My Catering Stories: Reflections in a Star of David Part 2

Sunday January 11, 2015
photo Tom Costner 1985

photo Tom Costner 1985

Back up at the house, Crystal headed to the Egyptian room to set up the tables and arrange the chairs and tablecloths. I stood for a moment assessing the space and walked into the living room. There were the muted sounds of people doing setup in other areas of the house. The caterer had arrived and I could hear pounding coming from large granite mortars and pestles; they were making fresh salsa for dinner.  The living room, with sectional floor to ceiling windows on two walls looking out at the front yard, gave a feeling of blurring the line between indoor and outdoor.  It was empty except for a long narrow couch and the table.  In the corner stood a large stuffed gorilla, brought from the Fillmore Auditorium. That gorilla greeted concert goers for years inside the entrance at the top of the stairs.

In one corner was an atrium area filled with soil and indoor plants. There was a man on one knee, with his back to me, busily transplanting a plant with the greenery in his left hand and a small trowel in his right.  He was dark haired and wore very loose, spanking-clean white pants and a black t-shirt.  Completely nondescript.  He stood up and looked at me with his head slightly bowed forward. He had piercing eyes that immediately connected with me.

“Who are you?” he asked pointedly with a subtle pout to his full lips.

“My name is Beth Hensperger and I am here to do the table setup for Mimi,” I replied.

“Let me call my man and he can handle all that for you,” he said briskly and authoritatively.

“Oh, I am able to handle it all myself, don’t worry, but thank you anyway,” I replied slightly less briskly and with my own air of authority, punctuating it with a small smile.

He instantly relaxed and his face broke into a wide soft smile, saying, “Okay. I’m Bill.”

“I thought so. Nice to meet you, Bill, and thank you for having us in your home,” I said as I offered him my hand in greeting. We shook hands and spent a long moment assessing each other eye to eye, half smile to half smile. He turned and disappeared down the hall, giving me nonverbal permission to get to work.

I stood for a moment. What had taken me by surprise was that photographs did not do this man justice. Bill Graham had a fierce reputation in a business populated with characters straight out of characterville. He looked short, dark, aggressive, bossy, and manipulative, albeit efficient, in one-dimensional images. In person, he emanated alot of warmth and a soft-edged assertiveness that was not invasive in any way. It was melded with a self-assured, unaffected projected energy that pooled close to his body that would be labeled charisma and self-confidence. He had lots of natural electricity, an apparent keen intellect, and a startling loving kindness in his gestures. He was also simply the sexiest man I had ever met. Ever.

graham with robert plant mid 1980s

I took the time to glance around the empty adjoining room, where the entertainers would later perform.  It contained an upright honky tonk piano against the wall.  Over the piano was a black and white poster-sized studio-posed photo of Janis Joplin and her band, Big Brother and the Holding Company, in the plainest of frames. It had frozen the beautiful essence of the youthful 60s culture–the hair, the clothes, the expressions of contentment and hope, staring out into the camera.

I turned around to walk back to the living room and there on the section of wall that separated the walkways into the room, was a plexiglass case jutting out containing Janis’ microphone.  Above it was a lovely portrait of her.  It was incredibly simple.

As I walked out, I glanced down the long hall that reached to the back of the house. One side of the hall was an unbroken solid wall; lining the wall were small plexiglass frames, each containing a dried flower arrangement, sort of like little bridal bouquets. I stepped over to read the inscriptions below. They were bouquets that commemorated different civic and personal awards given to Bill over the decades.  There were dozens of them stretching down the hall.  This man was sentimental.

I was able to finish the centerpieces before guests began to arrive. They not only looked great, but had an aroma of sweet wheat bread mingled with the fresh floral. Whoever sat near them would enjoy that.

It was balmy for a February day and I wandered outside into the dusk.  The pool was set down a level into the hill and it was like entering an overgrown magical secret forest, thick with moss and vibrantly green. It was still, like a pond, brackish and green from algae.  No swimmers would brave that water.  There was a catering assistant grilling large shrimp and meat kabobs on the lawn.  We were alone and the food smelled good in the fresh air.  As I stood next to him, he asked me if I was Mrs. Graham.

“Oh good grief no,” I replied laughing.

“You just seem like you belong here,” he said. “Kinda in charge.”

“Nope, I’m just like you,” I said. We both laughed.

I went back inside and sat down on the couch next to a woman. We started chatting and it ended up she was taking creative writing classes. I was having my first cookbook published in the next year, so we talked shop.  Mimi came over and introduced us. It was her mother.

“Joan couldn’t be here tonight. She is touring in Europe,” she said. “That girl had quite a lucrative career at one time. She spent her money like water back then and can’t do that anymore. She bought friends cars and tons of shoes. She still has all those shoes though. She loves shoes.”

