On The Street (12/10/06)
Around noon on Tuesday I was in a car driving west on 410 for seemingly ever to that nether region of the city that falls between Ingram Park Mall to the north and the 410/90 junction to the south. I grew up in San Antonio and felt I had been pretty much everywhere across the city, and more recently most of it by bike, but this was one pocket, I realized, I had never been. The further we drove the more uneasy I became. There’s something about driving in a circle all the way around a city on a freeway that seems unnatural.
The sky was overcast which gave a drab uniform light to the drab uniform surroundings. A few minutes after we drove past the car lot on the left with the big Indian holding out his hand, I noticed an empty parking lot for an abandoned Walmart. These were the Badlands of San Antonio. Yes, if Walmart can’t make it here then there has to be something wrong (or wonderfully right, but that didn’t seem to be the case.) So why drive through all this, other than to complain about it? The goal: to find the elusive Holy Grail of all of restaurants, the best Thai food in town.
John was driving and his girlfriend Sara was in the backseat applying pressure to her bleeding finger. In my mind this reminded me of the scene out of Reservoir Dogs where Tim Roth screams from the back seat, holding his bleeding stomach, wondering where the hell he is going. But to be honest, Sara’s bleeding finger had little in common with Mr. Orange’s situation but it wasn’t from a lack of effort on her part. What the moment did have was some understated but surreal drama to make things interesting – Sara trying to get John to pay attention to her, John talking on his cell phone about money management while casually downplaying her injury, me stuck in the middle wondering why we didn’t just go to Tong’s Thai on Austin Highway where the people are friendly and everything is rainbows and unicorns.
We exited Marbach and took a wrong turn to the inside of the loop and discovered another empty parking lot for another abandoned store, this one with a Christian dinner theater having moved in to fill the crushing void. We made our way back across the loop and found our destination – yes, finally, Asia Kitchen.
One would think after driving for so long we would all jump out of the car, but no. There was a slight delay in going in to the restaurant. The bleeding finger drama had escalated and neither of them were going to budge from their position. Sara literally wouldn’t budge as she decided to stay in the car rather than go in. I went inside because it was getting too cold to sit out in the car. I tried to be of some assistance so I asked the waitress if she had a first aid kit for my friend in the car. As she sat John and I at our table, she told us that their first aid kit wouldn’t be of much help because it was for more major injuries, like if the dishwasher accidentally cut off his hand while slicing lemongrass. The customer next to us got a real kick out of that thought as he looked down at his food. Then I looked down at his food. And then I looked all around the restaurant. Everyone seemed to be about 500 pounds and eating lemon chicken with fried rice. How did I end up here? The idea that this place could serve even half-way decent Pad Thai seemed like a stretch at this point.
Sara eventually came in from the cold with a band-aid on her finger. Evidently, the waitress did have a normal band-aid hidden beneath the torniquet in the first aid kit. Sara sat down and she and John acted like whatever happened was no big deal, it happens all the time, in fact it will probably happen again in five minutes so why dwell on it?
I ordered a green curry with eggplant. I noticed that they served brown rice, but I’ve been to places that try to tell you that fried rice is brown rice so I wasn’t holding my breath just quite yet.
Well, the food showed up in good time. I took a bite. I couldn’t believe it. This really was the best Thai food in all of San Antonio. Sometimes something just clicks and no words are needed to describe it. You just know. It’s perfect. Absolutely perfect.
The Black Bean Death Lottery (12/06/2006)
Historically, Texans have been known to be larger than life. And Texas history, similarly, has been just as super-sized. I believe that’s fairly accepted. Of course one can say that’s it’s all just a myth. But a myth doesn’t necessarily mean a falsehood; it just means that it is a shared belief, even if the myth is not exactly true. If anything, paradoxically, a falsehood only makes the myth larger and adds to its strength. It creates its own asymmetrical reality. So where the hell am I going with this?
Follow me, literally. I was riding north on Austin Highway for some exercise. Texas history wasn’t exactly the first thing on my mind. Austin Highway seemed like a different route to take so I headed out on a whim. But since we’re talking about history, Austin Highway these days seems anything but historic. Sure, its good to see Bun ’n’ Barrel BBQ still going fairly strong. But the American Graffiti drag-racing days are mainly a thing of the past. My memories of Austin Highway are from the 1980s when I would see prostitutes walking around by the small motels right next to Terrell Hills! That always amused me — that the two could somehow exist right next to each other.
