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Lives & Times of Valley Folks: Elaine Busse

I met Elaine at her home on Gschwend Road a couple of miles back beyond the Christine Woods region. I was greeted by the 14-year old Chocolate Lab, Pepper, and 7-year old McNab Mix, Ziggy, before Elaine and I sat down with coffee and water and began our chat.

Elaine was born in 1961 to parents Salvador Rubal­cava and Sara Gallegos in the town of Maywood in Los Angeles County. Her father was born in Tampico on the Pacific coast of Mexico and came to the States when he was thirteen. He later served in the U.S. Army for four years and became a prominent radio personality on the Spanish stations in LA and on the nightclub scene and also worked in the used car business. Elaine’s mother was born in Oceanside, California and her family was also from Mexico, with her father a migrant worker splitting time between Mexico and the States for many years. They moved full-time in the 1920s and Sara is one of eleven children, five of them half-siblings with the same father. Salvador and Sara were married and had four children — Louis, Elaine, Irma, and Cynthia. “My Dad also had had four other children with four other women prior to being with my mother. He was often not around and we found out later he had a whole other life away from us.”

When Elaine was a small child, her mother moved with Louis and her to Santa Barbara to stay at the home of Elaine’s grandfather, Francisco. “For a time we moved back and forth but settled in Santa Barbara when I was five and that’s where I grew up for the next twelve years, going through Elementary, Junior High, and most of High School there... The town was not like it is now, although there were certainly tourists. Now when we visit it’s crazy. When I lived there the town would be quiet on some days — Sundays were like Sundays in Ukiah now — deserted.”

Elaine’s mother did daycare and was also a seam­stress at a dry cleaners for extra money. Elaine’s father sent money and would visit once every couple of months. “My Mom busted her butt to support us. My Dad was not around but I didn’t know any different so it wasn’t strange to me at the time. My mother’s side of the family was all around us in Santa Barbara and we went to lots of family functions. I had twenty cousins or so in town. I was the oldest and would baby-sit many of the others. My social scene was mostly with a girlfriend, Linda, who lived a block away. We were fairly well behaved and didn’t party every weekend, spending most of our time on skateboards. That was a very big thing for me. I went everywhere on that thing. I guess I had lots of acquaintances and just a few close friends. Then I had a steady boyfriend in my sophomore and junior years. I really enjoyed school. I was upset if I ever got sick and couldn’t go. I was not a good academic but I did enjoy the social life at school and with my junior high just three blocks away in one direction and my high school three blocks in the other, I walked to both. My favorite subject was art and I did like history but I didn’t absorb very much. I played volleyball and ran track — the mile. I worked part-time jobs when I was at school. My grandfather had a Mexican restaurant and I bussed tables there when I was about fourteen. My Mom used to work there too as a cook for a time. She was always working but she never complained. She is an angel and tries to think well of everyone but will not tolerate a complainer for very long. Later, in my high school years, I worked as a counter clerk at the dry cleaners after school and one day at the weekend.”

In the summer of 1978, between Elaine’s junior and senior year, her father bought a house for the family in Bell Gardens, a suburb of LA “It was absolutely horrible for me to move and to go to this place which was no comparison to my life in Santa Barbara. It was emotion­ally very traumatic. I’ve advised parents here that the child has to want to move if that trauma is to be avoided. It can be so upsetting.”

Elaine was mature beyond her years and liked to dress stylishly too. “I guess I often stood out in a crowd as I carried myself well and dressed a little differently. I had helped mother a lot and was always taking care of my younger cousins so perhaps in some ways I was quite a bit older and wiser than many in my class.”

Elaine attended Bell Gardens High School and as part of her PE class she took weight training in the gym. “The social studies teacher, Dennis ‘Buzz’ Busse, used to work out there too and we used to run together after the class. There was no attraction there on my part. He was a charming man but we were just friendly.”

A couple of years earlier, in 1977, Dennis had men­tioned to an old girlfriend who was living in Sebastopol that he wanted to buy some property in the Mendocino area and she had suggested this area to him. He and a friend, Chris Wallace, a former student of his who was married to D’Ann Wallace (who was to later own the Horn of Zeese), started to look around the Valley. There was nobody on Gschwend Road year-round at that time except perhaps Hayes and Linda Brennan but when they drove back in past the private road gate they ran into Thor and Leona Robertson who were visiting their land. They told them that Mary Bell, the recently widowed retired schoolteacher wanted to sell her parcel nearby and shortly afterwards they bought her twenty acres for $12,500.

“Going to college was not really on my radar although I could have gone to Cal State Long Beach and sometimes wish I had, looking back. Because my high school in Santa Barbara had been so good, I was ahead of the class so during my senior year I was able to work in the afternoons at a Fosters Freeze, which is like a Dairy Queen. During that year at school I took a Regional Occupation Program in banking and when I graduated in June 1979 a friend of mine and I both got jobs at the local Bank of America. Around that time, Dennis came up to work on his property and then went to the Caribbean for a month’s vacation. When he returned we started to date and I got to know him better although I was in Bell Gardens with my mother and he was in Huntington Beach, 35 miles away. I continued to work at the bank and tried to get as much time off in the summer to coincide with his school vacation and we were able to travel a lot. To some people the twelve-year age differ­ence was eye-roller stuff but we didn’t care and were married four years later in 1983 and I moved into his house in Huntington Beach. We lived for twelve years and raised our sons. Travis was born in 1987 and then Tyler in 1990. I moved to a couple of different branches with the BofA and went part-time at the Costa Mesa branch in Orange County when the kids were young. We’d go up to Anderson Valley for a couple of weeks in the summer and by 1990 Dennis had begun work on building the house.”

