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Uncle David

davidwalton

(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.”

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Close Calls

Hawk pen and ink drawing by Todd

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser January 2012)

“Fate laughs at probabilities.”  E.G. Bulwer-Lytton

For me to be born, my parents had to meet at Beverly Hills High in 1939, which only happened because in 1932, when my mother Avis was eleven, she went on a long walk in Phoenix, Arizona and learned from the announcement on a hotel marquee that Tommy Dorsey and his band were playing there that very night.

Avis took that fateful walk because she was tired of being cooped up in a motel room with her seven-year-old brother Howard and her thirty-three-year-old mother Goody, and because she was sad and lonely and didn’t know what else to do. Avis and Goody and Howard were living in that Phoenix motel room, having hurriedly left Los Angeles some weeks before, because Goody was fed up with her husband Casey for failing for the umpteenth time to bring home enough bacon, so to speak, to keep the bill collectors at bay and put sufficient food on the table for two growing kids. Casey was a real estate broker and a gambler, and in the depths of the Great Depression things were not going well for him in either field. Goody and Casey were Jewish, their last name Weinstein, and so their struggles were compounded by the fierce anti-Semitism of those times. They would eventually change their last name to Winton so they could pretend not to be Jewish, a tactic they hoped would increase their options for housing and employment.

Why Phoenix? Family lore has it that Phoenix was as far as they got before Goody ran out of money. Goody’s parents were in Michigan where Goody was born, so perhaps Goody’s plan was to get back to the Jewish ghetto of Detroit where her relatives would not let her starve. But I think Goody chose Phoenix because it was just close enough to Los Angeles (an eight-hour drive) for Casey to visit every weekend to give Goody a little money, if he had any, and to beg her to come back to him. Goody was adamant she would not come back to him until he started making good money and giving most of that money to her.

So. Imagine a lazy Saturday in sunny Phoenix, 1932. Casey, a handsome fast-talking rogue with a Cesar Romero mustache, sat at the tiny table in the kitchenette of a little motel room, sipping coffee and speechifying to Goody and Howard about how very close he was to making several big real estate deals that would lift them out of poverty and into a life of luxury. How did my grandparents define a life of luxury? A nice house in Beverly Hills, a new car (Cadillac or Lincoln), music lessons for the kids, membership in a swank country club, servants, dining out at the best joints in town, and owning several apartment buildings providing endless rivers of cash.

“Name one deal you’re about to make,” snarled Goody, sick to death of Casey’s hollow braggadocio. “A real deal, not some pie in the sky.”

At which moment, my mother, Avis Gloria, returned from her walk. She was a slender girl with long black hair and huge brown eyes, and she was very serious, for her life had not been happy; and she strove to be perfect in every way so she might escape the wrath of her fiercely disenchanted mother.

“Well…” said Casey, clearing his throat portentously, “as a matter-of-fact, I had a call from Tommy Dorsey himself last week about a piece of property I own in the San Fernando Valley, and I would have closed the deal, but he was leaving the next day to go on tour, but when he comes back…”

“He’s here,” said my mother, smiling sadly at her father. “I saw his name on the hotel marquee.”

“Dorsey’s here?” said Casey, jumping up. “Fantastic! I’ll go see him right now.”

So Casey did go see Tommy, and the big band leader was so impressed with the charming young man for chasing him all the way to Phoenix (what chutzpah!), Tommy wrote Casey a check for fifteen hundred dollars (which in 1932 was a fortune) and Casey came back to the motel waving the check in victory. Hugs, tears, laughter, reunion, a celebratory return to Los Angeles and eventual matriculation at Beverly Hills High where my mother met the future conveyor of the spermatozoon that fertilized her zygote, etc.

Had my mother not gone on her lonely walk through downtown Phoenix, and had she not seen Tommy Dorsey’s name on that hotel marquee, I would never have been born. Or…one could argue that my mother had to go on that walk because her doing so was an essential ingredient in the unfathomably complex recipe of events designed by faultless Universe to produce…everything.

“A person often meets his destiny on the road he took to avoid it.” Jean de La Fontaine

A fundamental precept of Buddhist philosophy is that our internal emotional processes create our outer experiences. Thus we may run away from unpleasant situations and miserable relationships, but until we change our psycho-spiritual landscape, it doesn’t really matter where we go, for new unpleasant situations and miserable relationships will inevitably manifest as reflections of our interior patterns.