I passed the cemetery on the left and came across a Texas historical marker by chance. And this is what set my mind in motion. The marker was for something called the “Dawson Massacre.” I read it, and then back home read more about it online. To summarize: On September 11, 1842 (that’s right, 9-11!), San Antonio was invaded by a French mercenary leading an army of Mexican soldiers. They kidnapped almost all of the local judges and basically sacked the city. A group of Texans responded. Over by the Rittiman flea market the Battle of Salado Creek occurred. At the same time, some other Texans came into town to join the fight and were massacred, i.e., the Dawson Massacre.
Without getting into all the details of what happened next (including something called the “Black Bean Death Lottery” — I swear to you, I’m not making this up, and no, it’s not the name of a Heavy Metal band) I want to ponder the context of all this. San Antonio was captured by Mexico six years after Texas defeated Mexico at the battle of San Jacinto! One would think this would be something significant, right? I don’t remember that in Junior High.
And that’s what perplexes me — Texas, with it’s wonderful love of itself and all its stories, has pretty much abandoned this piece of its past. Sure, you could say it was a massacre, but the Alamo was a massacre too and that doesn’t stop thousands of tourists coming here every year to check it out. So why is that? All I can guess is that the Alamo falls into a better narrative arc; it’s the end of the second act. All seems lost. Third act: the come-from-behind victory at San Jacinto. All is well. End of story. Next 10 years, Texas was a nation! Cool, right!? I suppose no one wants to dwell on the less than glamorous aspects of those 10 years of nationhood as Mexico undermined Texas’s legitimacy. And, Santa Anna kept sticking around, like the Saddam Hussein of his era. It just doesn’t fit into a good story. There’s no myth there. It’s just the randomness of life.
So, I’m not going to expect any tourists will want to come to town to explore this seedy part of the past. They should; there are some pretty bizarre stories; but they won’t. Just in case they do, though, and they need a place to stay, I know there are some motels on Austin Highway that would be happy to take their money, even if it is by the hour.
Before the Battle (11/14/2006)
Recently an old friend named Brett came through town on his way to Houston where he was to give a talk at one of the museums on something concerning contemporary art. I’ve forgotten the exact nature of his speech but I did later remember something entirely beside the point about Brett, which is that he had an early brush with infamy as a child actor in the movie The World According to Garp. Brett was the kid at the infirmary who gets his weener caught in his zipper. A very memorable scene. That was Brett, or at least that’s the story…
Through Brett, I met his friend Matthew Drutt, the new director of Artpace. That night I listened as they discussed the international art scene. In the process, I learned a little bit about a lot of things, including the work of one of the current Artpace residents, Allison Smith. In New York, Allison orchestrated an open-source art event at the forgotten Governor’s Island, wherein she combined Arts & Crafts with Civil War historical recreation. My mechanic is a historical recreation actor, and I was curious how a contemporary artist would approach historical recreation. I asked Matthew if he could arrange an informal interview, and a few days later on a brilliantly blue Friday afternoon, I was riding my bike down to Artpace to do just that.
At that moment my bike was recently out of the shop, and through the vagaries of vintage bicycle repair, I now had a different gear for my single-speed cruiser. A new gear is not something I sought out, but that was the new reality and going uphill was now a bit more of a challenge.
I rode south on McCullough and made use of the bike lane. It’s not a route I would normally take, in part because my bike friends would laugh at me, and also because it can be unsafe at night with the lack of lights, but during the day it was a good choice. The steady downhill gave me a great opportunity to test the new gear. At Euclid I turned east towards Flores, and at Flores I headed south so I could approach Artpace from the rear and avoid the schizophrenic intersection at Main and San Pedro by the downtown library.
While on Flores, just south of M.K. Davis, I came across some construction for a new vegetarian restaurant, which looked intriguing, though still at least another month away.
At Artpace, Allison greeted me and showed me around her Texas-size studio. Allison comes from a deep Crafts tradition; at the same time she is inspired by Craft movements of the past that are atypical and convey personal expression, especially of politics and resistance. This nexus most likely will be the heart of her upcoming show, a show that I could tell that Allison has been working extremely hard to prepare for. There were handmade weapons on tables, tapestries on walls, silk-screened dresses, and most ominously, a large wood carved rocking horse that she said she will be riding into the gallery to begin the show. I would be foolish to try to explain too much. Allison’s work will speak for itself on Thursday night, November 16, at Artpace. A dialogue will begin at 6:30 p.m. and the reception will open from 7:30-8:30pm. I’ll see you there.
