Thursday, August 25, 2005

Tales From a Great Indoorsman

I've edited, for length only, J.S. Bankston in the past.

This one, can't be edited.

One note: Fred is Bankston's beloved dog.


Amazingly for someone who is not a native of New York City, I’ve never owned a car, and I am a lousy driver. I am frankly afraid of driving and am a danger to myself and others when on the road, and I don’t think I’ve even been behind the wheel since 1999, and even then only went a few hundred yards before the fellow riding shotgun got so scared he insisted I pull over and let him drive.

Because of this I have to rely either on taxis or busses. But busses are problematic too, since I’m a germophobe and busses are filthy. Riding the bus is to me like taking a tour of a sewer pipe while sitting astride a huge turd.

Months ago I bought my first digital camera and inaugurated it by going down to San Antonio with my friend James and his mother-in-law and just snapping away. Unfortunately, the idiots at the camera store erased that whole first picture card, and in the ensuing months I’ve been obsessed with taking all those pictures again. Some were one-time-only photos of events, but there were many shots I knew I could still reproduce.

A couple weeks ago, I decided I would take a solo day trip to San Antonio. Despite the fact I had told James that the best travel advice I ever received was to not over-schedule but to just let things happen and then savor the consequences, this trip was planned like a military operation. I learned there was a Mass in English at 6:15am on weekdays at the San Fernando Cathedral in downtown SA, and that it is supposedly the oldest cathedral sanctuary in the US. I wanted to see that Mass, but to do so would involve my taking a 2am bus from Austin and arriving in SA at 3:30am.

I amused myself by keeping this planned trip a secret from anyone until a day or so before my departure. I worried that I’d get mugged or killed down there and no one would know what the hell had happened to me. I even mused about leaving a print-out of my itinerary on top of my keyboard to help searchers pin-point my last-known whereabouts .

I also worried about being away from Fred that amount of time. Fred and I have been roomies for ten years as of this September, and there have been less than seven nights, I think, that we’ve spent apart. I simply cannot sleep without him around. I know Fred gets upset when I’m gone for six hours or more, and he often pisses on the carpet if I’m gone longer than that. If a dog and a man can be co-dependent upon each other, Fred and I definitely fit that bill.

I agree with Robert Evans, who said, “Instant gratification takes way too long.” I am always rewarding myself for the most trivial of reasons, and I decided to treat myself to this trip after finishing my column on the Texas State Hospital. I wrote the piece earlier in the week than I normally would have, finishing it after about three days of research and two days of writing.

The P.R. lady at the TSH, who’d taken me on a fascinating tour of the spooky old place, had asked if she could see my article before I turned it in, just to make sure I had my facts and figures right. Now that’s something journalists almost never do, but I decided to give her a break. I’m not the most sensitive guy in the world, and I didn’t want to say anything that would demean the patients unintentionally.

So I e-mailed her the piece, and after I heard nothing back, I called her office number and her cell, and explained I needed to submit the piece by late night Tuesday at the very latest. After that I had to re-adjust my sleep schedule, so I could take the trip on Wednesday. My plan was to sleep Tuesday night from 6pm to midnight.

Unfortunately, I only got three hours of sleep, and when I woke up there was a message on my machine from the P.R. lady. She was in Atlanta and wanted to know if I could send the article to her home e-mail account. Not long after she got it she began freaking out, first about minor, truly unimportant facts (I said that many staffers furnished their offices with antiques from home, when in fact they were antiques from the ASH), then later about the fact I quoted her directly about the dire state of the hospital, and still later that I went into a rant on my own in the piece about what fucktards the members of the Legislature are.

She said she hadn’t realized I was taping her and that she thought I was just writing a history piece, and that she didn’t know I was a reporter who would actually quote her. I explained I was carrying my camera in one hand and the recorder in the other–it wasn’t like I was wearing a hidden wire. Surely she saw me clicking the recorder on and off and flipping the tape over. She later admitted she noticed it at the end of the tour, but that it didn’t register.

I said I was more of a columnist than an actual reporter, that the piece was indeed historical, and that in my column I often insert humor, snarky asides, and rants about current affairs to make the material relevant and interesting to modern readers.

I never really saw myself as someone who would ever write local or regional history, as that is often the province of middle-aged men who try too hard to sound cute and folksy, or old women who rely too much on that romantic “crinoline-and-the-scent-of-magnolia-blossoms” bullshit.

