Archive for March, 2013

Uncle David

Wednesday, March 27th, 2013

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser March 2013)

My uncle David Walton died in China on March 8 at the ripe old age of eighty-seven, just a week ago as I write this, yet I have already received an email with photographs from the lovely memorial service that was held for him in Xichang where David lived and taught English for the last several years, his Xichang friends and students in attendance. And that memorial service email was just one of many I have received so far along with several phone calls from a tiny fraction of the hundreds of people who knew and loved David.

David was the youngest of three brothers, my father Charles the eldest, Robert in the middle. They grew up in Beverly Hills, their father a bookkeeper for movie stars and people who needed a bookkeeper, his most famous client Hedy Lamarr. The child movie star Jackie Cooper lived down the street and the Walton boys attended one of Jackie’s birthday parties when David was very young. The brothers graduated from Beverly Hills High, where my father met my mother, and David went to MIT, as did Robert, the alma mater of their father, while my dad broke with family tradition and went to UCLA after which he attended medical school in San Francisco.

Upon graduating from MIT, David returned to Los Angeles and went to work for his father as a bookkeeper for some years, and when his father semi-retired in the early 1950’s, David relocated with his parents and brother Robert, who was by then severely disabled, to Carmel and Monterey, which is when my firsthand memories of Uncle David begin.

David was a handsome man, graceful and charming. In middle and old age he resembled the actor Alec Guinness to such a remarkable degree that after the first Star Wars movie came out, people frequently approached him thinking he was Obi-Wan Kenobi. I know this to be true because I was with David on two occasions when he was waylaid by star-struck people wanting Obi-Wan’s autograph.

David wore the same outfit every day of his life starting when he was in his early twenties. Unless he was backpacking in his beloved Sierras, he wore black shoes, black socks, black slacks, white dress shirt, bow tie, and black dinner jacket. In the privacy of his home he liked to wear a silk bathrobe. His bow tie was most often black, but occasionally plaid, the plaid of the Ross clan, which Uncle Bob discovered was a big part of our Scottish lineage. David told me that wearing the same clothes every day—his uniform as he called it—saved him time and trouble and money, made his suitcase light, and fulfilled his vision of himself as a kind of butler-at-large.

A butler? Yes. David told me that when he was eleven, circa 1937, he saw the movie My Man Godfrey, and thereafter knew who and what he wanted to be. The movie is a zany comedy starring the charismatic William Powell as a derelict who becomes a butler in the home of a wealthy and highly dysfunctional family, the female lead played by Carole Lombard. David told me that William Powell’s character Godfrey, the confidante and indispensable aide to everyone in the family, became David’s ideal for the kind of person he wanted to be; and to a remarkable degree David’s life reflected his adherence to the role of an indispensable servant, in butler’s dress no less.

In Rudyard Kipling’s novel Kim, the young hero is known to his admirers as Little Friend of All the World, and that, too, describes Uncle David, for he had legions of friends around the world, many of them falling under his spell while being served by him in one or another of the famous eateries he opened in Monterey, first in the 1950’s and then again in the 1980’s.

The first place David opened (circa 1955) was a coffee house, the Sancho Panza, in downtown Monterey when Monterey was a still a sleepy little town and Cannery Row was boarded up and abandoned. Sancho Panza, you will recall, was the loyal servant to Don Quixote, and David was the loyal servant to the public that came to hang out in that now mythic café for the decade when it was a cultural epicenter for artists and renegades and sophisticates and regular folk of Monterey and Carmel and Pacific Grove, as well as a wonderful surprise for tourists and travelers from far and wide.

The Sancho Panza, according to David, was home to the second genuine Italian espresso coffee machine on the entire west coast of North America when he first opened his doors, the first such machine being in Caffé Trieste in North Beach, the founders of that famous coffee joint being David’s friends and through whom David got his machine. Henry Miller, Joan Baez, Alan Watts, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gary Snyder, and Bob Dylan were among the many writers and artists and musicians who frequented the Sancho Panza, the coffee drinks legendary, as were the fruit frappes David concocted to go with yummy comestibles.

