Sunday, May 31, 2020

Say good night, Gracie.

Charlie and Holly's 39 year old place in Cambridge.

About sixty percent of job losses during this pandemic have been in the food service industry which we think of as restaurants and bars but also includes corporate and institutional operations. All have been decimated by the virus. The magnitude of the losses and the economic toll for owners, operators, employees and suppliers cannot be overstated. Some observers of the debacle estimate that at least 25% of closed restaurants will not be able to reopen. Others say 50%. Either is a monumental number, one so large it seems unreal. It's like saying 102,000 people in the United States have died from COVID-19. That’s a just a number but if the toll were seen as a single cherished life lost 102,000 times it would be unbearable. Is unbearable.

More of the same.

On May 21 I read an article in the Boston Globe. The title was “Here are the Boston area restaurants that have permanently closed amid the coronavirus pandemic.” It listed seven well-regarded establishments that had been unable to weather their closures. The subheading of the article continued, “Cuchi Cuchi, Stella, and The Automatic are just a few of the restaurants that made the difficult decision to shutter for good.” In the text Coda, Restaurant Danté, Artú and Marano Gelato were also memorialized. Artú was 25 years old. Coda 13 years. Cuchi Cuchi 19 years. Danté 15 years. Stella 15 years. A relative newcomer The Automatic was opened in 2006 by Dave Cagle and iconic Cambridge chef and entrepreneur Chris Schlesinger. Chris is one of my food heroes. His East Coast Grill that opened in Cambridge’s Inman Square in 1985 and closed in 2016 may be my favorite restaurant of all time.

My sense is that we think that our favorite restaurants, cafés and watering holes will magically reappear, good as new. I don’t want to burst bubbles, but that isn’t happening and even if it does the new rules of engagement will make the already fraught business proposition of operating a restaurant impossible or close to it. The precarious nature of the restaurant business has been overstated. An efficient high-volume restaurant can print money. But most restaurants are neither high volume nor are they particularly well run. Their margin for error is thin and they haven’t socked money away for desperate times like these.

And, frankly, the idea that a restaurant can operated at 50% of capacity, the realistic effect of social distancing, is laughable. A full-service restaurant paying market rent in an urban setting, needs about 80 seats to break even. So, take that 80-seater and allow it 40 seats and you have a prescription for failure. The fixed costs and labor will eat it alive. Game, set, match.

The basement joint we owned for thirteen years. Still kicking after 31 years we hope.

The bar the neon margarita built. And the first place to serve Corona beer in New England.

Which leads us back to the May 21 article. The first thing I thought of when I read the piece was, “What are Charlie and Holly are doing with their restaurants and clubs in Cambridge?” The second was, “I wonder if Zuma Tex-Mex Grill, our old restaurant in Boston, will re-open?” I immediately fired off an email with the Globe article to my dear friend Charlie saying, “Don’t know if you saw this. I hope you’re hanging tough.” Then I did a search on Zuma and found that it has changed its name to Mezcala Tex-Mex but has been closed since March 19 due to the virus. Fingers crossed for Cody, Steve and the crew. 

In response to my email Charlie answered with this. Our messages have been edited for clarity, brevity and to protect the innocent.


I hope you, Peggy, and everybody you care about are well and able to stay safe.
Holly and I have been hunkered down at home since March 16, after we furloughed 100+ employees (some of whom have been with us for close to 40 years). Rather heart breaking to not be able to help our other “family”.

So, we are hanging tough, but by our fingernails. We might just have to hang it up. (See what I did there?) As you can tell, we are whiny and wallowing in self- pity, but thankful that we are healthy and have a home to be hanging out in.

Hope to chat sometime soonish.

Love and big virtual hugs, C

To which I replied:

Charlie or as Holly says Chuckles,

Yes, we are safe, healthy and not stir crazy. Yet. Other than not eating out very other meal it's been better than fine. Mostly we miss wood-fired pizza and a frosty pint of Take a Knee IPA at the Taos Tap Room.

I'm sad to hear that you had to furlough all those folks. It had to be wrenching for the most caring employers on the planet. It would be the wrong ending for your story to end this way, that you aren’t able to continue what you've built over 40 years and that you both love so much. Hanging tough, hanging by your fingernails or hanging ten don't be hang dog.  Make the puns stop! I know you'll prevail.  You always do. 

Always up for a chat.

I better hang up. See what I did?

Love back atcha,


As to the so-called stimulus payments to small businesses, the ones intended to keep workers employed, they don’t really work for tipped employees and do little to keep establishments afloat when there’s no income. It’s the fixed costs that bury a restaurant especially one operating in a high rent urban setting. Imagine a $4,000,000 a year NYC restaurant and bar where the rent, common area maintenance fees, utilities and insurance are 12% of last year’s sales. And there have been exactly no sales for three months. So, you’ve got a $40,000 a month nut and no dollars to cover it. How many months can you survive? And even if you do, you’ll have to operate at half capacity for the foreseeable future. “It’s homely,” as Charlie describes dire situations.