Anyway, this lady wanted her boss, the Superintendent of the ASH, to look over the column. I revised it three times, taking out most of her quotations, and many of my direct attacks on the State government, before they calmed down. E-mailing a friend about the incident later, I said that an untold amount of harm has been done in this world by people who are scared of their bosses and of losing their jobs.

I had not been to the Austin bus station in years. I had forgotten what a repulsive experience city-to-city bus travel is. All buses and bus stations everywhere stink of stale beer, stale cigarettes, urine, feces, and despair.

Years ago, when most of my family was still alive and I still went through the motions of celebrating Christmas with them, I’d take a city bus to the station (I couldn’t afford cabs most of the time then), then a Kerrville or Greyhound bus to a small town near my parents’s place in the country. The trip seemed to take forever, and the bus stopped at every little piss-ant town on the way.

I’d arrive on the evening of December 24th, and leave first thing in the morning on the 26th– staying maybe 35 hours tops, but even that was an unbearable marathon of raw nerves, itchy trigger fingers, and recriminations. I couldn’t wait to get back to Austin.

For me, the highlight of the Christmas holiday was getting back to Austin, and before returning to my apartment, stowing my suitcase into a locker, then heading over to a nearby theatre to catch the big Christmas release of the year. It somehow felt like I was playing hooky.

So I got on the San Antonio/Laredo/New Mexico/Arizona/California bus Wednesday morning, assuming I’d have lots of room to myself. Surely no one would be riding at 2am. But how wrong I was. The bus was jam-packed with a grotesque freak show worthy of Hieronymus Bosch. I had brought along, appropriately enough, a biography of travel writer Bruce Chatwin, but the guy I was sharing a seat with was sleeping, so I left the light off.

In the seat ahead of me was some tough guy covered in grime and jailhouse tattoos, who wore sunglasses, even though it was the wee hours of the morning. (I’m sorry, asshole, only Nicholson can do that and not look like a total putz.) He spent the trip silently passing wind and loudly jabbering on his cell phone to a girlfriend he called “Skank.” I, meanwhile, tried to find a decent station on my pocket radio, and not think about how many germs I was being exposed to.

When we reached SA I left the station quickly, afraid of being followed. Every so often I’d look over my shoulder and clutch my camera tripod like a club.

Downtown SA is filled with lots of cool pre-war buildings, but many of them are empty. As a result, there’s a cool film noir vibe everywhere. (I filled up one photo card with 136 pictures before 8am, and took 373 over the course of the day.)

I collect antique post-cards and have several of SA’s Houston Street, taken in its boom days in the ‘20's and ‘30's. While walking along I realized I was standing close to the spot where those old photos were made, so I turned around and got a shot of my own.

There were no 24-hour restaurants handy to the bus station, but I knew there was a Denny’s over by the Alamodome, a short walk away. I was headed there, and had just rounded the corner into Alamo Plaza, when a tall black man approached me, asking if I could help him out with bus fare. I gave him $2, but then he tried to start a conversation with me. I am a huge pussy, and I was scared he was trying to set me up for a mugging.

He asked what I was taking pictures of and I said I was mostly doing architectural photography, and when that didn’t seem to register I explained that I was just down for the day, practicing my picture-taking skills. He asked what I was getting out of that. I realized he was thinking like my mother, in terms only of dollars and cents, so I said that maybe one day if I got good enough I could possibly sell some of my photos. He then headed west, towards the main part of downtown, and I headed south-east, in the direction of Denny’s.

I passed the Alamo, the Menger Hotel, and as I was turned the corner of Dillard’s, got hit up for bus fare from another panhandler. (Did no one in that town have the money for a bus? Were the busses that expensive?) I continued, going east down Commerce, passed the Rivercenter Mall and the Marriott, when I was hailed again by Panhandler #1, who had somehow changed course and was heading south along the east side of the hotel. He said he still needed twenty cents and that he was homeless, etc., etc. I quickly gave him a dollar more and went on my way. (I was feeling generous. I usually ignore panhandlers, but I guess I was grateful no one had mugged me yet, since a short white guy traveling alone with an expensive camera would seem to me an easy target.)

Mine was only the third occupied table at the Denny’s, but one of the two waitresses couldn’t be bothered to bring me a menu, because she was too busy talking to a table full of cartoonish white hip-hopsters. I eventually ordered a heart attack on a plate, and stayed an hour. I headed back out a little after 5am, sweating like a dog in the humidity, taking photos–the neon-lit interior of a chic café, the amateurish signs painted on the windows of a loan office, the lamp in a crummy old apartment over a Chinese restaurant.