David would eventually open a little bookstore upstairs over the café, and in the early 1960’s David opened his second establishment The Palace on Cannery Row, which was one of the earliest sparks leading to the revival of that now aquarium-centric hot spot. The Palace was a beer and sandwich joint with a stage for live performers, and I regret I never got to experience The Palace in full swing. The Sancho Panza, on the other hand, was the highlight of our trips to visit my grandparents, and I would always have a peach or banana frappe and a cookie while hanging on Uncle David’s every word.

And while he was running the Sancho Panza and The Palace and performing in local theatre productions, David continued to be his brother Bob’s main caretaker, Bob having been paralyzed on the entire right side of his body as the result of a terrible car accident when he was in his mid-twenties. David was also a daily visitor to his parents’ house just up the hill from his café, his mother and father staunch Republicans and proud members of the John Birch Society, while the lefties and lesbians and Buddhists and artists gathered at the Sancho Panza to drink cappuccinos and revel in the Bohemian joint that David built.

Then in 1966, much to the shock and dismay of his many friends and followers, David announced he was selling both the Sancho Panza and The Palace and going to Vietnam to open USO clubs for the troops. David’s father, my grandfather, had recently died, and David had settled his mother into a nice apartment he shared with her on the beach in Monterey, and he arranged for people to do for Bob what he had been doing for Bob, and off he went to Vietnam.

“When I got off the jet in Saigon,” David told me, “and I was being driven to the site of the first club I opened, I felt deep in my bones I’m home. I’m finally home.” He came to realize that this feeling of being home was not so much about Vietnam as it was about Asia, for after a few years in Vietnam, David moved to Thailand and lived in and around Bangkok for many years. He came back to America fairly often to check on Bob and visit his many friends, but he was committed to living in Thailand where he was planning to build a retirement community and open a restaurant on an island owned by wealthy Thai friends.

I am, believe me, skating over the surface of David’s life, much of it unknown to me. When in 1978, I published my first novel Inside Moves, I let David know that Doubleday was throwing a publication party for me in Manhattan, and David sent me a roster of a dozen of his New York City friends he wanted me to invite. I did invite them and they all came out of loyalty to David, among them corporate executives, college professors, and penniless poets. One of the wealthy executives bought a dozen copies of my book and said as I signed them, “It is a great honor to meet the nephew of David Walton.”

“How do you know David?” I asked him.

“We go way back,” he said, winking mysteriously. “He’s a great man. One of the greatest.”

Then in 1984, just as David was about to open a Thai-American restaurant in Thailand, a friend called and offered him a restaurant location across the street from the brand new Monterey Bay Aquarium, and as David told me, “I couldn’t pass up the chance, so I brought my crew from Thailand and we opened the Beau Thai.” And that restaurant, known as David Walton’s Beau Thai, was soon famous and adored by locals as well as tourists, and David settled back into life in Monterey in his little beachside apartment, which he shared with two and sometimes three folks from Thailand.

No matter the season, David would take a daily plunge in frigid Monterey Bay before donning his uniform and heading off to the Beau Thai. Sadly, at the zenith of the Beau Thai’s popularity, tax trouble forced David to close the place, after which he returned to Thailand where he became entranced with the idea of moving to China, which he eventually did. David’s first home in China was an apartment in the enormous city of Chengdu where he lived for some years before moving to Xichang in the foothills of the Himalayas where he swam in Lake Qionghai, taught English to eager students (though he spoke no Chinese) and lived quite happily until he died. His sole income was from a pittance, less than eight hundred dollars a month, from Social Security, “Which is more than enough,” David told me, “to live quite well in Xichang.”

