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Eggs and Hank Williams in Mexico
Sacramento Business Journal
March 28, 2003

Walking through the mid-morning streets of Sayulita, Mexico, a sleepy fishing hamlet and surf spot north of Puerto Vallarta, we're hungry for breakfast.

This warm, blue-skied setting is about as laid back as it gets. Dogs are common. Some are sacked out on the sunny parts of the hard dirt streets, oblivious to the town's semi-bustle. Locals and some tourists mosey off to their daily routines in and around the town's main plaza.

Fishermen are already far out on the deep blue ocean to net their day's catch; a clot of surfers bob on the swells a hundred yards offshore, waiting for the next wave.

We spot a narrow, three-story, red brick building down the street with a big vinyl sign rolled off the deck of its roof, announcing "Rollie's" in big red letters. My wife Elena had read good things about this place, so we duck in under the sunsplashed front awning.

A big black and white dog is splayed on the floor, blocking the way, sleeping while his owner eats. We take one of the two tables still empty, and see ceiling fans whirring at full blast in an attempt to keep the flies and warm air moving.

The smell of strong coffee wafts into our nostrils as Hank Williams' twangy yodel is on the stereo.

"Want a cat?" asks our waitress Jeanne. "We're trying to find a home for one." We can't do that but we do order breakfast, tucking into eggs, potatoes, a heaping fresh fruit plate and tall, fresh OJs. As we get full, the tall old guy who had been cooking at the grill in the back comes over to say hello.

Rollie, with an apron over his shorts, and a red visor tugged over his gray hair, pulls up a chair and says "hi" in a raspy, booming voice. His ruddy face smiles easily as he asks us where we're from.

He tells us he's a retired school principal from Salinas. Five years earlier, he'd decided Mexico would be a great place to go on vacation at Christmas. But he'd never been. A former student suggested Sayulita, where she still had family. Sayulita it was, for a 10-day stay.

"We came here and just fell in love with the place," says Rollie.

Three months later he flew back and bought this building, with the plan of turning it into a breakfast place. He didn't know the business. He just dove in.

He remodeled the first floor into a restaurant and started in on his dream with his wife Jeanne, a retired teacher. He cooks every day 'til noon, and makes it his job to have fun. He shouts hellos and goodbyes to customers as he tends the griddle, and unashamedly sings and swings to whatever music is on the CD player.

Music, it's easy to see, is one of his big passions.

He's catalogued all his CDs in a 43-page binder for customers to peruse for requests. He's got them filed under country, blues, jazz, rock and other categories, along with his own seat-of-thepants liner notes on each recording. He's got stuff ranging from Eddie Arnold, Burl Ives and Hank Williams to The Band, Jerry Garcia and Miles Davis. Rollie's kids add songs to the list, even if he's not big on the music. Like Sheryl Crow or Jimmy Buffett. But he says he'll listen to anything recommended.

As we chat, Hank Williams wails "My hair's still curly, my eyes're still blue/Why don't you love me like you used to do?" and it reminds Rollie of a story about the seminal country star who died at 29 in 1953.

"I had a friend who was a big music promoter in the South in the '40s and '50s," he says. "He wanted to book Hank Williams for a show somewhere in Texas. But everybody told him don't book him, he gets drunk and won't show up.

"Well, he books him anyway. And sure enough, Hank Williams didn't show up. So this guy goes over to the hotel Hank's staying in and knocks on his door. He finds him drunk, sitting on the edge of the bed, buck naked except for his cowboy boots, guitar and hat. 'Siddown and listen to this!' yelled Williams. 'I just wrote it.'

"My friend," Rollie says, "sat down and was the first one to hear 'I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry,' other than Hank himself."

The song became a signature tune in country music.

Rollie and Jeanne spend seven months a year in Sayulita and five at home in Monterey. He recently split the restaurant's ownership to include the local help of Adriana, Ismael, Laura, Eva, Flip and David. He wanted to give them something in return for all he gets out of Sayulita. He calls it "an experiment in love and respect."

Rollie says there's mounting pressure from resort developers to carve up Sayulita. And while there's organized resistance, "money always wins," he says with a shrug.

The town's roads, he expects, will someday get paved. The uncrowded charm of this beachside village might get lost in mass tourism profit schemes. But even if that happens, Rollie vows to stay put.

"It's up to all of us to make our own bit of charm wherever we are," he says.

Five minutes later, he's back behind the griddle, dancing to the music of his dream.