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Monday, May 7, 2007 | Clad in a T-shirt, corduroys, and an apron, all shades of wheat and cream and caramel, Emmanuel Burgin blends in with the flour-dusted counters of Con Pane, a European-style cafe near Shelter Island.
But the off-white baseball cap topping Burgin’s head proves perhaps the most serene hat he’s ever worn, and the jazz soundtrack the calmest music to ever color his days.
Born in Compton, in south-central Los Angeles, he played minor-league football in the 1980s in northern California and helped start a security company for major rock ‘n’ roll concerts. That launched him onto the summer 1986 Tom Petty and Bob Dylan double-ticket tour. A terrifying injury at an AC/DC concert propelled him out of the concert security business and into writing short stories and novels, which he’s done from spots in California and the Czech Republic. He recently published a novel about his football days, telling the stories of the guys you never hear about. And he plans to return to Prague within the next few months.
But for now, Burgin spends his days in the cafe, supervising the retail shift. One recent afternoon, workers craft sandwiches, slice tomatoes, wash dishes and push loaves of bread through a serrated slicing machine.
In mid-1999, when his friend Catherine started the cafe, Burgin helped lay the concrete, paint the walls, and cut doorway openings in the 18-inch thick walls of the former Wells Fargo. The oven, a special Pavailler oven made with eight three-foot by 12-foot stones spaced as four shelves, was imported from France and assembled by a flown-in French technician, with Burgin as go-fer for the six 10-hour days it required.
When Catherine first told Burgin of her vision for the bakery, he promised to help when she obtained a loan. That call came when he was living and writing in Prague. He flew back to California, planning to be in San Diego for just three months.
“Then we got started and we were understaffed and I said, ‘Well, I’ll stay on,’” he says. “Seven years later, and I’m still here.”
In that time, Burgin’s learned more than just the finer points of assembling a French stone baking oven. He can now shape and mix and bake Catherine’s secret recipes that garner a steady stream of customers, often flooding out the door. He offers a quick peek at one of the formula sheets, enough time for a reporter to notice they’re written in metric measurement — an easier, and decidedly more European, way to calculate the ingredients, he says.
The bakery produces about 500 loaves a day, he estimates from the door of the walk-in freezer where unbaked loaves are stacked, rising. Leftovers are donated to St. Vincent de Paul Village for meal programs for the homeless. Burgin says he’s heard Father Joe Carroll, the founder of that organization, once waited for the trucks to arrive delivering the Con Pane castoffs because he wanted to take the bread with him to a fundraiser — it was that good, Burgin chuckles.
On this quiet mid-afternoon after an unusually long lunch rush, Burgin pulls sheets of roasting tomatoes out of the French stone oven and places in it pans of brioche, a French bread. He sets a timer and wears it as a necklace, telling spurts of his life’s stories at a corner table, in between the beeps.
He was a high school sophomore when he first figured he could write. A key player on the football team, Burgin recoiled at the thought of writing a poem in English class. He wrote the other option, a short story, and the teacher, Mrs. Johnson, read the story to the class and his peers marveled at the football player’s writing skill.
“Everybody was looking at me,” he says. “The only other time I got those looks was on the football field, and I thought, ‘I can get this without breaking a leg or something.’”
But he pursued football, playing at Long Beach City College and Cal State Northridge. On graduation, he gave himself a three-year window to make it in professional football. Otherwise, he’d shut the door on football forever.
“I had friends waiting around for five, six years,” he says. “Kind of a waste. You’ve gotta get on with your life.”
Then, just after the three years were up, the Twin Cities Cougars coach called from the Yuba/Sutter area in northern California. He asked Burgin, an offensive tackle, to come join a handful of his former teammates and play for the United States Football League team. Starting contracts in the league weren’t enough to live on, but Burgin found a radio marketing job in the area — that was his new career dream — and moved.
The radio marketing gig didn’t pan out, but the station used Burgin to push eight-tracks into slots for the advertising between music, a decidedly more menial position than what he’d imagined. One season of football later, and a devastating red-circled “underweight” disqualification in a tryout for the Oklahoma Invaders, and Burgin was finished.
That drove him to write his fictional novel about football players in the 1980s.
“You always hear about the superstars,” he says. “But for every one guy you hear about, there’s a thousand guys who come through the league who you don’t hear about. So many athletes that were good enough that don’t make it through, for so many reasons. The guys you hear about? They’re not only the talented ones. They’re the lucky ones.”
So he moved back to L.A. in 1984, joining up with a dozen friends who’d all played football together in college to start a concert security business. The idea was that peers would police the concerts rather than armed cops, a concept they borrowed from a similar company they’d worked for in college. Within six months, the business had grown from just the L.A. area to stretch from San Francisco to San Diego.
Burgin says they were the first such company to hire women, and Catherine, Con Pane’s owner, was one of the first few they hired. That’s when she and Burgin and some of the other workers became friends.
Soon, Burgin landed on the Bob Dylan and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers tour through North America in the summer of 1986. The rock stars had been on a world tour and taken a hiatus, during which time Petty’s bodyguard broke his leg working as a stunt double on a movie set in Jamaica. That pushed Burgin into the role of security director for the rest of the tour, which was the hottest ticket of the year.
