Sunday, June 30, 2019

Modest beginnings and other fables

This is one of those blogs that’s going to have to write itself. I’ll just go along for the ride. Truth be told I don’t have photographs to talk about and nothing is really percolating. Well maybe one thing.

Friday night we knew we’d go out for dinner. Not that that’s a shock to anybody. We were looking for a little social interaction along with a tasty repast. And we wanted a dining experience and that translates into a slightly upscale menu and, more importantly, a good selection of wines by the glass. In this case it came down to Common Fire where we are card carrying members of Andy Lynch’s posse of irregulars or Medley for more menu choices and a skilled and personable barman, Benito.

Since the beginning of time, please no old age jokes, we have preferred to eat at the bar when we're a deuce. Notice how I toss around restaurant lingo? It's partly to watch the barkeep's ballet but mostly because we just like bars and the din and the action. It seems to me that it’s easier to engage a bartender and to become a regular than it is with a server. Being at eye level with the bartender no doubt helps. Overtipping is key to lasting friendships. Tip big on the first round and you’ll receive preferential treatment thereafter. Keep on overtipping and they’ll inscribe a brass nametag with your name and affix it to the rail.

We chose the west end of Benito’s busy bar at Medley. We talked art with him since he’s a painter. Pretty much everybody in Taos is an artist, musician, poet or writer who works three jobs. Benito told us he would be painting at the Couse House Saturday morning. Then he and Peggy discussed the Thursday figure group in Arroyo Seco. She threatened to start attending again but it fell on deaf ears. Nobody believes her at this point. If Peggy says she going to paint at your place, you're in the clear. No way that's happening.

As we nursed our wine and waited for my Steak Frites and Peggy’s Shrimp Tacos a twenty something couple sat three stools to our right. After a minute or two of earnest conversation Benito arrived to take their order which was one order of fries and a single draft beer between them. I may be jumping to conclusions, but I deduced that they were on a tight budget and that bittersweet revelation took me back 50 years to a time when we were in similar straits.

Empty pockets manifest themselves in every facet of living. It’s not just liquid refreshment that feels the pinch. It can be a shared corn-on-the cob and a beer on the pier in Redondo Beach. That’s what our budget allowed one summer evening in 1968. While we remember that night with some wistfulness it’s accompanied by a trace of melancholy. It’s like looking at strangers for whom we feel sympathy.

Yeah, you've seen it before. I have no honeymoon pics.

We drove to San Diego for our truncated honeymoon in the spring of 1967. To say we were broke is a major understatement. By that time we were living in a postage stamp apartment in Tucson.  We took our Volkswagen as far as Yuma the first night where we stayed in a dank, buggy no-tell-motel. The floor was like sandpaper. It was truly grim. We may have slept on top of the covers. The next day it was a 100-degrees in the shade as we coaxed the underpowered bug up the hill into Pine Valley. There were fifty-gallon barrels of water every mile that seemed to say, “You won’t even make it to the coast.” I remember exactly nada about San Diego. It was an inauspicious start to 51 years of wedded bliss. 

1968 was the year of our first book Christmas in LA. Paperbacks only on our $10.00 budget. One of mine was Lawrence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman if memory serves. A college professor of mine had told me you had to be forty to read the thing. I still can’t get past the interminable first page which proves for once and for all that I haven’t yet entered middle age. Sterne’s jumbled, fragmented prose and run-on sentences still make my eyes glaze over.

It’s funny how meager beginnings affect us. For some of us a threadbare childhood illustrates how far we’ve come and how very successful and self-made we are. For others it’s a lingering ache that reminds us that we never want to be poor again. For most, I suppose, it’s a mixture of both. A blend of sadness and self-congratulation.

I never felt poor. My divorced schoolteacher mother provided us a comfortable middle-class life. We did much more than subsist. There was a Wurlitzer spinet piano in the living room and there were showtunes on the phonograph. Just had to use that word. Ballet, opera, legitimate theatre and Santa Barbara vacations filled our lives. All of that on a teacher’s wages. That was, of course, when a teacher had three months off very summer and could support a family.

