Investing the Southwest


Georgia O'Keeffe did a great deal for the imagery of the Southwest, but the worst thing she did inadvertently. Her simple, precise paintings of cow skulls gave us an identity rivaled only by the saguaro cactus. Today you can find real skulls, fake cactus, wooden coyotes and even tumbleweed lining the walls of the most swank New York apartments. Prestigious interior design shops have unloaded their lacquered oriental jade and stocked up on rusty chainsaw blades and crudely made Tarahumara instruments. Trendy New York restaurants strive for that special Tex-Mex sensibility. (Translation: overpriced grub not even a Texan would touch.)
Stores sell Southwesterly items for the skull 'n' cactus set that no one between Waco and Reno would look a twice. "New Yorkers," a lady who works in a ZIP code beginning with 100 told me, "are willing to pay extraordinary prices for dried weeds."
The New York Times refers to these people as "briefcase buckaroos," and quotes an artist who calls weathered skulls "dead tech." As the manager of one Upper West Side store told me, "the Southwest is more popular here than it is in the Southwest."
The trendiest shops are in SoHo, a part of New York whose reputation for art on the cutting edge far outstrips its delivery. Three or four of the stores are within a few blocks of each other, each one insisting that it alone represents true Western ambiance. One place boasting its Western art carries items from a red wooden saguaro centerpiece ($85) to a barnyard-wood table ($1,500). The owner, an Alabamian, pointed out a rocking chair ($550) to me. "That was used in a commercial shoot last week," he said.
All the kitschy Southwestern shops turn a handsome profit supplying tchotchkes to art directors for background scenery in advertising. They're sort of like video stores; the goods come back ready to rent to the next customer. The turnover is constant and lucrative.
At Origins, co-owner Alberto Ortega explained the fascination with skulls. "Once you get past it being a dead animal, it becomes art and it can be quite beautiful." Origins was my favorite of the high- ticket stores. I wanted the three-drawer, four-door, eight-foot-high armoire with an arched top ($2,700). "I don't like the high-gloss Santa Fe look," Ortega admitted. "The craftwork, yes. But not the tony stuff."
At another store, I asked the fellow in charge if many of his items–snakeskin, skulls, ad nauseam–came from out here. "Not really," he said. "Under Arizona law ies extremely difficult to remove material out-of-state."
His explanation for the popularity of Southwesterly castoffs differed slightly from the others. "The New York metropolitan area and Long Island are so much more built up than Tucson and Phoenix. Here, you're trapped. People like the mystique behind the desert. We do consulting. People call and say, 'How should I decorate my place to look Southwestern? What should I buy?"'
A truthful answer would include a golf cart, allergy-inducing plants, a broken fan belt replaced in Gila Bend between Memorial Day and Labor Day and a restaurant guide to La Jolla.
I don't think those items would make anyone's Top 10 fist in New York. They certainly weren't for sale at Zona, the current most with-it shop. Its tone can be summed up by this sign within: THANK YOU FOR VISITING OUR SPACE.
A week before I visited Zona the store was subjected to a scathing profile in the New York weekly, 7 Days. Observed author Jane DeLynn, "Broken-down old objects are no longer 'antiques,' they're 'found objects'. . . . Wood is not aged to look old but to 'communicate the spirit of another time'. . . . It is not unusual for someone to walk into Zona and buy $300 worth of something and find, when they come home, that it looks like $50 worth of nothing."
Uncomfortable wooden couches with silly designs painted on them are taken seriously at Zona; overpriced cotton peasant blouses are snatched up as fast as they can be produced. The incense alone could cause you to break out in a rash. Too much New Age elevator music turns your brain to mush.
Zona sells products, yes, but it delivers most on illusion and romance, and that accounts for its extraordinary popularity. This year.
All this visiting of Southwest design centers in New York made me fearful for food from home. Here again, illusion often won out over reality. A former Arizonan now living in New York put it this way, "In Tucson, all the Italian food tastes Mexican. In New York, all the Mexican food tastes Italian."
Three restaurants–Cancun, Saguaro, and Jose Sent Me–are all within a few blocks of each other. At the last of these you have to ring a doorbell to have the front door unlocked so you can go inside and pay $ 11.25 for a chimichanga. A chain of restaurants called Caramba! should be faulted for false advertising; it boasts "The Best Mexican Food East of the West." The Caramba! menu lists a "California-style chimichanga" (does it go surfing?). A review in the Village Voice of the Cheyenne Social Club, a restaurant whose advertisement shows a skull and a Saguaro cactus, concluded, "That which you want to destroy, first deflavorize."