In my former life as CEO of Avoidance Strategies Ink, a highly unprofitable one-person for-profit organization dedicated to running day and night just a few inches ahead of a murderous threshing machine of self-generated karma, the idea that I was responsible for my own troubles was extremely annoying to me. Indeed, I was absolutely convinced that other people were responsible for my unhappiness; that my sorrowful history was writ by scoundrels taking unfair advantage of my intrinsic kindness and generosity. True, some of these men and women had not, at first, seemed to be scoundrels or to be taking advantage of me, but eventually I was able to fit them all squarely into the scoundrel category. And then I turned thirty and stopped fleeing every year from one town to another.

“What connexion can there have been between many people in the innumerable histories of this world, who, from opposite sides of great gulfs, have, nevertheless, been very curiously brought together!” Charles Dickens

When we first become aware of a lifelong pattern of behavior that has caused us recurrent misery, we tend to think, “Well, now that I’m aware of the pattern I certainly won’t make that mistake again.” Ha! Conscious awareness of part of a deeply entrenched pattern of behavior does not mean we will be able to recognize subtle variations of that pattern, especially since we are almost certainly addicted to the emotional sustenance such patterns provide.

For instance, I am the child of two verbally abusive and highly intrusive alcoholics. Therefore, from an early age I was predisposed to form friendships and relationships with variations on that parental prototype. In textbook terms, I became a Grade AA co-dependent enabler who craved the company of people who constantly undermined my feelings of self-worth and required me to do my best to keep them in booze while maintaining the pseudo functionality of our dyad/family. When, at the age of forty-two, I finally became fully aware of my lifelong relational pattern, I was able to terminate a number of deleterious connections and avoid forming new liaisons with obvious alcoholics and obviously abusive people; but life, as I’m sure you know, has much more up her sleeve than the obvious. And so I embarked on a curious series of relationships with people who had developed passive aggression to a high art, and who were essentially unavailable to me, no matter how mightily I strove to please them.

“You’ll always miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” Wayne Gretzky

In 1970, hitchhiking across Canada from east to west, I got a ride from a middle-aged guy driving a turquoise 1966 Ford Fairlane. I had been camped for three days beside the Trans-Canadian highway in the middle of nowhere on the plains of Saskatchewan, and I was so desperate for a ride, I disregarded the stench of cigarettes and cheap wine and got in the car, though my every instinct said No Thanks.

Lon was a badly bruised bull from a small town in Arkansas, “a hunnert miles from Little Rock,” and had been on the run for three years, having thrown a policeman out a two-story window back home. “I don’t know if he died or not,” said Lon, rummaging in his glove compartment. “Didn’t stick around to find out. You see a baggy in there with some whites? I’m fading out. Need some speed.”

“I’ll drive,” I said, thinking I’d quit the ride if he refused my offer.

“Good deal,” he said, showing me his shortage of teeth with a weary grin. “I need sleep bad, but can’t stop until I get to Calgary.”

So I drove and Lon slept, Calgary eight hundred miles away, and I marveled at the exigencies of fate. Why this guy? Why not a pretty woman looking for love? Why not a groovy band looking for a guitar player? Why not a Lakota holy man looking for an apprentice? Why a smelly old drunk on the lam?

In the course of our journey together, Lon told me over and over again how he caught the cop in bed with his wife, threw the sombitch out the window, slugged his wife—“Purty sure I broke her jaw from the sound of it”—and figured he, Lon, was a dead man one way or another if he didn’t get out of Arkansas pronto. “Went to Florida first,” he said, lighting another of his endless cigarettes, “cuz I heard my brother Floyd was workin’ the carny circuit in the panhandle over there, but that sombitch always stays a few days ahead of me, not that he knows I’m lookin’ for him. Sombitch in Winnipeg said he heard Floyd was runnin’ a Ferris wheel at Calgary Stampede, and that party lasts ten days, so…”

We stopped for gas in another part of the middle of nowhere and Lon bought a fistful of candy bars for supper. He said he made his money working in garages doing oil changes and lube jobs and changing tires. Said he could change a tire in a couple minutes, “but I’m shit for a mechanic.” He said he also made money as a bouncer in bars where “fast women, pissed off men, too much booze, and terrible loud music spell trouble.”

