Deconstructing Chocolate George


By Ed Staskus

   “Chocolate George is at my house now because Keegan hates it,” said Tim Loomis, co-restaurateur and owner with Keegan Konkoski of the gastropub Liquids and Solids at the Handlebar on the outskirts of Lake Placid, New York.

   “Let me just say something,” Keegan jumped in, leaning back on her bar stool.

   “I don’t hate anything, but whenever we talked about the theme of our artwork we always said at some level it had to be about food and drink.”

   “You’re right, it didn’t totally match,” said Tim.

   What Tim tactfully didn’t point out was that the framed print that eventually found its way to his house was Chocolate, which is a food preparation, George’s Funeral, not Good Old George or Hells Angel George, which is what George was when he wrecked his motorcycle in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood of San Francisco in 1967 at the tail end of the Summer of Love.

   “So, when I got our last piece of artwork, I don’t even remember what it is, but I was, oh, Tim, I have to move Chocolate George. There’s just no room for him anymore.”

   “I told her I would put it in the butcher shop in the meantime,” Tim said

   He took Chocolate George next door, literally next door from Liquids and Solids, to the Kreature Butcher Shop that they opened in 2013. Liquids and Solids at the Handlebar opened its doors in 2010.

   Charles George Hendricks was a Hells Angel in the San Francisco chapter who was hit by a car while swerving around a stray cat one August afternoon in 1967 as the Summer of Love was winding down. He was thrown from his motorcycle and died later that night from his injuries. He was known as Chocolate George because he was rarely seen without a quart of his favorite beverage, which was chocolate milk.

   “He drank chocolate milk because he had an ulcer,” explained Mary Handa, a friend of his in the 1960s. “He spiked it with whiskey from time to time.” He snagged nips all day long.

   “We got the print when we opened,” said Tim. “We had no artwork, but we had an old friend of ours who had followed both of us around to multiple restaurants. He was a lithograph teamster, from the city, and he had a lot of vintage stuff, stuff by Ralph Steadman, and he had Chocolate George.”

   Chocolate George’s Funeral is the Holy Grail of biker posters, and although neither Tim nor Keegan are bikers, at least not in the sense of the Hells Angels – Keegan is an avid mountain biker – it found a place in their restaurant on a back wall just outside the swinging door into the kitchen.

   “The walls were pretty barren,” Tim said about their first year.

   “There’s never been a restaurant like this here before. Nobody would come in, not nobody,” Keegan said.

   “Our friend walked in about a month after we opened and gave us the print,” said Tim. “He was a great guy and he loved us, was always really supportive. He was a portrait of unhealthiness, but a great guy.”

   Charles George Hendricks was a strapping 34-year-old when he died. He was a favorite among the hippies in Haight-Ashbury because he was funny and friendly. Sometimes he sported a Russian fur hat, making him look like a Cossack. His mustache and goatee were almost as long as his long hair, he wore a pot-shaped helmet when riding his Harley, and his denim vest was dotted with an assortment of round tinny pin badges.

   One of the badges said, “Go Easy on Kesey.”

   The writer Ken Kesey had been the de facto head of the Merry Pranksters. Much of the hippie aesthetic traced back to them and their Magic Bus.

   “The artwork came one by one,” said Keegan. “It’s a hodge-podge, but that’s how we got started. It was the same with everything, we slowly got more and more ingredients, built up our larder, and the bar.”

   “We had a pool table originally,” said Tim. “I wanted to play up the whole laid-back feeling, so we kept the pool table. I should have known better. It just attracts children and takes up seats that people can eat at. But, when we got rid of it rumors started floating around, there goes the pool table, they’re already going out of business.”

   Tim and Keegan were novice business owners introducing a new dynamic of craft beers and creative farm-to-table cuisine to a small town popular with travelers, but still, essentially, a small town with well-established tastes.

   “When we opened we decided we weren’t just a door with a light on that anyone could stumble into,” said Keegan. “We thought you either have to have a little bit of knowledge or a little adventure in you to make it work.

   “We didn’t want to hold hands or educate anyone. We always wanted people to appreciate what we had to offer, and if they were as passionate about it as us, then yeah, we’ll get to know you and chat, answer as many questions as you want. But, some people, they come in here and, I don’t want to sound judgmental, but they just don’t look like they’re going to like it here. All of our hostesses know to ask, have you been here before, you might want to check out the menu, it’s really different.”

   “We’d rather have them leave and not sit down and be unhappy,” said Tim. “Because once they sit down and it’s gone south there’s just no fixing it.”