Then, of course, is the question of how we’re going to respond to these partial re-openings. Will we be drunken lemmings cheek by bikini by the pool in Lake of the Ozarks on Memorial Day weekend or like us, be afraid to get back on the horse? We haven’t eaten out or been in a social setting in ten weeks. We haven’t even ordered take out and don’t plan to. And we are richer for it. Thousands of dollars richer.

Sunday, May 24, 2020

The Road to Hondo

That's a title for a western if I've ever heard one.

We headed north to catch the last rays of the sun on the great plateau that stretches from the junction of US 64 and NM 150 to the village of Arroyo Hondo. With Peggy at the wheel literally and figuratively she’d get fodder for paintings and I’d photograph whatever came my way. When we do a pre-dinner tour the Hondo-Seco loop is always an option. On this occasion we passed the junction known as the OBL or Old Blinking Light so named for a blinking traffic light that pre-dates our arrival in Taos. If we had turned right on NM 150, Ski Valley Road, we'd have begun the counter clockwise Hondo-Seco loop.

When we'd driven a mile or so north on NM 522 two subjects came to mind. Five miles north of the OBL is an industrial strength corral on Taos Pueblo land. I told Peggy that the corral had possibilities and that we should to keep an eye out for it. Before we got to the corral, I saw a fence that I mistook for the corral. Then another. My bumper sticker says, "This vehicle stops for fences." We stopped for two before we reached the corral. It's a good thing too since the glow of the sunset falling behind Tres Piedras illuminated the fences, the sage and prairie grass. It cast long shadows on the parched earth. The reflective stock tank beyond the corral proved more worthy than the corral itself and the shadows of the fence as they crossed the rutted path were brooding and dramatic. It and made for a quintessentially northern New Mexico scene.

At the junction of Hondo-Seco Road was a richly tagged old gas station that I'd passed a hundred times. The western light was perfect.

Sunday, May 17, 2020

La Morada

As I’ve gotten my photo legs back, I’ve veered to landscapes with a man made or architectural element. The fact is that I’ve always preferred that. In Taos and environs we have a myriad of magical and historic buildings to photograph. Most are of the Spanish Colonial persuasion which is fitting since Taos sits at the terminus of the El Camino Real (The Royal Road) that brought the Conquistadors from Mexico 450 years ago. Some say the Royal Road stopped Twenty miles north of Santa Fe on what is now the Okeh Owingeh Pueblo near Española. One thing is for sure. The Spanish Colonial building boom happened around 1800. That’s evidenced by Saint Francis Church in Ranchos 1772-1816. The Martinez Hacienda completed in 1804 and today’s subject La Morada de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe. It was was built between 1798 and 1834.

La Morada is near downtown Taos and abuts Taos Pueblo. It’s sweeping view of the Sangre de Cristos makes it one of the most important yet under-recognized sites in all of Northern New Mexico. It's where I want my Grand Hacienda. I know that.

But that dream is not to be. Taos Pueblo granted the land to the Hermanos Penitentes in 1798. From its completion in 1834 the Taos Morada was the center for the Penitentes’ harsh religious devotions. The brothers were penitents whose practices included self-flagellation and entirely too realistic processions of Jesus and the Cross.

By the 1970s there were few penitentes remaining but those who continue in 2020 are a zealous bunch who are rabidly protective of the Morada. They grudgingly tolerate visitors who are “respectfully” requested not to photograph, paint or video the stunning chapel and grounds. This despite a written 2005 agreement between the Catholic Church and the Taos Historic Museums that gives the public unrestricted use of the grounds.

There is a sign at the entrance gate with the request not to depict the morada in any way. Visitors have been known to be challenged by the brothers. One is stuck between respecting their desire to protect the place they see as theirs and your knowledge that it isn’t. It wraps a cloak of worry, even fear, around what should be unfettered appreciation of this extraordinary place.

Pueblo style architecture has appealed to me since I first saw in an Ansel Adams photograph of Ranchos Church in the forties.It was emblazoned on my brain when I saw it in person during the summer of 1958. Though not everybody is a fan as I discovered when I showed my portfolio to a gallery owner in Durango, Colorado a dozen years ago. She told me that she'd gag if she saw another adobe building. Happily I had two shows in the gallery in the ensuing years. 

But the soft shouldered structures covered with a hand applied porridge of mud and straw exudes an organic sensibility that never fails to entrance.

Sunday, May 10, 2020

Small camera reflex syndrome

I left the house three times over the last week to take pictures. It’s nothing to be proud of but I’ve been asleep at the switch for almost two months. When I began processing the images from those adventures, I discovered I hadn’t made a photograph with either of my main cameras in seven weeks. It might be the longest I’ve gone without using a real camera in thirty years. Maybe much more. Part of the reason, you are tired of hearing, was the long-fused effort to build a new website. But the other, and more valid excuse, is that I’ve come to rely on the iphone in my front pocket. Or in my left hand when I’m running. It’s unobtrusive, expedient, and competent. I am but one of those.