Peggy still remembers and laments what she and her family couldn’t buy. While she can list the things that were beyond her family’s financial reach, I recall nothing I couldn’t get. The worst that can be said is that I was 12 before we owned a TV and our first car appeared when I was a junior in high school. I know I cried when we turned on the 12” black and white unit in our second story apartment in Phoenix.

Bill Roquemore, the friend I profiled a month ago, endured a deeper level of being poor. I hate to use the word poverty. Whatever it’s called Bill can emphatically claim victory over it. But it’s safe to say that rising from deprivation informed his life in profound ways. Certainly, that’s true of his brother Rick.

It seems to me that poor and poverty are like weather and climate. One is a temporary condition and the other is endemic. Peggy and I were truly poor for just a few months. It wasn't the great American tragedy by any stretch. We were certainly middle class by 1969 or at worst by 1971 in Minneapolis when a insurance broker told me I was earning as much as a fledgling doctor. 

Luis in Llano San Juan.

In very human’s life there is a single event that colors their entire being. I met and photographed a seventy-year-old gentleman in the churchyard of La Iglesia de San Juan in Llano San Juan, New Mexico a few years back. Within two minutes Luis had told me about serving as a Marine in Vietnam and declared that he and anybody else who was deployed to that Hellhole was a tough son-of-a-bitch. His pick-up sported a license plate to boast his bona fides. Vietnam was clearly the transformative event of his life. It was the single thing that defined him. It may be that Bill and Rick’s singular influence was being poor when young. Peggy’s might be the same or more likely it was losing her parents when they were just 46. I suppose mine was being disowned when I was 21. Or maybe it was winning the lottery.

Everybody’s got a story. What’s yours?

Sunday, June 23, 2019

Applied Blur

Farmhouse in Golden, NM

I know a lot of photographers who explore new treatments and are always learning new tricks. I, on the other hand, keep on doing the basic processing steps that I used in the wet darkroom for more than thirty years and in digital one for almost twenty. I’m not much of a student nor am I particularly adventurous when it come to photography. I still favor classic midcentury black and white imagery. There’s nothing like a perfectly processed monochrome image. Others might disagree. But I’m right.

While I have some goals in mind, I don’t seem to have the discipline to plow through an instruction book or a how-to video or to do the step by step work that teaches a new skill.  Peggy tells me, “Take a class.” I know she’s right but that would mean choosing a course and that sounds too much like planning. And I’d have to give up my absolute freedom to do whatever the hell I want every day.

Cloud patterns at the Trading Post

But sometimes a guy trips over something that grabs him. The happy accident. Such was the case on two recent occasions. In one instance Peggy and I were having lunch on the patio of the venerable Trading Post restaurant in Ranchos de Taos. As we talked, I glanced up at the blotchy sky and began to photograph the clouds, an obsession of mine. I framed the skyscape with a snippet of the restaurant's coyote fence to give the sky context. When I processed the image in Snapseed (the app I favor) I had a moody shot that, to my mind, was artful and something apart from straight photography. There was a softish plastic camera sensibility to the photograph that really appealed. When I posted the image to Instagram (the place to go for great photographs) the response was heartening. Some big guns gave me two thumbs up.

Lately, I've been musing about alternative processes and have even been thinking about going back to film to engineer a result that is more than straight photography. I’m a guy who does not subscribe to the degree of difficulty ethos which is says. “The harder it is the better it must be.” Easy is just fine. Thank you very much. Shooting with an iphone is easy and your darkroom travels with you. 

Anyway, the lonely little image up top made me think that I was on to something. And, yes children, it was taken with an iphone. And, lest you blanch, more than half of last year’s so-called Best of photographs were made with the handy camera in the right front pocket of my jeans next to the loose change.

Then on Monday last week after an Albuquerque meeting ended early I drove the Turquoise Trail from the Duke City rather than taking the direct but oh so boring interstate home. The skies were promising and I had a subject in mind, the San Francisco de Asis church in Golden, NM. Until that day I hadn’t computed that it has the exact name of our more famous Saint Francis church in Ranchos de Taos. Ours was completed in 1816 and Golden’s iteration in 1839. 

