GUEST BLOG: Memoir Author Sally Bailey Jasperson

Sally Bailey has danced with some of the biggest names in professional ballet. Think Rudolph Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn. She became a professional ballerina with the San Francisco Ballet at the age of 19, and spent the next 16 years on a whirlwind of stages: from New York to Ecuador, Istanbul to Cairo, Egypt to El Salvador. And in 2003, she captured some of those fascinating memories in a memoir: “Striving for Beauty: A Memoir of the Christensen Brothers’ San Francisco Ballet.”

I was fortunate enough to meet Sally Bailey at a booksigning, and was immediately a fan. She’s bursting with life, high energy, and enthusiasm. And her book shares some astonishing stories from her high-octane career with the San Francisco Ballet. (Don’t miss the one about leech soup in Rangoon!)

Author Sally Bailey Jasperson with her books at a recent signing.

Me, of course, I was full of questions. Sally kindly agreed to share her answers with us in this blog! So read on — and hope you enjoy this virtual “meeting” with Sally, too!

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Q:  What was it like, growing up to be a dancer?
A:  Dancers often have an unusual time of it. They start younger than in most professions. They grow up in a rarified atmosphere, mostly seeing only each other; and they become more and more removed from ordinary life. But when they manage to succeed, which not all dancers do, this leaves them open to a rare experience: the feeling of complete power and control over a situation, as in a performance when everything just happens to click. I had such an experience once. I still remember it. It occurred while I was dancing Tchaikovsky’s grand pas de deux from the Nutcracker. This pas de deux is indeed grand! When the orchestra is playing full out and you’re dancing full out, feeling every muscle in your body doing exactly as you wish, you and your partner are responding to each other, and the audience is responding to the two of you — it is a heady experience. There aren’t too many experiences like it.

Sally dancing the “Roses Waltz Adagio” in Beauty and the Beast, May, 1958 (Dale Smith photo).

Q:  What made you decide to write a book about your years in ballet?
A:  I decided to write this book because, after all my years in ballet, I had something to say. It’s not only a memoir of my life, it’s also a chronicle of the Christensen Brothers’ San Francisco Ballet.

Q:  Your book is an amazing 370 pages, and covers the time from when you were nine until you were 35. This must have been a momentous undertaking. What got you started writing, and how did you go about the process?
A:  It was a big undertaking. From start to finish, the book took me 10 years. My son was in high school during much of this time. I used to get up every morning about an hour before breakfast and write. The original version of my book had over 700 pages — much too long! So after I finished writing, I had a lot of cutting to do.

Q:  So many memoir writers quit when their project is half-done — sometimes even after just a few pages. In fact it sounds like your director’s wife hit just that kind of snag. What helped pull you through to the end?
A:  I had a lot of help along the way. My brother-in-law had been Chair of the English Department at Annapolis; he had friends who also helped. My husband was a real stickler for the English language, and I had friends who were college English teachers. They all read it, and gave me comments. And for me, the discipline of ballet came in real handy!
As I was looking for a publisher, an old friend who was working as an editor offered to read it and came up with many good suggestions. I rewrote it again. And finally, my manuscript sparked enough interest that a publisher read the whole thing. Though she couldn’t afford to take the project on, she encouraged me to go ahead and publish it with Xlibris. And so did my husband and son, who for ten years put up with late dinners. They said I’d better do something with it.

Q:  What did you do to stay organized?
A:  I began with a timeline, and I knew what I wanted to say. I had kept journals while on all our tours, which helped immeasurably with dates and details, though I hadn’t kept many notes when we were home.

Q:  Your career in ballet was really phenomenal. And yet, at the age of 35, you knew it was time to change your life and go on to other things. Was that part of  your motivation for writing the book? To show others that it’s okay to let go of a career and move on?
A:  No, my motivation for writing the book was entirely personal. As for the decision to leave dancing, I wanted to quit while I was ahead! Staying in as ballet mistress — a role something like a tutor to the other dancers — felt to me like cleaning up other people’s messes. It wasn’t appealing to me. Many dancers aren’t interested in a world beyond dance, but I knew there was a whole wide world out there and I was excited to explore it.

Q:  Do you have any encouragement or advice for other memoir writers?
A:  I think everyone has to just feel their way through the process, and just keep plugging.

Q:  You’ve actually written two books: “Striving for Beauty” and also “After the Applause Stops: Who Are You When You No Longer Do What You’ve Been Doing for Years?” Where can readers find your books?
A:   My books can be ordered online through Amazon and Borders, or from the publisher, Xlibris.

Here’s Sally’s book “Striving for Beauty” at Amazon.com!

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P.S. Like a free copy of Sally’s book? I’m so pleased to share her story I’m doing a Giveaway! Just drop me a line at kdustman@clairitage.com and let me know why you’re eager to read her book! Best answer (in my humble opinion) before November 22, 2019 wins the book. If you win, I’ll email you for your mailing address.

Hope her story inspires *you* to keep writing!

 

Gardnerville’s Big Yellow House

Have you ever driven by the two-story Yellow House at the “S” Bend in Gardnerville? It’s not quite a mansion. Technically, according to the plaque out front, the style is “Vernacular with Eastlake Details.” Well, whatever. For Gardnerville, it’s a mansion!

We’ve always been curious about the history of this beautiful house. So we started to dig a bit. And, lucky us, we came up (figuratively) with gold!

Tom Browne’s wagon-making advertisement in the July 12, 1889 issue of the Genoa Weekly Courier. Browne evidently had a wagon shop at the corner of Main and Mill Streets in Genoa.

Back in December, 1895, the local paper noted that builder Tom Browne was “erecting a residence on his lot in Gardnerville.” Turns out Browne had a darn good reason to be hurrying a new house along: he had just gotten married that October to Miss Jenette S. Van Sickle, the daughter of Peter Van Sickle. (Exactly how the couple had met is unclear, but we do know that Browne had built a “fine wagon” for Van Sickle in August, 1889!)

Browne was well-known as a carpenter, and he was a good one. And he didn’t just build houses, either. He built lots of things! During the late 1880s and 1890s his work included a new dam for Joe Jones and a huge, 6-foot by 18-foot by 2-foot water tank for the front of Fettic’s Exchange. He erected a 36 x 86-foot creamery at Fredericksburg, and a similar one in Smith Valley; a school in Yerington (plus a bridge across Walker River); and a two-story house on the J.H. Hickey ranch. In 1890, he helped add a new addition to the beautiful Fred Bruns house in Fredericksburg. And he also made repairs to the St. Charles Hotel and the Genoa courthouse.

The new home in Gardnerville that Browne created for his bride was huge — 3,800 square feet! And it was assembled with a craftsman’s pride. Some sixty years later, the floors were still as level as the day the home was built. It was painted yellow back then, too, the same signature color it’s worn in recent years. But Browne and his new wife owned their beautiful new home for only about a decade.

In October, 1906, H.C. (“Chris”) Dangberg purchased the “palatial” house, intending it as his retirement home. According to the Record-Courier, Dangberg planned to “enjoy the remainder of his days [there,] away from the strenuous duties of farm life.” It’s possible that Dangberg was still mourning the death of his son, William, who had been shot and killed in September, 1899. Dangberg seemed excited about his move, however; the paper reported that he went to Reno in December, 1906, to buy furniture for his new home.

