Saturday, January 23, 2016

Project Bella: What's the rush?

Last Wednesday the Pacific Grove city council approved a special election, scheduled for April 19th, asking the townsfolk to change the zoning of the American Tin Cannery site to allow for a new hotel on the property. The hotel, code named “Project Bella,” is being billed as an economic necessity for PG, and a much better use of the site than the existing indoor retail mall that never lived up to expectations. 

Project Bella may indeed be the best thing to happen to Pacific Grove since Holman's, but why is a special election necessary when a regularly scheduled election will come just eight weeks later? The answer is simple. A special election favors the developer. 

Special elections tend to attract fewer voters, those most interested in the subject, so the results may not reflect the town as a whole. Also, it gives voters less time to scrutinize and discuss the project, giving the developers more control over the information presented to voters. It therefore comes as no surprise that the developer, Domaine Hospitality Partners, is perfectly happy to pay the full cost of the election, about $40,000 according to KSBW News. 

So far Domaine has had complete control over the messages to the community, and they've painted an awfully rosy picture of their hotel plan. They boast that Bella “will be designed, built, and furnished to the highest standards shared by only a very few of the world's best hotels,” a tall claim considering even the local competition, much less the world. And, strangely enough, they expect to fulfill their promise of unparalleled luxury with an architectural design reminiscent of the industrial history of the cannery building that currently occupies the site. 

Which brings me to my biggest concern. Both the developer and civic leaders who are supporting Project Bella have been pretty vague about the fate of the historic American Tin Cannery building, which turns 89 this year. It was the only Cannery Row cannery built in Pacific Grove, and arguably has the most attractive facade of any cannery on the row. 

After the local sardine industry shriveled the building was occupied by NAFI (National Automotive Fibers. Inc.), a division of Chris-Craft Industries. NAFI (pronounced “naffy”) manufactured carpeting for automobiles in the facility for many years. When I was third-grader at Carmel River School, locally made NAFI carpeting was installed in our classrooms. After NAFI went the way of the sardines, the American Tin Cannery entered its retail phase, first as a big box type store called Ardan and later the outlet mall we all know, but rarely patronize. 

I know this little bit of history because my dad was an accountant at NAFI in the 1960s. His office was near the base of the smokestack a few steps from Eardley Avenue. One day he gave me and my mother a tour of the plant. I think it was just after quittin' time because there were very few people there. I remember the cavernous space with north-facing windows built into the angled roof which provided a source of light. On the floor I saw rows and rows of industrial strength sewing machines, the kind you see today only in documentaries about Chinese textile mills. It made a strong impression on my seven year old mind. 

Descriptions of the proposed hotel in the local press have been hazy as to how much, if any, of the existing building would be incorporated into the new. Most reports ambiguously say the hotel will be built “at” the American Tin Cannery. Nowhere have I seen it stated explicitly that the American Tin Cannery will be demolished, but neither has it been said the building will be spared. One recent report suggested that the hotel will be an “homage” to the cannery. An artists rendering of the interior displayed on the developer's website shows features that look similar to the existing structure, but the aerial site plan shows the hotel with a very different footprint, most of it set well back from the street. Curiously missing from the website are any street-views of Project Bella. 

Put it all together and it becomes evident that the American Tin Cannery will be no more. Yet for some reason PG preservationists don't seem to have picked up the signals yet. If the demolition of an old pump house could attract their attention, the destruction of the American Tin Cannery should raise alarms like mad, yet they haven't said a word. 

Do Pacific Grove voters really know what they'll be getting on that property? I suspect Project Bella supporters don't want Pagrovians to know too much just yet. It appears they want to lure voters to the special election with glowing promises of economic benefits and unsurpassed luxury before the townsfolk realize they must sacrifice a unique piece of the town's heritage – hence the need to conduct the vote two months before the scheduled June 7th election.

The Rugged Shore of Pacific Grove

Friday, December 4, 2015

Have technocrats taken over Carmel city hall?

What's up with Carmel these days? The city council has engaged in some very un-Carmelish behavior of late. 

About this time last year the council began a six-month experiment with parking meters, devices long considered to be the ultimate insult to the dignity of the village. The council hoped to demonstrate that meters would solve a long-standing problem of too many cars and not enough parking spaces. 

