Friday, May 27, 2016

The Jester

I was at the southwest counter of the trading post, returning folk art to the case, when I saw a full size Chevy Silverado with Texas plates pull up in front of the trading post. A pickup truck with Texas tags usually means Texans, right? Nope, not this time. I guessed something was amiss when I saw a tall, gangly, dark complexioned man dressed in cycling garb and peppered with tattoos exit the driver's side of the vehicle. "Humph!" he doesn't look like a cowboy to me," I mumbled to myself. Steve and Priscilla both looked up, but they were busy with their own work so my comment didn't hold their attention. Just then a petite maiden dressed in jeans, black velvet slippers and a purple silk camisole dropped to the ground on the passenger side. "Mismatch," I murmured again. This time my coworkers ignored me completely.

Navajo Cowboy Rooster Cottonwood Carving - Matthew Yellowman (#384)

With her designer sunglasses and cosmopolitan air, the woman could have been from anywhere. Because of the guy's cycling Lycra and all that ink, I was skeptical he was from anywhere with an abundance of ropes and saddles. "Europeans?" I don't believe I have ever seen European's driving a super-sized pick-up truck. "This should be interesting," I mumbled. "You have got to stop talking to yourself," Steve said, "or people will start talking about you." I reminded Steve he was generally the top topic of controversial conversation in and around Bluff. He just smiled and moved on.

The couple came in through the Kokopelli doors and began to peruse. As the woman bent over the counter to get a closer look at something therein, I noticed she had ink of her own. As the camisole rode-up her back, an elaborate section of colorful tattoo revealed itself above the top of her jeans. As she stood to move on, she swished her brown hair to the side and more ink appeared at the top of her blouse and up the nape of her neck. "Better not to ask what it is," I said as I moved past Priscilla. Looking-up from her work, she inquired, "What are you talking about?" "No worries," I said, "it is time to crack this nut." What I meant was it was time to start a conversation and see if there was a story to be had.

It only took one comment about his truck to get the guy talking. It seemed he was as eager to speak to us as we were to him. The couple was from Germany, and when I asked the big guy how he came to be driving such an oversized rental vehicle I discovered the reason behind that and much, much more. The wiry and weathered man did not speak much English, but he was not adverse to trying and his wife turned-out to be his personal translator/dictionary. As the little lady cruised the store, her husband began to explain. In broken English he told me they used one of the Internet travel sites to rent a compact car. Upon their arrival in Dallas, there were no small cars available. Seeing the size of her customer, the lady behind the desk said in a Texas drawl, "An itty-bitty car ain't for you sir, what you need is somethin' built for a re-e-eal man." Then she up-sold our tourist friend into the Silverado.

Our new German buddy was quite energetic about his story telling. He spoke so little English he would often hesitate and take a moment to decipher what to say and how to say it. Between his verbal expressions he would become animated, moving his extremities about in all manner of ways and making strange noises. Between odd facial expressions, creative hand and arm movements, body jerks and slight but distinctive dance steps, he would make the noises. Snap, Crackle and Pop had nothing on this guy; he had an entire repertoire of sound bites that highlighted his speech and actions.

At first, tallboy's little woman seemed to be oblivious of his showboating high jinx. She simply surveyed the cases; seemingly content to admire what was under the glass. Occasionally the cumbersome comedian would not be able to pull-up the appropriate word to complete his thought. He would then call out to his companion and give her the word in German. Without looking-up or hesitating in the least, his partner would fill in the gap and our jesting friend would go on with his story. It seemed she was paying close attention after all and had a very good grasp of our native tongue.

We learned he used to be a semi-professional cyclist, loved Lance Armstrong, was 50 years old and now made a living delivering messages on his bicycle in Hamburg. His wife was slightly younger, had a good job with the government and kept him around because he entertained her. He was a kept man. I attempted to get more insight into how he pulled that off, but Her Majesty clicked her tongue and it was time for them to go. Too bad I thought, if I would have had more time I might have discovered how to convince Laurie to "keep” me. Maybe it all starts with a small tattoo? As the couple drove away in their Silverado, I realized we all enjoy a talented jester and when his queen supports him, all is well with the world. Shortly after they left, I noticed Steve looking up tattoo sites on Google. Apparently he had been paying more attention than I thought.

