October 11, 2012 by palamow
BITS and PIECES # 5
Hello from Luquillo,
Some years ago, in the late sixties or early seventies, if memory serves, college and university campuses across the country were graced with performances by eminent Shakespearean actors – Sir Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud, Richard Burton and a few others. These ‘one man shows’ featured the actors, clad in tuxedos, sitting on tall stools on bare auditorium stages, reading passages from ‘Hamlet’, ‘King Lear’, ‘Macbeth’, ‘Henry V’ and the like, in their rich and powerful British-accented voices. These performances were typically ‘standing room only’ sell-outs at academic institutions spanning the country from New England to the Pacific coast…
At the time, I remember thinking – wouldn’t it be just as interesting (and popular) to present a similarly talented cadre of accomplished and recognized “western’ actors in the same settings, reciting the works of Robert W. Service, Jack London, Mark Twain, O’Henry and other ‘north American’ poets and authors…
I had grand visions of the likes of Walter Brennan or perhaps Chill Wills, Ben Johnson, or even Slim Pickens, wearing tuxedos while sitting on stools on those same bare auditorium stages, reading Service’s poem ‘The Cremation of Sam McGee’ or selections from London’s ‘Call of the Wild’ or perhaps Twain’s ‘Fabulous Jumping Frog of Calaveras County’ in their equally distinctive and compelling western drawls…
Regrettably, these memorable old voices are stilled – long departed for that ‘Great roundup in the sky’ – and, with the demise of western-themed Hollywood movies and television productions, there are few if any adequate replacements in the ‘pipeline’…
Robert Duvall, Tom Selleck and Kevin Costner are still very much with us – I wonder if they would consider doing something like that?
At any rate, the above reflection reinforces the image that geezers like me are often trapped in the past – something about rapidly approaching my eightieth year on this planet seems to incline my enfeebled mind to dwell extensively on by-gone days, while avoiding any coherent thoughts about the present, and eschewing any consideration of the future altogether – it’s just too easy (and satisfying) to recall and then retell early exploits and misadventures (often ad nauseam). It’s what one of my favorite persons, actor Eli Wallach, has deliciously described as our period of ‘Anecdotage’…
So, succumbing to that age-driven urge, I will frequently (and unashamedly) use this space to share with you some timeworn stories, some whimsical, some more solemn, gleaned from my fading store of memories. I hope that you will find a few of them to be enjoyable – or at least a disarming diversion from the cluttered clamors of the moment…
But enough of my clumsy attempts at alliterative coupling – the following story briefly describes some of the good times I shared with my favorite uncle Andy – as you will soon discover, Andy was an interesting character, who possessed an ineffable talent for attracting and retaining the friendships of other interesting characters…
Oh, and as a bonus, my story also contains a favorite chili recipe for you to try…
My uncle Andy Carpenter worked in the dry cleaning business. He drove a van for Darby Cleaners in West Los Angeles, picking-up and delivering clothes across a route that took him through Beverly Hills and the nearby communities of Brentwood, Westwood and Pacific Palisades. He was hard working and gregarious, essential assets that consistently attracted new clients to his route.
Many of Andy’s loyal customers worked in the motion picture industry – my father recommended him to all of his show business friends, and they in turn passed Andy along to others in that close-knit community. Andy also used his friendly, non-aggressive sales pitch to attract and acquire major accounts on his own hook – for example, he convinced the two most popular ice skating extravaganzas of that period – Ice Capades and Ice Follies, to use Darby’s services exclusively, by proving that he could pick-up, clean and return their costumes on a very abbreviated turn-around whenever they performed in Los Angeles.
On Saturdays, starting around age seven, whenever Uncle Andy asked, I jumped at the chance to ride along with him while he made his rounds. His cheerful, easy-going demeanor assured his reception as valued friend as well as tradesman by his affectionate clientele. More often than not, he would be asked-in for a cup of coffee or on hot summer days, some lemonade and cookies, when he made a pick-up or delivery.
Whenever I tagged along, Andy would formally introduce me as his ‘assistant’, which of course meant that I could share in the goodies. I recall being included in an impromptu tea and biscuits get-together hosted by actor Charles Laughton and his actress wife Elsa Lanchester at their kitchen table – on another occasion Katherine Hepburn gave me a sackful of horehound candy to keep me occupied while she and Andy discussed her dry cleaning needs and gossiped about Hollywood goings on over coffee and sweet rolls at her kitchen table.
