Wednesday, July 1, 2015


In 1921, producer Hal Roach created the Our Gang series of short films.  Later renamed The Little Rascals, Roach sought to depict "real kids doing real things." The ensemble of memorable characters included Spanky, Darla, Buckwheat, Froggy, Stymie and Pete the dog. By far the most popular rascal was Alfalfa.

Carl "Alfalfa" Switzer was born in Paris, Illinois in 1927.  He grew up during the Depression and his parents were unemployed and broke.  In 1935, the family took a trip to Los Angeles.  They drove to Hal Roach Studios in Culver City and visited the Our Gang Cafe just outside the studio gates.  Carl and his brother Harold began singing and dancing in the cafe and in classic Hollywood fashion, they were immediately signed by the studio.

Carl was cast as Alfalfa and appeared in his first Our Gang film "Beginner's Luck" in 1936.  (Harold became an extra.)  With his ill-fitting suit, freckles and high cowlick, Alfalfa quickly became a star.  According to co-star Darla Hood, "Alfalfa was once mobbed by fans outside the studio while Clark Gable stood by unnoticed."

Alfalfa's shtick included an off-key singing voice and ongoing efforts to woo love interest Darla while fending off the local bully Butch.  On camera, Alfalfa was charming and likable.  But off screen, Carl Switzer was an obnoxious bully hated by cast and crew.

Switzer developed a reputation as a mean prankster.  He loved to put lit firecrackers into crew member's pockets and tacks on people's chairs.  On one occasion he hid fishhooks in Spanky's back pocket.  When Spanky sat down, he cut himself so badly he had to get stitches.  Another time he put an open switchblade in his pocket and convinced Darla to put her hand in his pocket telling her he had a Crackerjack ring for her.  She nearly lost her fingers.

George "Spanky" McFarland spoke about Switzer's most memorable prank. "We were filming and they were taking a long time to set up so Alfie decided to pee on the thousand watt bulbs.  The lights exploded and filled the studio with a tremendous stench.  Everyone had to be taken off set as the crew cleaned up the mess Alfalfa created."

Another time Switzer spread a large wad of chewing gum around the gears inside the camera.  According to Tommy Bond who played "Butch," the cameraman became furious and yelled at Switzer, "When you turn 21 I'm gonna find you and beat the shit out of you."

The child actors were required to attend three hours a day of on-set school. Switzer was typically late and refused to do his lessons.  He was often kept after class causing expensive delays in production.  Years later at an Our Gang reunion, Switzer encountered his old on-set teacher Mrs. Carter. According to Darla, Switzer screamed and cursed at the woman and accused her of ruining his life.

In 1938, MGM purchased the Our Gang comedy rights.  Without Roach's guidance, the shorts lost their popularity.  Alfalfa appeared in his last Our Gang film in 1940 when he was 12.  With more than 60 films behind him, Switzer's career as a Little Rascal was over.

Like many child performers, Switzer yearned to make the transition to adult actor.  He appeared in Frank Capra's classic It's A Wonderful Life playing Donna Reed's date in the famous dance floor turned swimming pool scene. He also had supporting roles in the Bing Crosby film Going My Way and the John Wayne film Island In The Sky.  In 1946, Switzer reprised his Alfalfa character as a teenager in "Gas House Kids" but the film was a flop.  He played a slave in Cecil B. Demille's The Ten Commandments and made his final on screen performance in Stanley Kramer's 1958 film noir The Defiant Ones.

In 1954, Switzer married the heiress of a grain elevator empire.  He and his wife moved to her family's farm in Kansas and had one son before divorcing in 1957.  Switzer moved back to Los Angeles and took a series of odd jobs including bartender, shoeshine boy and hunting guide.  Struggling for money, he began drinking heavily.  In 1958 he was shot in the arm outside a bar in Studio City. His injuries were minor and the assailant was never caught.  No reason was given for the shooting.  A year later, Switzer was arrested for cutting down 15 pine trees in the Sequoia National Forest that he intended to sell as Christmas trees.  He was a sentenced to a year probation and fined $225.

In early 1959, Switzer agreed to train a hunting dog for his friend Bud Stiltz. The dog ran away and Switzer posted a reward for $35.  Someone returned the dog and Switzer bought the man a few drinks and paid him the reward.  All told, Switzer was out fifty dollars.

Switzer spent several days drinking and began to believe the dog's owner owed him the money.  He went to Stiltz's house in North Hollywood and demanded to be repaid the fifty dollars.  Stiltz refused.  According to Stiltz, Switzer pulled out a knife and lunged at Stiltz.  Stiltz retrieved a gun and after a short struggle, he shot Switzer in the stomach.  By the time the ambulance arrived, Switzer had bled to death.

At the subsequent trial, Stiltz was determined to have acted in self-defense and was cleared of all charges.  Switzer's death received little television or newspaper coverage since filmmaker Cecil B. DeMille died the same day. Switzer was buried at Hollywood Forever Cemetery next to Paramount Studios.  In a strange addendum, Bud Stiltz received a Christmas card every year signed "Alfie" until his death in 1984.  He never discovered who sent him the cards.  (5" x 6", black ink print)

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Ali vs. Liston

Before he became Muhammad Ali, Cassius Clay was an ambitious young boxer from Louisville, Kentucky.  He won a boxing gold medal at the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome then quickly turned pro, winning his first 19 fights. The heavyweight champion of the day was Sonny Liston, a tough ex-con with a menacing reputation.  In 1963, Liston agreed to a title defense against the young Clay.

Liston had a massive chest, huge shoulders and a thick neck.  He overwhelmed opponents with a fierce left jab and a devastating hook.  In 36 bouts he had 25 knockouts.  He was known to knock out sparring partners and rip open sand-filled heavy bags with his punches.  In his only defeat, Liston made it to the end of the fight despite suffering a broken jaw.

As a teenager, Liston was arrested for a series of assaults and armed robberies.  He served time in the Missouri State Penitentiary where he learned to box.  Upon his release in 1952, he turned pro.  He supplemented his fight income by working as an enforcer for the Philadelphia mob.  In 1956, Liston assaulted a police officer earning him another six months in jail.