To my surprise, the Cathedral was already open, filling up with old people, nurses, day laborers, and nuns. I’ve been inside a church at night a few times, but never in the wee hours of the morning, well before sunrise. There were various people praying. One old man walked all around the Cathedral, stopping at each statue or Station of the Cross, touching it, and uttering a short prayer. The feeling inside the Cathedral was strange, reverent, redolent of the past, but also timeless.

It somewhat reminded me of a story Elvis Costello told in an interview. It seems he once spent Easter vigil and Easter morning in an old Coptic monastery in Ethiopia. The church was carved out of the living rock in the side of a mountain. Whenever a monk at this monastery dies his body is placed into a crypt. After his body decays, his bones are dumped into an ossuary, and the crypt is freed up for the next tenant.

Anyway, these monks spend the night before Easter sleeping in these crypts, so when the sun comes up, they rise from their graves, and sing and chant about the resurrection of Christ. Costello said it was a powerful experience. And I got a bit of that vibe at this Cathedral. The darkness and dim lighting certainly helped set a mood.

After the service I began taking pictures in earnest. I wondered if any of the people were offended, seeing me bend my fat ass into unflattering positions while trying to get certain shots, but no one said anything. I heard an odd rhythmic sound, and it turned out to be a homeless man dozing in a pew, leaning forward onto the pew ahead of him as if in prayer.

The priest emerged from the Sacristy, where he’d changed from his vestments into street clothes, and began practicing on a piano near the choir’s seats. As I tried to get clear shots of the stained glass windows and chiaroscuro views of the statues and Stations, he went into the “Moonlight Sonata,” which my mother used to play for me when I was a child, and which made me fall in love at an early age with the moodiness of night-time.

I was in a back chapel, trying to get a shot of a statue of St. Juan Diego, the man to whom the Virgin of Guadalupe appeared, when I noticed a pair of heavy wooden doors open slowly and deliberately, seemingly of their own volition. Before I even had the chance to ponder whether this was a miracle or not I realized my backpack had bumped into a button that would automatically open the doors for people in wheelchairs.

By now it was dawn, and I took a circuitous route back towards the Alamo, stopping to take more pictures in a German Catholic church called St. Joseph’s. For years the biggest department store in SA was Joske’s, and it was located in a monumental four-story Art Deco structure. It was so cool–it had everything–even a rare stamp and coin department.

In the 1940's, Joske’s wanted to take over the rest of the block and offered to buy St. Joseph’s. But the parishoners wouldn’t sell, so Joske’s built its expansion around three sides of the church, and St. Joseph’s acquired the nickname of “St. Joske’s.” Sadly, Dillard’s bought out Joske’s in the ‘80's, and occupies only two of the building’s four floors.

I then went over to the Menger Hotel, next door to the Alamo. The Menger is the oldest continuously running hotel in the US. It’s where Teddy Roosevelt recruited the Rough Riders, and its guest list has included Sam Houston, Generals Grant and Lee, many Presidents, Oscar Wilde, Babe Ruth, Lily Langtry, Tennessee Williams, and several generations of Bankstons over the decades. It’s by no means the most luxurious hotel in Texas, but it is the most historic and the most haunted, and is probably my favorite place to be in the state.

I last stayed there overnight 25 years ago, in the Roy Rogers and Dale Evans Suite (which was decorated in a kitschy ‘50's cowboy style). In those days I’d see these rich old people walking their dogs through the main lobby. They had apartments in the oldest part of the hotel, and I always hoped I could spend my declining years there.

One night in the ‘70's, I was in my room in a newer wing of the hotel, watching a private party in the back patio from my window. A mariachi band had only been performing for about a half-hour when a huge rainstorm erupted, sending everybody scattering. I ran down to the main lobby, so I could see how things looked from the street level. Rain was coming down in sheets now and the streets looked flooded. I worried that this would queer my sight-seeing plans for the next day.

I went over to the 19th century part of the hotel, into the old three-story lobby, with its Turkish rugs, two levels of balconies, and a stained glass skylight. (Remember the huge painting of a cattle round-up in Rock Hudson’s den in “Giant”? It’s in the old lobby too, and was loaned to the movie's production company for the duration of the shoot.) I sat down in a huge, red, throne-like Victorian chair and just spaced out for awhile. Then I went exploring down the endless corridors of the original part of the hotel, where the old people lived.

