A columnist of heart and mind

A columnist of heart and mind
Interviewing the animals at Children's Fairyland in Oakland. L-R: Bobo the sheep, Gideon the miniature donkey, me, Tumbleweed Tommy the miniature donkey, Juan the alpaca, Coco the pony

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Before The Dynasty

A couple of years ago, a poll of local football fans selected Frank Gore as the greatest 49er running back of all time, which only shows what short memories people have.
With all respect to Gore, who deservedly will be in the Hall of Fame someday, the greatest 49er runner of all was Hugh McElhenny, and it isn't even close. They called him "The King" for the same reason that LeBron James, Clark Gable and Elvis Presley were called "The King" – because his absolute superiority was self-evident.
Like Gale Sayers and Barry Sanders, McElhenny's numbers don't tell the full story. Here's how longtime local sportswriter Dave Newhouse describes him in his fascinating new book, "Founding 49ers: The Dark Days Before The Dynasty":
"McElhenny turned sprawling tacklers into an art form, much like pitcher Hoyt Wilhelm's baffling knuckleball that rendered batters helpless during the same era. Big whiffs, either way."
The King was part of the famous "Million Dollar Backfield" – along with Y.A. Tittle, Joe "The Jet" Perry and John Henry Johnson - the only backfield in NFL history whose all four starters are in the Hall of Fame. But Newhouse reveals that the name was just a publicist's invention; in real life, they never made anywhere close to a million dollars.
"$70,000 for all four of them combined is more like it," he says.
He also reveals that McElhenny got so many payments from boosters under the table when he was playing at the University of Washington, he actually had to take a pay cut when he entered the NFL.
The league was very different back then. The big powerhouses were today's doormats, the Browns and Lions; and the doormats were today's powerhouses, the Packers and Steelers. Player salaries were so low, they had to take jobs during the off-season – and sometimes during the season, too – to make ends meet.
But oh, could they play! And oh, what characters they were! And it's all in the book, including defensive end Dan Colicho, the toughest man who ever played, who played every game one year despite having to take 140 cortisone shots and two operations during the season.
Newhouse has a talent for telling a story and a knack for getting other people to tell their stories to him, and both are on prominent display here. And although he hates to show off, preferring to get out of the way and let a good story tell itself, no one is better at capturing someone in a few well-crafted words. For instance, is there a better description of Al Davis than this?
"Piracy was the game, and Al Davis was impersonating Captain Kidd. After Davis left the Oakland Raiders to become AFL commissioner, he had one devious goal in mind: raid the NFL's elite quarterbacks. That's what Raiders do; they raid."
Newhouse will be signing books from 1 to 5 p.m. this Saturday, August 15, at the Warehouse in Oakland; and as a bonus, he's bringing the great defensive tackle Charlie Krueger with him.
Unfortunately, six of the people he interviewed for the book died before it came out.
"What I'm happy about is that I was the last public voice for some of these great early 49ers," he says. "What I'm sad about is that they never got to read the book."

Sweet Sorrow

(Above: A cinnamon twist and a cup of coffee. What could be sweeter?)

The phrase "end of an era" is often overused, but this time it's literally true: Nabolom Bakery & Café, the anarchist baking collective in Berkeley that turned out pastries to tempt even the most bourgeous palate, closed its doors for good on Sunday.
Nabolom – the name is Mayan for "house of fire" – had been a fixture in the Elmwood neighborhood since 1976. From the start, customers were addicted to its sinfully-fattening-but-oh-so delicious chocolate croissants, brown sugar snails, almond bear feet, brownies so most they tasted like fudge, and its biggest seller: the "Infamous Cinnamon Twists," dripping with cinnamon, butter, sugar, and barely enough flour to hold it all together.
"I can't start my day without my cinnamon twist!" lamented a longtime customer named Gabe, who rushed to the store on Friday to load up on one last order of twists as soon as he heard that the place was about to close. "I don't know what I'm going to do when this stash runs out."
So fanatical were the cinnamon twist devotees, Nabolom used to receive orders from all over the county and beyond, including one every month from a loyal fan in Germany.
The collective also had a firm foothold in the local community, supporting progressive causes with donations of time, money, pastries, and a place to meet.
But despite this, Nabolom was always on a shaky footing. The bakery was at death's door many times over the years, but it always managed to pull another rabbit out of the hat at the last moment by holding fundraisers, extending evening and weekend hours, expanding the menu, remodeling, installing wi-fi, and opening a kiosk in the parking lot across the street for customers on the go called – what else? – Nearbolom.
Alas, it finally ran out of rabbits. Last Friday, the collective sent me this email:
"Surely the ups and downs of Nabolom started long before 2002, but during the early 2000’s financial crisis struck Nabolom. With help from the community the bakery was able to keep going.
"Our doors remained open, but the business never fully recovered from such a hard blow. More than 10 years later, the financial struggle continues. A high turnover rate and the slow business that comes with the summer season have been no help.
"We have struggled to pay our vendors, rent, and even ourselves. It would be irresponsible to let Nabolom continue in this way. The collective has been faced with this tough decision for quite some time now. With hardly enough people to staff the weekend shifts, the decision has been made for us. There has been talk of a potential buyer, but it is more likely the business will be gone for good."
They'll be missed. And so will Old Puppy, a quirky, eclectic band featuring guitar, ukulele, string bass, drums and accordion that entertained Nabolom's customers every Saturday with tiki, folk, zydeco, hapa haole/Hawaiian, golden age country, oldtime jazz, ragtime, quirky versions of funk hits, and classics like "Mack The Knife," "Makin' Whoopee" and "I Left My Heart In San Francisco." I'll let you know if they find another gig.
Farewell, Nabolom. Parting is such sweet sorrow - literally. Thank God I have a freezer full of cinnamon twists to keep me going, at least for a while.