San Diegans who refuse to modernize

Deep-blue collar

Peter Halmay.
  • Peter Halmay.
  • Image by Robert Benson

Cover photo by Robert Benson.

Cover photo by Robert Benson.

The Printer

“My buddy in San Francisco got his finger smashed in an old printing press. It actually turned the bone to powder. He had no phone in his warehouse to call for help, so he had to drive across the bridge with a rag wrapped around his hand. When he got to the hospital, they had to pull the tendon back down from here” — Tim Butler points to his shoulder — “and reattach it to his finger.”

Butler stands at a cluttered granite work counter in his letterpress print shop, where the newest machine is approaching 60 years old. The oldest press among them, a giant conglomeration of gnashing gears and exposed flywheels and metal rollers, dates back to the late 1800s. It is still in use. “Someone converted it to electric power in the 1950s,” he says.

“These machines are far too dangerous. Every day, I expose myself to serious injury. Even after 30 years of doing this, I have to walk into this building with a healthy dose of fear. The minute you become too complacent, you walk out of here with nine fingers.”

Tim Butler’s newest machine is 60 years old.

Tim Butler’s newest machine is 60 years old.

Butler is 48. He lives in Allied Gardens, just up the hill from his warehouse storefront in Grantville. He says he’s number seven of eight siblings. He divides his time between his shop, caring for his mother, and touring as bassist with a band named Sha Na Na, a gig that requires him to show up with all of his digits intact.

Modern digital presses look like lunch counters, and they surely don’t shear fingers off. But Butler is hardwired to doing things the old-school way. (“I find more satisfaction in figuring things out than in pushing a button.”) There’s also the allure of this manner of printing, called letterpress, being a dying art. “It’s an appreciation for the craft. And part of it is, if I don’t do this, it’s gonna die.”

It follows that with a warehouse full of such printing antiquity, Butler is also his own repairman. “I have to fix these presses, and I have to maintain them.” Finding parts can be tricky, if not impossible. “They [the press manufacturer] could have the part I need sitting right on their desk, and they still won’t sell it to me. Why? Because these machines are deemed to be old and unsafe.”

The band Slightly Stoopid rents the warehouse space next door; bass and drums reverberate while Butler finishes an order of party invitations to a fashion designer’s opening in New York. “The dude handles the Kanye West label. [He sells] a backpack that costs $5000,” he says. “And [he sells] 200-dollar T-shirts.”

Butler’s operation is a cross between a functioning business and a museum. Is this gear truly daily-user stuff, or is it here because it’s collectible? “I don’t set type every day, but I do still use it. Some of these fonts date back to 1859.” He pulls a large, black wood block with the letter R carved onto it from within a filigreed other-era metal drawer.

“I had a typesetting machine for a while. But it had 8000 moving parts and it weighed two tons. And you actually had to smelt lead, 5000-degree molten lead, just to make letters. With all of the environmental concerns, I said, ‘No more.’”

Vintage type, he says, lends an air of imperfection that designers sometimes find desirable. Artisans have come to Butler’s shop after trying in vain to duplicate the clunky look of an old printing press through photocopying, crumpling, and copying over and over again.

Butler learned printing just out of high school, from pressmen who typeset the pages of the daily newspaper. For emphasis, he drops a metal frame on his work counter. The frame makes a resounding thud. “The front page of the Los Angeles Daily News. December 4, 1941,” he says. It seems inconceivable that a human being could build an entire newspaper in this fashion. “This is why early newspapers were only six or so pages long.”

Tim Butler's vintage presses.

These days, a lot of Butler’s clients are brides. Over time, he’s learned to gauge future marital success by how couples act together during the ordering of wedding invitations. “These things are usually important to the bride, things like color and type and all that. But if the groom is wandering around the shop, grooving on the cool old equipment, and his wife asks for his opinion, and he says, ‘Whatever...’” Butler shakes his head.