Taking a real camera in your hand does change the dynamics of picture making. It's heavier and more complex than a smart phone much the way that a 4x5 was a slow anvil compared to a full frame DSLR. But you give up contemplation and craft when you rush things, naysayers sniff. You don’t take the time to wait for the magic moment, the ideal light and the perfect composition. Sez you.

Having dispensed with the bulk and snail’s pace of large format not to mention the vaporous darkroom 18 years ago I happily embraced the ease and speed of DSLRs and now I embrace the remarkable iphone. Call me a hussy but I like my action easy, fast and indiscriminate. And there are processing tricks on a smart phone that I can’t perform in Photoshop. I have one word for you citizen, Snapseed.

From the fabled adobe portfolio are this gaggle of images from my heavyweight Canon 5D Mk III and my ever ready iphone 7. They are of historic San Francisco de Asis Church in Ranchos de Taos and the equally important Martinez Hacienda half a mile down the road from us.

Pretty hard to tell what image came from which device.

Monday, May 04, 2020

Lessons Learned

Corrugated roof  in Los Ojos, New Mexico.
This follows up on yesterday's post that included the first ever video in my blog. The first lesson is that you can, indeed, use video in a blog. That wasn't evident till my friend Terry Thompson emailed that tidbit this morning. Lesson two is that you have to click on the title of the post, in yesterday's case Moving Target, to be transported to the the blog itself. That's where you can view the video at the bottom of the page. This is a test run. Nothing more. It's too short. It moves too slowly across the canopy of trees, but it shows that I can produce a video clip in the style of my black and white stills. That was quite a discovery. Gotta find the sweet spot that tells story before it bores your bag off. The one Monday was seven seconds.That wasn't enough.

Did you know that videos garner 1200% more shares than still images? 

When there is a video in a post I'll include message that says something like, "Click on the title to visit the blog and watch the video."

Sunday, May 03, 2020

Moving Target

Here’s an epilogue to the I didn’t get into the Contemporary Taos 2020 show at the Harwood Museum saga. Thanks to all of you who held my hand through the trauma. After steaming about it from Thursday April 23 to Monday April 27 I had aggregated a set of questions and concerns about the selection process. It turns out that the museum chose 24 of the 30 finalists to be included in the actual museum exhibition and the remaining six finalists plus the ten artists on the Wait List would be “recommended” for a satellite show to run concurrently at a gallery to be chosen. I learned this from an email response to my query to Nicole Ashley Dial-Kay, the museum’s new Curator of Exhibitions and Collections. While Peggy suggested that I stop whining in public about slights both real and imagined, coming that close to being in the museum show felt worse than simply not getting in. They took 80% of the finalists after all. If they’d taken the top ten or fifteen, I’d say tough cookies. That’s the way it crumbles. That they accepted most of the finalists was the unkindest cut of all. On the just barely brighter side I might be accepted for the secondary show. Like kissing your sister perhaps. Half full or half empty? The hell if I know.

I sent a follow up email to Nicole that fished for some perspective on how and why I came up short. I proffered the hypothesis that, one, the fall-off between the 24 selected and the six also-rans must have been significant or the fact that the images I submitted were shot with the phone in my front pocket might have been a deal killer. I told her that I felt a hitch in her enthusiasm when I admitted my dastardly deed. Then again it could have been a lousy virtual tour or lackluster credentials. There’s no MFA in my timeline after all. I did not hear back. I'd prefer to believe the work that was selected was just better. One way or other I'm anxious to see the show and to see if I agree.

And speaking, as we are, of iphoneography, the images in this post are from the diminutive device in my pocket. I’m really excited about the prospects of adding video from that very appliance to my social network presence. My enthusiasm comes from my general appreciation of the importance of video across all platforms, Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, the lot. People prefer to look at video. Then a recent webinar underscored the potential of adding video to my repertoire. The interconnectivity among all the platforms can help build a larger reach, something I’ve struggled to do. My audience is small but elite.

In the last few days, I’ve included a couple of short videos on Facebook and Instagram and shared them with the other. I posted one on Instagram as part of My Story and the other on Facebook as a regular post. I'm feeling my way. I can’t tell which one is more effective this early in the game but I'm leaning toward posting my videos on Instagram the way I do stills. Then I'll share them with Facebook. Time will prove the efficacy of that approach. My handle on Instagram is steveimmel and on Facebook I’m Steve Immel. My April 30 post on Facebook is a short video of the canopy of trees that shade Burch Street in downtown Taos. It looks like it came from the same human who shot the stills shown here. The potential of this has my juices flowing. 

That's a screen shot from the 8 second video. Sooner or later I'll figure out how insert a video that you can play into the blog. The internet tells me it's possible. I scoff.