Words are not the thing – Illegal Pete’s

Theo Stroomer

Pete Turner, the owner of the Mexican-style restaurant chain. Credit Theo Stroomer for The New York Times

This New York Times article from Sunday brought me back to 1998 when I took a road trip across Nebraska to Colorado to visit the Royal Gorge Bridge in Cañon City, stopping at numerous points in between. One of the highlights of that trip was a meal of black beans and rice at Illegal Pete’s on the Pearl Street Mall in Boulder. It was so good (and cheap, I was a poor art student back then) I actually had two meals there during my short stay in Boulder before continuing on into the mountains.

All these years later, Illegal Pete’s is now a chain with 7 locations, the most recent of which just opened in Ft Collins.  The owner, Pete Turner, has found himself in the midst of some controversy over his use of the word “Illegal” as part of the business name.  It’s a layered set of circumstances concerning the power and context of words.

My feeling is that if Illegal Pete’s didn’t serve Mexican fare, it might not be as much of an issue.  It seems the choice of Ft. Collins as a location is also problematic.  According to the article, “In opening a new locale here — the chain’s seventh — Mr. Turner seemed to have stumbled on a political tripwire he had not known existed, drawing ire from local and national immigrant rights groups that say his use of the word in connection with a person’s name is derogatory and offensive.”  They want the name to be changed.

The thing is, Turner claims that undocumented immigration was the furthest thing from his mind 20 years ago when he founded the business.  He shares the story of how he got started in great detail on the restaurant’s website.  The main inspirations for the name were a novel he read in college as well as his father, who was known to have a bit of a rebellious streak.  When I visited in ’98, I took the name to be in the spirit of sayings like, “This food is so good, it should be illegal.”  But that was long before the word “illegal” had the stigma in context with US immigration issues that it has today.

What interests me about all of this is that it’s not cut and dry and it’s difficult to take sides.  Language is complicated.  The name was never meant to be derogatory towards any group, but it has come to mean something very hurtful to the relatively sizable minority population living in Ft. Collins as well as advocates for immigration rights all over the country.

In a letter to Turner inviting him to attend a meeting of concerned citizens in Ft. Collins, Colorado State University assistant English professor Antero Garcia wrote,“The restaurant will be located in the same area that current Fort Collins residents remember often seeing signs saying ‘No dogs or Mexicans.’ It is under this legacy of American racist practices that the name Illegal Pete’s becomes unacceptable.” (from an article by Josie Sexton, The Coloradoan)

Turner expresses dismay about receiving a great deal of support from anti-immigration advocates, whose thinking he is in no way aligned with.  He has met with the protesters, and has given the entire matter a lot of heart-felt consideration, but at the end of the day, he has decided not to change the name of the business.

Because I’m familiar with the history of the restaurant and I’m aware of Pete Turner’s pro immigration activities outside of this matter, in the end, I support him.  But as indicated earlier, I don’t believe it is cut and dry.

One of the more interesting comments from the NYT article is as follows:

Uga Muga

Miami 3 days ago

“The comments are overwhelmingly pro freedom of expression, find the issue silly or see misplaced passions on the immigration issue.”

“I note a country where imagery drives motivation. It may be the case across humanity. Exerting or attempting to exert control over opinion is what advertising and propaganda are all about. There are innumerable examples; I don’t know which are the most stunning. Liberty cabbage, freedom fries….. how about the Peoples “Republic” of China?”

“Words are not the thing but the thing is often about words.”

Tour de Neglect featured in the Guardian!

When I first moved to Buffalo for my MFA in photography in 2000, I spent a lot of time photographing all over the city for a project I was working on about abandoned toys.  I found plenty of subjects for my project on Buffalo’s run down East Side and I became very familiar with the area.

Recently, when I saw a facebook invite from David Torke, I jumped at the opportunity to participate in his September edition of Tour de Neglect.   David is a Buffalo photographer, blogger and community activist whose efforts to bring much needed love and attention to the East Side have been getting some impressive press lately.  I’d read about past tours in various local publications and I was excited to get involved.

David’s efforts were recently featured in the Guardian and I am honored to have a couple of snaps I took on that ride included in the article by Ethan Powers.

Here’s a link to the article – The Tour de Neglect: a cycle ride through Buffalo’s deprived East Side.

Thinking of Dad

Father’s Day was Sunday and I spent much of the day traveling home from Morganton, North Carolina where two friends were married over the weekend. Reunions took place and numerous introductions marked the occasion of their wedding. We managed to stretch the merriment out over several days, by spending some time in Asheville walking around, shopping and seeing the sights.

