Saturday, April 19, 2014

Pardon The Gap

You know, you're not supposed to go months at a time without posting when you have a blog. But since February, I've been reluctant to post because I wasn't sure what, exactly, to write about. SXSW gave me an excuse last month, but it's been touch and go since then. Let's just say there are people who can't be trusted out there, and they promised help and money and didn't deliver. If you need to know who I'm talking about, you already know. If not, not. I'm still desperately in need of paying off some of this back rent, but the day-to-day bills seem to get covered for the most part by Social Security.

There's also my Amazon store, which seems to come and go, where I'm selling books from my days as a book critic, many of them with collectable stuff like press releases, press photos, and reviewers' slips, all of which collectors are looking for. And some day I hope to have the time to sell about 100 t-shirts from the '70s and '80s, which are just the kind of vintage stuff people pay big bucks for on Etsy. But that means photographing them from several angles, entering them in a database, doing some light ironing and packing them in plastic bags. I had a friend who was going to help, but she vanished right around the time I was ready to start.

There have been health issues: I desperately need to get my teeth fixed, and even went to a dentist for an estimate, which turned out to be far less than I thought, but far more than I had. So now I'm going to see what AARP can do about that. I had thought that my voice wasn't going to work on the radio, but apparently some stuff has shifted around, so I'm doing a trial run this week. Let's hope it works: I can definitely use the income.

The main thing is, I don't want to lose this house. It's hardly a mansion, but it's the first place I've felt at home since the place on Borsigstr. in Berlin where I lived for 11 years. It's hardly perfect -- my pet peeve at the moment is this ridiculous touch-to-start faucet in the kitchen that starts spontaneously -- sometimes when I'm not even in the room -- and then won't turn off. But the location is nice, it's quiet, and for the first time in 20 years, I can play records without getting raided by the cops. I sit here in my office and look out the window at the back yard, which is visited by lots of birds, some of which I can even identify -- well, it's hard to get a cardinal wrong. I was worrying about the grass back there the other day, but a guy showed up and offered to mow it, and the result is that now the birds can see the bugs in the grass better than ever, so they hop around dining and hanging out on the fence. I have a deck, but no furniture for it to speak of, so I've decided to grow some stuff in pots there and a friend in New Mexico sent some chile seeds. Two weeks on, they still haven't sprouted, but then, I don't have the pots yet, either.

One thing I really like about the house is that, late at night, trains come through. Now, people in Austin know all about this, because they're forever getting trapped at the railroad crossings while gigantic long trains pass. But the train whistle at the crossing near my house (seen here) is one of those stirring sounds that go way back in American history. (Actually, it reminds me of the time I interviewed Merle Haggard and he told me that the sound of the trains near where he grew up in California made him anxious to leave, and I told him that I'd heard trucks downshifting on the highway near where I grew up and had the same feeling. He replied that I couldn't have understood because he was poor and I, at least relative to him, wasn't. We then got into an argument that got so loud that his bus-driver came with his hand on his gun to see if the boss needed assistance. "Hell no," Haggard said. "I'm havin' fun!" And he was: after all, I never even mentioned "Okie From Muskogee" or any of that other standard stuff.)

Things like that, and the ease of cooking on a real stove and finding ingredients that just didn't exist in Europe and being far enough from downtown that it's quiet, but near enough that I can go there when I have to, and the way that now that it's gotten warmer the air smells like barbeque brisket on weekends (no single source, just a pervasive perfuming) make me hope that I don't lose this place, but it's far from certain at the moment because my book still hasn't sold, and other projects are just hanging fire day after day after day. It's the waiting, the constant treading of water to keep from going under, that gets to me worse than anything.

I'm hoping this turns around before long, but there's no way to tell. I learned a skill when I was 16, got good at it, and watched it slowly become less and less in demand, at least in any way that pays. (I'm outraged that Arianna Huffington's appearing at my favorite indie bookstore here autographing copies of a book she's listed as having written called Thrive. Who can thrive when her whole business model is based on appropriating others' work without paying for it?) Meanwhile, I'm taking every opportunity I can to get myself out there and make contacts: the workshop I did for the Writers' League of Texas, this four-session course I'm doing for the University of Texas (which has been a gas: I'm sorry this'll be the last class on Wednesday, and have asked to do it again), and things like that, although none of them pay a whole lot.

I'm pretty sure by now that moving back when I did might not have been a good idea. I'm not altogether sure that moving back at all was a good idea. But there's nothing I can do about it now, and so I wake up each day, put one foot in front of the other, and walk on, hoping I'm headed in the right direction and that there'll be some good news soon.

And then maybe I can get some more shelves and continue to unpack!

* * *

I should also add that Blogger's gone a bit wonky, and the other day I wanted to revise the blog-list over on the right there, because of a couple of blogs that've come up that you should know about. A friend in Montpellier has one in French that's pretty good, but I forgot to bookmark it the last time I read it, so that's that for the moment. Chris Frantz of Tom-Tom Club (and Talking Heads) fame has a good one, and, on the other end of the superstar spectrum, so does my pal Joe, who finally found gainful employment as a long-haul truckdriver and writes eloquently (and a little crankily) about it on his blog.  I just spent a whole day trying to add them, though, and it didn't work. Be the first kid on your block to read 'em, and I'll keep trying to figure it out. 

Sunday, March 16, 2014

SXSW 2014: I Was There (Sorta)

Still am, for that matter: my phone just made a noise and is reminding me that the softball game starts in about 30 minutes. Sometime after that I'll jump in the car and go over. This is one SXSW event that I still wholeheartedly enjoy, seeing the locals who've been hiding while the hordes took over, talking with a few people who know how low-key this particular event is.

There may be some music tonight, but I won't be there. In fact, my ears are purer than they usually are: I saw no music this year, much as I wanted to see a couple of events, and I didn't inadvertantly hear much, either. There are a couple of reasons for this. First, practical: because most of the area in which the event takes place has been torn up (along with a great deal of lower downtown Austin) while more huge buildings are erected, parking got to be enough of a problem that, if you could find it, a day's parking cost between $40 and $50. Last year it was $15, I think, and not too long ago it was $7. I just don't have that kind of money. Thus, I discovered that there's a bus stopping nearly in front of my house that got me downtown in a half-hour or less. Of course, none of the drivers and the Capital Metro website had any idea where the return journey left from, and neither did I until Friday, when they were kind enough to put signs up, nearly a week into the ordeal.