Back in 1981, along with Chris Wallace and his father, and Buzz’s sister, Dennis had bought Thor’s par­cel on Gschwend Road when Leona died and that’s where Elaine, buzz and the kids stayed when they visited although it had no power and was very basic. “Dennis had always wanted to live here. Ever since we’d met I’d known that and so when we finally moved here full-time in the summer of 1994, with our four and six-year old kids, I was fine with it. Buzz kept his job in Southern California for a year and would drive up every weekend, eight hours each way; otherwise I was here alone with the kids and worked part-time at the BofA in Ukiah for three days a week. Buzz could not find work here although he was close a couple of times at both Mendo­cino and AV High School. It was tough but finally he became a long-term substitute teacher for the Athletic Director at Ukiah High and got the job permanently a year later. Our kids went to Anderson Valley until high school, which they attended in Ukiah where Buzz taught.”

Elaine and Buzz knew few people in the Valley with her work in Ukiah and him doing twelve to fourteen hours at the high school over there. “I had become friends with Alexis Moyer, when I’d taken her summer pottery class some years earlier, and also others in the class such Eileen Pronsolino, Pat Daniels, and Linda Baker, and then once the kids were in school I gradually got to know others here, plus neighbors, the Tripletts and Smiths, although overall I did not have much contact with most of the Valley. By 1998 I had become tired of the bank. It had been nearly 20 years by that time and had become all big business bullshit. I needed to do something else. One day I was at Lemons’ Market in Philo and was talking to Yolanda Ibarra at the meat counter. Her son Rodolfo and Travis were the same age. She told me that Valerie Gowan had just quit at the Boonville Hotel and although Jeanne Eliades had taken over the job there might be something else available there. I knew Jeanne from playing volleyball at the Triplett’s house and so I met up with her and Johnny Schmitt, her husband at the time and the owner of the Hotel. They hired me as the innkeeper three days a week and I kept one day a week at the bank for a few months to get my 20 years in.”

Elaine pretty much learned on the job and also did bartending at lunchtimes, with Libby (now of Libby’s Restaurant in Philo) in the kitchen. Gina Barron was the hotel’s event planner and head waitress but she quit and at various times Elaine started doing those jobs too. “I was soon almost full-time and was pretty much the gen­eral manager. Johnny was fairly easy-going and let me run the place on some levels, certainly in terms of staff­ing, reservations, organizing, hosting, and innkeeping, although I was not in the kitchen or doing any book­keeping. I ended up being there for twelve years and really liked it most of the time but it did become a little ‘weird’ in the last couple of years, for want of a better word. It just wasn’t the same anymore even though the staff still loved the place and did our best to keep it going. In November 2009, Johnny decided he needed to make some changes and I understood that. He laid most of us off saying he would take us back as we were needed. Gail Meyer had been there for twenty years, Saffron Fraser and I for twelve, Joel Leach for five; Jonesy DeWolf and several others too had been loyal employees. Over the past few months some have gone back part-time, all except Saffron, Joel and I. I signed up for unemployment and was quite mad and upset at what had happened, although it also felt like a lead weight had been removed after a very stressful couple of years there. I had liked the job, had thrived on it, but I did not enjoy having to put myself through the situation where the staff had pretty much held it together for the last two years. In the end I felt a sense of relief.”

While the two boys were at the school in AV, Elaine was involved with their sports activities but she acknowledges that she is not too community minded. “I volunteered to help if the kids were involved. I was busy with my jewelry making, which is now sold at the Mer­cantile Store in Boonville. Talking of which, my mother has lived with us for several years now in her own suite at the house. She keeps very busy in the garden etc and with her sewing skills she is able to make things that are also sold at that store. I was a homebody and Buzz even more so with all the hours he worked in Ukiah. People were always asking where he was. I think they thought I had made him up! We rarely attended events in the Val­ley although sometimes I would go out for a drink with friends. Once the boys went to Ukiah H.S. I was over there more and got to know the parents of students there. Buzz retired in June 2009 and then on December 18th last year I was laid off. I was convinced something would come up. I inquired at some wineries and even thought about bar work at The Lodge if it had stayed open. I didn’t want full-time or any stress and for six or seven weeks I was happy being unemployed. I saw an ad in the paper for a tasting room manager at Greenwood Ridge Winery but knew I wasn’t qualified. Then out of the blue, the owner, Allan Green called me at home one evening. He knew me from the Hotel where he had sometimes been a customer. Gail Mayer from the Hotel had recommended me and I set up a meeting. That lasted for three hours by the end of which I was freaking out with all the stuff he showed me. I was doubtful about the job until Chris, who works in the tasting room, took me aside to say he would help me settle in and that greatly encouraged me. I was offered the job on the spot and accepted. I was flabbergasted.”

