Tucson Salvage: The Cook

Allan Maloy Sr. sweats over multiple burners at the end of long tables covered in white linen and a buffet of meats and fruits. His feet soft-shoe in tight, front-to-back rhythms, and keep time with his enormous hands working hot pans. He wipes, flips, sautés and poaches, while balancing his chops and preps—mushrooms, peppers, ham, eggs, tomatoes etc. Orders transfer from his head to his fingertips in a poise so practiced he could be humming Drake’s “God’s Plan” and folding laundry. It’s almost theater, the care, the grace.

It’s a pleasure to observe anyone who has perfected their craft, whether boxing or bus driving, drinking or teaching; the craft itself is irrelevant, the minutes, hours and decades of practice are what matter, as the skills appear on the surface.

A handful of drowsy-shaped Sunday brunchers, just off the golf course, or out of church, noses pricking from the breakfast smells, eye Maloy like museumgoers while awaiting their orders. 

One elderly lady in line chirps, “I wish I could do that.”

Maloy today works in a cavernous downstairs area of the Skyline Country Club, the modernist glass and concrete clubhouse stretched against the Catalina Foothills, a historic Tucson landmark still lovely in so much round-edged symmetry. It’s a strange room because it feels like it’s elevated outdoors, all Tucson stretched out at its bottom edge, the blue Sunday sky nurtured by cool clouds. Such wide morning light all but kills the ghosts of Broadway Joe and Sinatra, their decades-ago toasts around the nearby circular bar. Such mental footnotes get smaller and smaller. 

Today Maloy talks often of his love of cooking. And he knows there are much worse places for him to apply his culinary skills, like inside prison kitchens.

click to enlarge Tucson Salvage: The Cook
Allan Maloy at the country club, “Man I just love to cook.”

He tells a story. About a boy rejecting hellfire, slogging door-to-door preaching to glorify God, handing out copies of The Watchtower, news of how the earth will transform into paradise. A boy born and raised in Phoenix, the oldest sibling to three others, a Jehovah’s Witness family, except for the concrete-laying stepdad who the boy called daddy since he was 3 years old. Daddy carried a gun, drank and gambled. And can you imagine the family dynamic? He remembers daddy taking him to the gambling hideaway hidden behind a billiard hall on Buckeye Road in Phoenix.

“He was my father. That was the man we looked up to,” Maloy says, pauses. “He took care of my mama.”

The cook’s story continues. A Jehovah’s Witness wasn’t like other kids in the neighborhood and school, there is no standing for the “Pledge of Allegiance” in class, for example, and, to add to the embarrassment and so much ammunition for the cruel ones, the diminutive boy stuttered, and kids hurled insults at him like “Big Head” until a speech coach and a high-school growth spurt intervened. He’d watch other kids on new bikes at Christmas. Nothing for him. The boy began to not believe in Jehovah (“We thought the world would end by 1976!”), and the congregational discipline was too forbidding; beyond the “serious sins” of oral sex, gambling, tobacco and homosexuality, there was no fun for a kid; no basketball (his love), no Halloween, no holiday seasons, no birthday celebrations. 

The boy impregnates another teenager and for that he gets kicked out of Kingdom Hall, and good riddance. Yes, the boy believed in a God, but not that God.

He quits high school, gets a GED, and moves out for good around 17. “Even when I was down and out I never went home.” Pride kept him away from there, and a fear of daddy, the man he loved, admired, and respected: Maloy says, “If he would’ve told me not to quit high school I wouldn’t have quit high school. But he didn’t say that.” 

(The boy’s biological father is a mystery-turned-lifelong search inside a secret kept by his mother. Maloy is close with her, but some secrets are sacred.)

Maloy is compact, piercing brown eyes, shaved head, belly pushing against a new Jordan T-shirt, and he wears a crucifix-and-anchor gold chain and wrist watch. The earth-toned condo in midtown Tucson he shares with his wife and daughter is set way off the street, and he’s surrounded by friends, long-term Bosnian neighbors there, Mexican family next door.

The living-room TV shows NBA and walls are filled with framed photos, family mostly, and some heroes, Obama, Martin Luther King, Venus and Serena Williams, Dallas Cowboys, athletic awards to a daughter. The kitchen is stocked, big island for cooking. It’s home, comfort. 

click to enlarge Tucson Salvage: The Cook
Maloy keeps emotional stories anchored in realism.

