Sunday, February 17, 2019

Elbo Room Nights. No Days.




When Walt James and I were opening the Village Inn in 1966 we spent many an evening at the Elbo Room, a legendary and still operating dive bar right across from the beach at the corner of Route One and La Olas in Fort Lauderdale. I knew the joint well since I’d closed it every night of Spring Break 1964. That’s the escapade where I hitchhiked from NYC to South Florida in three rides all of whom wanted me to drive. Are we seeing a pattern here? The second drive was a South Carolina cracker who passed me the moonshine within two minutes and the third was John Hatfield, a real Appalachian Hatfields and McCoys Hatsfield, who drove me from Ocala to Lauderdale. The chilling memory I have of that leg of the trip was passing a chain gang of black prisoners, the operative word is "chain",  along the roadside in Central Florida. John and I hung together for the duration of Spring Break. It was beach all day. Drink till closing time and sleep in the bed of his ‘54 Jimmy. Then I hitched back to Arizona as if it was nothing. I like to think I was getting it out of my system.


Yeah. I've used it before. John Hatfield and Mr. Flip Flops in a camera store in 1964. Note the Kodak boxes in the background.

Walt had some mouth on him and that mouth often got him into trouble and on one notable night me. One dark o'clock he got into it with some hulk across the bar at the Elbo Room. They took it outside and the next thing I knew they were trading punches right in the middle of the intersection of Main and Main. Trading punches may be a stretch. The big guy was punching and Walt was catching every blow with his substantial jaw. The best he could do was to paw at the air unable to reach the bigger man. Without thinking I pulled the dude from Walt and wound up on my back on Route One watching his fists meet my face.


After a few direct hits I heard the welcome sound of sirens getting closer. I told my assailant. “The cops. We better get the hell out of here.” He got off me and we all ran to our cars.


The next night I was back at the Elbo Room and so was my sparing partner. I nodded in his direction. He nodded back. That was it.


According to Walt his mouth talked him into the clink several months later. During another blurry episode at a different bar the police were called to escort him out of the building. He laced into them with a “Do you know who I am? I’m a business owner. I pay your salaries. You can’t do this to me.” He told me they took him to jail, put him a private cell and drove him head first into the concrete wall. When he came to he was in the drunk tank with a bump like a baseball on his forehead and dried blood caked in his hair. His wife Mandy bailed him out at dawn. It wouldn't be the last time.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Bad Dad


Walt James always had a get rich scheme. After 1967 I don’t remember him holding a real job, meaning one where he collected a paycheck. His last legitimate gig was probably opening a Village Inn Pizza Parlor in Plantation, Florida, a suburb of Fort Lauderdale. I don’t know where he got the bucks to build and equip a restaurant, even modest operation like the VI. Probably from his mom. Anyway, being between semesters and a stint teaching guitar in Upstate New York in the summer of 1966, I needed a steady job and a new adventure, so I jumped at the chance when Walt asked me to help him open his Village Inn franchise. It would be my first restaurant opening. Little did know I’d open 50 more before I folded my tent in 2003.


This meant I had to find my way to Dayton, Ohio for a bit of training. All I needed was a refresher since I’d worked for Walt at the original Village Inn in Tempe, AZ in 1962 and 1963. The VI years are a story unto themselves. There was the animal house Chuck Friedenmaker and I rented from the adjacent restaurant and an unexpurgated novel’s worth of bacchanalia to be recounted. But that’s a story for another time if ever.


I borrowed my roommate’s ASU letter jacket so I looked as preppy and unthreatening as possible while hitchhiking.  Vance, my roommate, had used his brother Rex’s colors to good advantage with the ladies and now I was repurposing the garment for more august purposes. Vance dropped me off north of Phoenix and I stuck out my thumb. It took me just two rides to make the 1,700-mile trip. One dude took me to Route 66 in Flagstaff and Pat Conley, a star linebacker at Purdue, got me to Fort Wayne. Pat told me he wouldn’t have stopped if I hadn’t been wearing the ASU letter jacket. A genius stroke on my part. I took just under 24 hours at 80mph and without stopping or sleep. Pat and I knocked back a couple of beers at a dive bar in Fort Wayne and he left me in front of a Shell station where Walt picked me up for the last 132 miles.