"The New Yorker view is a pin-head view," the bouncer at a Mexican restaurant near New York University told me. "They never get out of town. They're rushed, and Mexican food can be prepared very quickly."
At the Black Rock Cafe, Carlos Ortiz explained why Mexican food in New York is so uniforn-fly bad: They prefer their Mexican food bland and blanched, tepid, not torrid. The popularity of fajitas? "Easy. You make a mistake and you put it on the menu. People here think guacamole is just avocado. The food we have, it's not Mexcian. It's Tex-Mex."
The Southwesterly restaurant I like most in New York is Arizona 206, whose name I thought was a play on our area code. It turns out thaes the address on East 60th Street. Its menu includes jalapeño fettucini with grilled chicken and aged goat cheese, grilled turkey paillard and sweet-potato waffle with mole poblano and cranberry relish, and blackeyed pea and barley succotash with flour tortilla and black bean sauce. The maitre d' told me that the food was "Southwestern by way of California."
Whatever circuitous route it took getting to Manhattan, I'm glad it's there. The executive chef, as the head cook is now called at pricey restaurants, has taken two strains in which it is easy to overindulge– Southwestern ingredients and West Coast preparation–and mixed them inventively.
The Southwest motif wasn't overdone, and one night I ate at Arizona 206, the obligatory New York celebrity dined at the next table– author Carl Bernstein of Watergate fame, who spent a good deal of his time smooching with a terrific-looking blonde. I ended up ordering paella, a dish in which if one of a dozen ingredients goes wrong, the others suffer. It was wonderful.
A few days later I rang up Marilyn Frobuccino, the executive chef, to compliment her on the meal and learn more about the restaurant. She was out of town, I was told, on a quick trip through the Southwest scouting food and menus, talking with chefs and suppliers.
When we finally spoke she told me where shed been–Denver, Taos, Santa Fe, Albuquerque and Dallas.
"Umm, Phoenix or Tucson?" I asked.
"I didn't go there," said the mastermind of Arizona 206. "I've never been to Arizona."


I was hungry for something special. I wanted French food. La Chaumiere in Scottsdale was booked solid. The House of joy in Jerome couldn't seat me for six weeks. So I went to Paris (and I don't mean the one in Texas). Thought Id get away from cactus, bola ties, Navajo jewelry and chimichangas for a while. I wanted to find an elderly man wearing a beret and carrying baguettes as he wobbled along on his bicycle. I hoped to see a grandmother in an apron throw up her hands, exclaiming, "Mon Dieu!" And most of all, I wanted to see what would happen if I called a waiter garcon.
The Tower was lighted, the Arc was triumphant, even under refurbishing, and on my first night I took the obligatory Bateau Mouche cruise down the Seine to get my bearings. The next day I went out and, alas, felt right at home. Paris has a dozen Mexican restaurants, most of which have opened in the last few years. The Frogs are batty about guacamole. They can't get enough tacos. They think chile con came is exotic. Margaritas take on the air of vintage Romanee-Conti. Throw in that loathsome oxymoron Tex-Mex and you have the latest French fad all wrapped up in a burrito.
Things got worse. I stayed in a second-story flat near the Canal Saint Martin. To get to the Metro, the Parisian Interstate 10, I'd walk down Boulevard Magenta to Place de la Republique. On my right, every day, was a gaudy sign that read BEST ARIZONA. The first few days I pretended it wasn't there, hoping my morning coffee would erase the spector. All the coffee accomplished was to accentuate those eleven big yellow-on-black letters. The sign had a store beneath it, and the store sold clothes. Workout clothes, ski clothes, sweat pants, sweatshirts and warm-up jerseys filled the postage-stamp-sized store from floor to ceiling. The clothes seemed more for leisure-time show than for muscle-toning perspiration. Every rag in the place had the Best Arizona logo sewn on it. At home you'd call these gym clothes; in France, they're working-class designer togs.
Weizman Haim, born and raised outside Jerusalem, owns Best Arizona. He opened it when he moved to France four years ago shortly after putting in his time in the Israeli army. "I came to Paris to make enough money so I can return home and go into business. Buy a hotel or something."
"Why did you call your store Best Arizona?" I asked.
"It's very fashionable to call things by American names here. They're very appealing. You know, California, Texas, Montana." The name Claude Montana, among Europe's top fashion designers, adds to the mystique. "Personally, I like the image of the American West"–Haim wore pointy-toed Mexican cowboy boots–"but I chose the name for business reasons. I sell my clothes all over the world-Switzerland, Belgium, Italy."
Haim hasn't been within 5,000 miles of the Grand Canyon, but he plans to get as close as Los Angeles this summer. "I want to find some scenes to put in the window of my store. Maybe a cowboy and a horse."