Parking “kiosks” (single meters designed to serve an entire block) were installed up and down Ocean Avenue to see what would happen. As I expected, locals avoided them by parking on every other street where parking was still free, while tourists, who didn't know any better, paid up. But city officials didn't interpret the results that way. They saw that Ocean Avenue parking spaces opened up more often and, based on that criteria alone, they declared the experiment a success. When almost nobody else agreed with that two-dimensional analysis, the city removed the meters. End of story. 

This week the city council ventured down a similarly dubious path. By a slim 3-2 majority they approved the first reading of a controversial ordinance to declare beach fires a “public nuisance,” which would bring an abrupt end to a century-old social tradition. With a single vote on a simple subject, the council has set a course destined to leave a lot of their constituents very upset. Unless at least one of the three shows a willingness to compromise, the ship called City Hall is going to run aground on Carmel Beach as early as next month. 

Beach fires have become a bit of a problem mainly due to their increasing numbers. Carmel is one of the few places left on the California coast where your family and friends can still gather around a fire to toast hot dogs and marshmallows on a foggy summer evening. For that reason people flock to Carmel beach to enjoy this simple social ritual that humans have engaged in since caveman times. Lots of people mean lots of fires. Lots of fires mean lots of smoke and lots of black ashes discoloring Carmel's famous white sand. Too much of a good thing has gotten very messy. 

Earlier this year the city had a plan to manage fires by placing 26 fire rings along the beach between 10th and 13th Avenues. The rings would contain the filthy ashes, and the number of fires allowed at any one time would be limited. Still, I thought 26 was too many. After all we're still talking about eight to nine fires per block. In years past a busy night might see maybe a dozen fires, so 26 seemed overly generous. Unfortunately, some folks took the opposite view and decided 26 was too restrictive. They appealed the plan to the California Coastal Commission hoping to get a better deal. The CCC will consider the appeal next week. 

Meanwhile, the city council grew concerned that the smoke from so many fires might get the city in trouble with state and regional air quality bureaucrats. Last summer an air quality monitor placed at a nearby residence detected unhealthy levels of smoke on just two nights, once in June and again on the 4th of July. Apparently something in that smoke made city officials go batshit crazy and they abruptly changed course. 

The city passed a temporary emergency ordinance banning fires on weekends until proper studies could be done to find the best solution. But the Coastal Commission didn't think two nights of bad air over three months was sufficient justification to declare an emergency. They told the city not to enforce the ban. Miffed city officials essentially said “screw you” to the Coastal Commission and escalated the conflict beyond reason. They decided they could make an end run around the Coastal Commission ruling by declaring beach fires a “public nuisance.” With mayor Jason Burnett leading the charge, they drafted the ordinance to permanently ban all fires. This may have satisfied their egos, but it has ignited the anger of beachgoers. 

It's troubling enough to see the city council so willing to dismantle an important component of Carmel's unique social culture. Even more disturbing is how they are doing it, effectively bypassing the normal avenues of forming public policy. The proper course, which the city was following until recently, is to gather public input, study various alternatives, find ways to mitigate potential problems, and develop a plan. It's a somewhat tedious process, but it usually works out for most of us. The 26 fire ring proposal grew out of that process. Now, it has all been chucked out the window and a total ban is being imposed on the community with minimal debate. In fact mayor Burnett has made it clear he is not open to alternatives. In Wednesday's Herald he was quoted “For me it comes down to the health impact of the smoke, for me, it’s an area where I can’t compromise.” 

Yet the smoke reached unhealthy levels on only two evenings. Two. In fact, the proposed ordinance doesn't cite fires as the problem per se, only the “excessive number of beach fires during peak use periods” such as Independence Day festivities. The key to a fair and reasonable solution, then, is not a complete ban but a limit on the number of fires allowed at any given time. 

I think limiting fires to about 10 or 12 fire rings is a fair number, especially if they must be confined to the three block segment of the beach where fires are currently allowed. Some experimentation with their placement might further reduce smoke drift into the surrounding neighborhood. These steps should limit smoke to historical levels, which folks seemed comfortable with in the past. The rings would confine coals and ashes to keep the beach clean and safe. To keep things simple, fire rings would be available on a first-come first-served basis, much as with picnic tables in parks. though a reservation system might be helpful for busy holiday weekends. I think this is a reasonable compromise, and should be satisfactory to almost everyone. 

