Thursday, December 23, 2010
There are the things and people that can’t wait: expectant mothers going into labor; sailors at sea in need of weather guidance; house fires that need to be doused; the tourists and beachgoers that stumble unwittingly into nature’s peril. There are the things and people that don’t want to wait: hungry customers paying top dollar for food and drink; baby otters learning to forage; the late-night snack crowd on the hunt for treats; hotel customers looking for peace and quiet. And then there are those that shouldn’t have to wait: the hungry, the disenfranchised, the people who have no real place to go on a day when much of the world stands still. It all results in work for someone. Here, the staff of the Weekly takes a 24-hour look at some of Monterey County’s working-class heroes.
6-8am: The Growers
With the exception of a family vacation here and there, Kenny Uchida has been working Saturdays for going on three decades. It doesn’t matter if it’s a holiday – he will do what he does every Saturday: Make the drive to his family-owned greenhouse on Encinal Road.
He flips on lights, makes sure vents and irrigation equipment are functioning and waits for orders to come in from across the country.
The only difference is, on Saturdays he starts a little later, leaving the house after 6am, rather than getting to the million-square-foot greenhouse by then.
He’s worked Mondays through Saturdays since he was a teenager. “If the [delivery] trucks are running, we’re here,” Uchida says. “If they’re hauling, we have to work. It’s not by choice.”
Uchida is a second-generation flower grower at this business started by his father, part of an industry all-but decimated by NAFTA, which opened the gates to flowers grown and harvested cheaply in Central and South America.
He rattles off almost 20 names of local cut-flower growers who have gone out of business in the past 10 years – most of them were Japanese-Americans who came here after World War II to work picking strawberries with his uncle, Zenichiro Uchida. Now there are about a dozen cut-flower growers left.
2009 was financially disastrous, 2010 a little better. But he still looks at a greenhouse almost one-third empty.
In December, he’s preparing for his biggest day of the year – Mother’s Day, when carnations fly out the door. He worries about spring flowers currently in the ground – the Ranunculus, Cosmos and Anemones. When time comes to cut, will the demand be there?
“Someone asked my son what he wanted to be when he grows up. He said, ‘I want to be a flower grower like my dad,’” Uchida says. “I said, ‘Don’t you ever say that!’” [MD]
8-10am: The Caterers
For one local caterer, it was another day on the job. But for the man we’ll call Mr. D, the party Cachagua’s A Moveable Feast catered for him was a lot more than that: It was Christmas Eve, it was his birthday, and it was the day he died.
OK. Maybe it wasn’t another day on the job for A Moveable Feast’s Michael Jones.
“We killed a guy!” Jones says. “It was his 80th birthday party and they told us, ‘Only two martinis for Mr. D.’ We had two bars with little old ladies coming up to order, and they’re ordering martinis. We thought, ‘Everyone’s drinking Mr. D’s drink. That’s great.’”
Turned out Mr. D was drinking all of Mr. D’s drinks.
“The next morning, dead,” Jones says, “We were like, ‘Oh crap.’ I thought I was gonna get sued, but the family was actually happy, since they were all in town for the funeral.”
While most gigs don’t collate a death certificate with the menus and food budgets, work on the holidays certainly comes standard. Jones has been doing the same Christmas gigs for 25 years, including one for the famous Weston family of Carmel. Aquaterra Culinary’s Dory Ford remembers days working in L.A. where his company would traverse nine parties over the course of the day. “I’m so used to working Christmas,” he says, “now it would be weird if I didn’t work.”
It’s going to be a little weird for Wild Plum Cafe owner/catering chief Pamela Burns, who hopes for her first “normal” Christmas for as far back as she can remember – and her first day off in nine months.
“I am going to be having, God willing, cocoa while opening presents with my daughter,” she says. “But there’s still time for someone to throw themselves on my mercy.” [MCA]
10am-Noon: The Firefighters
Carmel firefighter Mitch Kastros plans to prepare a feast in the firehouse kitchen for the dozen firefighters and Carmel police employees who work the holiday.
“Probably prime rib, maybe pasta, or maybe both,” he says.
Kastros, who was in the catering business before he fought fires, knows his way around the kitchen.
“I still love to cook,” he says.
But a flaming Christmas tree, an errant cigarette butt or an overtaxed electrical system could foil his plans.
“Early in my career, it seemed we always had a major fire on Christmas day,” Kastros says, adding a knock on wood that it won’t happen in 2010.
Barring major disasters, it’s still likely he’ll be pressed into service rescuing a cat from a roof or tree. He might even be summoned, as he has before, to corner a pet parakeet and lure it to its cage, one of the funniest rescue experiences Kastros say he’s had.
