Easy Come, Easy Go

It’s Jeff Lynch’s third day behind the bar at the Green Door Tavern.

“We’re definitely an old school joint!”

He glides back and forth from tap to register, at once jovial and relaxed.

His usual title is general manager, but today he’s pinch hitting as bartender.

A Reds fan and Cincinnati kid born and raised, Jeff studied accounting and moved to Chicago in 1999 after landing a job in real estate.  Later, the company Jeff worked for bought the Green Door Tavern.

“With the downturn, I was losing productivity,” says Jeff about real estate. “So I went to the managers and said, ‘Hey, we’re paying this company to manage the Green Door for us. I can do it. I’m good with people. I’m good with numbers. I’m good with everything. Just pay me a little bit of an increase. I’ll do this real estate stuff, and I’ll do bar stuff.’

“My dad owned convenience stores in Cincinnati. And I think my entrepreneurial background with my dad kind of helped me know that I like to shoot the shit… bleep that out!” he smiles…”rather than dealing with real estate and buildings.”

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Once you’ve passed through the crooked original green door bearing the number 678, you’ve already time-traveled. The vibe is relaxed, yet lively, and the decor is sort of clean country cabin meets antique controlled chaos. Signs, billboards, pictures, mirrors, lamps, wooden bar, pool table. It’s very cool as a stand alone, but it’s the basement below that tells the full story of the green door.

“Back in the days of Prohibition, if your door was painted green, that meant you had bootlegged liquor inside.”

Go down the back stairs and you’ll find giant antique circus canvases and artwork in faded hues that will transport you to an era long past. Leather saddles drape the small wooden stage railing and dramatic lighting makes you feel you’re in an establishment once forbidden.

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For a time, that was true.

Prohibition gave birth to a liquor-producing underworld and the advent of the speakeasy. Some say there is truth to the legend that mobster, bootlegger and florist Dean O’Banion’s North Side Gang hung out in the space beneath the Green Door Tavern. That may have ended when bad blood between O’Banion and the Chicago Outfit run by Johnny Torrio and Al Capone led to O’Banion’s murder … as the story goes …  shot dead as he cut chrysanthemums in his flower shop near the Holy Name Cathedral.

“It is one of the best private party rooms in the city. Has to be. You’ve got the atmosphere and the decor and the history.

“My wedding was actually here!” Jeff is quickly back to his 2012 wedding to wife, Sue, who he met at the Green Door.

“We entered off the street through the speakeasy. People dropped their gifts. We had a champagne line here,” he says, pointing to the bar. “They grabbed their champagne, went up the stairs and the whole place was set up!”

Like a stream-of-consciousness sparkling memory, the words flow:

“It was the best day of my life… it was awesome… it was so much fun… linen table cloths … flowers… it looked like a million bucks in here!”

Jeff is nodding and smiling, proud yet humble.

“It was cool.”

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He pulls two draught beers for a couple of sun-baked Australian guys who belly up to the bar and make a day of it at the Green Door. So much for the other places on their pub crawl. They found everything they wanted in this old place.

The Prohibition-era mobsters make for a rich historical fabric, but there’s more.

“It was built after the fire …” says Jeff, referencing the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.

You may recall, that deadly blaze started one October night in the barn of Patrick and Catherine O’Leary. By the time it was over, according to the Chicago Historical Society, the heart of the city was devastated, at least 300 people had died, 100,000 people were made homeless and $200 million worth of property was destroyed.

“After the fire …” he continues, “… and before the ordinance that said you can’t have free-standing commercial wood structures in downtown Chicago.

“So we are in fact the last…

“In the middle of high rises and million dollar condos, night clubs and fancy bars, we’re just a regular old place. And that is the key to us.

“We’re not a hoity-toity place where if we have four-top tables and a group of six comes in and moves the tables together, we’re not going to …

“Just go ahead! Sit down. Drink and chill out.”

Some say it’s Chicago’s oldest establishment — but that is up for debate, and for many people, it’s just semantics.

“We’re the oldest tavern, for sure,” says Jeff. Some say the Berghoff carries that distinction. “I think they’re older, but they are not considered a tavern.

“We’re definitely one of a kind. We’re definitely historic. And we’re a Chicago institution.”

Country music filters through the room this Tuesday afternoon, mingling with iconic posters of Marilyn Monroe, neon signs, college team banners and stuffed hunting prizes.  As my eyes scan the room, the walls seem to rise and fall a little with each new discovery, like a living breathing document, one that holds secrets from the past while registering new information daily.

“Some people call us a dive bar. Some people call us a neighborhood tavern. Some people call us a saloon. We’re just here.