Turns out that Golden was gold mining town of some prominence for about twelve seconds. Its life of prosperity began in 1825 and faltered by 1884. Small scale mining continued to 1892 and by 1928 Golden was officially a ghost town.

As I left I-40 eastbound and turned north onto the Turquoise Trail to toward Golden, Madrid, Cerrillos and Santa Fe the skies darkened and a light rain began to fall. My visions of puffy cumulus clouds against a deep blue sky were dashed. But when I entered Golden and before I turned up the hill to the church, I spied a proud farmhouse that would have been at home on the Nebraska prairie. I’d like to know how a midwestern farmhouse found itself in the high desert. Suddenly, the church shed its importance so I did some obligatory shots with my real camera before returning to the treasure I’d seen on the eastside of the highway. I pulled onto the shoulder and walked back to the aging abode where a No Trespassing sign suggested that I keep my distance.

It was a handsome edifice in its declining years but the peeling paint and clapboard siding lent texture. The brooding sky was a worthy backdrop. That was made clear when I processed the file. When I applied lens blur at the edges the photograph became something more. And you said an old dog can’t learn new tricks.

Sunday, June 16, 2019

Tom Bergin's: Rest in Peace

Much has been written on these pages about my barhopping days, the ones that lasted from my college years into early middle age. The fact is that I like bars and I can lay the responsibility for such nonsense at the feet of my late and not so revered father. He gave me the pub crawl gene. I can bear witness his proclivities since he started taking me to his favorite LA haunts before I was of drinking age.

This story is prompted by a Los Angeles Times article by Jenn Harris with the headline Tom Bergin’s closing Sunday: But what about the shamrocks. As you may gather Tom Bergin’s on Fairfax was one of my father’s favorite watering holes along with Skandia on the Sunset Strip and some faux Hawaiian joint on La Cienega. Mai Tai. Mai Kai. Who the hell knows? He’d put on his snap-brim fedora and we’d pull up to various bars in his black Buick LeSabre convertible. Funny thing. I don’t remember seeing him drunk. Apparently, he was a sipper not a power drinker. Apparently, I was the latter.


Of the Los Angeles bars I frequented way back when Tom Bergin’s is the one I remember most fondly. It’s the place that my father took my new girlfriend Peggy and me for Irish Coffees and then to Skandia for aquavit. To say she got tipsy is to be generous. We laughed about that evening a day or two ago when I reported that Bergin’s closed.

A few years later when we had moved to LA, I fell into a boys night out routine where on Fridays after work buddies and I would barhop. Tom Bergin’s was a major part of the bacchanalia. First, it was a Mexican restaurant around the corner in Burbank, then the Tam O’Shanter on Los Feliz in Los Angeles and finally Tom Bergin’s. Even when I opened a restaurant in Brentwood in the early eighties I repaired to Bergin’s for Irish Coffee with a beer back. The drive back to the westside was quite unwise given my intake but so too were several hundred other drives in several dozen cities across the country. As I told my buddy Bill a couple of weeks ago, I’m not particularly proud of those misadventures but, lord, I had fun.

The very idea of drinking with the boys every Friday night looks juvenile and very Mad Men to me now. That ritual lasted from the late sixties to the mid-eighties when I got a clue and stopped drinking to excess and curtailed the drunk driving that could have done me in many times over. It creeps me out looking back.

In something of a testament to the staying power of real saloons, many of my favorites are downright old. The Tam O’Shanter is almost 100 years old. Tom Bergin’s opened in 1936. PJ Clarke’s in 1884. My DC choice, Clyde’s, opened when I came of age but seemed older. San Francisco’s Tadich Grill is California’s oldest restaurant. It opened in 1849 at the height of the Gold Rush. Saloons are timeless according to me. I love a good saloon.

The demise of Tom Bergin’s has been foretold for years. It closed briefly in 2013 when former owners Brandon Boudet and Warner Ebbink shuttered the bar and eatery after extensive renovations didn’t pay off. Then an ardent customer, an actor named Derek Schreck, gave it a go till he announced in January 2018 that the old bar would close and that the decision “has proved to be almost impossible to reach, and the culmination of deliberation and grief.”

