Friday, October 26, 2007

Where There's Smoke

In which we wheeze a bit

This is the scene out of my 5th-floor office window. Not even on the smaugiest days is it ever anything like it is today. The very air rankles. I feel like Frodo in Mordor. Not good, especially for one who cycles everywhere. Compare this photo with the one I took from the same spot the day that the Griffith Park fire broke out, March, 2007:

These photos look north over the San Fernando Valley toward Mt. Hollywood.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Aluminum Planes and Iron Men

In which we pay tribute to men with nerves of steel

Today the air itself seems alive with a surreal orange glow. The Santa Anas have subsided and ash drifts slowly down. Most of the fires have come under some semblence of control, though those around Arrowhead still fester and flare. It's like a war, one with no moral amiguity whatever.

As in other wars, air power in this fight has been pivotal. Those of us watching on the electronic sidelines here in SoCal have seen the dramatic images of Tanker 910, an enormous DC-10 jumbo jet modified for fire fighting, barnstorming its way like a biplane down the canyons to drop its 13,000-gallon ordnance of bright pink fire retardant on lines of flame more than a mile long. The sight of it is magnificent and awe-inspiring.

It's times like these that men are at their best. I don't know the pilot of this plane, but right now he's one of my heroes. Three words: Nerves. Of. Steel.

Outside, I imagine, he's wine-cellar cool, ticking off the numbers on his task list with all the flawless attention to detail of a tax attorney. But inside, I imagine, his soul is reveling in the danger, bearing down on his enemy with a mighty interior, "YEEHAW!"

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Red Dawn

In which the world awakes to a hot foot

The fires are raging. Lake Arrowhead, in the San Bernadino Mountains and one of the most beautiful spots in all of Southern California, is a ablaze (of which more later). Smoke from this fire blows south and east across the San Gabriel Valley, lending the dawn sun its blood-like cast.

Today the Valley is wreathed in fire and smoke. And what do I do? Keep typing...

Addendum: It's noon now and I am absolutely choking on smoke; coughing and wheezing. Here's a satellite view of the the area right now:

Wow. Technology, yo?

Addendum II: Just took this image off of Nasa's Earth Observatory site, taken about 3:00pm. The Lake Arrowhead fire has grown geometrically. The air here heavy, leaden with smoke and ash -- and I'm not even in the the direct line of it. I promise never to play with matches again.

In other developments, the Catalina Island Co. is offering a 25 discount on lodging to people fleeing the fires. Excuse me? What? Catalina Island? Do the victims have to produce a snapshot of their burning houses as proofs of purchase? No, they just have to present the promo code, "FIRE DISCOUNT." C'mon! Sounds like a cheesy scheme to get more people to the island in the off-season.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Tales of the City

In which we say g'bye to someone who made our life a little less ordinary

Enrico Banducci died Tuesday, aged 85. The Bandooch, as some of his closer associates and employees called him, was a real San Franciscan's San Franciscan in a time when the old city was a wide open town where anything went.

A flamboyant impresario and natural aristocrat, Banducci opened the hungry-i in 1948. It quickly became a showcase of raw talent that helped give rise to the likes of Barbara Streisand, Lenny Bruce, Bob Newhart, Ronnie Schell, Bill Cosby, Jonathan Winters and a host of others.

To soak up some of the spillover that the popular hungry-i attracted, and to offer a place where patrons could dine before the show and get a night cap afterward, Enrico opened Enrico's, a café across the alley from the hungry-i on Broadway. Enrico's has long been considered San Francisco's first sidewalk café. Actually, it was more of a patio café, its patio being recessed from the actual sidewalk to get around San Francisco's ludicrous public boozing and outdoor dining laws --- laws which are largely still in tact, sadly.

Enrico's was San Francisco's own Chat Noir, Maxim's, Café Royal, Raffles, and Procope all at once. It was a salon where the great and the good and the downright wicked met in a kind of ribald, eclectic bonhomie. Through the '60s, '70s and '80s, artists, radio and TV personalities, politicos, writers, comedians, movie stars, musicians and journalists all came to Enrico's to find out what was going down and who was doing who. The place was frequented by the city's most glorious eccentrics in its most gloriously eccentric age -- people with names like Magnolia Thunderpussy (not, the L.A. punk band, but the woman who owned a psychedelic-era erotic dessert shop that the band was named after).

In those days, if you were someone, or wanted to be, you went to Enrico's. It was a place of high drama where, on any given night, you might witness a heated argument about Proust, an assignation, a break-up, a slap, or a fistfight between rival writers, rival politicians, or rival prostitutes -- you just never knew what little bit of local history you would be witness to.

The original Enrico's closed in 1988 and The Bandooch moved to Richmond, Virginia to live near relatives and, it was said, run a hot dog stand. Then in 1994, a group of investors came together determined to reopen the famed watering hole under the name "Enrico's Sidewalk Café."

That's where I come in.

