Tuesday, November 10, 2015

The Oldest City

And so it came to pass -- anyone's guess how -- that I was invited to a literary festival in Florida. No, really, a guy who hasn't had a book out since 1986 rubbing shoulders with professors and authors. Not only that, I was sort of the headlining act, last one of the conference.

The Other Words conference has been going on for several years, and although I'd never heard of it, I did note, once I'd been invited, that it would allow me a weekend in St. Augustine, Florida, a place I'd never been, and that all I had to do was show up on Saturday night so that this guy Wyn Cooper and I could talk. Cooper, as you'll see from the link, is a poet who's also had one of his poems turned into a hit record by Sheryl Crow, and a brief conversation with him before I left convinced me this would be fun.

I don't have much to say about the conference itself -- if you're curious, you can click the link above -- but I was very interested in being in America's oldest city, seeing as how just a little while back I'd been to America's other oldest city, Santa Fe. St. Augustine has them beat by about 50 years, though, and I figured there'd be something to see.

And there was: when I woke up on Friday morning, there was this big grey edifice across the street and a bit to the left of my hotel, the Castillo de San Marcos, the Spanish fort built to defend the city from the various forces who wanted it for themselves. The town itself was founded in 1565, and some wooden forts erected against the threat of the French, largely Huguenots (aha! A Montpellier connection!), who'd settled a bit to the north near what is now Jacksonville. This didn't prevent the French fleet from trying their luck against the Spaniards, but their luck was bad: the fleet was destroyed by a storm, and the Spaniards marched north and destroyed their fort. Then the shipwrecked sailors appeared and the Spaniards killed them all. Florida was off to a great start.

Then came the British, who burned St. Augustine to the ground in 1586, but wound up settling further north in Jamestown, Virginia and Charleston, South Carolina. The reason St. Augustine was so important to Spain was that it was on the Gulf Stream, which could whoosh boats coming up from South America, often laden with gold and silver, straight to Spain. Seeing that their location was so vital and their new settlement could be used as a stop for Spanish ships for repairs and supplies, they decided to build a stone fort, and work was started in 1672 and finished in 1695. The main building material was coquina, a fossil-bearing rock that's much sturdier than limestone, and it's held up.

Which is better than the town itself has done: British forces from South Carolina showed up in 1702 and burned it again, but spent 50 days beseiging the Castillo and never took it. Giving the British the finger, the Spanish governor announced that runaway slaves would be given their freedom if they came to town, and made good on it. Of course, they were still employed in manual labor, but they got paid for it.

Good defenses make good neighbors
In 1763, the British acquired Florida as part of a deal involving a peace treaty, and took over the administration of St. Augustine and the Castillo. There's really not much to see per se inside the fort: the most interesting stuff is graffiti scratched by soldiers stationed there, which include pictures of boats that naval experts can actually identify and assign to a nation, but the Parks Service has good posters detailing the various periods of the Castillo's history, and some of them highlight individuals who were important in the city's history. My favorite was a Swiss mercenary who rose high enough in the British army to be appointed governor, and apparently complained bitterly about how awful Florida was. He wound up getting transferred to Quebec, where he really enjoyed the weather.

Owing to the turbulent history, "old" as far as structures go in St. Augustine means early 18th century, and there are older structures in New England, the Hudson valley, and Philadelphia, among other places, and because the Spanish gave the place up for the last time in 1821, when they gave Florida to the United States (and the Americans renamed the Castillo de San Marcos Fort Marion after the "Swamp Fox"), there's no real Spanish vibe to the town except a self-conscious one. Part of that came about when Henry Flagler, who had helped John D. Rockefeller establish Standard Oil (and was acknowledged as the mastermind behind it) decided that Florida held an unprecedented opportunity for healthful tourism, and, in 1882, moved to St. Augustine to start developing it. The first thing he did was to build a hotel.

Not the Best Western where I stayed
He also built another one across the street, a little less grand. It's now St. Augustine's City Hall. This one is now Flagler College, where the conference was based. Flagler built a railroad to connect various of his enterprises in Florida tourism, and eventually it went all the way to Key West, but he really lavished a lot of attention on St. Augustine. Thanks to the conference, I had an ID that let me into the no-go areas in this building, including the dining hall.

Thanks to the miracle of my patented Blur-O-Vision photography, you can't really make out the lavish murals in the top photo or discern the little stage where musicians would play for hotel diners. Nor, in the lower photo, can you see that the windows are stained glass by Tiffany, the largest holding of Tiffany glass in the U.S. 

Here's a view of the main entrance, showing some of the books conference attendees had for sale, most of them poetry, which is definitely not my field. But the whole building is this over the top, take my word. 

Unfortunately, there's not much of interest in this tourist enclave I was staying in unless you need scented candles, bath supplies, or candy. Dang, there was a lot of candy for sale. I found a place called the Fudge Bucket, which I humbly submit is the worst business name I've seen this year. It's on St. George St., where a lot of old houses have been turned into bars, restaurants, and tchotchke emporia. 

I did a lot of walking, mostly because I like to walk, and you never know what you'll find. There was one area where there were some impressive old houses that I liked. 

And there were other, more fanciful, ones.
Photo somewhat worse for shooting directly into Florida sunshine
I spent a lot of Friday tramping around these streets and pretty much exhausted the possibilities. I was also wary: this was the weekend of a marathon, and Pirate Days, where the city is invaded by people who like pirate cosplay. There was a van parked at my motel which had skeletons all over it, and I saw a lot of people walking the streets in full (and meticulously detailed) pirate drag. Saturday there was a parade, but fortunately I missed it. 

Since I was free until Saturday night, I did a lot of wandering, and managed to meet some St. Augustinians who, I hope, aren't typical, although I fear they might be. First was a sort of hippie chick who accosted me when I was headed to Flagler College. "Pentax or Nikon?" she asked, pointing at my camera. It was a Nikon, and she told me that's what she'd had. She asked me what I was doing in town, and I told her, and she introduced herself as Georgia and said that she didn't know much about poetry but she did know about rock and roll and had adopted Jim Morrison as her mentor "as a poet and as a clown," which I thought was fair. She said she'd have a camera "when I get everything back," and wished me a good stay. The second one was a young guy I met crossing a bridge a bit further up the street that runs by Flagler. I'd gone to a huge liquor store outside the city limits to buy a six-pack for nightcaps while reading at night, and this kid perched on the bridge's railing said "Do you believe in God?" Not wanting to walk into a minefield, I said "Sure," and he replied by knocking on the railing's stone and saying "He's concrete, just like this. He's not an abstraction, no way." Okay. The third one was a chunky young guy who struck up a conversation as I was eating breakfast. He said he listens to NPR all the time and asked about the conference and went back to what he was doing. As he got up to go, he handed me a napkin. "Check this out sometime. Have a nice day." The napkin had a URL for something called The Political Cesspool, and he had written "Check the archives," and then two Latin words, one of which was "deo" and the other a form of the verb "vencere," which, having never really learned all the tenses despite my Latin teacher's best efforts, made me think it could be translated as "God will win." 

Food? Yes, they have it. St. Augustinian cuisine is seafood, of course, and yet it's not all that varied: you have mahi-mahi, you have blue crab, and you have shrimp. And that seemed to be it. There's also a local specialty of Menorcan clam chowder. Menorca is a Spanish island in the Balearic group, much touristed by Germans and Brits these days, but with a version of Catalan culture and language. Although Menorcans were disproportionately represented among St. Augustine's Spanish population, and set up the town's bakery (now a tourist trap serving fake Spanish pastry) and provided ancestry for Steven St. Vincent Benet, the clam chowder is all that remains. Thus, I had to have some, and so I hit Catch 27, which looked pretty good, for dinner on Friday. If their version was anything to go by, the broth is tomato enhanced by the local datil pepper, an odd-looking, mildly hot, chile, which adds a good deal of complexity to the flavor by not trying to overwhelm anything. The flavor of the clams comes through, and the only problem I had with Catch 27's version was the two immense croutons in it, which soaked up the broth and sogged out. But it gave me ideas, which I intend to try out in a self-invented recipe soon, so I bought a bottle of datil sauce at a hot-sauce emporium tourist trap and brought it home. Catch 27 also made some decent crab-cakes. 