After a shaky start Elaine settled in. She had been hired for her personnel management skills and abilities with the public. The other stuff she learned quickly. “I am a firm believer that things happen for a reason and I wish now that this opportunity had come earlier. I am thoroughly enjoying the job and am very grateful to Allan for believing that I could do it. Ironically three other job offers came in just afterwards but I had made a commitment and am so glad that I did. I am at a good point in my life.”

Travis has now graduated college from USF with a degree in Media Studies and lives in San Francisco where he hopes to develop a career in music and song writing. Meanwhile Tyler is entering his junior year at Sonoma State with Art as his major. “We told both of them to give college two years and then decide whether they wanted to stay or not - too many kids give up too early.”

Elaine loves her life in the Valley but some winters she thinks she could move somewhere with sandy beaches and a Mediterranean climate — Santa Barbara weather. “We came here to raise our kids in a small town, away from the hustle of L.A. The slow-pace of life here suits me even though I stick out sometimes with my city-side and appearance. That’s just me. I enjoy visiting the City to see Travis but it’s always so nice to come back to Anderson Valley.”

I asked Elaine for her thoughts on some of the Valley issues that many here discuss.

The Wineries and their impact? “We should have a limit on how many we have. Surely the effect on the environment is too great if we keep adding more.”

The AVA? “I pick it up occasionally. We used to sub­scribe when we lived in LA but since moving here we stopped but occasionally still get it.”

The local school system? “Well our boys were here through junior high so I did think about keeping them here. However, I felt that the school board had been entrenched too long and then with Buzz teaching at Ukiah we thought it would be a good fit. There seemed to be more options for our kids over there too, it is a big­ger school obviously and with Buzz driving there every day it worked well. I am a little out of touch with the school here now to offer a current opinion”... Drugs in the Valley? — “I have no problem with people growing pot but I don’t really want it close to my home. I used to walk back in through the woods to the river but I don’t risk doing that anymore, which is too bad.”

I posed a few questions from a questionnaire featured on TV’s “Inside the Actors Studio with James Lipton” and some I came up with myself.

What excites you; makes you smile; gets your juices flowing creatively, spiritually, emotionally? “A bright sunny day. Talking to people.”

What annoys you; brings you down; turns you off creatively, spiritually, emotionally? “Whiney people who are full of themselves.”

Sound or noise you love? “I like the quiet. But I do love music — classic rock music — and I am a big Elton John fan.”

Sound or noise you hate? “Logging trucks; the fan on a hood of the stove; a drunken neighbor screaming in the middle of the night.”

What is your favorite food or meal? Your ‘last meal’ shall we say? “My Mom’s enchiladas or her menudo.”

If you could meet one person dead or alive, one on one for a conversation, who would that person be? “It would be Elton John — you know that. I’ve seen him over 50 times in concert.”

If you were to be left completely alone indefinitely on an isolated island in the ocean, but with unlimited provisions, what three possessions would you like to have with you? “Family photographs; a comfortable bed, a record player and my records. I guess I can live without my lipstick!”

Where would you like to visit if you could go any­where in the world? “I would love to go back to the British Virgin Islands. We were there a couple of years ago for our 25th wedding anniversary. Or the Yucatan Peninsular in Mexico. I love warm beaches, not the North Coast beaches I’m sorry to say.”

A smell you really like? “Cinnamon or mint.”

Your favorite word or phrase? “I used to say ‘Oh shit’ all the time. It made me feel better. I like to say ‘If it’s true it ain’t gossip’ because my friends kid me that I like to gossip.”

Favorite hobby? “It used to be making jewelry or painting — both the house and artistic stuff. I like to read mysteries and non-fiction — autobiographies mainly. And I do like to collect folk art.”

Profession other than your own would you like to attempt if you were given the chance? Your fantasy job, perhaps? “I always wanted to be a disc jockey on the radio. Or a supermodel perhaps!”

Profession you’d not like to do? “A housekeeper. I like to do my own but it would be a thankless job I would think.”

Happiest day or event in your life? “When I got mar­ried and also watching our kids grow up.”

Saddest? “Moving from Santa Barbara to Los Ange­les. I have not had much loss or deep sadness. My dad dying was sad but we were not close.”

What is your favorite thing about yourself, physi­cally, mentally, spiritually? “That I’m happy with myself, very comfortable in my own skin. What you see is what you get. I am more approachable than some may think or than I seem to be. That I like to make jokes out of serious stuff sometimes. That I try to be positive. Peo­ple have much bigger problems than I do and I have to stop myself from being negative because I have many positives. I tell the kids this all the time.”

Finally, if Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates? “Even though I am not a big party animal, I do like to have fun so if he said ‘Welcome Elaine, let the party begin’ that would be good.” ¥¥

(To read the ‘stories’ of other Valley Folk, visit the archives at Next week the guest interviewee from the Valley will be Lee Serrie, Valley filmmaker and former NBC News crew member.)

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