He stays as busy as he wants. “There’s only a few more shops that do this kind of printing, maybe three or four.” He says there is no substitute for the look of letterpress printing. “But, yes, you could print on your home computer. You can go to Vista Print and get 500 business cards for free. You could go to Kinko’s. You can fake the embossed look, yes. But it doesn’t look right.”

Butler lays another square of silver Mylar on the back of a party invitation. He trims it with a blade and smooths it by rubbing the card on his T-shirt-covered belly. “It takes a high degree of patience,” he says about letterpress. “Not everybody can do what I do.”

The Street Magician

“The most money I’ve ever made? 72 dollars,” street magician Joseph Bremerthon says. “And, I’ve also come away with zero.”

“The most money I’ve ever made? 72 dollars,” street magician Joseph Bremerthon says. “And, I’ve also come away with zero.”

“Instead of saying ‘break a leg,’ we say ‘fat hats.’ At the end of every performance, you pass the hat. A fat hat means it came back full of money.”

Joseph Bremerthon, a street magician, is 23. He lives in La Mesa with his girlfriend in a house behind a house perched on the lip of a canyon. Feral cats — dozens of them — roam the property. Bremerthon called his place a shack once, and he was more or less right. There is just enough space in the front room for a floor mattress and a dresser, upon which rests a photocopy of Professor Hoffman’s Modern Magic, a book originally published in 1876.

“The most money I’ve ever made? Seventy-two dollars,” he says. “I’ve also come away with zero.” He laughs gently at his lot in life over a plate of bright-orange barbecued chicken wings. We are at a fast-food place on the boulevard. Of the zero-dollar hats, he says, “That happens more often than you think. I don’t know if you know this, but San Diego is the worst place in the entire world to be a street performer.” His voice escalates in volume.

“You’re in public, in front of a store, and you make a lot of noise, and you start doing a show, and these people, well, you’d think they’d wanna watch, but instead, they don’t even look. Like, you’re going to try to mess with them or something?” Does he think that by not looking, passersby will feel zero obligation to cough up any spare change? “Probably,” he says, “but not always.” Darker forces are at work: “They’re meaner here than they are in other places.”

Bremerthon comes off at first as clear-eyed and friendly and highly intelligent. But after a few minutes, a reporter detects an edge. He is guarded. One gets a sense that one is being sized up. According to Bremerthon, it is the job of a street magician to be friendly, but to project an image that people won’t want to mess with. He talks about downtown drunks wandering into his show and wetting themselves, about people trying to take his money.

“This is a living. Yeah. Definitely. Have you ever heard the term ‘busker’? That’s what we call ourselves,” he says of his fellow street performers. “There’s a lot of us, you know? And, we’re working for a living. One of the first things we try to banish is the concept in people’s heads that we’re panhandling.”

Born in Oceanside, Bremerthon says he left home at the age of 17 and migrated south. He found residence in downtown San Diego. “I went to college for welding — for two years, actually. And then I realized I was a better salesman than a welder.” He found steady work in the malls at kiosks. “I like this better,” he says of being a magician. “This is what I want to do. I didn’t like any of the other jobs that I’d had.” He says he was, at times, homeless.

“I was unemployed for about six months. Then I saw a guy at Seaport Village named Jim Talks-a-lot. He’d been doing street magic for a long, long time. He kind of became my mentor. He’s someone who has almost led our organization.” An organization of street magicians? “We don’t have meetings and talk about stuff, but there’s this group of street magicians, you know, and we all know each other.”

Bremerthon admits to being the only one of the group who works the traffic medians. But instead of a cardboard sign, he has an oxblood suitcase that reads “Magic Show.” While the left-turn light is red, he stands in front of his temporarily captive audience and makes things, such as a blue silk scarf, disappear and reappear. “Everybody asks me if I can pull it out of my ass.” He laughs. Does he oblige? “Never.”

