CVIndependent

Thu05242018

Last updateWed, 27 Sep 2017 1pm

On the morning of March 7, a fire broke out near the kitchen of Bongo Johnny’s Patio Bar and Grille—about one hour before the Arenas Road restaurant in downtown Palm Springs was scheduled to open.

The Palm Springs Fire Department quickly put out the blaze—ruled an accident, after linens and oil-soaked rags in a laundry hamper spontaneously combusted—but by then, the damage was done: Bongo Johnny’s kitchen was essentially destroyed, while smoke and water damage closed three of the four other businesses in the building: Stacy’s at Palm Springs, Mischief Cards and Gifts, and the Palm Springs Piercing Company. Only Streetbar, located at the east end of the building, remained open.

More than two weeks later, those four businesses remain closed—and frustration is mounting over a Palm Springs City Council that Bongo Johnny’s general manager called unresponsive, as well as a landlord, Plaza Investment Company, Inc., that’s allegedly being uncooperative.

“My No. 1 goal is to rebuild, as soon as possible,” said Robb Wirt, the owner of Bongo Johnny’s. “The landlord is hindering that. At this time, it’s literally unknown when that will be. … They’re saying they aren’t responsible for the structure of the building. They are!”

Mark Hewitt, Bongo Johnny’s general manager, explained what was happening with the insurance companies, the landlord and the other three businesses.

“I don’t know if ‘fighting’ is the right word to use here,” Hewitt said. “When things like this happen, everybody has their own insurance company. Everyone needs to come to the table here, because at the end of the day, their building burned. Our business burned, and (the landlord’s) business burned. Unfortunately, the stance the landlord is taking is, ‘It’s all your fault,’ and they don’t want to bring their insurance company into it, because they want our insurance company to pay for everything. That’s not how the insurance game works.”

Plaza Investment Company, Inc., did not respond to an interview request as of our deadline.

Wirt said cleaning needs to get started at Bongo Johnny’s so the other three closed businesses in the building can reopen.

“The other businesses have smoke damage, and basically we just need to clean so they can start their process and open up while (Bongo Johnny’s) is under construction,” Wirt said. “We all share an attic space, so if we start cleaning, it’s just going to get dirty again, because the dust will go through the vents.”

Hewitt said they’ve appealed to the Palm Springs City Council for help. “I spoke to Mayor Robert Moon, and he told me, ‘I don’t want to get involved.’ He got involved in Wang’s (in the Desert) over vandalism, but he’s friends with the landlord, and that’s probably why he doesn’t want to get involved.

“It’s a nightmare. I’m under the impression that the City Council’s role is to help small businesses, because we bring in money to the city. I haven’t gotten any help. Geoff Kors hasn’t returned my calls; J.R. Roberts hasn’t returned my calls. I feel like the landlords don’t care. All of the tenants on Arenas pay rent to the same landlord, and (the landlord) hasn’t given back a single dollar to the LGBT community. Yet they take millions of dollars from us, and we all just pay our rent and taxes, and we get nothing out of it.”

Bongo Johnny’s will be closed for months. However, Stacy Louis, the owner of Stacy’s at Palm Springs, expressed hope that his bar could re-open by the end of March.

“There are so many things I’m dealing with, and I’ve never had to deal with anything like this before.” Louis said. “I’m more of the guy who goes with the flow and doesn’t create problems. But when we can’t get action immediately after we’ve had a fire like we did … I am frustrated.

“I actually paid my cleanup company, who was waiting for the landlord to authorize, which took four days and through a weekend. … I could get this going if I have (an asbestos) test, and it comes back at a little less than 1 percent—which it did. I had to wait four days for the second test to be done, because the landlord wouldn’t approve it. My cleanup person paid them out of his pocket to get this second test done so I could get going. I shouldn’t have had to sign a contract with my cleanup company to get started because I’m waiting for one insurance company to work with the other—and I just gave them $5,000 out of my own pocket.”

Stacy’s suffered damage from both smoke and the firefighters’ efforts to put out the fire.

“I have a few holes punched through my restroom, probably from the axes of the firemen, and I have water that’s come in through that same restroom and into the offices and the bar itself,” Louis said.

The employees of both Bongo Johnny’s and Stacy’s are being paid their hourly wages for the time being, Wirt and Louis said, but for Bongo Johnny’s, there’s a race against time: The insurance company will only pay for two months of wages, and Wirt said he is paying his staff what they would normally make in tips out of his own pocket.

“On his own accord, Robb has decided that the little bit of personal cash that he has, he’s going to use to make sure the employees are whole first,” Hewitt said. “But what we’re getting from the landlord is, ‘If you can pay your employees, why don’t you just pay for everything else?’ Three days after the fire, we got all of the employees together and said, ‘We want you back, but we don’t know how long this will be for as of today.’ We’re going to continue to pay them for as long as we can, which is not the narrative you want to give someone sitting at home thinking, ‘I wonder what’s going to happen in two months?’”

