This article’s a bit long, but I beg you: read until the end. You may be the only person who can help. You’re going to read about a band you probably haven’t thought about in a while, or maybe you’ve never even heard of. But you’re also going to read about a modern-day grail quest I’m enacting on behalf of an acquaintance named Fid who should be an outright friend.
I’m a fan of a punk band from the ’90s/early ’00s called J Church. Currently, I have five full-length releases from them on my phone. Five albums by one band is a decent chunk of MBs. I don’t think too many people would argue that point. Five albums? Solid fan. Since the mid-’90s, I have said that J Church is one of my favorite bands. I stand by this today.
That being said, I haven’t heard the large majority of J Church’s songs. This is because there are too many J Church songs. Even the most ardent J Church fans, of whom there are admittedly few, would probably say that if the band had one Achilles’ heel, it’s that they put out way too much stuff.
According to Wikipedia, there are twenty-four full-length J Church releases when you consider albums, singles collections, splits and miscellaneous releases. And Wikipedia makes a note of pointing out that this is only a partial discography. Even a comprehensive and crowd-sourced site hedges its bets when claiming to sum up J Church’s work. The fact that there’s an active disclaimer on Wikipedia means that literally the entire world has access to edit the information at hand and not one person has been able to post with certainty, “I am certain that this is the entire discography.” Twenty-four full-length releases is way too many full-length releases, and there may in fact be more than twenty-four.
Guitarist and vocalist Lance Hahn was aware his band put out too many releases. He once said, “A lot of people write trying to keep track of all the records we put out. Even I can’t remember.” He said that in 1995, when the band had been around for three years. They released music for twelve more years.
My guess is that a lot of people who liked punk in the ’90s are reading this and thinking, “Oh, yeah I heard a few of their songs.” I bet even more people are like, “I always used to see that band’s name around.” They were one of those bands. You knew of them, you heard them occasionally, you respected them, but not everyone went out of their way for them.
When I was a kid, here’s the types of things a punk teen in New Jersey heard about J Church: “They’re this band from San Francisco.” “They put out tons of stuff.” “They’re a pop punk band. No, they’re a sort of emo hardcore band. No, they’re kind of crossing into indie rock.” “They’re kind of political. Sometimes.” “They’re friends with Jawbreaker, but Jawbreaker is much more successful.” “They’re friends with Crimpshrine, but something about Crimpshrine seems cooler and artsier.” “The guy writes for Maximum Rocknroll.” “Every band has a split seven-inch with J Church.” “The guy has the worst luck ever, his house burned down and he has a kidney disease.”
In the fanzine-driven pre-Internet punk scene, you often heard about bands from far away through individual sentences such as those. Random tidbits floated through. Those tidbits don’t fan the flames of real fandom in any way. But I fell hard down a J Church rabbit hole, and throughout my life occasionally meet another random person who has as well. Why do some people think way too hard about a band that was good but never quite great, and that flooded the market with an indecipherable amount of product?
I think at the end of the day, J Church was their front man. And Lance Hahn, simply put, was really accessible and really nice. I found this out personally when Lance Hahn messaged me on Friendster (yup) out of the blue once. He saw that I had listed J Church as a favorite band, so he thanked me. He also went through my profile and saw that I worked at a magazine called Weird NJ at the time and told me that he was a fan of it. That’s a level of fan service that’s pretty remarkable. “I’m glad you like my band. I like your underground magazine about ghosts and haunted trees in America’s most mocked state.” Most front men don’t get that specific, and they certainly don’t spend time sending the fan mail on Friendster. They let it come to them. Lance was ego-free and wanted to let me know as an individual that he appreciated my support.
And what I’ve come to find is that this is not uncommon when it comes to Hahn. There aren’t millions of hardcore J Church devotees, but most of the ones I’ve met seem to have had actual personal interactions at some point with Lance. Almost always, when another J Church fan and I realize we’re interacting, a sentence is said by both of us: “I met him a few times.”
Lance looked for any simple way to connect with people who had a desire to connect with him. He was even ahead of the blogging curve, putting out a newsletter called It’s a Living But It’s Not a Life that he mailed out to people and also posted on the Internet. (You can still read them here.) It read like a diary, because it was basically the diary of a slightly-less-than-boring man’s life. Reviews of movies he’d seen and books he read. His opinions on pop culture and politics. Updates on his kidney disease. His thoughts on what it was like when his house burned down. Before Twitter, before personal branding, before any of it, Lance made it easy for his fans to know him. Not for his fans to feel like they knew him — for them to really know him. I only met him face-to-face one time. I gave him some Weird NJ issues for the van and he thanked me. Never talked to him again. Still, when he passed away about a decade ago, I felt it in a personal way.