August 30, 1929 Record-Courier.

The property eventually passed to son George P. Dangberg (likely after his father died, in March, 1920). And for a time, it seems to have been rented out. Tenants may have included Ralph Springmeyer and A.Y. Werner; it was described as the “Springmeyer-Werner residence” when George P. Dangberg finally sold the property to Dr. R.J. Sewell in August, 1929.

Sewell was a medical doctor who had practiced briefly in Carson Valley in the 1920s, before moving west to Ojai, California. But he evidently kept an eye on local real estate. According to the newspaper, Dr. Sewell was purchasing the large house from George Dangberg for use as an “emergency hospital,” and later owners think it served in that capacity for a few years.

In May, 1935, the property was snapped up by Lois Stewart, probably thanks to a loan from her grandmother, Harriet Grover. Lois had to work hard to make ends meet for herself and her three children. She drove the mail stage to Markleeville for thirty years, using a wagon or riding a horse in the early years. As time went by, she bought a four-wheel-drive Jeep. She added a trailer park in back of her home to bring in extra income, and kept chickens, a cow, and horses on her property. And she also raised bummer lambs to sell, and did odd jobs. Not long after purchasing the Yellow House, Lois remarried for a short time, but divorced her second husband, Red Buck, in 1943.

Lois Buck with one of her beloved horses. The Yellow House is visible in the background. (Photo courtesy of Gail Souligny).
Lois’s grandchildren with calves in the back yard of the Yellow House, circa 1950. (Photo courtesy of Gail Souligny).

About 1948, Lois’s daughter, Edith, her husband and their two children moved into the Yellow House, too. They created two separate apartments inside: one upstairs for Lois, and one downstairs for the younger generations. Lois’s grandchildren still fondly remember living with their grandmother “Loisy” (as they called her) in the big yellow house.

The house was painted white when the DeHarts purchased it. Here is how it looked about the time they bought it in June, 1959. (Photo courtesy of Greta DeHart).

After 24 years, Lois Buck finally sold the big yellow house to Barton and Greta DeHart in June 1959. The DeHarts lived in and loved this special home for over 42 years, finally selling it in December, 1999.

Greta DeHart still fondly remembers all the work she and her husband put into renovating the gracious turn-of-the-century home. “There was no insulation in the house when we bought it,” she remembers. “We insulated the whole big attic ourselves, and we moved the kitchen back to where the kitchen originally had been. I stripped all the woodwork, and where there had been wallpaper, we resurfaced it with drywall.” Other improvements made by the DeHarts included adding beautiful Exminster carpet and repainting the outside in three shades of yellow, carefully matching the color to a bit of yellow paint they discovered from its earliest days.

And just as you would expect, the gracious old home comes with its own share of ghost tales! Former owners describe an “energy” in the northeast corner of the living room. Visitors report they have seen a little girl, who only appears in the wee morning hours. One guest reportedly encountered a strange man in the hall one night, dressed a long overcoat and cowboy hat. And a former owner was startled to see a bright light zip through the room, while everyone else was asleep.

Perhaps most special of all, the house still carries a special legacy from its original builder. During the renovation process, Greta discovered the signature of the original builder, Thomas J. Browne, hidden away on a board inside a wall. He’d left his name there for posterity — just like an artist, signing his masterpiece.

Original builder Thomas J. Browne left his signature hidden away on a board, inside a wall, like an artist signing his masterpiece. (Photo courtesy of Greta DeHart)

 

Writing for Magazines: What Do Editors Want?!

First, the bad news: the magazine markets shrank dramatically over the last ten years, making it tougher than ever to break in. Even if you do land an assignment, freelancing is no longer remotely lucrative unless you’re writing for top-tier mags (think “winning the lottery”). Expect to pull in a few hundred bucks at most for your effort, and count yourself lucky at that.

The magazine market ain’t what it used to be. But there’s still grand opportunity!

Even so, there are several good reasons to write for magazines. If you’ve got a book, a blog or a website, a magazine article can be a great way to promote it. If you’re eager to highlight to your niche or expertise, a well-placed article can raise your business profile a notch.

Magazine-writing can also be a great excuse to travel. (Just don’t expect to make any money doing travel-writing without years of paying your dues!) Still, the “pittance remittance” you can expect from a travel story can help offset a fraction of your travel costs — a definite win/win if you were planning on going, anyhow!

Magazine assignments also allow you to learn new things and meet incredible folks. Thanks to freelance assignments I’ve had the happy privilege of talking to all sorts of cool people, from top national health experts to pet psychics. I even got to interview Margot Kidder once!

And perhaps the best reason of all to write for magazines: it’s just plain fun. Magazine work can bring you great joy, especially if you’re writing about something you love.

What are magazine editors looking for?

So, what are magazine editors looking for these days?

First off, of course, they’re looking for stories that will appeal to their readers. So start out with a good grasp of the magazine’s demographic. Who are their readers, and what’s the age range? Are readers generally men, women, or both? And what are readers looking for from this particular publication? Craft a pitch to assist or entertain or educate the folks the magazine is designed to reach.

Editors want articles that are fun, lively, and haven’t been done to death. A piece on “How to bake an apple pie”? Utterly ho-hum. “How to bake an apple pie in a Dutch oven on a camping trip”? Now you’re talking!

Come up with something unexpected. (In this case, it’s the rabbit who’s doing a hat trick.)

Come up with an innovative way to do something, or interview an expert no one’s uncovered before. Suggest a unique solution, or find a new way to tackle an old problem, and write about that. Explore uncharted territory, and offer tips for others who might want to experience that same adventure. Even if you think your idea is new, check back issues to see if the magazine has already run a similar story in the past couple of years.

An editor’s time is precious. So they’re eager for clean copy they won’t have to spend hours whacking into shape. They’re looking for writers who’ve already learned their craft. They want words that flow logically from one sentence to the next.

Forget deathless prose. Go for clean copy and smooth transitions.

Show ’em your chops, starting out right in your query. Keep  sentences short and tight. Don’t ramble on and on forever, with strung-on phrases, multiple clauses, and endless digressions that lose the reader before they get to the very bitter end of a wandering sentence like this one. Make sure you have a point for your story; then make sure the story gets there.

Don’t make your editor feel she’s doing this to get your story in on time.

Editors desperately need to know they can depend on you. Editorial calendars are unforgiving. If you land an assignment and your deadline is June 1st, don’t plead for an extension on the last day of May. Do whatever it takes to get that story in on time — or submit it early and really make your editor’s heart sing!

Double- and triple-check your work to make sure all your facts are right. Nothing will kill your chances of future assignments faster than sloppy, incomplete research. Don’t guess. Do your homework.

And last but not least — I know you already know this — proofread everything before you send it. (You spellchecked it, too, didn’t you?)

That’s it! That’s what magazine editors want.

Now go make some editor’s day. Pitch away!

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Karen Dustman is a published author and freelance writer with hundreds of magazine articles in print. She still gets a kick from turning them in early. Karen especially loves writing for history, genealogy, and natural health magazines. Check out her books at Clairitage.com, and her magazine clips and credits on her author website, www.KarenDustman.com.