The training was forgettable and when it was completed Walt, his wife Mandy, his sons and I drove to Fort Lauderdale to build out and open the restaurant. I had a snug little studio apartment a block from the beach and, importantly, near the Bikini Lounge. I commuted to Plantation for the night shift six nights a week. Once the restaurant was up and running, I returned to Tempe just before Christmas to complete my last class at ASU. Knowing me I would be three credits shy of graduating. Shortly after getting back Peggy and an unforgettable Christmas eve, we got married in Phoenix, had our son Garrett in Tucson and my career began in earnest. That’s the truncated version to be sure.



On the first day of January 1968 I went to work for Baskin-Robbins Ice Cream and so began a dozen years of abated growth. When I co-founded Four n’ 10 Pies with Kurt Kornreich in 1969 I hired Mike James, Walt’s kid brother, to be the assistant manager of our third location in Studio City. So, Walt had the occasion to visit our hovel in Van Nuys and that’s where his son Walt Junior told me, “You’re always safe when there’s a cowboy around.” I was headlong into my boots and buckle phase. The poor child actually thought I was a buckaroo. “All hat. No cattle” is the saying about posers like me.


By the time the mid-seventies arrived, Peggy, Garrett and now Peggy’s sister Kim whom we kidnapped were living the quintessential New England life in Ipswich, Massachusetts. Walt who was hawking ersatz Indian jewelry at shows across the country and had just finished events in Philly and Boston visited us for a few days. He arrived all white shoes and belt. It was too cliché.  He gave us turquoise tokens made in China. I still have a couple. Jim’s jewelry adventure was hot on the heels of promoting Monster Truck extravaganzas and before he became a bail bondsman and Libertarian candidate for Governor in Arizona.


It wasn’t till 1979 that I saw Jim again. I attended my one and only high school reunion in Tempe, the twentieth, and ate Mexican food with him in Chandler. On the ride to the restaurant I learned about Jim’s true calling throughout the seventies.


He picked me up in his pick-up at the Sands Hotel in Tempe. The first thing he did was light a half smoked joint on the dash. He told me he’d stopped drinking and that grass took the edge off. 
                        

“Steve” he said, I want to tell you what I was really doing when I saw you in Ipswich.”


“I’m all ears.” I responded.


“That Indian tchotchke I showed you was all a front. I was a drug smuggler, pal. I had planes and trucks. Big time stuff. I bought the coke in Chiapas and Guatemala. We flew the stuff into Arizona and landed the shipments in the middle of the desert at night. Jack helped me sometimes.


God, I loved it. It was such a rush, I’d be in the middle of the jungle with guards with machine guns surrounding the camp. There were hot and cold running chicas, plenty of nose candy and stacks of hundreds everywhere.


One time we crash landed in Chihuahua and got picked up by the Federales. They roughed us up, but we gave them the shipment and they let us go.


Later when I had my trucks at my house in Carefree, we got raided by the DEA. We were all arrested. My two partners and me. They both got sent away, but I got off because the Feds didn’t have a proper warrant for my place. My one partner was a tennis coach at ASU and wound up playing tennis for four years in minimum security out by Safford.”


But Walt James was more than a cheat ‘em and beat ‘em character. He turned me on to jazz and read Thurber to us from the armchair in the little apartment he shared with his wife Mandy and the boys Walt Jr. and Charlie. The sweet sounds of Cannonball and Nat Adderley, Ahmad Jamal and Mose Allison filled the living room. Walt, his buddy the very militant Monkey D from Brooklyn and I watched Muhammed Ali KO Sonny Liston at Saint Domenic’s Arena in Lewiston, Maine on May 25, 1965. Or more correctly they heard the count while I repaired to the bathroom having no idea the fight would be over in the first round. I guess you could call it a one beer fight. All I remember was the triumphant Ali standing over the KO’d Liston. A lot of people say it was a mystery punch, but I’ve watched the replay a dozen times and saw him deck the big man.



When Mandy died in the mid-seventies Walt lost his anchor. It was clear that she kept him tethered. She was the moral compass of the outfit. He dove deeper into drugs and then the drug business. Without Mandy who was an engaged parent who took the job seriously he became more of a co-conspirator than a parent to the boys. He wanted to their buddy with disastrous results. He spoke with too much pride about drugging and whoring with the Walt Jr. who was barely twenty. His unthinking and selfish example led junior to multiple arrests and finally hard time for a drug fueled rape. Charlie, whom a last saw fifteen years ago in Dardanelle, Arkansas was a long-haul trucker with a life partner and her three teenagers who were living with Jim in Dardanelle. It was a loving family but about as Tobacco Road as it gets. The septic was on the fritz, the preternaturally youthful Walter O. James had become a white bearded Jobba the Hut and our family meal together was free but cold Grand Opening burgers from the new Piggly Wiggly in town. He told me he could tell I was appalled. I really tried hide it.