“We’re just here serving you drinks and food, and it’s a nice place to relax. You don’t need to dress up. You don’t need to be crazy.

“For the most part, I wouldn’t change anything.”

As I make my way toward the green door leading back onto Orleans street, a favorite and fitting country tune walks me out…..

Goodbye. Farewell. So long. Vaya con Dios. Good luck. Wish you well. Take it slow. Easy come, girl, easy go.

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Designing a New Future

Do you feel like you can exhale?

“Noooooo, not yet,” is the quick reply from Justin Hughes. “Not yet.”

Sitting on the floor of a Chicago gym surrounded by a forest of heavy bags, he is smiling and energized after teaching a boxing class.

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“I still wake up nervous.” He is more serious now. “Is a bullet gonna fly past me?”

The 25 year-old trainer and amateur MMA (mixed martial arts) fighter’s expression tells you he wants to exhale, but he can’t yet.

Justin grew up in South Chicago, where street signs delineate gang lines.

“We’re raised in a war zone, you know? You gotta learn how to survive while you’re trying to pursue your dreams.”

In that order.

“Surviving is more important than doing homework or track practice or going to the library, because you can get shot going to any of those.

“As a kid, I was a punk. I used to always get beat up. I had glasses. I was skinny. And I had no big brothers.” That meant no one to help him out in a fight. “No retaliation means they’re gonna do it again. And keep doing it.”

Wherever there is a void, something enters to fill it. Guys in the neighborhood did what they could to protect the young boy Justin from the streets.

“They used to tell me, ‘Go in the house, they’re about to start shooting.’ So, you know, I used to run in the house and then hear the gun shots.

And like many boys Justin knew, he didn’t have a father in his life.

“We can talk about me not having a dad. But that’s everybody!” he says, his arm sweeping wide. “Nobody had a dad.

“So we looked up to the guys in the neighborhood. They would make sure we stayed in school. We’d get punished if they’d see us ditching.”

As Justin got a little older, the ways they protected him became less parent, more peer.

“There’d be times where we’ll be fighting with other neighborhoods, and we’ll be sent to go shoot at them, and they’ll pick certain ones like, ‘no, you can’t go.'”

Sometimes Justin was among the ones who couldn’t go.

“It’s like being surrounded by water. And you’re trying to get to another land that you see over there.

“You gotta know how to swim. So eventually I had to dive into it. I had to learn how to swim with the sharks for a while.”

Even though his dad may have been absent, his mother was fully engaged.

“My mother is strong!” he smiles. “She’s like an Army general.

“And my mother was real strict. ‘Gotta be in the house before the street lights come on,'” she’d say. “And we used to have to ask to get water out of the refrigerator,” he laughs.  “I don’t see where THAT came in…”  But he understands what she was doing.

“There were a lot of kids that were very disrespectful to their mothers out there, and I guess she was making sure we would never EVER be like that. So it was good. She raised me good.”

Tough Times and Turning Points

The influence of people outside was growing. And darker days were coming.

“I kind of lost my way around 14,15. My mother definitely didn’t want me going down that path, as you can imagine.

“I’d come home with scratches, or the police would bring me home and tell my mom ‘your boy was fighting.'”

As Justin’s trouble increased, so did his mother’s pain. He remembers her crying. He remembers her trying to get through to him.

He didn’t want to listen. But she persisted.

“I’d go in the bathroom to take a shower, and there would be a letter there. She’d write me letters and leave them where I’d find them.

“They would say things like, ‘You need to slow down, son…'”

He stopped to think about that.

“That stuff always made me cry.”

He knew she cared, and beyond that, she was also highly intuitive when it came to Justin.

“I am inches and seconds away from getting into some crazy trouble,” he remembers. “And she’ll just call my cellphone. At first I’m ignoring her. But I can’t ignore my mom, because I’m in fear of her.”

So he’d answer, and hear her voice down the phone.

“‘What are you doing? Huh? What are you doing? Get back in the house!'”

Shaking his head, he smiles then laughs. There is a hint of awe.

“My mom is THE angel,” he beams. “I’m talking about THE number one angel!”

Justin’s mom, good grades and participation on sports teams kept Justin attached by a string to hard work and honest living. But increasingly he was marking time outside of school by more brushes with the law, violence, guns, selling drugs.

Even so, he graduated from prestigious Whitney Young Magnet High School in Chicago, then went away to Champaign for college.  He loved art class. His professors saw promise in him. A new day was beginning.

But old patterns followed Justin, and his world changed again: Felony possession of a defaced firearm.

