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.



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4 comments:

Daryl Black said...

You are definitely on a major roll here, Amigo. All of your recent posts are most certainly book-worthy, and it would be great if people who are not your blog followers would be able to share in a life so rich and interesting. Although despite the "Pillsbury Dough Boy" look, Steve, you can be found in every single photograph. But Peggy with dark hair. That took a bit more magnification to see the details we know and love. There are several things great writers strive for in their work. One is to give their readers some wonderful tidbits they will remember forever. Another is something with which they identify in one level or another, and a third is to leave the reader thirsting for more. You have definitely achieved all three of late, and we hope you never run out of material.

Steve Immel said...

You are too kind, chica. There's much more to be told. I started making a list of the holes in the story and they are many. I'm at around 20,000 words or 25% of a book. I pretty much have to complete the thing since I've completed absolutely nothing so far. Gotta figure out what's next. See you tonight.

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