Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Melvin Lorenzo Stinnie RIP

That is Melvin Lorenzo Stinnie in the middle, leading the Chef Ted crew on what was probably his 10,000th job working for/with me. It was Reunion Weekend 2013 on The University of Virginia's Lawn and the last time we worked together. Melvin left this world on July 9, 2015 at the age of 62. He was the paternal head of at least nine grandchildren and several great-grandchildren. Sweet reader, if there was ever a man in this world that deserves eternal rest, it is one Melvin Lorenzo Stinnie.

Melvin and I used to try and figure out when we first met but it is but a blurb in the past, damn close to 25 years ago as far as we could recall. Melvin was with me from the humble beginnings of Chef Ted Catering in the Tri-Delt house at UVa. His hard work and total dedication led from that humble beginning to epic catering jobs at such places as the Law School above. When Melvin's smiling face hit that door, people, dozens of people, would give this man heartfelt hugs. How rare is it in this cut-throat business for that many people to LOVE the catering help?

Melvin, not once in those decades, ever once complained about the thankless, back breaking 16 hour days....EVER. On big jobs that occasionally required the use of the refrigerated reefer above, Melvin was the man to oversee the unloading of the literally tons of goodies.

My God, how that man ran the Shimmy Club. Hip Hop, R&B, Trance, Cumbia, Norteno, Oldies..... oh man, the mud, the blood and the beer. Not mentioning, ahem, explaining said situations to the Charlottesville Police officers that would arrive on the scene from time to time and with whom Melvin had grown up with.

 I sit now in this jungle town bakery and consider Melvin. Melvin's last two years were not pretty and I wonder why this world this shithole works like that. I ponder the nature of owner/employee relationships, how Melvin did the heavy lifting and I got most of the money. I ponder that Melvin is dead and I am in Hawaii. If there is any justice to this universe, Melvin is in the real Paradise. I can't tell you the hours we spent together, riding in the catering truck early in the morning, late at night and bit by bit I heard his story. 

Melvin grew up in now shabby chic Charlottesville,Virginia at a time of 1950's segregated everything. He had nine brothers and sisters who often slept in the same bed as youngsters. There was no running water and meals were cooked on a wood burning bucket contraption. "Meals" were pots of potatoes and collard greens with sidemeat. He talked about being scared of the rats that frequented the outhouse at night, so he would hold it until dawn. African-Americans only school stopped at the 9th grade.

Most blacks in Charlottesville were descended in one way or another from illustrious slave owners of the likes of Thomas Jefferson et al. and they grew up in shanty towns like Vinegar Hill surrounded by wealthy horse farms, vineyard owners and privileged white University of Virginia students (like me). Their choices for employment were janitorial or food service. One way out was to become a Pullman porter and although older than Melvin, I feel lucky to have worked with these old timers before they passed away. The Train I Ride

One day when Melvin was about 19, a bunch of white hooligans jumped him and tried to give him a good old ass whipping for the crime of being a nigger in the wrong neighborhood. Melvin stabbed one of them and ran the rest off. Who eventually goes to big boy prison over the matter?........Melvin of course. This prison experience of constant banging and screaming, assaults and living in a closet cell with a real murderer (almost three years) so shook Melvin that he vowed to do whatever it took to never go back.

There was/still is a lot of controversy concerning the demolition of Vinegar Hill. Like many American cities in the 60's and 70's, whites had fled to the suburbs and built giant air-conditioned shopping malls with plenty of parking. As a result the inner cities fell into decline and festered with crime, closed stores and poverty. Do-gooders declared Vinegar Hill a shanty town and it was bulldozed in the mid 1960's. The Westhaven Housing Project was built nearby in the name of urban renewal. This forced displacement with little or no involvement or representation was also the destruction of African-American businesses and economic life, which led to the breaking of cultural, social and familial ties.

One night we were catering a party in a very clubby old school room in the University of Virginia's old school Alderman Library. By chance, they were displaying these pictures, history and comment as to prophetically remember this troubling past. Melvin ended up crying as he looked at the above pictures and more. It was the first time in his life he had ever seen pictures of his vanquished neighborhood....his family surely did not have a scrapbook to record their upbringing.

Another night we were catering the re-opening of a long neglected old school movie theater. The mover and shaker money class had gotten together and propelled the renaissance of all but abandoned downtown into flat out gentrification. I hesitate to use the word gentrification because of it negative connotations because what we now have is better. I remember the downtown mall in the late 1970's and it was a hodgepodge of empty storefronts, single men weekly occupancy hotel  flophouse rooms, alkies and generally scary people. In the article below, a child of one of the "pioneers" back into downtown referred a trip to her mom's business at the time as a "wino-safari". To read about the hipsterization of the of the downtown area click here: The Generation that Created the Downtown Mall Scene 

Yes, most would say that it is better now, but as Melvin looked out on the 99% white crowd of the downtown of today (above), sharing $9 herbal infusions, and thought it was better than the old pool hall neighborhood, where he knew everybody and everybody knew him, he kept it to himself.

