It is with both sadness and optimism that we close perhaps the best chapter (although not the last) of my dad, Robert Saunders' vibrant and colorful life - the 25 years he lived in Taos.
Retired for about eight years and only six months sober, my Dad arrived in Taos on a vacation in 1990 and never went home. He fell in love with the climate, culture, music, food and people of Taos. With a lifetime of success behind him and only in his mid-50s, he decided he had too much life left to stay retired. One thing led to another and Plaza Parking was born.
He'd made a business arrangement with Saki Karavas, then owner of Taos' La Fonda Hotel (1953-1996) to lease the land at 125 Paseo del Pueblo Sur (across from a Taos T-shirt shop) and use it to create Taos' Plaza Parking, an opportunity encouraged by then Town Councilman Bobby Duran to relieve the ever-present parking problem in Taos' bustling Historic District. Saki and my dad had at least three things in common: charisma, a knack for business and a love for women. I remember Dad's grief over Saki's passing in 1996. At some point both the land and lease agreement Dad had with Saki was transferred to Tom McCarthy with whom Dad enjoyed a business relationship spanning another two decades.
There's a saying around Taos that goes something like this: "How do you wind up with a million dollars in Taos? Move here with three million." Yep, lots of businesses have come and gone in this town since 1990. But Dad's business thrived as he shared his love and enthusiasm for Taos with thousands of tourists a year. Many have returned year after year, always parking at Plaza Parking.
With hard work, along with a love for this town and respect for its diverse population and rich history, Dad made friends easily and heartily supported local businesses and talented artists and craftsman who, like him, were in midlife and learning to be free. His home was filled with stunning pieces by Michael McCormick, Thom Wheeler, Stephen Kilborn, Tony Abeyta, JD Challenger, Leandro Rodríguez, RC Gorman and others. For 25 years his nights were filled with dancing to the sounds of Jimmy Stadler, the Monkey Feeders (w/ female vocalist Katy P), Kim & the Caballeros, Michael Hearne, Brent Berry, John Carey, and The Damn Band & Mina Tank! Oh how he loved listening to Mina Tank!
Dad was a regular at Taos Plaza Live every Thursday in the summer when he would get all cleaned up, put a big sign at the street that said, "Taos Plaza Live Tonight. Free Parking!" and hussle across the street for an evening of dancing and laughter. Making others smile was always as important as making money. Virtually every woman he knew at one time or another in his 25 years in Taos must have heard him say, "You sure have a beautiful smile!" And men were always greeted with, "Hey man! How're you doin'?" In fact, up until recently and with fading memory, Dad still greeted everyone with one of those two phrases. It may have sounded disingenuous at times but, I can tell you, it wasn't. He loves people. And people love him.
He met thousands of tourists through the years, always sharing with them what he felt made Taos the best place in the world to live ... and his smile. He loved to smile and see others do the same. I remember in the mid-1960s, he made a collage. It featured nothing but smiles. He went through magazines, page after page, and cut out beautiful smiles (just the mouth) and mounted this large collage on his office wall. You couldn't help but smile when you saw it!
In Taos, my Dad shared with others his story of sobriety, his success, his joy in living/ working here, and his pride in being a part of the U.S. Marine Corp. In fact, part of his legacy in Taos are the signs on Cantu Hill along Paseo del Pueblo Sur honoring active and retired servicemen and women from Taos representing every branch of our United States armed forces (although all in the red and gold of the USMC). He personally paid for those signs to honor our local heroes who have served or are serving our nation with honor and courage. There used to be about 30-40 more veterans represented but, a few years ago, he was told some had to come down.
Whenever he was out for dinner or around Taos and an elderly Pueblo woman would approach him with her case of handmade jewelry, Dad would pull out his money and pay her the asking price. He didn't haggle. He would just say, "She's working hard to make a living. I want to help her."
Each year he gave to the Taos Lions Club to support their giving free rides to children on the Tio Vivo Carousel. Seeing those children smiling ear-to-ear riding that carousel was truly an annual highlight for him in Taos.
Ironically, it was probably his generosity that causes him to be in a memory-care community today with severe dementia rather than working his parking lot and dancing for hours at the Alley, or the Mesa Brewery's "Mothership," the Taos Inn or the Sagebrush. Or sitting at El Taoseño having his breakfast enchiladas, talking with Fred and flirting with the wait staff.
Already dealing with mild dementia, at about 4 p.m. on Sunday, July 27, 2014, Dad was brutally assaulted at the Conoco near the Old Blinking Light and was rushed to Holy Cross Hospital with severe lacerations to his arms, face and head, apparently from the metal gas nozzle that was used to beat him. He would never fully recover from the trauma to his head caused by a careless and selfish young man attempting to rob him. Dad was 80 years old. He was vibrant, physically strong and full of life. And although he wasn't working much anymore, he was still tremendously generous. Had the young man asked him for help, Dad probably would have done so.
Thankfully, Dad didn't (couldn't) remember any of it. And although the lead investigator was certain they would make an arrest, the case was prematurely closed. Just dropped. No reason given. My Dad no longer remembers Taos, El Taoseño, the Alley Cantina, nor even Plaza Parking. But for those who knew him in his 25 years in Taos and shared life, laughter, music and sobriety with him, "Thank You!"
My sister and I had hoped that as long as Dad was alive, we would carry on his legacy of providing premiere parking at a fair price (and some shade during the summer) to the thousands of tourists who visit the town he so loved!
But, progress calls. The new owners of the land at 125 Paseo del Pueblo Sur are not interested in continuing our lease. So we must close this chapter of Dad's life. The little iconic adobe building with tiny red front porch has been sold to a sweet couple who plan to use it as a tiny guesthouse for their oldest son.
As I opened this piece, this transition carries with it both sadness and optimism. May God bless each of you in your endeavors. May Taos bring you as much joy and serenity and success as it brought my Dad. May you, whatever happens to the land, always remember the little adobe building with the tiny red porch and think of my Dad, AKA Roberto, Sundollar, Parking Lot Robert, and his love for this place you call home.