The question is whether Carmelites can convince at least one more council member that compromise is reasonable. I fear the mayor is a lost cause. That leaves Victoria Beach and Ken Talmage, but they're coming across as more fearful of what the air quality bureaucrats might do than they are of the townsfolk they supposedly represent. As with the parking meter program, the council majority seems primarily interested in the technical aspects of the issue while disregarding the social and cultural implications of their actions. In a tightly knit community like Carmel, with deep-rooted social traditions, that is a huge political mistake.

Carmel Beach Bonfires

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

A Comprehensive and Slightly Irreverent Guide To Local Water Politics

About three years ago I posted a “Pocket Guide to Local Water Politics” to help poor confused people like me sort out the crazy quilt of interlaced complexities of competing interests. A lot has changed since then, so I thought an updated guide would be in order. Unfortunately, things have become so insanely complex that I must increase the guide to briefcase size.

In the mid 1970s California experienced a severe drought. Here on the Monterey Peninsula residential water users were rationed to 50 gallons per person per day, a huge inconvenience in the days of 3 gallon per flush toilets and 5 gallon per minute shower heads. In 1978 the State Legislature created the Monterey Peninsula Water Management District, commonly known as the “Water Board,” to find and construct a new water supply so we would never have to go through that again. Nearly forty years and three droughts later almost nothing has been done. Despite the cries of “not me” echoing throughout the region, pretty much everyone is to blame.

Here are the players. Their specific names have been removed to protect me from the guilty:

1. Monterey Peninsula Voters who, in the mid 1990s, voted down two perfectly good water supply projects that would have solved our problems long ago.

Important Details:
  • The projects were a modest desalination plant in Sand City and a New Los Padres Dam on the Carmel River.

  • The desal plant would have provided us with a drought-proof supplement to sporadic rainfall. It was rejected by voters in 1993 on the grounds that it would cost much more per unit of water than a new dam, which they said was just around the corner.

  • The dam would have provided ample storage to serve the population and help the poor fish by restoring year-round flows to the overdrawn Carmel River. It was rejected in 1995 because voters perceived it as too expensive, growth inducing, and environmentally damaging.

  • Had local voters approved both of these projects we would not be in the legal mess we are in today and the current drought would be just a minor inconvenience.

  • What in blazes were they thinking?!?!?!?!?!?!?

  • For the record: I voted for both projects.

2. A State Water Board which determined that the local Private Water Company was legally entitled to only one third of the water it was pumping out of the ground in Carmel Valley, the Peninsula's primary source of water for over 100 years. The board issued a cease and desist order (CDO) to take effect at the end of 2016.

Points to ponder:
  • Everyone on the Peninsula is desperate to find a new water supply.

  • There is a general consensus that a desalination plant is the best option.

  • If we don't meet the deadline the Private Water Company will be forced to pay huge fines, or limit water deliveries, or some combination thereof. Nobody knows how the State will enforce the order.

  • Oh crap: We're not going to meet the deadline.

3. The County which arbitrarily passed an ordinance saying that any desalination plants built in Monterey County must be publicly owned.

But wait:
  • There is some question as to whether or not The County has legal jurisdiction over utility companies. Some say that is the domain of the California Public Utilities Commission (PUC). If that is true then The County's ordinance is probably not enforceable.

  • The County doesn't seem to have a problem with private ownership of the Carmel Valley dams (see below), so why do they care if the same company owns a desal plant?

  • And why single out water? If the same logic applied to other utilities, then electrical generation plants should also be publicly owned, right? But that's a topic for another day.

4. The Local Water Board which devised and presented two water supply projects to Peninsula Voters for their approval.

The results:
  • Voters rejected both projects (see above).

  • After voters rejected the two projects the Water Board could find no credible alternatives and has basically been adrift ever since.

  • The Water Board has since developed a reputation, not fully deserved, as a do-nothing agency.

  • Throughout its history, the Water Board has been accused of abusing its authority over new water uses to control development on the Monterey Peninsula.

  • Its reputation was so bad that in 2002 Monterey Peninsula Voters passed an advisory measure asking the state legislature to dissolve the Water Board. Presumably, had the legislature complied – which it didn't – that would have left the Private Water Company (see below) on its own to develop a water supply.

5. The Private Water Company which has been the Monterey Peninsula's water provider for as long as water has been needed here.

