Thursday, November 13, 2008

I Went To Staten Island, Sharon

As a long time Joni Mitchell fan–and active participant on the Joni Mitchell Discussion List website (JMDL)–I was fascinated by a recent post from Chuck Eisenhardt, addressing Joni's "Song For Sharon" and the line, "I went to Staten Island, Sharon, to buy myself a mandolin," off her 1976 Hejira album. In his post, Chuck wrote about “an excerpt
from Tim Brookes' most excellent book, 'Guitar, an American Life':

While [George] Gruhn was getting started in Nashville, Stan Jay–an immensely likable, irrepressibly cheerful guy looking exactly like an elf supervisor in Santa's workshop–was selling instruments out of his apartment on the waterfront in Staten Island. ‘You had to walk up a narrow stairway papered in that deep textured wine red that one generally associates with certain houses in New Orleans. One stepped from the landing into our showroom, that anybody else would call their living room. On the left was the dining room, with the 1920's round oak lion's-claw table. About 50 guitars, banjos, and mandolins hung from three walls. On the outside wall, they were positioned over a circa 1900 rococo upholstered couch, on which Joni Mitchell fell in love with the 1915 Gibson K-4 mandocello that inspired her to write that legendary song to her friend, about going to Staten Island 'to buy myself a mandolin.”’

I was excited to find this true story behind one of my favorite songs. Being an explorer at heart, and always up for a road trip, I decided to retrace Joni’s steps on her visit–and the experience that influenced the song–by visiting the shop on Staten Island myself.
After exchanging a few emails with Stan Jay, President of Mandolin Bros., and talking with him on the phone, I learned some interesting facts:

“Yes, the building that Joni and her photographer, Joel, visited in 1976 is still standing. One room at the old shop address, 580 Bay St.., 2nd Fl., was where my original partner, Hap Kuffner, lived. We had rented a four-room space, a one story walk-up. It had a kitchen, a living room–which was the main showroom–a workshop room and, in the fourth room, Hap’s digs. It was a good place to start a new business. We were there for only 4 years, 5 months. Joni visited at around the 4 years, 2 months point. The entrance was the first door on the side of the building on Union Place. It overlooked Bay Street from the front windows, Union Place from the kitchen. When one walked upstairs from the street, the wallpaper had those large velour flowers with the flat spaces between the petals. For all I know it might still have that wallpaper. Some customers used to whistle “The House of the Rising Sun” as they came up. Stephen Stills and Graham Nash came up that stairway, so did Dave Van Ronk. It is across the street from a freestanding Citibank branch and when we occupied that space, we were upstairs from a Household Finance office. Our customers used to kid us that they could visit, walk downstairs to either institution, get a loan and then come back upstairs to make their purchase. I don’t think, though, that this actually ever happened.”

The lower floor of that building is currently being used by a sign company.
The location is about a third of a mile south of the Staten Island ferry terminal, where Joni apparently landed after boarding in lower Manhattan.
There is also a train station a block away that people could take
from the ferry terminal, if they didn't feel like walking.

Since the 9-11 terrorist attacks, and the destruction of the Trade Center, the ferry no longer takes cars on board (as it did in 1976, when Joni wrote,
"Big boat chuggin' back with a belly full of cars...")
but passengers now ride for free (the biggest bargain in New York City)!

Well, I guess Joni is the only one who will remember if she
actually went there intending to buy a mandolin that day,
but she actually bought two items:
the Gibson Mandocello (described above), which is a
large instrument–the size of a standard guitar–and
a 1913 Martin 000-28 Herringbone guitar.

(A new Norman Blake replication, similar to the
1913 Martin 000-28 Herringbone that Joni purchased in 1976)

(Joni, with her Mandocello;
photo ©1976 by Stan Jay).

Stan gave me (and my friend, Bob) a tour of what he calls his “three cubic acres" of fretted instruments (referring to Uncle Scrooge's money bin, in the old Walt Disney comics). There are a half-dozen rooms filled with guitars, mandolins, banjos and bass's hanging from the walls and on floor racks. There were some beautiful instruments scattered about, all works of art in their own right, but some more spectacular than others. There were several other potential customers throughout the store, inspecting or sitting down to play as the spirit moved them.

(Just a small sample of acoustic guitars at
Mandolin Brothers.)

It’s rare to find someone who actually loves their job but Stan is one of those lucky few who has spent the past thirty years enjoying his passion for music and instruments by making a living from it. Occasionally, Stan–or his friend George Hergen–would take an instrument off the wall or rack and proceed to play a tune for us. They both seemed quite proficient and Stan admits he'll "play out" if someone asks. I wondered if we might convince him to attend the next JoniFest. I'm sure we could coax some rare stories out of him.

(Stan Jay, President of Mandolin Brothers.)

Don Whiteman, another Joni fan from Sydney, Australia, visited Mandolin Brothers in August 2005. He said, “I wanted to buy a Mandolin and Stan (the owner/manager) took time to walk me through the entire building taking down each mandolin and playing a few bars of Rhapsody in Blue (and me a sucker for Gershwin).”

(Mandolin Brothers' current location:
629 Forrest Avenue, Staten Island, NY.
For more information, check out

All photos © 2007 by Ken Bausert
unless otherwise noted.