The pool hall pictured above is the one that Melvin fondly remembered getting his ass whupped by some older boys. "Vinegar Hill wasn't much as far as neighborhoods go, but it was our neighborhood", he mused on occasion.

But I digress from the renovated theater. They had not finished the whole building. The front of the house was beautifully done and the tinkling of champagne glasses and the munching of smoked salmon on blinis continued before the speakers and feature presentation. The back of the house, in the area behind the new stage was basically untouched since it was built in 1912, construction debris and old stagecraft paraphernalia was littered about. As we put the final dollop of scallion sour cream on another tray of blinis, Melvin pointed up at a sign that was painted on the wall, obviously unchanged from 1912.


Melvin explained, without a trace of bitterness, how this was the back door entrance for African-Americans in his younger days and they had to sit in the balcony. He reminisced of sneaking in here to see the black entertainers of the day that were on what was then called the chittlin' circuit. Who knows, maybe James Brown and Otis Redding were some of them.

Melvin and I (and Fernando and Miguel, but they are another story for another day) passed ~18 years in this kitchen. One thing I always admired about him was his attitude. We would spend hours preparing the food here, then jump in the truck  and head out to the gig. In spite of some our more challenging dickhead customers asking Melvin to do sometimes asinine things like pick up a million goose feathers around a lake minutes before the guests arrived, he never lost that smile.

In spite of catering for some of the richest people in the county as he and his family moved from one sub-standard housing unit to another, he never lost his happiness. If there was ever an example of not having much materially, but everything spiritually, it was Melvin.

I attended Melvin's family Thanksgiving at our Shimmy Club. Even though I was the boss man, they made me feel welcome. How could I forget Mrs. Bernice leading the Electric Glide with Melvin as the caboose and 40 of his family in between, laughing and hooting?

My three children all but grew up with Melvin. Above my daughter Caroline in the kitchen, still marvels at Melvin's one handed card shuffle that almost silently went....ttttttttt. Caroline and my ex-wife Hillary attended the funeral.

So here's to you Melvin Stinnie. RIP dude and enjoy that rest. No more paying room and board. When I see you next time, the first thing we are going to do is fire one up, like the old days my man.

Thanks for stopping by

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Hunter and Giles Come for a Visit

My two sons Hunter 28, and Giles, 25 recently flew to Hawai'i for a visit with Dad. They flew into Kona Airport and earlier that morning I had set up a campsite in Ho'okena State Park about 35 miles south in Captain Cook.

As they had flown in from LAX at nighttime, they had no idea of the technicolor vortex that they had descended into. As we made the 2.5 mile switchback descent from Highway 19 from ~4000 feet to the beach, I hinted that as it grew lighter, Hawaii was going to slowly reveal itself to you guys and BLOW YOUR MINDS. And Pele did not disappoint.

As dawn broke, the boys, er men, took their first swim, replete with snorkeling masks and fins, and a school of dolphins surrounded them, just curious as to what they were up to. What an opening salvo in your first waking hours on Hawai'i!

We then spent several days on the white sand beaches around Kona. We hiked across a ~ 1 mile a'a lava flow that in ~1805 buried everything around here covering old beaches but creating new land including the parking lot. That lava however just missed Makalawena Beach, which we had almost to ourselves.

Snorkeling and Historical activity at Pu'uhonua o Honaunau, just like in the old days at Williamsburg, looking at Indians, slaves and aristocratic planters.

Hunter prepares to jump off South Point.

Couldn't let his sister Caroline be the only family member to jump off the most Southern Point in the USA, pictured here a year ago. All three reported that coming up this rickety latter was the hardest part.

Namakani Paio, VNP, at 4000 feet. Our campsite was nestled in the Eucalyptus trees.
Continued along Highway 19 to spend a few days camping and nosing around at Volcano National Park with Halema'uma'u crater bubbling away in the Kilauea caldera.

Giles enjoys a little lie down, cleanest air in the world and sunshine before we get started in morning.
Through lush vegetation on the way to Kilauea Iki crater hike.
Little Kilauea had been asleep for almost a century when in 1959 in erupted in gargantuan fountains of lava. Cairns mark the trail across the crater floor, which is quiet and peaceful now, although sounds bounce around the crater in an unpredictable way and you may hear the crunching of footsteps when no one is near by.
Although the lava lake has cooled to a depth of ~400 feet since 1959, magma is still molten under that crust, just biding its time until the next event. Here Giles checks out a mineral infused steam vent.
After a 36 day eruption, this crater floor was a dead zone with a lava bathtub ring to show how high the lava had reached. The lava lake settled, cooled and cracked as sheets of lava buckled and warped, giving the crater the look of dried, crusted over gravy.
One of the original vents that filled the crater, creating the lava lake in Kilauea Iki. The 1900 (higher than the Empire State building) feet lava fountains created the splatter cone Pu'u Pua'i above this vent. During the episode the vent spewed enough lava to bury a football field 15 feet deep- every minute. Each time the the showers ended, the lava would drain back into the vent opening in a giant counterclockwise whirlpool, dragging sheets of partially cooled crust along with it, only to be re-melted and shot out again, leaving a bathtub like lava ring on the side of the crater.