Some facts:
  • Although The Company has “California” and “American” in its name, the parent company is actually based in Germany.

  • In the first half of the 20th Century, the Private Water Company built two dams on the Carmel River called San Clemente and Los Padres.

  • The Company has been criticized for not dredging the two reservoirs periodically, instead letting sediment build up which significantly reduced their capacity.

  • The San Clemente reservoir filled almost completely with sediment. The Dam is currently being dismantled at customer expense.

  • For over three decades The Company let the Local Water Board take the lead in finding a new water supply project.

  • When the Local Water Board failed to deliver, and with the CDO deadline fast approaching, the Company entered into a complex agreement with a Neighboring Water District (see below) to build a Regional Desalination Project (RDP) outside the Private Water Company's service area.

  • After the agreement with the Neighboring Water District collapsed (see below), and with the CDO deadline immanent, the Private Water Company understandably gave up on working with incompetent public bureaucracies and decided to build a desal plant on its own. Plans call for it to be built within the boundaries of the Neighboring Water District which has generated considerable friction between The Company and the Neighboring Water District.

  • The most optimistic construction schedule shows The Company's desal plant won't be operational until 2020, thus missing the CDO deadline by about four years.

  • The Company has skirted the County requirement that desal plants be publicly owned through some sort of agreement that resolved whatever disputes arose between The Company and The County during the failure of the RDP.

  • The Company hopes to employ “slant well” technology to draw ocean water into the desal plant. Slant wells are drilled near the shore at an angle (as opposed to straight down) so that the intakes are located in the soggy sand just below the ocean floor.

  • Slant wells are preferred over “open ocean” intakes by environmental groups and regulatory agencies because they will not suck up ocean life along with the seawater. However, critics in the Neighboring Water District believe the slant wells will also draw some fresh water from the Neighboring District's groundwater supplies, and they are accusing the Private Water Company of stealing their water.

  • Earlier this year The Company drilled a slant well for testing purposes to determine if the technology will work as expected. The test well was challenged in court by the Neighboring Water District, but a judge allowed the test to proceed.

  • The slant well testing is so far inconclusive. The Company discovered a drop in groundwater levels in the neighborhood of the test well. It is not yet known if the drop was caused by the slant well or nearby agricultural wells. The Company says it is the latter while the Neighboring Water District says “Nya, nya, we told you so!” The test well is currently shut down pending further analysis by actual scientists.

  • Egg on their faces: It turns out that one of the consultants hired by The Company to analyze the test well results has a conflict of interest in that he also holds some patents on slant well technology.

6. The Neighboring Water District came into the picture a few years ago with a proposal to save the Private Water Company from the ineffective Water Board. It was called the Regional Desalination Project (RDP).

Here's where everything went completely bonkers:
  • The RDP plan involved three public agencies. 1. The Neighboring Water District which would own the desal plant, 2. A County Water Agency which would own the pipes to get ocean water into the plant, and 3. A Regional Wastewater Agency which would be in charge of the salty residue discharged back into the ocean.

  • The Private Water Company would be the plant's primary customer. The Neighboring Water District would also use some of the water produced for its own needs.

  • The Neighboring Water District would have control over the plant management and operations.

  • The Private Water Company's customers would pay for the plant, but have no significant influence over its management. This raised alarm bells among Monterey Peninsula residents who felt that they would be at the mercy of the Neighboring Water District, which at the time was widely regarded as so dysfunctional that the Peninsula's useless Water Board looked like King Solomon by comparison.

  • The California PUC's Division of Ratepayer Advocates had similar concerns.

  • Due to the sheer complexity of the plan and the distrust it generated among Peninsula residents the project would probably have collapsed under its own weight eventually. Its demise was mercifully hastened when it was discovered that a key player in the project's development had a serious conflict of interest in that he was working for both a public agency and a private contractor advising the same agency.

  • As I predicted in 2010 the RDP players are now suing each other, trying to recover the money they spent on this unworkable scheme. Each side claims the others were at fault, and nobody is taking responsibility themselves.

  • Meanwhile, the Neighboring Water District, being no longer on speaking terms with the Private Water Company, is trying every legal trick in the book to stop the Private Water Company from building its own desal plant within the boundaries of the Neighboring Water District.

  • Last May the local Congressman actually suggested that the Neighboring Water District be disbanded because “They just haven’t conducted themselves in a very professional way. They’ve been fighting everybody else, and they’ve been sort of selfish and arrogant.”

