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?


Blacks Crossing said...

Every time we see the photograph of you and Peggy, I think two things. First, there is no way we would ever recognize Peggy from that image, and the second would be "I need to take 'years later' honeymoon photographs of you two!" How many Americans of a certain age (people around the world I dare say) had your experience driving a Volkswagen in the California desert, trying to keep the VW and yourself from melting? We certainly did. And the no-tell motels. Been there, done that, too many times. Scrimping, saving, and experiencing short-lived poverty. Lucky for that on many levels. Go back another generation and how many were profoundly, deeply, and continuously affected by the Great Depression and World War II. It becomes part of who you are, for better or worse or both. We are delighted that you and Peggy emerged from your formative years (but aren't they all?) in good stead, you washed up in New Mexico, and we met courtesy of tango. Can't ask for much more, except for more wonderful stories and photographs from you, and painting from Peggy. Well done, Steve!

Steve Immel said...

Wow! What a lovely response to today's effort. I think most of us who weren't trust babies survived a dry period of two. And, yes, imagine if the dry spell lasted ten years or more. It may be that we who struggled savor what we do have more and, hopefully, don't take it for granted.

Thanks for the warm thoughts and encouragement.