“Animals sometimes get into places they shouldn’t go,” he notes.
Christmas morning often brings visitors to the firehouse – kids walking by with their families who want to check out the city’s big shiny engine and ambulance.
Kastros says whenever he thinks he’d rather be home on Christmas, he tries to put his shift in perspective. “At least we’re not in Iraq or Afghanistan,” he says.
Dinner is served at 4pm in the firehouse. Police officers pop in when they change shifts at 6 or 7pm. [RU]
Noon-2pm: The Weather Watchers
For the 55th year straight, the North American Aerospace Defense Command will track Santa’s flight on Christmas Eve – kids can even follow the sleigh’s movement at www.noradsanta.org.
Here in Monterey, another military organization will be hard at work on Christmas Day.
In their headquarters behind the Monterey Peninsula Airport, four men and women with the Fleet Numerical Meteorology and Oceanography Center will monitor the supercomputers that run global and regional weather models for the U.S. Navy.
The “Watch Floor” is a 24-7 operation that produces weather models to support fleet operations around the world. The center also provides data the National Weather Service uses to make marine forecasts for recreational boaters in Monterey Bay.
“Our models are global in nature but specialized for the maritime environment,” explains Commanding Officer Capt. James Pettigrew. “It’s these models, run four times a day, that provide forecasts out to five days [for] our officers and sailors out at sea.”
On Christmas Day, civilian Computer System Watch Officer Josie Nerona will monitor the weather models and troubleshoot any hitches, AG1 David Halpern will write submarine forecasts, Assistant Forecast Duty Officer Airman David McPherson will help Halpern, and Command Duty Officer Lt. Brian McKeon will supervise the other three. Around mid-afternoon, Lt. Cathy Cohn and other top Fleet staffers will bring the watch team lunch in appreciation for their holiday service.
Christmas at Fleet Numerical may be a subdued affair, but more kicks come on New Year’s Eve, when the Navy sailors can get a little rowdy on the high seas.
“When it turns midnight, whoever has watch gets the first entry in deck log – usually some poetic, limerick-ish description of where the ship is at and what the ship is doing,” Pettigrew says. “Some are tasteful, some are tasteless, but all of them are pretty original.” [KA]
2-4pm: The Park Rangers
Ranger Mike McMenamy will patrol a big swath of Central California Christmas Day – from the autumn leaves of Henry Coe State Park to the wild surf of Big Sur. If he’s lucky and the day is uneventful, he’ll score an invite to join families who opt for Christmas al fresco, hauling kids, presents and feasts to picnic areas at Carmel River Beach or Julia Pfeiffer State Park. He might walk Point Lobos’ Sea Lion Point Trail as visitors catch the arrival of the season’s first gray whales – expectant moms – on their way to give birth in Baja or spot red tail hawks overhead. And he’ll probably be asked to pop in for a quick bite as his co-workers who live inside the parks celebrate with their kids. But if things turn ugly somewhere on his watch, he’ll be pressed into service, dispatching lifeguards or rangers for a rescue or talking a jumper off the Bixby Bridge as he did earlier this month. His Christmas celebration will wait until the 26th, when he and wife Jo-Ellen (also a ranger who will be on duty the 25th either at Asilomar or in downtown Monterey) hunker down with their two bulldogs, decorate their Santa Cruz home, exchange gifts and cook a big Christmas feast. [RU]
4-6pm: The Bartenders
Alfredo’s in Monterey has been celebrating Christmas with poinsettias, roaring fires and a decorated tree since what seems like Wise Men times (though it’s actually closer to 40 years than 2,011). Just like nothing changes year to year – the only day they close all year is Thanksgiving – nothing much changes on Christmas besides said decorations, according to bartender Joe Puccinelli and owner Doug Garnero.
“It’s pretty much just another day,” Puccinelli says.
“It’s regulars,” Garnero says. “All locals. They come in because they’re tired of the mother-in-law and the kids – they gotta come down and have one. You know how that goes.”
Fellow time-honored watering hole Segovia’s Tavern in New Monterey reports a similar steadiness, despite festive specials like gingerbread shots and pumpkin pie shooters: No Nativity toasts, “What would Jesus drink?” jokes or Santa suits to speak of.
“It’s mostly the same crowd,” says barkeep Dave Harris.
The standing knucklehead policy also goes unaltered – no special forgiveness for the jackball who takes down too many toddies just because it’s Mr. Turn the Other Cheek’s birthday.
“We haven’t had to kick anyone out on Christmas since I’ve been here,” Harris says, “but if you act like a jerk, it doesn’t matter what day it is.”
Across town at Britannia Arms, Christmas is celebrated with a little more pageantry.