  • Isn't this fun???

  • Only if you can watch it from a safe distance!

7. After the RDP collapsed it became evident that none of the relevant public agencies were competent enough to find a new water supply. So the six Mayors of the six Monterey Peninsula cities got together and formed a plan: Create a new public agency! They call it the Water Authority, and the Mayors put themselves in charge.

Their mission:
  • Get all of the players, the public water agencies, the Private Water Company, the Business Association, and the Citizen Groups into one room and hash out a solution agreeable to everyone. It's sorta like herding cats, and has turned out to be just as effective.

  • The Authority analyzed three competing desal plant proposals (see above for one and look below for the other two) and voted the Private Water Company's project as Most Likely To Succeed. This pleased the Private Water Company (see above) and local Business Association (see below), and really upset the Citizen Groups (see below) and the Neighboring Water District (see above).

  • Just to be safe, The Authority declared the Deep Water project (see below) as their second favorite. They directed the Water Board to oversee the Deep Water project on a parallel track as a “Plan B” in case the Private Water Company's project fell apart. Good idea.

  • The Authority is also exploring the best ways to grovel before the State Water Board to request an extension of the CDO deadline.

8. A Prominent Local Businessman who, for several years now, has claimed to have the perfect desal plant idea called The People's Project.

All you need to know:
  • It would be built on property he owns adjacent to the Moss Landing power plant.

  • It would use existing seawater intakes (built in the 1940s) used by a previous business on the same site. The Prominent Local Businessman theorizes that using existing intakes will be okey-dokey with the ocean protection people.

  • One problem: His property is currently under threat of foreclosure.

9. Deep Water Desal is the “Plan B” of the Water Authority.

The basics:
  • That's actually its real name. I couldn't come up with a generic pseudonym.

  • It is so named because the ocean intakes would be located in a deep part of the ocean where fewer critters live to get sucked into the pipes. Its proponents believe that this will be acceptable to the ocean protection people, but nobody knows for sure.

  • According to recent news reports the project directors claim that they can get the plant up and running sometime in 2017, missing the CDO deadline, but only by a few months instead of several years. However, their website does not show a timetable, not even on their “Costs & Timeline” page which only mentions costs and financing.

  • The project does not yet have an Environmental Impact Report (EIR), which will take the better part of a year to prepare. Construction can't begin without it.

  • Ahem.... 2017 is only 16 months away!

10. A handful of Citizen Groups are also in the mix. Their favorite activity is writing mind-numbing guest commentaries in the Local Newspaper, almost every week for the past few years.

What they say and do:
  • They say the Private Water Company is a greedy, heartless corporation that is only interested in profits and doesn't care about its customers.

  • They blame the Private Water Company for all of our water problems. To justify that conclusion they have implied that Peninsula Voters, the Water Board, and the Neighboring Water District are all perfectly angelic innocent victims of The Company.

  • The are absolutely convinced, and believe it should be obvious to everyone, that only thing that will save us from the Private Water Company is a public takeover of the Private Water Company.

  • Twice in the last ten years they have put measures before voters to study the feasibility of having the Local Water Board take over the Private Water Company. Yup, we're talking about the same Local Water Board the voters voted to remove from the face of the Earth (see above). Needless to say, both ballot measures failed.

  • Members of these groups reluctantly admit that they underestimated the depth of public animosity towards the Local Water Board, but they still insist that the measures would have passed if the Private Water Company hadn't spent so much money on the NO side of the campaign.

  • Golly, they're so cute when they fantasize.

  • They oppose the Private Water Company's desal plant, and support the other two (see above).

  • They declared that the Private Water Company's slant well test would be a failure even before the test well was drilled. They have even accused the Private Water Company of knowing it would fail before it was drilled. When asked for evidence they tend to get unusually quiet.

  • To their credit they have rightly questioned why businesses pay lower water rates than residential customers.

  • But they're into conspiracy theories. For example, because the Mayors' Water Authority supports the Private Water Company's desal plant, they say that the Authority is in cahoots with The Company to keep business rates low and residential rates high.

  • They're really into conspiracy theories. They say the conflict of interest problem that killed the Neighboring Water District's Regional Desal Project was deliberately manufactured by the Private Water Company to kill the RDP and leave The Company free to build its own plant so it could keep all of the profits. Problem with the theory: The Company was free to join or not join the RDP agreement, so there was no need to resort to devious means to get out of it.