Liston earned the heavyweight title by twice defeating former champion Floyd Patterson.  Despite his success, the public perceived him as a monster. African-Americans shunned him, feeling Liston's reputation hurt the civil rights movement.

Few believed Clay had a chance against Liston.  In a pre-fight poll, 43 of 46 sportswriters picked Liston to win by knockout while bookmakers made Liston a 7-1 favorite.  Liston was a traditional fighter with an impressive 84-inch reach while Clay broke the basic rules of boxing fundamentals.  Clay kept his hands too low and leaned away from punches instead of slipping them.  He avoided punching the body and his hook and uppercut were considered average.  Clay also had a "soft chin" having been knocked down in two recent fights.

Prior to training, Clay consulted Eddie Machen, a former opponent of Liston. Machen told Clay the key to victory was to make Liston lose his temper.  Clay undertook a public relations campaign to humiliate Liston.  He interrupted Liston's workouts and hurled insults at him.  He showed up at Liston's Denver home at 2:00 am (with the media present) and taunted the champion from the street below.  He called Liston "a big ugly bear" and told interviewers, "If you want to lose your money, then bet on Sonny."

On February 25, 1964 at the official weigh-in the morning of the fight, Clay wore a denim jacket with the words "bear huntin'" on the back.  He entered the room shouting, "float like a butterfly, sting like a bee."  He screamed and lunged at Liston like a lunatic.  Sportswriters thought Clay had lost his mind. But Clay's trainer Angelo Dundee knew it was all an act.  "Tough guys are afraid of guys that are a little goofy, guys that fly over the cuckoo's nest," Dundee said.  "Tough guys don't know where to go with that and Liston was a tough guy."

By taking the initiative at the weigh-in, Clay neutralized Liston's aura of intimidation.  He took the fight to the bully.

At the opening bell, Liston sprung forth like a bull, in attack mode.  Clay danced, easily avoiding Liston's wild punches.  Halfway through Round 1, Liston landed a heavy right to Clay's body.  Clay used his elbows to block further punches and his foot speed to avoid Liston's hooks.  With 45 seconds left in the round, Clay hit Liston with a flurry of combinations and hooks to the face.  Clay was proving he had the power and speed to frustrate Liston.

In Round 2, Liston landed a left hook, hurting Clay.  Clay responded with a series of jabs keeping Liston at bay.  In Round 3, Clay took control.  He hit Liston with a  combination that opened a cut under Liston's left eye.  At one point Liston's knees buckled and he nearly fell.  Liston became enraged and unleashed hammer blows to Clay's body and jaw.  Clay held on to Liston's shoulders and made it to the end of the round.

In Round 4, Clay danced around the ring, keeping his distance.  He continued his sharp jabs, reopening the cut under Liston's eye.  When the round ended, Clay was blinking his eyes furiously.  He complained to Dundee that there was something burning in his eyes and he couldn't see.

"I didn't know what was going on," Dundee later said.  Dundee put his pinkie in Clay's eye then into his own eye.  "It burned like hell," Dundee said.  "There was something caustic."

Clay was convinced that Liston was using an illegal chemical on his gloves. He yelled at Dundee to stop the fight.  "Cut the gloves off.  I want to prove to the world there's dirty work afoot," Clay screamed.  Dundee poured water in Clay's eyes then told him, "Back up, baby.  This is for the title.  This is the big apple. What are you doing?"  As the bell rang to start Round 5, Dundee gave Clay a one-word instruction.  "Run!"

Clay later said he could only see a faint shadow of Liston for most of Round 5. Clay bobbed and weaved and did his best to avoid Liston's punches.  At one point, Liston landed 16 consecutive blows to Clay's body.  Clay held out his left arm to keep Liston away while using his right glove to clear his eyes.  Finally, Clay's vision returned.  He began punching back and as the round ended Liston's chance at victory had passed.

Some have theorized that Liston intentionally had his corner man put an astringent on his gloves that Liston then rubbed in Clay's face.  Dundee believed that Liston's trainer used Monsel's solution on the cut beneath Liston's eye.  The ferric sulfate combined with Clay's sweat then dripped into Clay's eye.

As Round 6 began, Clay was clear-eyed and furious.  He nailed Liston with a right to the jaw followed by a flurry of combinations.  Liston tried to fight back but his punches had lost their power.  Clay regained control.

Between Round 6 and 7, Liston suddenly told his corner man, "That's it."  He claimed he'd injured his shoulder and could no longer lift his arm.  As the bell rang, Liston did not come out.  Clay lifted his arms and celebrated.  He'd beaten the invincible Sonny Liston and was now heavyweight champion.  He began yelling at the reporters around the ring, "You were wrong and you were wrong.  I'm the Greatest.  I shook up the world!"

A team of doctors examined Liston after the fight and verified he'd suffered a torn tendon in his left shoulder.  Though Liston had been promised $1.2 million for the fight he received only $13,000.  The remainder was deducted by Liston's organized crime associates as a so-called "mob tax."  Liston did not complain for fear of being killed.

The day after the fight, Clay announced he was a member of the Nation of Islam.  A few weeks later, Nation leader Elijah Muhammad gave Clay a new name: Muhamad Ali.  Muhammad meant "worthy of all praises" while Ali meant "most high."

The fighters agreed to a rematch in late 1964.  Liston trained hard, desperate to avenge the defeat.  Three days before the fight, Ali needed emergency surgery for a hernia.  The fight was delayed for six months.  Liston became depressed and starting drinking and smoking heavily.  His training suffered and as the fight neared he was flabby and out of shape.

The rematch was controversial.  Halfway through Round 1, Ali threw a quick right to Liston's chin and Liston fell to the canvas.  Liston attempted to get up but was unable.  Many in the crowd did not see the punch (it became known as "the phantom punch").  Fans began booing and yelling out "fix."  Ali stood over Liston yelling, "Get up and fight, sucker."  Chaos ensued as the referee and official timekeeper could not agree if Liston had remained down for a ten-count.  Referee Jersey Joe Walcott stopped the bout and awarded Ali a first-round knockout.