Rough Ride, in Film and Real Life (10/25/2006)
Some weeks, not everything comes together. By that I mean an effort is made, an expectation is raised, a result, however, is not always met. Coincidentally, my bike is still in need of repair and the clouds have been rather cloudy as of late so these two concepts seem to be working in parallel and dovetail nicely, sadly.
But to rewind. Early in the week I perused the website for the San Antonio Film Commission and saw that a film crew from LA is in town shooting a boxing movie. Sounded interesting enough. The filmmaker, Jimmy Nickerson, is a first-time director, which either means it’s actually his first time to make a movie, or his real first film didn’t make a big enough splash so there’s no point in referring to it. There’s no shame in this: P.T Anderson’s first film wasn’t Boogie Nights, nor was Linklater’s first film actually Slacker but the impression that it was remains.
I read that Nickerson was a career stuntman in Hollywood for more than three decades, and Imdb.com listed more than 30 huge action movies that featured his stunt services, including the first Rocky film. I emailed the production office to schedule an interview, hopefully during lunch break because lunch generally has a pleasant vibe on a film set — that is, of course, if the catering is good.
After a few days I received an email to come by the set. A producer/writer seemed to be hinting that I might interview him instead but the director was the more interesting story. I called them and left a message to finalize the meeting, get directions, and that sort of thing. I never heard back. Welcome to LA.
I didn’t have time to dwell on it because that day I was thrown not a curve ball but more like a change of speed. A friend had just come back to town and the next day was his birthday. His ex-girlfriend was planning a surprise party for him that night. The weird thing was that he was already told that a group of us were going to take him to dinner that night, so the real surprise would be that we actually wouldn’t be going out to eat but instead stay in and be entertained by a belly dancer. This sounds euphemistic but I believe it was legit.
My role was to distract him during the day for six hours and then deliver him at home at exactly 7:15. Six hours! Not to mention how to time such a precise landing. My mind wandered over possibilities. Lunch. A movie. Feigning car trouble. My planning never got further than that. I was going to have to wing it.
I called him on the day in question at 1 p.m. and was a little surprised when his ex-girlfriend answered his cell phone. I was completely shocked when I found out my friend was in the hospital under heavy narcotics having just suffered an attack of gall stones and pancreatitis. On his birthday. He was waiting for his pancreas to improve so the surgeons could remove his gall bladder.
I spent the part of the next few days hanging out with him at the hospital. On the last day, I went by the Starbucks at the hospital to get a café Americano. That was going to be my small satisfaction, possibly for the week. When the rookie behind the counter began to mangle my drink I tried to keep my composure.
For this small moment, my expectation would be met.
On the Street (10/18/2006)
Normally, to bike downtown I take a rather complicated route — south on Devine through Olmos Park, left at Alamo Stadium, bomb the hill towards the Zoo, ride across a faux-bois bridge into Brackenridge park, go south on a bumpy bike lane behind the Lions Club, continue on to Avenue B, take a left at Grayson, take a right on Alamo street, and from there it’s smooth sailing until Alamo dead-ends. When I asked my friend Brian how he rides downtown, he responded, “I just take Broadway.” That kind of took the piss out of my Byzantine process. I didn’t think it should be that easy. So, I tried.
It was. The best part of this route is the end, the 100 block of Broadway: The gateway into downtown. Except that it really isn’t. The 100 block is like a small version of Time Square circa 1970. This is the block with the huge antique store, Paris Hatters, the Texas T pub, a loan office, and some empty storefronts. With the exception of Twin Sisters cafe, new blood doesn’t seem to last long here.
I hadn’t been on the curb for more than 30 seconds taking notes when a guy in a cowboy hat emerged from Paris Hatters and asked if I was with “those other guys.” Evidently a lot of people on bikes have been coming to this block and taking notes.
I walked across the street to see the jewel of the block, the historic Atlee Ayres building at 118 Broadway. I expected to find a few private investigators in the lobby directory. Instead I saw Build San Antonio Green, Suite 223. It had to be a CIA front. I took the elevator up to see more.