“The rudest thing that ever happened to me at a median was when one lady unbuckled and actually stood up on the seat of her car and leaned over the window and flipped me off.” She’d gotten stalled at the turn light while a patron a few cars up dug around in her purse for spare coins. “No, it didn’t hurt my feelings. I used to be a salesman.” He giggles. “Come on.”

Joseph Bremerthon performs some of his act.

Bremerthon works two or three select traffic medians in La Mesa through all manner of weather, including winter chill, rain, and East County summer heat. “His neck goes from white to purple to red to brown,” says his girlfriend. He works in a vest over T-shirt and jeans and a gray fedora.

“Police have run me off the median quite a few times. A couple of beggars tried to put me off my work spot, too, but I don’t let them. If they were there first, I’m okay with that, but I’m not confrontational. You know what I mean? It’s how I make a living.” He says he tries to earn $50 a day. Can he and his girlfriend live on that? “Barely.” They use public transportation and they share a cell phone. Rent on the shack comes to $600 per month. “We’re behind right now. But it’s all good.”

He says he plans to be a street magician for life. “I picked the street, because it’s the hardest place to do magic. I knew I could get better at my craft [at the street level] than anywhere else.” He says he practices all the time when he is not working. “My act is close-up and with no gimmicks. Everything I use in my show was gotten from a Home Depot or a Walmart. Okay, I got a [fake] thumb. That’s really the only thing that came out of a magic store.”

“When the question comes up, and it does,” says professional matchmaker Elle France, “I establish immediately that I don’t date my clients.”

“When the question comes up, and it does,” says professional matchmaker Elle France, “I establish immediately that I don’t date my clients.”

The Matchmaker

Elle France lives in Rancho Santa Fe. She could pass for a model, even a rock star. “Steven Tyler’s sister. I hear that all the time. It’s my mouth. I have a big mouth. Not what comes out of it, but big in shape.” France is alert, and perhaps a touch wired. “I’m very hyper. I move around a lot.” She laughs easily. “I pouf my hair a lot.” She does. “I’m not an incredibly social person myself, but I love people.” A contradiction in terms? “Yes. I like people, but I like to get in and get out quick.” She does not waste much time on small talk. “I’m very intuitive.”

Retired after a decade of working for No Fear clothing, France works now as a professional matchmaker. She is self-employed. With her glam air, she seems precisely the type of person one would want as representative for the sourcing of their dates. What man, in fact, would not actually want to date France herself?

“When the question comes up, and it does, I establish immediately that I don’t date my clients.” But she admits that the fine art of matchmaking encourages a certain level of intimacy. “They [the clients] tell me things that I know they wouldn’t initially tell their dates, so our relationship definitely takes on a whole different meaning.” Her clients are well-heeled and spend upwards of $10,000 for her services. “I’m like a sports agent, only better, because I know how women think, and they don’t.”

How do women think?

“A lot of women are with a guy socially simply because they don’t want to be at home alone. Don’t you ever wonder, when you go out, What the heck am I doing here? When I interview a client, he tells me exactly what he wants. Then I set up dates. I make all the reservations. I do everything.”

Compared to the reach of the internet, matchmaking seems a painstaking and even fallible process. But technology such as internet dating puts an unnatural spin on romance, France says. She calls it “a really odd way to meet someone.” But, most all of her clients do try online dating before coming to her.

“One client had picked out a date based on a picture, and when he got to the place they were supposed to meet, the elevator opened and this beautiful girl walked out. But the beautiful girl kept walking. She was not his date. Behind her in the elevator was the actual date, and when he saw her, he was, like, ‘Oh, my gosh.’ She looked nothing like her picture.”

France frowns on messaging and texting as well. “I’m sure most people don’t say half the things in person that they do in an email or a text. Why? Because it’s easy to text. And it’s very superficial.” She thinks the right way to connect potential love interests is via old-school direct communication and referral: face to face.

“I feel great when I can call a client and tell them I met someone today that I really think they will enjoy meeting as well. When I go to sleep at night, I know that I gave my best that day to finding the right person for my client. I did it, not a computer.”