My hardcore J Church obsession locked in from about 1998 to 2001, when I was extremely depressed. All I really listened to was the Smiths’ entire catalogue, Love is Dead by the Mr. T Experience, the first Servotron album and, perhaps, more than any of those, Nostalgic for Nothing (1995) by J Church. It’s still my favorite release of theirs. It’s poppy but garage-y and loose and the songs are witty and heartfelt and not all that political. That’s my J Church wheelhouse. I also really dig the two albums they did on Honest Don’s, though many J Church fans tell me that I am completely wrong for that since Honest Don’s was a subsidiary of Fat Wreck Chords, and that was for some reason bizarre for J Church in the scene politics around the turn of the century. Many J Church fans are also fiercely passionate about insisting to me that their earlier, punkier stuff is the true J Church. By “many J Church fans,” I mean “a small handful of people I’ve encountered spread out over many years.” Most people could not care less about what era of J Church I, or anyone else, identify with the most.
That being said, the biggest J Church fan I’ve ever met lived directly across the street from me when I was at my most depressed, and we wouldn’t become friends until fifteen years later.
New Brunswick, New Jersey, has always had a thriving punk scene, but I didn’t really partake when I was there. Once they knocked down the Melody Bar, once the record stores like Cheap Thrills closed, I just didn’t know where to go to lock in on stuff. And as mentioned, I got super depressed. Like, dangerously so. For me, I just needed to survive those years. I wasn’t looking to hang out at shows. I wasn’t looking for friends. Nineteen ninety-eight through 2002 were bad years for me. Not being melodramatic, but they just were. College isn’t easy for all of us, and sensitive sad kids should maybe avoid gigantic state schools, especially in New Jersey. You live and you learn.
Anyway, cut to present day and it turns out my wife and a bunch of our friends are all pals with this dude named Fid. I was aware of Fid during my time at Rutgers — he was definitely a mainstay of the New Brunswick punk world. I knew who he was, but I don’t think we had any conversations in the entire four years I was there.
I know Fid now, and Fid’s a really good dude. He’s funny. Passionate about the things he loves. Wears his heart on his sleeve. A really good guy.
Fid has been playing guitar lately for my wife’s band the Unlovables, and one night while he was practicing at my house, I found out that he’s also obsessed with J Church. Way more than I am. When he talks about J Church, Fid’s eyes glaze over, he gets a little manic, and he just goes someplace else that’s clearly more important to him. It’s that perfect combination of endearing and concerning that overly passionate music fans tend to fall into sometimes.
I also discovered that Fid lived at the corner of Somerset and Plum Streets during my junior year of college. This is notable because I lived at the same exact corner. Turns out I was able to see his house from my bedroom window. And we never even knew each other. Right in the same window when I was as dangerously depressed as I’ve ever been, I was living directly across the street from a guy with whom, at the very least, I would have had something to talk about. If he and I had met, and figured out we love the same band that very few other people give a shit about, it probably would have ultimately not changed a thing. But who knows? Maybe we would have been pals, and maybe that would have made a few of my really bad nights a little better.
I could have had a friend. If I put myself out there, if I tried a little harder, if I wasn’t so closed off, things could have been easier for me back then. And if I turned to the music scene like I did in high school, this guy was right across the street. I missed the boat.
One night Fid was at my place practicing Unlovables songs with my wife. When he was done playing guitar, Fid and I got to talking more about J Church. And I found out that he’s not just another J Church fan — I might argue that Fid is one of the biggest J Church fans on earth.
Turns out, Fid owns every single J Church release — except for one. This is insane. I can’t stress enough that they put out a comical number of split seven-inches, and he has every single one. Plus every full-length. And every not-split seven-inch. He even owns all the small-run stuff Lance inexplicably put out under the name Cilantro. Every. Single. Thing.
And as he told me this, a pained look crossed his face. He was happy to be talking about J Church, but worry lines were setting in around his eyes, and his passionate talk was occasionally peppered with frustrated sighs and head shakes. I asked him what was the matter.
“Like I said,” Fid reminded me. “I have every release except for one. I don’t even need to own it. That’s impossible. But I just want to hear that fucking song.”
And this is where you come in.
From the perspective of a far away fan, the happiest thing that happened to Lance Hahn was that Beck hired him as his touring guitarist in 1994 and brought him all over the world. This was rad. It made me feel good. Like, here’s this dude with a great band no one seems to really care about as much as they deserve, who has notoriously bad luck — and publicly so. And here’s this super cool artist that the mainstream loves and that the underground respects, who is recognizing his talents and wants him on board. It was so cool to see. Again, he felt personal to me. I was happy for him.