My other bit of culinary knowledge was provided on Saturday, when I went to find a pharmacy. I walked across the Lions Bridge, a drawbridge across the bay, and into another part of town that was less touristy. Still, there was no pharmacy for as long as I walked, although I did happen on the Alligator Farm, one of St. Augustine's earliest tourist attractions, which is actually in the National Register of Historic Places. Cost $22.95 to get in, so I passed but I took the opportunity to ask my phone where the nearest pharmacy was. The answer was discouraging -- why are there no consumer-friendly businesses in the St. Augustine tourist area where I was staying? Santa Fe seems to have no problem having convenience stores and so on in their tourist area -- so I walked back. On the way out, I'd passed O'Steen's Restaurant, highly recommended by locals, so, hot and sweaty from the long walk, I decided to stop in. A cup of Menorcan chowder was out of the question, sad to say (I figured it'd be the definitive one), but their famous fried shrimp wasn't. It was, um, fried shrimp, but the shrimp themselves were fine: the local shrimp seem to have an iodine-y tang I associate with the Atlantic, not overwhelming, but another note in the basic shrimp taste. They were inexpensive and gave me the energy to hike back to my motel and collapse. 

The other place of note to eat was, amazingly, the coffee shop attached to my motel, Mary's Harbor View Cafe, which is the place to catch breakfast (or lunch, apparently). Mary, a large no-nonsense woman with a cheery demeanor, runs a tight ship, and has earned the neon sign on the back wall declaring the place The Mary Show. I had omelettes all three days, and can report that the hash-browns on offer here are the real deal, not some grease-soaked previously-frozen slab of starch. And the shrimp omelette I had Sunday morning was top-notch, as were the others, but that one was special. Mary's joins the pantheon of great motel coffee-shops that also includes the legendary Duke's At The Tropicana of sainted memory. 

My interview went well, and Sunday I headed to the Jacksonville airport in a cab driven by a chatty but sane woman who'd survived what sounds like a fairly impoverished upbringing in a trailer. And I survived the flight home, which was smooth, although the route went through a swath of weather that scared me to death every time I called up the map on my phone. Interesting short trip, although I have no particular interest at the moment in exploring Florida further. Just remember: if you visit, no bookstore, no pharmacy closer than six miles, and no convenience store, but a Fudge Bucket. What an odd place. 

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

A Visit With Dracula: 1997

For about eight years, I had an enviable freelance position as a roving cultural correspondent for the Wall Street Journal Europe, with a territory encompassing Germany, Scandinavia, Switzerland, Eastern Europe, and, occasionally, other places the other correspondents didn't want to go or where stories they had no interest or knowledge in were. I wrote a lot about art, some about music, and got to visit a load of interesting places and people. I'm thinking of doing another Kindle book with some of my greatest hits from this period of my life, but seeing as it's Halloween and this CD just showed up in my living room for some reason, I figured it's time to tell the tale of my brief encounter with Dracula.

Yup, that's him

* * *

        Dracula lives!
And, this being 1997, he lives in the suburbs, drives a car, has a cellular phone, and frets over the exorbitant cost of heating Castle Dracula in the wintertime. Some things haven’t changed, though: this year hundreds of people have left Castle Dracula minus some of their blood.
Yes, there really is a Dracula, and yes, he really has a castle. Not the sort of forbidding stone pile of filmdom, but a stately country home built in the middle of the last century by Rudolf Mosse, a Jewish publishing magnate who lost it to the Nazis in 1934. The house was commandeered after the War by the East Germans, who used it as housing for some of the tenants of the collective farm they built on the grounds. Dracula bought it for a token fee from the Treuhand, the organization in charge of converting East German state property after the unification of Germany, and now he’s stuck with it.
As readers of Bram Stoker’s classic novel, published 100 years ago in Dublin, have discovered if they’ve researched its background, there really was a historic Count Dracula, Vlad Tepes, or Vlad the Impaler, a gruesome Wallachian nobleman in Romania who used to enjoy punishing disobedient subjects and “unchaste women” by impaling them on sharpened logs, often dining amidst the hapless victims as they died. Tepes was the son of Vlad Dracul, Vlad the Dragon, and “Dracula” means “son of the dragon.” In the 350 years since his reign, the family grew in stature in Romania, eventually becoming the Kretzulesco family, whose status was upgraded to princes and princesses, and whose grande dame, Katharin, escaped the Communists and settled in Kansas City, where she was awarded the Congressional Medal of Freedom by Ronald Reagan for her tireless anticommunist activities and work to free her native land from the Russian yoke, and died in 1994.
The story takes its current turn in 1977, when a Kretzulesco heiress walked into an antique store on Berlin’s fashionable Pestalozzistrasse, trying to sell some of the family silver. The store’s owner noticed the crest and inquired about it. The woman told him a tale of woe: the Kretzulesco line was about to become extinct, having produced nothing but women in its current generation, and they were too old for child-bearing. This was a worry, because the family was responsible for the maintenance of two palaces in Bucharest, nine churches, and eleven monasteries scattered throughout Romania. Unfortunately, the Orthodox Church only recognized men as having the power to make decisions, and if the property was to remain in the hands of the family, the Kretzulescos would have to adopt a male heir. Thus, after consultation with the youngest daughter, Princess Caradja Krezulesco, the antique dealer became Ottomar Rodolphe Vlad Dracula, Prince Kretzulesco.
It was, if not quite a deal with the devil, not quite an ideal situation, either. At first, there wasn’t much Prince Dracula could do about things. The Ceauçescu regime didn’t mess with the Church, so those properties were safe, and the state maintained the two palaces in Bucharest, which were regarded as national treasures, and housed the Goethe Institut and a musical-instrument museum. But with the changes in Eastern Europe eight years ago, he seized the opportunity to buy the Mosse property in Schenkendorf, a village a few miles from Königs Wusterhausen, a town on Berlin’s southeast edge. He set about renovating the house and grounds, only to start running into problems.
“I want to paint these walls,” he told a recent group of visitors, “but the historic preservation people want me to conduct a color analysis to discover the original wall-color that will cost me 70,000 Marks ($39,600)! It’s been painted so many times, who can tell?” That, and the fact that it costs 200 Marks ($113) a day to heat the antiquated building, is just the tip of the costly iceberg.
In order to make money, the Prince has moved his antique business into Castle Dracula, and has opened a lovely beer-garden and snack bar, complete with an outdoor grill and a stage area for outdoor musical events. Even there, he’s run into problems: this year, he tried to have a fireworks display and was informed that it would interfere with nesting storks in the area. He lost his deposit with the fireworks folks, only to discover that, due to a late spring, the storks stayed in Africa longer than they normally would.
The property has potential: off in a wooded copse near the main house, Mosse erected a tower with a commanding view of the countryside, atop which he would take breakfast. This still has bomb damage, and the pond next to it is filled with muck and beer-cans, but there are plans to renovate both next year. The collective farm Prince Dracula plans to turn into a complex with a hotel, shops, and a restaurant as soon as a stubborn 87-year-old woman who lives there is persuaded to go elsewhere or passes away. But all of this will take money, and so far, Castle Dracula has been a financial black hole.
The most successful undertaking at Castle Dracula, though, has been, unsurprisingly enough, a blood drive for the German Red Cross. “They were completely unprepared for the response,” the Prince glowers. “Twelve thousand people showed up, but they only managed to have the resources to get donations from 870 of them.” In addition to the five Marks ($2.82) donors got from the Red Cross, they also got a CD of “Dracula’s Song” from the Prince. “I pressed up 10,000 of them, and there are 500,000 more of them waiting to go,” he says. “If only I could get a connection with the American Red Cross, I’d be willing to tour the U.S. promoting their blood-drive, but...” He shrugs his shoulders.
But noblesse oblige and all that. Still, another crisis looms for the 56-year-old Dracula. “It is of course essential that Ottomar produce a male heir,” his 38-year-old girlfriend Bärbel explains as she gets ready for a bartending shift. “We are planning to marry next year, but I feel a tremendous pressure, and this makes me feel terrible.” Meanwhile, the publicity machine grinds on, with a web-site (long vanished as of 2015), plans for more concerts next year, and, of course, another blood drive. And, just maybe, Son of Dracula.
(To reach Castle Dracula, take the S-Bahn or regional rail from Berlin to Königs Wusterhausen. From there, it is a short taxi ride to Schenkdorf, where the Castle is easily found.)

* * *

As much as the story above paints him as a gloomy guy, Dracula was hardly publicity-shy, and mine was certainly not the first story about him -- as a friend of mine who freelanced for them noted, People magazine had run a story about him not long before mine. But there was some truth to his worries; even today, Schenkdorf isn't exactly a tourist destination. 

I remember the visit as pleasant, with a friend's sister translating for me, and in the end, I managed to talk him out of a beer mug from Castle Dracula's beer garden. He'd never even thought of selling them as souvenirs. 

And in the process of researching this post, I found a Wikipedia entry on him, which noted that he'd opened a winery, but had died ten years after I'd talked to him of a brain tumor. He didn't even live long enough to see the birth of his son, Otti, in December, 2007. By then, the Kretzulescos had given up on the castle, and had moved out. But Dracula lives on. 

