A keen observer of our quirky town, “Society Lady” Erin Graffy de Garcia writes bitingly and lovingly about Santa Barbara, “the world’s most interesting, frustrating, beautiful, provincial, weird, wonderful and unique city.” She recently sat down with Noozhawk’s Leslie Dinaberg to dish about her latest doozy, Society Lady’s Volume III: How to Santa Barbara, The Annotated Guide to Santa Barbara.
Leslie Dinaberg: How did you get into writing about Santa Barbara and your version of the social history of Santa Barbara?
Erin Graffy de Garcia: In my real life, I’m in business — marketing, specifically — and I’ve taught at Adult Ed, Antioch, Golden Gate and UCSB, specifically all-day seminars in marketing for business.
I have this sort of protocol for teaching. Instead of just coming out and saying the four keys of marketing, I developed my own system where you look at the national industry, the local industry, the local marketplace independent of your specific industry, and say what’s there, what’s not there, what’s hot, what’s not, then what sells. Things would always come up about Santa Barbara, so it became almost this monologue that I would deliver at a certain point in class about Santa Barbara.
People would always say, “Well I was thinking about a grand opening, and we know Britney Spears or so and so …,” and I’m like, no, no, no, no, no, you don’t bring movie stars and celebrities.
“Well, why not?”
And I would say Santa Barbara doesn’t do movie stars, and then we’d talk about the pecking order here being length of residence, which is hilarious. The pecking order here is length of residence. Not money, not power or position; in Santa Barbara, it’s length of residence.
So you come here and you think you’ve got a lot of money or you’ve been elected to the council and you’re a big shot. Well, you know, you’ve got your head above the rest of the little barrio but you’re not really that important … And that became really funny.
One time I was going on about this and it was a big class and it just so happened there were a lot of locals in the class. … So I’m going through all of these different things about how do we know if you just showed up. Well, you used different language.
If you’re not from Santa Barbara, you use words like east and west and north and south and we have no idea where east and west and north and south are, other than the address East Figueroa. And, of course, State Street turns at a right angle to make things even more complicated. So I was going on about this and how we’ll refer to the old places; we’ll still say Yankee Clipper instead of Josie’s Four Winds (formerly on Upper State Street) and, of course, Josie’s Four Winds is long gone and now it’s something else. And this lady in the class, she’s looking very concerned. She said, “You’re laughing about this but when we moved here my daughter, Annabel, was in sixth grade. She’s gone all though junior high and high school, she’s now in college and people act like we just arrived.”
And the whole class laughed and someone else said we’ve been here six years and people act like we just arrived. And I’m like, yeah, exactly. Then it got to be funny and people asked when do you think you have arrived? And I said I think it’s about 13 years before you get your green card. But it was funny just to see other people respond.
The really funny thing was when the first book (Society Lady’s Guide on How to Santa Barbara) came out. I got these e-mails and stuff from all over the place from people writing in, just really funny things of this is what happened to me, or this is what I remember telling my girlfriend in ninth grade when she first moved here. Or they were out of state and their mother bought the book and sent it to them and every time they come they still remember how funny Santa Barbara is, and now this book reminded them or was articulating what they already thought.
LD: It’s interesting, too, as time goes by and Santa Barbara gets bigger, those of us who have been here a long time cling to those old days even harder. I know the stories that I write about the old places that used to be here or the way things used to be get so much traction. It’s fascinating how people really glom on to that.
EG: People really connect with that. You already know you know the same language without having to go through and articulate it.
LD: So your first book grew out of the class?
EG: I just kept adding to what makes it Santa Barbara, and the reason for that was very practical. After I’d start talking about it, someone in the class, maybe he’s in sales, would say, “Well, I have worked the biggest markets in the country” and this and that, and they come to Santa Barbara and it’s completely different. … So then they go, “What the hell am I supposed to do?”
Well, there’s a fine line. You have to know that we’re very intelligent and very vigorous and very sophisticated, and at the same time we’re extraordinarily provincial.
But they would keep asking what am I supposed to do. And then I said, well, the way that you ingratiate yourself since you don’t actually have roots is you join three nonprofits. And the way you do that is you join one nonprofit and then everybody there knows that you are fresh blood, new material, and then they will immediately have you sign up for their other nonprofits. So within three months you will have joined three to four nonprofits. And people go, yeah, that’s exactly true. So it’s funny but it’s all true.
LD: Which is why it’s funny.
EG: Exactly. Then, of course, there all of the jokes about nonprofits, which do fill every single book, come to think of it. I think this one I have something about auctions. The nonprofit world is such a big thing here.