The second reason is more personal. Since returning, I haven't gone out to see much live music. In the 20 years I lived in Europe, I saw less and less as time went on, largely because there was less and less I wanted to see. I'd go see Patti Smith when she came through if Lenny Kaye were playing in the band, because I've known him for ages. I'd go see Bob Dylan because his bassist, Tony Garnier, is an old friend, and Dylan's usually carrying one or more Austin guitarists I know. Because of noise restrictions (which seemed to apply to me alone in most of the places I lived in Europe) I rarely played music after 10pm, and then only with phones, which I detest. And my day-to-day life required that I listen to less: there was nowhere to write about new music, so keeping up was less of a priority. I liked that. What I didn't like was going out a week or so after I moved back here, only to discover that being in a room with loud music triggered a panic attack. Not just music: I went to a theater performance and could not wait to leave. Seeing the vast crowds surging around downtown Austin, I knew I didn't want to join them. Plus, there was the problem of getting back home on the bus.

The music end of SXSW has become unwieldy. It's out of proportion to the conference end: there were very few panels and the majority of them were underattended. This was nothing new; it's been declining for years. The performance end, though, has metastatized in a very unfortunate way. Let me take a minute to explain.

There's no law that a venue has to allow SXSW to put showcases into it, and every year a large number of bars and clubs choose not to participate. Officially. They're all very happy to rent themselves out to other promoters, and there's basically nothing anyone can do to stop them -- and why should they? It's capitalism at work! But it's gone way beyond alternative programming at night. Lots of downtown businesses rent themselves out for branding events, in which RSVPing to an invitation allows you to stand in line with hundreds of other people, waiting to get into a building where there's a DJ and lots of free stuff all branded with the sponsor's logo. There's usually live music and sometimes free food. It has nothing to do, for the most part, with the SXSW people. And as SXSW has become a Spring Break destination, more and more of this stuff has been popping up.

This year, however, things reached a pitch I've never seen before, mostly because something called the iTunes Festival decided to piggyback on SXSW, renting one of the prime large venues out from under the conference and stacking the multi-day festival with big names. A certain amount of cooperation was worked out -- my phone kept urging me to go to their venue if I wanted tickets to various performers I'd never heard of and show a platinum SXSW badge if I wanted to get in -- but it was also open to the Spring Breakers. And then there was Lady Gaga, who was booked for the Doritos stage, a gigantic replica of a Doritos vending machine that gets erected each year and on which top talent performs. This is a non-SXSW event. SXSW was short one music conference keynoter, and there was apparently much back-and-forth as to whether or not she would be it. Eventually, of course, she was. But apparently in the evenings there was pedestrian gridlock as the throngs went from one venue to another, gorging on music.

I did miss some stuff I'd rather not have missed: the final Austin Music Awards overseen by the mighty Margaret Moser, who is retiring and moving to San Antonio, fed up (although she's been very politic about expressing it) with what Austin has become. There was a day party at which I could have seen Phil and Dave Alvin, but I missed it because I was at the Convention Center. There was a Lou Reed tribute which I kept forgetting about because I hate tribute shows, although Richard Barone seems to have come up with some excellent marriages of performer and material. Lucinda Williams, whom I haven't seen in ages, had several gigs including that one, none of which I saw. The last one was yesterday afternoon, when she was at a venue sponsored by the Miles Davis Estate, because when I think of Miles, I think of Lucinda, don't you? (At least she knows who he is. Not sure I can say the same for the other bands that day). But when I saw it was a block from the Convention Center, and thought of Saturday afternoon crowds, and the time to get up there and the time to get back, I just couldn't do it. It was a panic attack waiting to happen.

And then there was The Incident: the police had pulled over a kid driving a stolen car without lights and the kid bolted and the cops took chase and when it was all over, the kid had sent a couple of dozen people to the hospital and two to the morgue. A friend of mine saw the whole thing from a balcony he was standing on. It sounds like it was pretty bad. But although people were discussing it endlessly and lots of them were blaming it directly on SXSW having gotten too big, the fact is that a drunk running from the police, encountering a crowd, and smashing other vehicles and pedestrians is something that could happen on any homecoming weekend at a college, on St. Patrick's Day, on the periphery of any major sports event, New Year's Eve anywhere at all, or just anytime anywhere. Michael Corcoran has a great piece on it, the kind of sober reporting and analysis he's getting better and better at, and before people start casting blame, they should read it.

Of course, based on his Facebook postings this morning, he also seems to think SXSW has gotten too big, and he may be right. You'll notice I haven't even mentioned the Interactive end of SXSW, the tail that wags the dog these days. I went to a couple of sessions there, cruised the trade show as always, and felt like I was being subjected to advertorials broadcast live, for the most part. But that's when Austin is inundated with people who may not be the 1%, but who are maybe the 5% looking to join the 1%, the people who leave multi-thousand-dollar tips at the bars they party at. This is where there's congestion nobody talks about because it's private and there's no soundtrack. After that's over, there's a day's grace (except for people who attend mostly for the film festival, not a huge number, I believe), and then the Spring Break kiddies and the music people arrive. At this point, the ecosystem seems to break down. From previous years, I remember walking up and down 6th Street and hearing the pounding din of the music pouring out of all of the bars, restaurants, and occasional impromptu venues for several blocks around and wondering how anyone could concentrate on listening to anything. There's nothing pleasurable about this, nothing whatever, as far as I'm concerned. And since nobody's paying me to experience it, there's a bus that stops pretty much in front of my house... In fact, I ate dinner at home every night of SXSW but one, and on that occasion, I was too tired from the day to figure out what to make, so I took myself out for an inexpensive Indian meal.

But there's another thing that I think has become unpleasant about the SXSW experience, and that's the growing commercialization. When I was the panels director, back before the other two pieces of the event happened, the focus was on education, on helping people learn stuff that could help them. The "live infomercial" thing I referred to above is now a factor in the majority of the panels I audited. One panel was nothing but an infomercial, dealing with Converse sneakers and their role in rock and roll and -- oh, yeah -- their branded record label. I got three invitations to attend this from a PR firm that maybe wasn't aware you had to have a badge to get in. I had one, but why on earth would I want to see this? Then there are events like the Gaga Doritos show. Jon Pareles of the New York Times had a fine blog post about what he would have been required to do in order to see it, much of which would violate his journalistic integrity, as well as his terms of employment. Of course, Doritos shot themselves in the foot here because he wasn't able to report on the show, which would have gotten their name into the New York Times.

Every year I go to this event, I come away thinking that some soul-searching wouldn't hurt the organizers, but that it's hard to see where to start. SXSW simply cannot control such things as hordes of college kids who just want to get wasted and listen to free music descending on the town, nor are there any laws that could ensure that a drunk (illegally) guy behind the wheel of a (illegally stolen) car driving (illegally) with his lights off would never happen again. I'm kind of waiting to see what the next year in Austin is like before I complain about what's specifically SXSW-generated that I don't like, because I suspect there's lots going on out there that has nothing to do with the event.