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Stomped: A Long Weekend In New Orleans

Saturday morning, I left my hotel in New Orleans and wound up walking nine miles, which, with the interruptions, took me about six hours. I did this because I'd heard that a guy I used to know, an artist and cartoonist named Bunny Matthews, much beloved in that city, wasn't doing too well, and I'd been told that his son runs a bakery called P&Q (pies and quiches) on Magazine St. and I wanted to find out what was going on. Although I hadn't seen Bunny in years, and, in fact, can't remember when exactly the day we spent together was, I did this out of a sense of obligation, because it was he who planted the seed of my severely ambiguous feeling about this storied city so many seem to love.

It shocked me to hear a guy who was so iconic to the city due to his Vic & Natly cartoons say such negative things about the place, but if anyone should know, it was him. He talked about how the more visible denizens lived in a past they refused to let go of, and a present they refused to acknowledge. He talked about musicians who were ignored while some who were very much past their prime, but available for Jazzfest appearances, were lionized. He introduced me to the concept of the Velvet Groove, the place you get stuck, but aaaah, what the hell, it was comfortable and you didn't have to change or confront unpleasant things.

And I thought about this as I walked up Magazine St. Boy, did I think about it. Just as I'd thought about it some years back as I sat with a friend in the French countryside and watched the first two episodes of Treme, a television show firmly anchored in that past so many (overwhelmingly white, as well as Not From Here) people cling to. Katrina definitely shook things up socially, and yet this show didn't seem to be addressing that in a constructive way. I was thousands of miles away, but my sense of poisonous nostalgia was twingeing mightily.

Magazine, which was preparing for a street fest called Art for Art's Sake, seemed to have been taken over by white Millenials, a great many of whom seemed Not From Here, and sections of it are lined with stores catering to them. Lots of tchotchkes for sale, lots of boutiques offering melanges of stuff including carefully "curated" "vinyls" (the current word for LPs), which seemed mostly ironic (you're seriously charging $3 for a scratchy budget-label album of fake Hawaiian music just because it has a kitschy cover? Why, I believe you are!), lots of souvenirs of a higher quality (because made locally) than you can find in the French Quarter. There was street art, but not of a particularly interesting sort, including one stencilled sign nailed to a power pole that said "Keep New Orleans Funky." Now, there's a Not From Here. Recent arrival, too, from the looks of it.

I kept walking. And, to be fair, every now and then, some funk appeared:

I didn't take many pictures, but the ambiguity of the curve in that portico was nice.
* * *

I'd driven straight from Austin -- nine hours -- and landed at an absurdly luxurious hotel, Le Pavillon, a historic and famous place, because Priceline had it cheap. Wow. And that first night, although I was fried, I had the front desk guy make a reservation for me at Peche, a restaurant that came very highly recommended -- and was within walking distance. I was grilled at the door as I tried to claim my reservation and reluctantly led to a table, where I was eventually served by a waiter who didn't seem particularly happy I was there and wanted to get things over in a hurry. (Days later, on Saturday, I got a voice mail for them confirming my reservation that night, so the door scene might have been because somehow they decided I was coming then; there's no excuse for the waiter). I didn't think the meal was all that: sinfully, I ordered hush puppies as an appetizer, and they were fine, but the smothered catfish was very unspectacular, and the sauteed brussels sprouts with chili vinegar the front desk guy insisted I order were good, but mainly because they inspired me to do essentially the same thing with a Chinese-style sauce when I got back. The highlight of the meal was the two women at the next table, sisters from Miami on their first visit to New Orleans. I guess I looked harmless enough (heh heh) and we had a great conversation about this and that. I hope they steered clear of Hurricanes; that drink isn't for humans.

The next day, I transferred to the hotel that was hosting the Ponderosa Stomp's panels program, the AC by Marriott, so I could see the day's panels, since I had one to lead the next afternoon. This new brand Marriott's introduced is excellent, although there are some glitches (really? Only four tissues for the whole room, packed away in a designer plastic bag? Glad my sinus infection's cleared up!), with a nice modern design to the room, and, as intended, a nice European feel. The conference started with Gene Terry, a fairly obscure swamp-rocker (swamp-rock, he informed us, was "White boys playin' black music damn good," which is an excellent definition) with an outsized personality that  was stifled again and again by his interviewer, John Broven, a retired bank clerk from England who's penned a number of typically British books about Louisiana music. By "typically British," I mean concentrating on records, and clueless about context. Once or twice Terry started to tell a story about his wild years in the clubs, only to be stifled by Broven going "Yes, yes, but I wonder if you can tell us about this record." Terry apparently recorded lots of them under the influence of adult beverages and seemed puzzled why Broven would rather talk about records than hear his stories. I wasn't, but then, I've read Broven for years. Troves of information, his books. Not so good on the feel. An American headed the next interview, as Todd Abramson led P.F. Sloan through the convoluted story of how he became one of the 1960s' more neglected songwriters, despite writing "California Dreaming," "Secret Agent Man," and "Eve of Destruction," among many others. Sloan occasionally picked up a guitar and showed us how things came to pass. He also claimed to have wrestled with an angel of God for 15 hours while writing "Eve of Destruction," so yes, he's a little weird. I took a bit of a break and returned at afternoon's end to hear John Swenson interview Chuck Badie, an important New Orleans session cat, about the late Harold Battiste, one of the heroes of that city (and, like many of its musical heroes, one who eventually had to leave in order to make a living), but Mr. Badie's accent was so thick I learned very little. 

I had been informed by my dinner date, Monica Brady, whom I know from The Well, that there would be a recurring theme in tonight's dinner, since her sister Patty was visiting from Maui. We headed to yet another James Beard Award-winner, Brigsten's. If you'd asked me, I'd have told you that this place had been there since nearly forever (although it hasn't), so traditional were its menu selections. There was gumbo (good, but a bit polite for my Cajun-trained palate), soft-shell crab, cochon de lait, and, for me, eggplant stuffed with seafood. All excellent, as was the company -- Patty is a firecracker, who'd come to town to see her parents and go to the Stomp, so, gentleman that I am (shut up) I offered her the plus-one that the Stomp had given me, which was a smart move: it was tons of fun hanging with her, and she introduced me to some miscreants I didn't know, who were hanging with miscreants I did know, some of them. 

But that's getting ahead of the story somewhat. The next day's panels started in Memphis, with Preston Lauterbach, author of two superb books so far (and apparently another on the way) talking to Howard Grimes, drummer on all those Al Green records, among others requiring a silky, laid-back percussive approach that became the sound of Hi Records. They were followed by Robert Gordon, another expert on Memphis, talking to J.M. vanEaton, drummer on countless Sun Records sessions ("The thing that changed music is when guitars and drums collided," another fine observation; thanks, J.M.) and with Jerry Lee Lewis for some time. Another fun session. Then Ann Powers tried valiantly to keep two divas, Brenda Holloway and Mable John, on topic to discuss their lives during and after stardom. I got to ask Dr. John about the song I used to play on the radio in Berlin, which is a forgotten feminist landmark, "Doncha Hit Me No More," and got the story of her writing it in a car  driving between gigs with Joe Tex, whose wife had complained to her that he hit her when he got angry. Do yourself a favor and play it some time. I had to miss the next panel, Joe Nick Patoski interviewing Augie Meyers, because I had to round up my panelists, five San Antonians from the little-known West Side Soul scene from the early '60s. I was real happy about how that went: the British record collectors who make up a serious percentage of the attendees at the Stomp seemed quite interested in it all, and the guys -- Manuel "Bones" Aragon, Rudy Tee Gonzales, Jack Barber, Little Henry Lee, and Rudy Palacios -- were tops. It was the last panel of the conference, and I think we went out with a bang. 

After getting myself decent, I went downstairs to await Patty and her friend Julee, who turned up in a spectacular convertible (which would have been ideal had the temperature not plunged into the 60s that day) and we headed over to the Rock 'n' Bowl, the venue for the Stomp concerts. I went next door to a New Orleans landmark, Ye Olde College Inn, which is a whole lot better than its name would imply. I could only get a seat at the bar, but that enabled me to observe the wild mix of (white) people in the place, from the bellowing guy recounting wild tales of the late Frankie Ford's gay adventures to the impeccably dressed woman in her 80s who sat next to me ignoring me until the bartender couldn't answer her question: what time the Tulane game started tomorrow. She then acknowledged my existence and asked me, and when I told her I didn't know, either, I ceased to exist. I had a fantastic wedge salad with blue cheese dressing (I know: weird, huh?) and a huge oyster po-boy, and then went to the Bowl, where the Swamp Pop All-Stars were half-way through their set, and Gene Terry came on and proved that he may be an oldie, but he's still a goodie. Next up were three divas, Betty Harris, Brenda Holloway, and Mabel John, which was a bit of a disaster: Betty had lost a lot of range and hated the band (the Bo-Kays, no less), Brenda had a tendency to go flat, badly flat, stop and yell at the band, and start again and go flat, and only 85-year-old Mabel showed any class by doing her set well, singing on key, and only erred when it was the end and Dr. Ira Padnos, the guy whose organization puts the whole thing on, was walking onto stage and getting ready to thank her and get ready for the next act when she launched into a gospel number that seemed to last for about 20 minutes. I was exhausted, so I found Patty and Julee, said good night, and stepped into the shuttle back to the hotel. 