 

Stalking Perry Mason: Following the Footsteps of Erle Stanley Gardner in Ventura

What’s not to like about a lawyer who got kicked out of law school?! His best-selling Perry Mason novels aside, Erle Stanley Gardner would still be legendary for that un-lawyerly feat!

Erle Stanley Gardner with his signature pipe.

Born in 1889 in Malden, Massachusetts, Erle Stanley Gardner managed to stay enrolled at Valparaiso University’s law school for only a few short months. Legend has it that Gardner was sent packing after organizing an underground boxing match in which he himself became a pugilist. It probably didn’t help that Gardner also claimed to have slugged a professor.

Never mind his lack of a formal law degree. Gardner managed to get himself admitted to the California Bar by passing the test in 1911 at age 21. He’d spent three years working as a typist at a law firm in Oxnard, so perhaps that experience gave him sufficient insight into the mysteries of the profession.

The following year (1912), Gardner eloped with one of the secretaries at the firm, Natalie Talbert. A hasty wedding it may have been, but the marriage lasted — officially, at least — until Natalie’s death some 57 years later.

The former Ventura County Courthouse where Gardner practiced – now Ventura City Hall.

Gardner had his own law practice in Merced for a short time. Then in 1915 he was invited to join the trial law firm of Frank Orr in Ventura. He abandoned law briefly in 1917, working instead as a salesman. But by 1921 he was back doing trial work for the Ventura firm. He seemed to most love representing legal underdogs: “I have clients of all classes except the upper and middle classes,” he once wrote his father.

Meanwhile, Gardner was trying his hand at writing pulp fiction on the side. His typewriter clacked late into the night in the study over his garage. But would-be writers can identify with Gardner’s early tribulations. His initial efforts produced only a growing pile of rejection slips. Finally, in 1921, Gardner’s first short story appeared in print. Some claim it was “The Shrieking Skeleton.” Others say it was the equally-alliterative “Nellie’s Naughty Nightie,” a bit of pulp fiction that generated all of $15 bucks. (Gardner’s mother reportedly refused to read it.) But Gardner had found his true calling. Over the next decade, he would crank out an astonishing 600 short stories and novelettes in his spare time.

The Ventura Pier today.

A daughter was born in 1923. Gardner would soon happily begin teaching her to fish off the nearby Ventura Pier.

Things were apparently going well in his professional life, too. In 1926, Gardner’s law firm moved into offices in a newly-completed bank building at the corner of California and Main. Although Main Street itself was still unpaved, the building boasted the finest accoutrements, from sparkling chandeliers to the city’s very first elevator.

Gardner’s office was in this building at 21 California St., Ventura

The four-story office building was conveniently situated in the heart of downtown, with the Ventura Courthouse just a short walk up the hill. Gardner was able to enjoy some of the finer things that Ventura had to offer, including steak dinners at his favorite Pierpont Inn.

As Gardner’s publishing credits began to grow, his agent encouraged him to try his hand at book-length works. And there in his third-floor law office in 1932, Gardner would crank out the opening pages of what would become his first Perry Mason novel. Some say it took him a mere three days to finish his first draft.

Front door of Gardner’s office building.

The book, “The Case of the Velvet Claw,” debuted in 1933 and became an immediate success. Soon, Gardner was spending just two days a week as a lawyer. The rest of his time was devoted to writing. Before long, Gardner gave up law entirely and devoted himself to writing full-time.

Although he pounded out stories at first as a two-fingered typist, Gardner quickly figured out that he could produce far more by dictating. A chance encounter with Agnes Jean Bethell at the Pierpont Inn (where she worked as a hostess) led Gardner to offer Agnes a job as his secretary. The dictation system worked so well that he soon hired her two sisters as secretaries, too.

Gardner met his secretary, long-time companion and eventual wife Agnes Jean Bethell at the Pierpont Inn.

Some sources say Gardner set himself a goal of 4,000 words a night; others say his target was 10,000 words every three days. He regularly churned out some 100,000 words a month. That meant he could produce between three and six books a year — a track record that would make him any writer’s idol!

Gardner and first wife Natalie acquired a newly-built home on Foster Avenue about 1936. But Gardner himself didn’t live there long. Although they never formally divorced, the couple lived separately beginning about 1935. In 1937 Gardner purchased “Rancho del Paisano” in Temecula. It would be his home for the rest of his life.

Natalie passed away in 1968. A few months later, Gardner married his long-time secretary and companion, Agnes.  He was 79 years old. Gardner lived just two another years, passing away of cancer at his home in Temecula in 1970.

All-told, Gardner authored nearly 100 detective and mystery novels, more than 80 of them featuring the quintessential sleuth, Perry Mason. His books have been translated into 71 languages, making him the most-translated American author. Despite this incredible record, Gardner claimed “no natural aptitude” as a writer. He was simply a “good plotter,” he once said — and oh yes, “one hell of a good salesman.” His goal was to offer his readers “sheer fun.” And readers loved it.

The historic plaque on Gardner’s former office building at 21 California St., Ventura.

Today, modern-day Perry Mason fans can still follow in Erle Stanley Gardner’s footsteps on a visit to Ventura. A bronze plaque flags the downtown building on California Street where Gardner had his third-floor law office — and drafted his first Perry Mason tale. The Courthouse just up the hill (now Ventura’s City Hall) is where Gardner, as a real-life lawyer, once argued tenaciously on behalf of his clients. The Ventura pier where Gardner taught his daughter to fish has since been rebuilt, but still juts out proudly into the Pacific. The Pierpont Inn, where Gardner tucked into delicious steak dinners and where he met Agnes Jean Bethell, remains an iconic Ventura attraction.

The former Gardner home at 4240 Foster Ave, Ventura, listed by eXp Realty.

And you’re really eager to follow in Gardner’s footsteps, you can even purchase Gardner’s former home at 2420 Foster Avenue. It’s two stories, 2,770 square feet, with a killer view overlooking town. And it’s on sale right now for just $1.79 million.

For further reading:

IMDb biography of Gardner

Kingston Pierce blog

“Thrilling Detective” blog 

L.A. Times story by Jane Hulse (1/11/1996) 

L.A. Times story by Gary Gorman (9/23/1990) 

Wikitree

Wikipedia

And the eXp Realty listing for 2420 Foster Ave

Vegan Ventura Vacay – Part 2

Ventura Sites & Sights:

Our trip to Ventura, California was a fun “Vegan Vacay” – we dined our way through some fabulous restaurants! (For our vegan eatery itinerary, check out Part 1 of this story!) And of course there are plenty of sights to see and things to do in Ventura, as well. Here are some of our favorites!

Inside the old Buenaventura Mission church.

San Buenaventura Mission and Church Museum: 211 E. Main Street. The Old Ventura Mission was the last of six missions personally founded by Franciscan Father Junipero Serra. This was actually the third church built on this site: the first was destroyed by fire; a second effort was abandoned when the door “gave way”. This third church was finally completed in 1809, 33 years and one day after Fr. Serra first celebrated Mass on this site. Mass is still regularly celebrated here.

