Sunday, December 25, 2022

Cristiana in Santa Paula

As we drove from North Hills to Santa Clarita where we’d continue toward the coast in Ventura, I saw that we’d be passing through the town of Santa Paula. I told Peggy, Garrett, and Michelle that I had photographed in Santa Paula when we lived in LA from 1968 through 1970. I remembered it fondly, but I didn’t have a firm visual after fifty years. I just knew that II liked it. And if I like a place it's downtown has good bones and a rich history.

That proved to be the case. Santa Paula had a trim turn of the twentieth century main street with a distinctly Mexican flavor. And that made perfect sense since the countryside from I-5 to the coast was bursting with nurseries and citrus groves all the way to the strand. It was quintessential California. Situated amid the orchards of the Santa Clara River Valley it advertises itself as the “Citrus Capitol of the World.” Garrett hypothesized that the town was built, and groves tilled by Mexican laborers hence the Mexican influence. That made sense but the apparent wealth of the Santa Paula suggested a landowner class had put its stamp on the place, too. Further, Union Oil was founded in Santa Paula in 1890. It’s headquarters building now houses the California Oil Museum.

Since it was a bluebird 80 degrees on the day before Christmas the aura of the Golden State born in me in 1945 rose in my chest. The topography and climate of Santa Clara River Valley are the stuff of my earliest California memories and feed my dreams of the place till this day.

To reacquaint myself with Santa Paula I was photographing vintage buildings in the alley behind East Main Street and I sensed a presence behind me. I turned around a smiling woman approached.

She said something like, “May I watch the artist at work?”

I responded, “Have a ball.”

She followed with, “Do you live here?”

“No. We live in New Mexico. How about you?

She told me, “No. We live in Utah. But my husband’s from Santa Paula.

I explained, “We lived in Southern California in the late Sixties and I’m pretty sure I photographed Santa Paula. When I saw the sign on the highway, I told my family that if I remembered correctly Santa Paula was a cool little town. I said that I’d like to stop for a few minutes find out. So, we got off Highway 126 and I discovered it was everything I remembered from 1969.

"I’m Steve. What’s your name?”


“Pleased to meet you Cristiana. You know, one of my favorite things is meeting somebody and making an instant connection. Like we’re doing that right. It’s life affirming,”

She responded, “Yes, that kind of connection can happen when you feel safe with the other person.”

“I’ve heard that from other people. One gentleman in a tiny mountain village in northern New Mexico told me “I can tell you’re a good guy.” Then he gave me a dozen eggs. It’s a sweet experience.”

We talked about photography. I told her I was primarily a black and white photographer and that I had come to write more than photograph. I spoke about the blog I’d been publishing for something like 828 weeks. I gave her my business card and asked her to email me her contact information in Utah. I’d reach out to her if I traveled in her part of the world.

“Tell me your name and hometown again. I have memory like a sieve.”

What I heard was Cristiana Wagner who lived on Wagner Road in the small town of Wagnerville in southern Utah.  Her farm is in southern Utah near all the national parks, Zion, Bryce, and Capitol Reef.

She seemed legit to me. But from what I can figure  there’s no W-ville of any kind in the beautiful state of Utah. Either she snowed me or my memory is worse than I thought.

Cristiana, if you’re reading this, help me out.

Sunday, December 18, 2022

Person of Interest


Nick Jackson at 82.

With apologies to Jonathon Goldsmith Dos Equis’ Most Interesting Man in the World from 2006 to 2018, Nick Jackson was the real-life man of mystery. In the Sixties Nick was a serial entrepreneur with a legacy of near misses. But after a couple of failed restaurants, a stint as a bail bondsman and a monster truck impresario he pivoted to smuggling plane loads of good Mexican weed from the jungles of Chiapas into the States.

When I flew to Phoenix for my 20th high school reunion in 1979 Nick picked me up. We got into his pick-up, he lit a joint and said, “Remember when I visited you in Massachusetts in 1975? I told you I was selling Navajo jewelry and turquoise at trade shows on the East Coast. I think I gave you a couple of pieces. Well, I lied to you, pal. I was really dealing grass on an industrial scale. Trucks, planes. A big deal.”  