* * *

So that's how I wound up with Saturday's daytime off, and my walk up Magazine. Monica had suggested a walk up St. Charles, returning in the streetcar, but we'd already driven that street a couple of times and the stately trees and magnificent mansions lining it gave me the creeps. Anyway, I had to find P and Q. I'd promised a friend here in Austin a gift, and passed a gift shop that had just the thing in the window, but I pressed on, not sure how much further I had to go. Here and there, there were things that weren't ironic or superficial: this place sells posters with this observation on it:

Don't argue with Bu!

After a mighty hike -- which I have to admit felt pretty good -- I found the bakery and had a short conversation with the Matthewses, who were going off to see Bunny the next day, so I sent my regards. The news wasn't very good (and has gotten worse since then with the introduction of lymphoma into the mix), but I felt Bunny needs everyone who cares to tell him so, so I did my bit. Now to find something to eat and pick up that tchotchke for my friend in Austin. Which, as it turned out, meant walking almost the entire length of Magazine again, but although it was after 3, when most restaurants aren't serving, I found a place I'd passed on the way up, which called its food "Caribbean tapas," which had made me shudder. Well, surprise: it's actually superb (and that wasn't extreme hunger talking) and again I got into a tableside conversation as a black couple dining next to me had delivered an entire grilled flounder, which the man ate. I was astounded at that much food (me, I had a salad with shrimp in it) but he got most of it down. I forget what his wife had, but we started talking because she was curious about the Stomp wristbands I had on, and he turned out to be from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, so some French got talked, too. After lunch (no, I don't remember the name of the place, but it's the only Caribbean tapas joint on the street), I headed to that St. Charles streetcar. Whew.

That night's Stomp show was amazing, or the part of it I saw was. I was bushed, and, since I thought she needed my plus-one listing in the records to get in, Patty met me at the Ye Olde, where I had a light dinner at a table in the window. (The strategy worked: they put me in the window when the place was heaving, but by the time we left there were plenty of empty tables). And I got there just in time for what I'd come to see: The West Side All-Stars, the guys from my panel. After a bit of a shaky start (they hadn't performed together in years, but had had a couple of rehearsals at the hotel) they got into the groove and held it bulldog-tight until the end of the set. 

All the All-Stars, almost: r-l, horn section (didn't get their names) Rudy Palacios, Jack Barber, Little Henry Lee. 
They were as surprised as the audience was ecstatic. It's rare to see a genuine unknown at a gathering like this, something nobody has heard of that knocks their socks off, and when most of the people doing the sock-knocking are in their early to mid 70s, it's a genuine pleasure. 

Rudy Tee tells another whopper

Rudy Palacios rocks out with help from Manuel "Bones" Aragon
The guys left the stage to wild applause and yelling, and a feeling that there was some more mileage in this thing. I hope so: I'm going to see if they want to play SXSW. 

I snuck out soon afterwards, said good-bye to Patty, and clambered on the artists' shuttle back to the hotel. I was very heartened by the Stomp, although the cohort of eligible artists is thinning, and the event only occurs every other year. Thanks to Dr. Ike and the crew. Like Arnie, I'll be back. 

* * *

I still have those ambiguous feelings about New Orleans, though. First, just about everyone I saw from there was, with the exception of the woman in the restaurant, white. Oh, I know I could have changed that, but I had no reason to go into a black neighborhood, and yes, New Orleans felt segregated, albeit in a strange way: most blacks and whites get along just fine, at least in the sort of circles I run in, and yet I sense that that's because the black people in that situation tend to be of an economic or social class that's middle-class and/or artistic. More worrying are those people in those fine houses on St. Charles, my fellow diners at Ye Olde. There seemed to be a bubble there, a bubble of class and money. Katrina displaced a large number of long-time black New Orleans families who, once out, opted not to come back, and tradition aside, it might well be that outside the bubble they saw opportunities and had ideas that New Orleans' velvet groove hadn't prompted them to have. In addition, a lot of the black people who stayed are angry, and the post-Katrina years have only fed the flames. Monica's story about the guy she knew who had his phone, his money, his credit cards, the groceries he was unloading in front of his house and his car itself taken from him by young kids one afternoon was hardly unique: as I walked back down Magazine, I heard a woman on the phone who was walking behind me: "Honey, they don't know where my jewelry is, and they don't know where my money is, and they ain't no more to take." This has always been a problem (remembering Bunny's story about the local TV news crew who went to Marie Laveau's grave to shoot a piece on crime in that cemetery being relieved of all of their equipment mid-shoot by some teenagers), but it's gotten worse. I can't help feeling there's a connection between this and the aged Tulane fan at the bar, implicit if not explicit. 

I dunno. It's worth thinking about. Patty told me there's no way she'd move back, although maybe Maui is a bit of an extreme distance. Another friend of mine has kept cordial relations with the city while living in Los Angeles. Me, I had to wake up on Sunday and drive to another part of Louisiana, so I waited outside the hotel with the usual riff-raff (Miriam Linna, Lenny Kaye, Roy Head, Barbara Lynn) waiting for the valet to come with the car. If anything draws me back to New Orleans, it'll be the Ponderosa Stomp. 

* * *

One reason I drove in with an Igloo cooler and some blue ice packs in my car was to stop in Cajun country and buy some meats. I drove as far as Henderson on Sunday -- just a couple of hours -- and after getting set at the motel (and an MSG-laden bowl of gumbo at the Landry's across the parking lot) I set off for a place in Scott called the Best Stop, whose stuff had been recommended to me, in hopes of getting some boudin and a couple of stuffed pork chops. After noting that everything there had MSG in it, I was actually hungry enough to order a link of their boudin, which didn't taste much like boudin and had a heaping helping of the toxic substance in it. Sweating and with my tongue aching, I went back to the motel to drink as much water as I could honk down. Fortunately, Pat's was just down the road for dinner, Pat's is still Pat's, and Dot the waitress is still Dot the waitress, so I finished the day just fine. 

And the next day, I drove to Eunice and filled the ice chest with LeJeune's finest garlic sausage, some tasso, and a five-pound ponce (sort of like Cajun haggis, but not) and then discovered much to my delight that Kermit LeJeune, who's been running the joint for 34 years, is still with us (but he was eating lunch!) and still the warm, friendly guy he's been since I first met him 25 or so years ago. It was an upbeat ending to the trip. Now I have to find someone to help me eat the damn ponce, because Mrs. LeJeune gave me her recipe. Shouldn't be hard. 

The gold standard; accept no substitute.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Another Milestone

Friday, I fired up my file-transfer program and sent a manuscript of something like 212,594 words to my agent, who'd asked to look at it before I sent it to the publisher, which I figured was a good idea. This represents a year's work, and, potentially, the first book of mine from which I'll get royalties and decent promotion.

It only took 50 years to get here.

That's right: sometime in September, 1965, I was published in a magazine for the first time. I'd arrived at Antioch College earlier in the month and been assigned to their new experimental learning program. They didn't tell us much about it, but our faculty advisor would in the fullness of time. Then he, a Quaker, went on some Quaker peace mission to Russia for the rest of the quarter (from which he never returned) and we were left to flail around. I knew that I wanted to be a writer, but had no way of going about it, and, worse, there were no courses open to freshmen that dealt with it. Maybe the experimental program would have worked for that, but we had no way of finding out.

I spent a lot of time bored out of my mind but one day had a flash: I'd just bought a new record in the campus bookstore called The Singer-Songwriter Project on Elektra, and thought, hey, maybe Broadside magazine would like a review. So I sat down and typed one out and sent it in. About a week later, I got an envelope from Broadside, which I thought was odd, both because I'd already gotten my monthly subscription, and because it had first-class stamps on it.

Broadside was one of several folkie magazines out there at the time, not as high-profile as Sing Out!, and sharing a name with The Broadside of Boston. It was dedicated totally to political and "topical" songs, and, indeed, had printed the music and lyrics to "Blowin' in the Wind" on the cover of its first mimeographed, stapled edition. It was run by Gordon Friesen and Sis Cunningham, the latter of whom had been a member of the Almanac Singers in the '30s, along with Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger. Both, although I didn't know it at the time, were deeply dedicated members of the Communist Party of the United States of America (CPUSA), and in fact, the magazine would fall into chaos a few years later when Gordon was abruptly ordered to move to Detroit to organize auto workers. The Party did things like that.

