Tucson Salvage 

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

click to enlarge Inside the Runway

Brian Smith

Inside the Runway

It's so sweetly rhythmic and fantastic. It must be the greatest Woody Woodpecker laugh on Earth, even if it smothers Paul Simon's lovely crusty "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 mostly call him Woody.

Back in the 1980s, when Woody was a student bused to Catalina High School, his nickname was "Twelve Pack." He was considered a legend. Now he's a freelance plumber who lives walking distance away 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 to be relied upon.

"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, you see how someone 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 just 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. It's as if that deadly crash set a tone for the area, 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. They're 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 and 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 nods her head, smiles. It's her second night, and she's never tended bar, and Tim Smith's training her with fatherly patience. He hopes she'll bring in a few customers because, he tells me later, the bar just isn't making it, not like it did in the early and mid aughts.

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

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

After a three-year courtship Tim and Lee married, wound up in Tucson in '95 when Tim transferred to Davis-Monthan. They belonged to 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 Lee's slouched at the end of the bar tapping on her PC tablet. She's tired too and has been here most of the day. The bespectacled owner, whose percussive Korean accent gives her voice indelible authority, and reinforces an idea that she's a tough family matriarch, is pretty open about things. Like how she's an artist with scant time to work on her art and that she spends much time with her seven grandchildren. Or how her 28-year-old son fairly recently took ill and died. She points to a portrait she drew of him, which hangs framed in the bar as a tribute. He worked here sometimes, she says, and the regulars all loved him. And she loves them too. The regulars keep the place afloat.

"The customers don't pick us, we pick customers," she says, adding casually that it helps to have the man upstairs on the bar's side.

She relates a story about how one day a guy came in wearing a ski mask and pointed a gun at her.

"I didn't know who it was. 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."

The defeated 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 indeed form relationships with patrons, enough to feel protective at times. Tim, for example, hires Woody for Runway plumbing needs.

When Lee purchased the place it was still rooted in a blue-collar tradition that saw regulars cashing work checks at the bar on Fridays. But the bar's business has waned significantly. Tim says they wouldn't make it if not for his fulltime teaching.

What happened?

"Stiffer DUI laws. Culture changes. The revitalization in downtown may have hurt our business."

The Runway also got into trouble for things that, Tim says, were beyond their control. The Arizona Department of Liquor Licenses and Control came down on them a few years back when the bar was hosting hip-hop shows; someone pulled a gun in the parking lot, and some patrons smelled of spliff, which, Tim claims, they were smoking before they even came in. There were other infractions. Fines cost the bar nearly $8,000.

"We 86'd drug dealers when we first bought the place," Lee says, her voice lifting. "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!"

Why should they show up? There's no undercurrent of menace or casual aggression detected. Not now. But there is some magic.

Greg Rhetta's a gray-mustachioed guy, late 40s probably, who's in town from Vegas for work. It's his third in as many nights at The Runway and his talkative charm suits the milieu.

He slides a novel from his black leather messenger tote, which also contains another book and four decks of cards. He instructs me to go to a corner and select a single word from its 300 pages. "Handkerchief" it is, and I close the book and return it to him at the bar.

"Think of a word that begins with the letter of the word that 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 a stony silence. Then I say, "Jesus Christ!"

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

The jukebox plays Maroon 5's "Sunday Morning," which Rhetta sings to in perfect pitch, even adding a harmony. He knows every word. He's been doing this all night with about every song played on the juke. Dude's got a honeyed voice, like a black Elvis. I buy him a beer.

As we leave The Runway, Woody's going on about his dog: "Know why I call him Chance? Because I took a chance on him. ..." Then he Woodpeckers that laugh of laughs.

This story has been updated from it's original content.

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