He continued, “When I closed Puebla, my restaurant in Jerome, I lost everything I’d worked for. Then Carolina died of cancer. Now I’m trying to raise the twins, but I don't have the parenting gene. I'm terrible at it. And to tell the truth I didn’t care after she passed. When I had an chance to make easy bucks south of the border I became a smuggler and a dealer. Jesus, it's exciting. I love every minute of it.”

When we met in September of 2022 Nick recalled with gripping detail crashing three airplanes and numerous arrests by the Federales and the Polícía. I told him he should write a book about those times. He said he'd thought about it but knew he wouldn't do it. He'd already folded his cards. He was waiting in his recliner with a stack of books in front of the big screen TV for the end.

His stories of narrow escapes and calm under pressure are the stuff of true crime novels and film noir. And true to noir everybody in Nick's movie lost everything. Money, family, and robust health all gone. A life that promised wealth, love and laughter had come to paucity and regret.

As to those close calls Nick told me, “You can never panic. You stay cool no matter what. You have to make your adversaries like you. Then you talk yourself out of your predicament.”

His pilot crashed their empty plane on the beach in in La Pesca, Tamaulipas on their way to the Guatemalan border for a new load of grass. They had barely entered Mexican airspace when the engine sputtered and they landed on the packed sand near the surf line. They got on the phone in La Pesca and found a small airfield on the way to Ciudad Victoria, the state capitol. While they walked the fifteen miles to the airfield to find a mechanic to repair their aircraft the locals stripped the plane and reported them to the police in Victoria. Before they could reach the field, they were arrested and taken to the police station for questioning. The pilot was taken to a holding cell while Nick was taken to an interrogation room where he was circled by five dead eyed cops and surly Captain Naranjo. Nick explained that he was heading for San Cristobal de Las Casas in Chiapas to buy Tzotzil artifacts for his import business in Flagstaff. It was a plausible invention but one that didn’t register with illiterate cops who spoke no English. Nick, ever the storyteller, was embellishing his tale when a well-dressed gentleman in his late thirties entered the room. The room went quiet in deference to the imposing new arrival. The tall man in a blue suit, a starched white button down and a rep tie introduced himself as Major Guillermo Duran with the Tamaulipas State Police. He told the cops to leave the room. He’d interrogate Señor Jackson by himself.

In perfect American vernacular English Major Duran began, “Let me get this straight. You’re telling me you’re flying from Phoenix to Chiapas to buy native crafts to resell in the States. I don't buy it. Flying 2,000 miles to buy cheap pottery and weavings seems, shall we say, implausible. What are you really buying, Señor Jackson? I want the truth. My job is to get the truth. And I will get it." He smiled and waited.

Nick took a breath. “That’s all I'm buying Major Duran. That is the truth. I trade in indigenous artifacts of all kinds. I also buy and sell Navajo and Hopi jewelry and weavings at my store in Flagstaff. And there's a growing market for Tzotzil crafts especially the weavings. It’s a remarkably lucrative business and I need more work. It's that simple.”

Duran exclaimed, “You’re from Flagstaff? I know it well. I lived there for four years. I graduated from Northern Arizona.”

"What a coincidence. What are the chances? Not only that," Nick responded  "I also owned and operated Puebla, a Mexican restaurant in Jerome. Maybe you remember it.”

“You owned Puebla? That was my favorite Mexican restaurant when I was in college. You made real Puebla moles and your own tortillas on the comal in the entrance. We went there all the time on weekends. You had Negra Modelo on tap, didn't you? And you served it in chilled mugs with a lime wedge.”

Nick responded enthusiastically, “That's the place. I’m so glad you liked my restaurant. It was a real labor of love. My late wife Carolina was from Puebla. That's how we knew real Puebla cooking.”

“I’m sorry you lost your wife. Nick. That’s a great tragedy. May I ask what happened? She must have been very young.