“They gave me a two year suspension from school. There was a trial…”

And a little jail time.

Justin went home to Chicago. And back to the streets.

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“I had no direction. I was getting in trouble every day. Just selling drugs and surviving. My mom kicked me out a couple of times.

It was to the point where I was like, man, I gotta do SOMETHING, you know?”

When things were on the mend, you could find Justin at home on the couch, playfully fighting with his mom over the television remote control. His mom would win.

“I was sitting there watching HGTV, and I was like, ‘Mom, this is BORING’.

“After a while, I was like, ‘They should have made the kitchen THAT color. They should have put the towel over there.’

“And one day a light bulb clicked in my head, and I thought, ‘I might actually LIKE this stuff.’

“I had started learning about colors and color therapy and how colors make people feel, and I felt art was deeper than what the mind can see.

He thought to himself, “I might need to pursue this. What does this cost?” He got on the internet and he searched.

He sought out the Illinois Institute of Art.

And he got in.

“Art school was very expensive, and you gotta get art supplies. I was applying for jobs, but they weren’t coming quick enough.

“So I started selling drugs even harder. I was out at 6:30 in the morning. I needed money.  And I used that money to buy my books and art supplies.”

It got him through. That and a lot of hard work. Across his chest, a tattoo in all capital letters reads HARD WORK. Justin graduated with a bachelor’s degree in interior architecture.

“I feel like college is a good point for finding yourself. I felt like the professors I had really helped me — the way they related the lectures and the work to life.”

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New Direction

Justin is meeting new people and developing new interests. New passions are being revealed. He has a talent for MMA and has become an amateur fighter. He wants to win a title belt. He found he not only has an aptitude for boxing, but also for teaching the sport. He is a personal trainer. Instead of selling crack, he now makes his money at the gym. He has an apartment of his own. Justin is starting to think about dreams a little more and basic survival a little less.

His yesterdays are still not far away though. When he visits his mom, he walks a fine line with some people from his past.

“When I come back, I can feel some resentment. But it’s my home.

“I’m trying to drag some of the little guys out of that life. They still look up to me. They see some of the stuff that I’m doing now. And they have seen where I came from. So they listen to me sometimes.”

Wherever Justin can find success, he plans to use it to help young people.  

In martial arts: “I want to coach kids. I want them to be the best.”  In music: “I love making beats. I want to help kids make beats.”  In art: “If I get the chance to open my own design firm, I’d like to hire some kids as interns. I want to show them there’s other things than playing basketball and rapping.

“Now, it’s not about ‘What do I want to BE’. But ‘What do I want to CREATE?'”

Justin wants to dream a bigger dream for kids than they do for themselves.

A football coach once did that for him. In his senior year of high school, Justin was new to the sport. When the team’s middle linebacker got hurt, Justin says coach Tim Franken summoned him.

“‘I want you to play middle linebacker,'” he said. Justin’s voice jumps in disbelief at the memory. “I’m thinking, ‘What? I’m 5’7”, a hundred and some change, soaking wet!’

“Coach Franken said, ‘I think you got heart. I see it.’

“He instilled so much confidence in me in that one sentence. ‘I think you got heart. I think you can do it.’ I swear to God, I’ll remember that the rest of my life.”

He laughs a little, uplifted by the thought of it.

His laugh is contagious and bright and transcends hardship. And it is not a laugh “an ignorant fighter laughs who has never lost a battle”, as scripted by Carl Sandburg in his raw rich poem “Chicago”. It is a laugh of joy and battles hard fought, of new horizons in view and of promise. It is a laugh that, when unguarded, vibrates with the sound of youth.

“I’m not lightly breezing through life, but I’m not fighting myself spiritually anymore.  I feel like I made it through a very rough stormy part…

“But I think I still got a lot to go.”

Saddle Up and Ride

Michael Dean Williams shot out the windows on a row of empty parked cars. It was not his usual behavior. He was very angry at the world.

He wanted to be a police officer.  That was his dream. In the late 1980’s, at a police academy in Huntington Beach, California, Michael Dean was a cadet with a lot of promise.

Plus, he’d spent his entire childhood wide-eyed to his Dad’s exciting, dangerous, adrenaline-rich career in Los Angeles County law enforcement. He wanted to be like his Dad.

There was no backup plan. That was all he wanted. He only needed to pass the medical exam.  But the results of the exam shattered that dream: diabetes.

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It wasn’t new information. Michael Dean was 10 years old when he was diagnosed.