Meanwhile, it's just about over, and I'm going to go network over at the softball field, see some friends, and stay home tonight.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

February Migas (Before It's Gone)

Okay, this is much more like it:

I think that's even the same quarter.
Last weekend, acting on a tip from one of my Facebook friends, I went and bought some more jalapenos. This time, instead of heading to the supermarket, I went to the local La Michoacana Meat Market, a wonderful insitution (there are three of them here in Austin), woefully inadequately named.  Not only do they have some of the best tacos in town (hideously expensive at $1.39 each), but they have loads of Mexican products -- as well as meats to use them with. I carefully selected some jalapenos and a couple of tomatoes, since I was planning to attempt migas again, and rushed home to photograph them in approximately the same situation as the ones in the last blog post.

These are fresh from the store, but the lower one is kind of funky. The others had been around at least a week, and they were getting rotten at the end of the stem (you can even see this if you look closely: one has part of the outer layer of the stem missing). These weren't all shiny and plump, but you know what? They sure did the trick when they got stirred into the breakfast fixin's. Not peel-the-inside-of-your-mouth hot, but, shall we say, definitely present. Maybe one of them will turn red before it goes bad: I have a Chinese recipe that asks for a red jalapeno, and would seem to benefit from such a thing. I don't actually know, having not been in the presence of one for some years. We shall see.

* * *

Incidentally, making actual migas turns out to be really easy, as long as you pay attention. I naturally went to the method Robb Walsh uses in his Tex-Mex Cookbook. Tear up about three tortillas into what he calls "dime-sized pieces," and fry them in some oil (corn oil is good) over medium heat. He doesn't specify it, but I'd say this works best if you get them all the way to crisp. Then you throw in a baseball-sized onion and two (of the size in the photo) jalapenos, chopped, and let it fry til it softens. Next, a similarly-sized tomato, also chopped, stir to incorporate everything, a bit of salt (which I always forget), and then three scrambled eggs. Keep stirring and toss in a handful or so of grated cheddar, raising the heat just a tad. Once you get this down you can start tweaking proportions and playing with ingredients (chorizo, mushrooms, different cheeses, etc). It's weird that Texas seems to be the only place this amazing dish is made. (I once got into a conversation with an older Mexican guy in a San Francisco Mission-district supermarket about migas, and wondered why I couldn't get them in California. He gave me an odd look and said "You make 'em at home!") 

Now to work up some of my other favorite Mexican breakfasts. 

* * *

Owning a car is turning out to be a bit of an adventure. Not driving it around town and on the local highways -- I knew that'd be an adventure.  No, the official stuff connected to it. First there was the cost of insurance: I hadn't owned a car in 20 years, so I pay the max, although I'm hoping it goes down after a while. Then there was transferring the title. Egads! Who knew that, because I bought from an individual, I'd be paying the sales tax? Ouch! But at least one sticker was up-to-date. My latest adventure was getting it inspected. Oh, boy, do cops like to stop you for out-of-date inspection stickers, and oh, boy do I not need a ticket. There's a place around the corner that does it, but I spent several weeks dropping in there and being told there was no time and I should show up at 7:45 so I'd be there when they opened. That wasn't going to happen. Finally, I was told of a place where that was all they did, and was in and out in 20 minutes, and that was only because there were two other cars ahead of me. Now to get the transmission fixed: I think I'd like to take a weekend off and go to Louisiana before it gets too hot and the crawfish disappear. Also bring back some sausage and tasso, because what passes for those things here is laughable. 

There was one more surprise awaiting me, the naive car-owner. After I transferred the title, I got a postcard in the mail. A couple of days later, I got a postcard that looked like a government document. VEHICLE ALERT NOTICE: 2003 PONTIAC it screamed. VEHICLE DOCUMENT/ALERT NOTICE. The rear explained that my factory warranty "is expiring or has currently expired!" and that I was to call an 800 number to "speak with Motor Vehicle Division to continue coverage." I was a bit confused. After ten years, yeah, I'd expect all the warranties to have expired. Finally, I noticed that it had been mailed from St. Louis. The one in Missouri. And I got another from Sacramento a few days later, and another one shortly after that that I just tossed in the trash. (Excuse me: recycling. This is, after all, Austin). 

I e-mailed a patient friend who often explains things like this to me and he wrote back "Didn't you know? The government sells your data to these people. It's a scam." Boing! Culture shock. I lived in Germany for 15 years, a country where your privacy is sancrosanct to the point where they won't send you an itemized phone bill because to do so would break the privacy laws adopted after the de-nazification process. (What the connection between finding out what Opa did in the war and your phone bill might be, I never was able to find out). France is a little looser, but this would be similarly unthinkable there. I suppose in a country that can get away with NSA data-vacuuming of ordinary citizens I shouldn't be too shocked. But it's a bit unnerving just the same. 

* * *

One of the best times I've had in a while was two Saturdays ago, doing a workshop on writing for media like radio, showing the difference between the kind of thing people are going to read and what they'll listen to. It was all done for the Writers' League of Texas, and I hope to do some more stuff for them soon. Not only did I have a small but lively bunch of attendees, but I got to snoop around the campus of Austin's second-largest university, St. Edward's. Although I once had a friend who worked in its library, I'd never been inside. It's a Catholic school, but it seems pretty up-to-date in its offerings. And it does have a grand old central building, as any campus should. 

Too bad some photographers can't frame a shot better than this. Of course, it was shot on a phone. 
I naturally worried a bit, so I got there early, and among the things I did was shoot a photograph of Austin from the hill St. Ed's sits atop. I'm not sure I can name more than one or two of the buildings in this picture, and among the ones you can't see are the Capitol and the Texas Tower, both of which were integral to the cityscape when I lived here before. (I used to be able to see the Capitol dome from my bathroom window on 9 ½ St. if I stood facing the toilet, which made me think of a real estate ad that'd say "Capitol view, men only." Oh, and this was only when the leaves were off the trees.) Anyway, here's Austin, 2014: 

The real tall one with the hat on top, I'm told, is the one where Kanye West has an apartment. 
At any rate, I'll be doing another course starting on April 2, over at that larger, better-known university here in town. It'll focus on the history of Austin as a music town, four classes, four decades, starting in the 1950s. I'm hoping to line up a bunch of people who were there for most of this, and it should be fun. Only eight people have signed up so far, and that's not very exciting, so if you're in town (or plan to be here for the month of April), sign up here and come on down. 