“I will cross over on my ninetieth birthday,” he said to me on several occasions, and though he died three years shy of ninety, knowing David as I do, I would not be surprised if he waits to cross over entirely until another three years have gone by, which would be fine with me because he was a wonderful spirit, a vibrant fun-loving soul who always encouraged me on my less traveled path, which was a great boon to me.

I have barely scratched the surface of David’s life in this telling, and I have at least a hundred good stories to tell about David, but that is nothing to the thousands, nay, tens of thousands of stories his many friends could tell about him, which supports my lifelong suspicion that there must have been more than one of this astounding fellow.

Here is one very telling story about David. When he was a young man, he drove up from Monterey in his famous yellow convertible Volkswagen bug to visit relatives in Oakland, and stopped at a florist’s shop to get flowers to bring to his cousins. He entered the shop to find the owners, a middle-aged couple, in crisis because their delivery person had suddenly walked off the job. Without a moment’s hesitation, David said, “I will be happy to deliver flowers for you,” which he did for the rest of that day and the next. He became fast friends with the couple, visited them many times over the ensuing years, they came to the Sancho Panza when in Monterey, and when the woman’s husband died, David helped the woman move to a commodious trailer on a lot in Vallejo, a lot and trailer, along with all the woman’s earthly possessions, that David inherited when she died.

David told me that story when I visited him in a tree house he’d built in a gigantic old pine tree in Pacific Grove on the property of a good friend. The tree house was full of books and things he’d inherited from his parents and various folks who loved him along his way.

“Take anything you want,” he said to me. “I’m not attached to any of it. But do let me have a look at what you take before you go and I’ll tell you the story behind it.”

Route 66

Thursday, March 14th, 2013

(Philanthropist painting by Nolan Winkler)

“If you ever plan to motor west,

Travel my way, take the highway that is best.

Get your kicks on route sixty-six.” Bob Troup

As I peruse the many articles decrying the ruination of towns and independent businesses by big box stores such as Walmart, and I read about Ukiah groveling at the feet of Costco and wasting millions of precious dollars to bring that destructive horror show to town, I recall that the largest assault on the remarkably diverse and egalitarian America of the 1960’s (egalitarian compared to America in 2013) was the construction of the Interstate Highway System, without which many of the fast food restaurants and chain stores and big box stores of today, not to mention much of suburbia, would never have come into being.

A popular television show of my childhood (1960-1964) was Route 66, a weekly hour-long drama about two handsome young men driving around America on Route 66 and having adventures with all kinds of different kinds of people in small towns and big towns and cities connected by that particular ribbon of highway. What I remember most clearly about the show was that the two guys—Martin Milner as Tod Stiles and George Maharis as Buz Murdock—drove a groovy Corvette convertible through cornfields and deserts and towns accompanied by beautiful dreamy traveling music (composed by Nelson Riddle and performed by his dreamy orchestra.)

The actual Route 66 was a 2500-mile highway that existed from 1926 until 1985 and ran from Santa Monica California to Chicago Illinois connecting thousands of pre-existing towns and cities in California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, Missouri, and Illinois, most of those towns thriving as a result of the vastly increased commerce the highway brought them.

The Interstate Highway System, on the other hand, was designed to connect large population centers and bypass thousands of small and medium-sized towns, thus rendering them irrelevant to the larger economic forces driving the national and global economies. Many of those bypassed towns have since become ghost towns, while chain restaurants and motel chains and gas pumping stations (as opposed to service stations) have spread like cancers over our now freeway-crisscrossed land.

“President Eisenhower gave the nation its biggest construction project, the huge interstate-highway program that changed the shape of American society and made possible the expansion of the suburban middle class.” James M. Perry

Ah, the suburban middle class, as opposed to the rural or urban middle class. A friend of mine used to call the suburbs carburbia because living in the suburbs was virtually impossible without a car. Nowadays, I suppose, one could live in the suburbs, work and shop on the interweb, have everything delivered by UPS and not be totally dependent on automobiles, but if one could live that way why would one choose to live in an ugly culturally vapid suburb instead of in a groovy city or a splendiferous rural area? One probably wouldn’t.