One of the many shops we visited was Paul Taylor Custom Sandals and Belts, where they’ve been crafting beautiful sandals, belts and other leather goods by hand since 1965. They sell their goods to the many tourists who frequent the Haywood Street area of Downtown Asheville. I was reminded of my father as soon as I approached the shop window. Paul Taylor’s also features the largest collection of vintage sterling silver and solid brass belt buckles in the country. I’ve always associated these belt buckles with the many timeless old men I’ve encountered throughout my life who never quite grew up to be cowboys. My father was one of those old men. He was born and raised on a tobacco farm in Kentucky. He moved to Omaha to work as a draftsman for a cabinet maker, but eventually ended up employed in various jobs over the years at auto parts stores in the area. He did this for the rest of his working life until retirement.

There were many things about my father that never changed; like the flat top buzz cut he sported long after his days as an enlisted man in the Marines. I remember him as somewhat tall and alarmingly thin, slightly hunched and always smoking. He usually wore jeans and a button down shirt tucked in and cinched tight with an old leather belt featuring one of his prized belt buckles.

I have no clear memory of my father as a young man. He was 43 when I was born. By the time I was able to comprehend the complexities of age, he was approaching 50. Even in his early 50s, years of heavy smoking and under eating gave him the appearance of an elderly man. As children, my sisters and I were accustomed to correcting friends who assumed he was our grandfather.

Throughout his life, my father was a man of few words. Chain-smoking was his only apparent vice. He spent long weekends reading cheap science fiction. This is where he seemed to find the most happiness. He worked hard at his job. At home he relaxed in front of the television set. His heroes were, Clint Eastwood, Ronald Reagan and God.

After his death, there were small squabbles among the sisters over his possessions. Nothing had any real value beyond whatever importance we may have assigned, each in our own way, to the objects as tokens of love from our father. As the only sister living away from Omaha, I settled on three small items that were easy to pack and take on an airplane. Each object I chose came from one of his numerous collections. Each of his collections was made up of small treasures that, at one time or another had tickled his quiet heart in some way. A pearl handled pocket knife from his knife collection was my first choice. Next I selected a Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western from his assortment of DVDs. And finally, as if he were there to see, I grabbed one of his many belt buckles, this particular one fashioned in the shape of a locomotive. I wanted to remember the love of trains I shared with my father when I was very small.

Walking into Paul Taylor’s around Father’s day was fortuitous for me. I’ve been thinking about Dad a lot lately.

Driving through Brocton

After our opening at the Octagon Gallery in Westfield on Friday, we headed to Fredonia for dinner and drinks with friends.  Deb’s friend Steve rode with Allen and me to make sure we didn’t get lost.  Along the way we passed through Brocton, a tiny village within the town of Portland in Chautauqua County.  It would have been easy to overlook Brocton all together if we’d been driving through during the day, but at night its old store fronts and abandoned businesses seem fantastically lit by a combination of rickety street lights and the stars in the sky.

I quickly snapped half a dozen mental images as we whizzed down E. Main Street which cuts Brocton in half along Rout 20.  Just as we reached the end of the strip, Allen started insisting we turn around so I could take a picture of something he had seen.  We circled around and I grabbed this shot.  Allen felt the connection to my work would be interesting to me, and he was right.  It’s an abandoned doll shop Called Pegg’s Enchanted Doll House and Hospital.  I can’t wait to go back some night and take more pictures in Brocton.

Facebook, Internet Memes and Situationist Slogans

When aliens try to learn about Earthlings by looking at facebook, they will think we are all ecstatically happy and that we compulsively “like” just about everything we encounter. Even our status updates about life, love, politics and the world around us are delivered at a pace resembling a frenzied heartbeat. Multitudes of saccharin comments accumulate like deep breathing methods, but they can’t tame the palpitations that fuel our compulsion to remain engaged in this kind of super-charged, yet ultimately empty communication.

At the end of the day, I am the first to admit that I enjoy facebook. I appreciate all that it has to offer, especially when it comes to staying in touch with friends and associates in the arts and of course family. For the most part, I use it solely as a networking tool and it’s negative aspects are easily kept at bay. You can specify a certain audience for each bit of content you put out there, so you don’t have to worry about offending your boss or your grandmother. Since my expectations about the level of meaningful interaction within social media in general are low, I’m rarely overly disappointed with my experience using it.

With all of that said, I also think it’s important to look at the big picture where these kinds of phenomena in our lives are concerned. There are endless contributing factors to how we got here. Facebook itself has contributed greatly to the recent rise in popularity of internet memes who’s culture jamming effects are reminiscent of the impact the Situationist International’s slogans had on daily life, mostly in Europe in the 1950s and 60s. As part of a specific agenda associated with opposing capitalism, the SI’s slogans were a big part of the 1968 uprisings in Paris. The slogans became a part of daily life in the form of graffiti when quotations from two situationist books, The Society of the Spectacle (1967) by Guy Debord and On the Poverty of Student Life (1966) by Mustapha Khayati, were written on the sides of buildings and subway walls of Paris.