   Five days after his death more than two hundred bikers trailed a hearse and the family car up and down San Francisco’s narrow streets, pausing and revving their engines at the Straight Theater, near where the accident happened. Two quarts of chocolate milk got warm slowly next to the cold body in the back of the hearse. The funeral ceremony was performed at the Cypress Lawn Cemetery, Chocolate George was cremated, and his ashes scattered over Twin Peaks, which are in the center of the city.

   The funeral procession became a motorcycle cavalcade, roaring to Golden Gate Park where, joined by hundreds of hippies from Haight-Ashbury, a daylong wake erupted. Big Brother & the Holding Company and the Grateful Dead were the live music send-offs. There was dancing and tripping.  

   “Sometimes the lights all shining on me, other times I can barely see, lately it occurs to me, what a long strange trip it’s been,” Jerry Garcia sang in his mid-western twang.  

   There was free beer courtesy of the Hells Angels and free food supplied by the Diggers.

   The Haight Street Diggers were said at the time to be a “hippie philanthropic organization.” They used the streets of San Francisco for theater, gatherings, and walkabouts. The organization fed the flock that made the scene in the Panhandle with surplus vegetables from the Farmer’s Market and meat they routinely stole from local stores.    

   Two months after Chocolate George’s funeral the Diggers announced “The Death of the Hippie” by tearing down the store sign of the Psychedelic Shop and secretly burying it in the night.

   “Our reputation in Lake Placid is really mixed,” said Keegan.

   “We’re the weirdo’s down here,” said Tim.

   Not everyone agrees.

   “This gastropub with Western saloon flare has the best beer selection, both draft and bottle, in the Adirondacks,” wrote Lauren Matison in Thrillist NYC. “Also awesome, their next-door butcher shop churns out rillettes, pates, cured tongue, sausages, and cheeses.”

   “Much credit is due to chef Tim Loomis and his business partner, Keegan Konkoski, the competent and adventuresome mixologist,” Walter Siebel wrote in his review in the Watertown Daily Times.

   “I’m definitely probably known more as the bitchy bartender than anything,” said Keegan. “If you want a macro brew, I say we don’t have that and suggest the bar across the street. I don’t pour shots and I say no to drunks. I don’t serve them. They’ll look at me and say, ‘You don’t want me here!’ That’s right, I say. After we opened, I had to do a lot of weeding out and getting rid of some people who just wanted to come in here and get wasted.”

   The craft beer and craft cocktail-focused bar at Liquids and Solids is more in the vein of the Experimental Cocktail Club than it is Happy Hour, of which there is none, although since the drinks are fine and delicious it could be said that any time at the Handlebar is a good time.

   When asked why they were having such a big going away into the yonder party for George Hendricks, Henry ‘Hairy’ Kot, his best friend, said, “George loved be-ins and happenings, so we thought we’d have a happening just for him.”

   The wake was advertised as “George’s Wail!” on psychedelic-style posters hung in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood. The next day a photograph of the funeral cortege stretching away on a long loping street ran in the San Francisco Chronicle, along with a story titled “The Gang Gathers.”. The photograph was taken by Bob Campbell and later printed as a poster by the Print Mint in San Francisco.

   The words “Chocolate George’s Funeral” at the top of the poster are in brown and gold. The rest of the photograph is in black and white, except for the funeral car, which is a bright fluorescent pink.

   “We never knew what the pink was about,” said Beth Hendricks, George Hendricks’s second-youngest daughter.

   Three years after struggling out of the red Tim and Keegan collaborated again on the Kreature Butcher Shop. Tim found a new favorite t-shirt emblazoned with “Meatatarian.” He grew a beard.

   “We have a counter guy there, but he’s not the butcher,” said Keegan. “Tim is the butcher. He takes the whole animal and breaks it down.”

   “When we started Liquids and Solids a friend of mine and I went and got our first pigs together,” said Tim. “When we talked about it later, we remembered how long it took to break that pig down. Man, it took six hours.”

   He went home with achy hands and slept on it.

   “I can do a pig cleaner in an hour now than I did back then, no problem. It’s partly just knowing what I’m doing and partly having the right tools. We didn’t even have a saw then. We still only have a hand saw, but at least we can saw through bone.”

   “We prefer to get our animals whole,” said Keegan. “Then we can use everything. We try not to waste anything. The whole sustainability, consumption thing is important to both of us. Wastefulness really irks us.”

   Kreature’s beef comes from Kilcoyne Farms in the St. Lawrence Valley and its pork from several suppliers in the North Country. Their yogurt comes from North Country Creamery in Keeseville and their cheese from Sugar House in Upper Jay.