We laughed. Joan Baez had been performing locally for years in a pair of stunning red boots. Red shoes are well known to be a nonverbal statement proclaiming I Am Woman. That axiom definitely fit Joan and her style of singing.

mimi farina performing 1960s

mimi farina performing 1960s

We ended up sitting there, quite simply the most comfortable place available, even eating our dinners on our laps.  The entertainment began and people were relaxed and satisfied.  Bill circulated and talked to everyone it seemed. I was hoping Mimi would play guitar and sing something like I Am A Poor Wafaring Stranger, but she let the other performers shine that night.

Later in the evening, Crystal hurried over to me, breathless. “You will never guess what I said to Bill,” she said.  I think my inbreath caught in my chest.  Crystal was known for being unpredictable where men were concerned, so anything was possible.

“What?” I asked hesitantly.

“Well, I just went up to him and said that I knew there were three things in the universe that were of the utmost importance to him, that made him tick. God, sex, and methane, in that order.” She looked very proud of herself.

I froze. Oh dear, and while we were guests in his house. “How did he respond to that, Crystal?” I asked.

“He looked very serious,” she giggled, excited that she had made contact that pierced the veil of propriety that normally exists with people you’ve met for the first time.

She drifted off into the crowd. I let my eyes search for Bill. I needed to do damage control immediately in case he was insulted.

Bill was standing alone, looking inwardly contemplative, leaning back against the kitchen stove with his arms crossed. I slowly approached him.

“Bill, my friend just told me what she said to you.  Please excuse her forwardness and let me apologize if need be,” I said.

He looked up at me, with a look of sadness. “It’s no problem, don’t worry at all. God, sex, and methane. Frankly, what she said is true.” He sighed and we both paused in silence.

“This last year building the amphitheater has been one of the worst in my life, one thing after another. I wish I never started the project,” he said with a tone of resignation. He was referring to Shoreline Amphitheater. It had been built on the old Mountain View dump and bubbles of gas were seeping into the air from concentrated pockets of accumulated organic compounds below ground.  During a concert there had been fiery flames shooting up from the grass area packed with people smoking.  The city and Bill were locked in a complex legal battle. That problem had to be solved for the safety of future concert goers.

memorial concert for bill

I couldn’t think of anything appropriate to say on that subject since it was so sensitive of one, so we just exchanged some small talk while the music played on.

At the end of the evening, Bill was standing near the door. I gathered my things and approached him while we would still be alone.

“Thank you, Bill, for a wonderful evening. In case we never meet again, I will always remember you as a most kind and gracious host.”

He looked at me with a soft inquisitiveness and became so still that I could feel his breathing. He moved his head very close, whispering. “You certainly are most welcome,” he said slowly. “But I have to say, in my entire life, no one has ever said that to me.  Called me anything like that. Kind or gracious. This is the first time. I never think of myself like that. Thank you.” Then he pulled back and started laughing. “Just remember–God, sex, and methane.”

The limousine pulled up, I crossed his hexagram, and was gone.

Years later I was watching the 11 o’clock news. Bill was killed that night returning to Marin over San Pablo Bay when his private helicopter hit high-voltage electrical wires. It hit me in the chest. A member of the family commented what a tragedy it was; how he was just getting the next chapter of life together with new business ventures and a new relationship. I grieved silently like I lost a close friend.

Mimi and I kept up a casual correspondence and spoke a few times over the subsequent years. She sent me a nice official Bread and Roses letterhead thanking me for my contribution, signed by all the staff. I sent her a copy of my cookbook to give to Joan, Sr.  We said we would find another function to work together again, but it was not to be.

When I heard she was battling cancer, I sent her a subtly and vibrantly colored card that was designed to open like a Chinese screen.  For a while we wrote back and forth, with no mention of her struggle, just light-hearted thises and thats in a few lines. She retired from the daily running of Bread and Roses.

Finally one day I felt like it was time to write the last card. At the end of my message I said, “Don’t write back this time, conserve your strength. Know you are loved by people you never met.” Within a week, I heard she had passed away.

Her Bread and Roses is still thriving.

mr and mrs richard farina/the late 1960s


Cornucopia of Bread

Your Comments

4 comments Comments Feed
  1. Beth 01/04/2015 at 4:22 am

    think of you often shanna…hope you are well.

  2. Melinda 22/05/2015 at 8:55 pm


    I came into here to try to find that wonderful little cheese cracker recipe, remember them? I found this instead…what a truly wonderful story!! So nice to meet up with you again albeit here. So many fond memories. Be well my friend, Melinda P.S. Where in the heck is that cracker recipe??

  3. Beth 24/08/2015 at 10:51 am

    describe the cracker to me…was it at a catering gig? what year and where? thanks for visiting…some fun stuff to read…I wish I wrote more of the catering stories. time marches on…

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