None of this made a lot of difference to me: I'd just been published, and in a magazine I read! And that first-class envelope had not only the next issue of the magazine, with my piece in it, but an encouraging note from Gordon Friesen urging me to write more. So I did. A review of Richard Fariña's novel Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up To Me followed, just days after Fariña had plunged off a cliff to his death following a publication party in California. They printed that, too. I may still have the clips from both of them out in King Tut's Tomb in an old, hard-to-open filing cabinet.

Next, since I was now on Antioch's co-op jobs program and working in Princeton, I was given an assignment: do a piece on Len Chandler, a folksinger/songwriter who was right up Broadside's alley: not only was he good, he was a Negro, and fiercely commmitted to the civil rights movement. They put us in touch, Columbia, to whom Chandler was signed, sent me a copy of his album Carry It On, which I liked a lot, and a date was set for an interview. Somehow, I acquired the use of a tape recorder, which used tiny 3" reels, and, on the day of the interview, went to see him. "Oh, man, I did it again," Chandler said. "I agreed to do another interview tonight! But come along with me, this should be fun: it's the Russians." And, indeed, it was, two reporters from a magazine that, as they described it, was like Life magazine in Russia: profusely illustrated, very popular and widely read, and an important place for Len Chandler to be seen. Their office/apartment was in the Dakota, which even then I knew was a luxurious place, and we sat on thick carpeting around a low table on which were snacks: dark bread, caviars, herring, and an entire bottle of Stolichnaya frozen in a block of ice. I tried to be polite, because I was an uninvited guest, but after the introductions ("You study at Antioch? We have heard of this place." Yeah, well, don't tell my parents that.) we all relaxed. Me, especially. I'd never had vodka before. After it was over, I had a little trouble negotiating the hallway, which Len remarked on. "Come on, let's go to this place in the Village where my friend is performing," he said, and we got into a taxi and headed downtown.

I don't, obviously, have crystal clear recall of what happened, but we wound up knocking on a door in Sheridan Square, which opened a bit, whereupon a voice exclaimed "Len! They've just gone on," and welcomed us in. Upstairs was an after-hours club, and ex-Weaver Ronnie Gilbert fronting a jazz trio and singing Billie Holiday songs, and her bass player was a guy whose name I recognized from record jackets, Bill Lee, father of Spike. It was pretty good, and I managed not to pass out, and after a while we headed back to Len's place where I managed to get an interview of sorts done. One thing I remember was that he said "I don't write songs for specific purposes. I write songs, and if they're good, that's all that matters. I don't write them for the Movement, or to make a political point: that's how you make bad art. I write them to satisfy myself in the hopes that they'll satisfy others. And if some of them are political, some aren't, but I won't sing any of them if they're not good." Of course, I thought this was great stuff. And I didn't know how Gordon would feel about it.

It took me a while to compile this into an article, but Broadside was in no rush, so I was back on campus by the time I finished it. I'd met a girl in Princeton, a pretty and very smart young high school student, and was now getting involved in ride-shares at school to New York, where I'd jump on the bus at Port Authority and go to Princeton to see her. On one of these trips, I decided to take the Chandler article up to the Broadside offices, and one of the passengers was Bobbi Fox, who was also in the experimental program, in the women's dorm that was aligned with our men's dorm. She had a boyfriend in Cleveland who'd send her love letters he illustrated with amazing cartoons, because he had a job making greeting cards for American Greetings. His name was Robert Crumb. At any rate, Bobbi was really into folk music, and asked if she could go along with me to meet the Broadside folks, and I said sure. It was in some public housing project on the Upper West Side, and I rang the doorbell and Gordon came to the door, slipping out and closing it behind him. "I hate to be impolite," he said, "but everyone in there has the flu and I can't ask you in." I understood, and handed him the envelope. Bobbi couldn't contain herself: "Mr. Friesen, what do you think about Bob Dylan?" she asked. He sighed. "Bobby's all right, and this new stuff is interesting, but I just wish he'd write a song about Vietnam." Bobbi's eyes widened and she said "But Mr. Friesen, all his songs are about Vietnam!" At that moment, I knew my Chandler piece was doomed (and, later, saw this as a perfect illustration of the generation gap).

The article was, indeed, doomed. So was my career at Broadside, but I'd been initiated. I became very close to my new girlfriend's family, and looked on her freelance graphic designer father as a mentor, and he reciprocated by getting me a few assignments. He shared an office with Jerome P. Agel, a gadfly in publishing who'd "produced" a book his office-mate had done with Marshall McLuhan, and published Books, a magazine that was mostly about publishing. When I was in New York, I'd hang around the office sometimes, and that's how I got to meet, briefly, Ornette Coleman, who was delivering sandwiches for the deli Agel ordered from. Then, one day, Agel handed me a record. "My friends say this kid might be something big. He's doing a show next week, and I'd like an interview if you think there's anything to his stuff." It was Tim Buckley's first LP, and I liked it. I went to the show, did a clumsy backstage interview with Tim, who had some young lady next to him he was impatient to dive into, and I wasn't very happy with the results. Oh, well. Agel didn't care. Next up was Aspen, the magazine that came in a box. They were doing a McLuhan issue, and guess who got to design it?

This was how I learned that having connections was valuable, and they came through: as the only person anyone acquainted with the magazine knew who was under 21, and, thus, eligible for half-price airfare, and who was already working at a rock magazine downtown called Crawdaddy!, I was selected to fly to San Francisco and write about this multi-media thing that was happening in the ballrooms, and I was assigned a photographer, Steve Schapiro, to go along with me. I've already written about this elsewhere at great length, but the end result was published in Aspen #4, with a short text by me on the back of a poster of dancers at the Avalon Ballroom that Schapiro took. For that, I'd been taken into the heart of the scene, met (and been kissed by) Janis Joplin, seen incredible music, talked about things like community and the future with some incredibly bright people, and seen a city I'd never seen before. Paid? Who needed to be paid?

Working at Crawdaddy!, I had the bug seriously, so it was a drag to be fired when Paul Williams, who'd founded it, decided to change the staff while I was in San Francisco, so I loped back to college, intent on learning about writing. Which, with the exception of a writing course I couldn't take until I'd dropped out (I didn't have the prerequisites, but the instructor was remarkably kind in letting me audit it), and another on participatory journalism, which I remember as an informal class given by an instructor who'd been given a grant to write about it, I didn't do. The participatory journalism class, though, resulted in another trip to San Francisco (the instructor had money to fund students who needed a bit for their research), where I wanted to do a piece on San Francisco State after its strike, and wound up in Berkeley just before the riots around People's Park, as well as (aha!) meeting the staff of a magazine I'd just started writing for, Rolling Stone. Their record review editor, Greil Marcus, was going back to school to get a Master's, and they needed someone not only to replace him, but to be on the greatly expanded staff they were planning. This was something I really wanted to do, and was talking to the managing editor, John Burks, about it, when I made a gaffe that could have sunk me: I'd been waiting to talk to Jann Wenner, the editor, and he stomped into the room holding a telegram and saying "John Lennon just married someone named Yoko Ono!" And I, who'd known all about Yoko since her participation in the New York Avant-Garde Festival, which I attended religiously each year in high school, said "Yoko married who?" because it did seem like an odd pairing. Wenner glared. "Oh," he said, dripping with sarcasm. "I suppose you know who she is." And, because I did, and was eager to show off, I told him. He kind of stared at me and left the room.

I got the job anyway, as we all know, and after I was fired, I took up a life of freelancing, or penury, as it's known. Over the years, I've gotten to travel the world, met lots of famous people, had private performances by Iggy Pop and Bob Marley and the Original Wailers, among others, witnessed more incredible gigs than any one person has any right to have seen (and no, I'm not going to try to recall them just now), and written millions of words for everyone from Penthouse to the Reader's Digest to Who Put the Bomp? to the Wall Street Journal to Il Corriere della Sera to New York Rocker. Many of those words, in the 1970s, were for Creem, a magazine that warped many young lives and gave me the largely ceremonial title of West Coast Editor, while paying me as little and as late as they could, and this allowed me to get tons of records in the mail while a little voice in the back of my head told me I should also be writing about other stuff. I couldn't -- the term "rock critic," once given, tends to stick to you, and indicate a very lowly and unsavory level of the totem pole to the publishing world at large -- but that didn't stop me from reading and looking and taking stuff in.