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Friday, November 7, 2008

Fiesta Americana at Cabo San Lucas

When a couple of good friends of ours told us they would use their points to book a two-bedroom suite in Cabo, and that all we would need to do is purchase our airfare, well... that’s an offer we couldn’t refuse!

Bob couldn’t book us into a particular hotel that he had originally planned on but he managed to get us into the FiestAmericana Resort; he had never been there before so he wasn’t sure what to expect. It was about a twenty-five minute drive down the main highway from the airport, through several old, tiny, dusty towns along the way, until we reached our resort. At this point on the peninsula, the area is known as the “tourist corridor”, and numerous new resorts have recently been built.

When we arrived at the main entrance, the valets met us, unloaded the car, then took it away to a parking garage. A young woman named Regina greeted us and escorted us into the main lobby where a tray of hot, moist towels were offered to us. I took one, unrolled it and used it to wipe my face; it felt really soothing and was a welcome treat after getting up at 5:30 AM, and traveling for twelve hours by that time
After checking in, Regina introduced us to the resort. Among other things, she asked if we’d like to take a timeshare tour while we were there. Bob said that he’d like to take the tour since he might be able to buy additional points for his current account.

Regina told us that if we all took the tour, she’d give us a $220 voucher toward paying for our rental car plus $220 to use anyway we wanted at our resort (drinks at the pool, lunch, dinner at the restaurant) and, she’d throw in discounts at their Italian restaurant, the spa for a message, and free all-you-can-eat gourmet breakfasts worth $27 for each of us. We decided to go on the tour the next morning.

It turned out our resort was located right on The Sea Of Cortez, about fifteen miles north of the actual “old town” of Cabo San Lucas. There’s a beautiful long beach but a lot of rocks make it difficult to swim there. On the other hand, there are five large swimming pools throughout the grounds (one has a swim-up bar) and about seven hot tubs scattered about; almost every place you go has a view of the sea. The grounds are well-appointed with palm trees and flowers through picturesque pathways. All about are plenty of tables and chairs, recliners, and palapas–those open-sided umbrella-shaped huts–providing shade; there are also countless service people around to help you with anything you need. It’s relatively new and they’re adding more accommodations to an already large expanse of buildings. We were offered a ride to the building our rooms were in via a golf cart.

Our suite was located on the third floor of a building built on a hillside; each building and each floor is higher than the ones to the east so everyone has a view of the sea and sunrise from their rooms. Our place had a large central living/dining room and kitchen, flanked by Doris and Bob’s master bedroom and bath on one side, and our “studio” on the other. Our room had two double beds, our own full marble bathroom, and a small kitchenette (microwave, refrigerator, and sink) suitable for someone to rent separately from the rooms next door, if necessary.

Opening the sliding doors at the end of our room afforded us a grand view of the property, beach and the sea, over a wrought-iron railing, but no balcony. The main room next door, however, featured a balcony large enough for the four of us to sit out on, sipping our wine and indulging in various snacks. We soon realized that the whales came so close to shore in this area that we could see them spouting and flipping their tails about, right from our balcony or the area around the swimming pools.

The $27 breakfast was unbelievable! The variety of food was immense, the facility and service was excellent, and it was free for taking the tour. During the course of our tour, I mentioned to our time share rep, Walt, that I would love to swim in the Sea of Cortez but the rocks on the resort’s beach seemed dangerous. He told me of a better beach less than a mile or so up the road to the north. It turned out to be a great beach, with clean sand and water, no rocks to worry about, and very few people around.

We had dinner at the onsite Italian restaurant, Rosario. Part of the timeshare tour deal was getting a 30 % discount at this place and it was certainly a worthwhile offer. The food was sumptuous (I had Osso Bucca lasagna), the decor elegant, and a piano player serenaded us while we ate; his selections were beautiful and not so loud as to distract from our table conversation.

While hanging out at one of the pools after we returned from San José del Cabo one day, we asked our poolside waiter, Adolfo, if he could recommend someplace really authentic for us to go for Mexican food. “Where do the locals go?” we wondered.

“Oh, you’ve got to go to Las Guacamayas for the ‘dollar tacos’,” Adolfo told us. It was in Cabo San Lucas, on José Ma. Morelos street, near where Avenida de la Juventud crosses... I think. We eventually found it and were glad we did. Lots more than just tacos; all very good and cheap.

One day, around lunchtime, I decided to order some food poolside. I was quite impressed; the burger was huge–at least a half-pounder– and the fixings were great, including some very tasty french-fries. I’m always a bit sceptical when ordering food outside at a place like this, thinking it will be cold by the time I get it. I had nothing to worry about; not only was it hot when the waiter brought it, it was delicious!

A couple of days later, I ordered the hot wings. I figured the burger was so good, maybe they also had killer wings. Sure enough, when the hot wings arrived, I found them to be just spicy enough and really tasty.

Overall, I can't say a bad thing about the Fiesta Americana or the trip in general. I'll try to post a separate review on Los Cabos, in general, but If anyone has any questions about the resort or activities in the area, I'm always willing to offer any help or suggestions that I can.

(All photos © 2008 by Ken Bausert)

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