LD: Very true.
EG: I’ve got a section on nonprofits: how to recover from events and other natural disasters, how to tell if you have a dysfunctional nonprofit.
Oh, this has gotten a lot of good attention … What not to wear Santa Barbara-style. … When someone comes here, immediately we want to undress them. We say if you want to look like a Santa Barbara gal, get rid of those beautiful shoes.
LD: None of that matchy-matchy fancy stuff.
EG: You can wear it to the Dream Foundation, but otherwise you’ll look like you’re not from here.
LD: It sounds like you’re really busy but what else do you like to do when you’re not working?
EG: Nuclear fission.
LD: Of course.
EG: I still like performing. (Erin was a music major at Pepperdine University and has been a choreographer.) We have a group called the Musical Mischief and we do a lot of the black-tie events around town. It’s parody songs on whatever the theme is. At Michael Towbes’ birthday last year, we did a big show. Instead of “YMCA”, we did “MIKE” for Mike, and then we did “Granada”, the Spanish traditional song, only we changed the words and it was about The Granada theater here in town. I have a fabulous tenor and a bunch of other good friends who are fabulous singers.
LD: If you could pick three adjectives to describe yourself, what would they be?
EG: Oh that’s horrible. … Chocolate, dilettante and iconoclast.
LD: What’s your next book?
EG: There are three. One is a biography of a woman who left Vietnam, the second is a history of aviation and aviators in Santa Barbara, the third one is on the history of the Jewish community in Santa Barbara. The name of the book is From Olé to Oy Vey!: The Jewish Community in Santa Barbara.
Vital Stats: Erin Graffy de Garcia
Born: in Kansas, moved to Santa Barbara when she was in preschool
Family: Husband Jim Garcia
Civic Involvement: Yes! Historian for Old Spanish Days; trustee at Santa Barbara Mission Archive Library; advisory boards for the Champions for Ice fundraising committee of the Greater Santa Barbara Ice Skating Association, Notre Dame School, Santa Barbara Revels, Dream Foundation, Junior League of Santa Barbara, Westerners, Santa Barbara Historical Museum; honorary board for the Santa Barbara Maritime Museum
Professional Accomplishments: Has written a variety of books and articles on everything from a marketing textbook, Santa Barbara History, and Multiple Personality Disorder. “I kind of have so many different hats that it’s hard for me to keep track of myself. Someone once said that they Googled me but they weren’t sure which one was me. I said that’s all me because I’m the only person in the world who has my name.”
Best Book You’ve Read Recently: Saigon to San Diego, about a kid who was one of the boat people from Vietnam. Usually I’ve got about five books happening at the same time.
Favorite Local Spot: We used to go to the Biltmore and El Encanto when they had live music. I also spend a lot of time at the Gledhill Library (at the Santa Barbara Historical Museum, 136 E. De la Guerra St.). I think they probably have a table reserved for Graffy with a little sticker on it.
Little-Known Fact: I’ve never had coffee.
Erin Graffy de Garcia’s latest book, Society Lady’s Volume III: How to Santa Barbara, The Annotated Guide to Santa Barbara, is available at Chaucer’s Books, 3321 State St.; Tecolote Book Shop, 1470 East Valley Road; the Santa Barbara Airport, Cabana Home, 111 Santa Barbara St.; and Vices & Spices, 3558 State St.
Some Favorites From the Society Lady’s Guides:
» Devil’s Dictionary Definition of Environmentalists: People who discover the lot next door is going to be developed.
» Hope Ranch and Montecito are almost alike except they are entirely different.
» Volunteer work is the drug of choice for many a Santa Barbara woman.
» Bike paths are very much appreciated by the 143 cyclists who actually use them. The other cyclists will insist on weaving in and out of traffic down De la Vina Street while ignoring the dedicated bike lane two blocks over on Castillo.
» Regarding parking, tourists are actually the ones who are on the side streets because they cannot resist the urge to park in a place that has no meter. Santa Barbarians never park on the street downtown because they have no idea how to parallel park.
» We have our very own local nonprofits that will help you mind your temper, heal the ocean, get oil out, adopt bunnies, rescue elephants, party on the longest day of summer by dressing like a vegetable and guzzling beer, prune your roses, enjoy pasta in the park with the Italian booters, stop nuclear bombs from exploding, recall the rich historic Spanish era by slurping margaritas atop a horse, RSVP to send grandma out to volunteer, take a hike, watch people read stories, meet people new to town, and even send a live Raggedy Ann to the hospital to talk to patients. There is always something for everybody! (There is even a nonprofit to help you start your very own nonprofit.)