Just then the wife of the 25-year-old store owner walked in. The faux Arizonan pointed to me excitedly. "Look! He's from Arizona!" She looked at me, broke into a sudden grin, and gave two thumbs up, as if the CBS Sports camera had found her in the stands at the NCAA playoffs. Before I left, Weizman gave me a metal insignia with the store's name on it and a decal in screaming purple, fuchsia, lime green and yellow. In an ersatz Peter Max design, it shows a bundled-up outdoorsman skiing past Best Arizona.
Guillaume de Bar feels the same about Arizona as Weizman Haim. De Bar runs Arizona Evenements, a communications firm.
Why was Arizona prominent in his company's name?
"It's phonetically simple, and it's easily memorized."
Why not California or Dakota?
"To me, Arizona symbolizes vast open spaces and discovery."
Then I learned about a place called Paradise City in the northwest Paris suburb of Levallois. "They've got saguaro cactus on their logo." a friend told me. "They sell cheap Mexican boots, bola ties, and phony western-style clothes."
A few evenings later I related this disconcerting phenomenon to Mort Rosenblum, a Tucson boy, U of A grad, and now an Associated Press correspondent. He's an expatriate Arizonan who lives on a houseboat moored to the right bank of the Seine; his last tie to his home state is a parcel of land he may soon sell. He nodded understanding, then pointed to the boat's stern. There was the Arizona flag waiting for a breeze to flap the copper-star in the brisk Parisian night. Rosenblum put on his USS Arizona cap and fetched the manuscript of a recently completed book. "It's called Back Home in America. I've got a chapter on Tombstone and Tucson," part of which he read. His sadness and anger at the state's willy-nilly development rang clear and true, although too much sympathy is hard to muster for someone who begins each day glimpsing the Eiffel Tower and rocks to sleep on the Seine. "I used to have a saguaro at the office," he said afterward, "but it died."
I picked up a newspaper. That night Way Out West, the 50-year-old Laurel and Hardy flick, was playing at a major cinema. I pondered all this over chicken mole at Los Angeles Tacos, a Mexican restaurant in Saint Germain des Pres that I chose over Cactus Charly, whose ad showed saguaros and trumpeted nachos and soft rock daily except Mondays, and the Indiana Cafe, which bills itself as "the new Tex-Mex restaurant near the Champs-Elysees!" Its logo looked like the Indian on the Washington Redskins helmet. Other choices included The Studio ("Escape to the border"), Mexico Magico, and yes, La Bamba. About 8,000 Mexicans live in Paris, Los Angeles Tacos owner Jose Antonio Roca told me. Roca, who came to Paris four years ago to study business administration, explained that the real boost in Parisian Mexican restaurants came not from Mexico nor the States but from Great Britain. "Mexican restaurant chains in England simply expanded and opened up new ones here." Roca's mole was decent, but I like mine thicker and more bitter.
My Arizona tour of France was over-at least I'd hoped it was, when someone mentioned Henry Marsh to me. Marsh, who lives just south of town, calls himself a director of the Scottsdale Financial Corp. on his business card. A friendly fellow with a Kris Kringle beard, Marsh moved to France when his considerable state-side holdings went belly-up. He dresses as Uncle Sam on the Fourth of July, for Republican party functions, and on election nights. "This is where the money is," he said with a smile when he picked me up at the conunuter train station near his suburban home. "I always told my kids, 'The dollar is your best friend."'
During lunch at his two-room apartment he pulled out the manuscript for Let's Make a Million Together, a how-to book for which he hoped to find a publisher. "It tells about how I made my million dollars. Of course, it doesn't go into how I lost it as well. Any suggestions?"
"Well, yes," I said. "As an editor, Id take the last word off your title. It looks like you're scheming to take your reader's money."
Marsh schmoozes at Toastmasters International and the American Chamber of Commerce, hoping to find investors for Holiday Property Bond, a British company that takes your investment capital and instead of interest gives you yearly vacation time at one of some fifteen resorts in the U.S., Europe, or off Africa's northwest coast. Potential investors come out to Marsh's place to look at a videotape touting HPB's portfolio and holiday destinations.
What about Scottsdale Financial Corp.? I inquired.
"Oh. Yes. Well, they sell properties in Arizona." He showed me their listings in Scottsdale, Joseph City and St. Johns. "I've been with them a year. They have a lot of Japanese money. They used to send me leads, but I haven't gotten anything from them lately." His cheerfiil countenance turned glum. "I haven't sold a thing for them."
And Scottsdale itself?
"Oh, I liked Scottsdale all right," the expatriate Uncle Sam freely admitted. "I bought a couple of suits there once."