Lance Hahn also ran a tiny record label called Honey Bear from 1994 until the mid-2000s. It was mostly J Church stuff and friends’ bands. He also did a fan club series where he’d put out seven-inches, usually splits with a few bands. He’d print one hundred copies of each of these releases. If I remember right, there was a subscription system to get these, and I missed out on it. I was not one of the first one hundred subscribers and do not own any of these releases.
Fid, apparently, tracked them all down. Except for one: We Are Bacteria, which from what I can tell was released in either 1994 or ’95. It’s very hard to find information about, and it features the one J Church song Fid has never heard: “The Creep Is Back.”
There is currently one copy of this seven-inch for sale on eBay. The asking price is $1,200.
So the obvious question: “How in the fuck is a random J Church seven-inch selling for more than one thousand dollars in 2016?”
It relates to the other artists on this split.
Besides “The Creep Is Back,” the album features two songs by a band called Phantom Pregnancies. I don’t know anything about Phantom Pregnancies, but when I Googled “Phantom Pregnancies Band” the first thing that came up is a site called “Forgotten ’90s bands.” For the purpose of this article, that’s all we need to know.
The other two songs are by an artist named Mr. Hansen. And as you might be able to easily surmise based on the nature of their touring relationship, Mr. Hansen is in actuality Beck (Hansen, which is why it is easy to figure out).
We Are Bacteria is the most sought after, most valuable, and hardest to find J Church release. It is also, apparently, the most rare Beck release. (I have to assume it is also the most rare Phantom Pregnancies release.) And, not surprisingly, there are Beck obsessives in this world and they have driven up the price range of this seven-inch into the thousands.
“But wait, I thought you said $1,200. That’s not technically thousands.”
Well the $1,200 one is cheap. One went a few years back for more than five thousand dollars.
Even the most diehard J Church fan is not spending five grand on a seven-inch. Actually this would probably make Lance happy to hear, as so many of his early lyrics were about class conflict and the workingman. One of his poppiest songs is about working in a cannery, appropriately titled “At the Cannery,” which was first released in 1995 but I own on a super dope-looking picture disc released in 1997. It’s about working in a cannery and features the line, “The working class aren’t asking any questions,” but I promise you that it’s catchy and you can dance to it.
As far as I can tell, the J Church cut from this seven-inch does not exist on the Internet. Fid has looked — hard. I went and looked as hard as I know how. There are broken links out there. There are message board posts out there from people looking to find it. But the song doesn’t seem to actually exist. I am a technological idiot, so there is definitely a world in which someone reads this and ten minutes later is like, “Hey Gethard, all you needed to do was go to this one FTP and here it is. You are an idiot.” I agree. I am an idiot when it comes to this stuff. I hope that’s true and that this quest is not as mythological as I’ve made it in my mind. I hope you can find the song.
Because that is why I come to you, the public, today. I have a few simple questions:
Are you one of the one hundred owners of We Are Bacteria? If so, would you be willing to use your turntable to rip an MP3 and send it to me so my friend Fid can spear his great white whale and hear this song? If you don’t have one of those fancy turntables that makes MP3s, you could just record it on a phone and send it over. Seriously. He just wants to hear it. He’s a really good guy, and if he gets hit by a bus and never gets to hear this song, I think it would be a huge bummer.
Are you someone who knows how to go to those illegal sections of the World Wide Web that I am too dumb/too scared to go to? If so, can you check if a song called “The Creep Is Back” by J Church is floating around out there? Again, if you can send it that would be great; I want my friend Fid to hear it. I know it would mean a lot to him.
If you fit either of those descriptions, please send an audio file of “THE CREEP IS BACK” by J CHURCH to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I will pass it on to Fid and you will have done your part to help a guy I know hear a song he’s always wanted to hear in act that is ultimately meaningless but is just kind of a cool thing to do.
I also think it’s worth mentioning: not all J Church songs are good. There are whole albums that I think aren’t so hot, and they’re probably my second favorite band of all time. There was just so much stuff to wade through. The good stuff was great, but all J Church fans know there was also a lot of bad stuff. So we can all be honest: a song by a band as inconsistent as J Church titled “The Creep Is Back” is almost definitely not going to be a great song, or even a particularly good one. That’s not the point. It’s about completism, not quality.