I was hired to help run the bar and make cappuccinos. That may not sound like much in our yuppified, up-and-at-em, go-getters world, but it really was something special then, like being a part of a legend. Though Enrico himself wasn't directly involved, his afterglow permeated the place, and the reputation he built for his place gave us something to strive for. He would visit and hold court whenever he came to San Francisco.

I was at Enrico's as many as five nights a week for nearly four years and every night was a new adventure. It was an education in human nature beyond the ken of most doctors of psychology, and certainly beyond most MBAs. My regular and semi-regular customers included: Ron Kovic, author of "Born on the Fourth of July;" three-dot S.F. Chronicle columnist, Herb Caen (and his ubiquitous and imperious secretary, Carol); Willie Brown; Judge Newsom, father of the current mayor, Gavin; Francis Ford Coppola (who sometimes brought in stars like Nicolas Cage and Matt Dillon); embattled police chief Dick Hongisto; famed attorney and one-time Star Trek guest star Melvin Belli; Father Guido Sarducci (Don Novello); Scott Beach, noted for his jaunty beret and sonorous voice as the host of local radio's "Music "Til Dawn" classical music program; sometime Weekly Standard contributor Stephen Schwartz, then a noisy S.F. Chron reporter; Both Barnaby Conrads (the younger bon vivant and the elder bullfighter) Jeannette Etheredge, owner of famed Tosca Café and Bar, who you should not piss off, and so many others.

Tending bar at Enrico's could be like holding court. Our patrons revered the bartender as part artist, part impresario and part shrink, and we were enormously proud of our work. We always had a new joke or story to tell, and practiced our delivery with each new telling. For my part, I spent many of my off hours in the city library researching the history of the profession, unearthing ancient and forgotten cocktails and memorizing tales of the Barbary Coast. I learned to toss two shakers at once and open a bottle of champagne Napoleonic style, chopping off the top with a saber.

Here are some of the little dramas I remember.

The Mojito -- This now ubiquitous (and usually poorly made) cocktail was all but unheard of outside Cuba and a few Cuban-American eateries and in the early '90s. Then Paul Harrington came to tend bar Enrico's. Paul was a master mixologist. I'm not sure where he got his mojito recipe, though the words "on clandestine a trip to Cuba" repeat themselves in my memory, but I've never tasted one better. Now, of course, every bar with access to fresh mint serves a mojito; Paul and Enrico's started the trend.

Was it Something I Said? -- Herb Caen was only an occasional visitor to the second incarnation of Enrico's. I'd seen the great society columnist, coiner of the term "beatnik," dandy and bon vivant around town on a number of occasions before and had always said hello. He was a friendly, genial sort of man who always had a wink and smile; a rare combination in a man with as powerful a pen as Caen had in those days. One night he came into Enrico's when I was working the cozy end of the bar. He was with his lovely wife and another couple. They sidled up and Caen ordered his trademark "vitamin V" -- Stoli with a twist served in a wine glass with ice. For some reason, I felt on the spot. Maybe I was afraid of getting a bad mention in his column next day (Herb Caen could kill with a word, though he rarely chose to do so). Anyway, the jokes dried up and all I could do was mechanically go about my job. Caen chatted with his guests awhile and when waved goodbye to me and said goodnight. I looked back at Caen and uttered the first words other than "what can I get you?" since he had arrived. With a comical shrug I asked, "Was it something I said?" Caen and every member of his party doubled over laughing. I've used that joke ever since.

The Hitch -- One slow Sunday afternoon, a sandy-haired man in a trench coat came in with a pretty woman in her 30s. I could tell right away he was a professional-grade drinker and smoker and that this just might be good. I don't remember what he ordered, but he had a sonorous voice and a rich accent from the midlands of England. We had a long conversation that ranged from the works of Oscar Wilde to the smoking laws in Davis (my home town), then the strictest in the nation. When he handed me his American Express card, I looked at the name. It read, "Christopher Hitchens." In Hitchens' Vanity Fair columns over the next couple months, he first wrote about Oscar Wilde and then about the strict smoking laws in Davis.

In the Jungle, the Mighty Jungle -- Each Monday was graced by the swinging, sophisticated sounds of Lavay Smith and Her Red Hot Skillet Lickers. On one of these Mondays, a charming-looking, white-haired gent in a Hawaiian shirt and with a Colonel Sanders "imperial" came to dine. I was surprised when the boys in the band asked him to sit in on the ivories for a couple of numbers. It was Martin Denny, of "Quiet Village" and tiki-era musical fame.

Satisfactiory! -- The one man who bridged the divide between the first and second incarnations of Enrico's was Ward Dunham. I learnt a lot from this mountain of a man. At about six-foot-four and some 250 pounds solid, Dunham was old, rough-and-tumble 'Frisco through and through. He'd been in the Special Forces in Viet Nam, and a bouncer at the 181 Club (which he always called "a bucket of blood" where they routinely threw dead beats down the long flight of stairs) and other things besides. In addition to his respected post as Enrico's master of ceremonies and bartender-in-chief, Dunham was (and still is) a world-renowned calligrapher. He once made me a set of custom business cards with "Bar Keep" emblazoned on them in hand-drawn gothic letters. Among the many kindnesses he showed me was inducting me into the Ancient and Honorable Order of E Clampus Vitus. The mass induction ceremony was held at San Quentin prison, where I was initiated along with some 30 others. It was so rowdy that it made the front page of the San Francisco Examiner a few days later. What say the Brethren…? Credo quia absurdum est!