Many couldn't believe the punch could have knocked out a man like Liston. Announcer Don Dunphy said, "Here was a guy who was in prison and the guards beat him over the head with clubs and couldn't knock him down." Others like Tex Maule of Sports Illustrated called the punch legitimate writing "the blow had so much force it lifted Liston's foot…well off the canvas."

Three months before the fight Malcolm X was murdered.  Ali and Malcolm had been close friends and rumors persisted that Nation of Islam assassins were planning on shooting Ali during the fight.  Liston feared they might miss and kill him instead.

Liston publicly denied taking a dive.  But years later he told sportswriter Mark Kram, "That guy [Ali] was crazy.  I didn't want anything to do with him.  And the Muslims were coming.  Who needed that?  I went down.  I wasn't hit."

After the rematch, the lives of the two fighters diverged.  While Ali became a boxing legend, Liston slowly faded into obscurity.  Liston continued fighting but he was forever linked to mob ties and boxing corruption.

On January 5, 1971, Liston was found dead by his wife in his Las Vegas home.  Heroin was found in the kitchen but no syringes or needles were discovered.  After an investigation, Las Vegas police declared Liston's death a heroin overdose.  Knowing Liston was terrified of needles, some of his friends believed he'd been murdered by mobsters for failing to take a dive in his recent fight against Chuck Wepner.  Liston was buried in a Las Vegas cemetery.  His tombstone bears the epitaph: "A Man."  (7" x 9", black ink print)

Sunday, January 4, 2015

The New York Cabbie

In 1979, after finishing college in New Jersey, Peter Honig moved to New York City.  Not knowing what to do for money, he saw an ad in the New York Times looking for a taxi driver. With no experience and little knowledge of local streets, he contacted the Ann Service Corporation, one of the largest taxi companies in the city.  The company did a background check on Honig and agreed to help him obtain a Hack License.

A Hack License allows a driver to operate a Yellow Medallion Taxi in the five boroughs of New York.  A Medallion identifies a cab as part of the Taxi & Limousine Commission, the governing body of New York taxis.  In those days, a Medallion cost $62,000.  Today, the cost is over $800,000.

Honig passed the TLC written test, paid $30 and received his Hack License. He joined the ranks of 30,000 fellow cab drivers in the city.  Most were American born men aged 40-50.  There were a few Caribbean drivers and a large number of immigrant Russians who'd been doctors and lawyers in the old country.  Honig, who played in a punk rock band, was among the small percentage of young musicians who drove cabs.

Drivers worked a 12-hour shift starting at 6am or 6pm.  On Honig's first day, he arrived in the morning to find a long line outside the Chelsea taxi station. He waited two hours only to be told there were no remaining cabs.  The next day, he arrived a half-hour early but again failed to secure a cab.  On his third day, a fellow driver told him to "grease" the dispatcher a five-dollar bill.  This worked and Honig had his first cab.

Drivers were given two options regarding the lease payment.  They could work for 40% of the meter total and the cab company paid for the gas.  Or they could pay $62 per day ($82 for a night shift) and pay for their own gas.  Most rookies opted for the 40% option and the day shift since it was less intimidating.

"No one tells you what to do," Honig says.  "You're given a cab and you just start driving."  In his first year, Honig stuck to picking up businessmen. Though they tipped poorly, they were safe and reliable.  They also gave the driver specific directions helping Honig quickly learn the Manhattan streets. Honig averaged between $50-$75 a shift his first year.  (Today, New York taxi drivers average about $150 a day.)  Though the work was relatively easy, Honig found it depressing and stressful.  He couldn't believe he'd spent four years in college to become a cab driver.

Honig settled into a routine.  He picked up his cab at 6:00 am and headed uptown looking for fares.  On a good day, he'd find a businessman on the Upper West Side needing a ride to Wall Street.  From there, he'd take a fare to midtown then another passenger downtown.  A typical 12-hour shift yielded 40-50 fares and covered 200-250 miles.

Some passengers only traveled a few blocks.  To Honig, these short rides were great.  Since the meter started at $1.25 and ticked ten cents every 1/8 mile, the total added up quickly.  A common misnomer is that cab drivers choose busy streets to jack up the meter.  This is not true.  Traffic is an enemy to taxi drivers and passengers alike.  Time spent in traffic means less fares per day.  Smooth sailing streets equate to more money and better tips.

Honig drove a Checker Cab.  The Checker line was the most famous cab in America.  The hulking sedans fit six people in the back and had a bulletproof partition between driver and passenger.  Most of the cars were beat to hell and had no air conditioning, unreliable radios and inadequate shock absorbers.  "I remember one car was so trashed, there was a hole in the floorboard," Honig recounts.  "Every time I hit the brakes I saw the street flying by."

On slow days, Honig and his fellow Checker cabbies often played demolition derby. "If we saw a driver taking a quick nap, we'd ram the back of his cab to give him a courtesy wake up call.  We'd also make sure to knock off any passenger-side mirrors since the missing mirror was considered a badge of honor."

After a year, Honig opted for night shifts realizing he could make more money and encounter less traffic.  "It was scary at first.  There were certain areas you avoided like Harlem, parts of Brooklyn and the Lower East Side.  But nights were easier and more exciting."

Honig perused high-end restaurants, nightclubs and bars.  He found a niche among Japanese businessmen frequenting mahjong gambling parlors in Midtown.  Many of the businessmen lived in Westchester County, a coup since once you left the city you could charge double what the meter read.

"One time I was driving two Japanese guys on the Hudson River Parkway when I fell asleep behind the wheel.  I was woken by the sound of a loud megaphone screaming, "WAKE UP!"  A police car had pulled beside me and noticed I was sleeping while driving 70mph down the highway.  They must have had somewhere really important to go because they didn't pull me over. I didn't get much of a tip that night."