“Dangerous,” I offered, stating the obvious.

“I like to hit people,” he said, nodding. “And I don’t mind gettin’ hit. Actually kinda like it. Wakes me up. Helps me focus. You know?”

Just as we were about to drive off with our candy bars, two raggedy longhaired goons came out of nowhere and asked if they could ride with us. One of them was a large blond goon with a big Bowie knife in a black sheath on his belt, and the other was a lesser brunette goon with a lesser knife on his belt; and their vibe, their gestalt, if you will, was bad, and I don’t mean good. They stunk of violence. Lon saw my fear, snorted contemptuously, and said to the goons, “Sure, why the fuck not?”

Every cell in my body screamed Don’t get in that car with those sombitches, Todd. Please. We, your every cell, would rather stand by the side of the road for a month than travel with those monsters.

But I did get in with those sombitches because I was desperate to get out of nowhere and because…well, because. Lon drove, I rode shotgun, and the goons rode in back. And I could feel those monsters trying to decide whether to force Lon at knifepoint to pull over so they could take the car, or whether to just kill us and take the car, or whether to get to Calgary before they killed anybody. I suppose I might have been imagining their violent intentions, but I don’t think so.

For a short infinity the goons seemed cowed by Lon’s bouncer stories featuring the breaking of many noses, arms, and heads, but then the stories began to ring with false bravado and the larger goon said, “Hey, man, pull over. I gotta pee.”

He made this demand as dusk was settling over the plains and we were in the deepest depths of the middle of nowhere; not another car in sight for as far as the eye could see in any direction.

“Yeah,” said the lesser goon. “Pull the fuck over, man.”

To which Lon replied tersely, “In a minute.”

“Hey, man, I can’t wait,” said the big goon. “Just pull the fuck over.”

“You heard him,” said the lesser goon. “He can’t wait.”

“In a minute,” Lon repeated. “Place right up the way here with a john. I gotta go, too. Number two.” And then he laughed a dry, brittle laugh, which ignited in him a horrid fit of coughing that lasted several minutes, which at eighty-five miles an hour carried us up and over a long rise and down into a valley at the heart of which was a blessed roadside burger stand where we parked amidst a bevy of trucks.

I was determined not to travel another minute with the goons, even if it meant homesteading in western Saskatchewan, so while the goons went to pee in the sagebrush and Lon used the modern facilities, I got my pack and guitar out of the Fairlane.

The goons came back to the car and the large goon said to me, “You gettin’ out here?”

“Maybe,” I said, looking him in the eye to see if I still thought he was a killer, which I did.

And then a most peculiar thing happened, something I am tempted to call a miracle, except I know the word miracle bugs the crap out of some people, so I’ll stick with peculiar. I became someone I hadn’t known was part of who I am—a kind of warrior actor.

“I get violent sometimes,” I said, looking at the ground and nodding. “Crazy. You know? Like I have so much fucking strength I’m gonna explode if I don’t do something with it. And I don’t like to be around other people when I’m feeling like this because I’m afraid I might hurt somebody even if I don’t want to hurt anybody, which I never do unless I think they want to hurt me.”

The goons listened intently—watching me.

“I can do impossible things with my strength,” I said, continuing to look at the ground and nod. “Like…”

I looked up and scanned the parking area, and about fifty yards away from us stood a big gray metal garbage can.

“You see that can over there?” I said, glaring at the big goon.

“Yeah,” said the big goon, glancing anxiously at the lesser goon.

“Watch,” I said, reaching down and picking up a black stone the size of a baseball. “Watch this.”

Then, with the briefest of forethought, I threw that stone at the garbage can, and the stone arced high through the purple dusk, reached the apex of its flight, and fell down into the can—a collision sounding like a gunshot.

“Fuck,” said the big goon, backing away from me.

“Yeah,” said the lesser goon. “Fuck.”

And those two, who were just people, did not travel on with us, but waved goodbye as Lon and I drove off into the sunset, the Fairlane purring like a huge contented cat.