Tucson Salvage

A one-legged baker, a killer Woodpecker, some magic and a talking god

Brian Smith
Tim and Huicha "Lee" Smith inside The Runway Bar & Grill.
It's so sweetly rhythmic and fantastic. It must be the greatest Woody Woodpecker laugh on Earth, even if it smothers Paul Simon's crusty-sweet "Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard" and inspires at least one set of nearby eyes to roll. Mark Torres fully owns that chortle, and more: his short, thick graying coif rises into a mini version of Woodpecker's 'hawk. So, yeah, the other barstool lollygaggers call him Woody.

Back in the 1980s, when Woody was a student bused to Catalina High School, his nickname was "Twelve Pack." Was considered a legend. He's a freelance plumber now, lives walking distance from here in the same neighborhood in which he grew up. Even when not Woodpeckering, Woody still shudders with delight—his grin is as perpetual as the Bud Light on the bar before him. He's instantly likable, outwardly gentle and it's easy to sense he might've been unnecessarily fucked with over the years, and that maybe he never relied on the kindness of others for anything because there was no kindness from others.

"That guy," Woody says, laughing, pointing to bar's grey-haired manager Tim Smith, "treats me better than my own family." Woody says most everything with a laugh—even the woeful stuff. Maybe he knows the secret? Either way, it’s easy to see how one might feel protective of him.

* * * *

It's Friday night at The Runway Bar and Grill, which sits on a dusty, dispossessed stretch on Alvernon Way south of 29th Street, a piece of Tucson that doesn't exactly relish much of its own history. In fact, decades ago, a Douglas F4D Skyray fighter jet from Davis-Monthan Air Force base lost control and exploded into a Food Giant supermarket that sat across the street, killing four people and destroying the store and nearby homes. The crash might’ve set the area’s aesthetic tone, which now includes a used car lot, an abandoned gas station or two, a tire shop, a few vacant storefronts, dirt lots and a fairly spectacular-looking tattoo parlor.

Yet, the lounge inside retains mirthful details, such as pink and blue trimmed walls, and a warm magenta hue saturates its two rooms. There's a glorious-sounding jukebox, TVs of various shapes (tonight showing wrestling), ancient gumball machines, framed photos and well-crafted models of WWII-era fighter planes, a pair of pool tables, and an outdoor patio. There's a '60s-vintage menu showing Korean dishes such as bulgogi, as well as tacos, and chicken strips with fries, all prepared in the back kitchen. Taped to a wall mirror below the menu are snapshots of jolly Runway inmates, including the storied Professor and his pool-cue bud Damage, two brotherly gents who survived wars and hiccupping livers but not cancer. Gone forever but still mourned here.

There are no chirpy undergrads or self-styled artiste fringe-dwellers in Warby Parkers here—it's too far from downtown, and, anyway, hunting for renditions of the loser experience is passé; too many drinking-driving horror stories put an end to that dreadful pastime.

These are beer-swill floor finishers and housing inspectors, one-legged bakers and disability recipients. Its air is tinged with the tangy scent of functional alcoholism, wrapped in a warm misfit-family glow and warmth. It's a cozy corner bar, a backdated scene from a waning watering-hole culture heading the way of drive-in movie theaters.

It's easy to feel terribly rustic about The Runway, because it's easy to feel terribly rustic about a corner old-man bar whose regulars move through the world like how a lot of us do, in a state of lasting resignation and bafflement, in the way of the heartsick and battle-worn. For me it mirrors what it's like to be a grownup in deepest sense; that is, realizing but perhaps not admitting to myself that I understand what it feels like to be hopeless.

* * * *

Woody's barstool bud is the broadly built, glabrous-headed Dave Gonzales ("with an 'S'!"), a former baker. He lifts his left pant leg at the ankle to reveal a prosthetic limb, which he lost to health problems. He's been back in town for a couple days, in from New Mexico where his mother had just died.

"We're barflies," Gonzales says, and tonight he's helping to break-in the new bartender, a pretty, big-eyed 25-year-old named Teti Moniz.

"She's a rookie," he adds. "But it's obvious she'll take no shit from anybody."
She bites her lip, smiles. She's never tended bar and it’s her second night, and Tim’s training her with fatherly patience. He hopes she'll bring in a few customers because, he says later, the bar just isn't making it, not like it did.

