Poet & Artist Maureen Hurley remembers CRYING at Juanita’s
“The most distinctive memory I have of of my mother during Sausalito’s halcyon Bohemian Gate 5 days, was when she worked for local legend, Juanita Musson, circa 1958.
Friend of Sally Stanford, former Madame and unlikely restaurateur, Juanita Musson, in her trademark Hawaiian muumuu, and acres of hair piled atop her head, was a local — if not infamous — institution. Of ample body and heart, Juanita, who tipped the scale at 300-pounds, was renowned for her eclectic cooking and unorthodox style of restaurateuring, which was more akin to rest-RANT-eering.
Truly a unique dining experience was had by all who crossed her many thresholds. Juanita was both a finicky diner’s and health inspector’s worst nightmare; she was immune to the mundane trivia of sanitation health codes, brushing them off like midges. I remember a turkey being served in an oval enamel baby’s bath pan.
Juanita’s was open at 5 AM, and she fed everybody in town, including the local fishermen (Sausalito was still a real fishing village in those days). Her heart was so big, she fed starving artists and equally starving actors (everybody was thin as a rail) and of course, myriad stray dogs.
On fine Sunday mornings, everyone turned up en masse at Juanita’s Galley, which was often so full, she fed the overflow crowd on long picnic tables made of sawhorses and old doors in the dirt parking lot at Gate 5 Road.
Doorknobs poked up through the tablecloths — if you got one. Generally there was nothing more than the unvarnished truth between your plate and the door. In those days, anything resembling a dish or a vessel — from ferries to jam jars to bedpans — was also pressed into service. It made the Baghdad Cafe look like a 4-star Marriott.
You rarely ever got what you ordered at Juanita’s restaurant, and if you protested, well, then, she’d wave her arms like a windmill and scream bloody hell seasoned with plenty of verbal (as)salt at you in that big crass Panhandle voice, “Eat it, or wear it!” And if, God forbid, you didn’t finish your food, then, you had to take it with you. Or else.
Feeling very grown up at the age of six, I ordered a rare treat, pancakes. It was a tough decision between pancakes and French toast. The kitchen was already out of French toast. My mouth watered in anticipation. I wasn’t allowed to eat them except on Sundays. My usual fodder was my grandmother’s oatmeal mush.
But, after an intolerably long wait, my order finally came. My mother was busy waiting on customers at the other end of the parking lot, so Juanita herself hustled out in her red mu mu, and plunked down a real fisherman’s breakfast: eggs, runny side up, bacon, a big leathery slab of steak, toast, and mountains and mountains of white rice—more than I could possibly eat in several Sundays. I was aghast. No syrupy sweet pancakes?
I just stared at those two quivering yellow orbs staring right back at me from the rim of the plate and did what any reasonable six-year-old would do, I cried. The sunshine had gone right out of my day. Thunderclouds on the horizon.
The insurmountable mountain of food would have challenged even a fisherman’s prodigious appetite. As customers watched, transfixed — to see what would happen next — Juanita, startled by my tears, softened a bit, seeing as it was me, after all. And so she grabbed a stack of pancakes from a hapless customer who, knowing from experience, the futility of complaining to Juanita, was just about to tuck in to what HE didn’t order.
Now instead of giving my first plate to the man, I was stuck with TWO breakfasts. And Juanita took no prisoners. You cleaned all your plates — even if you were six! I began to wail in earnest, while plotting an escape — perhaps I could crawl under the table. Then what? Make a run for the car? My mom was pretty swamped waiting on tables at the other end of the parking lot, so she couldn’t run interference, or rescue me until the brunch crowd had been fed.
Someone finally took pity on me and helped me out. I think it was my mom’s friend, the tall, skinny New Yorker, Skip Rognlien, who was the Gate Playhouse director and playwright; he happily polished off a second breakfast.
Sometimes Juanita, with her auburn hair piled high and red lipstick often askew, or decorating a tooth — she had a large toothy smile — would sneak up from behind and wrap her big boobs around the ears of a hapless male customer and if he turned around, she’d smother him, rocking his nose deep into her cleavage, and then she’d laugh like a hyena while he struggled for breath.
I remember Juanita ‘mu mu’-ing some poor fisherman who entered the galley kitchen. At Juanita’s Galley, you were expected to pour your own coffee and to bus your own dishes — or you might be wearing them as ornaments upside the back of your head.
In her house above Casa Madrone, Juanita kept a strange menagerie of animals. Juanita kept a blind cockerel rooster that perched on her shoulder like a parrot, and there were rampant chickens, myriad cats, stray dogs and goats wandering in and out the front door. I remember she adopted an orphaned fawn named Sissy that rode around on a bed in the back of her white Ford Falcon station wagon. I remember that the fawn still had its spots, like a dusting of snow, and its fur was coarse to the touch. But its ears were shaped like the air scoop on the ferry and it had the longest lashes I’d ever seen. The fawn followed Juanita like a little dog on reed-thin legs. Tiny hooves clattered on cement like a staccato of hard rain.