“My Mom had me checked, and next thing you know, you’re a diabetic, and you’ve got all these people around you. They’ve got oranges. They’re shoving needles in them trying to show you how to take a shot. And you’ve got my Dad, a 300-pound mountain man, laying on me while they’re trying to shove needles in my legs.”

Since that day, Michael Dean has had a pancreas and kidney transplant, triple bypass heart surgery and has lost the sight in his right eye. He takes anti-rejection medication, monitors his blood sugar and takes necessary insulin shots. He’ll tell you this is just stuff he’s had to deal with. It is not who he is.

“I’ve lived so much life around the medical stuff. I refuse to let it define who I am. I am a strong guy, and I am strong-minded, whether I’m crying inside or not.

“Most people say ‘I have diabetes’ and diabetes is technically a disease. IIIIIIIIIIIII, Michael Dean Williams, don’t have a disease.” (Yes, the “I” was elongated by Michael Dean for emphasis). “I’ve got some issues I’ve gotta deal with, no doubt. But I don’t have no disease! I don’t want that shit! Keep it away from me!”

He self-medicates with a lot of laughter and a super-sized focus on having much more fun than anyone else.

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He is 47. He is 100 percent original and 200 percent heart and soul. Instead of law enforcement work, he has made a successful career in sales over the years, usually working more than one job at a time. Right now, one of his primary interests is a new product called Green Fuel Tabs.

Open a door to portions of the past and you’ll see Michael Dean in a Harley blur with the 101 freeway whipping by at over 100 mph. You’ll see him hanging out with bikers in motorcycle gangs and with cowboys at rodeos. You’ll see him cruising in old hot rods like his 1949 Lincoln with a big block engine (454), or wearing a sharp black cowboy hat and politely scooping up a pretty girl to dance the two-step. You’ll never see him drink a drop of alcohol or take illegal drugs. Never has. Never will. You’ll see some bonafide fist fights and times when he stepped in to defend a friend or family member or to protect someone from harm.  And you’ll see that short chapter when he shot out the aforementioned car windows. Michael Dean is not proud of some of the rough stuff back then. But it’s part of him, and he owns it and moves on.

As much time as he has spent being tough, he doesn’t hesitate to show love.

Today, notice the lights in his eyes as his six year old daughter Bailee shows him the frogs she just caught in the yard, and you see the proudest, most loving papa.

“The greatest day of my life was the day she was born. No doubt. And every day after…”

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Bailee Williams and Morgan Boyd

See him interact with one of his three best buddies, Brian Boyd, and you understand that friendship is kinship. They’ve known each other for about 30 years and they are brothers, blood or not. There is total loyalty in friendship, in brotherhood, in their business partnership at Green Fuel Tabs, and in life.

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Michael Dean Williams and Brian Boyd

And regardless of the distance that sometimes happens between brothers in families, when Michael Dean calls his brother Dusty on the phone in a crisis, it’s because he loves him. When he talks about his brother Mitchell, it’s because he loves him. When he struggles to keep his composure as he shares the message his sister Megan wrote on his Facebook page, it’s because he loves her. When he speaks in gentle tones with superlative words about his Mom, it’s because he loves her. When he talks about his Dad as his hero, it’s because he loves him.

“I’m not a china doll”

Thinking back to his diagnosis at age 10, he’ll tell you he learned ‘really quick’ that if he said he was alright, everyone else seemed to exhale. “So rather than learning about the disease and really handling it and conquering it, I was like ‘No, I’m good! All my tests are good!’

“I’d take my shot in the morning, and I’d go about my way.” He knows now he might have benefited by monitoring his blood sugar and taking insulin more often back then.

There are medical and emotional pieces to dealing with diabetes, and then there is the sometimes frustrating dynamic that happens around a diabetic, however well-meaning.

More than feeling really lousy sometimes… And more than feeling guilty for his chocolate cake intake… And more than the recovery from so many operations… Michael Dean can’t stand when people treat him like he is different or delicate.

“Get me out of the glass case! I am not a china doll. I am a badass!” he laughs. But he means it.

“A kid that shoves heroin or smokes dope or whatever — that was their choice. It was not  my choice to be a diabetic, and I didn’t do anything to get it. We just have to deal with it. So don’t make me be the pink elephant in the room. I’m not.

“And when you’re sitting at a restaurant, and the waitress asks if you want dessert, don’t scream at the lady ‘Oh, no! He’s diabetic!'”

He whispers: “‘Chill out.’ I know it’s all from massive incredible love, but ‘chill out’.” He breaks into laughter.

He is a stoic pillar of strength and positivity. He says he has to be that way.