“Yes, she was only 33. It was pancreatic cancer. A terrible way to go. I still miss her every day. She was the glue of our family. I haven’t been the same since she passed. You know, Major Duran, I have 5,000 pesos hidden on my plane. If I had a friend who could help me continue my journey it would be worth the 5,000 pesos to be able to continue to Chiapas, buy my goods, and get back to my boys in Flag.

“I’ll be your friend, Nick.

The major opened the door to the interrogation room and announced that “El Señor Jackson esta diciendo la verdad. Puedo responder por él. Él era dueño de Puebla. Mí restaurante favorito en Arizona! Lo llevaré al aeropuerto para que le reparen su avión y pueda continuar su viaje a Chiapas sin demora.”

“Mr. Jackson is telling the truth. I can vouch for him. He owned Puebla, my favorite restaurant in Arizona! I will take him to the airport so he can have his plane repaired so he can continue his journey to Chiapas without delay.”

“I’ve been a felon since 1989.” Nick tossed me that nugget in September. I thought he'd given up the narco-bucks a decade earlier.

He told me he was caught in a DEA roadblock north of Douglas with only enough Mary Jane for his personal use. He describes the episode as “Stupid. I did a lot of stupid shit in those days.”

When he describes his smuggling saga you know that he’s transported to his glory days. They were the highlights of his life. He had a fleet of trucks, a boatload of cash and enough excitement to last three lifetimes. 

But he lost the love of his life when they were still young and his two sons both died five years ago. Nickie had been in and out of the hospital. He came back to his dad’s house in Cardiff, Texas one last time and died in his sleep. His younger brother Art overdosed a few weeks later. It's an unimaginable tragedy.

Sunday, December 11, 2022

Randy's Choice

It’s the heartbreaking tale of two friends whose brotherly bond is tested by a newly arrived force-of-nature who holds all the cards and ripped the fabric of a deep friendship. As I watched the story unfold, I sided with the good and true friend while recognizing the cold truth. Randy had no option. He chose what he had to have. He picked the caregiver he’s known for a year over the friend who slept at his dying wife’s bedside and would take a bullet for him.

“It’s him or me,” was Ann’s ultimatum.

The story is complicated. It seems that everyone but the new face lost something in the transaction. It’s a hard not to cast blame. It’s too easy to see the caregiver who became Randy’s partner as an opportunist. Reportedly she asked, “Who’s going to take care of me after Randy has gone”?

Last Wednesday I reminded Jack, the friend that Randy had to evict, that years ago he told me that Randy was his best friend in the world. He responded, “That’s the truth. He is my best friend. He has loads of friends like me, maybe dozens, who see him as their best friend. He’s the most loved man I’ve ever known.”

I watched the rift between Ann and Jack deepen for months. Ann disparaged Jack every time I saw her.

“He’s just a boarder. He’s useless. He doesn’t take care of Randy. I do it all. And he’s a classic sociopath. I know his kind. He hates women.”

She said the same to all of Randy’s friends. Ann’s influence on Randy was the subject of every conversation. We were worried about Randy’s infirmities but just as concerned about her growing power and motives.

Jack called me two weeks ago to get my advice on supplemental health insurance. He was asking, he said, for himself and for Randy. I made my opinion of Medicare Advantage Plans clear. “Don’t do it. It’s just a way to privatize health care. Plus, you can’t choose the doctor you want. You have to use an approved provider. That doesn't work for me.” He seemed to agree.

Then out of the blue Jack revealed his heady years as racehorse owner and, even more riveting, a professional gambler who bet enormous sums of all manner of sporting events. I asked him how much he’d bet in a given day. “I think I bet $700,000 one time and $500,000 fairly often.” I was dumbstruck. I knew he was a horse lover and was involved in racing, but I didn’t know the magnitude of the enterprise. It was big league stuff until a writer for Gentleman’s Quarterly interviewed Jack for an exposé on the underbelly of sports betting in Las Vegas. Apparently, it wasn’t all legit and Jack decided it was a good time to exit Sin City.