Giles at the "bathtub" lava ring.

One exits the crater hike through ancient fern and 'ohi'a forests as the trail skirts the edge of the crater.
We continued on to 'Akaka Falls

Where I learned there was such a thing nowadays as a "selfie" stick. Thanks to 'Akaka Falls being a major pit stop for tourists from all over the world, I was allowed to witness ad nauseum such a thing.
A view of Onomea Bay from the worth the visit Hawai'i Tropical Botanical Garden outside of Hilo.
Where we arrived at Kalani Retreat Center for the remainder of the trip.

A day at Kehena Beach near the buried town of Kaimu.

Hunter's Tropical Home Sweet Home for a while.
Near or maybe the same A-frame that Caroline stayed in a year ago.

 Did some snorkeling at the Kapoho Tidal Pools, specifically Wai'opae pond.
Celebrated Chef Joanna's 24th birthday at Uncle Robert's Awa Club one night.

and Poof! They were gone. Over many Longboards and Jim Beam we pondered the nature of Hawai'i. I think Giles crystallized the idea of Hawai'i the best when he said that "everyone has always heard how awesome Hawai'i is, but until you come here you just don't know HOW awesome".

In other comings and goings

Speaking of goodbyes, a couple of months ago, Tony on right and I took Jamie and Brenden to the Kona airport on their way to their new adventures of being chefs catering to the on horseback camping crowd at a dude ranch in Wyoming. Jamie made many appearances on this blog and we spent a few days in these Kona condos reflecting on all the adventures. Aloha and a hui hou lady!

 Meet Tylar, 24 and from Cincinnati as she plants the coconut seedling (nutling?) that she has promised to come back to in 25 years, when this whole area will be a mature coconut beach, and take a nap beneath it. Not too long ago, Tylar was leading the cubicle life, selling high end opera tickets over the phone and Internet.
She was very unhappy in this line of work and daydreamed of a way out. In an anonymous cubicle in Cincinnati she goofed off and surfed the Internet. Lo and behold, what blog does she stumble upon but none other than, yup, Chef Ted's a wanderin' and a ponderin'! Hawai'i it was going to be. Specifically Kalani. This little story was mentioned at our Monday morning meeting and when I heard about it, I  volunteered to be her "buddy". A buddy shows new arrivals here the ropes for a few days, but it seemed that Tylar was so acclimated that she did not need much of my help......maybe because she studied the blog when she should have been selling opera tickets?
With Tylar is Laurie.

 Laurie is a new volunteer that is on a year long....and I could never get it out of I will call it a journey.

Laurie is massage therapist from Boulder. Her journey included, amongst other places, stays in a monastery in Italy and trekking in Nepal. She is currently at Omega, a retreat center in upstate New York

I had promised Laurie, who worked in the kitchen with me, an adventure sometime. I usually just drive around, pretty much like I used to do in Virginia, and do some snooping somewhere, hoping something will just happen. She wanted a little more destination to the trip than that, so I suggested the always stunning Waipi'o Valley, several hours away.

But instead, in Hilo, the brakes on my "new car", a 1988 Camry, went right to the floor, spewing brake fluid, as luck would have it, right in front of this repair shop.
So we spent the daylight hours walking around the seedier parts of Hilo, having a snack and visit on a wall between the garage and this uh, ahem, "gentleman's" club.

Taking a selfie of us trying on camouflage gear for some reason.
Probably not what she had in mind, but such are the risks of rambling around with Chef Ted. We did make it to Waipi'o Valley, not in time for the hike to the beach, but just enough time for the last of this sunset from the overlook.
and finally Greta, 32, a massage therapist from the East End of London, who also worked in the kitchen with me. I had gone on an adventure with her, a hike to an empty hippie village, several miles from here. It is an isolated hike, on jungle trails that are maintained by wild pigs, so I can kinda understand her misunderstanding between the words "lost" and "just briefly off the beaten path".

But we found it, complete with acres of papaya trees nearby. Several weeks later, she rewarded my directional skills with a equally as isolated jungle lomi lomi massage. Mahalo Greta for thinking up such an original gift and lugging that bed and sheets and stuff all the way out there without my knowledge.

I guess this is a better late than never time to give Andrew Doughty a shout out for his fantastic guide book Hawaii: The Big Island Revealed. Much volcanic and historical information presented herewithin and all through the blog comes from his book (and Roadside Geology of Hawai'i by Richard W. Hazlett). Buy it if you ever come here.

One last funny below that has been making the rounds on campus. Thanks for stopping by.