For some reason those hallways always spooked me. There was always the strange sound of air moaning and rushing, coming from somewhere.

I walked faster and faster through these hallways and eventually got myself very scared. I tried to find my way back, but got lost. I thought the next corridor ahead of me led to the middle section of the hotel, built in the 1930s, but I instead wound up at a dead end--a fire exit and a window that faced a light-well that I didn’t even know existed.

So Wednesday morning I went to the Menger, had a few croissants, despite the fact I’d eaten breakfast a few hours before, and then went on a photo safari through the hotel. I also baffled the maids by trying to find that dead end hallway I’d wound up in. I found a few possible locations, but none of them looked the way I’d remembered. I did notice that many of the old suites now bore the names of famous guests, whereas only a few had names back in my day.

After prowling the Menger, I went by Rivercenter Mall, stopped in a video/music store and a bookstore, and bought a pair of Doc Marten’s I’d been unable to find in Austin. By 10am my eyes were starting to cross from lack of sleep.

I got a cab at the Marriott, and discussed the local weather and the cuisine of Oaxaca, Mexico with the driver, while he took me deep into West SA, to the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Little Flower. This is a colossal church, dedicated to the memory of St. Therese of Lisieux, and even has a replica of her tomb in a gated side-chapel.

There was massive construction and tremendous noise going on in the basement, but the workers broke for lunch in time for the noon Mass, which I also attended. There was paint and plaster chipping off the walls and ceiling, and with all the noise it was easy to imagine I was in an European church during World War II.

After visiting the Basilica bookstore, I cabbed it to another bookstore in the northwest part of town, where I bought so much stuff it shocked even me. By now, I had more things than I could carry easily. I was also sweaty, stinky, chafed, sore, very tired, and the humidity had given me the hair of Marlo Thomas, circa the “That Girl” era.

I still hadn’t gotten to half of my itinerary, but scrapped that for another trip. I called another cab, wound up with the same driver I’d had for the trip to the Basilica, and had him drop me off downtown.

My first step was the parking garage from which I’d taken so many pictures on my last trip. It’s funny–I couldn’t remember the names of more than two or three of the people I worked with at the Austin Public Library last winter and spring, but I could still remember what level we parked on in this garage in April.

I enjoyed taking an elevator up to a lonely part of the garage, pulling out a collapsable tripod, setting up, and quietly squeezing off a few shots. It fed into my professional assassin fantasies.

I then took a late lunch at Schillo’s, a very Bankstonesque turn-of-the-century German deli with dark panelling, uneven floors covered with old hexagonal tiles, and old panoramic photos of the city. I had a pitcher of their homemade root beer (the best I’ve had anywhere), some bratwurst, knockwurst, hot German potato salad, sauerkraut, and pumpernickel bread.

I decided to leave on the 4:30pm bus, instead of the 10:05 one I’d originally planned on. I stumbled along, heavy-laden with purchases and photography equipment, and passed an antique mall. I had wanted to look for religious antiques and old post-cards, but figured that if I went in I’d either be sucked in for hours, or I’d stay just long enough to realize they had nothing I wanted and would get stuck having to take a much later bus, so I skipped it. I did, however, take more pictures of decrepit old shops, and several of an old flea-bag hotel that reminded me of the cover of “Physical Graffiti.”

The bus station was only the third-nastiest I’d ever been to, after those in Dallas and Houston. There was a huge crowd at the boarding area. Off to one side I saw a demented-looking young black woman, sitting on the floor in a corner, her legs splayed out before her, the ample contents of her purse dumped all over the floor and her skirt. I stepped past her and found the line for the Austin/Dallas bus.

Naturally, I was next in line to a talky asshole, from Algiers, Louisiana (across the river from New Orleans) who wanted to know my name (I didn’t ask his), where I was going, why I’d been in San Antonio, and everything else about me. He seemed less friendly and more like someone who’d try to weasel his way into your confidences so he could steal from or con you.

I then noticed that no one was going out to board any of the busses. One cop in latex gloves was searching the luggage of everyone in one of the lines, then passing a metal-detection wand over them. I said aloud to myself, “Are they gonna search everybody?,” and the Cajun asshole said, “Yeah, they’re gonna strip-search everybody. I hope they start with her!,” indicating the young Hispanic girl four feet ahead of us. Unfortunately, she was standing alongside her gang-banger boyfriend, who turned around and narrowed his eyes at the Cajun, trying to decide if his ass was worth kicking or not. I was just sure the young man would assume I was a friend of that asshole’s and he’d go after me too.