Noon to “4ish,” locals pack the place for free mini mince pies and Christmas specials that put the giving back into the holiday.
“It’s like year 11,” owner Paul Whitecross says. “People wear Christmas clothes – even if they don’t like ’em they put ’em on.”
Not that the celebration isn’t without its own predictability, though.
“There’s always lots of husbands getting in trouble,” Whitecross says, “for not getting home on time.” [MCA]
6-8pm: The Volunteers:
You know how your mom spends multiple days preparing a special holiday meal, invites various friends and relatives over and the dinner is done within an hour, leaving piles of dishes behind?
Expand that to a dinner that serves about 1,800 hungry people on site and sends another 500 or so meals to the housebound, and by 6pm on Christmas night that’s about the size of the mess Rich Hughett and a group of several hundred volunteers will be looking at following the 25th Annual Free Christmas Dinner at the Monterey County Fairgrounds.
The meal, served at the fairgrounds’ Monterey Room from noon until 3pm, will include 110 turkeys, however many cooked hams people are willing to donate and 500 pounds of potatoes, as well as cases of salads and vegetables provided by a variety of local produce companies.
Work on the event started in October, while cooking and picking up the produce and other donations started this week. In addition to the food, the event includes toys for children, live music and an appearance by Santa.
The Sand City Police Department delivers the meals to the housebound.
Hughett and his committee have a budget of about $3,000 – he believes they will use every penny and more. It’s not only the homeless who come for the meal. It’s the poor, the working poor, and, increasingly, families with children.
“I thought last year might have been rock bottom, but now I suspect this year might be worse,” said Hughett, who has been running the meal committee since 1996. “There’s more downturn, more joblessness, just more people in need.”
It’s not too late to help out, he says. If you have an extra cooked ham around, Hughett gurantees it won’t go to waste. [MD]
8-10pm: The Otter Feeders
Little ones all over Monterey County will be fed and tucked in around this time on Christmas night. One foster otter pup, an 8-week-old female known only as 518, is no exception.
In late October, 518 was rescued from a San Simeon beach at only 3 days old (and likely a preemie), and taken into the care of the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Sea Otter Research and Conservation program.
SORAC staff bottle-fed 518 in the Intensive Care Unit until she was ready to meet her surrogate mom, a 12-year-old otter named Joy, in mid-December.
“Then we let the surrogate do the rest of the work,” says SORAC Animal Care Specialist Sandrine Hazan. “Joy is probably the best surrogate we have.”
Otters are hungry little mustelids, eating up to 30 percent of their body weight per day. It’s especially important that little 518 be fed four times a day, Hazan says, during her early study sessions with Joy. Regular feedings help keep her well-nourished and relaxed as she learns critical survival skills like diving and foraging.
So while off-duty families cozy up to their hearths, Hazan and beyond-the-call-of-duty volunteers Chelsea Spencer and Jason Fong will toss 518’s evening meal into her tank: live delicacies such as clams, mussels and crab, or frozen yummies like surf clam tongue, shrimp and squid.
The three otter feeders will then tackle their own dinner, likely a potluck. “It may be a mellow evening for us,” Hazan says. [KA]
10-Midnight: The Slurpee Masters
A 7-11 is a 7-11 most everywhere else in the world. But stepping into the South Main Street 7-11 in Salinas is like stepping into a mom-and-pop corner store. That atmosphere is deliberate, says 31-year-old franchise owner Mike Shim. When his father Yong Shim died two years ago, it came down to selling the place or taking it over. Taking it over meant leaving the life he had built in Los Angeles, and it came with a caveat: “In the big picture, it’s a corporate store, but I wanted it to be the place where everyone knows your name. I refuse to run it any other way.”
As people move in and out, Shim indeed greets many of them by name. A closet Apple computer nerd, Shim – like the rest of his team – is quick to tease and joke with the regulars. But he’s equally quick to bring any shenanigans to a halt, like keeping teenagers from grabbing beer and running for the door.
“It’s one of two times that we’ve ever closed since I took over,” Shim recalls. “A kid tried to buy beer without an ID and when I kicked him out, he went outside, grabbed a rock and threw it through the plate-glass window. There was glass everywhere.”
Christmas night likely won’t be as busy as it’s been in past years, he says. That’s because many grocery stores that would have closed outright for the day in previous years now stay open late on the holiday.
Shim will be there. He hasn’t had a day off since February. Does he miss being home?
“I am home,” he says. [MD]
Midnight-2am: The Broadcasters
KAZU general manager Douglas McKnight doesn’t technically have to work this Christmas since it’s a Saturday, when national NPR programming overtakes the airwaves, but it doesn’t mean he’s not on call. On holidays he and operations point man David Whitrock listen in for any interruptions in their automated programming.