   “They keep doing more and more plots up in Keeseville every year, some cool stuff,” Keegan said

   “No one can hold a candle to Margot’s cheese,” Tim said.

   “But just because it’s local doesn’t mean we carry it,” said Keegan. “If it’s good and local, two thumbs up. We try to support folks in anything that’s delicious, absolutely.”

   “We always get our beef from Pat Kilcoyne Farms, which is grass-fed and finished on grain,” said Tim. “I’m not a huge meat eater but, wow, sometimes I have a steak and it’s phenomenal. We were approached by Asgard about taking one of their cows, which are all only grass-fed. When Pat asked me if we needed a cow in the next couple of weeks I said, not this time Pat, I’m getting one from Asgard.”

    “Well, have fun chewing on it,” Pat Kilcoyne said.

   “I tell beer makers, if you brew something and think it’s dynamite, bring it down,” said Keegan. “The ones that are well-done and are great, awesome. But it has to be good. I’ve made mistakes before, put something on the menu and, oh, my God, it’s horrible.”

   “There are so many young passionate people that are part of our restaurant lives right now,” said Tim

   It’s the passion of people who act it out because the energy is in the action, not just the thought or feeling. Even though it’s the thought that results in the act, it’s action that sets priorities.

   “I remember the day I met Lucas at Fledging Crow,” said Tim. “I had no idea who they were. I was, like, I’m opening a restaurant and I need some vegetables.”

   Every day is the day that time opens its door, never a minute too late, never waiting for the next minute, sometimes leaving an impression behind. On one level “Chocolate George’s Funeral” is a moment in time, an historical document of something that happened in one place on one day, but on another it’s an unsettling existential document, a ripple in the veneer of everyday life, so that its black and white reality seems suddenly illusory.

   The signifiers in the picture are the street and medians, the flat-fronted buildings, and the receding line of electric power poles. A single person in white shorts stands at the corner of one of the crossroads in the deep focus photograph, either watching the funeral procession of black-clad bikers or simply waiting to cross the street.

   What makes the picture unstable are the other, contrasting signifiers, the motorcycles and their riders. There are hundreds of them, a restless band bound together by their outcast and yet conservative ideology, riding Harleys which are both emblems engineered real things, parsing an age-old ceremony as they rumble slowly up the street.

   They are in rows and lines as orderly and mundane as the street, the rows of apartments, and lines of power poles. Even still, they are troublesome men.

   “The Hells Angels try not to do anything halfway and anyone who deals in extremes is bound to cause trouble,” said Hunter S. Thompson, the author of “Hells Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga.”

   “Our friend who gave us Chocolate George used to bring us moonshine-soaked cherries, the real deal, not the stuff you buy from Old Hickory, or whatever,” said Keegan. “But he was a weirdo. We got a tour of his bomb shelter once. It was full of serious stuff and more canned food than you could eat in a year. The guy was ready.”

   “He had gone up to Au Sable to live, escape from New York City,” said Tim.

   “He’s now deceased, bless his soul,” said Keegan.

   The poster they had been given stayed at the far back of Liquids and Solids, gracing a wall above a small round two-chair table just outside the kitchen, for more than three years.

   “Tim liked it,” said Liz Yerger, one of the gastropub’s servers. “He never said why, exactly, except that a friend had given it to him.”

   “Maybe we were too scared to take the picture down all that time,” observed Keegan.

   Maybe that’s when she broke out a bottle of spirits and mixed up something strong, her own Maple & Spices, a heady brew of bourbon, maple syrup, cayenne pepper, and lemon and apple juices, and after all that time all that long strange trip took leave of the ghost of Chocolate George.

A version of this story appeared in Literary Heist Magazine.

Ed Staskus posts stories on 147 Stanley Street and Cleveland Ohio Daybook To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”


Gray Matter (On the Mat)

By Ed Staskus

“I’ve got the brain of a four-year-old. I’ll bet he was glad to be rid of it.” Groucho Marx

Even though yoga practice is far-ranging, not just all in your head, it is all in your head.

The brain is the center of the nervous system, 100 billion nerve cells protected by a skull and each nerve cell linked to almost 10,000 other cells. A real human brain lifted out of a jar in a pathology lab weighs about three pounds. Although often described as gray matter, it isn’t gray, but rather red, very soft and jelly-like.

The neural network of the brain is affected by everything that happens during its lifetime, for better or worse. Our genes and our environment impact every step. The brain’s lifelong development is activity-dependent. Every sensory, motor, and cognitive activity shapes the way neural circuits end up being wired.