In March of this year Bergin’s was back in the news when members of the local community gathered before the Los Angeles Cultural History Commission to support saving the building as a heritage site. Dissenters, primarily the restaurant’s last owner Derek Schreck, argued that such a designation would make the property impossible to sell and that the building is not architecturally significant in the first place. He's right on both counts though it was a landmark.

Schreck’s father who was serving as his attorney spoke before the commission saying that his son had invested his family inheritance in the property and now it has become his financial nightmare.

Despite the plea the commission voted 5-0 to award Tom Bergin’s historic monument status. If approved by the Planning and Use Management committee and the Los Angeles City Council Bergin’s would be saved from demolition and the Schreck’s would take it the hit since the building would be untouchable for demolition, development or sale. It seems patently unfair. Not to mention that if a well intentioned owner who really cared about the place couldn't make it who will. The idea of a shuttered bar sitting empty for eternity isn't much of a landmark.

The late and much revered LA Times restaurant critic said Tom Bergin’s was home to a great whiskey selection and the best colcannon (an Irish dish of mashed potatoes and cabbage) in Los Angeles.

He wrote, “When you walked into Tom Bergin’s on a Sunday afternoon, through the front door of the fragrant Irish pub and past a half-dozen people screaming at a Saints game on TV, you were likely to come across the restaurant’s true regulars, white haired guys, wearing suspenders and ties even when it was a bit warm, having lunch with their families the way you expect their fathers had with them. It was plain, hearty food enjoyed with maybe a pint of Guinness or a Rob Roy-the kind of cooking we have mostly forgotten about in Los Angeles.”

That’s as good a tribute as any.

Sunday, June 09, 2019

Birthday Boy

Bill and Tracy
Two weekends ago I attended the 70th birthday party of a dear and longtime friend in Austin. I’ve known Bill for forty-five years, so he was very young when we first met. And he looked way younger than his years. He basically seemed like a kid to me and I was 32. When we spoke on the phone to confirm my plans to attend his birthday celebration I told him he would always be 25 to me. He laughed. His boyish appearance is a standing joke between us.

As long as I have known Bill and as close as we are, I learned more about him on my three-day visit than I had learned in forty-five years. I knew he had come from modest means, but I didn't realize that he grew up truly poor in financial terms. He is a real self-made man. And I don’t think it’s a stretch to say he’s a hero figure to his brother, his sister-in-law and his boys. Not to mention his partner, Tracy, who loves him to death. More on that later.

He told me that his father couldn’t read or write and worked three jobs to support the family. His brother told me that their mother could make a meal out of rocks and twigs and that beans and cornbread were a staple. Bill told me that there was a military high school and junior college in his hometown of Barnesville, Georgia and that tuition was free for locals. So, when he was twelve he told his mother he wanted to attend the school. At that tender age he saw Gordon Military College as his pathway up.

His mother told him, “Bill, we can’t afford it.” He replied, “Don’t worry about the money. I’ll take care of that.” So, he went to work at 12 years old and never stopped working. From the get-go he had aspirations that kept his upward trajectory steep and unrelenting. I don’t think it was a specific goal that motivated him. It was simply to grow and prosper. And so he did.

He told me, “My mother was my biggest supporter. She encouraged me. ‘Bill, you can do anything you put your mind to.’ She couldn’t help me financially, so she laundered and ironed my uniforms when I got into the school.” I teared up when he shared the story. The tale spoke volumes about the immeasurable value of parents who give currency to their children’s aspirations and to believing in one’s self. Bill’s mother did that and he credits her for it.

Through drive, hard work and resourcefulness plus belief in doing the right thing Bill was a regional manager at H. Salt Fish and Chips at 23, became my district manager at KFC in Columbus, Ohio in 1976, left KFC to become the regional manager of Pizza Hut on the West Coast, then a Pizzeria Uno franchisee, a company I ran, and finally a Hardee’s franchise in Austin all before he turned 40.

Bill is the 6'2" youngster behind me. Colonel Sanders presides.