“If I sit around and think about the diabetes, and what’s happened to me, and the kidney and pancreas transplant, and some day the kidney is probably gonna fail like the pancreas did, and am I going to wake up tomorrow blind and not see my daughter…You’d be a wreck! How are you gonna live that way?

“I’ve quit several times. I have called Brian and said ‘I’m done with it, man.’ Those were the longest three or five minutes of my life. “Then my own brain says ‘you’re not a quitter. Cowboy up. What’s wrong with you?'”

Cowboy Up

Michael Dean loves American Graffiti and definitely sees himself as a throwback from that 1950’s era. But if that makes him a city boy, he’s equal parts country. When he and Bailee drive around the property in the pickup truck, they listen to George Strait or Zac Brown Band, Vince Gill or Conway Twitty.

One of Michael Dean’s favorite actors is John Wayne, and as he sees it, the man John Wayne is on the big screen is the way men ought to be.

Michael Dean lives by the John Wayne motto: “Courage is being scared to death and saddling up anyway.”

He does it every day.

He did it the night he drove himself to the hospital many years ago because the call came saying that it was time: the donor pancreas and kidney were ready. He arrived to about 30 loved ones waiting for him at the hospital. “I pulled up, and they said ‘Where have you been’?

I said, ‘I had to return my movies!’ My mom goes, ‘damn you, Michael Dean, what is wrong with you!'” He breaks into laughter again. 

That transplant gave Michael Dean nine and a half years without having to take insulin. The kidney and pancreas were functioning well. Unfortunately the pancreas is no longer working. So he’s back to the shots. “For nine and a half years, I wasn’t a diabetic. It was incredible. I had energy.” The timing is extra painful: if the pancreas had lasted for 10 years, Michael Dean would have been able to get life insurance.

He did it when he drove himself to the hospital in recent years because it was time for triple bypass heart surgery.

“Saddle up and ride anyways is: get in your car, drive, park and get your ass through the door, knowing that you’re about to put a gown on, and you’re about to go under, and could not wake up again and see your baby girl.  I was scared shitless.”

He just wanted to get it done. “I don’t know if it’s stoic, or heroic, or cowardly, just get it done!”  And they got it done. The surgery went well. And the family and friends around him did what they do: they cowboy up too. Michael Dean’s Mom and Dad moved in for a while and friends opened their homes.  “I tell you what, after they crack your chest, you ain’t doing anything ’til it’s time!”

He did it when his wife left somewhere in the middle of all of that.

“That was rough. That was rougher than anything I’ve ever dealt with. This (medical) crap was nothing.

“But I would go through it 10 times over for that little girl,” he says, gesturing to Bailee. “Yah, that little girl to me is … top notch.

“That little girl is what gave me the second wind to go ‘Ok. I gotta cowboy up.'”

Just then Bailee comes running in to the kitchen in her pink dress, smiling, long hair flying. She pulls out a large plastic bowl from the cupboard. Her eyes register an unspoken message from her Dad. Then she smirks and declares, “It’s for FOOD,” and runs back outside.

“She has been told you are not allowed to take another plastic tupperware thing outside, and shove bugs in it!

“It grosses your Dad out when I go to get a bowl — even though it’s been washed — and I remember there were seven frogs in there and I want to put a salad in there! Noooo. Tough guy or not, that’s disgusting!”

And with that fast kitchen visit by a six year old wonder, the mood is lighter, the day is better, and Michael Dean’s smile is even brighter.

Modern Management and an Old Soul

Step into the Hassayampa Inn and you step back in time.
 
Elegant music transports you, the original building structure enchants you and the comfortable sophistication of the decor charms you.
 
These features are grand, but the one that stands out most is a human feature: Respect.
 
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It is very much by design, but in a most authentic way.
 
“There are a couple rules that are cemented in day one of orientation,” says Michael Kouvelas, who has been the General Manager here for a little more than one year.
 
“You will greet every single person that walks in the door. And you will say ‘absolutely’ and ‘my pleasure.’
 
“To me, responding with ‘absolutely, it would be my pleasure’ is the highest respect and most dignified answer that you can give somebody.”
 
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Built in 1927 in Prescott, Arizona, the building was once flanked by diagonal rows of Ford Model T’s. It has been host to many celebrities of old Western movies. And it even has its own ghostly lore.
 
“Faith” is the resident ghost, and room 426 is her favorite haunt. There have been reports of clocks changing, plates flying and footsteps walking down empty hallways. As the story goes, in 1929, Faith was a newlywed, and she and her groom came to the Inn. One night, her husband ventured out to get a pack of cigarettes, and he never returned. Faith was so distraught, she killed herself on the property. To this day, ghost hunters and people who enjoy an extra chill on Halloween will seek out the Hassayampa Inn in hopes of meeting Faith.
 
