Monthly Archives: July 2019

T-Shirts from the Collection: Vegas Rules


When I was a kid, Las Vegas was a mirage of glitz and class and discrete sin that rose out of the desert.  Vegas was all about high rollers in dinner jackets. Sinatra crooned to the crowds. Comedians named Joey and Shecky and Don made them laugh.  For the common man, ranks of slot machines stood at attention like one-armed soldiers. The common men could see Sinatra, too, but they had to bring their one good suit or dress.

Sure, the Mafia ran the place. But they were almost like the Chamber of Commerce — hit men.  Money laundering and siphoning profits works best in a stable environment, so the made men maintained Vegas’ smooth, classy image. It was good for the business that they were there to do.

“Classy” is out now, at least for the masses.  It’s about excess and acting out. And you’re not wearing a dinner jacket, maybe not even your only suit.  No, you’re wearing a t-shirt.

See that tee up at the top of this piece? Go to the Luxor, a casino/resort built into a giant glass pyramid.  Go the gift shop, buy that godawful tee and transform yourself into an honest-to-God Pharaoh. Parade your 4XL magnificence before your subjects in the slot machine ghetto. They can but bask in your pharaonic glory. That’s Vegas now.Lex Luthy Supervillan Lookalike Casino Boss Tee

Meanwhile, upstairs, the VP of Slots for the Luxor is posing for his portrait as a dangerous supervillain with a drink in hand. “Lex” Luthy? Oh, please.

What happened? Vegas went straight; the Mob was out, corporations were in. There was money to be made, but also new competition from Indian casinos. So the industry repackaged Vegas as the place where your every fantasy could come true, no matter how cheesy.  And safely: “What happens here, stays here,” crooned the TV ads.  The folks back in Wichita never had to know.  Just bring money.

That ad campaign’s been running for almost 20 years.  And people believe it. So much for class:

Las Vegas Double Down Bar Ass Juice Tee

ass_juiceIn Vegas, the Double-Down Saloon is well known for its motto “Shut up and drink!” and its signature cocktail, the Ass Juice: vodka mixed with something brown and fruity, perhaps prune juice.  It’s only a few bucks, but for $15 more you can get it in a commemorative mug shaped like a toilet.

Fun, huh? It looks like something you’d find in a roadside souvenir stand in 1955, somewhere east of Tulsa.  The mug would be on display next to the donkey-shaped cigarette box that pushed a cigarette out its butt when you lifted its tail.  My aunt had one of those.

But if even that’s too genteel, you can go to the Griffin, a Vegas-traditional joint with skilled bartenders, fashionable dimness, a firepit, and oral sex t-shirts.

Griffin Bar Unicorn Sex LV

But it’s just funny animals and fellatio, right?.  What’s the big deal? Have a Manhattan, reputed to be the best in town. The Griffin’s bartenders are supreme.  But that t-shirt.  Just… why?

Cheese Burger Hawaiian Restaurant in Vegas eeAnd this: “Cheese Burger” is a Hawaiian restaurant chain that offers plush cheeseburgers to the tourists, and other Hawaiian specialties.  They opened a Vegas branch in a casino, and of course the sedate tees from their Hawaii restaurants just wouldn’t do.  There had to be a hyper-sexual Vegas version

Sex, and more sex, or at least the promise of of it. Excess without end, at least in theory.  That’s the Vegas selling point.  Though I don’t know what they were selling here, or who was selling it:

Las Vegas InvadersI’ve looked and looked, but the “Las Vegas Invaders”  evade all Internet searches. All I see here is a leering man wearing a fire helmet with two firehose nozzle “horns.” “Find ‘em Hot. Leave ‘em Wet,” reads the motto.  Hijinks from some firemen’s muster? Who knows? But stay classy, Vegas!

Oh, some people try.  Vegas is a big convention town, and conventions issue their own tees.  Eventually the attendees have to go home and face the wife (or husband) with their convention swag, so these tees are more restrained. This firemen’s convention tee makes the old Rat Pack into firemen, as a tribute to Old Vegas.  And why not?