Andy also boasted actor Spencer Tracy as a client, and that resulted in a comical incident one Saturday morning at the Hepburn home in Brentwood. Andy’s Darby van had broken down and was in the shop being repaired, so he was using his personal automobile to cover his route. He had stopped by to deliver Miss Hepburn’s clothes, and, as usual, was asked in for coffee. Andy had parked his car, a snazzy, bright-red Ford convertible, in the driveway as he usually did when driving the Darby truck. He then carried the clothes delivery around back to the service entrance, and made his way to the kitchen. He and Miss Hepburn had just seated themselves to drink their coffee, when Tracy burst, unannounced through the kitchen door demanding “Kate, who belongs to that red convertible parked in your driveway?” Miss Hepburn looked up calmly and replied “Oh, for goodness sake, Spence, it’s Andy’s car – now sit down like a good boy and have some coffee with us”.
Turning to Andy, a red faced but contrite Spencer responded “I apologize for being such a jerk, Andy, but sometimes this dame drives me nuts” – he then quickly recovered and continued in a milder tone “By the way, I’ve got some stuff that needs cleaning – do me a favor and stop by my place when we’re finished drinking our coffee – OK?
Since Andy’s delivery truck had no passenger seat, I would sit on the floor in the back amid racks of hanging clothes to be delivered, and bags destined for the cleaners. Although nowadays one would be ticketed and fined for sliding around whenever the van stopped, turned a corner or started-up again without being properly restrained by a seat-belt – it sure was great fun back then!,
Andy and I would invariably stop for lunch at Diego’s, a small hole-in-the-wall Mexican diner on Robertson Boulevard near the Darby plant. It was here that I was introduced to what became my favorite meal – a ‘Hamburger Size’. Los Angelino’s of a certain age will fondly remember the Hamburger Size. Originally concocted in the mid 1930’s by a gentleman with the curious sobriquet: ‘Ptomaine Tommy’ at his eatery on the corner of Beverly boulevard and Rampart street, it has an interesting history. Tommy served chili in two variations – by the bowl or on top of a hamburger patty. To speed delivery of these two delicacies he had two ladles – a large one for the chili bowl orders and a smaller one to cover the hamburger patties. A sign posted on the wall behind the counter declaimed ‘Chili Size 30 cents – Hamburger Size 15 cents’ – this of course referred to the magnitude of the selected chili ladle. This description swiftly caught-on, and was subsequently adopted by chili ‘parlors’ across Los Angeles. Soon people were requesting an order of ‘Size’ rather than chili.
Stopping at Diego’s for a couple of hamburger sizes for lunch just as quickly became a tradition for Uncle Andy and me as we made our way back to the Darby plant.
I retain fond memories of the exciting times I spent as Uncle Andy’s ‘assistant’ – and of those tasty hamburger size lunches we shared that made the experience even more memorable.
Most everyone I know has their own preferred chili recipe – I have reproduced my favorite below. I copied it years ago from a story about chili by the humorist H. Allen Smith, in the New Yorker magazine.
Note: Depending on the size of your ladle, this recipe can be easily adapted to either “hamburger size” or “chili size.”
H. Allen Smith’s Chili.
Get three pounds of chuck, coarse ground. Brown it in an iron kettle. (If you don’t have an iron kettle you are not civilized. Go out and get one.) Chop two or three medium-sized onions and one bell pepper and add to the browned meat. Crush or mince one or two cloves of garlic and throw into the pot, then add about half a teaspoon of oregano and a quarter teaspoon of cumin seed. (You can get cumin seed in the supermarket nowadays.) Now add two small cans tomato paste; if you prefer canned tomatoes over fresh tomatoes, put them through a colander. Add about a quart of water. Salt liberally and grind in some black pepper and, for a starter, two or three tablespoons of chili powder. (Some of us use chili pods, but chili powder is just as good.) Simmer for an hour and a half or longer, and then add your beans. Pinto beans are best, but if they’re not available canned kidney beans will do – two 15-17 oz. cans will be adequate. Simmer another half hour. Throughout the cooking, do some testing from time to time. When you’ve got it right, let it set for several hours. Later you may heat up as much as you want and put the remainder in the refrigerator. It will taste better the second day, and still better the third. You can’t even begin to imagine the delights in store for you one week later.
© 2012, Alan Mowbray Jr.