Chumash basketry at the Mission Museum.

Visitors can tour the beautiful Mission church and grounds, and stroll the Mission Museum and gift shop. www.sanbuenaventuramission.org.

Pottery recovered during excavation of the Mission grounds.

Albinger Archaeological Museum:  113 E. Main Street. Right next to the Mission, this fabulous free museum displays artifacts that have been found at excavations nearby. Items found from the Mission period include millstones, crucifixes, bottles, pottery and buttons. Archaeologists also discovered Native American artifacts dating back 3,500 years, including bone whistles, arrowheads, and shell beads. An interpretive walk outside lets you see the actual site that was excavated, including an earth oven dating to 300 B.C. and a well serving the Mission occupants in 1844. https://tinyurl.com/y63mbrq6

Valdez Alley/Eastwood Park: Look for the sign beside the Archaeological Museum to find this easy-to-miss stairway leading up the hillside to the remains of a historic “filtration building.” Constructed under the direction of one of the Franciscan Friars in 1792, this old brick structure helped bring clean water to the early residents of the Ventura Mission.

Peering inside the Ortega Adobe.

Ortega Adobe:  The carefully preserved adobe of the Emigdio Ortega family can be found at 215 W. Main Street; there’s easy parking in the back. Son Emilio Ortega gained fame as the founder of the Ortega Chile Company, making chili sauce in his mother’s kitchen here in 1897. The Adobe itself is not open for visitors to walk inside, but you can stand in the (barred) doorways and peek inside. We especially admired the gardens around the outside, including trees that (we’re guessing) were popular in Ventura’s early days: olives, pistachios, and pomegranates (which had fruit on them when we arrived!) https://www.cityofventura.ca.gov/640/Ortega-Adobe

Although we didn’t manage to visit, there’s also an Olivas Adobe to visit at 4200 Olivas Park Drive — the restored home of one of the early settlers, it dates to 1847. The grapes and fuchsias in its front yard are both said to be over a century old.

Father Serra’s statue gazes out over the town of Ventura, with the old Courthouse (now City Hall) behind.

Courthouse & Father Serra Statue:  501 Poli St. Today used as Ventura’s City Hall, this iconic white stone building was originally built as Ventura Courthouse. The 1937 statue of Father Serra out front was initially sculpted in concrete during the WPA days. Weathering of the concrete artwork led to it being replaced with the current bronze replica in 1989. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ventura_County_Courthouse; https://visitventuraca.com/business/father-serra-statue/

Grant  Park – Take a drive up the hill above City Hall to find a scenic overlook, then all the way to the top of Grant Park for amazing views of the city and the historic Serra Cross. Father Serra himself is said to have erected a wooden cross here in 1782, and ships once used the prominent landmark for navigation. There are botanical gardens here as well. We found a “pop-up yoga” class getting started on the lawn when we arrived! https://visitventuraca.com/business/serra-cross-park-at-grant-park/; www.VenturaBotanicalGardens.com

Two fabulous used-book bookstores: Bibliophiles are in for a treat at Bank of Books used bookstore at 748 E. Main. Check out their offering of fabulous vintage magazines, too. And I could disappear for years in the Calico Cat bookshop at 495 E. Main; definitely one of my favorite stops of the trip! https://visitventuraca.com/business/bank-of-books/; http://www.calicocatbooks.com/

Cool brickwork and ironwork adorn buildings in downtown Ventura.

Stroll  downtown Ventura’s Main Street for some fun and eclectic shops, and don’t forget to look up to check out the interesting architecture here, as well. You’ll find great old brickwork and ironwork adorning the fronts of the old downtown shops.

If you love old buildings, there’s also a fabulous Historic Walking Tour that will take you to 36 of Ventura’s historic sites and buildings. (Pick up a brochure with map at the Visitor Center, 101 S. California St., or you can find it right here: http://www.itqw2019.com/public/files/Ventura_history_map.pdf).

Stop in for coffee at Secret Gardens.

Secret Gardens Florist at 677 E. Main is more than just a florist; their downtown coffee shop is a great place for a pick-me-up cuppa joe. (And as the name implies, you can buy flowers, here, too.) https://www.secretgardensflorist.com/Content/AboutUs

Ventura Pier

The Ventura Pier is historic in itself. Today it’s 1,700 feet long, with food and other concessions. Find a convenient parking garage at the end of California Street (at Harbor Boulevard); just $2 bucks to park for an hour. Fish, picnic, or just stroll out and watch the surfers lining up to catch the waves — Ventura boasts some of the best surfing anywhere! http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=600

Ventura’s Post Office Murals are open to the public.

Post Office Murals by Gordon Kenneth Grant: 675 W.Santa Clara. Stop in to see the famous WPA-era murals painted by artist Gordon K. Grant in 1936-37 at the downtown Ventura Post Office. These folk-style paintings showcase the “industries and agriculture” of Ventura in a beautifully stylized way. Other murals by this talented artist have since been painted over, but Ventura’s have been preserved and remain open for the public to enjoy — for free. https://visitventuraca.com/blog/ventura-post-office-gordon-k-grant-mural/

A pygmy mammoth is one of the displays at Channel Islands Nat’l Park

Channel Islands National Park & National Marine Sanctuary:  This free visitor center includes informative displays about the Channel Islands flora and fauna, plus a gift shop. Find information here about whale-watching and wildlife cruises as well as full- or half-day trips to the Channel Islands. Find the Park at the very end of Spinnaker Dr., past Ventura Harbor Village (a classic tourist venue with lots of shops, dining, and activities). https://www.nps.gov/chis/index.htm, https://www.venturaharborvillage.com/.

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Pick up the Local Lingo:  Want to sound like a Ventura native? “California Street” is one of the town’s old-time drags. Locals have embraced the far-more-cool surfer moniker for this north-south byway, dubbing it simply: “C Street.” Use the term and they might just think you live here, too. (And don’t we wish we did!)

Vegan Ventura Vacay – Part 1

Ventura, California. It’s been called the “most under-rated beach town in America.” And frankly, that’s why we love it.

Tucked between the L.A. bustle and Santa Barbara glitz, Ventura’s undiscovered energy makes this coastal burg even more special. It’s pedestrian-friendly, temperate year-round, and right on the ocean. Despite recent growth, it’s kept the small-town feel. And oh, did I mention the Ventura sunsets?

Unlike its sister town, uber-hip Ojai, Ventura doesn’t especially tout its vegan offerings. But those sunsets and ocean breezes were calling, so a friend and I set out together for a two-day “vegan vacation” in Ventura. Could we make it work?!

Bottom line: Teasing out vegan venues took a bit of digging here. But what we discovered was well worth the hunt! Foodies can find great vegan options here. So we wanted to share the juice!

Vegan Eats:

Vegan Mussamun curry with red rice.

It was a long drive to get there. But our first vegan dinner made the trip worthwhile: Thai food at Rice 2 By Mama, 583 E. Main Street. (Don’t be confused by yet another “Rice by Mama” just to the west — that one is so popular it’s hard to get into on a Sat. night, but Rice 2 isn’t far away!) You’ll find many vegan options to choose from; we dug into Mussamun and Panang Curries. Be sure to try their delicious, nutty “red rice.”

