Saturday, September 6, 2008

Day 29: Houston in My Rear-view Mirror

August 12: Houston to Class Reunion to Austin to Johnson City

Soundtrack: KTRU Houston, KLBJ Austin, KUT World Cafe

What I am trying to say is that there is no physical or geographical unity in Texas. Its unity lies in the mind. And this is not only in Texans. The word Texas becomes a symbol to everyone in the world. There’s no question that this Texas-of-the-mind fable is often synthetic, sometimes untruthful, and frequently romantic, but that in no way diminishes its strength as a symbol.
John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley in Search of America

Greg’s wife Patti rose early for her job as manager at a Sherwin Williams paint store and an hour or so later the cousins got up and dressed for a walk down to the bayou. Greg sold real estate out of his house, after years in a Coldwell Banker office; he made us pancakes and bacon. Now we had carbohydrates to walk off and we set out under the famous partly cloudy Gulf Coast skies, crossing the drainage ditch where goldfish, procoscopi, and red slider turtles had been released and grown to enormous proportions along with the native snapping turtles and catfish. In the mud below the bridge, this menagerie cruised and lurked in rain-swollen luxury; we stopped and watched them for a while. Barbara and Jon were the Lacy cousins Charlie spent his summers with for most of his childhood, from six or seven on, and they had the same fascination he had with nature.
We took a path down the easement behind the fenced-in suburban yards to where the ditch joined a deep branch of the bayou, pooling at the end of the subdivision. Here blue herons - great and lesser, egrets, killdeer, and sandpipers patrolled the shore and dug for crawdads. We spotted an alligator gliding along in the placid water, snout in the air and serrated spine cresting the surface, trailing a little wake like the Loch Ness Monster. With all the talk of home-invading alligators on the Mississippi, it was amazing to see one swimming right here on the edge of Sugarland, in plain sight of this middle class bastion of civilization.
When we got back to Greg’s house, dripping with sweat as was the custom in Houston humidity, I cooled off by going on the computer to pick up my mail. After three weeks on the road, I had over a hundred messages, mostly spam. The regular senders: NORML, College of Idaho, Echo Park Historical Society, Therrien who was Not Too Good for Him (NYG4 Jesus, of course), and occasionally Lucinda, had to be read and dealt with and everything else deleted. But there was one message I didn’t expect: Westbury High School was having a mini-reunion for a few people who had missed the one in 2005; the Classes of ‘62 - ‘65 were invited to happy hour that afternoon at a hotel in the Galleria. All right! A social occasion.
I called up my high school sweetheart, Bobby, who had similarly gotten married and had a boy and girl, and he agreed to meet me so we wouldn’t be stuck among our boring fellow classmates who had stayed in Houston. Bobby had bought real estate in the Heights when it was cheap and still lived here, but his life had changed from being a techie, first with the telephone company, then with the school district, to earning a pretty good living as an artists’ model. Both Doug and I had been models in our 20’s, but here was Bobby, at 60. still baring it all in the cause of art.
I packed up the HHR and hugged the in-laws good-bye. The Marriott West Hotel was back toward town; I had a couple of glasses of wine in a bar with a verandah inside the lobby and hung out with Westbury High graduates who had stayed in town. The main thrust behind the second reunion was an artist who had been in Europe during the previous celebration, which had come with flashback name tags and a loose-leaf binder telling whatever became of everybody who had been located by the organizing committee.
This time around, as well as Bobby’s marathon political diatribes and the congenial whatever happened to yous? I talked to a amazingly slim and trim lady named Gayle who had spent most of her life as a teacher and Steve, an old flame who hadn’t been a radio star like I thought he was, but hadn’t let that get him down and the class brain, David Wald, late of the Slide Rule Club, who had his own business imparting his financial expertise to the world less savvy than he. I was less savvy than almost anybody, so I took his card. Most of the rest of the Westbury alumni were the usual high school successes who had taken roads more traveled by and held on to their advantages. At the previous reunion there had also been a table for the deceased, most of who had fallen victim to cancers and accidents. One boy had killed himself over a girl. The happy hour was for survivors and we drank each others' health until the sun went down. I hugged Bobby goodbye in the parking lot and set off for Austin, where I was supposed to connect with, Captain Macho of Pacifica Radio, who had remained a family friend.
The two glasses of wine made me drowsy a hundred miles out 290 West and I pulled into a roadside park under the full moon to take a nap. After a couple of restless hours, some teenagers shooting off their leftover 4th of July fireworks in the picnic area startled me awake. Driving on to Austin, I hit town just as the bars were closing and clots of drunken locals lurched about laughing crazily. In the dark, with all the one-way streets and Saturday night crowds, whose friends let them drive drunk, I couldn’t locate Macho’s place and found myself on the road again.
The moon kept heading west and so did I, past the cliff ‘round the bend at the edge of Austin, and into the Hill Country. The University station kept me company with exotica until I found a friendly all-night Texaco at 4:30 in the morning. The boy attendant, plugged in to an ipod and liberally pierced about the ears and tongue, seemed glad to see anyone at that hour and I bought a pack of cookies and a diet soda to keep right on going. The fuel lasted until Johnson City, the President’s town sleeping under yellow streetlights, a quaint crossroads of quarry stone and rolled metal roofs, with not a single light burning at a window. Outside of town, I barely missed an armadillo turning into a rest stop in the dark and lay down on the pillows in the back until sunup.
The shelters and buildings were made of the same pale limestone and tin as the town, immaculate, with a pine-paneled ceiling in the restrooms and three wild kittens frolicking under a picnic table. As I washed up and brushed my teeth, a pretty blond lady in a dress came in humming a hymn, reminding me that this was Sunday. I changed into a skirt for church in a sunny stall, thinking, as I enjoyed the amenities, of the Joad children and their first encounter with indoor plumbing. They would have loved this place, with its swings and slides and kittens to play with in the cool of a Texas morning, and Charlie would have, too.

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