  • They insist that if the State Water Board imposes fines on the Private Water Company for failing to meet the CDO deadline, then The Company's stockholders should pay the fines, not water customers. Their reasoning: we all know that the Private Water Company is to blame for everything, and the Voters and Local Water Board are completely innocent. Right? Right????

11. Finally, there is a Business Association, which is solidly backing whatever water project looks most promising at any given point in time.

More details:
  • Their spokesperson is a well known general manager of a prominent Monterey hotel.

  • The Association is scared to death of the CDO because if water deliveries are forcibly curtailed then many, many businesses would be forced to cut back services and eliminate jobs. Hotels and restaurants would be especially hard hit. It's a legitimate concern.

  • Even if the State Water Board imposes fines instead of water cutbacks, the cost of water would increase the cost of doing business, costs which may have to be passed onto customers.

So there it is, the whole situation in a nutshell. No, that's wrong. It's a freakin' nuthouse! Don't feel bad if you don't understand it. It is all quite incomprehensible to any sane person. If, by chance, you think you do understand it you are advised to seek psychiatric help as soon as possible.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Herald Boo-Boo Watch part 43

I thought I was going to quit doing the Monterey Herald Boo-Boo Watch. The paper's gaffes were becoming fairly infrequent compared to last year (but still excessive when compared to previous years), and I was getting tired of scanning every stupid mistake. But in the last month I've seen an increase in Boo-Boos once again. Still, I tried to overlook the caption that identified two people in a photo that showed only one, the incoherent sentences with missing words, another confusing photo caption, etc. But today I decided to crank up the Boo-Boo Watch when the Monterey Herald printed the weather map for the San Francisco Bay Area instead of Monterey Bay.


Tuesday, August 4, 2015

You can try....

Last night I was was watching KYMB, the local MeTV outlet, when I saw a commercial for the Monterey Herald. It started out saying that it was time to start reading the newspaper again, and to encourage you to subscribe they offered a free trial. Sort of.

"Try for a free week" the announcer said, three times. Not "Try it free for a week," or "Try it for a week, free." Nope, you can call the number and try for a free week. You may get it, you may not, but you can certainly try!

This isn't the first time the Herald has employed atrocious grammar to sell its own product. Early last October the Herald ran a print ad promoting a new advertising partnership with Google. In big letters it said "Are customers find YOU or your COMPETITOR?" It ran for almost a week and never was corrected. 

The Herald has become its own worst enemy. After all, a newspaper depends on words to communicate the daily news. If they don't use them properly in their first point of contact with potential customers they aren't likely to attract the new subscribers they desperately need.

Friday, July 10, 2015

The Lady With The Long Black Hair

Back in the early 1960s, when I was but a wee tyke, my mommy signed me up for a pre-school program at Bay School, the “Little Red Schoolhouse” tucked into the eucalyptus grove along Highway 1 just south of Carmel. This 19th Century one-room schoolhouse had been revitalized several years earlier by a colorful woman named Rosa Doner, who had a way of bringing joy, adventure, and just the right amount of discipline to what is now called early childhood education. Back then we called it nursery school. Parents were part of the program, and Rosa required every mother to participate in the operation one day a week.

It was here I learned how to paint with brushes and fingers. I learned to play the triangle and tambourine. I observed that raccoons had human-like hands. I learned to chew the sour grass that grew alongside the playground. I saw first-hand where wool came from and that the school's sheep looked funny naked. And I found out that popcorn made me throw up and I refused to touch the stuff again for at least five years. Rosa Doner, who we always referred to by her full name, also taught us a couple of songs, one about a little acorn brown and another about an eensy weensy spider. All very important lessons.

I'm not sure exactly how long I attended the Little Red School House as my internal chronometer was not yet developed, but I believe it was somewhere between one and a half to two years. I was there long enough to know it well as a one-room schoolhouse, and I clearly remember watching the annex being built and my excitement the first time I stepped inside the new part. From then on Bay School was a two-room schoolhouse.