The Busy Bee features cheerful red-and-white decor, vinyl seats, and old-time juke-boxes on the wall.

If you decide to stay at the Bella Maggiore Hotel, as we did (see below), the Busy Bee Cafe, 478 E. Main Street, is a must for breakfast. It’s literally right around the corner from the hotel. (For the in-crowd, there’s even a closer entrance off the alley!) The Busy Bee is a Ventura classic — not to be missed, if only for the decor. Think iconic red-and-white tiles, old-fashioned juke boxes at each table, and waitresses with coin-changers at their waists.

Avocado toast and homemade pico de gallo at Busy Bee.

The menu is pure down-home American. But with a little ingenuity you can create vegan options that work. I started with an order of their hearty whole wheat toast, slathered it with a side of sliced fresh avocado, and topped those wedges off with Busy Bee’s tasty homemade pico de gallo. Bee-utiful! 

Don’t miss the vegan samosas at Himalaya.

For lunch, we found our way to Himalaya, 35 W. Main Street, a restaurant boasting Nepalese, Indian, and Tibetan food. Tucked into a shopping center at the corner of Ventura Avenue (just north of Main), the restaurant is a former Taco Bell location. Vegetarians will be delighted to discover a whole page of vegetarian options on the menu, and vegan options are helpfully flagged. And the food was amazing! We started with a shared order of Tadka dal (yellow lentils with Indian spices/vegan), and splurged on a house favorite, Saag naan (traditional naan bread stuffed with spinach dip — a non-vegan naan variation, as it included sour cream, but so good!)

Be sure to try an order of their wonderful vegan Samosas  – little towers of a deep fried potato/pea mixture, accompanied by two sauces: tamarind (red) and mint (green and a little spicy).   While you’re relaxing, browse the shelves of traditional crafts from Nepal, Tibet and India, including figurines and artisan-made clothing.

Nature’s Grill offers lots of vegetarian options – just tell ’em to skip the cheese to go vegan.

For our second night’s dinner we stopped into Nature’s Grill & Juice Bar  – 566 E. Main – Vegan options include a creatively veggie-filled vegetarian chili (including corn, carrots and black olives) and sweet cornbread; just ask them to hold the usual cheese. My travel partner ordered the “Old Town” salad (brown rice, tomato, guacamole, and carrots) — again, just ask them to leave off the feta cheese to make it vegan.

Breakfast granola at Harvest Cafe with fresh fig on top.

Our third morning opened with breakfast at Harvest Cafe – 175 S. Ventura Avenue, Suite B. We were surprised to find no dedicated parking lot, but there’s plenty of street parking a short walk away. The Harvest Cafe proudly displays its “Ocean-friendly” rating, and it’s certified as a “Ventura Green Business.” And their menu is completely gluten-free. I opted for the “Golden Protein Porridge Bowl”: oats, quinoa, buckwheat groats, coconut, banana, raisins, nut butter, flavored with tumeric and cinnamon. Delightfully sweet to the tongue despite no added sugar. My companion chose the “Cashew Yogurt Bowl”:  house-made granola and yogurt, topped with a delightful fresh fig!

Light and delightful: Zack’s vegan tomato soup and passionfruit tea.

Lunch was at Zack’s Cafe, 1095 Thompson Blvd. — an experience so unique it deserved its own write-up! The menu is upscale Italian crossed with farm-to-table foodie. They’ll happily adjust anything on the menu for food preferences, and vegan options were easy to find. We ordered a delightfully light tomato soup, laden with floating bread cubes and topped with ribbons of fresh basil. For the main course we split a tostada salad topped with a mixture of grilled vegetables, all presented on a (homemade) baked whole wheat tostada. And don’t forget to try their passionfruit iced tea!

Maria Bonita is bright and cheerful, with original art on the walls.

Our farewell-to-Ventura dinner was a lower-Main Street find: Maria Bonita, 256 E. Main St. The decor’s a blend of colorful folk art (think Frida Kahlo) mixed with an Old Mexico flair.

The tortilla chips were thick, hearty deep-fried wedges. Be prepared: the homemade salsa is super-fiery but excellent! Vegan options are limited here, but the black bean-and-rice soup makes a wonderful meatless meal in itself. Vegetarians and pescatarians will find many more choices. In addition to the bean soup, the vegetarian in our party tried a cheese-and-veggie quesadilla, which came sizzled to perfection on a grill, blessedly light and free of extra oil.

Cool B&B Stays:

The Bella Maggiore on Ventura’s California Street.

We relished our stay at the marvelous “Bella Maggiore” – 67 S. California St. Located on California Street, the Bella is an easy walk to everything downtown. The hotel is an updated 1930s classic that’s retained its Old World charm.

We were greeted by live guitar music in the courtyard when we arrived, along with complimentary wine and hors d’oeuvres.

The courtyard.

Fresh flowers were liberally distributed throughout the hotel, and the concierge was extra-helpful when we had questions. Don’t forget to ask about the ghost of “Sylvia,” a former inhabitant from the hotel’s red-light past, who supposedly lingers in Room #17 — said to be one of the hotel’s most-requested rooms!

The Bella left us chocolates on the pillow. An old-world touch canopy adorned the bed.

Our amazingly large room on the second floor featured not only a fireplace but a padded window seat, perfect for lounging the afternoon away with a great book. (Check out the local bookstores we visited in Part 2, “Sites & Sights”!) Vintage antique faucets have been lovingly preserved in the luxuriously-large bath. And a packet of Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory chocolates on the pillow made us feel extra-welcome.

For our second night, we stayed at the “Inn at the Beach” — 1175 S. Seaward. A newer building decorated to look like a Victorian B&B inside, the Inn reminded us a bit of the home of a well-loved aunt: gracious and welcoming, but in need of a carpet clean. Staffing at the front desk doesn’t start until 7 a.m., so if you plan to check out early you’ll be asked to just drop your key card and they’ll gladly email a receipt.

Inn at the Beach, Ventura.

The beds were comfy and the rates terrific. And best of all, it is literally right on the beach. Be sure to ask for a room with an ocean-side view! Big sighs as we watched windsurfers cavort in the waves from our second-floor balcony. We snapped lots of can’t-wait-to-come-back photos of the sunset over the ocean.

I have a feeling we’ll be back. Soon.

A final sunset over the ocean.

And check out Part 2 of this story:  Ventura Sites & Sights to enjoy while you’re visiting Ventura!

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HIP TIP:   Pick up the Local Lingo Want to sound like a Ventura native? “California Street” is one of the town’s oldest drags. Locals have embraced the far-more-cool surfer moniker for this main north-south byway, dubbing it simply: “C Street.” Try it and they might just think you live here, too. (And don’t we wish we did!)

There’s More to the Lillian Virgin Finnegan Story!

Sure, you’ve probably heard of Lillian Virgin Finnegan — one of the founders of the famous Genoa Candy Dance! But here are a few things you probably haven’t heard about this hometown Genoa gal.

Lillian was born in Genoa on October 6, 1878, to parents Daniel W. Virgin and the former Mary Raycraft. Older brother William had arrived in 1871, and sister Ellen in 1873. So when Lillian put in an appearance five years later, she was the “baby” of the Virgin family.