“Our interstate highways make of America one gigantic assembly line of production.” Ellis Armstrong

I used to know a guy who drove a gigantic truck, the biggest truck allowable on the road, for a national chain of pizza parlors. He lived in eastern Kansas with his wife and three sons, but he was rarely home because the nature of his job was akin to being in the Merchant Marines. He would be away for two months at a stretch, home for two weeks, and then back out on the road for another two months, and so on. He truly worked on the “gigantic assembly line of production” for this pizza chain, and when he described his job to me I felt certain the world had gone mad.

He drove all over America, from California to Florida to Pennsylvania to Illinois to everywhere, picking up raw foodstuffs for assembling pizzas and salads and pasta dishes, as well as other supplies needed to stock a pizza parlor. He delivered these materials to a gigantic assembly plant somewhere in the middle of the country, and carried away from that plant hundreds of thousands of frozen pizzas and palettes of paper plates and napkins and salad mixes and soda pop and whatnot to be delivered to sub-stations around America from which smaller trucks would ferry the fixings to individual pizza parlors. And as my friend delivered the finished goods, so to speak, space would open up in his gigantic trailers and he would fill that space with more raw materials, and so on. Doesn’t it make you want to rush out and get a frozen pizza right now?

“Well! Evil to some is always good to others.” Jane Austen

I find it fascinating that so many Americans love going to Europe because so much of what used to be true about America is still true there. Small towns, little farms, ancient ways of life ongoing, cities with crooked streets, winding roads, trains going everywhere, all kinds of different kinds of people and ways of living existing side by side, so many people walking and riding bicycles and buying bread at local bakeries, every loaf unique. Lovely shops and bookstores and villages, herds of sheep in narrow lanes, donkeys braying, old picturesque churches, little museums and art galleries and fabulous food found in marvelous pubs and cafés and restaurants and inns, no two alike—richness and diversity!

Then these millions of Europe-adoring Americans come home and shop at big box stores and chains because why pay a dollar forty-nine for that can of tomato sauce at your neighborhood grocery store when you can get the same can of tomato sauce at Walmart for ninety-nine cents? Why pay fourteen dollars at your local bookstore (if you’re lucky enough to have such a thing) for the same book you can get on Amazon for 30% less? Why pay more? Why shop at your local stationery store (if you’re lucky enough to have one) when the same-sized envelopes, well, shit, you can get five hundred of those same-sized envelopes at Office Depot or Staples for practically nothing.

And these Europe-loving folk never seem to make the connection between the way they buy things in Europe and what they love about Europe—variety, surprise, depth, small, unique, locally grown, fresh! Nor do they connect the way they buy things in America and what they hate about America—sameness, blandness, stale, shallow, plastic, made somewhere else. Why, I wonder, don’t these people, some of them my dear friends, make the connection between where we buy things and the ongoing ruination of America and the world? Perhaps because we have become so enslaved to convenience and the illusion of paying less for more, that to admit our actions are the cause of the problem and then change our behavior would be too painful for us, too inconvenient, too costly.

“This place is great! You should franchise this.” exuberant tourist overheard in Mendocino’s Good Life Café and Bakery

Mendocino, for example, is a popular tourist destination largely because there are no chain restaurants here, no big box stores, no fast food, no Starbucks or McDonald’s or Taco Bell adorning the bluffs overlooking the mighty Pacific. The houses and storefronts are old and quaint, relatively speaking, and to fully enjoy the town and discover her secret charms one must walk around. Imagine. The best way to experience the European feel of the few square blocks in not-really-very-much-here Mendocino is to leave the car behind and stretch those legs. What a concept! I actually think walking around, that act alone, is a big part of what people like about coming to Mendocino. Forced out of their perpetual sitting positions, they end up enjoying how good moving their extremities makes them feel.