Where does France go prospecting for potential matches? Craigslist? “Oh, no. All day long, every day, I walk around and I meet people. Right here, in fact [we are at a Del Mar coffee shop]. On a Saturday morning, if I see someone who fits a description, I’ll walk right up and introduce myself. ‘Hi, I’m a matchmaker, and I have a client that I think might be right for you.’

Elle France demonstrates her process.

“I’m on the hunt all day long. I like that. And then, when I do interview them, I have a number of questions, and I get an idea if this person is gonna be anywhere near what my client wants.” Her clients, she says, are very specific. “No nail polish, for example. A lot of guys say they want a natural woman, an all-natural girl. Some guys are so turned off by the high-maintenance woman. Especially in this area of San Diego.” She looks at her own nails. “I don’t wear any nail polish.”

She makes another sporting reference when she compares herself to Jerry Maguire: “Tell me what you want, and I’ll get it for you. I know a lot of matchmakers that give advice, but if I tell a guy, ‘Look, you should be dating 40-year-olds,’ and he doesn’t want a 40-year-old, then why am I gonna give him a 40-year-old? In the end, he’ll be happier with a 30-year-old.”

The client base at present is predominately male, she says, but more women are coming onboard. “I give them a completely different perspective on how men think, different than what their girlfriends say. It’s all about stepping back and listening before jumping in to react with the opposite sex. I like to see the accident before it happens, and prevent people from making the same mistake over and over.”

France notices a reporter eyeing an attractive woman who has entered the coffee shop solo. She laughs. “Want me to go over and see if she’s single?” No, that won’t be necessary. But she pulls out a business card and walks over anyway and introduces herself. She comes back after a few moments, smiling, still with her business card in hand, and sits down. “She has a boyfriend.”

The Studio Engineer

Why analog, as opposed to digital, recording? “Because of the sound,” answers Thomas Yearsley, owner of Thunderbird Analog Recording Studio. “It’s super punchy, crisp, and clean.”

Why analog, as opposed to digital, recording? “Because of the sound,” answers Thomas Yearsley, owner of Thunderbird Analog Recording Studio. “It’s super punchy, crisp, and clean.”

“Let me put this record on.” Thomas Yearsley is running about the rooms in a blue sweatshirt and jeans and black Converse tennis shoes. “I use records to set all the recording levels.” A shelf on the wall holds hundreds of old albums, and a jukebox near the front door still plays 45s. In fact, everything about this place is old. For starters, years ago it was the Oceanside Department of Motor Vehicles.

The original DMV linoleum floor is still in place, and Yearsley will show you the wear-spots made by thousands of shoes where lines once formed at a service counter. As a teenager, Yearsley got his vehicle registration at that counter, the same spot where a high-school classmate named Dave Gonzales got his learner’s permit. Both Yearsley and Gonzales would go on to start a band named the Paladins that would ultimately rocket them out of their home base in North County and on to international fame.

This is now Thunderbird Analog Recording Studios in Oceanside. Yearsley is both the owner and chief engineer. Tonight, the Honkys are coming in for their weekly recording session. It’s been going on four years with the Honkys, a roots trio that consists of brothers Bret and Broy Hazzard and bassist Sean McCarty.

The building was also a Mexican record label at one time. It was they, Yearsley explains, who reconfigured the old DMV into a recording studio, now decorated in the sea greens and burnt oranges beloved in the 1950s. Wooden tiki heads and glass jaguars and such line the shelves, along with a San Diego Music Award trophy. The lighting is pale pink and green. The electronic gear is vintage eight-track-tape recording stuff taken straight from a page in recording history.

Earlier in the day, Yearsley cooked up a pot of pastrami, and condiments and snacks and side fixings are laid out on a table in a side room. “The Honkys’ll be here for six hours tonight,” he says. “I don’t want anybody to have to take a break and go out for a pizza.” There is also a full bar at Thunderbird. When the band members arrive, shots of brandy circulate.

