30 June 2008

Photo Today

Cigar store, Petaluma, CA

Earlier this month, I was traveling through Sonoma and found yet another fabulous cigar store. As a rule, cigars make me gag, but this guy looks so suave and debonair that I actually thought about buying one. Cigarillo tonight??

Some Backstory

I came across this column I wrote for Crosswinds awhile back, in those halcyon (there's that word again) days when I first hatched the idea to move to LA. It's a bit dated...all my favorite places have since closed...including Crosswinds...and I've been out of Santa Fe for a year now--yikes. But I think it all bears repeating. Que viva la Crosswinds!

Letter from Santa Fe
By Heidi Utz

When I first vacationed here in the 1980s, I was struck by Northern NM’s distance from the rest of the country. Back then, there were few chain stores or highways, no wi-fi hotspots, and little that could be construed as “practical.” People called you mi hita a lot (even if they didn’t know you), said hello to you on the street, and looked you in the eye when they spoke. And it was more than just “have a nice day.” I fell in love what seemed like a close-knit community, the adobe churches, the rituals and traditions: Fiestas, farolitos, Canyon Road on Christmas Eve, las Posadas. I appreciated the more leisurely pace, even as I struggled to recalibrate my city-self down to it. I’d traveled a fair bit, but recondite NM felt like somewhere I’d never been before. By 1991, I knew I needed to live here.

Obviously, Santa Fe has changed over the past two decades. Some would say it was “ruined” before I even got here. If nothing else, it’s grown. Santa Fe County has gained almost 45% more people, having ballooned to 143,000 residents. Growth within the city has been less dramatic, up from 59,000 to 65,000—but those extra 6,000 seem to be a particularly loud bunch who take up a lot of space. Town seems much fuller these days—full of people who don’t lean on the word mañana as much as they lean on their horns.

Driving down scenic south Cerrillos Road (near where Wal-Mart plans its new fiefdom), I feel a bit like I’m back in New Jersey. The shopping opps stack up like plasma TVs at the Best Buy. It’s as if Santa Fe suddenly became hip to its own austerity and realized that the “comforts” of the rest of the world were now somehow acceptable. I often joke that when I first moved here, you had to go to Albuquerque to buy a pair of scissors. Now, it seems, you can not only find scissors, but 40 different varieties of Swedish pinking shears. But such diversity has its costs. Corporate profits go to Chicago, while local businesses can’t hope to compete. Thanks to a certain behemoth, no one’s rushing to open a new bookstore, and the only remaining indie music store is The Candyman. And I won’t even mention the Starbuck’s Effect on my favorite cafés, now resting in peace.

I’ll admit that I patronize my fair share of big boxes to purchase the basics—it’s cheaper and more convenient than driving to Albuquerque. Yet the smell of outgassing plastic, the glaze in the employees’ eyes, the bad lighting, and the insanely colored point-of-purchase displays frequently remind me of the original reason I came here: to escape the mainstream. And while retail chains may be unavoidable in America the purchaseful, their recent muscling-in serves to create a much different experience of New Mexico for those of us who live near the south side of town. Out here, “local color” means the cherry-red glow of Target, making one wonder what’s so very unusual about “the City Different.”

This phenomenon also extends up 285, heading toward Espanola. Fifteen years ago, roadside stands and hand-painted billboards were part of the charm of driving to Abiquiu or Taos. Today we’ve got slick new blacktop—and barely anyone selling hornos, weavings, or velvet Elvises. I remember when Pojoaque was a Dairy Queen and a candle store. Now it’s a bad acid trip of construction equipment, ugly casinos, flashing resort signs, and not-so-slick billboards. I hear they’re soon going to start building condos inside the camel.

The funk, my friends, is gone. Back in 1995, I wrote a lengthy newspaper article about the funkiest places in Santa Fe. Most have closed. The few that still exist (Blue Moon Books, Café Oasis, Carlos’ Gosp’l Café) are bucking the tide daily. I have a theory that they’re subsidized by former hippies-turned-stockbrokers who can’t quite let go. Even Evangelo’s got cleaned up. I liked it better filthy, with the aging Polynesian fringe motif. I miss the old-school funk. Of all the sleazy gin joints, why did Gerry Peters have to jack up the rent on mine?

It’s hard not to note a certain ugly mood in town, rumbling like the enormous subwoofers in those tricked-out Acuras. Santa Fe feels big and busy and a lot more distracted. It’s like we’re all following the admonition to “be here now,” while simultaneously talking to Cleveland on our cell phones. People are rushed, curt, impatient, unfriendly, and filled with urban attitude. Our progression seems a bit like spinners, those hubcaps that keep moving even when the car is stopped. I see precious few small-town charms and a lot of big-city hassles—without the reward of the higher salaries and greater sophistication.

Driving is as egregious as ever, but people seem to be going way fast while paying zero attention. The once-descried lack of turn signal use now pales in comparison to the newest trend I’ve observed: not waiting for the light to turn before proceeding. Red—it’s the new green.