Our experiences lead to cells that fire together, leading to cells that are wired together, leading to a mind that can count the stars in the sky and how many sprinkles are left at the bottom of an ice cream sundae at the same time.

Your brain on math is like it’s gone to the thinking gym. Your brain on money, on the other hand, is your brain shouting out greed is good, greed is good, greed is good! Your brain on meth is 100 MPH in a dirty sundress.

Brains in the thrall of sports are described in Your Brain On Sports as bubbling with “all the batshit craziness that courses through the sports ecosystem.” The kookiness includes fans leaning over balcony bleacher railings into mid-air trying to grab t-shirts shot out of a cannon.

Our neurons can misfire across synaptic gaps, raising Cain and spinning nonsense, from the NRA’s zany Cold Dead Hands to Climate Change Ain’t Happening. Only crazy people take themselves seriously.

Human being brains are always humming and roaring. They are our best friend and worst enemy. Everyone has to do the best they can with it. In the same way it is impacted by most things the brain is changed by most things, too, including yoga.

By some accounts yoga, from exercise on the mat to breath control to meditation, is a game-changer over and above many other things. Neuroplasticity is how the brain rewires itself through experience. The experience of yoga is plasticity itself, especially what goes on twisting and turning on the mat. The more anyone unrolls their mat is the more new neural pathways are made in the brain. It is a pattern that can reshape one’s brain and one’s life, too.

“Our life is the creation of our mind,” said Buddha.

Not only that, practicing yoga seems to make the brain bigger, especially the somatosensory cortex, where the mental map of our bodies is located, and the superior parietal cortex, which is the part of the brain that directs attention.

Who doesn’t want a bigger brain and a better GPS of themselves?

“We found that with more hours of practice per week, certain areas were enlarged,” said Chantal Villemure, one of a team at the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, which studied people practicing regularly. They presented their work, focused on MRI scans, to the Society for Neuroscience in 2013.

The health benefits of yoga exercise, from increased flexibility to stronger bones to relieving chronic pain, are well known. It even lowers the risk of heart disease, according to Harvard Health Publications. What is less well known is that it stimulates brain function, improving inhibitory control and working memory.

A University of Illinois study published in the ‘Journal of Physical Activity and Health’ found that cognitive reaction times and accuracy were better after hatha-style yoga practice than after other kinds of exercise.

“It appears that following yoga practice, the participants were better able to focus their mental resources, process information quickly, more accurately and also learn, hold and update pieces of information more effectively than after performing an aerobic exercise bout,” said Neha Gothe, who led the study.

The brain gets stronger after yoga exercise. Working out on the mat boosts the body’s production of B.D.N.F., a protein called ‘Miracle-Gro’ for the brain.

Downward doggers know that getting long feels awesome. Beyond flexibility they also know it brings to heel something in their brains. That something is stress, which yoga helps to counteract. Yoga boosts GABA levels in the brain, according to research at both the University of Utah and Boston University. The higher the GABA levels, the better and brighter you feel. The lower the levels, the darker the day gets. Yoga literally switches off some genes related to stress.

Hatha yoga nowadays is closely associated with physical practice. The word means forceful in Sanskrit. But, before yoga and physical culture became synonymous in the last hundred-or-so years, hatha meant all eight limbs of yoga. Yoga is an eight-limb union leading to the last limb, which is equilibrium. Two of them, pranayama, which is breath control, and dhyana, or meditation, may affect life and limb of the brain even more than physical practice.

“Yoga isn’t about the shape of your body, but the shape of your life,” said Aadil Pakhivavl, author of Fire of Love. Everybody wants to be in good shape, but getting in shape is about more than jump throughs and plank pose. Like Buddha said, life is what the mind makes it.

Breathing is as essential as it gets. The words chi, psyche, and spirit are all related to breath. In the Bible God breathed life into clay making Adam. In Your Atomic Self it is breath that connects us to all aerobic creatures in the world. Prana is the Sanskrit word for life energy or life force. Pranayama is regulating and controlling the breath.

Patanjali, the founder of yoga philosophy, believed the ultimate goal of it was not breathing anymore, in other words, no more inhales or exhales. It’s an idea that literally takes your breath away.

Whether it’s bellow’s breath, skull shining breath, or breath of fire, the many forms of pranayama are all designed to concentrate one’s energy and attention. When under the influence of pranayama our brains ramp up in alpha and beta activity, whose electrical impulses can be detected by EEG testing. These dissimilar brain activities, paradoxically, are related to increased awareness and increased relaxation.