Wedding photo of Judge Virgin and his wife, Mary. (Picture of the original framed photo, at Mormon Station State Park.)

Lillian’s father was known to just about everyone as “Judge” Virgin. But here’s a tidbit of history I didn’t know: the good Judge wasn’t actually a judge for most of his long legal career! Sure, he served as the first elected judge in Douglas County, from 1865-66. But the vast majority of his career was actually spent as District Attorney. Virgin served in that capacity in Nevada’s Territorial days (from June 2, 1863 until Statehood arrived in 1864); and went on to serve an amazing eleven non-continuous two-year terms as D.A. beginning in 1874 and ending in 1910. (And by the way, Judge Virgin was no quitter; he actually sought re-election to the post of D.A. four more times after 1910, losing each time to F.E. Brockliss.)

As an attorney, Virgin had a hand in some of the most prominent legal battles of his day. Remember the famous 1870s water-rights case in which Henry Van Sickle sued J.W. Haines over the water rights to Daggett Creek? Representing Haines in that epic battle was none other than Daniel Virgin, whose vigorous defense propelled Haines to victory in 1872 before the Nevada Supreme Court, based on the doctrine of riparian rights. (It would be a short-lived precedent, however, quickly reversed in favor of the “doctrine of prior appropriation.”)

Advertisement for Virgin’s law practice in Carson Valley News, May 15, 1875.

Lillian grew up in Genoa’s Pink House, purchased by her father from merchant J.R. Johnson in April, 1884, when Lillian was about five years old. Johnson himself hadn’t built the Pink House (at least most of it); the central two-story portion is thought to have been built back in 1855 by Martin Gaige for John Reese, near Reese’s grist mill on Mill Street. (Judge Hyde himself is said to have met assembled Genoans in this same house when he arrived to organize the first local government!)

In 1870, Johnson purchased the former Reese house and had it moved to its current location on Genoa Lane. And Johnson, it’s said, was also the one who first had the house adorned with its signature “pink” paint. And finally, in 1884, Judge Virgin bought the Pink House from Johnson.

Judge Virgin’s purchase of the Pink House was noted in the paper in 1884. (Genoa Weekly Courier, April 4, 1884).
The Pink House, purchased by the Virgins in 1884. (Dustman photo).

Prior to acquiring the Pink House, Judge Virgin and his family had been living in a sturdy brick house on Main Street that Virgin had owned since March, 1869 (the very same brick house, by the way, that had formerly been owned by the ultra-unlucky Lucky Bill Thorington). We don’t know exactly why the Virgins decided to move in 1884. But we can hazard a good guess! One gigantic hint: the Avalanche in the winter of 1882 had swept away two houses located just above the Virgins’ brick home, depositing a pile of rubble and debris in their back yard. That likely unnerved Mary Virgin just a tad, and might have helped prompt the family’s search for new quarters.

According to local legend, Lillian and her aunt, Jane Raycraft Campbell, were the original brain-storming pair who came up with the concept for the fundraising Candy Dance in 1919. But it turns out the truth may be a bit more nuanced.

Some say Genoa already enjoyed a traditional fall Harvest Dance every year — locally known as a “Thrashers Ball.” At least one local claimed the initial idea for a fundraising dance was the brainchild of the “Hot Stove League,” a group of local men who passed the time at the General Store. Still others say that Lillian herself had the idea, inspired by a dance she attended on a cruise ship, where silver trays of candy were passed around among the dancers.

However the idea for the dance originated, locally-made candy was indeed a treat at Lillian and Jane’s initial fundraising dance in 1919 — though it was not the advertised focus of the event. But after Lillian and Jane began treating guests to tasty treats crafted by the local ladies of the town, it didn’t take long for the name “Candy Dance” to emerge. Genoa historian Billie Rightmire believes the name was officially bestowed sometime about 1923.

Nobody ever talks much about Lillian’s husband, Louis Serratt Finnegan. They were married in 1907, when Lillian was 28 years old and Louis Finnegan a good twenty years older. Finnegan is sometimes described as a wealthy miner from Goldfield and Tonopah. But as his obituary put it, he actually “made and lost several fortunes” over his lifetime. Louis and his bride settled down in Genoa for a few years, then made their home in Southern Nevada for a few years more, before eventually returning home to Lillian’s beloved Genoa. In later life Louis gravitated to Texas, where he was said to be “engaged in the contracting business” as a mining middleman.

Lillian’s mother, Mary Virgin, passed away in 1918. Judge Virgin was getting on in years, and Lillian returned to live at the Pink House to care for him. Then in 1926, Lillian’s husband Louis died suddenly in Texas. Her father, Judge Virgin, passed away two years later, in 1928, at the age of 93. Lillian herself lived another decade. Too ill to attend one last Candy Dance in 1937, she passed away in February, 1938 at just 59 years of age. Lillian, her parents, and her husband all are buried in the Virgin family plot at the Genoa Cemetery.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of that first special Candy Dance in 1919. And oh, Lillian would have loved the Centennial attention for the event she helped to start so many years ago! 

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DON’T MISS THIS FUN NEW BOOK!
     Genoa Historian Billie Rightmire has just written “Genoa Candy Dance: The First 100 Years (1919-2019).” You can find the book at Candy Dance this year (Sept 28 and 29, 2019), or look for the book at local merchants in Genoa!

Writing About an “Ordinary” Life

MEMOIR TIP: Finding the Special in an “Ordinary” Life 

Ever feel like “my life was nothing special”? It’s a common refrain among memoir writers. You went to work; came home; cooked; did laundry. Then rinse and repeat, day after day. Where’s the special to write about in that so-called “ordinary” life?

What tools were an “ordinary” part of your household as a kid?

Here’s my take-away after interviewing dozens of folks who thought their lives weren’t very special: keep asking questions. Some of the greatest memoir material is tucked away right in the details of a seemingly “ordinary” life.

Here’s a couple of examples:
I once interviewed an old-timer who’d never lived far from the spot where he was born. Turns out he was a virtual living library of nearly-lost skills. He’d grown up hunting and trapping — with fascinating tales to share about his days tromping the mountains and the wild animals he’d encountered. He remembered when the local generator shut off at 9 p.m., along with every electric light in town. And brushes with death? It was amazing that he’d ever reached his 80s! As a teen, he’d once been sent out onto a flooded bridge to help break up a logjam threatening to take out the bridge. His “safety gear”: a bit of rope tied around his waist. Bottom line: he had plenty of amazing stories from a truly amazing life!

“I was just a housewife,” one of my husband’s relatives would similarly protest. But a little prodding later, we heard how her journey to school took her over a railroad bridge — a fine thing, until a train was coming, when she’d have to leap over the edge and hang onto a post until it passed. And she beamed as she told us how she and a classmate were allowed to spend the night from time to time with the warm and wonderful teacher from their one-room school, who’d let them roast marshmallows over the chimney of an oil lamp. Special memories indeed!