Should problems burp the broadcast – “according to Murphy’s Law,” McKnight says, “it has happened on a holiday” – one of them is looking at their own pressurized Santa-style ride across town.
“I’d like to tell you our system is bullet proof but it’s not,” McKnight says. “Occasionally something doesn’t fire, or there’s a problem with the satellite feed. So many things can go wrong. It could be the wrong program.”
If he can’t remotely log onto the mainframe and fix it, he jumps in his Dodge Neon and utters his own Christmas benediction.
“I pray for no traffic,” he says. “On a holiday it’s usually light, but if I have to come on a day when the streets are filled with tourists, it’s extremely painful. I have the radio turned on, and I’m not hearing anything, and I’m sitting in a traffic backup [saying], ‘Oh God help me get there.’”
He’d like to think any such break helps audiences realize the gift they have in public radio. Not so much. “Not everybody feels that way,” he says.
KPIG’s Ralph Anybody feels gratitude on the many Christmases he’s worked, though the weekend team will be on this time. “I’m always amazed to hear how many are listening,” he says. “They do call and say very nice things. I try to play as much [Christmas rock] as possible.”
Pacific Grove’s Tony Seton, a longtime TV producer, radio personality and current Weekly contributor, once worked Christmas religiously for ABC. The main difference in keeping an eye on events during a day most citizens have off, he says, is a sense of responsibility.
“I always loved working holidays,” he says. “The news still went on. You didn’t have to wear a tie that day, and you felt a sense of camaraderie you didn’t have during regular times – you felt a little more noble, watching the world and taking care of things, while everyone else was on vacation.”
Then he could celebrate with his own ritual. “Afterwards,” he says, “it was an occasion for a libation. Or six. Working 1am-9am I’d wind up getting off in the morning, going and having scrambled eggs and bacon and martinis.”
Being merry, after all, knows many iterations. [MCA]
2-4am: Portola Plaza
At 2am on Christmas night the cavernous atrium lobby of the Portola Plaza Hotel will have gone deadly quiet. The hotel on Monterey’s Customs House Plaza has a staff of about 200, but just six are left standing on the overnight shift.
The slow roasted prime rib and sourdough bread pudding on the hotel’s Christmas dinner menu have long since been cleared away, and the last celebratory glasses of eggnog are a hazy memory when night manager Zaida Flores hunkers down to balance the food and beverage tabs. She and the other members of the skeleton crew sometimes sit down together for a holiday potluck and a modest gift exchange, but other than that, distractions on the 11pm to 7am shift are few as guests slumber in the upstairs rooms. That is, unless the seagulls get rowdy – and sometimes they do, even on Christmas night. That’s when the noise complaints start, and when Flores must arrange for impromptu middle-of-the-night room shifts. Flores can handle loud in-room parties and blaring televisions, but she can’t quiet the squawking gulls. Instead, she strategically susses out the hotel’s most noiseless spaces, puts her guests to bed again, and readies the hotel for the next day’s visitors. [RU]
4-6am: The Doula
When Danielle Rodhouse takes a client, she blocks off an entire month on her calendar – from two weeks before to two weeks after the pregnant woman’s due date. As a doula, it’s her job to provide non-medical support during and after childbirth.
“It’s 24 hours a day; you could be called out at any time,” she says. “We let mama’s body and baby decide when they’re going to be born.” That includes the wee hours of Christmas morning, when the kids she helped bring into the world a few years back are still dreaming of Santa.
When she gets that call, Rodhouse hoists herself out of bed and grabs her “birth bag” of comfort measures such as essential oils to keep the laboring mother grounded, hot and cold compresses and massage lotions to tame her pain, Rescue Remedy flower essences to ease her stress, and battery-lit candles and relaxation music to create a calming ambience.
The mother isn’t the only one affected. “Everyone who walks into that room shifts gears and respects the atmosphere you’re trying to create,” Rodhouse says.
As the scents of lavender and rose calm the mother’s nerves, the doula also attends to her other needs, making sure she’s well hydrated and able to labor in a variety of positions with tools such as a birthing ball and squatting bar.
Meanwhile, Rodhouse herself is in fast gear. She aims to be with her client within a half hour of receiving the phone call, and coaches her at home until it’s time to check into the hospital (unless it’s a home birth). If the laboring mother doesn’t sleep, neither does Rodhouse – sometimes for stretches of more than 24 hours.
“We’re there to be by the mother’s side throughout the whole experience, to hold the space and be patient with the process,” she says. “On Christmas more than any other day, it would be so important for that mother to know that everyone is there for her.”
Just like the unrelenting holiday workers are there for Monterey County. [KA]