Firemen Vegas Convention Tee

And a car show tee is a car show tee, even if glitzed up a bit for Vegas.  Vegas isn’t Vegas without slick cars.  I’m glad that the classic VW Bug fans of America have to have someplace to gather, and Vegas is still a competent and affordable convention town, if you pick the right dates.  This crowd even had VW drag racing.

Las Vegas Bug-in VW Fest Tee

Mag-wheeled VW Beetles aside, Vegas is the rampaging id of America; the unmentionable excesses of every American institution come together here: military, corporate, criminal, governmental. All these power groups love the Vegas desert.  You can do anything there, and walk away. Back to Vegas. No one will see.

The mob used to vanish people in the desert; the mob is gone, but people still vanish. Radioactive caverns lurk underground, left behind by atomic bomb tests known and unknown. In nearby Area 51, the military and its corporate friends test aircraft that they refuse to acknowledge, but which we pay for generously.  They break environmental laws and endanger the health and lives of hundreds of contract workers. They threaten oblivion to any who talk.

Forty minutes outside Vegas lies Creech Air Force Base, where 900 drone pilots fly armed Reaper drones on the other side of the world. And kill people, at the push of a button.  They can bomb a village in Yemen and still get back to town in time to drown their sorrows with an Ass Juice at the Double Down. Just keep ’em comiing, bartender.

It’s all in the desert. No one can see. You can do anything in the desert. What happens here, stays here.

Las Vegas Speedway Patriotic Tee 2

That’s why this is my favorite Vegas t-shirt: the American flag, hyper-fast racing cars,  stealth warplanes,  an American eagle, greed, and money.  They are the components of Vegas America, all schmushed together by this t-shirt into one malodorous, wrong-headed heap.

And in the far distance lie the towers of the Vegas Strip: the land where dreams rarely come true, though you’re encouraged to think so while someone rifles your pockets.

Or is that just entire the United States of America anymore?  Operating under Vegas rules now:  for everyone, everywhere.

The Unobserved

My wife Rhumba is learning the ins and outs of figure drawing, caricature and lately, digital painting.  Practice makes perfect, and she has the perfect venue for it: a Reddit discussion board where random people post pictures of themselves (or loved ones) and invite any random artist to draw them.

Challenge accepted.honeymoon with saucers

Rhumba would tell you that she’s a developing artist, but she has one thing that some brilliant draftsmen lack:  a point of view.  And so a honeymooning couple posing with the Golden Gate Bridge do so in the presence of an unknown watcher — almost out of frame.

A flying saucer is almost Rhumba’s trademark now, at least on that discussion board.  At the edge of every happy Kodak moment lurks a saucer: Observing? Abducting? Who knows?

holy saucerjpg

Response from the Reddit subjects is nearly unanimous.  They think it’s hilarious.  But Rhumba has an agenda: to point out that this is a world of distractions.  And what they distract you from is the fact that somebody’s watching.  From the fact that unimaginable — by you — things  are happening whenever life pulls your eyes aside. Whenever you stop looking for the barest moment.Fish

Because it’s true.  We have a TV set of a brand that’s been known to send — information — to its corporate headquarters.  Not just when it’s on, but when it’s plugged in.  Nobody knows what information. Nobody know what the information is for.  We’re assured that nothing illicit is afoot.  But we pull the plug whenever we’re not watching.  And of course our computers betray us constantly.