It was in the new part where a small group of little chairs were arranged in a semi-circle and some of us kids were seated. In a chair facing us was a pretty lady with long black hair who played guitar and taught us songs. One of the first we learned was a lullaby called “Hush Little Baby.” Then we learned one about an old lady who swallowed a fly. I was particularly interested in this one because I knew flies were bad. I can still remember my thought process as the lady with long black hair unfolded the song for the first time.
“There was an old lady who swallowed a fly...,"
Uh, oh.
“I don't know why she swallowed that fly...."

She probably had her mouth open and it flew in.
“Perhaps she'll die."
Yup, this confirms it, flies are bad and swallowing one may end your life. Gotta be careful around flies!
Next, the old lady swallowed a bird to catch the fly. This seemed like a reasonable remedy. Certainly better than doing nothing. But then she swallowed a cat to catch the bird, and a dog to catch the cat, on up the food chain. I could tell this was not a sensible course of action by the time she got to the goat, but it was an amusing song anyway.

Next the pretty lady with the long black hair taught us “I've been working on the railroad.” Oh boy, I already knew that one! My daddy often sang it to me in the rocking chair before bed. But the lady with the long black hair did it differently. Daddy sung the “old banjo” part as “Fee-fi-fiddly-i-o” whereas the lady with the long black hair sang it “Plink, plank, plinkity-plank-plunk” which confused me. I wasn't sure which way was the right way. I thought daddy's way sounded better, but the other way was coming from a teacher, the definitive voice of educational authority. Her way must be the way the rest of the world sings it, and thus my daddy's way was the wrong way. That disturbed me a bit. One night I shared the plink, plank version with my daddy, and he didn't care for it. “Where'd you hear THAT?” he said. I told him that the lady at school taught it that way. He scoffed at her version and I decided I could accept daddy's version if I wanted to.

We had several more singing sessions with the lady with the long black hair, and I know we learned more than three songs, but those three were the only ones that stuck with me.

Somewhere between songs one girl noticed the lady with long black hair had pierced ears. “Did it hurt?” the girl asked. The lady with long black hair said a nurse did it, and used ice to make her ear lobe numb so she wouldn't feel anything. I must have found that bit of information interesting and potentially useful enough to file it in my long-term memory. A bit of science with the singing lessons.

The lady with the long black hair was in the background quite a bit, but outside of those lessons in song, I only have one other clear memory of her. One day Rosa Doner announced that the entire school was going to take a hike the next day to see a cross. I knew from Sunday School that a cross was something important, so I was eager to see one in person. We kids marched two by two, employing the buddy system (very important on adventures!) along the trail below the fancy houses of Carmel Meadows. Towards the end we climbed a small hill where, at the top, stood a twenty foot wooden cross.

I knew exactly where we were. We were overlooking the lagoon at Carmel River Beach (which in those days we called “lagoon beach”). I had been on that beach, and waded in that lagoon, many times. I wondered why I had never noticed the cross before. I certainly noticed it from then on!

It was quite windy that day, and I found it uncomfortable. I complained about it to the lady with the long black hair. She was sitting on the ground with her back against the cross, her hands wrapped around her raised knees. She invited me to sit on the ground with her, saying “It's not windy down here.” I did as she suggested and sat down. She was right (another early science lesson) it was much less windy near the ground. But the ground was uncomfortable and a little too boring for a four year old full of energy. I don't think I stayed there more than a minute before I was back up and walking around, ready to go back to the school house. 

About 34 years later, on a November morning in 1998, I woke up and spontaneously began singing:
I'm a little acorn brown,
Lying on the cold cold ground,
Everybody steps on me,
That is why I'm cracked you see,
I'm a nut, [click, click]
I'm a nut, [click, click]
I'm a nut, [click, click]
I'm a nut.
Out loud.

That's kinda weird, I thought. It was one of the first songs Rosa Doner taught us, and I hadn't thought of it for years. Why did it suddenly come to me now? A few minutes later I had my answer. I opened the morning's Herald and found Rosa Doner's obituary.

A public memorial service was held on the playground of the Little Red School House. Graham crackers and juice were served for communion under the canopy of fragrant eucalyptus trees. I didn't meet anyone from my class, but there were several folks there who were just a little older or younger. At the end of the ceremony it was announced that orders were being taken for commemorative shirts. I ordered two sweatshirts, one for me and one to send to my mother in Oregon.