Intoxicated passengers were a mixed bag.  Sometimes they gave larger tips, sometimes they puked and soiled themselves.  "Friday and Saturday nights were crazy.  I had couples that had backseat sex, prostitutes who gave blow jobs to customers and junkies who shot up while I was driving.  One time I picked up Billy Idol and his posse and we all smoked weed together."

"The first time I was robbed was halfway through my second year of driving.  It was about 5:00 am and I'd had a great shift.  I was at a red light at 44th and 8th Avenue near Times Square.  I had a wad of cash between my legs and I was counting the night's take.  My window was open and there was a transvestite prostitute standing nearby.  She asked, 'Hey you.  Can you tell me what time it is.'  As she talked, she walked toward the cab."

"I looked at my watch and she reached into the cab, grabbed all my cash and started running.  I got out and ran after her but she had too big a head start. I got back in the cab and drove after her.  Unfortunately, I didn't close my door all the way.  I chased her up 44th Street and hit the gas to make it through a red light.  As I took a tight turn, the door opened and the momentum propelled me out of the cab tumbling into the street.  I watched as my cab smashed into the wall of a XXX Theater.  The transvestite disappeared into a nearby alley.  I limped back to my cab.  The bumper was trashed but the engine was still running so I was able to drive to the station.  I had to pay back the $250 out of my own pocket."

Honig was robbed several more times in the next few years.  One night, he made the mistake of driving a guy to score drugs on the Lower East Side.  As he waited for the passenger to return, two Puerto Ricans approached him. They stuck a knife in his face and made him get out of the cab.  "Take it easy," one of the men said.  "We just want your money.  Don't fuck around and you won't get stabbed."

Honig hid his money in a hole in the sun visor.  He told the men he had no cash since he was just starting his shift.  They didn't believe him.  They searched the car, looking in the glove box, underneath the seats, beneath the floor mats.  At the last moment, one of the guys slammed the visor and a wad of cash spilled out.

The guy with the knife yelled, "You motherfucker" and stabbed Honig in the stomach.  Fortunately the wound was not deep.  Honig returned his cab to the station then had a friend drop him at the emergency hospital.  He received several stitches and still has a scar to this day.

Honig's worst cabbie experience came in 1981.  It was early morning and he was coasting down 7th Avenue when he heard a loud thud on the right side of his car.  He stopped the cab and got out.  He saw a pile of garbage in the street and figured he'd hit a trashcan.  As he approached the garbage, he realized it had eyes.  He'd hit a bag lady.  The woman appeared to be in her seventies.  She was completely motionless and silent.

Honig found a pay phone and called the police.  By the time they arrived, the woman was dead.  A witness came forth and told police the woman had tried to jump in front of a trash truck and another taxi earlier the same night.  The cops told Honig the woman likely committed suicide and he was not to blame. Regardless, Honig was despondent.  He took several weeks off before he was ready to drive again.

By 1983, Honig tired of the grind of the continual 12-hour night shifts.  "The things that once seemed exciting--the grime, the edge, the seediness--had become depressing.  I'd become a vampire and developed some very unhealthy habits.  Plus, the city started harassing drivers, making sure we kept proper trip sheets and had up to date paperwork.  It took the fun out of the job. Once the fun was gone, being a cabbie was kind of a drag." (5" x 6", black ink print)

Thursday, November 6, 2014

The Coffee Evangelist

I first experienced Philz Coffee in 2007.  My wife and I were visiting San Francisco when we saw a sign that read: BEST HANDMADE COFFEE IN THE CITY.  "What the hell is handmade coffee," I asked.  "We have to check this out."

We entered a medium-sized coffee house with comfy sofas, old wooden chairs and vintage photographs of trolleys on the wall.  Every seat was filled with hipster types immersed in their laptops and iPads.  A large chalkboard over the front counter boasted names of coffee blends like "Silken Splendor," "Jacob's Wonderbar" and "Anesthesia to the Upside."

After fifteen minutes in line, we were summoned by a smiling barista.  I ordered something called "Tantalizing Turkish" while my wife opted for "Philharmonic."  We watched as the barista ground a fresh batch of beans, put them in a coffee cone, poured hot water over the cone, poured the brew into a second cone, then added some kind of powdered spice and a sprig of mint. The process took about five minutes. The barista slid the cup forward and said, "Try that and make sure it's perfect."

I took a sip.  I was greeted by a taste I've never encountered before.  The coffee was smooth and aromatic and imbued with the middle-eastern flavor of cardamom and mint.  The taste was like chai tea but it had the unmistakable bite of coffee and chocolate.  "Holy crap," I said to my wife.  "This is the best coffee I've ever had."  My wife sipped her coffee.  She immediately started laughing.  "This is goooood."

The founder of Philz Coffee is Phil Jaber.  Born in Palestine prior to the 1967 exodus, Jaber fell in love with coffee as a child when he secretly sipped the dark brew at family parties.  As an 8-year old, he set up a coffee stand outside the family's front yard and sold to passersby.  His family moved to Northern California when he was twelve.  Jaber's father bought a grocery store in San Francisco and put his son to work.  After high school, Jaber and his older brother bought their own grocery store in the San Francisco Mission District.

Jaber did well selling cigarettes and beer, but his first love remained coffee. He saw the business potential of coffee and began conducting his own market research.  "I used to go to coffee shops and park my car and watch people go in.  I used to time them.  For example, the guy with a brown suit walked in at 10:15 am and 10:30 he's out with a cup of coffee.  I said to myself, 'That's not what I'm looking for.'  I want people to go in and sit, for community, like going to your grandma's house, full of love."

Around 1990, Jaber began experimenting with his own coffee blends searching for the perfect combination of beans.  He started selling coffee from his grocery store and attracted a loyal clientele.  In 2002, Jaber sold his liquor license and converted the store into the first Philz Coffee.  Located at the corner of Folsom and 24th Street, Philz Coffee quickly attained a cult status. "It took off like a rocket," Jaber says.  "There was no hiccup."