* * *

One more bit of self-promotion here and I'll go. Things haven't gone as smoothly as I'd thought on this move, and it's pretty tight around here, but one thing that's been making a lot of difference is my Amazon store, where a bunch of books I found in storage and shipped from France have wound up. It's a pretty miscellaneous collection of stuff for sure, but there could well be something there you or one of your bibliophilic friends wants. I ship the orders pretty much as soon as they arrive, and so far the feedback's been good. 

As I write, I'm waiting on some additional stock, too: as soon as they arrive and I get them listed, I'll be selling some CDs from the eccentric but culturally valuable Revenant label, started by John Fahey and a young guy here in Austin. They've moved on to a partnership with Jack White's Third Man label, but the past output includes gems by the Stanley Brothers and Dock Boggs, collections of old gospel music, the unissued fourth volume of Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music, and much, much more. Stop by in a couple of days and start shopping!

Dock Boggs as a Serious Young Man
Late Edit: Turns out I have the John Fahey box set Your Past Comes Back to Haunt You (ten copies), the Harry Smith and Stanley Brothers, and Jim O'Rourke's Happy Days (many copies of each). Dock's record sold out long ago. Sorry to get you all worked up...

Sunday, February 9, 2014


Hang on. Just wait a dang minute here.

We will sing the praises of Chinese cleavers in a future post.
Something happened to jalapenos while I was away. Actually, a couple of things. First, they used to be hot. Not insanely hot, but hot enough to perk up your salsa or add some fire to a recipe. Second, unless my memory deceives me, they used to be about half this size. Now, well, I'm not sure what they're good for. Serrano chiles are also about the size jalapenos used to be -- and about as hot as they used to be, too. A couple more years, and these jalapenos will be about the same size as a New Mexico Big Jim.

Since I've been gone, everything's gotten bigger. Austin's gotten bigger, of course. Back when I lived here before, I had a girlfriend who lived up by Braker Lane, which seemed impossibly far away, but was only 15 minutes from my house in central Austin. That was the northern frontier, though: over at Braker and Lamar stood the Skyline Club, the notorious nightclub where both Hank Williams and Johnny Horton played their last gigs, back when its location was described as "just out of town on the Waco Highway," which was to say North Lamar. Austin's beloved Soap Creek Saloon was housed in the Skyline's building for a brief while, and it seemed like a long way to go for a little honky-tonking. Not that that stopped me. At least you could get there. I'd be reluctant to head off to my ex's place between 3 and 7 pm most days now because of the traffic, and the site of the Skyline is across from Austin's Chinatown mega-mall, featuring a supermarket that's bigger than any supermarket here in town when I lived here last, and it only sells Asian groceries.

The cars, too, are bigger, to the extent that anyone even drives a car any more. I'm not even sure I'd describe what I drive as a "car," for that matter. Someone told me it's a hatchback. It's not quite a station wagon and not quite a small truck. But it's also not an Escalade, which may be the most ridiculous thing I've ever seen. "The most-stolen car in America," as a friend calls it, is nothing short of a Cadillac truck. Of course, the other luxury marques have to compete, so Lincoln has one, as does BMW and Porsche, all producing vehicles that hover around the SUV/truck/assault vehicle axis. (Oh, yeah: they're not as common as they seemed a couple of years ago, but there are still Hummers around, too). Buick has something called an Enclave, a word I suggest they'd want to look up, but it's a bit too late for that.

Lots of people, though, drive trucks. Huge, stretched-out pickups, like you'd use on a ranch. (My favorite is the Toyota truck advertised on billboards all over town: "The only truck built in Texas," it proclaims. Its name? The Tundra. Because nothing says "Texas" like tundra. I'm not a hunter, but I do appreciate it when friends come through with some reindeer or a brace of ptarmigan). Of course, particularly in the part of town I live in, a lot of folks use their trucks for work, but from looking in parking lots around town, I'd say not all the trucks out there are used for anything but transportation from A to B. It's always amusing to see one of these things squeeze into a parking space, its door open, and a tiny woman get out. She's actually not that tiny, but between the message the truck sends and her actual dimension vis a vis its size, it seems that way for a second.

I've learned to keep a respectable distance around these things, since they can rarely see me, even in my larger-than-I'd-like car, and the way people throw them around like they were sportscars is indeed scary. And I really don't see bitching about gas prices if you drive one of those things. I suppose I could look up an Escalade's gas mileage if I wanted to, but I'm more concerned about keeping my fairly efficient hatchback fuelled -- and finding it in parking lots where it disappears among the giants.

Texans have always liked things Big, but I suspect this is the way all across America now. Certainly, my fellow Americans were always easy enough to spot in Europe because of their size (and the bottles of water they clutched tightly). But one place this really hits home is when I go shopping for food.

Okay, guilty pleasure time. Sometimes -- not often, but sometimes -- I like to have some fishsticks for dinner. This must go back to my childhood somehow, but there you have it. (In France, they had fish croquettes, in which fish was mixed with mashed potatoes seasoned with garlic and herbs. They were even cheaper than fish sticks, tasted better, and I miss them.) So the other day I was stuck for something for dinner and wound up at the supermarket staring at the frozen food aisles. Apparently they don't make just plain fishsticks anymore, so I wound up looking at frozen breaded fish fillets. Here was a bag of 12. Here was a bag of 24. Here was a bag of...102. What? Well, I've never had a family of eight to feed, so maybe it makes sense. Thing is, it's kind of hard to buy for a single person. Even a dozen is pushing it. But I was impressed. That's a lotta fish fillets.

Ah, but I hadn't seen anything yet.

In my last post I was grumbling about going to get my first prescription here in the U.S. and getting socked for $110 and change for it. Turns out, there was a little trick I didn't know about -- and still don't fully understand. Apparently Walgreen's has a "generics club" I could have joined that would have deflated the prices significantly. Someone showed me HEB's version of it, for those of their supermarkets that have pharmacies attached. And other people informed me that the pharmacies at Walmart (ain't gonna go there), Target (not exactly in the 'hood) and Costco (aha!) sell at those prices without your having to join anything. Okay, I'll try it out, I said, since I had a new prescription and had just discovered that there was a Costco behind the Whole Foods near me. Went down there, marched up to the window, and the guy quoted me a price that was about right. "Give me about 20 minutes," he said, "and this'll be ready."