And then there’s the housing market. With the median home price fast-approaching $400K, it has become almost impossible for those earning Santa Fe incomes to purchase a Santa Fe home. Of course, this problem is ubiquitous in desirable zip codes throughout the country. Some young couples I know have resorted to migrating 40 minutes south to Rio Rancho, where home prices plummet along with the number of pastel pots for sale. The week my former partner and I arrived here, we considered bidding on a comfortable home in El Dorado for $92,000. A couple years later, we plunked down a whopping $102,000 for a lovely 3-bedroom, 2-bath house within city limits. Someone told us it was a good investment…indeed. Someone told us we were selling it too soon…indeed.

Lest I seem overly focused on the “half-empty” scenario, let me mention some of the positive changes I’ve observed during these two decades. Thanks to the Living Wage Ordinance, salaries have improved dramatically and will continue to do so. People who used to have to work 3 and 4 jobs to afford it here are now down to 2 and 3. However, the cost of living is still exorbitant, and gas prices are, as ever, mysteriously higher than anywhere else in the state, including Los Alamos, one of the richest communities in the entire country. As with Michael’s Jackson’s acquittal, no one seems to be able to tell us why.

In addition to a far better scissor selection, we have gained greater culinary options. Back in the early ’90s, it seemed you had to drive to Denver to find a decent restaurant serving something other than carne adovada and chicken enchiladas. I would have killed for a simple turkey sandwich on NY rye. There was no Ben & Jerry’s, no bagels, no chai. It was an era filled with unspeakable deprivations. Now, at least, there’s more diversity in our restaurant offerings. Who knows, some bold entrepreneur might even open a deli someday.

Along with the welcome addition of the GC3 skating rink, several additional gyms have materialized. And Santa Fe seems to have finally acknowledged that exercising can take other forms besides tai chi and yoga. We’ve built a few bike lanes—though in odd places like Cerrillos Road—and drivers are starting to realize that it’s possible to share the road with bicycles without idling behind them trying to imitate their pace.

NM was the first state to designate a film commissioner, and Santa Fe’s cinema scene is thriving under Governor Bill. The industry now shoots films in the area just about every month, including biggies like The Longest Yard and The Missing. In two years, the economic impact from these productions has grown from $8 million to $200+ million. This “clean” industry is exactly what we’ve needed, a great source of training, jobs, and revenue. Cineastes like it, too. In a town of 65,000, we have 23 screens (and 12 more within an easy drive). Each week so many new independent film offerings appear that you could easily spend an entire weekend eating popcorn and endlessly pondering mise- en-scène and mise-en-shot. Our film festival has also grown by leaps and bounds, having recently added a Film Center at the Cinemacafe to screen truly alternative features and works by locals.

But despite these notable improvements, I still feel wistful that a place so special to so many might get tossed into our overzealous melting pot and come out looking like the same McCulture that plagues the rest of the country. Yet how do we just say no? Can Santa Fe get its funk back? Or is it gone forever, swept up in how we, as Americans, have come to define “progress”?

29 June 2008

Heidi and Margot: Striking Terror in the Hearts and Minds of Halcyon

I know I risk receiving a gag order on this one…but being an outlaw at heart, I’ll take my chances. When Margot came to visit over Memorial Day weekend, our drive back from Pismo Beach and a few wrong turns led us to signs for the tiny town of Halcyon. As Wikipedia so nicely puts it, “[Halcyon] was founded in 1903 as a Theosophist intentional community and is the home and headquarters of a religious organization, The Temple of the People (not to be confused with Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple).” As we used to say in Los Alamos, I’d link you to it, but I’d have to kill you…

I had driven by this rather eye-catching temple once before, and being a big fan of oddball, turn-of-the-century transcendentalist communities, utopian experiments, and other quaint notions that gave birth to such phenomena as Craftsman furniture, Shaker tables and polygamous compounds, I felt compelled to turn off. Especially knowing I had my big strong German bodyguard with me.

As we wended our way in, it felt like we’d landed in some kind of Amish/hippie compound, with colorful murals, hedgerows, topiaries, and perhaps some wee faery folk on toadstools doling out magic mushrooms. Margot immediately cited the Alice and Wonderland metaphor as we shot down the rabbit hole…and I parked the car.

Now, it looked like a harmless enough water tower. Don’t know about you, but I generally think of water towers as rather neutral, innocuous entities, much like manhole covers or porch railings or even fenceposts. They just don’t overwhelm me with import. However, when I parked in front of THIS water tower, it was clear that I had crossed very Big, Bad Line #1. We jumped out of the car with our cameras, of course, and stumbled down the road, Margot thinking she’d hit the stock-photography jackpot and me thinking I hadn’t seen anyplace this whacked since Cerrillos, NM, with its Dylan-used-to-live-here acid murals on crumbling adobe walls.