Louis said his employees have benefited from the kindness of his fellow Arenas Road business owners.

“I said to (my employees), ‘I will pay you for your hours, and if any of you need help because you’re not making your tips, you can come to me, and I will take care of you until we get this figured out.’ But I think the kindest thing that happened was (at Streetbar). Dick Haskamp, the owner of Streetbar, passed away a few days before the fire. The employees of Streetbar came to me and asked if it was OK if (Stacy’s bartenders) could fill in during the memorial service. I can’t even tell you how many tears that’s brought to my eyes. So we made it all happen. We got a schedule together, and they trained them. … During this (service), all the sales would be donated to Stacy’s, on top of the tips that they would make.”

Wirt said he’s been overwhelmed by messages of support from Bongo Johnny’s customers.

“I’ve been getting e-mails from people on Yelp, Facebook and through my website,” Wirt said. “They’re saying, ‘I just landed; I’m on my way.’ They get there; they find out we’re closed; and they’re like, ‘Oh my God, I always start my trip in Palm Springs at your restaurant.’ Bongo Johnny’s has been there for 12 years, and it’s iconic for the LGBT community. It’s their first stop when they get off the airplane, and I didn’t even realize that until this happened. Now they’re going somewhere else.

“People bring their dog because we’re dog-friendly. … (Customers) come in on a Friday night—and I can guarantee you they’re not eating anywhere else, because of how they might be dressed. They feel safe. Now that’s been taken away from them, and it’s a detriment to the community that we can’t reopen quicker.”


Following publication, we received this response from Geoff Kors:

I was surprised to see the statement that I didn’t return a call from the manager of Bongo Johnny’s, especially as your reporter never reached out to ask me about this issue or whether or not I received a call.

The fire occurred on the day that my husband’s mother died, March 7. We left for Scotland a few days thereafter and returned Tuesday night, March 20. During that time, I checked with our city manager about the situation and also spoke with a friend whose business was impacted due to the fire. I was told that both the mayor and Councilmember Middleton were working on the issue, and I would be briefed upon my return.

I never received any communication from Bongo Johnny’s, and checked with staff at City Hall today and was told that the only call that had been to the mayor, and it was from Rob Wirt. No message was left for me, and I was never informed of a call.

Published in Local Issues

What: The Super Cheesy Nachos

Where: Blackbook, 315 E. Arenas Road, Palm Springs

How much: $10; $14 with carne asada (as shown) or marinated chicken

Contact: 760-832-8497; blackbookbar.com

Why: This is an elevated version of a bar-food classic.

Blackbook has only been open for a couple of months in the old Café Palette space, but its take on elevated bar food has already developed quite a following.

Salads, tacos, burgers, fries and even a jacked-up hot dog are all on Blackbook’s menu—but I’d been hearing quite a lot about two of Blackbook’s offerings: the fried chicken sandwich ($12; you pick the level of spiciness), and the nachos.

The hubby and I met our friend Darrell at Blackbook for a recent Friday lunch. I was hoping to have the best of both figurative worlds—I could order the chicken sandwich as my entrée, and we could all split the nachos as an appetizer—but I was out of luck: Darrell was dieting, and the hubby has sworn off carbs, so they declined the nachos. Therefore, I decided to order the nachos with carne asada, and save the chicken sandwich for another visit.

Before I get to my gushing praise of the nachos, a complaint: The kitchen was rather skimpy with the carne asada. Each piece, while tasty, was tiny—and there weren’t a whole lot of pieces. Even for the relatively modest $4 up-charge, there should have been more.

As for the rest of the nachos … they were stellar. Fried corn tortilla pieces were topped with cheddar, Monterey jack, “Blackbook dark salsa” (which tasted like a good mole-esque enchilada sauce), tomatoes, green onions, sour cream and guacamole. Served in a cute tray, the gooey, delicious nachos made for a filling entrée—and they’d have been perfectly good as an appetizer, too, had my dining companions not been so darned high-maintenance.

Blackbook has elevated bar food a notch or two—and this is a very good thing.

Published in The Indy Endorsement

Just after 2 a.m. on Sunday, June 12, Omar Mateen walked into Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, Fla., and started firing at the 320 or so people who were still in the club after the bartenders announced last call. In the three terrible hours that followed, at least 50 people lost their lives.

The country woke up to this horrifying news on Sunday morning, and the LGBT Community Center of the Desert quickly assembled a vigil to be held at 6:30 p.m. on Arenas Road in downtown Palm Springs. 

