived at Grace Ranch our mail was routinely opened. We assumed the FBI was reading our mail and that assumption was born out by Gay Talese in his 1971 best-seller, Honor thy Father. Pete Licavoli and his cohort Joe Bonanno were being targeted by the Feds and we were in the middle of the thing. 

Shortly after we moved to LA Peggy received a frantic call her mother in Phoenix telling us that Grace Ranch had been bombed and that the bombing was being attributed to the FBI which was allegedly trying to start a gang war. We just missed the fireworks.

I did check out the barn one time. I saw some ammo boxes but little else of significance. My imagination ran amuck. Buried bodies. Gold bullion. 

During their raid in 1976 the FBI found numerous weapons, ammunition and part of a submachine gun.


Sunday, September 16, 2018

Only Son

From Salinas to Oakland and San Leandro and on to Phoenix the life of an only child in a single mother household wasn’t all bad. While Rachel Helen Immel moved us every year or so and that will keep a kid off balance she always found the best that the place had to offer. She was an erudite and cultured women who played the piano, loved ballet and art films and enjoyed good food. She had a regal bearing and wore clothes with panache. She was every inch the lady. She was an ardent feminist though she probably didn’t know the term. She was asexual as far as I know and may have been a “man hater” if my father’s younger sisters are to be believed. According to my father’s favorite baby sister, Ruth West, who died at 101 a couple of years ago, he confided to her shortly after he married my mother that “it just isn’t going to work” because they were at odds about sex. He apparently was into it and she was repulsed. But they copulated at least once thankfully. I appreciate your service. Certainly, their paths in life painted a picture of divergent sexual appetites. He had three marriages and a parade of curvy babes and she was devoutly solo. She never had a date and the only man in the house was the plumber. In the years between age four and nineteen I never saw her with a man nor do I know of a single relationship with one.

That didn’t seem odd to me. It was all I had ever known. That she would be involved with a man never occurred to me.

She had two sisters, Fern a textbook spinster, and Imogene, the saucy divorced one who smoked cigarettes and did, reputedly, have a life outside of work. All were elementary school teachers, mom of the first and second grade persuasion.

Fern, the much older sister, was built like a barrel and seemed to be from an entirely different generation than Rachel and Imogene, called Imo. She lived with us for a time in our first apartment in San Leandro and commuted to her school in Niles, California. Niles was southeast of Hayward some fifteen miles away from our apartment. Back then it was in the sticks but now is a suburb of sprawling Fremont. Imo taught in Palm Springs and Santa Maria and had to perspicacity to live outside of the hermetically sealed mother and child bubble my mother created wherever we lived. I was her life until I wasn’t.

Steve at six?

My mother gave me things and experiences in lieu of actual parenting. We never had the birds and bees conversation so I was left to learn through trial and error. When I joined Cub Scouts and there was a fishing merit badge to be had, she bought me a complete fly fishing rig; rod, reel, straw creel, assorted flies and a vest with all the little pockets from a sporting goods store in Hayward. We went fishing precisely once. It was at Strawberry Lake in the Sierra National Forest just west of the John Muir Wilderness. It’s a mystery to me how she found the place. Then there was skiing. The same thing. The full kit though a rented one in this case. I remember the long pointed wooden boards and the leather bindings. Off we went to Frisco Peak by bus in a snowstorm; a real Sierra snow with 20 foot drifts. The snow rose to the eaves of the lodge and that's where I headed. Twenty-five years later our son Garrett performed the same trick at Killington in Vermont. And Peggy wigged out then just as my mother had in 1950.