I’d hardly got off one decent shot when a man with a grandbaby pulled up beside me and took a long gander. I’m sure I was probably wearing my usual summer uniform: Hawaiian shirt, particolored shorts, and New Balances—clearly a menace to society. He rolled down his window and inquired if that was my Toyota parked in front of his water tower. Yes, I admitted, the vagrant Celica was mine. He stared at me again, soberly, humorlessly, and asked what we were doing. I told him we were just walking around being Margot and Heidi, which sometimes involves gaping at weird shit and taking lots of photos. This took a few moments to compute, and once again I got the up and down. Finally, his eyes narrowed and he gave me that look that Maurice Minnifield used to give Joel Fleischman on Northern Exposure. “Well, you see, you have to be careful of your water towers these days because you never know with all the terrorists. It’s generally their first target.”

I gazed back at him long and hard, probably with that “what do you want from me, I’m just an overeducated NYer” squint that Joel tended to give Maurice. “Do I really look like a terrorist?”

“Well, you just can’t be too careful,” he said as he drove away. The baby smiled at me in a way that reassured me that SHE knew I wasn’t a terrorist. I prayed that she would learn to discern paranoia in her elders from a young age and make a graceful exit from Halcyon, perhaps buying real estate in Harmony or Happiness or Hesperia.

Meanwhile, Margot had been shooting liberally, radiating cherubic innocence in that way of hers. (I can’t help but note that strawberry blondes seem to get away with so much more.) I figured I’d best get down to business, and grabbed a few shots. Just as I was sizing up a particularly scenic entryway to what really did look like Alice’s Magical Kingdom, footsteps came pounding toward me with the thunder of Billy Jack’s horse. I sense that I’d just crossed Big, Bad Line #2, though I had barely crossed the street. As I turned to survey, there before my eyes was Alice herself, looking a mashup of Little Miss Muffett and Bjork, with two knobs of hair on her head in much the style of 1920s Navajo women. “I’ve got you now,” she cried out. “I’ve got you on film!” Cradled in her hand was her high-tech surveillance device, an opened cell phone with me in its sights. I knew that I was no longer dealing with a man and a baby, but was now rested squarely in the hands of Lady Justice. Out of the corner of my eye, I watched Margot taking 10 steps back. It would be me and me alone in this tete a tete. Good thing I’d seen Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Good thing I graduated first in my Scorpio class, and know well the fine art of telling all and revealing nothing. You’ve met your match, o knob-headed woman. My keen verbal skills and sharp wit will soon reduce you to soot and ash…

“Pretty groovy place you’ve got here,” I said.

She glowered at me as only someone living in Eden can.

“We’ve come in peace…,” I tried.

Her glower continued glowering. My usual charm and finesse in these matters seemed utterly ineffective in the face of her surety that I was a trespassing, water tower-poisoning terrorist documenting the Halcyon way of life for my sources in Washington. “I’ve gotten five phone calls since you’ve set foot on our land,” she said. “Everyone wants to know what you’re doing here.”

“Oh, we just stumbled onto it, and it’s so beautiful…”

Her knobs seemed to vibrate and I wondered if they might sprout antennae. I feared she was going to try and confiscate my camera, at which moment I would refer her to the girl holding the $5,000 Leica who’d actually taken all the photos…Meanwhile, Margot had inched about a half-mile away from the proceedings.

“Is this some kind of spiritual community?”

Clearly the question ALL the terrorists ask.

“You may not take photos here. Not of us, not of our houses, not of where we live,” she stated.

Oh, man, what a time to be out lost in my Hawaiian shirt. Perhaps I could just go find her the broomstick of the Wicked Witch of the North and we could call it a day?

Finally, I summoned my strength, martialed all my jing, looked her squarely in the eye, and announced my intention to end the conversation, grossly entertaining as it was. Just as she began to snap that I was no mere paper tiger, between us walked a woman who looked like she’d escaped from shock treatments. She scrutinized the ground acknowledging no one.

“A lot of us have psychic powers here,” the Knobbed One said. “She and I are best friends. We talk all the time. She knew you were here.”

I began to hope that if I were led to a basement for further edification that Margot might follow, at least with my water bottle.

But at long last, a ray of sunshine appeared on the horizon, and suddenly the Knob Lady’s glower seemed to soften into a steady glare. I believe she began to truly grok that I was less an Uzi-packing terrorist and more a lost heathen with a hulking camera that tops out at 2.1 megapixels on a good day with a stiff breeze. She left me with a final caution against doing photographic harm and bid us farewell.

The Halcyon temple conducts healing services every day at noon for 15 minutes. I guess that’s all it takes to cast out the demons and send you running for your Celica.

And now it can be revealed...Halcyon, as few have ever glimpsed her:

The mysteries laid bare before your eyes:

Shocking footage not even the paparazzi could score....

Not since the days of the WPA has documentary photography brought you this up-close and personal with places you've never seen before:

Flagstaff at dusk, December 2007

Near Flagstaff train station, December 2007

I knew when I saw "Towels for Your Windshield" that I was dealing with a REAL motel.
The "Beachtree," San Luis Obispo, CA, April 2008

Cigar store window, Pismo Beach, CA, June 2008

My adopted horse, Andi, who lives in the pasture across the street. A sweet spirit who so badly needs a real home. Anyone got a horse trailer??