With warm regards Barry Simpson and the team.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Makin’ History

Grange is just finishing his sophomore year in high school and, thinking he can do everything at once, competes in both tennis and track during spring semester. Since Barry and Priscilla are good sports, I am able to attend all Grange’s matches and meets, which are scattered from one end of the state to the other. As a consequence, I am often absent from the trading post for days at a time. Recently, as I sat in the bleachers of Carbon High School awaiting the start of Grange's 1600-meter race, shivering in the blustery wind, I received a text from Barry. He was working with a videographer who wanted to film Navajo basket weavers for a project commissioned by the Utah Office of Tourism. Since Twin Rocks Trading Post is central to the contemporary Navajo basketry movement, Barry was asked to arrange a meeting with Mary Black and her daughter Lorraine, which he had done.

Having completed her interviews with those Navajo basket-making legends, the filmmaker suggested Barry contact Joann Johnson to see if she would come in as well. Since Barry had already spent a considerable sum securing Mary and Lorraine’s cooperation, he was reluctant to allocate additional resources towards Joann’s participation. Consequently he wanted my input. “Bring her in”, I replied, “we’re not makin’ money, we’re makin’ history!” He wryly retorted, “Why am I not surprised by that response?”

Barry is the fiscal conservative in this trading partnership and I am the spendthrift. My motto has always been, “Have bucks will spend! Have no bucks, . . . will still spend.” Surely that is why the trading post is in a constant cash flow crisis, and why Barry is forever fretting about our economic future. When Elsie Holiday brings in a basket, we buy it. When Gabriel Benally arrives with a large Navajo rug, we make the deal. When Alice Cling delivers a batch of Navajo pottery, we shell out the cash. Our outgo universally exceeds our income. We are like a reverse black hole, a unique scientific anomaly. “We can always make more money”, I argue. Barry believes my logic is unsound, and probably dangerous. It breaks my heart to turn away an artist, and Barry does not like to see me cry. As a result, despite his predictions of impending doom, when it comes to this issue I generally prevail. I long ago concluded Twin Rocks Trading Post is destined to be nothing more than a conduit, a pass-through. At this location money never sticks. If it did, our business model would break down and Barry and I would come undone, or at least I would. I often counsel Barry that during the Great Recession of 2008, we were likely the only things keeping the economy from total collapse. He thinks I may be right.
Gabriel Benally

Barry often applies Navajo ideals to explain unusual situations arising at the trading post. For example, he is extremely fond of the Navajo phrase “hozho,” which is said to illustrate one of the most important principles in Navajo culture. The term is loosely translated as peace, balance, beauty and harmony. To be in hozho is to be at one with the world around you. I have often heard Barry explain to our customers that hozho is a consideration of natural laws, the world, man, the universe, time, space, creation, growth, motion, order, control and the eternal cycle of life. He typically follows up by saying, “The word is so far-reaching it is virtually impossible to translate into English.” Knowing his weakness for all things Navajo, I shamelessly use his knowledge against him, contending his business conservatism and my financial liberalism balance each other out, placing us in perfect equilibrium, in hozho. “Why then is our bank account always in the red”, he asks. “RED”, I respond, “Is the color of rebirth, life, faith and happiness.” Pressing the point, I insist, "We are in a constant cycle of death and resurrection, with all the corresponding ups and downs. We are like born again Christians, financially reborn every week.” "You have to have faith”, I tell him, hoping to illicit a “hallelujah” or “amen”. They never come. Priscilla disregards our conversations unless they commence close to payday, then she gets worried.

Barry suggested the last time we attempted to pay the mortgage with “history" the bank balked. As one might guess, my memory was foggy on that particular incident. I was, however, concerned the auditors and regulators might indeed be uncomfortable with that arrangement, so I telephoned our local banker to get his thoughts. He wasted no time advising me history was not a traditional form of payment and would, therefore, not be acceptable. I countered by advising him Bitcoin was also a nontraditional form of payment, but had become all the rage in the electronic world. He thanked me for my time and said he had things to do.

As anyone who knows us will tell you, money has never been the primary motivator at Twin Rocks. Sure, we need cash to buy milk for the babies and pay rent, tuition and taxes, but, as Ayn Rand was known to say, “Money is only a tool.” “Yes”, Barry agreed when I reminded him of that fact, “but our tool chest is empty. We can’t build this house on history alone.” Priscilla seemed to agree, so I figured some homework was in order. I therefore went to Barry’s bookshelf and got out books relating to Southwest Indian traders. In the process of testing my theory I reviewed several monographs, including The Indian Traders by Frank McNitt; Rugs & Posts: The Story of Navajo Weaving and the Role of the Indian Trader by H.L. James; Indian Trader: The Life and Times of J.L. Hubbell by Martha Blue; Thomas Varker Keam: Indian Trader by Laura Graves and David M. Bruggee; and Tall Sheep: Harry Goulding, Monument Valley Trader by Samuel Moon. Amazingly, there was not a single balance sheet, income statement or bank account mentioned in any of these treatises. There was, however, history galore, so I concluded Barry and Priscilla would be impressed with my findings. They were not.

