How to Incite a Riot in Santa Barbara: a Beginners Guide

Spring 1985
I was done with Pasadena. Jim Mulcahey fired me during a fight so loud that people came in from the street to see what was going on. Even though I had no prospects to speak of, the firing was a blessing. The Old Town Pasadena project I had worked on for almost two years was slow moving and there were many signs that it would never get beyond the blueprint stage. I had very little money but I got a meager severance that would sustain me until something turned up. Something always did.

More serious was the fact that my Lincoln Continental, the pimp-mobile, had been repossessed. Okay, okay, so I was a bit behind on the payments and the owners got nervous when they heard I lost my job and simply took the car back. I guess I couldn't blame them. I tried to report it stolen to the Pasadena Police Department, but they just laughed at me. My landlords also heard about my disagreement with Jim and politely suggested that I vacate my apartment sooner rather than later. The landlords were a couple of old Irish spinsters who spied on me through their peephole and clearly did not approve of the fact that I might have female company now and than. It was a triple whammy.

My girlfriend at the time, Deena, stood by me for some odd reason and shuttled me around in her sexy little black Chevy Camaro for few days. "Too Mean!" she called the car, and it was, just like KITT from Knight Rider. She helped me move in with friends who had a house with a spare basement apartment in Burbank and I began looking for work. I landed a couple of small jobs doing storefront remodel designs, but that was petty cash and nowhere near enough get me back on my feet.

Through Jim Mulcahey I knew of a small chain of coffee houses owned by four brothers. They'd inherited the business from their legendary father and proceeded to slowly run it into the ground. I'd met one of the brothers and got on very well with him so I gave him a call, not really expecting much. I hit a jackpot! The brothers were in an expansion mode just then, buying up restaurants and remodeling them into a new kind of hamburger place. The emphasis was on plentitude with huge sacks of produce by the front door, a full-scale bakery for buns and pies, a butcher shop preparing fresh meat and a massive "Stuff-Yourself-Till-You-Burst" salad bar. It was a decent enough concept and I was meant to design the first "pilot" project in Fountain Valley in Orange County. Inexplicably, the brothers decided to call the new restaurant "Bombers". It was a prescient moniker*.

We signed the usual mutually unenforceable contract and I bought a little Fiat Bertone X1/9 convertible with the retainer I'd received. The car was about the size of the ashtray in the Lincoln! It was a purple two-seater with a removable hard-top and an engine in the rear. It was my first ever sports car.

Designing a restaurant is a bit like crossing a slippery, muddy minefield. In the dark and wearing sunglasses. Peppered with roadblocks and sniper nests (that's 'nuff dubious similes and contorted analogies!). At that time a major change in the Universal Building Code was underway.The new American Disabilities Act provided for easy access anywhere for people with disabilities. A noble goal that nevertheless created a major wrinkle in the design process. Add to that the Department of Health, Environmental, Planning, Zoning Restrictions, Seismic Reinforcement (yeah, the quake voodoo shit), Air Quality Control, Liquor Licensing Laws, Energy Conservation, Mosquito Abatement, Landscaping Parameters, Trash Disposal, Parking Ratios, Toxic Waste Handling, Hostile Neighbors, Sacred Burial Sites, Egret Nesting Grounds, Halitosis Prevention (okay, I made that last one up) and a multitude of other known or unknown rules and laws and suddenly the original desire to just build a "nice-place-for-people-to-eat" was not quite the focus anymore.

How Atmosphere Affects Flavor - a Short Diversion
In the Latino badlands close to Downtown LA, on the corner of Beverly and Rampart Boulevards, is Tommy's Burgers. This is a non-descript area where most store signs are in Spanish and you can buy a fake California driver's license for $50 on a street corner. It's gritty, gang-infested, dangerous and poor. This is where an institution called Tommy's Burgers is located. Back in 1946 Tommy Koulfax started selling hamburgers smothered with chili from a tiny shack on the street corner. The shack is still there and Tommy's expanded just a bit over the years, mainly to allow for the enormous popularity of the Tommyburgers. More stand-up shelves and another small kitchen were added. That's it. The place is always busy. People arrive in cars or limousines or they just walk over from a nearby apartment block. It's the quintessential equalizer - a burger with chili on top. It's messy to eat, but there's nothing else like it; standing over a shelf in the parking lot, wolfing down a three-inch high burger dripping with brown-red chili sauce and fending off pigeons and squirrels.

Over the years Tommy's opened other locations. But these had to comply with the magnitude of local laws and regulations. Guess what? They are all sterile and lack personality. And here's the kicker; the food just doesn't taste the same. The old shack in the middle of a Latino gangland is still the busiest and most popular.

How can that be? I wish I had the answer.

...moving on...