When he came off the tour, other acts were calling to get Burgin, now renowned, on their tours. He set up an interview with Elton John, who was about to embark on a world tour just a week after Burgin came off the road in August with Petty and Dylan. The interview was Saturday, and the tour began Monday.
Back in L.A., Burgin’s friend asked him to help man an AC/DC concert that Wednesday night at the Irvine Amphitheatre. He was reluctant because of his short time off, but his friend was understaffed for the show and promised to put him in an “easy job.”
So Burgin stood near a platform waving a small Mag-lite flashlight to keep the rowdy concert-goers from jumping over a wall and damaging the expensive sound equipment below.
“We were understaffed, it was a Wednesday night, we were out in the boonies,” he said. “When the lights went down, we were overrun.”
One jumper didn’t see Burgin and jumped over the wall, right toward him.
*Be-beep, be-beep, be-beep.* When Burgin gets to this point in the story, the timer around his neck rings, signaling the bread pans need rotating. He leaves his listener hanging for an excruciating minute while he takes care of the baking. But then, he gets back to the story.
The jumper came over the wall, right at where Burgin was holding up the flashlight with his right hand. On impact, the falling person drove Burgin’s arm, and the flashlight, back toward the right side of his face. The little, strong, metal flashlight pierced Burgin’s eye socket and drove into his head.
“It was a lightning bolt, the whole side of my face was blinding,” he says. “I figured, right then, my eye was gone. I was feeling for it, it was all mush.”
But Burgin didn’t panic. Even the paramedics who came marveled that his blood pressure was normal. He says he thought, for some reason, that the inside of human eyeballs contained a black ink-like substance. When he only saw blood on his fingers, but no ink, he thought he might still have his eye.
In the ambulance on the way to the hospital, he says, he had a revelation.
“I thought I’d lost my eyesight,” he says. “I thought, ‘If I lose sight in my other eye, how will I ever write?’”
That showed him that writing was to be his vocation, he says now. But though he would retain his eyesight, he had weeks of surgery and rehabilitation ahead. It wasn’t until six months later that he realized with a start, “Oh yeah, Elton John.” He’d completely missed the interview. But his security career was over, anyway. Now he was going to write.
He took some courses, writing the first 40 pages of “Vagabond Blues,” his football novel. He went to readings and spoke to authors about writing. One poet told him that until he had 100 rejection slips, she didn’t have any advice for him.
He moved to San Diego in 1989 and worked at a fish market on the harbor. He kept writing, working for a while as a journalist for El Sol de San Diego, an English-language newspaper for Spanish-speaking people. But the deadlines and the pace squeezed out any chance he had to write his own stories, so he quit after a year and a half and spent seven months on 13 short stories, living on $2.50 a week.
Finally, in 1993, he had his first short story published in San Diego Writers Monthly, and was paid $10 for it. He counted his rejection slips: 96.
“Turns out, she was about right,” he chuckles.
He got to know some other local writers, then one night, saw an advertisement for the “Prague Review” in the Espresso newspaper circulated around San Diego coffee shops.
“Submit your writing,” the advertisement said.
“I had no idea where Prague was,” he says.
At first, his pieces were rejected. But he started sending letters back and forth with the editor. He told the editor about “Vagabond Blues,” and that he was hoping to write a novel based in Europe — in Paris, London or Madrid, he thought.
But the editor convinced him: Prague was the ultimate European city, the setting for his novel. Burgin saved up money for four years and went, for two months, in 1996.
The first month, he walked around Prague during the day and worked on “Vagabond Blues” at night. The second month, he wrote in the daytime and walked around in the evenings. He had barely enough money, so he rationed food. He lost 39 pounds in those two months, eating meals of two small slices of salami and a quarter of a dinner roll. He stretched a single water bottle over two days.
“Now I have all this bread, I would’ve killed for it,” he says. “But I’d been doing odd jobs. All I wanted to do was write. I’d done everything else.”
The last night of that trip, he was walking through the town center, and heard the Rolling Stones’ hit “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” wafting through the square.
“I followed it through the labyrinth of Old Town Prague,” he says. “And I found a bar, packed with dissenters from the Communist rule — writers, sculptors, painters.”
The bar was called “Gallerie Komzik” and was opened by a “droopy-mustached” proprietor who quickly told Burgin, “The Rolling Stones are my life.”
That was his last night in Prague. Two years later, he went back, this time for nearly a year. He became friends with the people from the bar, who called him “San Diego” and told him their stories of life under Communist rule. Then Catherine called, telling him she had the loan. He left for San Diego in January 1999.
Since then, he’s been to Prague twice. Once for eight months, once for four months. He has an apartment there and is slowly shipping his belongings to live there, and write, for good.
Since the cafe opened, he rewrote “Vagabond Blues” and published it. Now it’s time to focus on the “Prague novel,” he says.
“The next time I go, it’s for good,” he says. “But I’m always just a plane ride, 12 hours away, from here in case Catherine needs me.”
He and Catherine and some of their other friends from the football and security scenes have kept in close touch. It’s almost like his own version of the group of friends he fell into at the Gallerie Komzik, he says.
“That’s it exactly,” he says. “Nothing’s been planned. I just kind of go with it. To me, writing is everything. I hope to spend the next 20 years writing in Prague. Writing is me, I guess.”