Biker Bar -- Among Dunham's eccentric group of friends was a one Phil Gorilla. Phil was a Hell's Angel. No, I don't mean some pussy accountant who happens to own a Harley and a leather jacket and pretends to be tough on the weekends. I mean a Hell's Angel. Phil was about 6 foot 6, lean with a long beard and hair. Sometimes he wore the colors; at other times he was in a t-shirt. You didn’t fuck with him. It was said he ran string of whorehouses in Alaska, where he lived most of the year. He'd visit periodically, riding his scoot all the way down from Alaska, with his bitch -- his word -- riding behind. The last time I saw Phil at Enrico's he was getting drunk on Budweisers at the cozy end of the bar, dropping F-bombs and being generally obnoxious. Not that anyone really cared. Though it was upscale, Enrico's wasn't that kinda place and besides, if you know what's good for you, you don't fucking tell a Hell's Angel to shut up. He asked if I had any cigars behind the bar. I said no but that I'd be happy to go down the street and buy him a couple. I did and came back with two nice Cohibas. I waved him off when he offered to pay for them, and he lit up and mellowed out a bit. Later, at closing time, I was doing some cleaning when I felt a presence behind me. I spun around rather angrily -- customers don't ever go behind the bar; it's more sacred than an Indian burial ground -- and found myself looking straight into Phil Gorrilla's sternum. "Oh, God," I thought as I looked up into his terrifying, Big Foot-like face, "I did something wrong and now he's going to knock me down and kick the shit out of me." Instead, he held out his hand and said, "Just wanted to thank you for getting the cigars." Again I waved him off saying it was my pleasure, but he scowled and grumbled, "Don't insult me..." I sheepishly took the folded-up bill and stuck it in my vest pocket without looking at it. Before he left he said, "If any Angel is ever giving you hard time, tell him you're friends with Phil Gorilla." Next day I was cleaning out my vest pockets and found the bill. It was a C-note.

I remember a lot of frustration at that time. I was "only" a bartender while my friends were getting their degrees and starting careers and going places, but looking back I wouldn't trade that education for any piece of paper in the world. It was, for a moment, a sort of gilded -- if not golden -- era.

Thanks, Bandooch. I'm having one for you tonight.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Gene Savoy

In which we celebrate a genuine American eccentric

It's a good bet that Gene Savoy was not exactly playing with a full deck. So what? He was colorful and bold and lived his life his own God damned way.

Never heard of him? That's not suprising. He was one of those delightful crackpots of the latter half of the last century, an amateur adeventurer and explorer out prove his own pet theories about how the world we live in got to be the world we live in. He was akin to men like Thor Heyerdahl -- who piloted the raft, Kon Tiki, across the Pacific in order to prove that South Pacific was settled by South American Indians and not people from Asia -- and Dana & Ginger Lamb, who sailed their own kayak from San Diego to Panama in search of lost cities and buried treasure.

Savoy's exploits included expeditions to unearth some of what are today considered Peru's most important archeological sites, incuding the lost cities of Vilcabamba, thought to be the last refuge of the Incas from the Conquistadores, Gran Pajaten and some 40 other ancient cities and settlements. He also sailed the Atlantic and Pacfic in reed-built watercraft in order to show that many ancient civilizations had contact with one another across the vast oceans and long before Columbus.

Later, Savoy started his own foundation, called the Andean Explorers Foundation & Ocean Sailing Club, whose main purpose was to fund Savoy's adventures. Nice work if you can get it, right Gene? Clever fellow.

He wrote many articles and books of his adventures, such as Antisuyo: The Search for the Lost Cities of the Amazon. Later in life, Savoy became something of a religious nut, essentially inventing his own quasi-Christian theology. He was, I believe, a member of the Adventurers' Club.

Savoy died in his home in Reno, Sept. 11, 2007, aged 80.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Snow Job

In which we comment upon the weather, etc.

Last night was cold by Southern California standards. I even considered turning on the heat. I refrained, though I did spread an extra blanket.

This morning dawned crisp and clear, the clearest I've seen it in a while. The sky was a perfect, cloudless, glowing field of blue, darkening to purple at the horizon. The desert alpine mountains of the valley stood out against this azure canvas, each contour and color vivid.

It was nice.

Took Nora's hybrid up to Lancaster, on the edge of the Mojave near Edwards Air Force Base, to look at a car I was thinking of buying. I did not buy the car, but the journey through the high desert hills was worth the time.

I stopped at the Vasquez Rocks, famous for being the backdrop for many westerns, as well an episode of Star Trek (the Gorn one) and one of the Star Trek movies (the one where Picard kills Kirk and takes his place).

I also noticed early snow on the north face of Baldy. Hopefully, this is the sign of a good snow season. I'm ready to ride again, after two years' hiatus.