I also got to write for a daily newspaper here in Austin for five years, and its alternative paper for a bit longer than that, and I also wrote two work-for-hire books (flat fee, no royalties), one of which went out of print in a week, the other of which I only wrote ⅓ of, but I am given to believe sold very well indeed. I got to edit a couple of magazines, and even started one in Berlin that I lost to greedy partners eager to embrace the Internet, although they had no idea what it was. I had several people represent me as an agent, the first of whom was an obese woman in Greenwich Village who took me out to lunch (who knew you could get lunch in the Village for $1?) and dropped me after placing a magazine article that wound up making me several thousand dollars, the second of whom solicited a proposal for a book I ached to write and then refused to read it (I believe he may still be in business, but can't remember his name), and finally found the one I'm with now, who seems to be the real deal. After all, after I'd been in business only 49 years, he managed to get me my first real book deal.

Every now and again, young writers approach me for advice about getting published, and my first piece of advice is not to go for a writing career. I have starved -- literally -- for weeks on end, adopting an eat-every-other-day regime, and, at one particular low point in Berlin, eating out of garbage containers (the Germans toss lots of good food) and roaming the streets for bottles I could turn in for their deposit (hint: go where skateboarders go, since Berlin skaters live off of 2-liter bottles of Coca-Cola, worth €.50 apiece!). On the other hand, it's taught me how to cook well for remarkably little money when I have to, and I'm proud of that. But publishing has been vanishing in the years since I started, and with the stepping-stone of magazines no longer available as widely as it once was (what would be the analog of Creem for a young writer today? Nothing.) there's nowhere to whet your skills, no editors to help you along, no pay at all. Most of the writers you read today either have other jobs, are rich, or have married money. And when the rich provide the content, the rest of us are in deep trouble. I hope it'll turn around, but I also hope I can now do nothing but write books, and treat anything else as gravy.

Fifty years. Since I was a teenager. Not a hell of a lot to show for it except some yellowing clippings and rambling reminiscences here on the blog. If I had to do it over again, would I? Ahh, probably. What else would I do?

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Land Of Disenchantment: A Few Days Off

And so all the factors fell together and on Tuesday, September 8, the Grey Vibe and I left Austin for a few days' adventure in Santa Fe. And boy, did we get it.

Part I: Land of Broken Dreams

It kind of goes without saying that West Texas isn't very interesting, from a landscape point of view, or, really, any other point of view unless you're in the oil bidness. But if you're trying to get to Santa Fe without dawdling, you have to go through it, so sayeth Google Maps. I don't necessarily trust these phone-based guidance systems, as you'll see later, but Google usually does a great job. My own bit of improvement on the system is to write the steps IN BIG LETTERS in a notebook kept next to me in the front seat, so we see:

L 183N/US 84W 30m

and so on. It lets me know each intersection (usually) and that intersection is usually there. I did, however, manage to get lost in Early, Texas, not an easy task given its size. The reason, one of the failings of these systems, is that they don't tell you subtleties like that Early Blvd. is, in fact, 84 West. So I drove the wrong direction for about 20 minutes, and, sure after a while that I'd gone the wrong way, turned on the phone to get me to the next route, 153 West, where I would be for the next 71 miles. 

But for some reason, the phone decided I wanted to go back to Austin on 153 West, which I didn't. And I couldn't find a way to change its mind. Furthermore, when I got back to the place I'd made the wrong turn, I saw what I'd done wrong, and that just 30 miles down the road, 153 would appear. But I couldn't turn the goddam phone off. 

I was headed to Clovis, known to me and millions of others as the place Buddy Holly recorded so many of his early records, as did other West Texas stars. So for the remaining 237 miles, my phone was chirping "Make a U turn" or "Take County Road 445" and the like. As I was checking in at the La Quinta, it was still saying "Turn around." 

Clovis, approached as the day was ending, was not impressive. For miles and miles, I'd seen nothing but failures, buildings once housing a bar or a store or a gas station, long shuttered and left to the elements. In West Texas, there were whole downtowns that were like this, some with the concrete buildings falling in on themselves. I wondered who'd been there, tried, and failed, and where they were now. Clovis seemed to have no center that I could see, but lots of dead businesses. I turned the corner up Prince Street, and it was the same, except with a bit of new growth: franchises were taking tentative hold, and, perhaps sensing the halfway-to-elsewhere location of the city, something of a Motel Row was growing. I was glad to see the La Quinta, even if the receptionist didn't seem glad to see anybody, let alone me. 

The next thing was dinner, and helpful friends had found two possibilities on Yelp. I'd seen a couple of Mexican places on the way in, but as is the custom around here, they closed after the lunch hour. There were two, Leal's and Don Mario's, that had dinner. I chose Leal's after being snippily informed that it wasn't pronounced in two syllables (lay-ALLs), but rhymed with "wheels." It turned out to be the most horrible, gringified Mexican place imaginable, although I'll say that their "crispy chile relleno," made crispy by the addition to the batter of the traditional Mexican ingredient panko bread crumbs, is a good idea in theory. Pretty bland otherwise, and I think there was MSG in the salsa.

The bed was welcome after the long drive, seven hours or so, and I awoke the next morning ready to eat breakfast and bomb on to Santa Fe, where I was sure a far better experience awaited. Don Mario's was waiting, and it was yet another gringified joint. I wished I'd noted more carefully the couple of places I'd seen coming in, but I hadn't. Service at this joint was horrific, and the waitress stared uncomprehending when I ordered chile verde with eggs. Apparently it's not pronounced chee-lay vayr-day, but rhymes with silly birdy. I may have seen the reason for the weird service on the way out:

But first, are you expereinenced? Have you ever been expereinenced? Not sure I have...
Nor was that the weirdest sign I saw in Clovis. Prince Street in daylight was more depressing than at night, the worst evidence of that busted dream problem being a very large restaurant about to fall apart. It still had a sign up, Great Wall: American Food and Sushi. Sigh. But I knew that Prince would end at US 84, and that that would be the beginning of my next leg of the trip. Turning right onto it, I saw a Subway, also with a sign board. It read FACE YOUR DARKEST FEARS. 

Okay. Bye, Clovis. Buddy will have to wait for next time. 

Part II: Santa Fe, Sunlight, Seniors, and Slaves

Obligatory New Mexico chile shot

The landscape was changing into outright desert, although at this time of year it starts raining, and, indeed, people in Santa Fe were complaining that I'd have an awful time unless it stopped. The desert, of course, responded as usual, turning green and coming to life. There weren't really dramatic landscape features, but there were mesas and mountains, and Austin doesn't have those yet. And there was life out there: signs to Wastella and Bovina. Of course, I got lost trying to get into town, but it smoothed out well once I followed signs to Historic Downtown. I'd already glimpsed some Historic in Historic Ft. Sumner, which had Billy the Kid memorabilia and his grave, among other things. Why, my route took me directly underneath the Historic Bridge, so labelled, built in 1938 and restored in 1967! The town just sings history: too bad I didn't have time to stop and gawk. 

Santa Fe's Historic Downtown, however, is just a bit older. 1610 is the generally-accepted date. I'd just lucked out yet again on a hotel room, as I had last year in Montreal. TripAdvisor suddenly came up with an unbeatable price at the El Dorado Hotel and Spa, and I grabbed it. I gladly handed the keys to the Gray Vibe over to the valet, stumbled upstairs, and checked in. The room was comfortable, the lowest grade they had (must be nice to have a fireplace room later in the year, though), the lobby had mammoth ceilings, the restaurants seemed reasonably priced, and I was set. The first order of business was to find a place to eat. I was already tired of heavy pseudo-Mexican food, and yet I was confident that I could find better nearby, but I wanted something a bit lighter. The local alternative paper's best-of list had just come out, and a "gastropub" called Fire & Hops seemed not only nearby, but very interesting. And so it proved: the calamari looked a bit overdetermined from the menu description, but wasn't, and the Cubano sandwich was nicely made, if a challenge for my store-bought teeth. And the real discovery was La Cumbre Brewing's Elevation IPA on tap. The mixture of hops they used are so fragrant -- and so complex -- that it's a joy to drink. 

I'd done a quick reconnaissance around the 'hood shortly after getting in, but in the morning I decided to go get breakfast outside the hotel, because of lingering mistrust of hotel restaurants. I stumbled into the first place I found, the Alameda Cafe, where a Salvadoran gentleman named Francisco J. Castillo pours an extraordinary cup of (organic) coffee. His breakast burrito (the signature breakfast dish of New Mexico, apparently) I'm less enthusiastic about, but I suspect that's because I'm not too enthusiastic about breakfast burritos in general. That aside, this is a find. 

My next stop, after a quick check-in at the hotel to grab my camera, was the Railyard District, about which I'd heard so much. The word was that it was the center of a hot art scene, which was what the younger folks in Santa Fe had going, and there were all sorts of cool things down there. I also needed a shirt, because I was having dinner with an old friend that night and the one I'd packed had been poorly chosen: I hadn't seen the stains or the giant hole by one of the buttons, and my friend told me that the REI down there would have something. 