Mike Thompson, the LGBT Center’s chief executive officer, explained how the vigil came together.

“It was really kind of a matter of minutes,” Thompson told the Independent. “A few people already coordinated some activities, so it was immediately getting together with them and organizing the community organizers. It was great to have something to rally around, and the support has been tremendous.”

Thompson said that he had not spoken with anyone at The Center, Orlando’s LGBT community center, but he said he was heartened to see how many similar vigils and events had been scheduled in solidarity with Orlando.

“I’m on a list with a bunch of other community centers, and it’s been phenomenal to see the kind of support that’s being shown. There are 152 events scheduled over the next couple of days in 32 states, including San Juan, Puerto Rico and in Mexico City. In a 12-hour period of time, what’s been able to come together when communities mobilize—it’s pretty fantastic.”

He said it was important for the vigil to be held on Arenas—the epicenter of gay nightlife in the Coachella Valley.

“Because this event in Orlando happened in a gay bar, and we had our own tragedy with George Zander on Arenas back in November, it was important for us as a community to gather on this street and show our solidarity in our community. This is significant on so many levels for this community.”

Richard Noble, who walked across America with the rainbow flag to promote LGBT civil rights, was present holding a sign that said “Enough Gun Violence.”

Mr. Palm Springs Leather 2016, Christopher Durbin, said he felt sadness, followed by anger, when he heard about what is now the deadliest mass shooting ever in the United States.

“Enough is enough,” he said. “We’ve had many incidents like these of gun violence in the past, and nothing is being done. Maybe with the largest and most severe one in American history, something will be done.”

Durbin said the vigil offered inspiration on what was otherwise a dark day.

“I am so filled with pride and joy right now. This incredible turnout happened in a matter of a few hours,” he said. “It is heartwarming to see, and it is incredible to see what can be done so quickly in our beautiful town of Palm Springs.”

Just before the vigil started, the Palm Springs Gay Men’s Chorus gave a beautiful performance of “God Bless America,” which resulted in some people choking back tears during the moment of silence that Thompson led, shortly before Congressman Raul Ruiz started to speak.

Ruiz spoke at length about the need for better gun-control laws.

“This is a time where we reaffirm our commitment to defeat terrorism around the international community,” Ruiz told the audience to applause.

At that moment, a man screamed, “Raul! What are you going to tell the NRA when you get back to Washington?”

Ruiz’s response: “I’m going to tell them to stop their bullshit!” he said to thunderous applause.

Ruiz ended his speech on a high note.

“I want to say that I stand with you; I mourn with you; and I dream of an equal America that demonstrates its greatness through the equality of its values, and I will always march with you,” Ruiz said.

When Palm Springs Mayor Robert Moon spoke, he emphasized that safety was a priority.

“I want to assure you as your mayor that the city of Palm Springs and your Palm Springs City Council recognizes public safety is the No. 1 responsibility of our city and our City Council,” Moon said.

Moon added a call for solidarity.

“We must put a stop to this violence and tragic loss of life,” he said. “We must continue to work together, to support one another, and not give up the fight for equality for every person in the United States—regardless of their gender, their gender identity, their age, their religion or their sexual orientation. Let’s keep fighting until we win this battle.”

The first of three religious leaders to speak was Rabbi David Lazar, of Temple Isaiah.

“Look where you are standing, because you’re standing on holy ground,” Lazar told the crowd. “We are sanctifying this ground, this street, this row of clubs by being here and saying and doing and just being here. We’re sanctifying this ground. A place where other people come to be together to hold hands and celebrate—that place was defiled. While we can’t go to Orlando right now to do what we’re doing, we symbolically do it here.”

Imam Reymundo Nour from the Islamic Society of Palm Springs spoke out in support of the LGBT community.

“The Islamic Society of Palm Springs wants you to know that we stand with other Islamic organizations, civic leaders, human rights organizations, the clergy and the LGBT community,” Nour said. “We stand together in condemning this senseless act of violence.” 

Imam Nour reminded attendees what happened to the Islamic Society of Palm Springs back in December—an attack which made national headlines.

“Recently, in December, our mosque was firebombed by an individual who had similar hate sentiments,” he said. “The LGBT community stood behind us, so we’re here to stand behind you today. We pray for the victims and their loved ones, and we urge the residents of our valley, we urge the citizens of our nation, to stand with them in their time of need as they stood with us in ours and consistently stand with us in our time of need against bigotry, hatred, and discrimination.”

Kevin Johnson, of Bloom in the Desert Ministries, referenced the jigsaw-puzzle pattern on the stole he was wearing.