I recently ran into someone who remembered Juanita during the Sausalito days, and I had the opportunity to ask her: “Did Juanita really walk around with a rooster perched on on her shoulder or is my memory playing tricks on me?” She answered, “Yes, Juanita really did.”
Remember that blind, one-eyed rooster? Well, the story goes, that Juanita would amble up to men in the restaurant with that little banty rooster riding shotgun, and she’d say, “How do you like my cock?” Of course, at age six, that allusion went right over my head. I had to ripen a good decade or three before I finally got it.”
© 2007 Maureen Hurley
Former IJ Columnist Peter Rafael Anderson was thrown out of Juanita’s bed!!!
Juanita Musson was a blimp-sized Mama who wore hangar-sized muumuus. She was a fixture all around Marin, and one of the most feared women in all of The County. I could never figure out if her anger act was a put-on or if she really was a snarling tigress in a constant state of rage. Juanita’s Galley at the north end of Bridgeway in Sausalito was a dictionary picture of “den of iniquity.” I recall hearing great, loud rock music resounding from the walls of the decrepit vessel. Bikers parked their choppers in the muddy parking lot and became unofficial security guards for their large hostess, who probably didn’t need any security guards. Marijuana smoke, incense, and the occasional splash of a beer mug hurled into a wall were everyday sensations at Juanita’s Galley. She was probably a very good cook, but by today’s foodie standards her fare would be considered very old school, way too heavy and probably immensely unhealthy. But God help you if you complained about anything or said anything rude in her presence. It may have been the last slur you ever uttered. I have heard many of the harrowing tales — a drunk customer being threatened by a meat cleaver, an unruly guest being chased around the joint by Juanita wielding an electric knife, and several thugs being booted out of the galley face first into the sloshy mud by the irate muumuu Mama.
My own dramatic encounter with Juanita took place after she had left Marin for good and was newly established in a similarly rundown joint near Boyes Springs in Sonoma County. I had told some friends of mine from the East Bay that I’d like to introduce them to a dining experience they would never forget. Four of us arrived at Juanita’s at cocktail hour, worked our way through the front yard crawling with chickens, roosters, geese, cats, and monkeys.
“Say hello to your meals,” I joked to my friends. They looked at me warily. A goose took a bite out of my friend’s ass as she walked up the stairs into the dining room.
“It’s just a preemptive strike,” I joked. “He’s nervous you’ll be ordering him medium rare.”
We sat down in the middle of the dining room, ordered drinks, and proceeded to catch up on old times. That’s the last I saw of my friends all night.
Just before the appetizers arrived, I excused myself to go to the john, which was just to the left of the front door. To the right of the restroom, I noticed what looked like a cozy sitting room lined with shelves and shelves of books. There was an enormous bed in the center of the room filled with layers and layers of billowing comforters and pillows. I can’t resist book collections, so when I spied a weathered looking copy of Jack London’s “Sailor on Horseback,” I reached up high on the shelf, grabbed it, and sat on the edge of the bed to flip through the pages.
The bed absolutely erupted. Pillows flew everywhere. Comforters became sails and flying missiles. I froze in my seated position. I had, apparently, startled Juanita Musson who had been snoozing beneath the feathered bedding, completely unbeknownst to me. A string of epithets ensued, the likes of which I had never heard before in my then-young life of 23. It was like I was the inept Private in a bad soldier movie, and she was the Drill Sergeant. And then, she actually grabbed my ear and pulled me out of the room and onto the front porch.
“You no-good sumofabitch,” she screamed, “I oughtta kick your ass from here to Sebastopol! Just who the f*** do you think you are climbing into bed with me?!?”
“You no-good sumofabitch,” she screamed, “I oughtta kick your ass from here to Sebastopol! Just who the f*** do you think you are climbing into bed with me?!” — Peter Rafael Anderson
I tried to tell her that my taste in women ran more to the thin model type, but I quickly calculated that would be like pouring kerosene into the stove, so I refrained. Next thing I know, I was flat on my butt in her front yard, with squawks and cackles coming from her loyal band of critters. A monkey actually made an obscene gesture and then mooned me. My friends were inside enjoying their Jack Daniels and I was in the dirt staring at a monkey’s pink cheeks. Not really what I had in mind for an evening of fine dining. Despite my protests and my pleas to let me rejoin my friends, she was dead serious about my expulsion. She even commanded them not to come out to see me, threatening them with a phone call to the Sheriff’s Office. Oh well, I rationalized, at least I would dodge the bill. After 90 minutes of avoiding snapping geese, quacking ducks, smelly goats, and my pal the vulgar monkey, I saw my friends walking out the front door and laughing crazily. It was quite the ride back home, and at least they had a designated driver.”