And speaking of resourcefulness, Bill was the only person I ever worked with that always delivered on his commitments. He was the only restaurant operator I knew in forty years who actually opened a restaurant on time and under budget. That was his Pizzeria Uno in Overland Park, Kansas. If I recall correctly, he remodeled the full service, full bar restaurant in sixty days. It was breathtaking.

According to Bill, he called me at my Connecticut office when he got the Pizza Hut offer. He told me that he wanted to discuss something with me and I said, “Come on up.” When we met in Greenwich, he told me about the offer and recalls that I replied, “That’s a tremendous deal. You have to take it!” I have zero recollection of saying that but have to say I didn’t know I was so selfless. I’m wicked proud of myself as we say in Boston. I wanted to lose Bill in my region like I wanted a root canal. He was one of the best DMs in the country. In 1977 Jim Willey, the president of KFC called to tell me about the Top Ten store managers, area managers and district managers in our 800-unit chain and that my region had dominated the awards. He told me that Bill would also have been a Top Ten district manager but since he was leaving for Pizza Hut he’d name a district manager from another region to “give somebody else a chance.” I thought it was bogus at the time. Still do.

Bill moved to Austin thirty years ago, thus proving that not only was he motivated, organized and a great leader but he sure knew the town to pick. Austin has been the fastest growing city in the country for something like 20 years and boasts soaring real estate prices to prove it. It’s not unusual for a house double in value in five years. Taos, shall we say, hasn’t done that.

Then to compound the felony Bill went into the real estate business just as Austin took off like a rocket ship. I’d hate the lucky son of a bitch if I didn’t love him so much.

Throughout the birthday shindig Bill introduced me to his family and friends as his long-time friend and mentor. It's gratifying and humbling at the same time. I was proud to be the only guy from the old days in attendance.

I had an unbelievably good time with Bill and his inner circle in Austin. I can’t remember the last time I laughed so hard or ate so much great barbecue. The epic BBQ episode and the heartburn that followed deserves an entire blog post to do it justice.

Brisket from Terry Black's BBQ in Austin. The original is in Lockhart, Texas, the BBQ capitol of the Lone Star State. My son Garrett says it's the best brisket in the world. Lord, it was good.

Mesquite smoked chicken from the Southside Market in Bastrop, Texas.

At mid-afternoon on Saturday, the day of his birthday celebration Bill, his affable brother Rick and I picked up the BBQ. And Bill being a BBQ connoisseur of the highest order had ordered from two stellar establishments in order to aggregate the best possible spread. There was the Southside Diner in suburban Bastrop for its ridiculous sausage and smoked chicken and Terry Black’s in Downtown Austin, for tender, juicy brisket and let’s add some ribs while we’re at it.

The festivities were attended by about 35 friendly folks including many who met Bill through real estate dealings and most of whom had a story to tell about the way he facilitated a deal or guided them through one that was iffy. In typical Bill fashion he told them, “Let me take care of it.” And he did exactly that.

The proposal

The answer is yes.

His party was a multi-generational affair with elders and grandbabies. The whole shebang was a blast. But the highlight happened after the cutting of the “big ass cake” from Central Market. After Bill had blown out the single candle (seems like cheating), he thanked everybody in attendance, gave me a special nod because I am after all his mentor and added, “I have one question.” Then he got on one knee and asked Tracy to marry him. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house.

We agreed that we had to see each other more often and have designs on a fall visit to Marfa. Bill, Tracy, Peggy and Steve. That'll be one hell of a party.

Sunday, June 02, 2019

Vanishing Diners. Not so fast.

Café Mason, San Francsico

It turns out that the middle class isn’t the only thing being priced out of big cities. With rising real estate prices and bad margins diners, those bastions of comfort food, big menus, modest prices and long hours are in decline especially in New York where they are disappearing at the rate of 13 a year. It’s a sad state of affairs for this diner lover. Though, with as many as 500 still operating in New York, you won’t go hungry quite yet.