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“It was nice to get back to a historical hotel,” says Kouvelas who has a long background in resorts. “The building speaks for itself in one way. And you allow the staff to bring in their personality.
 
“What I tell the new hires is ‘we hire you because of your smile, because of your attitude, because of your personality. Your experience is great and we appreciate that. But if you’re not smiling and you’re not having fun at what you do, I don’t want to work with you.’
 
“It has to be genuine. That’s the type of people we have here. We have genuine, caring people. I want to meet everyone to make sure that they have that smile. Are they smiling? Are they bubbly? It’s a cheesy term to say bubbly, but it’s the only word that fits.
 
“I came to my management style by doing it. I’m not saying it’s right, wrong or indifferent. What I’m saying is it works for me, and it works for the team that I assemble as far as being the best at delivering hospitality. I want your personality.
 
“Most places want you to leave your personality at the door and come in and follow the handbook that we give you. And we give you an employee handbook like every other place. But I want you to bring your personality. I want you to be yourself. And one of the reasons we hired you is because we want YOU.
 
“I care that you’re willing to enjoy what you do. And that’s the key, because if you do that, the guests notice that, the other staff notice that, they have more fun at work. They enjoy what they do, they want to succeed, and that’s what it’s all about.
 
“I’m a freedom buff, and I came up through the ranks where you spend eight hours in training on day one. You were grilled, and I hated it because I felt nervous. You don’t remember anything on your first day because you’re petrified. I don’t care who you are. I’m 6’7”, 250 pounds and I’m still petrified.  I don’t care who you are — first day of a job, you’re that way.
 
“So your first day, you come here, you take as many breaks as you want. And you can leave whenever you want. Go home whenever you want. You do what you want for the first day because you’re not comfortable here yet. You don’t even know anyone’s name. You’re scared.
 
“Day 2, you’ll pick it up.”
 
And it’s that human approach that Kouvelas believes lends itself to the family feel of the Inn.
 
“That’s the best thing about boutique hotels. You welcome people into your home. They’re not a guest. They’re part of your family.”
 
Hassayampa is an Apache word meaning “river that loses itself” or “the upside down river”.  The management style at the Inn is a refreshing upside down river of its own — a place where a name from the past whispered a nod to the future — where there is no harm in mixing business with pleasure.

Hey Hey Paula

Life is all the richer because everyone dreams a different dream.

As a sous chef in Grand Junction, Colorado, Paula Pinero loved the high energy of the restaurant world, took pride in her clean kitchen and knew the business at all levels of service.

“I didn’t go to college or anything. So, first I was a waitress, then I started dishwashing, then I moved up to prep, then I moved up to cooking. Basically, it’s all I knew.”

But away from the kitchen, Paula had another passion: thrift stores.

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“It goes back to me and my mom. We were thrift store junkies. Yard sale junkies. And I mean buy and buy and buy and buy! I said, ‘one of these days we’re going to have to open up a store’ because we had so much stuff,” she remembers, eyes shining. “I guess nobody knew about hoarding back then. They’d probably call us hoarders now.”

In fact, she tried making a go of it in Grand Junction. She opened a thrift store of her own. Separately, so did her mom. For some reason, they didn’t do it together.

Paula’s little store went under. Her mom’s store did a bit better.

But somewhere along the way, the two had a falling out, and they didn’t talk for a long time.

Other changes were happening, too.

“I just couldn’t do the pressure of the line cooking anymore.”

So she took her skills and started cooking in hospitals and then nursing homes. The thrift store dream still tugged at her heart. In an ideal world, she and her husband Paul would have a thrift store, with an apartment attached, all under one roof. But that was just a dream.

As the distance between Paula and her mom grew, the residents at the nursing home filled a void. She was more than a cook. She was a friend, a confidant, a constant presence. She remembers the birthday party of a woman who turned a joyful and sprite 103 years old. She remembers World War II vets. She remembers the guilt she felt as she snuck a cigarette out back and was gleefully joined by a 90 year-old smoker who’d been looking for Paula’s nicotine place of escape. The residents, their stories and the relationships gave Paula a sense of connection where there was one gaping hole in her life.

Then one day things started to turn around. Her mom was in a better place.

“We started talking again, and we started shopping! She started perking up. You know, there was a REASON to get up in the morning. A REASON…

“And then, I don’t know why it happened. I guess God took her for a reason…”

Paula’s strong exterior gave way to tears.