From wherever we lived in the East Bay we made our way to San Francisco as often as possible. Even when we lived in Arizona we traveled to the “The City” a couple of times. The magic of San Francisco was etched in my brain at an early and impressionable age. As early as 1947 we took Southern Pacific’s Starlight Express from Salinas to Fisherman’s Wharf. We sat in the dining car eating Lettuce and Tomato sandwiches on toast and sipping hot tea. A little later when we moved to the Bay Area we took the train to San Francisco to partake of breakfast at Manning’s, lunch of Welsh Rarebit and creamed spinach at the bar in Townsend’s and high tea at the City of Paris department store. Famed columnist Herb Cain called Townsend’s, “the little old ladies historic hangout.” And so it was.

We watched Alec Guinness in 1951s Lavender Hill Mob at a little art house. We went to the 1950 premier of Winchester 73 with Jimmy Stewart, and the 1951 premiere of Bob Hope’s Lemon Drop Kid where they gave out boxes on lemon drops. This was always in San Francisco I should note. Oakland was beneath us. We saw Shirley MacLaine and Francis Lederer in Princess and the Show Girl at the Curran Theatre on Geary Street near Union Square. The 1,600 seat Curran housed some the biggest productions in theatre history and was home to the San Francisco Civic Light Opera when we saw the young Shirley. It closed for a time but reopened in January 2017. It will celebrate its 100th birthday in 2022.
The Curran Theatre, circa 1950
During the Christmas season San Francisco is magical as all great cities are. To me San Francisco is the one real city on the left coast. There are New York, Boston, Chicago and San Francisco in the pantheon of America’s great cities. The others are pretenders. We always stayed at The Cartwright off Union Square. It was affordable and right in the center of things. From the Cartwright we could walk to all our favorite haunts. Every San Francisco Christmas included midnight mass at Saint Mary’s Cathedral at the corner of California and Grant, the entrance to Chinatown.

Saint Mary's Cathedral
My sartorial needs were not neglected either. On one of those Christmas trips from Arizona I stepped into the Ivy League, buttoned down era; the one with the waspy Princeton haircut. At a small haberdashery on the north side of Market Street I was fitted with my first soft shouldered three button sport coat, a nifty corduroy number, chinos with the buckle in the back and a light blue Gant button down. It was quite the step up from the big shouldered film noir suits I had favored till then. It foretold some seventy years of appreciation for stylish threads and too little closet space.  

And lest you think my adventures were limited to the tweedy environs of San Francisco, it was a 1951 trip to the silver mining town of Alamos, Mexico that led to our move from northern California to Arizona. My mother had seen a piece in Sunset Magazine about a quaint, undiscovered Spanish Colonial village in the Mexican state of Sonora near the western end of Copper Canyon. The Nicky Hilton article extolled the charms of the remote pueblo. It was so alluring that we found ourselves in Alamos by way of Ciudad Obregon and Navajoa and all of that by public transport one of which was a rickety Aeronaves DC3. In Alamos I cobbled together some rudimentary Spanish as kids will do and soon was leading tourists through the village for a few pesos. The highlight of my itinerary was the hacienda of the Mexican jumping bean king. You can’t make this stuff up. I still feel the busy beans jumping in my nine-year old palm.

Our hotel on the plaza had a drive-in courtyard. Our room was upstairs facing the courtyard and fountain. Drinking water was “treated” by resting it in earthenware “ollas” suspended from the second story portal. Many an evening was spent at the “Cine” on the north side of the plaza watching John Wayne and Esther Williams movies dubbed into Spanish.

On the way back to California from Alamos we stopped in Tucson. We sat in the lobby of the long-gone Santa Rita Hotel and absorbed the cowboyness of the place. The lobby was redolent of leather and straw hats. They say our olfactory memories are particularly vivid and the smell of leather still takes me back to that moment. Real ranchers moseyed through on their way to the Mountain Oyster Club upstairs. Women strictly prohibited. In the southeast corner of the hotel was a western wear store, probably Porter’s, where we continued our theme of indulging little Stevie's every whim. I donned my very first pair of cowboy boots, kangaroo no less. The hook was set. We'd be off to Arizona before the following school year.