The Railyard district had a very interesting fact embedded in it: although everyone knows the Santa Fe Railroad, it did not, in fact, stop in Santa Fe. Instead, there was a spur from a town further south, Lamy, and today there's one from Albuquerque. There was more to that story, as I'd find out.  Instead, I mooched around a mall set in the former headquarters of a shipping company that made history when it was used to supply the workers at the Manhattan Project in nearby Los Alamos, a place so secret that it was known only as PO Box 1663, Santa Fe, and newly-arrived workers reported to an anonymous building nearby and were driven out to the town. The mall has a nice selection of photos of that period, along with ones of the Railyard in earlier times. 

Down at the end of the Railyard District lay what must have been the reason for the reputation: SITE Santa Fe, a sprawling arts building. They were celebrating their 20th anniversary by inviting some of the artists who'd done projects there before to make new works. 

I thought the protuberances looked a bit dated, but they probably can't be held responsible for something they did two decades ago, and I was pleasantly surprised to discover that as an Old Person, I was allowed half off the ten-dollar admission. Thank heaven. After a quick tour of the place, I had a revelation: academic art is academic art. The only thing that separated this stuff from the similar stuff I'd had to see and sometimes write about in Europe was that it was a bit more naive, a bit less over-thought. But you still have to evaluate it, not by what it is, but by whether it accurately represents the artist's "position" and whether the problem or argument in the artist's statement is well-realized. It was awful. I fled. 

The rest of the afternoon was spent back in the core of the city, walking around aimlessly to figure what was where. Mostly, it was a Shopping Experience, selling the same sort of tack you see in upscale shopping malls, with a local overlay of heavy silver-and-turquoise, cute Indians, roadrunners, Kokopilis (isn't he Arizona?) and the like. Around the central plaza, tents were going up for the annual Fiesta, which, I'd been told, was mostly for the local Hispanic population. I located the state's historical museum, inside the Palace of the Governors, as well as the state art museum and the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum, filing it all away for further exploration. 

I'd been here before, with my family on one of our driving vacations that we started to take when my dad had earned three weeks' vacation and my sister was old enough. We'd pack up in New York and head to wherever we were going, and one time we did the Southwest. I remembered most vividly lunch on a rooftop, in an eccentric (for the times: this was about 40 years ago) restaurant where I had cold raspberry soup. Avant garde! And at the next table, an Anglo couple were chatting with a pigtailed, weathered Indian guy who looked like he'd stepped off of a nickel. It all felt really exotic, an exoticism that vanished when we got to the sidewalk in front of the Palace, which then as now is lined with craftspeople selling, and in some cases, making, beadwork, silver, turquoise, and the like. Today they're still there, but not the sad, resigned Indians I saw as a kid. They're a mixture, and the stuff is overwhelmingly schlock, although the state claims it supervises quality and adherence to tradition on the part of anyone selling there. 

My shirt-shopping had come to naught: both at REI and at one of the few boutiques selling men's clothing, the price of a shirt seemed to be fixed at $138. My dinner host was Baron Wolman, the venerable staff photographer when I was at Rolling Stone, the man who founded Rags, the short-lived counter-culture fashion magazine, and someone I'd reconnected with when he came to Berlin to direct the hanging of a show of his photos at a gallery around the corner from me. I was tired, but had a much better idea of where I was, so I repaired to the hotel. 

D'après Telebob

Baron had selected a new restaurant run by a crew that included a woman he knew, Radish and Rye, not far from the Railyard District. He'd been there a couple of nights previously and couldn't wait to go back. It's only been open a little while, and there are a few problems (including a waiter who said "Fantastic!" to everything), but what's on the table isn't one of them. I had a problem, too: my appetite was off, and my sense of smell was acting up again. Some of this may have been due to the low-carb thing I'm trying to institute, but I think there's more to it, and I hope to see my doctor about this soon. At any rate, my charcuterie plate (served without any sort of bread: major oversight) was one bit of rubber after the next, when I'm positive it was better than that, and only the radicchio salad and the shishito peppers (like padrons, but not as exciting) had any taste. I had to cancel the bowl of corn chowder, which Baron claims is one of their masterpieces, because I just didn't feel like eating (although I'm not sure I'd have been able to handle the big-ass smoked marrow bone floating in it). Dang. Next time. 

The next day I breakfasted at the hotel (a yogurt "parfait" with fruit and granola in it: just what I needed) and set off for some art and culture. First stop was the Palace of the Governors, with the state historical museum behind it. There, I began to get the basics of the story, how Juan de Oñate and his family came north from Mexico and settled on a site where there had been Pueblo villages to establish a regional capital in 1610. This was cool until the Pueblos got fed up and attacked the city in 1680, an event depicted in an oil painting where they're hanging the priests and knocking the cross off of the church. The Pueblos held on to the city for 12 years, making the Palace into a sort of apartment house, and then the Spaniards took it again and held it. The Palace has decent documentation of all of this and the artifacts aren't much to look at, but there is a room with portraits of notable New Mexicans of the 19th century, including Juan Felipe Ortiz, a Catholic priest who'd managed to bring a lot of Indians to the Church by incorporating their rites and ceremonies into a Catholic context, the same way the mass conversions of Europe had happened a millenium before. Of course, when a new Archbishop, Jean-Baptiste Lamy, arrived he was shocked at the goings on -- dancing! -- and excommunicated Oritz. (Nor was this the first time the iron fist of the Church had descended on New Mexico, since the Spanish Inquisition had already grilled a bunch of people who may or may not have been Jews who'd outwardly converted, but maybe not all the way. There's apparently some debate about these conversos, and I saw several books about them but wasn't sure of their veracity, so I didn't buy one). 

One thing the colorful cultures and breathtaking scenery of New Mexico tend to make us forget is that it's reliably the second or third poorest state in the union, along with Mississippi and Maine. And while you don't see it much in Santa Fe, it's sure out there. This is probably why the New Mexico History Museum makes so much of the Fred Harvey Company, started by a British immigrant who rose from dishwasher to owner of a restaurant next to the railroad tracks in Florence, Kansas. He made the connection with the trains, and the unavailability of safe food for travellers, and soon partnered up with the Santa Fe Railroad to operate restaurants along their line. Restaurants need workers, and one of his executives had the brilliant idea of advertising for girls to move to these outposts to staff the restaurants. This led to a spinoff whereby guides -- also women -- would take tourists to local Indian pueblos to buy jewelry, blankets, and pottery, thereby establishing tourism as a business that brought much-needed money to the region, particularly to its poorest inhabitants. He also established a chain of hotels for these tourists, including La Fonda, which is still in operation in Santa Fe. The museum, considering the constraint of having to work around the fact that poverty has been the overriding leitmotif of the state's history, does a real good job. 

It also pays host to travelling exhibits and I caught a good one, dealing with art showing the Virgin Mary in the Hispanic New World. Most of the paintings were from wealthier Spanish colonies like Peru and Mexico, and to tell the truth, I preferred the Palace's display of santos, carved wooden images from the 18th century, which are appealingly primitive, but amidst the opulence (or attempted opulence) of the images on display, this statue really stood out:

Our Lady of a) punk rock; b) PMS; c) Perpetual Sorrow

(My usual Blur-O-Vision approach kind of helps this pic, but compare with this piece of street art):

Friday was for history, what there was of it among the frantic shoppers, who I now realized were trucked into the city in buses and given some time to do the city. A lot of them were senior citizens, some in parlous physical condition, and I began to realize what Santa Fe was, in some respects, reminding me of: Sun City, Arizona, where my parents spent the last 35 years of their lives, outliving three sets of friends, and one of the most horrifying places I've ever spent a lot of time in. There was no age compact in Santa Fe, of course, a minimum age for residence, and the presence of Hispanics and a few African-Americans -- and all those tourists -- definitely brightened things up. I'll never be able to "retire," and in fact have no desire to, since I love my work, but a lot of Americans hit a wall when they're no longer going to their jobs each day, and need to be coaxed out of their former skin to learn how to live differently. There was a touch of this in Santa Fe, which I saw most vividly at the farmers market on Saturday, and of course a lot of these retirees have more money than Sun Citizens, but Baron told me that the median age in town was 45, and that made sense. 

Besides the Palace, there isn't much old building left, but the alleged Oldest House is one of them. Big as it looks from outside, it's tiny inside (although it had another story and maybe a bigger downstairs, if drawings of it are anything to go by). 

Built 1646, a youngster compared to several pueblos, stuff in Puerto Rico, and a slew of buildings in New England, sez Wikipedia
It stands near the Mission of San Miguel, which the sun made impossible to photograph like I wanted to, and which, along with the Palace, was at least begun in 1610. 