Unlike Starbucks, Philz brews coffee one cup at a time.  They use a hand-pour method that requires 3 1/2 times more grounds per cup than standard machine-brewed coffee.  Coffee is brewed at somewhere between 190-200 degrees (just below boiling) and the resulting drink is less bitter and more mellow than standard coffee.  Philz does not sell espresso drinks like lattes or cappuccinos and they have no sugar or cream bar.  The baristas add all the extras for you.

Jaber always believed coffee created community.  He likes it when customers stay for hours at a time.  His goal is to create a home away from home, a place where people can socialize and laugh and feel relaxed.  "Coffee is making friends.  Coffee is social.  Coffee teaches you to be patient.  You can't drink it all at once.  Coffee is to settle, to calm down."

"We use holy water," Jaber says.  "My clientele are like flowers.  I steal them from other coffee shops.  My coffee is so subtle, so clean, that it makes you calm.  It makes you sociable.  It stimulates you from the back of the brain forward.  It's medicine."

Philz Coffee has benefited from the "Slow Coffee" Movement that has swept its way across Northern California.  Peter Giuliano of the Specialty Coffee Association of America theorizes that the movement is a return to a pre-20th Century ethos when coffee was a luxury to be consumed with others.  "Coffee has a long history of not being something that is cheap fuel for you on your way to work," Giuliano says.  "It has a history of being something that has conversation involved with it.  When you slow down and appreciate coffee, it has a ritual aspect to it, not only around consumption but in its preparation."

During the early 20th Century, coffee became a cheap drink for the masses as a way to increase worker productivity.  The opening of the Panama Canal in 1914 allowed access to Columbia's previously unreachable Pacific Coast. Americans fell in love with South American coffee and the abundant supply made the drink cheap and easily accessible.  By 1919, American coffee consumption tripled.

The era of Folger's gave way to the age of Starbucks.  Today, artisanal roasters like Four Barrel, Blue Bottle and Sightglass have sprouted across San Francisco. With prices at four to five dollars a cup, coffee has become an expensive luxury. But people keep lining up.

These days, Phil Jaber's son Jacob runs the company.  They now have 15 locations in Northern California.  They have become the darling of  the tech community and they have coffee bars at both Facebook and Google Headquarters. They're also the coffee of choice for the offices of Twitter and Linked In and their coffee is offered on Virgin American flights.

Jaber credits his success to trust, faith and a unique way of doing business. "You must love what you do.  You must have faith in what you do.  Be generous.  Treat people like you want to be treated...with love, respect and hospitality.  We are all from under the canopy of heaven."

"I cry sometimes thinking about what happened to us," Phil Jaber says. "Thank you, God.  That's all I can say." (6" x 7", black ink print)

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Phil Jackson

The year was 1982 and Phil Jackson was out of work. He'd retired from the NBA after a 12-year basketball career and he had no post-athletic job prospects.  He took a junior college aptitude test and was told he was best suited for a career as a teacher or a minister.  He and his wife June opened a sports fitness club in Flathead Lake, Montana.  Jackson pondered enrolling in law school or obtaining a degree in psychology.

Out of the blue, a call came from the owner of the Albany Patroons, a minor league team from the Continental Basketball Association.  Would Phil like to coach the team?  Jackson agreed.  From these humble origins a legendary coaching career began.

Phil Jackson was born in 1945 in Deer Lodge, Montana.  His parents were both Pentecostal ministers.  Growing up, Jackson assumed he would be a minister as well.  His mom's daily message was "Listen to no one but Christ." They preached that Armageddon was at hand and they encouraged the practice of speaking in tongues.  Jackson earnestly attempted to speak in tongues but nothing came.  A preacher friend of the family suggested that Jackson undergo a childhood exorcism. Jackson's father refused.

Jackson's home environment was austere.  Dancing and television were prohibited and the only reading allowed was the Bible, the Encyclopedia and Reader's Digest.  He did not see his first movie until high school.  Jackson had a curious mind and a craving for knowledge.  He excelled in sports, starring on his high school basketball team.  With his gangly arms and sharp elbows, he developed a reputation as a ferocious rebounder and a scrappy defensive player.

Jackson attended the University of North Dakota where he played basketball for future NBA coach Bill Fitch.  His college teams did well, coming in third and fourth place in the 1965 and 1966 NCAA Division II Tournaments. Both years his team lost to Southern Illinois and their star Walt Frazier (Jackson's future teammate on the New York Knicks).

During college, Jackson studied philosophy, psychology and religion.  He read the writings of Ouspensky, Gurdjieff and the Sufi mystic Vilayat Inayat Khan. He began exploring faiths beyond his own, reading William James' The Varieties of Religious Experience.  His first exposure to meditation came in a college class on eastern religion.  He also started drinking beer and dating girls, something he'd not done in high school.

After college, Jackson married his girlfriend Maxine and they had a daughter, Elizabeth.  He considered joining the ministry but was drafted in the second round by the New York Knicks.  He felt pro basketball was something he could play for awhile before going on with his "normal life."  He was a limited offensive player but his intelligence and hustle earned the respect of Knick coach Red Holzman.  Holzman said of Jackson, "He may play lousy at times but he won't ever play scared."

Living in a big city was foreign and Jackson felt out of place on a Knicks team that was packed with stars like Walt Frazier, Willis Reed, Bill Bradley and Dick Barnett.  In his first two years, he struggled.  He earned a reputation as a dirty player and was often sent into the game to disrupt opposing teams with elbows, knees and physicality.

In the 1968-69 season, Jackson injured his leg.  He began drinking, smoking pot and taking psychedelic drugs to numb the pain.  He struggled to move efficiently on the court.  Fans booed him.  He posted two angry fan letters on his locker.  1) "You're the worst player ever."  2) "Last year I hoped you'd get hurt and sprain your ankle.  This year I hope you die."

Jackson had his first surgery after the 1969 season.  A piece of his hipbone was grafted against his lower vertebrae.  After the surgery, his body was permanently injured.  His marriage was in shambles as well.  (He would divorce Maxine in 1972.)  He watched from the bench as the 1970 Knicks won the NBA championship.