I was prompted to opine on the subject by a May 24 New Times article entitled, New York’s Vanishing Diners and by a fine dinner a month ago at the lovely and vivacious Mason Diner in San Francisco. I am a big fan of a 200-item menu that’s often served 24 hours a day. As a much younger man, the diner was the place to go after the bars closed in places like Manhattan, Philly and LA. Variations on that routine exist everywhere. In college, as my friend John Farnsworth can attest, it was the coffee shop at the Safari Hotel in Scottsdale or Bill Johnson’s Big Apple in Phoenix. Why I craved a Cobb Salad at 2am is a mystery. But I digress.

The Summit Diner now called the Broadway Diner in Summit, New Jersey

The origin of the diner is probably the horse drawn wagon that Rhode Island’s Water Scott converted into a dining car that served workers late at night. Later in the early 1900s diner owner T.H. Buckley discovered that building diners made more sense than operating one. He is considered to be the inventor of the dining “car” that proliferates on the East Coast. His company was called the Worcester Lunch Car Company and soon he had two competitors, Tierney and O’Mahony.  A diner needn’t be the iconic metal glad bubble that I revere, however.  Many in New York and New Jersey are storefronts or full-on restaurants built on site. O’Mahony, in fact, build the first stationary diner in 1913. And by the 1950s, the apex of the diner craze, the were 6,000 O’Mahony diners across the country. The article says O’Mahony owned them all. I’m not convinced.

South Street Diner, Boston

South Street Diner, Boston
New Jersey is the center of diner culture in the U.S. There are said to be 600 diners in the Garden State alone, many Greek owned for reasons I can only hypothesize. More than 500 diners in New York City and on Long Island are Greek owned. 350,000 Greeks immigrated to the United States in the 1900s. And they brought with them coffee house acumen and zealous entrepreneurship which morphed into the great American Diner. I surmise that Greek immigrant families who had found success in the diner business shared their knowhow within the tightly knit Greek American community and soon there was an explosion of diners in the Northeast. There’s certainly a corollary history in Boston of Greek owned pizza restaurants. In Boston if it’s called House of Pizza it’s owned by a Greek. Newton House of Pizza, Greek. Watertown House of Pizza, Greek. The price of entry is modest, it’s easily learned and passed on and soon you have dozens of little storefront pizza operations across the Bay State. It’s not much of a stretch to think the same thing happened with diners.

In fact, Santa Fe’s Plaza Café is essentially a diner with all the stainless steel and tile elements that say “diner.” And, yes, there’s souvlaki on the menu and it was opened by the very Greek Dan Razatos in 1947. His son Dan operates the place like a well-oiled machine to this day. It's a real fave though the lunchtime crush is a drag.

Killer BLT with avocado at Santa Fe's Plaza Café

So, too, is the Range Café in Bernalillo, NM. It’s basically a diner serving three meals and breakfast all day. The difference is that the Range and the Plaza Café are open typical restaurant hours and do not enjoy the bleary late-night crush that I recall so fondly. Maybe they’re chicken.
The Café, Bernalillo, NM

Steak Sandwich Tampiqueña, The Range Café

There was a raft of diner themed restaurants that opened in the eighties. There were ersatz affairs with Happy Days décor and burger and fries menus. And there were upscale takes on the theme, too. Cindy Pawlcyn’s Fog City Diner that opened on San Francisco’s Embarcadero in 1985 comes to mind. It’s still flourishing though Cindy escaped to Napa and her other endeavors such as Mustard’s Grill which opened in 1983.

I myself had a close call with the diner business back in the eighties. I was on the board of a promising concept called Ediner which was based in suburban Minneapolis, specifically Edina. Get it?  I was so smitten that I along two partners bought the franchise for, surprise, San Francisco. It was on the heels of opening a couple of successful restaurants there and was deeply in love with the city so I went all in. The flawed adventure went absolutely nowhere though it did entail numerous trips to SFO. So, it wasn’t a total loss. Well, maybe it was. I offered a myriad of suggestions to the owner and founder of Ediner. When those ideas fell on deaf ears and brought in an operations guy from a budget steakhouse chain I pulled the plug. This all happened during the questionable three-year sabbatical I took during my peak earning years and with a kid I college. Don’t sneer.