This, we learn, was built with the help of Mexican Indians, "servants" of the Spaniards. Apparently it's not kosher to refer to them as "slaves," which, if they fitted the pattern of the Spaniards' use of the local Indians in California and Mexico, is the more apt term. No wonder the Pueblos hanged the priest. 

It's more impressive inside, with a nice altar

and a bell dated 1356, which they'd hauled all the way from Spain. 

Note the milagros hammered into the wood frame
Another place I remembered from my childhood visit was the Loretto Chapel, notable for a wooden spiral staircase whose construction apparently defies physics, created by a guy who wandered out of the desert, built the thing, and vanished. It costs $3 to see, and I passed, because it's likely the only thing to see there and I'd seen it when it must have been free: my parents' hatred for the Catholic Church would have prevented them from spending a dime. 

I lunched at a famous restaurant, Santa Fe Bite, which had been a local institution, Bobcat Bite, until a mess of acrimony shut it down and the owners renamed it and rehoused it as, of all things, a motel coffee shop. I had been told that it had the definitive green chile cheeseburger, and guess what: it did. It was too much for me to finish, and the waitress gave me a tip I'll pass along: they have a 6oz. burger on the menu. Order it with green chile (extra) and cheese (extra) and it'll be a bit cheaper than the burger on the menu -- and you can finish it. You'll want to. 

Then I ran into more history: the opening of the Fiesta, which commemorates the settlement of 1610 and is definitely a celebration of Chicano pride. I was standing at an ATM, waiting to use it, when the gunshots announcing the beginning went off. This was followed by some Indian singing, and that was followed, inexplicably, by bagpipes playing "Amazing Grace." And that was followed by someone singing the most awful song I've heard in a while, which turned out to be Lee Greenwood's "God Bless the USA," containing the lines "At least I live in America/So I know what it's like to be free." Uh, sure. But then I remembered the date, which someone I know refers to as National Pick The Scab Day. A depressing reminder, among the exotica, of where I was. 

This all tired me, and I had to plan my return the next day, so I went back to the hotel, feeling I'd exhausted most of the remaining options. I ate dinner in a place I mention only to warn you off of it: I wanted something light, and they advertised dinner salads, and it was across the street from my hotel, but man, the Hilton, to which it's attached, should do something about El Cañon. The food was awful, but not as bad as the two giddy guys who man the place. They think they're a comedy team. They're not. 

My appetite and digestion were massively screwed up by this point, and that may explain my indifference to the farmers market the next morning, although I'm still kicking myself for it. 
Obligatory cliched photo of chiles

The market is in the Railyard District, and only a short walk from my hotel. I had a problem in that I was going to overnight in Big Spring, Texas, and wouldn't arrive home until Sunday afternoon. I wanted to buy some New Mexico green chiles (far more useful, if less picturesque, than the red) to take home, but I didn't see how it would be possible because I didn't have a cooler, and didn't know where to get one. But these aren't the generic "Hatch" chiles that are now a national phenomenon. These people know their stuff:

Take that, HEB!
Another knowledgeable merchant was the Tomato Lady, American cousin to Eric le Tomatologue in Montpellier, with her list of available varieties: 

There was no way to get these back, cooler or no, and I could only stare.

I waited for that woman to put her hand there so you could see the size of these puppies. 
I should have bought some seeds. There were seeds there. I should have bought a cooler down the road. I should have picked up lunch. But I didn't. Instead I went back to the hotel, checked out, and hit the road. 

Part III: Blowout and the Terror of Critter Alley

There's a lot of nothing between Santa Fe and Big Spring, and Vaughan, NM is smack dab in the middle of it. Good thing, too, because I was low on gas and needed to recycle the morning coffee. Having done so, I got back on  the road. Then there was a funny sound. I looked at my right rear tire, from which it had come, and it didn't look good. I found a turnaround and headed back to Vaughan, but not for long. A worse sound happened, and the tire sounded different -- way different. I got out to see what was what. This is what was what. 

Being the cool character I am, I got out the spare and all the relevant tools and discovered that I couldn't budge any of the nuts, because they'd been installed with a power tool. Back in the car, I dialled 911, which tranferred me to Guadelupe County 911, who gave me a number to call for a wrecker. I called and the guy said he'd be there in an hour. So I sat and waited. There was a stiff breeze, which helped keep things cool, and the amazing landscape to contemplate. 

The immediate neighborhood
It may seem incredible, but 59 minutes after the call, a yellow truck that said TNT TOWING pulled up and a burly young guy emerged and identified himself as Thomas. He had the tiny spare on in no time, and opined that it'd last me about 100 miles, so we motored back into Vaughan, where he checked his stock to see if he had a replacement. He didn't. "So we call the next guy," he said. "We all help each other out around here." And the next guy had what we needed. He also had a slab of limestone into which he'd sand-blasted a bas-relief design and then painted it into a loving portrait of Thomas' big Peterbilt wrecker, which wasn't in evidence at the moment. As Thomas took the dead tire off and put the new one on, another truck showed up and a Hispanic guy got out with a couple of baggies of tomatoes and chiles, just perfect, to give to the guy who'd brought the tire. I guess they do help each other out; it was a nice slice of life in the middle of nowhere. 

$177.91 later, and hearty thanks to Thomas, whom I hope you never have to see, but am happy to have met, I motored on towards Big Spring, still several hours away. Okay, I told myself, the big adventure which had lurked in the back of my mind, sure that it would happen out on the road, had happened, and now it would be a nice dull trip back to Austin. 

If only. 

I got to worrying about whether my Google Map route was right: could US 380 really be this long? Had I missed a turnoff? I stopped for a bathroom break and a Diet Coke to wake me up, and asked the lady in the convenience store if I'd missed Big Spring. No, she said, there was a turnoff just down the road. I was in Post, Texas, and... And she was interrupted by a fat, red-faced farmer in overalls. "If he takes that road there through Gail, he'll get there. Most direct route from here." She agreed he was right. It was also dark by now and my night-vision isn't what it was, so a direct route was very welcome. As the day had dimmed, I'd already had one apparition, a huge, shaggy, dirty white dog walking very slowly across the highway, a giant heart outlined in black among his markings. He made it to the other side, but he was an unsettling sight. At any rate, after confirming that the road just a few feet past the filling station was correct, I got in the car and got on to FM 669. 

The overture: seconds after I'd gotten onto the road, from the side two gigantic wings unfurled, then sank quickly, only for their owner to get unstuck from the dinner he'd been enjoying and rise into the night sky, a huge raptor of some sort that I didn't get to identify because there was also -- is this possible? -- a giant bobcat which cast a disgusted look at me and sauntered into the woods. I pushed on, suddenly aware that my route was teeming with nocturnal life. Among that life, as it turned out soon thereafter, were many, many whitetail deer. Joe Nick Patoski's sage advice came to me: "Deer are never alone. If you see one, be careful because there are more." I never saw more than two at one time, but I was very, very lucky because all of them stood where they were on the side of the road and turned away from my headlights. I was driving with heightened awareness, knowing that at any time a critter could jump into my path and I'd have to react -- fast. There were a couple of huge hairy things that might have been woodchucks, small rodents -- voles? -- dashing across the highway, healthy big jackrabbits and smaller non-jack rabbits. One of these fell victim to my back wheels, but there was no damage to the car. On a bridge, where I stopped being vigilant because there was no land on either side, another huge raptor sat, and took off, annoyed. Toads sat in the road and I passed over them without touching them. And all the while my car was dive-bombed by crickets. 

Some lights appeared in the distance, and suddenly the wildlife stopped, as if a tap had been shut. I realized I hadn't seen any possums, nor had I seen that iconic Texas critter the armadillo. I saw a sign to Big Spring. I exhaled. Finally 669 ended, and I realized I had no idea how to get to my motel. Checking its address, I asked the navigation app to get me to the address on LaMesa Drive. It smartly came up with something, and I noticed that my gas light was on. Okay, let's go. Soon, I was in downtown Big Spring, and then there was a gas station with $1.99 gas. I filled up, then the app directed me. Suddenly, I was in a residential neighborhood, on Mesa Drive, not LaMesa. I got out the phone and corrected the address. It wanted me to go to Midland. It refused to recognize the "la" in the address. I was sitting in a nice neighborhood shouting at my phone, hoping the Big Spring Police had lots of better things to do. Finally, the stupid phone realized what I was doing and got me to where I was going. It was an hour and a half from the end of Critter Alley to the motel, lots longer than it should have been. But then, the route I'd gotten from Google was faulty. I didn't care. I checked in, went to a nearby truckstop, had a sandwich, and went to bed. 

Nothing much happened the next day except I got home. Finally.
Site Meter