Jackson's injuries derailed a more promising playing career.  But they began his coaching apprenticeship.  Holzman had Jackson break down opponent tendencies and he questioned Jackson about strategy and substitution patterns.  The Knicks ran an early version of the triangle offense emphasizing constant movement and a strong-side focus on guards.  Every player on the Knicks knew their role.  After the Knicks traded Walt Bellamy and Howard Komives to the Detroit Pistons for Dave Debusschere, Jackson learned an important lesson.  "The Knicks had to become less talented to become a better team."

Jackson returned to the court in 1971 and recommitted himself to basketball. He became a spark plug off the bench and his constant hustle made him a fan favorite.  He was a key reserve on the Knicks team that won the 1973 Championship.  He celebrated in Los Angeles by dropping acid with a young woman and spending the next day "tripping on the beach."  He later wrote that the experience gave him a sense of "the awe of God."

Jackson's favorite book was Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and his favorite off-season activity was taking cross-country road trips on his prized BMW motorcycle.  On a 1971 road trip, Jackson camped in Flathead Lake, Montana.  He fell in love with the area, bought land and built a house. The spot would come to serve as his spiritual retreat.

Though his grandfather had taught him that Native Americans "were shiftless drunks and weren't to be trusted," Jackson empathized with the plight of Native Americans.  He cherished the teachings of Lakota Sioux medicine man Black Elk and he gravitated to customs like smoking tobacco in peace pipes and attending sweat lodges to purify his soul.  In 1973, Jackson began giving off-season clinics for Native Americans in Montana.

That same year he met June Perry.  The two were married and would spend the next thirty years together.  Jackson bought a loft in New York's Chelsea neighborhood from an ex-drug dealer named Hakim who'd recently turned to Islam.  Hakim advised Jackson to stop smoking pot.  "You can refine things by fire but nothing is refined by smoke.  Marijuana only clouds your head."

Jackson's playing career lasted 13 years.  After retiring as a player, he turned to Buddhism and Zen meditation as a way to calm his restlessness and anxiety.  Unsure of his next career move, he embraced the Buddhist concept "if you have a clear mind and an open heart, you won't have to search for direction.  Direction will come to you."  The 1982 phone call from the owner of the Albany Patroons provided this direction.

In the Continental Basketball Association, Jackson coached in arenas that had no heat, roofs that leaked water onto the court and crowds that numbered in the hundreds.  The Patroons played games in the decrepit Albany Armory, a building designed by Isaac Perry who'd also designed the New York State Inebriate Asylum.  Public bathrooms were located next to the team's locker room so fans using the bathroom could see players showering.

The team played in towns like Oshkosh, Casper and Rapid City.  Jackson drove the team bus, a crossword puzzle poised atop the steering wheel as he navigated snowstorms and dirt roads.  As coach, Jackson developed a player-friendly style emphasizing ball movement, motion and strong defense.  His mantra was "keep it simple."  He believed in allowing players to make their own decisions on the court.  He didn't over coach, abiding by the Taoist message that "the Master does nothing yet he leaves nothing undone."

His most problematic player was Frankie "Jumpshot" Sanders.  Sanders was a prolific scorer with an attitude.  He refused to run Jackson's offense and challenged his leadership.  Jackson simply sat him on the bench.  After several games, Jackson walked to the end of the bench and asked, "Are you ready to play?"  Sanders said "yes" then came in and scored like crazy.  Years later, Jackson used the same technique with Dennis Rodman on the Chicago Bulls.

During Patroon practices, Jackson ended each session with a meditation and prayer circle inspired by a passage from the book Black Elk Speaks.  "The sacred hoop of my people was one of many hoops that made one circle."  The concept of the circle became a theme of Jackson's coaching method.  The circle unites the group, is fluid, begins and ends at the same point and is the shape of the basketball and the hoop itself.

As Patroon coach, Jackson began his practice of giving books to his players to read.  Each book was inspired by the player's unique personality.  Patroon player Rudy Macklin said, "He made a point of trying to know what was going on inside of us, psychologically."  Jackson continued this practice as an NBA coach.  He gave Michael Jordan Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison, he gave Shaquille O'Neal  Siddartha by Herman Hesse and he gave Kobe Bryant The Art of War by Sun Tzu.

Though his methods were unorthodox, Jackson quickly achieved coaching success.  After a slow start, the Albany Patroons came together and won the 1984 CBA Championship.  Jackson went on to coach in the Puerto Rican league where fans tossed fruit, batteries and dead chickens on the court.  His inability to speak Spanish taught him to rely on silence and body language.

Jackson sought a job in the NBA.  Invariably he was turned down.  His counterculture reputation scared away potential employers.  In 1987, he was given a chance. Jerry Krause, general manager of the Chicago Bulls, hired Jackson as an assistant under head coach Doug Collins.  Jackson befriended fellow Bulls assistant Tex Winter who taught Jackson his vaunted Triangle Offense.  When Collins was fired in 1989, Jackson was promoted to head coach.

Jackson became the most successful coach in NBA history winning eleven rings.  His list of all-star players included Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal.  None won a championship until Jackson was their coach.  Jackson retired from coaching in 2011 due to health reasons and sought a position as an NBA team executive.  Though he was engaged to Jeannie Buss, part-owner of the Lakers, the Lakers let him slip away.  This past year, he was hired as President of the New York Knicks.  Like the concept of the circle, Jackson had returned to where his NBA career began.  The Knicks are hoping his presence will result in their first championship since 1973.  (5" x 6", black ink print)

Friday, August 15, 2014

Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf was born into a life of privilege and high-society connections.  Her father, Sir Leslie Stephen, founded the Dictionary of National Biography.  Her mother, Julia Stephen, was a model who posed for pre-Raphaelite painters and early photographers. Her great aunt was Julia Margaret Cameron, a noted photographer.

Woolf's childhood was influenced by Victorian literary society.  Visitors to her home included Henry James, William Thackeray and her Godfather, James Russell Lowell.  Woolf had two brothers, a sister and multiple step siblings.  Her parents taught her at home while her brothers were sent away to be formally educated.  Woolf later came to resent this.

