Thursday, March 28, 2013

Chinatown Locksmith Retires a Role

Archie's trademark glasses
 No more fiddling, cycling and philosophizing -- for now.

By David Owens
Azteca Theater

This month, at the age of 84 years, Archie Wood decided it was time to move on. He hung up his bow, lay down his fiddle and closed his toolbox. And it was not entirely to his liking.  "I have a good situation going in Chinatown," Archie said.  "But those doctors think they have a right to tell you what a man can do!"  Doctors at the Veterans Hospital told Archie they would not release him until he moved to a place among other people who could help with cooking and check on him.   A social worker found him a room and board opening and he was at first agreeable under the condition they let him set up his locksmith equipment there, but that did not work out.  And Archie, in typical strong-minded action, caught a bus up to Portland, Oregon where he seems content to be and already has found some lock work.
Chinatown's mobile locksmith

When Archie Wood first came to Fresno Chinatown, already past the usual age for retirement,  there were no master locksmiths in the area. You could find a guy to make keys, but not more.   I rented him a place next to Jazzy Jeans in the D'Italia Hotel building at Fresno and F Streets.  Soon he was the go-to-guy  for  lock and door work in the area.  Car lockouts and safe work were fine,  the more challenging, the better.  He prided himself as a master locksmith.

Archie talked for long spells about the virtues and virtuous nature of being a locksmith. About how the locksmith had to be the most honest man in the neighborhood. "A locksmith is the only man you can not provide security against.  If he wasn't honest, you have no security," Archie would explain.

Then he might tell a story about how Mr. Linus Yale revolutionized security in 1868 with the invention of the pin tumbler lock, which is still in use today.  If Archie trusted you, he would pull out a lock tumbler mechanism and show you the ingenious parts.

"There ain't no more interesting profession than a locksmith, I learn something new everyday."

Everything within reach

Early in Archie's time in Chinatown he found that mobile locksmithing expanded his work possibilities and he had a pickup truck he would take out on service calls. Eventually he figured he better quit driving and made a Saroyanesque profile downtown riding his one-speed bicycle everywhere, with tools in his front basket and supplies on a rear rack.  

When Archie was not too busy tinkering with locks, he would play fiddle and guitar. He even started teaching violin to some local Chinatown kids.   He would tell stories about being one time on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry, but that he had a lot of practicing to do before he would get another chance.

Proud to be a veteran, Free Mason, and a Capricorn, Archie was always good for an opinion. Early on I learned he did not like to be told what to do. I reminded him that a Capricorn is a stubborn old goat, to which he agreed and added, "and honest, responsible, hardworking, unyielding and persistent!"   Like I said, stubborn.  I confessed to him that I was a Capricorn as well.   After that I think he trusted me.

Fresno Chinatown is a crazy mix of people from all races, economic standing and psychological profiles.  Always has been and always will be an area of true Diversity with a capital D. 
Archie -- a veteran, Mason, of Anglo heritage and a free thinking  conservative -- definitely held a minority spot.  He kept a sign on the wall you usually see at restaurants, "We reserve the right to refuse service to anyone." And the whole diverse world came through Archie's door.  Usually he could work with folks, but if he found someone being dishonest or trying to steal something he was quick to show them the door.  Like many merchants in Chinatown, Archie literally carried a big stick in case things got out of hand.

 This was the late 1990s in Chinatown, the merchants in the area organized  Chinatown Revitalization Inc, funded partially with city funds, and started placing identifying benches, trash cans and banners in the area. Once a month there was a big Fat Friday Festival on F Street and -- with participation of the Old Fire Station #3 -- held a hugely successful  Chinatown Jazz Festival every Fall.  We were trying to make suggestions to business owners and landlords in how to improve the neighborhood for the benefit of those who did business downtown.  Archie the Master Locksmith was a nice addition to what I was doing at the D'italia Hotel during this golden period of revival that held for a few years.   (Until the city entered into an agreement for a master developer for Chinatown which ended the advancement, but that is another story)

Always you could see Archie on his bicycle in a white shirt, thick black glasses and baseball cap,  attending to business and life in Chinatown.  Several times he tried to hire assistants so he could expand his business and help someone come into hsi noble trade. But always they seemed fall short, with a limitation of honesty or secret addictions. One woman I remember he was training to assist  in the business suddenly was there no longer. I always wondered if it was because Archie found out that  she was a man?  Archie could be tolerant, but he demanded honesty and integrity.