Yearsley explains that all sound at Thunderbird is captured with vintage microphones that run directly into a 32-channel console built in the 1980s by Malcolm Hill in England. Everything is recorded on analog tape first, and then stored and edited digitally. An aging Sony/MCI tape recorder is the workhorse at Thunderbird. In these days of laptop recording, the mixing table looks like something out of Mission Control.

“It’s hard to say how much this stuff is worth. I spent a lifetime running around the country, picking this equipment up from thrift stores and junk shops, and from other recording studios that were financially distressed. Talk about a replacement value? I tried to get it insured for fire and theft for $80,000, but that wouldn’t put me back in business. The piano alone is worth $25,000.”

Who repairs all this aging but spotless gear? “Steve Sadler. He’s based out of Nashville. He actually worked at the Sony/MCI factory and built these things.” Yearsley is referring to the tape machine. “I pay him an annual subscription fee to answer any questions at any time of day.” Another guy, he explains, services the tube gear. And another guy handles repairs on the jukebox.

“I have another guy for the computer. But everybody knows how to use one of these.” Yearsley bumps the mouse, and the monitor screen flickers to life. He attempts to count the number of tracks the Honkys have recorded at Thunderbird over the past several years: it is well into the hundreds.

Yearsley buys one-inch magnetic recording tape at a cost close to $200 per reel from a manufacturer in Holland via a broker in Burbank. “That whole reel passes over the recording heads in 15 minutes at 30 inches per second.”

Why cling to tape? “Because of the sound. It’s super punchy.” Yearsley finds it superior to digital recordings. “Crisp, and clean. Iron oxide [the active ingredient on recording tape] is everywhere. It’s in outer space. It’s in the earth. It’s in your blood. It is one of the most common of elements. The iron in this tape has been in its form for millions of years. And as long as it sticks to the Mylar backing, we’re good.”

Yearsley says that, in fact, he did record an entire Paladins CD digitally. But when he took the final tracks to be mastered, the music didn’t sound nearly as bright or as crisp as the three previous Paladins records made using analog tape gear. “The mastering engineer says to me, ‘Okay, maybe you should think about going back to using tape.’”

A lot of Yearsley’s education came from the crew of a now-defunct Hollywood recording studio called Gold Star. “Phil Spector’s ‘wall of sound’? It was developed there. That was his home studio. I take breakfast with those guys [the retired engineers from Gold Star] on Tuesdays. They gave me some Army field manuals, some electronics books. I began reading and relearning stuff I learned in the eighth grade.

“And then I began to look at the way people have energy, and how they gather energy. The flow of atoms. You start thinking about this too much, you’ll realize there’s this release of subatomic material in the energy in cables and lights and in people.” By way of example: “When the right guys are performing onstage and the right guys are running sound and people are in the right mood? It’s an electrifying experience.”

The Fishmonger

“It’s something you get used to,” Peter Halmay says, “ice-cold water.” Halmay, 70, is a self-employed fisherman, a sea-urchin diver. As many as five days each week, he straps on scuba gear and drops to the ocean floor off Point Loma to pluck urchins from the rocks with a pry tool he calls a rake.

With the exception of sharks, rough water conditions, and poor visibility, it’s a fairly meditative gig, the harvesting of urchins, alone in the watery darkness. To begin with, the prey doesn’t move very fast. “We seeded the area by planting young urchins in the kelp beds. Five years later, they’d only moved about 20 feet.”

Halmay, from Lakeside, left a paying job as a civil engineer back in the 1970s to take up first abalone, then urchin diving. “There’s some kind of pleasure in hard work. That’s been forgotten by this generation. That’s gotta be renewed. If you love hard work, you could get into fishing. But, no, kids are told they gotta go to college. And after, they all get jobs at McDonald’s to pay off their degrees.”

Luke Halmay, Peter’s son, is 23. He attends Grossmont College as an undeclared major. “Fishing could be decent,” he says, “if it comes back.” He says his dad made a good living at it years ago.