I suddenly realized that I was in the Cathedral of Big. Here was an institution I'd heard lots about while I lived in Europe, but never seen. Members-only, $55 to join, many benefits: if I'd known about their travel club, I could have saved a barrel when I first got here and had to rent a car before I found one to buy. There's the cheap pharmacy (although you don't have to be a member for that), and apparently all the electronics and so on are rock-bottom priced. Of course, whether a single guy not making a major purchase could make that membership fee pay off over the course of twelve months is another question. But I had 20 minutes to find out, so I started walking.

I have to admit, it was staggering. There was a grocery section. I doubt that there was anything as minuscule as a 105-fillet bag of fish. There were boxes of cereal that were four or five times as large as the largest I'd ever seen, multi-can packages of tuna shrink-wrapped together, vats of olive oil, tubs of lard, unimaginable quantities of ketchup and began to blur after a while. But, at the same time, other things became clearer, like how middle-America consumes stuff. Apparently it's not just the Mormons and the survivalists who shop in these quantities.

To cool off I wandered among the TV screens, which were also Big. Some day I may want one of these, since the whole Netflix thing is interesting (but I do have to cancel my account since there's very little they stream that interests me, plus sitting in front of this screen all day means I don't want to do it any more than I have to) and the amplifier I have to play CDs through has all kinds of facilities for modern TV watching, things I only dimly understand at the moment because I can't afford to install one. Near the electronics was a section of office supplies, something I definitely could get into, but again, the quantities were disturbing.

Fortunately, my prescription was just about ready, and it was going to be something of a hike back to the pharmacy window, so I took off, only getting lost a couple of times. I was in the belly of some kind of beast, one that wasn't entirely hostile: my 90-day supply of pills cost around ¼ what Walgreens had euchred out of me for 30 days' worth at half the dosage. Still, I took a deep breath when I was finally outside and scurried back home. I thought about the reaction some of my European friends would have to such a place (and the cars and trucks in the parking lot, for that matter). And I realized that I'd have to go back soon -- today, in fact -- to transfer my other two prescriptions from Walgreens to Costco and have another waiting period to wander the Cathedral of Big and stir my thoughts up some more.

Okay, now, about those jalapenos...

Monday, January 13, 2014

First Migas of 2014

Odd Sign of the Year (so far): A church I pass frequently is displaying on their sign the message "Attend a local church in 2014." Now, the general tenor of this message is one I basically support, what with my efforts to patronize independent businesses, local enterprises, and all. there anyone in Austin who gets the family up on Sunday morning, gets them all dressed and into the car to attend services in Wimberley? San Antonio? Waco? Even Taylor? I'd tell this pastor that if nobody's showing up on Sunday, it's not because their churchgoing isn't local.

* * *

Sticker Shock: For years, I've been getting blood-pressure medication, the same basic mix of pills. This started in Berlin, continued in France, and, last week, I ran out of my French pills. Thus began an adventure. 

First off, I needed to find a doctor. Having become officially old in November, I qualified for Medicare, which was something to take into consideration when choosing one. I did what any sane person would do: I asked the Austintites on Facebook. I then followed up all the suggestions that weren't too surrealistic and made an interesting discovery: every single one of them said they would only take Medicare from "established patients." In other words, sign up before you're 65. But I hadn't had that option, having arrived back in the country a few days before my birthday. Or, rather, I had, but it didn't seem like the most important thing at the moment. 

Foolish me. Not only was it very important, I also missed the deadline for signing up for the program that would pay for prescription drugs, unfortunately. (I'll get another chance much later this year). So suddenly it was January, and I needed a doctor and prescriptions. 

But social media to the rescue  once again! I mentioned that nobody at all would accept me, and someone mentioned that if a current patient made a recommendation, perhaps someone would bend the rules. So that's the route I took: I asked someone to ask their doctor, a guy whose setup looked particularly nice, and next thing I knew I had a same-day appointment with a guy who seems very well informed, smart, and maybe not so inclined to overprescribe and suggest unnecessary procedures as I hear American doctors tend to do. (I actually had an encounter with one of these a few years back, but that's another story). 

A few days later, my French pills ran out. I picked up my prescription slip and headed out to one of the many pharmacies that dot the landscape around here, choosing a Walgreen's which seemed to be the closest. I walked in, handed the slip over and was told to come back in an hour and a half. Which, given the labor at hand, seemed excessive. In France, that only happened when they were out of something: they'd go to the back, open drawers, pull out boxes, and that was it. Then I'd get stuck for something like €27 for four kinds of pills. This was only three, but I knew it wasn't going to cost me any $36.85. 

Probably more like $60, I told myself as I headed back to Walgreen's. As if: the damage was a whopping $110 -- $109.97, to be exact. Good thing these pills work, or my blood pressure would be through the roof. And yes, they're all generic and so on. 

America seems to be a rather expensive country to live in!

* * *

There's also a food angle to this story: the doctor's office turns out to be approximately in the same complex as Austin's Trader Joe's. Disparaging Trader Joe's, as I recently did, provoked a storm of complaints from readers and friends. (One told me they had real good, cheap tortilla chips, and I had to remind him that if there's one thing that's not scarce in Austin, it's real good, cheap tortilla chips). Thus, after the doctor's I walked over and took a look at the place again, which was useful because there were things I needed and I had the list right with me. So here's what I found. 

* Wine: there were inexpensive wines I recognized, wines for under $10 a bottle. This is worth remembering. Also the famous Two-Buck Chuck, their house brand, which is now Three-Buck Chuck, at least in Texas. I picked up a bottle of pinot grigio to cook with. 

* Juice: there were several flavors other than orange. I don't get this: in France, we had one-liter containers of juice from Tropicana that came in a bunch of different flavors -- at least a dozen. Here, the smallest size seems to be 1.75 liters, and the only thing available is orange in your choice of a dozen different varieties of how much pulp is included (why is this a problem?) and whether or not you want calcium or not in it. 1.75 liters takes a long time for a single guy to go through, but so far that's what I've been doing. Trader Joe's had a liter of tangerine juice, so I picked it up. Unfortunately I hadn't looked at the expiration date, and the next morning it was swollen up and fizzy. Dang. 

Other than that, there was a lot of packaging: I noted plastic boxes with jalapenos in them, which I thought was odd because any old supermarket has plastic bags and piles of peppers to choose from, which I, certainly, prefer to do. But all the fruit and vegetables were packaged. 

And there were a lot of prepared dishes. This is the deal, as I've been noticing when I go shopping: Americans don't cook any more, preferring to buy frozen and packaged items they can just heat up. (And before anyone jumps on me, this is just as true in France, from what I could tell). And Trader Joe's has much more creative and interesting items in this category than most places, so that, I believe, is what the foofaraw is about. 