A saucer in the background may seem hilarious — until the context changes.  Then maybe less so. The mother of the tyke below loved her child’s saucer.  And it could be cute: but what’s its agenda?IEyfp9k

Because we don’t really know.  But it’s safe to assume that there is an agenda.  Or that, when enough data has been piled in one place simply because it’s possible to do so, someone will make an agenda.  Because they can.Fidojpg

And even if you knew what the agenda was, would you believe it? People just don’t do those things, you’d say.  You might not believe your own senses.  Washington saucer

But what the hell.  People have lives to live.  They just want to enjoy themselves. You can’t spend all your time looking over your shoulder.  Even if there’s always somebody there. MuscleMan Hot Tub

Life goes on, and it’s easier to treat every private moment as private: even if it’s not.  What’s the harm, right? Even if your pancakes are floating oddly.pancakesU

Enjoy the sunshine.  Hang loose.  It’s a beautiful day!Hangloose

And some day, you may get the answers to questions that you never even thought to frame.Coming soon

And if you do…. be sure to drop us a line!saucer squadron

T-Shirts from the Collection: The Social Iconography of Small-Town Grocery T-shirts

You’re on a two-lane state highway far, far out in boondocks. There are hills, there are trees, there are farms. There may be an ocean. There isn’t much else.

But around the next turn lies a loose group of buildings scattered across both sides of the road. There may be a simple city limits sign. The “town” has no government and no particular facilities.

What you can hope for is small grocery store, perhaps with gas pumps. And if you’re in tourist territory, that grocery just might have a deli, and a t-shirt. The Albion Grocery has it all.

Albion Grocery 1

Albion is a small unincorporated community on Highway 1 along California’s North Coast. The North Coast is noted for natural beauty, a dramatic and rocky shoreline, and giant waves that eat people.

The locals call them sneaker waves. A set of average waves approaches the coast, one after another, but in the heart of the set sometimes lurks a monster that will shoot far up the beach, knock your feet out from under you, and carry you back out to sea in its cold, cold arms. If you are unprepared.

Smart locals never turn their back on the waves. The only defense against sneakers is to run inland when you see one coming.

Pretty split-leaf philodendrons and hibiscus frame the t-shirt’s central image, a wave. But that wave is no pretty tourist image. It’s a spitting, rearing sneaker wave.

Fear it. I’m sure the locals do, while being slightly proud of their sneakers at the same time. Sneakers define the North Coast, like wind and crazy rocks and grim beauty. And they’re something bad-ass that you can tell strangers about.

Farther north in Oregon, coastal dwellers also speak of sneaker waves: certainly they do in Tillamook County, “Home of Cheese, Trees, and Ocean Breeze.” Tillamook is hunting country; deer and elk roam in the plentiful forests. Inland among the trees on the standard two-lane highway, the tiny unincorporated community of Beaver achieved something nearly unique: a combination firearms and grocery store.

Fox Guns and Groceries 1

Beaver is literally surrounded by huntable forest; the people need their guns and ammo. And there are no other groceries right nearby, either. At 150-ish people, Beaver might not support both a grocery store and a gun shop. But two in one? That worked. The Fox family ran Fox Grocery and Firearms for 47 years.

The family sold out in 2016. The new owners changed the name from Fox Grocery and Firearms to Beaver Firearms and Grocery: a subtle change in emphasis. The new owners’ Facebook page says, “Come see us today for your grocery and 2nd Amendment needs in one convenient place.” But some locals complain that groceries are being shorted in favor of guns. All I know is, there’s no t-shirt.

The third and final t-shirt also comes from another unincorporated community:  but one of 20,000 citizens. Isla Vista, California, is a frowsy college community adjoining UC Santa Barbara. And the ocean, and a beach. Sneaker waves aren’t common. You see the possibilities for young college students on their own for the first time in their lives. It could look like Paradise.

Isla Vista Market Beer Kegs in Paradise Tee

But there are liabilities, too. A hodge-podge of developers built up Isla Vista quickly and cheaply after the university was founded. The streets need work, the sidewalks come and go, there’s nowhere near enough parking. And while Isla Vista can boast a zillion cheap college town restaurants, it has only one full-service grocery: Isla Vista Market.

Isla Vista Market offers all the usual groceries: and keg beer. Lots and lots of keg beer. A good business gives the customers what they need, and through its t-shirt Isla Vista Market proudly accepts its role as keeper of the keg to the ten thousand students of the community. And their parties. Of course it accepts their money, too.