“The problem is,” Peter Halmay says, “we still get 1980 prices. We gotta invent a different way of selling.” To that end, he has long talked about setting up a dockside fisherman’s market, where the fresh catch of the day can go from “the boat to the throat.”

Luke Halmay spends his weekends doing exactly that, along with his friend Zack Roach, 32. They sell the day’s catch Saturdays from 8:00–11:00 a.m. As advertising, they have a large glass display aquarium full of living sea creatures. Over the side of the dock, dangling in the bay currents, wire traps are filled with crabs and other shellfish for sale.

“This is the start,” Peter says. “The boys decided to do it. The environmentalists beat us up. We can’t get more fish. So we gotta make more money per fish. And marketing is the key.” As a fisherman, did he ever think he’d ever use a word like marketing? “No.”

Luke’s marketing plan now includes a Facebook page named after his father’s boat: the Fish Addiction (with 369 “likes” as of this writing). “I did farmers’ markets for a few years,” he says. “I send out an email blast every Thursday.”

Two well-dressed Asian families arrive. One man sees something he likes in the display tank. Luke hoists a dripping, nightmarish beast aloft. “Are you saving this spider crab for someone?” he asks his father.

“No,” Peter says.

Luke makes a deal with the buyer and the thing goes into a paper sack. One of the women is fascinated by the urchins. She says the Asian name for them translates to “sea liver.” They buy several of them, along with rock crabs, sardines, and whelks.

“Kellet’s whelks,” Peter explains. “It’s a snail. I gave some to Andrew Spurgin, the chef. He pickled them.”

The difference in direct-sale urchin prices is significant. “I get 80 cents each from the wholesaler but five dollars each when I sell direct to the customer.” Who exactly are the Halmays’ customers? “Asians, Samoans, and the slow-food community…Asians seem to prefer the female rock crabs. They want the eggs.”

Everything not sold goes to restaurants or the wholesaler, lest the freshness wear off.

“By April or May, after lobster season ends,” says Peter, “we’ll start seeing a wide variety of fin fish here, too. The key is to convince the other fishermen that this is the new way.” He waxes somewhat poetic about the lore of the fisherman.

“The counterman at the Safeway has no stories. When we talk about our mussels or our oysters or our shellfish, we know what we are talking about because we caught it.”

Otherwise, he says, a huge percentage of the fish Americans consume is imported. Some of it is harvested here, exported, and then reimported.

Halmay knows that his idea to sell directly off the boat to consumers is not particularly new or original. During the 1920s and ’30s in San Diego, there were fish markets along what is now the Embarcadero. They bought from local fishermen. “This was before the tuna industry and the canneries came here.”

But the boatside market is only phase one of Peter Halmay’s vision. He is working with an attorney named Peter Flournoy on negotiations with the Port of San Diego, with plans to move the operation up to the sidewalk area and off the dock, as soon as there are more interested parties selling product. Peter, Luke, and Zack also represent five other fishermen. Peter wants to limit who can sell what. He’s forming a corporation. “It’s the orderly running of the market.” In his vision, between 8 and 12 fishermen will provide product to the market the first year in business.

“For Zack and Luke to exist,” says Peter, “it’s gotta go back to direct marketing for this industry to survive. But nobody knows how to cook sardines anymore.”

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The "street magician" needs to get a job.

And $10K for a matchmaker?!?!?! I have to wonder exactly what that buys you. All the matches you want until you get married?

This was a brilliant article! I read today while getting outpatient treatment at Kaiser. I love the small and purposeful businesses. It isn't really about modernization as much as it is good hard work, values, and keeping things authentic. Life cannot be lived on a playstation! Studio Engineer and Fish Monger my favotires!! Cuz, well, I love sustainable music & food. I would LOVE to see a fish market in SD!!! When I was a young adult in Sacramento - my favorite market was the one on Saturdays 6 a.m. - 9 a.m. under the freeway - fish, flowers, and produce - that's it.

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