I have another doctor's appointment on the 27th, so I'm still on the case

* * *

That, however, is the only food-related item this time. Sometime just after Christmas, my nose shut down again. I'm not really anxious to return to France, but if I could fax myself to my nose doc in Montpellier long enough to get a prescription and pick it up, I would. On the other hand, maybe not: I've had problems with my kitchen sink since I moved in here, and the landlord's been over to fix it several times, on the last of which there was also a plumber along. But the thing still doesn't work right and the other night it flooded the kitchen again. It's the drain, the same drain the dishwasher uses, so I can't use that and I can't wash the dishes by hand in the sink, so they've piled up and probably stink. And my poor landlord came down with the flu, which then turned into pneumonia, after which he tripped and fell down stairs. He's a young guy, so he'll likely be fine eventually, but every single dish in the house is now dirty, so I guess I'm going to have to clean the bathtub out and wash some of them there so I can cook more meals I can't taste. The silver lining is that it's not quite cockroach season yet. 

* * *

And while I'm waiting on my book proposal to sell, I've got some work around here that probably pays. I had a great meeting with a woman from the Writers' League of Texas, and I'm going to be giving a workshop with them in February, which you'll all want to sign up for, I'm sure! Then, two months later, in April, I'll be taking over a very popular class at the University of Texas' Informal Classes, and this one should be fun for all concerned. I'm already scheming to bring in some unsuspecting types to pump them for info about what they've seen and done. 

These two projects are just the start, I hope. I have other schemes in mind, while, of course, being available to other writers' groups and schools for lectures. What I really need is a lecture agent, and they're impossible to score without a recent book publication. Which puts me back where I began. But watch this space for more announcements, and meanwhile remember that I get a piece of the action from the e-books and cookbooks advertised in the Amazon widgets in the right margin, and am constantly adding to my Amazon store of odd and interesting first editions, art documents, and cookbooks. Every little bit helps me get adjusted in this expensive, bewildering new country I've settled myself in. 

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Europe vs. America: The Food, Part 1

Okay, I understand. You're not interested in the fact that on Tuesday the rest of my stuff arrived here and the garage and the rest of the house got packed with even more stuff.

The white boxes and the boxes with the cats on them are new. 
You don't care that in some of these boxes there's stuff that will enable me to catch up with my work, that a bunch of bookshelves arrived that, with help from a neighbor, got put up in my office yesterday and are slowly being filled up so that at last I have access to important reference material.

No. You're wondering how I'm coping with the food in America.

Since some of what arrived from France is my better cooking equipment  -- my Allclad pots and pans, a nice Le Creuset Dutch oven I bought myself last Christmas, stuff like that -- as well as the cookbooks I've used over the past 20 years, it's only in the past few days that I've even been able to really start cooking again. Still, starting off with a few pots and pans I got at Target and the miraculous wok I found in storage and the two cast iron pans that revived just like that, I did start up again when I moved into this house, and I also started shopping for food again.

And yes, there have been some changes. There's a lot of stuff I can't comment on yet, but there's just enough that I can in a preliminary blog post.

Shopping: The first big change. I'm not particularly happy that I have to drive everywhere for everything. In fact, I felt particularly virtuous the other evening when I walked to have dinner in a particularly good and affordable Mexican restaurant nearby. If I can afford it, I may do this once a week, just for the exercise. I'm feeling bloated, and this isn't a particularly walk-friendly neighborhood (not that many in Austin are). Eventually, walkability will become moot: when it's 104º outside, walking to the end of the driveway is a drag. But for the moment, that restaurant will get my ambulatory business.

But I still have to go to the store. I managed to drive to one of the weekly farmer's markets when I first moved in here, and that was nice enough. I got the last of the season's tomatoes and a couple of butternut squashes (because i alway manage to buy a couple of butternut squashes, get them home, and realize I don't have a clue what to do with them), but most of the action was either prepared foods (salsas, organic spaghetti sauces, Texas French Bread) or hemp-based cosmetics, handcrafts, wind-chimes... I understand: the season hasn't started yet, or, rather, it was just ending when I got here. But there'll be no more twice a week walks to the market and back whether I need anything or not.

Thus, I rely on the supermarkets. Up on the opposite corner from the Mexican restaurant is an HEB. This is a garganutan Texan chain, and I hated it when I lived here before. Then I left, and they did something really smart: they opened Central Market. By positioning themselves as upmarket competition to Whole Foods, but also recognizing that part of the market they were after wasn't quite as concerned about whether stuff was organic, and also held some affection for some things like Kellogg's Corn Flakes that Whole Foods would never touch, they hit a sweet spot in Austin's food buying habits. (They also made some mistakes: I went to the first Central market not long after it opened, on what was probably my first trip back to Austin after moving to Berlin. In those days, you had to traverse the entire store once you'd entered in order to leave. I quickly became overcome by the sheer quantity of what was there, because the markets in my Berlin neighborhood were seriously understocked. I got dizzy and couldn't find my way out and began to have a panic attack. The friend who'd taken me there eventually found me outside on a bench trying to get my bearings).

The other thing that both Whole Foods and Central Market capitalize on is the fact that for all the fancy kitchens people put in their houses, nobody cooks any more. Thus, there's a huge emphasis on pre-made foods that I'm trying to do my best to ignore. So I do most of my shopping either at Central Market's south location or at a much bigger and better HEB a mile or so from my house. I almost never go to the south Whole Foods location (and never the downtown one: traffic is insane around there) because the clientele just radiates entitlement: I saw a young power couple buy $272 worth of baby food there a couple of days ago, all of it packed in what looked like plastic single-serving containers. Even the baby, strapped to its father's chest, looked smug). There's also an outpost of a chain called Sprouts, which I saw in Brooklyn in March, and looked like a tarted-up version of the old-school health food store, and whose location near me looked pretty awful on a once-through, and a new version of Wheatsville Co-op, a longtime Austin institution, that's opened in a once-dying mall, and to which I still haven't been. The enigmatic Trader Joe's, purveying prepared food to harried suburbanites with lots of money, has opened its first outlet here, too, off in West Austin where the McMansions live, another joint I'm not in too much of a hurry to check out.

So, with a couple of Mexican markets and an Indian market near me, and a huge Vietnamese/Chinese one way up north, I can pretty much shop the world. The big shock that still hasn't worn off is that I can hit Central Market or Whole foods til 11pm, the big HEB until 1am,  and I can shop at all of them on Sunday. That last still hasn't sunk in.

Okay, so what have I been getting? Herewith some preliminary comparisons.