Tim , a retired Air Force man who was born on a Massachusetts farm, is a former hurricane hunter who flew on crews into typhoons for study. He now teaches weather forecasting fulltime at Davis-Monthan base while manning The Runway soberly each night including weekends. He looks tired, but is thoughtful and intimidatingly articulate.

Tim met his wife, Runway owner Huicha "Lee" Smith, bartending at Fort Ord military base in Monterey, Calif., where he was stationed. Born in Korea to a military pop, Lee moved stateside after marrying an American who fathered her three kids. The guy was severely abusive, charges were filed, and she took her children and fled.

Tim married Lee after a three-year courtship, wound up in Tucson upon his '95 transfer to Davis-Monthan. They joined a local Korean Baptist church, and through an acquaintance there found this bar, which Lee scraped and borrowed to purchase in 2001. The two previous Runway owners were also Korean.

Tonight the bespectacled Lee's slouched at the end of the bar tapping languidly on her tablet. She's been here most of the day. In conversation, her percussive Korean accent gives her voice indelible authority, reinforces an idea that she's a tough family matriarch. Get talking and she softens. Her seven grandchildren take up time she’d otherwise spend working on her art. A framed portrait she drew of her son hangs in the bar. He took ill and fairly recently died and the drawing is a tribute. He worked here sometimes, she says, and the regulars all loved him. She loves the regulars too. The Runway stays afloat on them. "The customers don't pick us, we pick customers," she’ll say, adding how it helps to have the man upstairs on the Runway’s side.
She offers a story: one day a gent in a ski mask entered and pulled a gun on her. "I didn't know who it was,” she says. “But I just shouted, 'Jack! Put down the gun. You don't want to do that.' I don't know how I knew it was Jack; his name just came out of my mouth. It was god talking."
Jack, a onetime Runway barfly, set the gun on the bar, removed his mask and apologized. Lee never called the cops.

"It's the only robbery—or attempted robbery—we've ever had," Tim adds. "People do desperate things when they're hungry."

The couple form relationships with patrons, feel protective of them. Tim, for example, hires Woody for Runway plumbing needs. When Lee took ownership, The Runway held steadfast to the blue-collar tradition that saw regulars cashing Friday work checks at the bar.

But the bar's business waned significantly. Tim says they wouldn't make it he didn’t teach fulltime. "Stiffer DUI laws. Culture changes. The revitalization in downtown may have hurt our business too."

More, the Runway suffered incidents that, Tim says, were beyond their control. The Arizona Department of Liquor Licenses came down on them a few years back when the bar hosted hip-hop shows; someone pulled a gun in the parking lot, patrons smelled of spliff. There were other small infractions. The fines cost them nearly $8,000.

"We 86'd drug dealers when we first bought the place," Lee says. Her voice rises. "And I had death threats! I'd say to them, 'You're gonna come over here and kill me? Come on then!'" She shakes her head. "Of course they never showed up."

Potential killers steered clear. There's no undercurrent of menace or casual aggression detected here. Not now. But there is magic tonight.

Greg Rhetta's a gray-mustachioed guy, late 40ish, in town from Vegas. His third in as many nights at The Runway. His talky charm suits the corner bar milieu.

He slides a novel from his leather messenger tote, which also contains another book and four decks of cards. He instructs me to go stand in a corner of the bar and select a single word from the book’s 300 pages.

"Handkerchief" it is. I close the book and return it to him at the bar.

"Think of a word that begins with the letter of the word you chose from the book," he says.
"Hammer," I say.

He pulls a pen from his tote and scribbles on the back of a business card. It says "Handkerchief."
There's stony silence. "Jesus Christ," I say.

And like some black Elvis, Rhetta says, "Thank you very much."

Maroon 5's "Sunday Morning," comes on the juke and Rhetta sings along in perfect pitch, adding a honeyed harmony. He's been harmonizing the night with about every song played. He deserves another beer, on me.

Woody goes on about his dog. "Know why I call him Chance? Because I took a chance on him. ..." Then that Woodpecker laugh of laughs follows us through the door, out into the precise hum of the windy Alvernon night. The colorful blur of tattoo parlor neon, the darkened tire shop, the spectacular Runway sign.

This story has been updated from its original content.