I settled into a routine of drawing layouts and details interspersed with site visits and meeting with my new clients. Deena lost interest (I think she loved "Too Mean" more than me) and we parted ways more or less amicably. After one of my meetings with the brothers, I was driving up Laurel Canyon on the way home to Burbank when I came to a sherriff's cruiser with lights ablaze parked across the street. Apparently Laurel Canyon was closed due to a bad accident at the top of the hill and all traffic had been turned back. It was late afternoon and I just got paid so this was a good excuse for me to stop at the Coconut Teaszer on Sunset for an adult beverage or two. The Coconut Teaszer served great mai-tais in a real coconut shell with a fat straw. It was pretty cool. As I was enjoying my alcoholic coconut, two blonde girls in white dresses came in and sat near me. Their animated conversation was in a language I could not place so eventually I sauntered over and asked. Swedish was the answer. Long story short I spent almost six hours at the Teaszer that day chatting with the two Swedish girls about this and that. One of them, Lotta, earlier that day had left her boyfriend who she was living with in Malibu. I suppose the coconut mai-tai rendered me temporarily deaf to the peal of the warning bells I should have been hearing.

I met Lotta the following week for dinner and there was a definite connection. We started seeing each other almost daily.

I was still active with the brothers and we had a routine in place for my fees. Every week or two I'd take an invoice to their office in Beverly Hills and they'd give me a voucher to take to one of their coffee shops where I'd be paid in cash directly out of the register. It was a bit odd, but I didn't mind getting cash.

Lotta wanted to get away for a weekend so we planned a trip to picturesque Santa Barbara. Santa Barbara is a quaint little city on the coast, about two hours drive north of Los Angeles, that has a mediterranean flavor with its little befountained courtyards, white-washed low-slung buildings with filligree cast iron balconies and decoratively tiled sidewalks. It's like a time capsule showing how the hardy early Californios lived in their sprawling haciendas and still maintained a refined sense of style and design. But it's all an illusion. In 1925 an earthquake destroyed most of Santa Barbara and when the City was rebuilt the new carefully designed and co-ordinated Spanish Colonial look appeared. So much for authenticity. Sometime in the seventies the City decided that it had grown enough and enacted a strict building moratorium. As a result property prices shot through the terracotta tiled roofs, making the city affordable only to those with lots of moolah. And that is how things are today - Santa Barbara is a nice place to visit but not to live, for mere mortals.

On Friday afternoon I collected my little voucher from the brothers and promptly turned it into cash in one of their coffee shops in Beverly Hills. It was about $5,000 in a variety of bills, hundreds, fifties, twenties. It barely fit into my wallet.

Lotta and I drove to Santa Barbara the following morning and played tourists for the rest of the day. We spent the night in a hotel close to the beach, and the following morning we felt that we'd enough of all that cutesy faux architecture and we drove to Lake Cachuma to rent a sailboat for the day. I loaded up the Fiat - even with just two people, it was a struggle to find room for our luggage - and off we went.

We got on the famed Pacific Coast Highway and drove north. It was a fine California morning, fragrant with orange blossoms and salty ocean air drifting inland. The ideal time to drive a convertible. Driving in California is a pleasant experience, for the most part. Sure, the cities suffer from debilitating traffic, but the drivers tend to be generally polite. Unlike other parts of the world, driving is not regarded as a competitive sport and even outside the cities the traffic tends to move at roughly the same speed without too much jostling for position. The other odd phenomenon is that the use of a horn is just not done. If you stand by an open window in a high rise in New York, you'll hear a constant cacophony of horns. In California, we are more laid back and we prefer to use the middle finger to leaning on the horn. The traffic is generally quiet, but that day on PCH, all of these rules went straight out of the car window.

We're tooling along in busy traffic when a car passes us on the left, honking, frantically shouting something and motioning to the back. "Teenagers!" I think, but I glance in the rear view mirror anyway. And my heart skips a beat or two. Behind me is total chaos. I see stopped cars, cars veering to the side and people running on the freeway trying to catch something that is fluttering in the wind. MONEY! It's raining MONEY on the freeway, so I reverse quickly hoping to get some of that cash from heaven. At that point a terrible possibility hit me. I feet for my bulging wallet and it isn't in my pocket. "Maybe it's MY money!". And it was.

As I was packing the miniature car that morning, I'd left my wallet, stuffed with the loot from the brothers, resting behind the rear window in that little nook above the engine. As we picked up speed, the wallet opened up slowly like some financial flower and with a movie-like precision, started to redistribute my wealth. One by one, the bills fluttered into the air above the highway; hundreds, twenties, fifties.

The scene was quite amazing. Cars stopped in the middle of the freeway, horns a-honking, people a-runnin' hither and yon trying to catch MY money. We tried to cajole them into giving back the money they'd caught, and some did, but some just laughed at us. Some of the bills had blown into the bushes by the side of the freeway and people scrambled to retrieve them. The traffic in the other direction also stopped and more people were climbing over the median trying to get the loot. A few fistfights and a catfight broke out. Lotta and I were running back and forth trying to salvage as much as possible and at the end we retrieved about half of the $5,000. I was devastated and felt very stupid.

We did go sailing that day and eventually Lotta and I got married; a decision that ultimately cost me a lot more than the few grand I'd lost on the highway that day. Now every time I drive through Santa Barbara and pass through the point where this adventure happened, I still glance at the bushes off to the side just in case one of my hundred dollar bills is just hanging there.

* "Bombers" opened it's doors sometime in 1986 to a lukewarm response. Even the K-Mart across the street did not help. I am not sure exactly how long it lasted, but in 1989 Bombers was gone, demolished. In it's place was a dreary strip mall. Bombers bombed.

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© 2007 Karel Kriz and Bouncing Czech Productions