Build San Antonio Green is a nonprofit organization that accredits “green” building. They have a large showroom to showcase materials such as Compressed Earth Blocks and cork flooring. The website, Buildsagreen.org, is a great resource for someone looking to remodel a fixer-upper.
As I learned about the water-saving properties of an Australian two-speed flush toilet, I glanced out the window. I hoped to see a parade of bicyclists looking around taking notes, or better, the guy with the cowboy hat from the David Lynch movie staring at me ominously. Instead, I just saw an old neighborhood and wondered what would survive — Build San Antonio Green or the old ’hood. Hopefully, both.
Marching Alone (10/08/06)
On Wednesday I read an article that Jeff Spicoli (aka Sean Penn) would be involved with an “end the Iraq War” protest on Thursday in NYC. I later learned that the protest, organized by the group World Can’t Wait, was going to be held all across the country. San Antonio would be one of the locations, with or without Hollywood actors, 5 p.m. Thursday at HemisFair. I had to see how Say-Town would represent itself.
Driving a car to an anti-Iraq-War protest seemed grossly inappropriate, like showing up drunk to a MADD demonstration, so after studying for my anatomy test, I grabbed my bike and headed downtown. Clearly, a bike was the only way to get there; unfortunately, my bike was having problems. I did what I could to quickly fix it so I could still go, but it still made a horrible sound, like a cross between my Canon 814 Super8 camera, and an MRI machine.
I arrived at HemisFair at 5:15 p.m. in time to hear the chant: “If the people are united we’ll never be … DEFEATED.” I’m sorry, but I couldn’t stifle a small laugh. After a few back and forths, someone got on the bullhorn and the word DIVIDED was substituted and the rhyme was complete.
There were about 60 people. A few women from Code Pink. I did a quick crowd survey. First, anyone I recognize? No, but that’s expected; I just moved back to town. Most of the people held signs while standing on the curb looking out at traffic on Alamo Street. A few buses would drove by and honked in support. Occasionally a guy would drive by and make the two-finger peace sign. Then an obnoxious lady drove by and made the less-friendly middle-finger sign.
I hung in the back and tried to get a feel for the whole event. There were a good number of people with cameras and pens and paper. Reporters, I assumed. I suppose I should have been doing the same but I was too busy convincing myself that I was a columnist and not a reporter. But by hanging out in the back I’m afraid I came across less like a stoic hipster and more like an undercover cop.
So why didn’t more people show up? It can’t be that the majority of society still supports the Iraq War. Opinion polls strongly suggest otherwise. I can only guess that people are so predisposed against any form of street protest that they stay away out of fear of … something.
It is odd that a majority of society is against the war but also against any form of active protest. This is a bizarre parallel trend. In the 1960s there was a thing called THE DRAFT that really galvanized people into protesting that war. Noam Chomsky took a lot of heat for being in support of the draft, but he’s right fundamentally in that if this is our country’s war then the country should fight it collectively. I’m not saying I’d want to go, but I think he’s right. And if people don’t want to go, then that fact will be felt soon enough. And it was. The current administration is well aware of this point, not the least of which because they all avoided the draft, but also because they know that there will never be any popular support for a draft, and therefore, a war. So what does that really say about our country?
As I rode my bike home, that thought kept bouncing around in my head. And though my bike was almost on its deathbed, it was still easier to fix than the problems in Iraq.
On the Street (10/04/06)
About 8:15 on Friday night I headed downtown on my bike to the Alamo. The Downtown Highlife Bicycle Club was having its monthly ride. For those unfamiliar with the event, it begins at 9 p.m. on the last Friday of the month at the Alamo.
When I arrived I found a small, diverse group of white people on bikes — a few students, some bike collectors, a landscaper, a teacher, and a bike mechanic, ranging in age from 20 to 62. We were a lucky baker’s dozen and after some catching up and introductions be-tween new acquaintances, we headed off.
Our destination was Woodlawn Lake but our route took us first north toward San Antonio College. We snuck through the SAC parking lot and then cruised west through San Pedro Park. I hadn’t been to the park for a long time so it was good to see the successful restoration.
After briefly riding north on Flores, we doglegged around Ashby to Blanco and took a short break at the corner of Ashby and Blanco — the previous location of Mr. Taco, back when they had pay televisions at every booth.