One day I got a call from Archie, "David, I can't stay here no more.  I've got to go. It's your manager, he's trying to tell me what to do. He don't respect me!"   Pride, integrity, stubbornness. Yes, the Capricorn butted heads sometimes.    Archie moved into a building down F Street owned by a man known as "The Reverend."  I am not sure what happened, except Archie had even less tolerance for someone who pretended to use a higher power  to get him to do things their way.
Over 4,000 blanks

I got another phone call. "David, I don't know what to do. I can't stay with these folks anymore, they don't respect me."  He had some choice words to reflect this disrespect for his new landlord which I will not repeat.  I told Archie I already rented his old place out to a natural food supplement place.

Then I had an idea. I was just getting another building in shape, the Peacock Department store building in the 900 block of F Street.  On the right side of the building was a small and ancient shoe shine shop that had been operated for years by "The Greek."  It was essentially a 4-foot door on to F Street that went back about 30 feet.  It filled the space between buildings and had been closed for years.  There was a row of old shoeshine chairs. (Incidentally, behind the shop is an old air conditioner unit that cooled by running cold water through coils. The Peacock Department Store was the first air conditioned store in Fresno.)

Eclectic and interesting- lunch with Archie
Soon I offered Archie a room upstairs over the old department store and the shop below for business.   There were 17 rooms upstairs that shared a large communal kitchen and two large bathrooms. It was owned by a Chinese family who rented the rooms out  to Philippine girls who worked in the fruit packing houses a few blocks away. (This was before the "anti-suspender laws" and redevelopment in the  1960s removed most residential housing in the area and killed local business. Chinatown was the area of Fresno men would come every morning to find work on the farms and rent rooms and find entertainment at night.)  The Peacock Rooms would be called a fancy boutique hotel in San Francisco, however, it was worker accommodations and low income housing in Fresno. Rooms ran around $10 a night and many rented out by the hour.

So Archie hung his sign out on F street and continued as a master locksmith. This was fine for years.

 About 2002 Archie got the idea that he ought to semi-retire, he had acquired diabetes and some sign of age and decided to move to a veterans soldier home in White City, Oregon.  So off he went, intent on helping with keys and locks and living out his time with other vets.  Well, something was not right. They would not him fix locks and live there. He had to be 100% retired.

As can be imagined Archie did not like them telling him that and he caught a bus back to Fresno.  I was out of the country renovating some apartments in Russia.
When I cam back and learned that Archie called Jazzy, the manager at the D'italia Hotel, and  put together a plan.

Master Locksmith at Azteca Theater 2013
I had started work on the Azteca Theater and had one small commercial unit, vacant in the building.  They went down there and essentially broke into the building and Archie installed himself as a tenant.  The burglar alarm went off and the Fresno Police and ADT alarms were busy trying to find me. Good luck, I was in Russia!  By the time I found out, Archie was happily back in business in the Azteca Theater building.  When I returned to Fresno I wanted to be mad, but Jazzy handed me the rent and the lease and I could only say thank you!

I rented Archie a place of business four times in three different buildings over the years.  As long as I let him do things his way he was happy and a model citizen. Another time he moved to Portland, Oregon and got an apartment and seemed happy. He sold me his equipment and I was in the process of clearing out the unit.  All personal stuff was taken away in shopping carts by a indigenous "homeless" man I knew to be generally honest and friendly with Archie. 

Violin strings, keys and Navy seal
A week later Archie called and he was at the bus station.  It rained too much in Portland and it did not suit him.  This time I had not rented out his place yet and Archie was able to return to an empty shop.  However, when Archie saw our indigenous friend it turned out he had saved all Archie's stuff in a vacant building nearby and Archie had his stuff back. 

This time Archie my stay in Portland.  As he can be Archie Wood, Master Locksmith, and pick up the fiddle to relax, he'll be happy. 

And in Chinatown, we miss his fiddling and tinkering. And wait for his fifth return!

840 F Street, Chinatown, Fresno 2013