Woolf determined at an early age to become a writer.  Her most vivid memories were of summer holidays in St. Ives in Cornwall.  These experiences later informed her novel To The Lighthouse.

In 1891, Woolf's mentally disturbed half-sister Laura was institutionalized. Four years later, when Woolf was 13, her mother died of rheumatic fever. Woolf said the loss was "the greatest disaster that could happen."  The family fell into deep mourning and Woolf had the first of many mental breakdowns.  Her father's grief was intense and all-consuming forcing Woolf's half-sister Stella to care for the family.  Stella died of peritonitis in 1897.

Woolf took study courses in Greek, Latin and history at the Ladies Department of Kings College in London.  This brought her into contact with early reformers of women's higher education known as the "Steamboat Ladies."  Her studies were interrupted in 1904 when her father died of stomach cancer.  Woolf experienced a second mental breakdown during which she attempted to commit suicide by jumping out a window.  She was briefly institutionalized at Burley House, "a nursing home for women with nervous disorder."

Woolf's sisters sold the family house and bought a house in the hip Bloomsbury neighborhood of London.  Woolf came to know the writers and intellectuals who formed the Bloomsbury Group.  They included E.M. Forster, John Maynard Keynes, Lytton Strachey and Woolf's future husband Leonard Wolff.  The group deeply influenced literature, art and economics and held modern attitudes toward feminism and sexuality.

Woolf began her writing career in 1905 at the age of 23 by contributing to the Times Literary Supplement.  A year later, her favorite brother Thoby died of typhoid fever.  Virginia and Leonard Woolf married in 1912.  They would remain together until Virginia's death.

Woolf's first novel The Voyage Out was published in 1915.  The story was about an Englishwoman's emotional and sexual awakening as she traveled abroad.  The book was an indictment of the political and sexual mores of modern England.  Woolf's writing style experimented with a stream of consciousness lyricism focusing on the psychological underpinnings of the characters.  She created visual impressions comparable to the writing of James Joyce and Joseph Conrad.

In 1917, Woolf and husband Leonard purchased a printing press and founded Hogarth Press in the basement their London home.  Hogarth became a respectable printing house that published Wolff's novels as well as work by T.S. Eliot and Sigmund Freud.  After the end of World War I, the Wolff's moved to Monk's House, a cottage in the English village of Rodmell.  Here, Woolf wrote all of her remaining novels including Night And Day (1919), Mrs. Dalloway (1925), Orlando (1928) and The Waves (1931).

In 1922, Woolf met Vita Sackville-West, a married writer.  The two women began a love affair (with Leonard's knowledge and permission) that lasted nearly ten years.  The relationship inspired Woolf's novel Orlando, a fantastical biography in which the gender-switching hero's life spans three centuries.

In 1929, Woolf gave a series of lectures on the difficulties that female writers encounter because men hold disproportionate economic and legal power in society.  She published A Room Of One's Own writing "a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction."  The essay was seen as a feminist tract and became an inspiration to female writers everywhere. Woolf later published Three Guineas, an essay arguing that if women occupied positions of power there would be less war.

Woolf's two half brothers Gerald and George died in the mid 1930's.  Woolf revealed in a memoir that George and Gerald molested her and half-sister Vanessa when they were children.  Some Woolf biographers have suggested Woolf's breakdowns were influenced by this sexual abuse.

Woolf was criticized for her anti-Semitic views.  Early in life she wrote about Jewish characters as being dirty and physically repulsive.  A passage in her diary read, "I do not like the Jewish voice; I do not like the Jewish laugh."  After marrying the proudly Jewish Leonard Wolff, Virginia's outlook changed.  She acknowledged the mistakes of her early ignorance and wrote, "What a snob I was for they [Jews] have immense vitality."  Woolf and husband Leonard feared the rise of 1930's fascism.  After Britain's entry into World War II in 1939, the Woolfs appeared on Hitler's blacklist.  They made plans to commit suicide if England was invaded.

During the Blitz of 1940, German bombs destroyed the Woolf's London home and the offices of Hogarth Press.  The couple took refuge in Monk's House. Woolf completed her final novel Between The Acts in 1941.  Stressed by her work and the war, she fell into a deep depression.  She was unable to write and feared she would not recover from her mental illness.

On March 28, 1941, Woolf donned an overcoat, filled her pockets with stones and walked into the River Ouse behind her home.  She left behind a suicide note for Leonard.

"Dearest, I feel certain that I am going mad again.  I feel we can't go through another of those terrible times.  And I shan't recover this time.  So I'm doing what seems the best thing to do.  You have given me the greatest possible happiness.  I don't think two people could have been happier till this terrible disease came.  I can't fight any longer.  What I want to say is I owe the happiness of my life to you."

Woolf's body was discovered three weeks later.  Leonard had Woolf cremated and the remains buried under one of two oak trees in their backyard that they named "Virginia and Leonard."  He placed a stone tablet on the spot engraved with the final lines from Woolf's novel The Waves.

"Against you I fling myself, unvanquished and unyielding, O Death!  The Waves broke on the shore."  (6" x 7", black ink print)

Thursday, June 5, 2014

The Other Kevin Smith

Kevin Stofer Smith began his career in Hollywood one month after graduating high school.  He followed his older brother Albert to the now defunct Producer's Studio in 1976 where his first production job required him to shatter twenty large mirrors and sweep up the shards for a Boz Scaggs music video.  Thirty-eight years later, Kevin hopes any bad luck has been left behind him.

Kevin joined the commercial production company Paisley Productions in 1977. The Paisley gang included director David Farrow, producer Christine Kitch, executive producer Steve Brodie, Cinematographer and future Academy Award nominee Caleb Deschanel (father of Zooey & Emily), Music Video Director Kevin Kerslake (director of "Nirvana Live! Tonight! Sold Out!") and Ruth McCartney (of Macca Rock and Roll Legend and present day Digital Diva).  Paisley would be Kevin's production home for the next 12 years.  He worked his way from Stage Manager to PA to Production Coordinator to First Assistant Director.  In 1980, the Director's Guild opened their doors to commercial directors.  At age 21, Kevin became the second youngest person to obtain a 1st A.D. DGA Card.  (The youngest was 7-year old Justin Henry, the child actor from Kramer vs. Kramer, who was given a DGA card as a birthday present joke by Dustin Hoffman.)