As I laid out my hypothesis, Barry looked at Priscilla and said, “Well, that’s it, next time you get paid in history.” Priscilla wrinkled her forehead, scrunched her nose and replied sarcastically, “Just make sure it's history printed with portraits of dead presidents, or Harriet Tubman."

With warm regards Steve Simpson and the team.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Filters, or not.

Two elderly ladies were moving around the perimeter of our bullpen, perusing the cases containing our merchandise. One, a tall, thin, stately woman was emitting quiet noises of appreciation as she observed the treasures under glass. I was sitting behind the counter on our high stool, looking for an opportunity to open a dialogue. Steve and I have an unwritten rule that states, "Never, ever ask anyone where he or she are from when initiating conversation." That is the easy opening, people hear it everywhere they go and are seldom impressed by it. We do our best to get to know the: who, what, where, when, why and how of folks soon after they walk through the Kokopelli doors. Hopefully without asking too many foolish questions.

We have discovered people often project their personality and interests by what they wear or the car they drive. How they speak or the manner in which they express themselves can help determine even more about them; where they’re from, their interests and if there is any chance of introducing them to the world of American Indian art. If we cannot get their attention with turquoise and silver, we try something else. Around the store are placed little conversation starters like a pea knife, a coyote trap set to spring, silversmith tools, old cobalt colored bottles and whatever else we can imagine to spark their interest and get a verbal reaction. From the minute people cross our threshold, Steve, Priscilla and I begin gathering information. Like mini, albeit antiquated, computers we start the analyzing algorithms.

From our father, "Daddy Duke," we have also learned that an off the wall statement works wonders if you are trying to elicit a response. "When all else fails boys," he has often told us, "hit 'em where they least expect it." Many times we have heard our father say things that make us cringe. If the comments had come from us we would have been slapped or slugged, but Duke has a knack for presentation. People often say, "What a character your father is." What I would expect to hear is, "Do you know what your dad said to me? Well, I never!" I hate to admit it, but Steve and I have begun to wander that jocular mine field as well.

Just the other day I was working in my office while Steve was hammering away on the trading post computer. He was attempting to write one of his biweekly missives when I heard the doorbell chime. A man with a German accent said, "Don't stop what you are doing, we’re just looking around." "That's all right," said Steve, "I'm just writing." "What are you writing?" asked the man. Steve replied, "Oh, I am trying to write the next great American novel. Have you heard of James Michener? I am inspired by him." "That's great," came back the accented reply, "How far along are you?" "Well" said Steve, "I have three paragraphs." The man and a woman laughed out loud and said, "Only 937 pages to go, good luck." From that point the conversation was bright and vibrant; everyone had a good time.

We meet a lot of interesting people here at Twin Rocks Trading Post, visitors from all over the world and from extraordinarily different circumstances. Just yesterday Priscilla and I met Walle, The Worlds Ugliest Dog-2013. He came through the Kokopelli doors in a baby carriage pushed by his "parents." Walle is a duck-footed beagle; boxer and basset hound mix with a camel-like hump on his back and a head several times larger than normal. Leave it to Californians to come-up with such an unusual competition. Walle was on his way to visit a special neurologist to see if something couldn't be done about, his condition. I suggested he might also, become the most costly dog in the world. "Whatever it takes," said his parents.

Back to the ladies: As our appreciative guest came even with me she said, "You are making me drool." "Me?" I replied, "Why thank you, I haven't had that effect on anyone for a very long time." The woman stopped in her tracks and stared at me, trying to get her mind around the comment. I cocked my head, smiled and winked to let her know I was kidding. The woman's friend, who had been trailing behind, snorted so hard I had to pass her a Kleenex to help get her back in order. The first lady smiled politely, and even chuckled a little, then continued on her way. The companion cleaned herself up and told me she and her prim and proper friend had been traveling together three weeks now and she had not laughed or smiled the entire trip. "Thank you," she said.

By the time the ladies departed we knew a great deal more about them, including the ins and outs of their learned world and marital situation. Both were single, librarians from Pittsburgh taking the trip of a lifetime. At this phase in our lives, with the experience we have, Steve and I should have a degree in sociology. As with many degrees, maybe we can fill out a form, pay $60.00 and get one on the Internet. As the ladies drove away Priscilla said, "That was an odd comment." "Yeah, I know, but did you see her blow up?" "Filters," said Priscilla, "If you guys loose your filters, it is going to get weird around here. Next time, think before you speak."

With warm regards from Barry Simpson and the team.