My All-Thrift-Shop Art Gallery

I’m very proud of my art collection: not the one I share with my wife, though. “My” collection is on the wall in my garage/man cave: artwork entirely thrifted from Goodwill Industries. Total cost: less than $40. But I’ve visited commercial galleries whose art pleased me less.Collection

You shouldn’t find original, competent paintings at a Goodwill for $2.99 or a little more. But in this town, sometimes you do. Sometimes for less.night

My favorite is a panoramic painting of a small town at night as darkness takes command and the fog rolls in. I lived in San Francisco’s Richmond District for several years: the foggiest part of a foggy city; I identify with darkness and fog. I also appreciate that tthe painter made a realistic vista into an array of almost-abstract shapes.


My second favorite is a mountain landscape painted on a broken skateboard in the style of PBS painting maven Bob Ross. It’s not great art, but it drips with cultural references and honest kitsch.  I also like the way the artist adapted two empty bolt holes (they had attached the board to the wheel trucks) into strange stars on the horizon; and hid the other two bolt holes in the composition.

And then there’s a pleasant portrait of a young guitarist, and a vintage, original poster by a well-known English woodcut artist.


Oddest of the bunch is a strange but somehow pleasant tropic scene composed of black lines filled in with shaped pieces of colored paper tape, and maybe some marking pen. It’s not great art by any standards, but somehow I just keep looking at it.


Hawaii2Other art scatters across the walls, including one piece that my wife Rhumba commanded me to buy: a Hawaiian sunset painted on velvet. No man cave can lack one truly cliched work of low art, she argued. I have to say: it’s far superior to “Dogs Playing Poker.”

I could amass this not-bad selection so cheaply because Santa Cruz, my town, is up to its neck in original art. Everyone’s a painter here, or seems like it, or dreams of it. They can’t all be good at it — believe me — and it stands to reason that the dross would end up at Goodwill. And it does: oh so many bad paintings. If that’s your style, come on down to 204 Union St. There’s a good coffee house down the street when you just can’t take it anymore.

But among that dross you find jewels: something that someone just got tired of looking at, perhaps, and donated. Or that that their heirs donated while disposing of the estate.

I do wonder where the art came from, and sometimes I can find out. A college art teacher — a freeway flyer who teaches at multiple schools — painted the midnight city. Realism-into-abstract is her specialty.

Another local painter, who has a website and probably also a day job, painted the pensive guitarist. Is it great art? No, but it’s simple, pleasant, and has a point of view. I’m all about the point of view.

Very occasionally, I see art at Goodwill signed by people I actually know. And I will never tell them.

As for the skateboard/landscape painting, somebody told me they’d seen a display of them on sale at a gas station, back aways in time. That may be all I ever know.


Not exactly original, but coffee cup art for a long-gone German bakery in Santa Cruz. And now there is no studel in Santa Cruz. None. Damn.

The source of all this artist endeavor lives decades in the past. When Santa Cruz was a cheap, beautiful hippie haven, artists came here for the beauty and easy living. Money could be made drawing for our surfboard and skateboard industries, too (and still can). But even if you didn’t do that, you could hump your work over the mountains to the big city and try to sell it there.

Some artists still do — they live here, but their markets are elsewhere. On our walls hang some funny-animal paintings by a guy who illustrates children’s books for Scholastic. I also remember walking into a stationery store where the owner sat at the front counter: drawing a page of Archie Comics.

Santa Cruz’s beauty remains, if not cheap. It is, in fact, hellishly expensive. But a university was founded here, with an Art Department, and people to teach art, and students to learn it; and when the students graduate, they don’t all go away, or at least not for a few years. They like it here.

For all these reasons, Santa Cruz is pre-loaded for artistic endeavour. This little shelf of land between the mountains and the sea, home to perhaps 100,000 people, boasts three competent and well-stocked art supply stores.