Somebody got on the loudspeaker and announced a delay, and the asshole said, “Sounds like we’ve got time for a smoke. Wanna come outside with me and smoke and talk?” I didn't bother to say that I no longer smoke, but did explain that I really didn’t want to go outside anymore. I gathered from his manner that he took that as a rebuff and an insult.

It turns out the cop was only searching people on the Houston bus, and I was allowed to board fairly quickly. I got stuck sharing a seat with a fat chick who looked scared of me and whose sole piece of carry-on luggage was a large pillow. The asshole eventually boarded, and took a seat across the aisle from me, but one seat ahead. I kept my earplugs in long after the radio reception had faded out and I’d turned my radio off, just to make sure the guy wouldn’t be tempted to talk to me again.

I was too tired to read. My tripod was up in the overhead and I was just sure at the first sudden stop or sharp curve it was gonna come down and bash me in the skull.

Ignoring the “NO Cell Phones” warning scrawled in Magic Marker on the wall over the windshield, a nasty young chick across from me was yapping loudly into her cell, while sprawling across two seats and sticking her dirty feet into the aisle. It seems she and her boyfriend had run afoul of the law somehow. The cops had seized most of their household belongings, and she was moving to Austin, intent on getting an apartment. And though she admittedly had no money, she still, she told her friends, wanted to spend what little she did have on a “special tattoo.”

Unlike the trip down to SA, on this trip back we had to stop in New Braunfels and San Marcos, so that added 30 minutes onto our time.

We arrived a little before 6:30. It took me awhile to gather my things. I then worked my way awkwardly down the 14-inch- wide aisle with its tall seats. I had just made it to the top of the steps leading out the door when the Cajun asshole appeared at the bottom. He didn’t seem to recognize me. I said, “Excuse me–I’m trying to get off.” I excused myself a few more times, but he seemed hell-bent on not waiting the five seconds I needed to get down the steps, and so he somehow managed to squeeze and push his way past me and all my stuff and get back on board. Why the prick couldn’t wait I have no idea.

I caught the final cab of the day, got home a little before 7pm, was greeted by an overjoyed Fred, walked and fed him, then took a much-needed shower and retired, sore and swollen.

I may never go outside again.


At 1:13 AM, Blogger Martin McFriend said...

Unadulterated Americana. Bankston, this reads like the Texas version of Raymond Chandler. You are an old-school, romantic loner. A curious cynic with a penchant for paranoia and a touch of grace with the pen and the lense. Your spirit is right on time and very welcome within the ranks of the living. May you find the inspiration to journey outside again. I feel it's somehow necessary that you do. I've even cast a level 3 serendipity spell, and a level 5 good fortune upon the house Bankston.

At 1:32 AM, Blogger jsbankston said...

Well, my last line was very tongue-in-cheek. I've been invited to accompany friends to Rome next summer, and if I can pull it off and bring myself to part from Fred that long, I may go there, then strike off by myself and hit Paris, Amsterdam, and London. Actually, if I had some way to live in Europe I'd do it in a second. But that's another story....

And by the way, thanks for the kind words. I always get a childish level of contentment when people say they dig my stuff.

At 10:48 AM, Anonymous JJones said...

Sounds like a most excellent adventure. You should could take an extended bus trip and write about the human experience from the people you meet. That would be a very interesting read.

At 2:27 PM, Blogger Satisfied '75 said...

im gonna print this out and read it later

At 3:01 PM, Blogger jsbankston said...

I've been told, Satisfied, that my writing makes great toilet reading.

At 4:57 PM, Blogger Martin McFriend said...

Why I often bring my laptop to the john...

At 11:11 AM, Blogger tj1972 said...

Another great adventure told so well! Thanks for sharing.

At 12:44 PM, Blogger Scrubby Nub and The Bothered Brigade said...

Bankston, I continue to enjoy your musings and considerations of the seldom acknowledged slices of Americana. I look forward to reading your next post while I'm taking a shit.

And TripleJ, thank you for introducing us to him.

At 1:21 PM, Blogger jsbankston said...

Yes, Scrubby, I hope you find it "moving."

At 4:09 AM, Blogger Get-A-Free-House said...

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