“Paris!” countless people have said to me. “We walked everywhere! It was glorious.”

“England! They have trains and buses that go everywhere. So many wonderful villages and small towns and winding country roads. We walked our butts off. Glorious!”

“Holland! We walked and rode bicycles everywhere! And the cheese! The bread! Glorious!”

Ditto Sweden, Spain, Italy, Germany, etc.

“There’s no place like home. There’s no place like home.” Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz

So the next time you pull into Trader Joe’s or Costco or Walmart or Staples or any of those places we go to save a few bucks, think about the Buddhist idea that we are the owners of our own karma, that we create our happiness and unhappiness through our actions and the choices we make, both as individuals and collectively. Then we might better understand that choosing to shop locally at one-of-a-kind stores is how we can help create a happier and more interesting reality right here at home.

Greed Redux

Wednesday, March 6th, 2013

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser March 2013)

“It has always seemed strange to me…the things we admire in men, kindness and generosity, openness, honesty, understanding and feeling, are the concomitants of failure in our system. And those traits we detest, sharpness, greed, acquisitiveness, meanness, egotism and self-interest, are the traits of success. And while men admire the quality of the first they love the produce of the second.” John Steinbeck

This may be a stretch, but stretching is good for us, so…it seems to me that everything going on with our psychotic leaders in Washington these days is concisely echoed on the local level and in our personal lives. This week the propaganda peeps refer to the ongoing fiscal crisis as the sequester (how Medieval sounding!) as opposed to the fiscal cliff they scared us with a couple months ago, but the crisis is the same crisis: greed. And the emotion perpetuating this greed is fear: the fear of not having enough. The fear driving our psychotic leaders, alas, is very real, while the basis for their fear is imagined.

I’ve long been fascinated by statistics showing that my generation, the so-called Baby Boomers and primary beneficiaries of that mythic era known as The Sixties—a time renowned for sharing and love and connecting with Mother Earth—are the most materialistic, greedy, self-serving people who have ever lived. Of course The Sixties didn’t cause us to become so anti-Sixties in our behavior; our parents are responsible for that, and our parents were children of the Great Depression, a time when their fear of not having enough had some basis in reality rather than fantasy. And, as it happens, most of the psychopaths now holding sway in our federal and state and local governments and courts are children of the children of the Great Depression.

My parents, for example, grew up skirting poverty and survived the Great Depression to become solidly middle-class. Our family was never in danger of starving or being evicted, yet when my siblings and I were little kids my mother would frequently rail at us during supper, usually under the influence of alcohol, that if my father failed to bring home money that very evening we would be headed for the Poor House. To my inventive young mind, the poor house was a large stone building with a dirt floor strewn with rotting straw; and that’s where we were going if my father didn’t come home with money. I wondered if I would go to the same school I was currently attending while we lived in the Poor House or if there was a Poor House school with cruel teachers who would beat us for talking out of turn, which was my great failing as a student.

By the time I was in my twenties, my parents were unquestionably wealthy, and that wealth continued to grow for the rest of their lives, yet they never for a moment felt they had enough money, and this feeling was so strong in them that it was only with the greatest difficulty they would share their money with anyone, including their own children. When my father died, he left behind a letter to me he had lacked the courage to send while he was alive, a letter in which he enumerated the two reasons he had never given me any money despite his having millions of dollars while I lived on the edge of poverty for many years. First, he did not want to support me on what he considered a frivolous and wrongheaded path as a writer and artist, and second, he did not think he had enough money for himself.

“Leadership is a privilege to better the lives of others. It is not an opportunity to satisfy personal greed.” Mwai Kibaki

When I moved to Sacramento in 1980, the city council was stacked with people in the service of unscrupulous real estate developers, and my arrival in town coincided with the election of a new council member who had campaigned as a vehement opponent of the idiotic and shortsighted development that was laying waste to the Sacramento area. And then, quite publicly, within just a few months of his election, this fellow moved from a low rent apartment into a fine new home in the best part of town and went to work for the very developers he had vowed to fight. My environmentalist friends who had been so jubilant about his election were saddened but barely surprised by his conversion, for such dramatic ideological shifts were commonplace in that deeply corrupt city.