So, how can you find those fascinating nuggets? Those details that breathe life into the most “ordinary” life story? Here are a few tips:

  • Think about what special knowledge or expertise you’ve acquired — especially anything unusual by today’s standards. Did you learn the tricks of cooking on a woodstove, or how to skin a rabbit? Did you grew up sewing your own clothes? Tell the story of how you learned, and share the proper steps!
  • Remember how life was different than today during your growing-up years. Did you ride a bicycle or maybe even a horse to school? Get lost in a cornfield? Ever built a treehouse? What adventures did you have that kids today would never experience?

    What did your kitchen look like? No microwave, food processor, or trash compactor? Is there a favorite recipe you remember?
  • What kind of “ordinary” foods did you eat — perhaps something that’s anything but ordinary now? And how was that dinner prepared? Were staples in your family’s diet things that aren’t so common today, like parsnips, liver, or Spam? Did your mom make homemade pies made from home-grown fruit? (Do you still have that favorite recipe? If so, be sure to include it!)
  • What dangers did you manage to survive? Some of those experiences may be very uncommon today! Did you ever get lost in the forest in the snow? Come face-to-face with a bear? Challenge your friends to see who could be the first to swim across a dangerously swollen stream every spring? One of our friends had a simple abscess as a child that was truly life-threatening back then, although today it could be easily cured with antibiotics. Another relative spent an entire year in bed with pneumonia — again, an easily-treatable malady today. Those “ordinary” tales of challenge, hardship, and danger are especially fascinating when viewed backwards through today’s lens!

Bottom line: Don’t dismiss your life as “ordinary.” Remembering the details of that “nothing special” life often turns up incredibly powerful stories — and great memoir material!

Thinking of stories already? Share a few of your special memories with us on our Facebook page!

And if you’d like more Memoir tips, find our book on Amazon!

3 Hacks to Writing Better Copy

by Karen Dustman

There’s a smoothness to good writing. It’s effortless to read. Your eye moves easily through the sentence. You don’t have to struggle to make sense of the paragraph.

Easier said than done, of course. But good writing is part art, part craft. And that means that the right tools and a bit of practice can make a world of difference.

Here are 3 easy hacks to help boost the flow of your copy:

  1. Ditch those really fun, super-amazing modifiers.

Okay, we all have a tendency to gush from time to time. But too many modifiers slow down a reader’s eye. And let’s face it: by the fifth superlative in a sentence, you’re really just “gilding the lily” anyhow.

Here’s a few real-life examples (tweaked slightly to protect the guilty), so you can see what I mean:

“The third edition of Fantastic Health Book is an essential family resource and one of the most successful and authoritative compendiums of its time. Fully revised and updated, it is a definitive reference book and includes time-tested natural treatments . . . .”

 “I’m super excited to welcome Company ABC to our powerhouse Retail Establishment, and so happy to see our shelves filled with their beautiful, artfully-crafted vintage products, perfect to help you achieve your best modern-day wellness!”

Yeah, excitement sells. But don’t over-sell. Apply the brakes to breathless adjective strings (like “beautiful, artfully-crafted vintage”). And try to avoid double-descriptors (“successful and authoritative”; “fully revised and updated”). They’re needlessly wordy.

Compare these (much) cleaner rewrites:

“Now in its third edition, Fantastic Health Book is an essential family resource. It features time-tested natural treatments . . .

We’re happy to welcome Company ABC’s time-tested products to our natural wellness line.”

Yeah. Whew. Much easier on the reader.

  1. Shorten your sentences.

Here’s a real-life example from (sad to say!) a publishing company’s website:

“XYZ Company offers the rare experience of working with a team of award winning writers, editors, marketers and publicists to not only have a book but to have one that makes an impact and gets our authors the coverage they desire and deserve.”

Ugh. Did you read all the way to the end of that 43-word monstrosity? Or did your eyes glaze over half-way through? (Mine did!)

Let’s do a little sentence-rescue and see how we could make that read better. What are the important points in that messy word salad?

  •    We have a great team of publishing-industry experts;
  •    We can get our book into print;
  •    We can help you with marketing and media exposure.

No wonder the sentence is over-long and confusing! There are three separate “messages” all run together there.

The cure is staying “short and sweet”: split that monster sentence into individual “message” components. Here’s one version of how that might look:

“We’ve got an award-winning publishing team here at XYZ Company. Our writers and editors can help get your book into print. And our marketing experts and publicists help writers land the media exposure they’re after.”

Bingo. Shorter sentences that don’t overwhelm you, and individual messages that now make sense.

  1. Learn to tell your “it’s” from your “its.” If there’s one tiny word that gets misused more than any other in the English language, it’s probably that dangerous three-letter “its.” Show your writing chops by using the right one.

Here’s the simple hack: When you see an apostrophe, mentally fill in the omitted letter and see if your sentence still makes sense. So, for example:

It’s the right time of year to go fishing.” Yup, that “it is”!

But: “He took the hat from it’s place on the rack.Nope!It is” doesn’t work here. That hat needs to get put in “its place.” Pitch the apostrophe and carry on! You’ve got it, now.

Hope these simple writing hacks have helped you.  Here’s to writing like a pro!

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I write frequently about history, travel, family/oral history, natural health, and more. Like to discuss a podcast appearance or magazine assignment? I’d love to hear from you. Find clips and more on my author website: KarenDustman.com

 

Cafe Zack: A Foodie Find & A Hero’s Tale

It was the last day of our Ventura vacation when we wandered into Cafe Zack for lunch. You won’t find it jostling its culinary competition among the bright lights of downtown. Instead, Zack’s welcomes guests more quietly from a charming bungalow closer to midtown. A fairy-tale garden cascades beside the front steps, a tiny hint of the magic that awaited us inside.

Someone has a great eye for colors, shapes, and textures in this cascading planter — a warm welcome to Cafe Zack’s.

We’d settled in at a table by the window and were checking out the menu when our energetic host appeared. “Welcome to Cafe Zack,” he beamed. “I’m Hector Gomez, the owner. Try the passion fruit iced tea. It’s very good.” It was like a thousand-volt jolt of lightning had just entered the room.

Hector is clearly passionate about his restaurant. And he’s equally passionate about pleasing guests. Looking for something vegan? He’ll pop in the back and chat with the chef, just for you. Trying to avoid gluten? No worries; they’ll happily make your dish gluten-free.

It didn’t take us long to realize that both Hector and his cafe were totally extraordinary. The food, for one thing, was amazing. The bread was fresh; the passion fruit tea as refreshing as promised.

Refreshing passion fruit tea was a great pairing with delicate tomato soup. And oh, that fresh basil!

The tomato soup when it arrived (laden with glorious chunks of bread) was delicately-seasoned and sprinkled with fresh licorice-basil ribbons on top. Our tostada salad came piled high with grilled fresh vegetables and rested on a baked (not deep-fried, thank you) whole wheat tortilla. Yumm.

Grilled vegetable salad.

But the real treat was getting to meet Hector. When he told us he was approaching his 19th anniversary as owner of Cafe Zack, we asked where he’d come from and how he’d happened to buy this special place. So he pulled up a chair and told us.