It didn’t end well between my mother and me as has been reported in these pages. The last words I heard were, "From now on I don't have a son." It was my 21st birthday.

But the women gave me a taste of taste and a yearning for adventure. I'll give her that.

Much to her credit and not withstanding my enmity toward her, my mother exposed me to culture, cuisine and travel that created a life view beyond the neighborhoods in which we lived. From our Oakland apartment near Mills College we took the bus to hear Helen Keller speak at the University of California, Governor Earl Warren, too. I watched twin All-America running backs Johnny Olszewski and Jackie Jensen light up the gridiron for Cal’s Golden Bears. The game was preceded by lunch at Larry Blakes and my first Caesar Salad. In Phoenix we took the bus downtown to see Eleanor Roosevelt speak at Phoenix Union High School. So, the breadth of what my mother showed me was considerable.

In response to my ego bruising tale last week, a California friend wrote, “There are very few 70+ people who still hold grudges against their parents.….” And further, “I realized only recently it was an adolescent mindset to blame parents for unhappiness along the way…..” A valid point to be sure. However, I don’t see calling out specific thoughtless and hurtful acts as blaming them for unhappiness along the way, meaning presumably, later in life. I blame them for what they did when they did it. Always will. And as to very few seventy year olds holding grudges against their parents, I wouldn't bet on it.

Sunday, September 09, 2018

Thanks, Dad.

I have no memory of living in a household with a mother and a father though a photograph from 1943 shows that I did.

Glenn, Rachel and Stephen Immel in Urbana, Ohio

Glenn Immel was a Navy officer preparing to ship out to the South Pacific where he would be Executive Officer on a LSM, Landing Ship Mine, which was heading for Guadalcanal. I don’t whether he saw combat or not. My guess is not but I wasn’t close enough to the man to know much of anything about him.

My first memory of him was on board his ship just before he embarked from Treasure Island to the South Pacific. My mother and I had ostensibly moved to California to be near him though I think the marriage was already in a death spiral. I was scratched by the ship’s mascot, an unhappy spider monkey named Spanky, that was tethered to a pole. I cried like a baby. 

Lieutenant Immel, young Steve and Spanky

Recollections of my father are few from the end of the war to 1952. I remember sitting in his lap while he drove his black Buick during visits to our apartments in Salinas, Oakland and San Leandro.  He always drove Buicks. I remember the sandpapery stubble of his five o’clock shadow. I don’t know when Glenn Richard and Rachel Helen divorced but they never lived together after the war. He moved to LA to practice law and we moved from school district to school district in Oakland and San Leandro. It makes me wonder why we moved every one or two years till I entered eighth grade?

The summer before my eleventh birthday I stayed my father in Los Angeles. It would be the longest period I'd ever spend with him. He had a non-descript apartment behind the Ambassador Hotel and was an associate at the Sampson and Dryden Law Firm. During my stay we went to a beach party at Dryden’s house in Palos Verdes Estates and I saw wealth for the first time. High living makes a good first impression.

When he didn’t make partner, it seems to me, his hopes for a soaring legal career even a judgeship, died. He became a one-man ambulance chaser who cobbled together a living through a sputtering personal injury practice and by teaching Business Law at Woodbury College on Wilshire Boulevard and the UCLA Extension. At least he could walk to Woodbury from his apartment on South Kenmore.

I was a latch key kid that summer and had the run of an extended neighborhood from the apartment to my dad’s second wife’s family home on Hoover and further south to the USC campus and Exposition Park.

I joined the Boy’s Club of which I remember little except for learning how to twirl a lasso. That entailed going to the local hardware store and choosing the perfect rope. I tied it as we were taught and practiced for hours till I mastered the elusive skill. Finally, I could do all the standard rope tricks like stepping in and out of the loop as I spun it around me. The club took field trips. One was to the giant Helms Bakery on Venice Boulevard in Culver City. The sweet yeasty aroma fills my olfactory memory bank to this day. Another was to Cabrillo Beach in San Pedro from which you could watch the freighters entering and leaving the Port of Los Angeles.