* Yogurt: About every other day, I like to have toast and yogurt for breakfast. When I first got here, I went right for something I'd heard people raving about: Chobani Greek Yogurt. I tried it in various forms and configurations and decided I didn't like it. (Someone recently compared it to wallboard compound, which I figure is like a thick Elmer's Glue, and that'd be about right). It doesn't stir, it's gelatinous and chewy, and the flavors at the bottom don't want to mix, either. The New Yorker says it's an overnight sensation. I say feh. I finally found "Australian style" yogurt, by a company called Wallaby (U.S. based: my carbon footprint is bad enough after 20 years of walking and using electric-powered transportation) and it's got some good stuff. So the scoreboard: Germany 9, France 6, US 7. The Germans lead by having tons of flavors, including seasonal ones (the only instance of seasonality you'll find in a German supermarket), as part of their dairy-mania. The whole country seems to run on milk products. The French make very high-quality yogurt, but only in a couple of flavors, and you pretty much have to buy multiples of 8 or more, either yellow (pineapple, mango, lemon) or red (strawberry, cherry, raspberry), which gets boring. America has, as usual, a bewildering number of brands, some of which are very expensive, but not as many flavors as Germany.

* Fruit and Vegetables: Okay, you know that on some level, the Americans will take this one, particularly since where I am, we're close to Mexico, where everything grows all the time. But America also has something that neither of the other countries has: uniformity. The other night I went to buy onions and discovered they only come in one size: softball. That's more onion than I usually need for a recipe, though. I wound up throwing a bunch of the one I used away. It's eerie seeing hundreds of potatoes piled up, all the same size. Pretty much any vegetable I've gone looking for has been like this. At least I busted Central Market's sneaky trick of having you enter through the (expensive) organic section, with the same types of (non-organic) vegetables available further along. Which is another thing about France: a lot of the stuff at the outdoor market was organic, but nobody made any big deal about it. It was just that they didn't want to pay for EU certification, so they could keep their prices down and compete with the other vendors. As for fruit, my French-born appreciation of pears and melons and cherries and so on says this isn't the right time. I saw a basket of strawberries the other day, and although they were from Mexico, I just couldn't do it. Also: size. They'd go bad before I finished with them. The melons are the size of basketballs. The scoreboard: Germany 2, France 8, US 8*. Germany, of course, goes nuts once a year for asparagus and again for strawberries. The rest of the time, forget it. I bought so much plastic-enshrouded rotten produce there it was scandalous, but since the Germans don't know what vegetables other than cabbage are, what can you do? France keeps things in season (not that you can't buy baseball-hard Dutch tomatoes there right now), and allows a variety of sizes. America ties with qualifications, some noted above, but also because there's such a wide variety. I could get bok choy a few times a year in France. I can go get some right now.

* Bread: Another foregone conclusion, because you just know the US is going to lose this one. The Germans may make spongy, squishy baguettes without any flavor at all (and then try to sell you sandwiches in them), but those dense, heavy, dark, seed-and-grain-infused breads they do there rock. And you pretty much have to go there to taste them, because as far as I know nobody's doing them at all on this side of the Atlantic. Be happy to be proven wrong, though. And again, the French don't do that style, but beyond the baguette (which of course they frequently do very nicely) they have lots of wholegrain and other traditional breads, often cooked in wood ovens, available. (And this is without even getting into the "viennoiserie" stuff that the bakeries do, the croissants and pain au chocolates and so on). The one exception I've found in Austin (I'm still holding out the possibility there's a good bakery here) is bagels. Now, there was a bagel chain in Germany called Bagel Brothers that didn't have an outlet in Berlin that did perfect bagels, and a place that was called Bagel Station in Berlin that did pretty good ones. The bagels in France all came pre-frozen from a single source and were too bready, albeit not as bad as Einstein Brothers or Lender's. But Central Market, of all places, has very good bagels, and I'm digesting one as I type. So bread/bagel scores: Germany 9/7, France 9/4, US 6/8. Reserving a US point for if someone starts making bagels like I had in Brooklyn a couple of years ago.

* Wine: Okay, you probably see this one coming, too. Basically, so far it's the fault of the Texas Alcoholic Beverages Commission and marketing at places I shop. Germany wasn't a great place for wine, but there were shops that paid attention and had some decent things at decent prices. In France I was living in the middle of the EU "wine lake," so good wine at decent prices was no problem. In Texas, the Baptists don't want you to enjoy yourself (Biblical adjurations to drink wine notwithstanding) so they tax the hell out of it. The result, plus the snob appeal, means that at Central Market, which has a huge wine department, and at Whole Foods, which doesn't, I'm surrounded by $25 bottles about which I know very little. I was enjoying a nice mix from Lodi, CA (the Languedoc of California in that it once produced awful plonk and now has an infusion of young winemakers doing some good work) called Ravenous Red, which was nothing revolutionary, but a good everyday wine at $6.95 a bottle, but it's sporadic in its appearances there. No scorecard for this one; it's still early innings.

I'm still feeling my way around stuff here. Canned tomatoes, for instance, seem to be grossly inferior to what I was getting in Europe -- they seem to be picked way too green, while the general quality of meat seems much higher. I'm still wrestling with some dental problems that preclude a lot of exploration, and I'm also sure I'll make some nice discoveries in the days to come.

Now, about getting these books unpacked... Time for some more shelving.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Opening King Tut's Tomb

I've spent most of the past couple of weeks hauling a couple of boxes of books in from the garage each day, going through them, discarding the ones most eaten by rodents and insects (not nearly as many as you might think, but some), then going through the ones I clearly don't want but kept out of inertia, and looking up their ISBN numbers to see if they're special in any way. If so, they get listed on my Amazon store.  I'm selling about one book a day, and had to de-list some because of interest from a rare book dealer.

But oh, that gets tiresome. There are these other boxes, boxes with, well, stuff. I do accumulate stuff. Stuff tends to be the documentation of memories. Which is a good thing: I didn't remember getting a large poster for the Residents' album Third Reich and Roll with a letter from them on the back. I do remember going to a San Francisco art party with my pal Hudson in the mid-'70s and us wandering around looking for someone interesting, and Hudson spying four guys standing together and saying "Those guys are the Residents," only to have all four say in unison "No we're not!" So I've seen them without their eyeballs. I bet that poster would bring something on eBay. If I could only figure out how to use eBay, that is.

But like I said, this is documentation of memory. For instance, I think I was on assignment, probably for Creem, at Willie Nelson's horror-filled 4th of July extravaganza at College Station in 1974 when Charlyn Zlotnik caught me and some other low-lifes backstage.