He speaks in machine-gun sentences, punchy consonants; he’s indiscreet, yet says only what’s necessary and keeps emotional stories impartial with an it-is-what-it-is realism. You could imagine never saying he’s sorry for anything, even after he does. A grin off him feels like a reward, and trust. Or maybe he got so used to not smiling because his teeth were so bad. Most were busted and sore, until recently when he had them yanked in favor of dentures, which still assign him pain, physical and financial. His energy would hardly be subsumed into theatrics of any conversation that didn’t have a point. If someone’s an asshole, they’re an asshole. If someone is on the level, they’re on the level, and worth his time. He’s quickly likable, one reason is because he shoots straight. 

Yet it is hard to tell when he’s pleased, like it’s some burden borne out of desperation from years ago, some dark space that once glowed inside him.

The story resumes. He got hired at a Jack in the Box, and soon oversaw the kitchen. That led to Denny’s, IHOP and good hotels, one in Seattle for a spell. He picked up mad skills from chefs running kitchens. 

 He married a couple times and had long-term girlfriends, and over the years sired a boy and four girls. He lost one 3-month-old child, Allan Jr., to crib death years ago. The inconceivable sadness fortified a jadedness with the world. 

Drugs ruled too and crack won streets in the late ’80s. Maloy began selling it, learned the graft from a cousin who sold angel dust. He fell in and sold on the Phoenix avenues and in the Avondale suburb. “There were Mexican projects and black projects there, once they started smoking crack, oh my God.” 

But he worked in kitchens sometimes too, when he had to, between months of homelessness, sleeping in drug houses, or finding a bed at the YMCA. “You can always get work at Denny’s.” 

By then even low expectations weren’t met, relationships fizzled, and he landed in state prison around ’91 on drug-related charges. There was little in place to counter a depressing repetition of mistakes. What could jar the inviolate safety grid of family for really shitty reasons? He’d get out of jail, go back into the life, and head back to the clink. Before his third and last stint, he enjoyed a total of six days of freedom. 

Still, he ran the prison kitchen at times, and cooked. “Like any kitchen, you had a full staff,” he says. He took the work seriously. Later he worked in a prison law library because he could type (his mother told him young to learn that skill).  

Maybe there is a freedom in prison, where Maloy spent nearly all of the 1990s, because no one expects much from you. It’s like he gave up as a fuckup. “Looking back I was depressed, man,” he says. “And black people don’t get depressed, at least they don’t admit it.”

Turns out, the final three-year stint was the ticket. Salvation arrived in Cheryl, a state-prison guard in Florence. For Maloy, Cheryl was proof God exists. It started like this: He was looking for drugs inside, and no way she’d do that. But she began
bringing him another contraband, chicken, candy, sunflower seeds. He got popped for that, went to the hole, but love bloomed hard.   

Cheryl quit the Department of Corrections to avoid any rule-breaking fallout and took a minimum-wage job at Fry’s and worked her way up. She waited and when he got out around 2000, she rewarded him with a home (where they live now) and a Cadillac. But he was still a dog, “messin’ with other women.” He was out the hoosegow but still quarantined by his own selfishness and stupidity. One night he left, scored something to sell and head out of town, and likely back to prison. She called him on it. In short, he faced his demons, finally, and atoned. “My other wives were black,” he half-laughs. “No one ever said, ‘You wanna talk about it?’ But we did. There were many tears. I didn’t think she’d stick with me. It’s because of her that I am alive.”

He landed the culinary gigs, began running kitchens again. Their biracial marriage took place on MLK day. A daughter, Ali (after Muhammad), was born. She’s 20 now, studies psychology at Pima College and works near dad at Skyline Country Club.  

He lifts a hand to survey his living-room surroundings, and says, “I got a Jordan shirt and boots on, a wall of movies. The cooking, and everything else. I’ve got a life I’m proud of. And I would have none of this without my wife.”  

His children (and grandchildren) are well, he tells me. All their faces are on his walls. There’s the chef in Denver, the daughter in Texas married to a cop/preacher, another one a track star. He’s got a good relationship with most of his children, not all; there’s accumulated ill-will and he shows

After a long pause, he says, “It took me forever to grow up.”

Later he stands outside his place, it’s a day off from his Skyline gig, Cheryl’s at work, Ali’s at school, his lime-green Kia, paid off, with the customized plate and Air Jordan sticker is parked down the way. A tall, portable basketball hoop off to the side ages in the Arizona sun. The basketball set still gets some use, he says. It’s been there for his daughter, his grandkids too. 

At 61 he refers to himself as an old man in the way really old men do. “It is old,” he says, “considering what I’ve been through.” 

So here he is and he never wanted anything else.  

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