Because, aside from the groups that I’ve mentioned, Santa Cruz is home to well-off people with time on their hands. Lately they’ve  mobbed the place: people who made big money in Silicon Valley or San Francisco, but aren’t all that impressed with themselves. They were just grubbing for money with the rest of the predators; there had to be more to life. And now in Santa Cruz, in the leisure that is their reward, they search for that “more.”


Another print on the wall: a vintage California Coastal Cleanup Day poster from about 30 years ago, by the British printmaker Christopher Wormell. Cleanup Day is descended from earlier events staged by Santa Cruz-area surfers.

That’s why I think that you can find a well-built artist’s studio behind so many custom-built Mediterranean-style villas around here. I tour these studios during an annual event called “Open Studios” where people visit artists’ workplaces, inspect their output, and perhaps buy some. .

Some of these gold-plated aspiring artists are dabbling; others truly chase the white whale. Which they may never catch. You may shake your head, but you’ve got to respect it. And maybe, as with Ahab, the chase becomes everything.

Here’s a story: on the first Friday of every month, businesses and restaurants and galleries open for the evening and each displays the work of some local artist(s) of their choice. Some hire a band and offer food and refreshments, some don’t. It makes a nice excuse to roam around town, look at art, and drink a beer.

One Friday, Rhumba and I stopped wandered into one of these spaces, a restaurant.  The walls of three rooms were literally covered with hundreds of acrylic paintings, all from one artist.

And most of them were bad. The artist struggled with perspective. His lines were too heavy: some of then looked as if he chiseled them in. True, the prices were super-reasonable. But most of the work shouldn’t have been shown.

We gently asked the restauranteur, an acquaintance, WTF? And she introduced us to a six-foot-tall, 13-year-old girl with braces. Who told us a story.

Her parents had just purchased a house from a wealthy man who pursued painting as a hobby. He took lessons for years, and painted for years. Then he left town for the Sierras. An agent sold the house for him.

When the girl’s parents took possession, they looked into the far corners of the basement for the first time and found 500 paintings, some as large as three feet by four. Five hundred reject landscapes. And yet the artist kept going. And going.

I can only hope that he painted 600 or 700 paintings, and took the best ones with him. But we’ll never know.

Anyway, the parents had given their 13-year-old full freedom to try to sell the paintings for valuable life experience and, hopefully, some cash. Hence this large, strange exhibit hosted by a restauranteur who was a family friend.

Rhumba and I like an art bargain, and we’re pretty good at finding them. So we scrutinized every one of those 500 paintings to see if even one was worthwhile. A few were; I think the artist had had a few good days, or really did improve as he went along. We finally settled on a watercolor:


By the time the artist had painted this one, his lines and perspective were almost under control. The painting is of a road my wife and I could very well have walked down: a sandy farm road through coastal artichoke fields, with a windbreak of eucalyptus in the background. It’s a classic Central Coast tableau, yet one rarely painted.

It’s not “pretty.” But if you’ve lived in these parts awhile, you have that painting in your blood: the sandy soil, the eucalyptus; the smell of salt and a white sky full of marine mist. You know that the ocean lies beyond the distant trees.

Fifteen dollars? Sold. It may well have been the only painting sold that night. We got it a cheap frame. It hangs in our bedroom. We like it. Somewhere out there the artist still chases his whale, perhaps, and you know? He could be closing in on it.

Out in the garage, my thrifted art collection slowly grows. Hodge-podge as it is, I have a true fondness for it. You can talk of good work or bad, good technique or amateur bungling; but the personal connections I make through art are what really make it work for me: the remembrance of dark fog flowing in over neighborhoods, or of hiking down dusty farm roads, or of pretty girls playing pretty music with solemn gravity. And sometimes, a certain mix of colors and proportions alone are enough to make make some aesthetic center in my brain go “Sproing!”

The ten thousand artists of Santa Cruz County keep painting. Perhaps someday, even if by coincidence alone, they’ll come up with something right for you. And if you find it at Goodwill? Don’t be a snob.