But the real shocker was when he told me he was moving out of Randy’s house. Shock is the wrong word. Disappointment and sadness are better descriptions for what I felt. We all saw it coming for months but when it happened I was speechless. We'd all heard that Ann was demanding that Jack leave. But we'd heard that Randy told her, “That’s not happening.” We were glad Randy stood his ground. Until he didn’t.

Jack told me “I talked to Randy yesterday and told him I was moving out of the house. I didn’t want him to have to tell me to leave. So, I beat him to it. The writing was on the wall, anyway. Ann wants me gone. Hell, everybody wants me out of there. She hates me. Randy’s daughters don’t like me. His family and his lawyer are on Ann’s side. She’s got him over a barrel. He needs the 24/7 care that I can’t give. I wish I had made him take his meds. I put them out for him to take but I didn’t make sure he took them on time.” Jack took the rap. He didn’t want Randy to feel guilt for casting him out. 

“You know they’ve been a couple for months. They share one brain. I think the women’s a sociopath. Funny. That’s what she calls me.”

She does. Every chance she gets. Even after he’s gone.

“I’m sad to hear it, Jack. I think it’s unfair. When do you leave?” I asked.

“I have to be out by the end of the month.”

“Where will you go?”

“I’ll go to Phoenix where I can stay with Stephanie, my old girlfriend from Vegas. Or I’ll move to San Diego where I can work at the track in Del Mar. You know I love horses. I owned them, raced them, and bet on them all my adult life. Did you know I buried on of my thoroughbreds  on Randy’s property? He was 30 years old.” He pressed his fists into his eyes.

Jack Taylor was a Salida legend, first as the owner of the tavern that he manned from noon to close seven days a week then as the town crank who suffered no fools and savaged miscreants of all stripes. He was the Quixotic figure brandishing signs decrying price fixing, corrupt politicos, the Supreme Court and all manner of religion hypocrisy. Jack singlehandedly reduced gas prices when collusion at the pumps was obvious to anybody with eyeballs. And any guy who names his jackass Bobby after our intellectually challenged mayor gets two thumb’s up from me.

We met for four hours on two occasions in the last three weeks. I got writer’s cramp I took so many notes. Usually, I remember the nuggets and make up the rest. Jack spewed a nonstop stream of consciousness. His commentary had a life of its own. I learned way too much about the mechanics of sports betting and not enough about Jack the human being.

As noon drew near during our first session at the Bean Jack said he had to meet Salida’s four sitting judges for a burger, fries and a brew at the Ore House. Their treat in fact.

“They’re all my good friends. I’ll miss them. I’ll miss Salida. There’s no place like it.” he told me.

His lunch with the judges put Jack’s slot in the annals of Salida luminaries in better place. He was more than a combative septuagenarian jousting with windmills along West Sackett Avenue. And he wasn’t on the lunatic fringe that some thought. He was an undaunted speaker of truth to power.

He will be missed. He deserved better than we gave him.

Sunday, December 04, 2022

ArtsThrive at last

Turn Signal

Ventana Azul

Today’s entry was to be a real-life drama, a story that’s playing out before my eyes. But because this third person story is deeply personal and private, it deserves more time and care. I want to be true to the facts without betraying confidences and breaching the trust of dear friends. I may turn to fiction for those very reasons.

Adobe at Ranchos Plaza

Fresh Oven Bread

So, In lieu of that touching story I’m happy to announce that after three earlier attempts my entries have been accepted into the ArtsThrive Exhibition at the Albuquerque Museum. It’s the 32nd Annual edition of the prestigious show and I’m proud to be included. Since Peggy has been an invited artist the past four years, I’ve had the privilege of attending the event each year. It’s one of most handsome, carefully curated shows in New Mexico. I encourage you to see for yourself. The exhibition runs from March 4 through April 16, 2023.

I didn’t need algorithms to choose the best candidates. I've learned what sells. And it's Spot Color by ten lengths. Three of the four pieces will be familiar to you. The fourth, Turn Signal, hasn’t been shown.