“We were talking about opening a store and doing, you know, business together. A thrift store — then she just died.

“Everything for me went down hill from there.  So I said, ‘screw Colorado’,  let’s just get the heck out and just go.”

Paul’s brother-in-law had always talked about Arizona.

“We just packed the car up and came out here to Cottonwood. We were looking for places to live, and it was like God took us right here.”

Reluctantly, they called on a charming little corner property. Located right on the scenic highway stretching through the picturesque town, surely it was out of their price range. Surely it was not really available.

It was in their price range. And it was available. And oh, it has a little apartment attached in back.  No longer just the cute fixer-upper. Now it proudly bears the sign “Paula’s Attic”.

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“It’s a thrift store-slash-treasure chest! And it’s mine!”

Her husband Paul is a contractor and has been helping shape the store into their collective dream place.

“Sometimes a song will come on that we love,” says Paula, “and we just run out here and grab each other and dance.

“We have our little store! We have our little store!

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“If someone comes in, we look at each other and say ‘can you believe this has happened?’

“I’m not a millionaire. But it isn’t about the money. It’s about the dream and the journey.”

Of course the only piece missing is Paula’s mom.

“Sometimes I dream about her for days and days and days. And we’re always in a thrift store.

“Maybe she left for a reason. To push me here. Because if she hadn’t, I wouldn’t have left. I think she’s here in the thrift store. I think she’d be smiling down on me right now.”

Old Roads and Fresh Starts

Hum the song and you’ll instantly remember that Route 66 cuts through Flagstaff, Arizona. On the historic stretch of road that runs parallel to the train tracks, don’t let the morning sun get in your eyes or you’ll miss the bean-sized Wicked AZ. It’s a free-standing drive-up coffee window where you can find 23 year-old barista Kate Broeren.

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Like most 20-somethings, Kate seems happy and upbeat, but she has a lot on her mind. Last year, she graduated from college at Northern Arizona University, majored in Public Health and has been accepted into nursing school in Phoenix. She is one year into her three year wait period before she can begin.

“I swear I wanted to be a nurse since I was three years old. I have other interests, but I really enjoy medicine and taking care of people.”

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Maybe that love of medicine inspired the daily trivia question in the coffee shop window:
 
What ails you if you have a bilateral periorbital hematoma? 
 
The correct answer will save you 25 cents.
 
Another BNSF train rumbles past.
 
Kate is thinking about moving to Phoenix even sooner. “I really just kind of want to start fresh with my life.”
 
Change has a way of doing that — making people crave a fresh start. Among the things that have changed for Kate: One week ago, her parents divorced.
 
“They say it’s hard on kids when they’re young, but it’s just as hard when you’re an adult.”
 
The upside though is Kate is mature enough at this age to look for lessons within the hardship.
 
“I was sort of raised not to talk about my feelings,” she says. “But I’ve learned that if I want to be happy in life, communication is the most important thing you can do with somebody.”
 
Her motto — until more healing takes place: “This too shall pass.”
 
Another customer pulls off Route 66 and Kate greets them with a smile.

Soul of a Cowboy

Greg Hathcock can swear like a sailor and quote the Bible like a preacher.

One moment he was a stranger in a New Mexico Starbucks, the next, he was standing near my table with a smile and earnestness in his eyes. “I needed to come over here and tell you to have a good day.” 

I heard a hint of the South. I sensed kindness. I saw a touch of cowboy.

But there is always more, isn’t there? We all have pieces. We are all a patchwork quilt. We are all a coat of many colors.

For example, there are people who know Greg the quarter horse trainer, but they don’t know Greg the Tennessee farm boy who chopped cotton and pulled corn. They know Greg the Grazing Bull restaurant owner, but they don’t know Greg the 1963 state track champion in the 100 and 220 dash. They know Greg the father of three who has been married for 31 years, but they don’t know Greg who enjoys a mocha alone at the cafe most mornings. They know Greg the jocular sweetheart who will turn 69 in July, but they don’t know Greg the bull rider. They know Greg the high school running back, but they don’t know Greg who broke a mustang. They know Greg who has a soft spot for people, but they don’t know Greg who wants to make a feature film. They know Greg the boy who didn’t like school very much, but they don’t know Greg the boy who suffered regular beatings from his parents at home.

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But there is no self-pity. Just self-reflection. There is no regret. Just determination. There is no speaking of what is not, only of what can be. When you talk with him, you get his passion for horses and for life, and what he has to share may blow you away.