L-R: Himself, Joe Nick Patoski, Unknown, Patrick Carr. Photo copyright by Charlyn Zlotnick, used without permission, will be taken down if she objects.
Now, I have some memories of this three-day error in judgement left. It was terribly hot, and Jim Franklin, the artist-in-residence at Armadillo World Headquarters, had distributed salt tablets to one and all, most likely keeping us from dying. If you could get into the Lone Star Beer bus, Jerry Retzloff would give you a beer. That was all the nutrition available until some brave students drove an old station wagon through the fence, opened its tailgate, and started selling barbeque brisket sandwiches for a buck apiece. Words cannot convey how good they were, and, their tuition for the next two years in hand, they zoomed off as quickly as they'd come. Just as the thing got started, a catalytic converter on a car set the field of grass in which it was parked on fire, and people watched helplessly as a dozen or two cars were turned into art. (One, I think, belonged to the poor bastard who was performing at the time). I have no idea where I slept, but on the last night it vanished (probably along with the record company person who was paying for it), and I wound up with the Mother Earth Band, most notably Toad Andrews and family, on the floor of a Holiday Inn. The record company person who'd driven me there having vanished, I was very, very grateful to hear a voice asking if anyone needed a ride back to Austin, and that's how I met the late, great Joe Gracey.

But wait, there are other pictures here. Dozens of me cooking gumbo, as if that were some kind of remarkable event. Hell, now that I'm back in Texas I'll probably do that again relatively soon: I'm out of the land of eight okra pods for €7.00 now. There are pictures of bands snapped during performance, but who are they? More than that, there are scads of posters, lots from a band I was going to produce called No Sisters, who really were four brothers (and one drummer), and who almost got signed to A&M right after I moved to Texas. (They went for D-Day instead, because their wealthy manager was absorbing the expenses). At some point I'm going to have to sort through these posters, because I'm certain some of them are worth money, and I have multiple copies of some of them, too. Ah, but here's another photo of me in my back yard in Sausalito taken by my long-vanished friend and colleague AJ Bernstein.

Gentleman on the verge of a nervous breakdown. A year later I was in Texas. Probably saved my life. 
But there were other artifacts that were less disturbing.

Ashtray, candle
The way I used to cope with Texas summers when I worked at the newspaper was to save my money, and put in for my two weeks' vacation sometime in August, when I could be sure that I'd reached the limit of my endurance and very little would be happening to write about. I would fly to London and then make my way to Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, where I would be retrieved by a gent named Pete Frame, who would then convey me to his thatched-roofed former pub in the tiny village of North Marston, which didn't have a post office, store, or much of anything except sheep and cows.

And a pub. The Bell, it was called (like about 60% of the pubs in England). Mel the Bell was the landlord, and I was a novelty: no American had actually stayed more than a day in North Marston, and since I had Pete's imprimatur, and bought my rounds as a decent pub-drinker should, I was accepted. What I was drinking, at any rate, was ABC Bitter, a lovely drink with lunch and after dinner, and just the thing to dissipate any lingering tension from working for The Man. I met a lot of fine folk there, including Rob Gurney, Pete's running buddy, and a budding mariner at the time. He's a full-fledged captain now, and has places in Aruba and Belgium, but has held on to the family farm. Pete lives in Dingwall, in remote Scotland, and pretends he loves it. He was down visiting the captain recently and tells me that ABC Bitter is no longer made, that in fact that whole brewery complex in Burton-on-Trent has been eaten alive by The Man and the Aylesbury Duckling is no longer seen on glasses or ashtrays. Which is a shame, because I have a pint glass and it's chipped. That, too, was in storage.

The candle is a very wry piece of post-modern commentary, although it just looks like a bust of Lenin made out of mud. Waxy mud. But I had one of those once-in-a-lifetime moments in 1990, when I drove from Berlin to Prague what seemed like moments after the Velvet Revolution. At the time, the word was that it had been a bloodless revolution except for one student who'd been shot dead. Immediately a wall with a huge John Lennon graffito on it became a place of pilgrimage and hundreds of candles burned there in his memory. Now, it appears that some people knew the truth, because if Wikipedia is to be believed, this guy, Martin Smid, was fictional. In the spirit of punk -- or something -- a bunch of entrepreneurial students cleaned away the candle wax, melted it down, and, with some molds they'd found, cast candles of Marx, Lenin, and so on, and then sold them on the sidewalk. I bought one because although I didn't know all the story, the involution of the idea of recycling memorial candles into an ironic icon of the now-defeated enemy sold for profit appealed to me. And yes, that was an amazing trip.

But before I get sucked into that, what about this (sorry about the framing)?

The real action's on the back.
This is a souvenir of a story that never happened. A friend of mine was on the comedy beat at the paper, and invited me to go see this new guy, Bill Hicks, at one of the local clubs. He wasn't local: he was from Houston, where, he insisted, a wild comedy scene was happening. Being unemployed and freelancing, I sold Mother Jones magazine on the story, and thus it was that I found myself in Houston doing a story on the Texas Outlaw Comics which would culminate in an appearance at Rockefeller's. A day or so into hanging out with these guys made me realize that there was no way a magazine as politcally uptight as Mother Jones would even go near this material, but I stuck with it until the show, which was magnificent -- I particularly remember Bill Hicks' piece on Jesus returning and walking into a church and seeing, first thing, a crucifix -- and at the end of my stay in Houston, I was presented with the above artwork, signed by all the Outlaw Comics including Bill. I wish I could tell whose signature was whose.

Then there are other souvenirs of I know not what: the odd duo of a wind-up sushi chef who chops at a fish (which wriggles its way out of range of his knife) while reading what is presumably a how-to-cut-sushi book and an enamel advertisement for Casanova Cigaretten, showing a scarf-wearing Boston terrier smoking a cigarette and blowing a smoke ring. I must've gotten the latter at a flea market before moving to Germany, but the other is anyone's guess.

And then there are memories that go back much, much further.

Tammany? Los Angeles 1911? I swear I wasn't there. 

When I was in college, my friend Terry, even then a great photographer, became obsessed with the dying city of Springfield, Ohio, near where we were going to school. One of the great things about the poor side of town, where he went photo-hunting, was the antique shops, which were loaded with the most miscellaneous things. I've always loved advertising ephemera, and there was tons around. Buttons, too, matched my fashion sense as a kind of East Coast hippie. ("NO SALOON!") People collected cigarette cards, which came with every package of some kinds of cigarettes, and then didn't know what to do with them. I also found a copy of what is probably the first country music record, but no other recorded treasures (turns out they were still for sale in a strange old record store I only went to once). Anyway, Terry got some great pictures over the years. I got some of the odder corners of my own personal King Tut's tomb. I just hope there isn't a curse on this one.
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