Turns out his story is worthy of a Horatio Alger novel — a real-life fairy tale come true. The saga (and it is a saga) of how Hector became the Cafe Zack’s proud owner is a testament to both his willingness to leap and never giving up. We asked if anyone had ever written a story about him. Hector just shook his head slightly at the odd question, as if what he’s done is nothing special.

No, it’s definitely special. It’s hero’s journey worth celebrating, an ode to hard work, a message of inspiration. We’re tickled to be able to pass the wonderful story of Hector and Cafe Zack along to you.

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Hector’s arrival in the world was a tad, well, inconvenient. He was born in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico to a mother who wasn’t married and an airline-executive father who was — to someone else.

When he was eleven months old, Hector’s mother went off to seek work in the States, leaving him in the arms of his grandmother. “I first met my mom ten years later, when I was eleven,” he says with a shrug. There’s no trace of animosity as he describes his parents. “They had their own lives.”

Grandmother Elia was good to him. But counting Hector, her household numbered eleven people, spanning four generations, all in one tiny house. And out of those eleven, Elia was the only breadwinner. She worked as a maid for a local family in a private residence.

By the age of 8 or 9, Hector began walking a mile after school every day to the home where Elia worked, to help his grandmother. “I would sweep floors, I learned to clean pools,” he says with a shrug. And when her usual workday was over, Elia sometimes would walk the neighborhood, knocking on doors to ask if there were clothes she could wash or iron to bring in extra money. Hector would help his grandmother carry two big metal wash buckets loaded with laundry down to the river, a mile and a half from their home. Elia would beat the clothes on rocks there to scrub them clean.

One day when he was 12, Hector announced he was going to find a job. “I want to help you,” he told his grandmother firmly. He requested permission to serve as a greeter at a local restaurant, opening taxi doors for arriving guests and offering a hand to help ladies out of the cab. “I made that my little business,” Hector smiles. “I wasn’t on the restaurant’s payroll, but sometimes guests would tip me.” A few months later, he moved up to a job as a dishwasher. He was 13 years old.

At 14, Hector begged a manager at another local hotel for a job as a busboy. The man quibbled about his age and tried twice to turn him away. “Don’t pay me,” Hector pleaded. “I just want to learn.” The man relented, and Hector spent the next year and a half as an unpaid “busboy for the busboys,” pulling silverware and cleaning ash trays. “I worked hard. Really hard,” he says. “And I did it for no pay.” There’s a far-away look in his eye, as if he’s remembering. “Sometimes I made a little in tips from the busboys. But there were also days when there were no tips at all. I’d come home cussing.”

Those were the nights his grandmother would console him. “Just remember, mijo, you are there to learn,” she told him. “Someday it will pay off. One day you’ll have your own restaurant.”

Hector finally got a real job as a busboy when he was 16. He looked up to some of the waiters at the restaurant (“my favorites”), who “dressed so beautifully and smelled so nice.” Some waiters spent half of every year working in the States, returning to Mexico to spend the other half working at the resort. Hector yearned to follow their example. He made up his mind he was going to go to the Bay area to find work when he turned 18. He spoke no English.

The following year, fortified with $100 and a backpack, Hector flew to Tijuana and eventually found his way to a Greyhound bus headed for San Francisco. But once the bus reached Ventura, Hector saw the beautiful ocean passing by on his left. “I wanted to check it out!” he says. He got off the bus and walked down Thompson Boulevard — his steps taking him past the restaurant he would someday own. It was like Fate was calling him.

Those first two nights in Ventura Hector slept in empty cardboard box near the railroad tracks. Then Fate stepped in one more time. Buying lunch the next day at a burrito stand, Hector met a man named Frederico who hailed from his home state of Jalisco. That chance meeting would shape his life.

Frederico offered to let Hector to stay at his home. “There were 29 guys there already in a four-room house; with me, it would be 30,” Hector says. But it was better than a cardboard box. Frederico’s friends at the house shared a rumor that the Elephant Bar might need a busboy. Hector applied for the job and, as he puts it, “the rest is history!” But a single job didn’t bring in enough, so Hector soon picked up a second job as well. He did room service, worked as a busboy, learned to cook, and eventually became a server for various local restaurants.

Meanwhile, his roommate Frederico had a job as a cook at the restaurant Hector had walked past on his first day in town — yes, the very same one that’s now known today as Zack’s. Hector stopped by one day to say hi, and the owners asked if he wanted to be a server. “I didn’t speak a lot of English at the time,” Hector grins. “They handed me a menu and a wine list, and that was it!” And oh yes, he kept his two other jobs, too.

Hector worked for the restaurant owners for seven years, eventually picking up both lunch and dinner shifts. That meant 14-hour days, but it also meant he was able to ditch his side jobs. In 1993 he met Frederico’s sister, Suzie, who’d arrived with her parents from Mexico. Eight months later they were married. Things were on the up-swing. The restaurant owners treated him like a son. Hector had even been talking with them about purchasing the restaurant someday.

Then in 1998, he returned from a short vacation to devastating news. The restaurant had lost its lease. Instead of offering the business to Hector without the security of a solid lease, the owner had decided to sell it instead — to the landlord’s niece.

It was a tough blow. Hector swallowed his disappointment and continued to work at the restaurant, for the new owner. It was a difficult transition, and despite her enthusiasm, the new owner struggled to make a go of it. “She was young and inexperienced,” Hector says kindly. “It wasn’t for her.” Eleven months later, on November 1, 2000, Hector was able to purchase the restaurant himself. Astonishingly, he’d saved enough over the years to pay for it in cash.

Cafe Zack’s the vibe is upscale with a foodie flair. Fresh flowers; linen tablecloths; and an imaginative menu.

“One of my best memories,” he tells us, “is when I called up my Grandma and told her I’m going to buy this place. I’ll never forget — we both cried on the phone together. She told me, ‘Remember when you used to bitch about working for no pay, and I told you that you would own your own business someday?’”

Today Hector is a U.S. citizen. He has three children, who’ll be 21, 17 and 13 this fall. He tells his oldest son to stay in school: “Life is not easy, mijo.” Grandmother Elia passed away nine years ago, but she was able to visit several times and see the restaurant. Hector has purchased a 4-plex, where his wife’s brothers and others in the extended family now live. Three family members help him in the restaurant. Still a workaholic, Hector describes the restaurant as “my life.” But he proudly adds that he never misses special occasions with his family.

Hector is a living example of the power of gratitude. “God gave me this –” he pauses to find just the right word — “this gift. I’ve always had lots of energy. I’ve been doing double shifts for the last 25 years. I’m just really thankful for all the people who helped me along the way.”

The irrepressible Hector Gomez, in one of his rare moments sitting still.

Between the great food and Hector’s outgoing personality, Cafe Zack has built a devoted following. Most of its customers are locals, a statistic Hector shares with pride. “Ninety percent of the people who come to the restaurant are repeat customers, not tourists,” he emphasizes. “We know them by name; they come to my home. They know my kids. We are like family.”

It’s easy to see why. As we leave, Hector offers us each a hug. It’s warm. It’s sincere. We may have walked into Zack’s Cafe as strangers. But we leave as friends.

Here’s Where To Find It Yourself:

Cafe Zack

1096 Thompson Blvd

Ventura CA 93001

(805) 643-9445

www.cafezack.com