Not all of the experiences were organized affairs. I had my first two crushes in the summer of 1952, one on Mary Jo Renwick and the other on my dad’s wife to be. Denise, also  divorced, was considerably younger than my father, I’m guessing late twenties. She was a saucy number given to sundresses and cleavage. She was also a flirt, even with almost eleven-year-olds. I was big for my size. There was a big swing in Denise’s backyard. She swung higher and higher till her billowing skirt blew up. I was transfixed by the view. She said something like, “What are you looking at Steve? Haven’t you seen a girl’s panties before?” I didn’t answer. I was frozen at the intersection of embarrassment and desire.

I ran with a group of kids from the neighborhood. They were street smart bunch who taught me to make zipguns out of metal tubing, scrap lumber, a couple of screws, a flat head nail and elastic. I sold clothes hangers to laundries for pocket change like the other guys. I don’t know if I needed the money or did it to belong.

Dad and Denise tried to use Mary Jo as leverage to convince me to stay in LA instead of going back to Phoenix with my mother in late August. I remember as clear as yesterday Denise telling me how much I’d miss Mary Jo. What would I do without Mary Jo? I was eleven for Christ sake. I returned to Phoenix to start the sixth grade.

Later that year, 1952, Glenn attempted to get full custody. That entailed a soul scorching trial in Salinas, a trial in which he painted a picture of a mama’s boy in desperate need of a father’s strong hand. The court proceedings were ugly. Despite my father’s contention that I’d flourish under his muscular stewardship it was rare in those days for the father to get custody. Ultimately, the judge took me into chambers and asked, “Who do you want to live with?” I answered, “I think you mean with whom do you wish to live? And if that's the question the answer is my mom.” And that was that.

We lived in half of a duplex on East Virginia Street a couple of blocks from North Phoenix High School. In the fifties school yards were open to the neighborhood like a giant community center. I ran on the school’s cinder track every afternoon and watched talented kids sprint, leap and throw. The school had a tremendous track and field program, so I was surrounded by exceptional athletes, often national record holders. Coach Vern Wolf became head coach at USC through an extended period of dominance. I contracted the running fever which has persisted for 66 years.

My mom encouraged me to write a thank you letter to the caring judge in Salinas. Along with my heartfelt appreciation I wanted him know he’d made the right decision and that I wasn’t a total wimp. I boasted that I’d run a 440 in about 75 seconds which probably decent for my age. Sad that I felt the need to defend my manhood. Thanks, Dad.         

I didn't see or speak to him again until I was an adult and he was as clueless as I remembered.

Sunday, September 02, 2018

Member of the Wedding

I couldn’t have asked for a more photogenic couple to photograph for my first wedding shoot last Sunday. Kara Babb and Eero Vartiainen were statuesque, beautiful and very much at home with the camera. I thank them for the opportunity. Both are impressive and successful. Kara boasts a Master's in Chinese and Eero from Finland speaks four languages. At nearly 6’ and 6’5”, respectively, they made a 5’10” old guy feel little and decrepit.  And that smooth unlined skin, don’t get me started.

And speaking of old, let me put it this way. During the anniversary dance the DJ started reducing the married couples five years at a crack. "Okay, if you've been married five years more you can stay on the floor." "If you've been married ten years or more...." and so on. He stopped at forty years and I said, "Hold on a minute, pal. We can beat a piddling 40 years." The only couples left on the floor were the photographers and their spouses who had logged 46 years and 51 years of wedded bliss. But who's counting? Congratulations to Daryl and Fred Black who celebrated their 46th that very night and to Peggy and me who crawled to the 51 year mark last March.

And what is the secret to a long marriage? asked the Tony the DJ.

I took the mic and answered "Low expectations" and "Separate Vacations." I get to use those lines a lot.