I, in my innocence, became involved with groups in Sacramento pushing for environmentally sensible alternatives to the New General Plan for the future development of Sacramento. But after a few years of attending symposiums and planning commission meetings, and realizing there was absolutely zero public support for any substantive change in business as usual, I watched in horrified fascination as a bunch of amoral sharks engineered a huge land heist under the guise of bringing an NBA franchise to Sacramento, a heist that obviated any hope of decent mass transit to the airport and improving air quality in the city. And once I realized there was no stopping the annihilation of the Sacramento Valley, and to save myself from the ever worsening noxious fumes engulfing our state’s capitol, I got out of Dodge, and none too soon.

“For greed all nature is too little.” Lucius Annaeus Seneca

Meanwhile, our psychotic leaders, who enjoy at our expense free and excellent healthcare and fabulous annual salaries, continue to call each other names and spout idiotic gibberish about the economy while failing to do anything to help the many millions of Americans who are in dire economic straits because of the actions of excessively wealthy people and corporations who paid for the election of said psychotic leaders, for whom those millions of struggling Americans are not people, but lower forms of life.

I used to be amazed when otherwise sensitive and intelligent friends would speak of homeless people as a separate species of hominid from housed people. And though I knew this gross insensitivity came from their not really knowing any homeless people, I still found their tendency to dehumanize people shocking, until one day I had a moment of enlightenment while sailing on San Francisco Bay in a little sailboat with five other people, the five of them homeowners with rental properties, I the only renter in the party.

As I rejoined the group after fastening down a yardarm or some such nautical thing I’d been told to do, I found the conversation had changed from harbor seals to what at first I thought must be a discussion of how to get rid of rats or vermin, but turned out to be a griping session about the terrible species of hominid known as Homo Renterus. And after five minutes of listening to these otherwise perfectly nice, liberal, educated, self-proclaimed Buddhists referring to their renters in highly distasteful terms, I could hold my peace no longer and said, “Excuse me, but I am a renter routinely abused by my landlord, and I find this discussion deplorable. Might we change the subject?”

Needless to say, I was never invited to that party again, on land or sea. And what I took away from the experience was that there is something so inherently hierarchical about our culture (or is it our species?) that most people tend to dehumanize those they perceive to have less than they, and lionize those with more. My parents did this and many people I know do this, too, and I probably do the same thing without knowing I’m doing it, and I wonder what possible value such behavior could have in terms of cultural evolution, other than to maintain the status quo of the haves lording it over the have-nots.

“Compassion is the natural response to an open heart, but that wellspring of compassion remains capped as long as we turn away from or deny or resist the truth of what is there.” Joseph Goldstein

In my readings of Buddhist dharma, I come again and again to passages concerning the universality of suffering, and how we develop compassion by opening our hearts, both to our own suffering and the suffering of others. And it occurs to me that by dehumanizing others we spare ourselves the discomfort of opening our hearts to their suffering. If those landlords on that sailboat opened their hearts to the suffering of their tenants, they would no longer think of them as enemies. And if our psychotic leaders could open their hearts (assuming they have hearts) to the suffering of the American people and people in other countries, they would not be able to carry out their entirely self-serving policies that are so cruel and hurtful to so many.

So I’m working on ideas for bumper stickers about this and I’ve got the gist of what I want to say, but I need some help here. What do you think about OPEN YOUR HEARTS, YOU ASSHOLES! Or HEY YOU INSENSITIVE POOPHEADS, YOU’RE NOT THE ONLY HUMANS ON THIS SPACESHIP. Or YOU’RE NOT OKAY IF I’M NOT OKAY.

But maybe that’s being too subtle.