After raising the eyebrows of a few kids waiting for the bus, we began a straight shot west on Cincinnati. Cincinnati begins inauspiciously at Blanco and it has the faded glamour of a forgotten boulevard most likely done in by the construction of I-10.
A few blocks later we rode triumphantly underneath the Josephine Tobin arch welcoming us to Woodlawn Lake. At night the lake really is a sight to behold. Curving around the west end of the lake I spotted a building that used to be the Peacock Military Academy. At the turn of the century, the previous century, this was the historic West End, and I remember reading about the famous filmmaker King Vidor, who went to school at Peacock. As a side note, Vidor has the longest career of any filmmaker, having shot his first one-reeler in 1913 about the great Galveston flood. He made his last film in 1980 right before his death. That’s longevity.
We biked back east on Woodlawn and then south on Flores into downtown. As we neared Travis Street a discussion began about what bar to hit. Travis 151 doesn’t have good bike parking — funny but true. The Esquire, someone informed me, just closed for remodeling. Everyone but me had heard this story and when I asked why the facelift, the chorus was something about remodeling to be more family-friendly. Jeez. The Esquire was probably the last place in town where you could still be approached by a guy with a trench coat full of watches for sale. And I mean that in a good way.
We settled on La Tuna and headed south on St. Mary’s, riding next to a group of classic cars wandering downtown, looking for a ZZ Top music video to hang out in it seemed. They would rev their engines and burn rubber and then drive for a block and stop at a red light. The fact that we pretty much stayed with them all the way until Southtown must have created an existential crisis for them. South of Durango they floored it and took off for good — and us, we kept on riding.
On the Street (9/24/06)
Looking for an honest mechanic can be like spelunking — a dark and lonely business. Luckily for me I was given a good recommendation and I took my injured Honda Accord station wagon over to Mac Auto on 3810 Eisenhower, which is just down the road from an old flea market that used to sell fake IDs, bad sunglasses, shurikens, and other ninja paraphernalia back in the ’80s.
As I approached the office to talk to owner Ralph Murillo, I saw a tall guy wearing a really large cowboy hat go in before me. I sat in the office and waited my turn while Ralph talked shop with the cowboy.
As I listened in on their conversation it became apparent they weren’t discussing the pros and cons of flushing a radiator. The cowboy was discussing some sort of gig he just had at a ranch where he was paid to, from what I gathered, impersonate John Wayne. I had to second-guess myself for a moment to make sure I was hearing this right because they were so casual about something that seemed hard to understand. Ralph knew all too well the people being discussed. There was some mutual sighing and rolling of the eyes as certain names were mentioned as well as a discussion of the difference between being inspired by a performer and outright stealing material.
At this point I began to look around the office. Like many auto shops there were spare parts fastened to pegboard walls and other accoutrements of the shop, but what caught my eye were a variety of posters for some group called The South Texas Gunfighters. The posters featured old black-and-white photos of banditos in front of a saloon.
Back to John Wayne. As I listened to the Duke and Ralph swap stories, it became apparent they were two actors discussing the inner workings of a trade. Though I just walked in to get a thermostat replaced, I was really getting a glimpse into a sub-culture unknown to me — historical-recreation entertainment.
After John Wayne left I talked to Ralph to learn more. Ralph, or “Sancho Garcia” as he’s known outside the shop, is the leader of the banditos I saw on the poster. Ralph and his group get hired out for a variety of events — the Poteet Strawberry festival, the Peanut festival in Floresville, parties at dude ranches, as well as benefits for the Muscular Dystrophy Association.
The performances are almost always different. Most recently, he and the boys hitchhiked onto tourist buses on the way to dude ranches and gave conventioneers from Iowa (or whereever) a taste of the Old West in the form of a surprise highway-robbery performance. All in good fun, of course, though I can imagine some tourists not catching on at first, and reaching for their wallet to buy off these windblown marauders, thereby making the joke all the more funny.
As we talked, the other mechanic Jeff (or “Dusty” as his alter ego is known) entered and told me that my car was ready. As I drove home I thought back to all the bad run-ins I’ve had with mechanics and I would say Ralph is probably the most honest mechanic I know. Whereas as some mechanics rob their customers for real, Ralph reserves his hijackings for the weekends when he’s “Sancho Garcia.”