Kevin traveled to more than 30 states and worked on hundreds of television commercials for Paisley with his mentor David Farrow.  Notable shoots included Hertz Rental Car with O.J. Simpson, Billy Carter Beer, the infamous Yugo Automobile and the popular "Don't Squeeze the Charmin" spots with Mr. Whipple.  Mr. Whipple, played by veteran actor Dick Wilson, was known for being a prankster on set.  During one Charmin shoot, Kevin watched as Mr. Whipple grabbed his chest and fell to the floor.  The crew laughed, believing this was another practical joke.  Turns out Wilson was having an actual heart attack.  Fortunately he survived to make many more awful commercials.

While working on a Ford commercial in Central California, Kevin was tasked with cueing thirty wild horses to run in the surf of Pismo Beach alongside a Ford Mustang convertible.  While setting up the master shot, the trainer, hearing a helicopter test cue of "Release the Horses," mistakenly released the animals prematurely.  The horses ran 3 miles up the beach and onto Highway 101 forcing police to shut down the freeway.  A dozen animals made it to the nearby town of Grover Beach where a local 12-year old girl began corralling horses and tethering them to parking meters.  Nobody was hurt and the next day's local headline read "Filming of Ford Loses Horsepower."

During a spot for Right Guard Deodorant, nobody knew the prop man was freebasing cocaine.  Just after lunch, Kevin heard a loud explosion.  The prop man had lit his crack pipe while labeling hero deodorant cans which caused the aerosol cans to explode.  The blast destroyed the prop truck and incinerated the entire stash of Right Guard hero product.  The prop man luckily escaped unhurt.

A commercial for Ford Trucks in the desert called for several pickup trucks to be dropped from an overhead cargo plane and parachute gently to earth. One of the parachutes did not open.  The 4,000-pound truck hit the ground at 200 miles an hour.  The impact left a massive crater and sandwiched the truck into a 4-inch metal pancake.

Kevin worked with many celebrities over the years.  He shot Princess Cruise commercials with Gavin "Captain Stubing" MacLeod, Lemon Pledge with Florence Henderson, Ford with Telly Savalas and Mazda commercials with James Garner.  On one Mazda shoot in Goat Rock Beach, California, Garner insisted on doing his own stunt driving.  Garner took a tight turn too fast and slid off a cliff.  The car flipped and rolled and came to rest upside down against a grip van.  Fifteen feet in either direction was a 500-foot drop to the Pacific Ocean below.  Garner claimed he was okay but was flown by helicopter to a Sebastopol hospital where he was given full body X-Rays.  Kevin and David Farrow looked on as the doctor recounted Garner's injuries.

"You've damaged your L2 and L3 vertebrae," the doctor said.  "No, no," Garner said.  "That was from Maverick."

"Well it looks like you have a crushed C3 cervical neck injury."  "Rockford Files, Season 2," Garner said.

"And your cracked left knee?"  "That was 1969, Support Your Local Sheriff," Garner replied.

Garner told Kevin, "Son, when you fall off your horse, you have to get back on it."  Two hours later Garner and the crew were back on set to grab the ultimate helicopter sunset shot.

Kevin's favorite actor to work with was Jonathan Winters.  After wrapping a Cheetos commercial, Kevin joined Winters in the actor's motorhome where they smoked weed together.  Winters shared a bit of trivia about Cheetos. He told Kevin, "If you're ever stuck in a cave without a source of light, all you need is a pack of matches and a bag of Cheetos."  Winters proceeded to light a Cheetos puff and the trailer was illuminated with an astonishingly strong flame.

After Paisley closed their doors in 1989, Kevin continued making commercials as a First AD and Producer.  He also directed music videos and HDTV promos for Two And a Half Men, Everybody Loves Raymond and King of Queens. Kevin also began producing spots for Norms Restaurants, something he does every fall with Black Lab Productions.  In the 90's, Kevin bolstered a relationship with Cinematographer and Executive Producer Bob Eberlein, founder of the production company Image Streams. Along with Production Supervisor Jan Skorstad, Image Streams began producing live action sequences and test shoots for major studio productions. Some of Image Streams recent VFX and Green Screen credits include the films Gravity, Gatsby, I Am Legend and the new Tom Cruise film Edge Of Tomorrow.  Kevin and Eberlein also produced the Oscar Opening for the 2008 Academy Awards.

In his spare time, Kevin considers himself one of the world's greatest Rolling Stones fans.  He has attended somewhere north of 75 Stones concerts in his life (he lost count long ago).  In 1999, he flew to London to see the Stones play at Wembley Stadium.  His first show was a 1973 "Benefit for Nicaragua" at the Los Angeles Forum.  His most recent show was this past year in San Jose.

I worked with Kevin in the early 90's.  He was hired to produce and direct a television show about the legendary Route 66 for Sat1 German Television.  The Los Angeles shoot lasted several days culminating in a celebratory lunch in Malibu.  As the German producer Hans prepared to pay the tab, he discovered his wallet was missing.  The wallet contained $25,000 cash needed to pay the crew and the remaining production expenses.  Hans fell into a panic at which point Kevin took over.  We all hopped into a production van with Kevin at the wheel.  We retraced our steps from the day and found ourselves stuck in a Santa Monica Freeway traffic jam.

It had been raining and Hans suddenly remembered leaning out the passenger side window to snap a photo of a rainbow.  He theorized that's when the wallet must have fallen out of his back pocket.  Kevin weaved through traffic and spotted a thick brown wallet in the second lane.  He stopped the van, ran onto the freeway, dodged passing cars, retrieved the wallet and gave it to the grateful producer.  All the money was still there.  Kevin shrugged off the "needle in a haystack" miracle as just another day in the world of Film and TV.  (5" x 7", black ink print)