A week or two later I went back to pick up my order. A lady somewhat younger than myself handled the transaction. She asked about my connection to the school, and I told her I was a graduate from the class of 1964. “Oh, you were here during the days of Joan Baez,” she said, “that must have been special.” I said “Well, I don't remember her specifically, but I've been told she was a volunteer here at about that time.” Then without thinking I added “But I do remember a pretty lady with long black hair who played guitar and taught us songs.” She looked at me with a knowing twinkle in her eye as the realization suddenly dawned on me....

“Oh, of course!" 

Now, I had known from a very young age that Joan Baez was a famous singer, that she had some connection to Bay School, and that she was Rosa Doner's neighbor. But it took me until I was 39 years old to realize she was the lady with the long black hair! Soon after, I learned that she had recorded "Hush Little Baby" and when I had a chance to hear it, it was just as I remembered her singing it to us in that semi-circle in the Bay School annex. And speaking of the annex, I recently learned that she helped helped raise the funds for its construction by performing a benefit concert at Sunset Auditorium on June 22, 1963.*

But I wasn't the only guy who failed to recognize her true identity. In the mid 1980s I worked at Brinton's, a home oriented department store at the mouth of Carmel Valley. One of my co-workers was an elderly English gentleman named Stafford Hook. He occasionally spoke of his days when he was a salesman of British luxury cars, names like Rolls Royce and Jaguar. But I didn't hear this story from him. I first read it in the Monterey Peninsula Herald's Professor Toro column, for it had become a part of local folklore.

In the early 1960s British Motors was located on Del Monte Avenue in Monterey, right across from Lake El Estero. One day the lady with the long black hair came in, on a bit of a whim as one source tells it, and she was attracted to a silver Jaguar XKE. She decided then and there that she wanted to buy it. Stafford didn't think such a young lady would have the means to purchase such an expensive automobile, and he didn't take her very seriously. But the young lady with long black hair wrote out a check for the amount of $6,000 (almost $48,000 in today's money) and presented it to him. Still skeptical, Stafford phoned the bank to confirm she did indeed have sufficient funds to cover the purchase. After she drove away his amused co-workers, who recognized the famous folksinger right away, explained to Stafford who she was.

When I was five or six years old I, too, acquired a Jaguar XKE. It said “Matchbox” on the bottom. My oldest sister told me “That's the kind of car Joan Baez drives.” At the moment she said that I immediately pictured it parked at Bay School, even though I couldn't remember actually seeing an XKE parked there. So clearly, even at that age I knew who Joan Baez was and that she was connected to my school in some way, but I was still far from the realization that I had met her and sang with her.

When I was 25 I had one more face-to-face encounter with Joan Baez. I was working the cash register at Brinton's when she came to the counter to purchase a basket. This time I recognized her immediately. I believe that by then she was living in the Santa Cruz Mountains. I assumed she was visiting Carmel to attend Bay Day, the annual open house at Bay School, which was happening just a mile down the road that very day. Yet I still had not made the personal connection. If I knew then what I know now I would have introduced myself as one of the kids she taught songs to two decades earlier.

In the unlikely event that she and I ever cross paths again, I shall certainly take advantage of the opportunity to thank her for some of my fondest childhood memories.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Herald Boo-Boo Watch part 42

I'll give the Herald credit for making fewer boo-boos compared to this time last year, but careless errors are still more frequent than when our local daily still had a local editor.

On Monday, May 11th, the Herald had a front page story about efforts to stabilize the finances of Museum of Monterey. The article contained this bizarre statement attributed to a Pacific Grove filmmaker named Bob Pacelli:
"Pacelli, who’s known about the museum struggles for decades, describes the museum as an incredible asset that never recovered from the ill-will that developed after the city built the tunnel to divert traffic to the aquarium."
This statement is wrong in so many ways! For starters, the tunnel was built in 1967, at least a decade before the aquarium was even a concept, and about 17 years before the aquarium first opened. The aquarium is not the reason for the tunnel's existence. The tunnel also predates the Stanton Center, which houses the museum, by a good quarter century. So in no way, shape, or form could the tunnel be responsible for the museum's financial woes by diverting traffic away from the museum.

Had this been presented as Mr. Pacelli's opinion I could have overlooked this obvious historical inaccuracy. Unfortunately, the reporter implies that Pacelli is an authority on the subject and presents it as historical fact. I find this particularly troubling because the reporter is a seasoned veteran who ought to know the city's basic history better than that.