The Track and the Truth

Greg’s fast feet on the track as a kid have been replaced by fast quarter horses as an adult. A trainer for more than 20 years now, he knows the dark side of the race world and it lights a fire in his belly.

“I’ve seen horses drop dead at the finish line. There’s no reason for the horse to drop dead at the finish line…”

Mistreatment of these animals is something he can’t tolerate, and he doesn’t mince words.

“…unless they got shit in him that they ain’t supposed to have in him. That will kill him. I’ve had them come back after they finish the race, and they drop dead right there when they unsaddle them.

“That-should-not-happen! That’s cruel and inhumane and downright un-Christian-like, if you want to know the truth — do an animal that way.” He leans in and locks his eyes on mine. “If you train your animal, and you feed that animal, and you take good care of that animal, they’re gonna wanna run.”

He wants me to understand that no amount of drugs will change a horse’s potential, and he uses racing lingo to make his point: “You can hang every drug in the world in me, and I can’t play basketball like Michael Jordan. You understand? You only got so much speed in that horse.”

You Gotta Have Heart

We sat down over a pot of coffee at his Grazing Bull restaurant in Capitan, New Mexico, and I asked him if he had a philosophy he lives his life by. I could not have hoped for a better response. You might want to sit down.

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“I love setting goals every day to accomplish something. If I’m 80 years old, I’ll still be getting up and going to accomplish something, because you never get too old or too tired to do something.

“No matter what disappointments you have in life, no matter how many failures you have in life, you never quit. Because sooner or later, you’re going to do something that fits. And you will be successful at it.

“But if you are going to say ‘I can’t’, ‘I’m sick’, ‘I don’t feel good’, you’re not gonna accomplish nothing. You gotta get up.

“You gotta have a lot of HEART in this world. Even if you’re going to an eight-to-five job every day, you gotta have heart. That’s all there is to it. So, if you’re gonna have heart, plan a big thing. You show me a dreamer, and I’ll show you a guy that landed on the moon!

“You gotta set goals and you gotta have BIG goals. ‘Cause God will help you accomplish being President of the United States of America as he would the Mayor of Capitan. You set the stage in your mind right there. But you cannot be a quitter. You have got to keep going no matter how many times you fall down. ‘Cause that’s the only way to make it. I’m telling you, you fall down, get up, dust your pants off, and say ‘I’m gonna do it.’

“And I had to do that a lot. I still do it a lot. And a lot of people wonder why I’m doing it at my age, but I don’t ever want to quit. I like LIVING, I like LIFE.

“Be a CAN-do person, not a CAN’T-do person.  No matter what your goal is, the same energy is flowing through you to do a big goal as it is to do a little goal. So set your sights high.

“Get up and say you feel good, ‘I am healthy, I am well, I’m beautiful, I’m talented, I’m empowered.’ You say that every day, and it will work.

“You know, your words are so creat–ive.” He breaks the word, lending it new meaning.

“Life and death are in the tongue. I think it’s Proverbs 18:21. ‘Life and death are in the tongue. And you will reap the fruits thereof.’ LIFE and DEATH. POSITIVE and NEGATIVE. And what your words are are creat–ive.  It’s no question about it.

“If you speak words long enough, I GUARANTEE that’s what’s going to happen. If you want to look at the way your life’s going to be five years from now, see how you’re speaking right now and it’ll be exactly that way.

“You’ve got to fill your brain with the positive. Somewhere in the Bible, ‘think of things that are NOT as if they WERE.’ It’s in there. It’s in the Bible. Job said ‘the thing that I feared has come upon me.’ So if you’re sitting around thinking about negative, fearful things, that’s what you’re creating and breeding in your mind, and it’s going to manifest in your life. I done see it happen too many times!

“It takes EFFORT to be positive. It takes effort to ACCOMPLISH. It takes effort. It takes effort every morning to get up and to FEEL good. But you gotta TELL yourself. Hey, when I feel bad, ‘I feel good.’ The Bible says ‘let the weak say they’re strong.’ Same thing!”

Greg fills our coffee cups again and as he does, he continues.

“If I don’t have somebody around that I can help do something, I feel like I’m lost a lot of times,” he says.

“I like young people. I like youth, and I wish I could just open their brains sometimes and pour into them what I already know.”

Greg’s words draw his 23-year-old waitress and friend Kalyn over to join us at the table. Greg thinks of her like another daughter.

“I’m gonna tell you something else,” he said to me. “And I’ve never told Kalyn this.

“Kalyn’s an inspiration to me. I see such high qualities in her. And if I can do something to motivate her to be more than maybe she’s thinking sometimes, I’ll feel like I hung the moon.”