A Winters Tale: Last Call at the Buckhorn

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Not long after I had settled in Winters, a young man asked me how in the world I had found the town he’d lived in all of his life, and coming from LA no less. “You must have heard about the Buckhorn,” he said. Well, to be honest, that wasn’t how we discovered Winters. But once here, it took mere milliseconds to realize that the iconic restaurant founded by John Pickerel 40 years ago is very much the beating heart of our small town. Last Friday, the coronavirus caused the heart of Winters to stop, at least for now. It was not an easy call to make, not an easy event for the town to take. That afternoon, Emarie VanGalio gave her team, the last seven employees not already furloughed, their marching orders. Gear up one last time, give it your best, stay optimistic. Victoria Vasquez, Bria Jimenez, butcher and line cook Bobby Suarez, chef Benjy Head, Bret Constantino, Vicente the dishwasher, and GM Richard Gay, would never stop moving. By five o’clock Emarie herself was feeling the pressure. Orders had been coming in on the internet since 10 a.m. One customer had set her alarm clock so as to place her order at the stroke of 10. When she entered her order, it was already number 61. While the staff cooked and packaged the meals inside, one by one a crowd began to congregate on the sidewalk and in the nearly deserted Main Street. All safely spaced, it reminded me of the cast of a Broadway musical, ready in place, waiting for the orchestra’s first note, about to burst into song. The energy was unique. Half the crowd knew the other half,  and in normal times would have talked, whispered, and gossiped among each other. There would have been hugs or handshakes among those who hadn’t seen each other in a while.  But on this warm summerlike evening, there was a palpable tension. Greetings were spoken in loud voices across the required six foot social gap. Short, clipped salutations, then silence. Customers would check in, then retreat to their self designated spots, and wait. Sometimes, it took a while.  Sometimes even longer than a while. Every now and then Emarie would dash outside, politely beg for patience, then disappear into the kitchen. The culture of politeness in Winters no longer surprises me. But I couldn’t help thinking had this been Los Angeles, no one would have been smiling.  Everyone would be complaining. Some might even have been phoning lawyers, threatening to sue should their batter dipped shrimp not appear in a timely manner.  Here, no one uttered a harsh word. This was, after all, akin to an inmate’s final meal. To undo any of the goodwill behind its cooking would have been sacrilege. It was a curious collection of people.  A white haired couple arrived in a black Mercedes. A couple of similar age and hair color wheeled in on bicycles from Davis. There was a blond haired man in a tie dyed t-shirt, shorts, macrame bracelets on his ankles, and hoop earrings.  (Also from Davis.) Mostly, it was a gaggle of town regulars.  Woody Fridae picked up a 10 pound tri-tip to roast at home. I saw Lynne Secrist, Sally Brown, Michael Mariani, Kim Stanford from Seva Space, Nora Cary. When orders were ready, names were called out. At one point, the name Lisa was shouted. A dusty, bearded contractor stepped forward, proof that wives do most of the ordering. Some people were masked. One woman was so cautious, she took a step backward each time someone took one step toward her, a kind of long distance waltz. One hungry fellow showed up in socks. He said he had left the house in a hurry. A staunch supporter of the Keep Winters Winters movement, Emarie made room for a table on which waiting customers could sign the Initiative petition, using a constantly sanitized pen. More than 50 did. Only a few who were asked refused. One of them, Troy Barnett boasted loudly, “I’ve lived here all my life. I don’t care what happens.” I made a mental note to nominate him for Citizen of the Year. Owing to political correctness, I suppose, Council Member Jesse Loren’s husband, Brian Bellamy politely declined to sign. Mayor Bill Biasi’s wife, Mona, critical of KWW on social media, also steered well clear of the petition table. Mayor Pro Tem Wade Cowan, who was working a remodel job across the street, and our two other Councilmen, must have decided to cook at home that night. In stark contrast, Richard Casavecchia, the Council candidate from nowhere, who came in a close third, grabbed the pen and participated with gusto. When I finally left at seven o’clock, there were still a dozen people waiting in place.   It made me think that sometimes a restaurant is more than just a place that sells food. The history of our town, its livelihood, its character, our friendships, our controversies–at one point or another, all of these lifelines intersect at the Buckhorn.   Only when it reopens, will we know that the world has returned to normal in Winters.]]>

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