“The immediate effect of Nadi Shuddhi Pranayama and Bhramari Pranayama compared with controls shows that these yogic practices are related with increased orderliness of brain functioning,” noted ‘Yoga for Academic Performance: A Brain Wave Coherence Analysis’ in the European Journal of Psychology and Educational Studies.

Meditation has long been known to generate measurable changes in the brain. Hundreds of studies have been conducted since the 1950s. They have largely confirmed that the new found benefits of meditation are the same as the centuries-old benefits, from reducing activity in the selfish centers of the brain to enhancing and enlarging the links of neural pathways.

In ‘Brain Gray Matter Changes Associated with Mindfulness Meditation in Older Adults’, published in the open journal Neuro in 2014, a “significant gray matter increase was identified within the precuneus” after a six-week test period. The precuneus is located near the back of the brain and is involved with aspects of consciousness and the self.

Meditation is about bringing awareness to the breath, slowing down into stillness, and going inward. It is the conscious action of getting to the unconscious crossroads of the something that isn’t there and the nothing that is. Immanuel Kant, the 18th century German philosopher, described art as purposive without a purpose. The same can be said about meditation. It is about nothing and everything and everything in between.

Meditation acts on the brain in many ways, from reducing anxiety and depression to improving concentration to helping keep brains tip top in older people. It leads to volume changes, actually changing the structure of the brain. A study at UCLA has demonstrated that people who meditate have more gray matter volume from one end of their pates to the other. “What we actually observed was a widespread effect of meditation that encompassed regions throughout the brain,” said study author Florian Kurth.

The act of meditation is the action of focusing one’s mind for a period of time, usually in silence, sometimes while chanting, as in Kirtan Kriya, to get grounded and become more self-aware.

Anybody can meditate, as long as they are willing to acknowledge that the mind has a mind of its own. All you have to do is sit down, or even go for a walk by yourself, and try to be quiet for a few minutes. Even though it doesn’t have to be a huge undertaking, it can have a huge impact. It’s not like climbing a mountain, but it does help cut most mountains down to molehills.

Even busy people too busy to meditate, who think they don’t have time to do nothing, are meditating nowadays, since it makes them more productive when they get back to being busy. “Half-an-hour’s meditation each day is essential, except when you are busy,” said Saint Francis de Sales more than four hundred years ago. “Then a full hour is needed.”

Today’s modern set calls it mindfulness meditation.

Back in the day it wasn’t even called meditation, which is a word dating from the 12th century, from the Latin word meditatum. It had more to do with attention and consciousness exploration. Meditation was closely aligned with dharana, or concentration, as in focusing one’s attention in continuous meditation.

Your brain on yoga is your brain diving into 5,000 years of the practice. It is also your brain being poked and prodded by the Harvard Medical School. Sat Bir Singh Khalsa, Ph.D, an Assistant Professor of Medicine at Harvard and a certified Kundalini Yoga instructor, has conducted clinical case studies on yoga for more than a decade. The results he has presented in research papers, articles, and books offer compelling evidence that getting on the mat boosts brainpower.

The brain might be a mush melon-sized lump of gray matter, but yoga lights it up like a rainbow. In the end, though, yoga isn’t a thinking man’s game. Anyone who spends too much time thinking about the practice never gets any of it done. While it is true that it’s a mind-body discipline, it’s not just exercise on a sticky mat, keeping us fit as fleas, nor is it just the latest contribution to positive thinking.

“Yoga is a way to freedom,” said Indra Devi.

We are more than our bodies and brains. The spirit is the third rail of yoga, so that the train becomes a body-mind-spirit practice. Albert Einstein believed that “spirit is manifest in the laws of the universe.” Like the electric action potential of neurons, the electric third rail of yoga is what supplies energy to the practice. When Buddha observed that our lives are what we think them to be, he meant thinking as a state of mind made up of cognition, words, and actions.

The humans of planet earth may be snared by force and their minds made small by propaganda, but the only constraints on the spirit are those we ourselves make. It’s great to have a good brain, but where the spirit lives is the good heart. We change our lives by changing what’s in our hearts. If there is a sweet spot of yoga, it is the heart, not the brain. It is the downtown of spirit and gateway to consciousness.

The heart is the ever-winding ever-adventurous ever-surprising yellow brick road to the incomprehensible. On the way to the Emerald City, no matter how big and better anyone’s brain gets, even when it makes a scarecrow’s leap from Groucho Marx to Albert Einstein, your brain on yoga is ultimately your brain emptying as the heart fills.

Ed Staskus posts stories on 147 Stanley Street and Cleveland Ohio Daybook To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”