Many of the SI slogans could easily be internet memes of today:

Actual Graffiti Found on Paris’ Walls in May, 1968

Don’t beg for the right to live — take it.
Those who make revolutions half way only dig their own graves.
No replastering, the structure is rotten.
The passion of destruction is a creative joy.
Conservatism is a synonym for rottenness and ugliness.
Those who lack imagination cannot imagine what is lacking.
Unbutton your mind as often as your fly.
Professors, you make us grow old.
Terminate the university
The bourgeoisie has no other pleasure than to degrade all pleasures.

Below is a gallery of images I pulled randomly from Google Images with the search query “Situationist Slogans” typed in.

Sweet Nadja

When Nadja got sick in the Summer of 2010, the Vet helped me keep her alive and, for the most part, pain free with fluid injections that I administered daily for a little over a year.  I was so grateful to have that extra time with her and it helped me to prepare somewhat for what was to come.

On July 25, 2011 (one year ago today) Nadja left this world and went on to new adventures.  I was struck with a sadness that I’ve never known.  It took months for the pain in my heart to ease.  My eyes still well up sometimes when I think of her.   It’s a very sweet sadness, though.  I’ve found that it’s a great joy to hold her in my heart and keep my memories of the 16 years she spent with me close.  I enjoy her visits occasionally in my dreams and the little things that bring her to mind.  Nadja is gone, but she will never disappear. 

“Grief makes one hour ten.”
William Shakespeare

“The problem with loving is that pets don’t last long enough
and people last too long.”

Looking to See

I encountered this scene a couple of summers ago when Allen and I were guests in the summer home of a colleague of his near New Palz, NY.   It’s a modest little hideaway and serves as a quiet writing spot for our host who spends most of his time in Manhattan.

Looking to See II by Molly Jarboe

Looking to See II by Molly Jarboe

The house is nestled at the bottom of a hill, along side a serene swimming hole at Rondout Creek.  You have to drive well into the woods, and maneuver down a winding dirt road that leads right to the front yard. The rushing water from the creek can be heard from every room inside.

We were there for a gathering of academics and creative types, and I busied myself much of the time taking pictures of our surroundings.  We drank wine, dining by the fireside well into the nights.  Every little thing seemed to take on a mysterious and rare light that remained even with each new sun.  In looking over my images after the trip, I’ve settled on this one as a  favorite.  For me, this picture of a picture captures the light and context in a way that allows me to briefly suspend my disbelief.  Each time I look at it, the frozen figures seem freed, if only for a moment.

I Can See Clearly Now: An Opaque Post About Loss

I recently lost something dear to me. The loss didn’t come with a sudden absence; physical proximity remains unchanged. Instead, in an instant, years of ambiguity crystallized.  As the only visitor in the group, I was afforded an outsider’s view and unwittingly, I glimpsed a monster.  I recognized what it was immediately, even as it carried on, hiding in plain sight.  In that momentary burst, I caught sight of the massive thing sulking in the shadows, feigning self righteous indignation and crying out, “Poor me!”  It turns out the monster has been hiding there all along.

I’ve come to realize that blind loyalty to the hope of what could be is all that accounts for the sweetness I felt for so many years. But this possibility never materialized even in the shape of a small gesture from the other side, and so I must face the sadder realization that nothing has truly been lost. I’ve had to confess my own naivety at believing that it ever really was possible.  At least for a short while, the loss of hope on this matter as a whole will burrow through the optimistic part of my heart like a tiny mole.

But I am an optimist and this too will pass. Thankfully, something can be learned from these things.
New Orleans by MJJ, 2011

We Have No Heads, New Orleans by Molly Jarboe, 2011

(please imagine Bob Marley’s verson of “I Can See Clearly Now…” as a score to this post)

Everyday Magic

I almost missed this sweet little scene recently while working with a client on a shoot for a business website.  I must have passed beneath it 3 times before it finally caught my eye as I was saying my goodbyes.  My camera was all packed up, so a grabbed this shot with my iphone.  To me, it’s magical.  Thank goodness for these moments.

Every Day Magic, MJ

WARNING on The West Side ;)

This festive yard display may look like the kind of tribute to the Holidays one might encounter on a typical January afternoon driving through the west side on Grant Street in Buffalo, but a closer look reveals something of a paradox.  The sign on the wooden fence around the driveway waxes poetic with…