“It is a time for drawing together, and we are doing that,” he said. “It is also a time when we are called to action. The ordination stole I am wearing right now is rainbow-colored puzzle pieces. I wear it because it represents the intersection of oppressions … in the LGBT community. Let’s eliminate the lines, but until that can happen, but like jigsaw puzzles, our communities are connected to one another, and we can live, support, and work for one another.”

Johnson said it was important to speak out against violence and included the old ACT UP slogan, “Silence = Death.”

“Thoughts and prayers are fine, but they are not enough,” Johnson said. “Ending this madness will take votes, and I encourage everyone of good faith to cast votes to elect leaders and pass laws to bring sensible gun laws into our communities.”

Lisa Middleton, a transgender woman who is a member of the Palm Springs Planning Commission and former board member at the LGBT Community Center of the Desert, choked up when she first started speaking.

“We remember Harvey Milk; we remember Matthew Shepard; and we remember Brandon Teena,” Middleton said. “We did not need another reminder, but now we have Orlando.

“I have news for the haters: You are going to lose! There are more of us than there are of them. We are stronger than they are; we are better organized; and we have a pulse. It is time that people like Omar Mateen cannot get an AR-15. It is past time for that to happen. We know the club he went to; we know why he went to that club; we know who he targeted; and we know who he was after. He’s not going to win. They have tried to stop us before, put us in jail for who we loved, fired us when we came out, tried to stop us from getting married—and it didn’t work out too well for them. We are stronger; we are together; and this is our town and our country. It is our time! We’re going to stand together. We will stand strong, and ladies and gentlemen, we shall overcome!”

Published in Local Issues

It was not just another Thursday night in downtown Palm Springs.

Thursday, Oct. 31, 2013, brought a confluence of events: the normal Thursday-night Palm Springs VillageFest. Halloween and, therefore, the third annual Palm Springs Zombie Walk. The beginnings of Palm Springs Pride's big weekend. Add these things together, and the result was a delightfully crazy evening.

The Coachella Valley Independent Crapcam roamed downtown on All Hallow's Eve; here are the resulting pictures. Enjoy!

Published in Snapshot

What: The Tuesday-night spaghetti with meat sauce

Where: Bongo Johnny’s Patio Bar and Grille, 214 E. Arenas Road, Palm Springs

How much: $6.95

Contact: 760-866-1905; www.bongojohnnys.com

Why: It’s delicious, bottomless and amazingly inexpensive.

The website announces: “Bongo Johnny's is one of the best neighborhood restaurants in Palms Springs.”

The strange “Palms Springs” reference aside, I agree with that assessment—especially on Tuesdays, when this Arenas Road, gay-friendly restaurant offers its “Italian Night” special.

For $6.95, one can get all the spaghetti with meat sauce that one can snork down, as well as either soup or salad. (If one wants to add a large, tasty, house-made meatball to the plate—and one probably should—add $2.50. For some out-of-this-world garlic bread, add another $2.50.)

The thing about the spaghetti with meat sauce is this: Not only is it a smokin’ deal; the food is actually quite good. The meat sauce is made by people in the kitchen who know what they’re doing; it’s flavorful, meaty and satisfying.

Can you find better restaurant spaghetti with meat sauce out there? Perhaps (although you won’t find it at those mediocre Italian-ish chains in Palm Desert or Rancho Mirage). Will you find all-you-can-eat pasta this good, and this inexpensive? I sincerely doubt it. (And if you do, let me know where, please.)

Unless you’re a vegetarian or in a 12-step program for gluttony, there’s no reason not to check out Bongo Johnny’s on Tuesday night. The service is friendly; the liquor is moderately priced; and the outside patio is a people-watching bonanza. (If you are a vegetarian, there are other items on the menu that’ll please you.)

For more on Bongo Johnny’s, check out the aforementioned website, or visit the restaurant’s page on Facebook, even if the page is impersonally robotic and features only two posts, repeated verbatim. (Every Tuesday, the page touts Italian night; and every Friday, it announces the Friday night ribs special.) It’s oddly creepy, for some reason.

So, yeah, Bongo Johnny’s online presence needs help. Thank goodness the restaurant’s spaghetti and meatballs plate does not.

Published in The Indy Endorsement

Here are some exclusive Coachella Valley Independent iPhone CrapCam images from the Arenas Road Halloween Costume Contest!

A crowd shot at the Arenas Road Halloween Costume Party.

The crowd watches as various winners are announced.

Check out those legs!

Check out those legs!

An orange wig. A funny hat. Why not?

An orange wig, and then headwear that looks like the bastard cousin of a Hot Dog on a Stick hat. Why not?

Not a bad Wednesday crowd in Palm Springs ... even if it is Halloween.

Non-costumed folk watch the costumed folk.

And finally, just in time for Star Wars: Episode 7 in 2015: A stormtrooper.

Published in Snapshot