Walt James was full of promise. He was handsome. He was charming. He was funny and smart. I have fond memories of the giddy days that began almost sixty years ago. But how he remained a cult leader father figure to them and their families mystifies me. The mess he made of his life is one thing. That he gave them no guide posts and no aspirations is criminal.


But still I care about the guy and would love to see him of he’s still above ground. Yesterday I searched for Walter O. James as I do from time to time. I lost him in Cordell, Oklahoma five years ago when our Christmas card came back as undeliverable. This time I got a hit in Tempe, Arizona where the tear jerker started in 1962. Then I found what may be his younger brother Rick in Colorado. I sent him an email today. We’ll see.


Fingers crossed that I can find Walt so I can flesh out his story and see if he feels any responsibility.

Sunday, February 03, 2019

Choices


I’ve never been so conflicted about choosing a subject for a post. As a matter of fact, I’ve written three entries so far and have another two on deck. My lack of commitment stems from, well, my inability to commit, the fact that there’s no photograph to prompt me and that I’m basically ADHD. The contenders are stories from friends, parenting missteps, things that move us and realizing you’re old. Give me four minutes and I’ll come up with four more.


Early in the week, prompted by the oral history of a friend, I started a vignette that might launch a series called Some Story. “Everybody has a story” I often say. Everybody does in fact have an important history even if they don’t think they do. This nascent series would tell those stories. Even if I don’t go with it this time it will happen sooner or later. Interviews will play a key role in the series.


Often the “story” is about a course altering experience in our own lives and sometimes it’s about a third party, usually a family member, whose path and condition casts a shadow over our own existence. It seems like everybody has a someone in their life who shades their days with dread. Any number of friends have a brother, sister, son or daughter flailing against mental illness or addiction. Each has plunged headlong into the Victim-Perpetrator-Rescuer tar baby before choosing self over the circle of co-dependence that never ends.


And all of us has had a transformative experience which defines who we become. I had several but being disowned by my mother at 21 was numero uno. Being fired from half my jobs and almost going bankrupt are close behind. Ultimately, it’s how we surmount the tough lessons that is our measure.


Earlier this week I began writing the inspirational story told to me by the aforementioned friend. It was destined for this post but as much as I changed the names and locations it still seems like a betrayal to share it. I can see that this will be problematic going forward. I really want to tell these stories. Until I figure how to tell these personal tales safely here’s this:


It’s a wonder our kids survived our missteps as parents. Some of ours were so egregious they beg reality.

Garrett and Kim in South Pasadena

There was the time in the mid-seventies when we took a canoe trip in Northern Maine. That entailed paddling our Mohawk canoe across Lake Repogenus to a tiny island where we camped for two nights. Garrett was seven and Kim was thirteen. Our stay on the 50 yard by 20 yard speck was idyllic. We had plenty of stores, a stove, tent, sleeping bags and fishing rods. We were geared up for almost anything. We swam in a warm July water, toasted marshmallows over an open fire and slept to the sound of crickets and the lake lapping at our private beach. It was a quintessential New England interlude.


On the day we left the island things went seriously south. We were feckless city slickers. We lazed around till after lunch. That was a major mistake. By midafternoon the chop on Repogenus had grown to 3-foot swells. That’s what happens on lakes. Then our navigator who shall be nameless set the wrong course and we realized in mid-lake that we were in mortal danger. We had two adults one of whom could swim, two children and no life jackets. It never occurred to us. We were beyond petrified and after two hours of abject fear pulled onto a beach on the mainland and camped for the night. At least we’d live the day and would set out at dawn for our put in location and waiting vehicle. According to reports we survived.


This is the event that we recognize as the nadir of our parenting adventure, the one by which all others are measured.


Even earlier when we lived in South Pasadena we bought matching Raleigh bicycles that we’d ride through toney San Marino to the LA County Arboretum in Arcadia. Kim had her own wheels but we installed a kiddie seat on Peggy’s bike so she could tote Garrett. Not my bicycle I emphasize. That would be uncool, and image is after all key. I was a callow jerk from the Eisenhower fifties. But I digress. Did Garrett wear a helmet you ask. Uh, no. Our mindlessness was epic. We are embarrassed and mortified by our ineptness to this very day.