Why am I doing this? There’s a part of me that thinks it’s just bizarre and funny that J Church has a $1,200 record. There’s a part of me that thinks even in facetious fashion it’s a good thing to remind the world about Lance Hahn almost a decade after his death, because he was underappreciated in his day and, all jokes aside, it would be a shame if someone as talented and prolific and as dedicated to positive contributions to his community as he tried to be was forgotten.
But really, it’s this: in college I almost had a friend. I bet it would have been a good thing in my life to have this friend. And it’s fifteen long years later and things are a lot better now, but I feel like if I can find this song and get it to Fid, it will wake up the part of me that loved this band when I was a sad kid, and will help him hear the only song he’s never heard by his favorite band, and maybe things can come full circle.
You don’t often get second chances on friendships, and it’s even more rare to be able to accomplish something that might fill in a fifteen-year blank. I have a chance to do that, and I bet it would help me put some things to bed.
“The Creep Is Back,” indeed.
PS – Don’t even get me started on another J Church mystery Fid and I have long discussed: Who was longtime J Church bassist Gardner Maxam, and why are there literally no traces of him on the Internet today? How can you have put out that many punk records in the ’90s and have a name that specific, but manage to not exist in the virtual world? He’s the ghost of ’90s punk, a phantom, the Keyzer Sose of the seven-inch era — to Fid and me, at least, and I’m sure to about half a dozen other J Church fans.
UPDATE: Several people sent Chris the song in question. Thanks to them all! Now, here is Fid listening to the long-lost track with some of his friends…
James A. Michener
The Unlikely Paradise of Presidio
I am convinced that whoever surveyed West Texas in the early days marked off some of the longest miles in the world, just to get the job done in a hurry. Today those lonely miles link scattered townships and settlements in a harsh terrain that became the breeding ground of the Texas cowboy and more recently the wildcat oilman. Nowhere do those endless miles unfold more dramatically than in the fabled Big Bend country south of Marfa, Alpine, and Marathon.
The area first enchanted me in the thirties when I motored down a tortuous dirt road that meandered some sixty miles or so from Marfa to the Rio Grande. Today that same road is graded and paved but still impressive, and as before it ends at my favorite place in all Texas, the old Spanish settlement of Presidio. Since that first visit more than fifty years ago I have returned many times, most recently when doing intensive research for my novel Texas.
I remember Presidio for several reasons, not least when I listen to the nation’s weather reports: “For the third day in a row the highest temperature in the nation was recorded at Presidio, Texas.” When I hear such a report, I see again the dusty main street burning in the sun.
Presidio is the unadorned meeting place of two great nations, not much used as a crossing place by tourists, not blessed by any significant shared commercial enterprise, not favored as a highway linking our two countries, though there is a rail link on the Ojinaga side of the river to take the intrepid traveler on a breathtaking train ride all the way to the Gulf of California. Presidio is but one more in the string of meager communities along the Rio Grande. Ruidosa, Candelaria, Lajitas, Terlingua, all of them Spanish-named except for lonely Redford, all of them in a mind-set that faces south to Mexico and Chihuahua, not north to Lubbock or Midland or Dallas.
Yet of all those river places Presidio is significant because it is a U.S. border crossing, a fact that was forever engraved on my mind the day a Texas law enforcement officer drove me across the river for a face-to-face meeting with the local Mexican crime boss in Ojinaga. Guided by a series of unwritten understandings, these two men kept crime within acceptable tolerances on both sides of their border area. It was strange to watch an acknowledged Mexican outlaw and a pragmatic American lawman discussing how to handle half a dozen local crimes ranging from horse stealing to murder. It was the modern equivalent of the law west of the Pecos meted out by Judge Roy Bean, and I was assured it still worked. “I get more help from that crook than I can ever count on from a grand-jury investigation,” the American lawman vouched. “I get more crimes resolved through an understanding with him than I ever could with a posse of armed men at my side.” The meeting was one of the highlights of many research trips along the river bend.
And so Presidio bakes on, a small frontier town of no pretension except when viewed from the poverty-scarred streets of its sister town Ojinaga. From that desolate place, in these years of enormous hardship on the Mexican side, Presidio must look like the gateway to paradise. James A. Michener, the author of Texas, is now completing a novel about the Caribbean.
Most of my favorite places in Texas have been shut down or paved in the past few years, but there is still one spot where I can slip off to on an afternoon and slide into dream time. It is a wooden swing on top of Buttercup Mountain about a mile from the town square in Wimberley. The swing hangs from an oak tree. The view is across Money Hole Flat and the Blanco River to the high purple ridge known as the Devil’s Backbone. Sitting there, listening to my dogs chasing the scent of ghosts in the woods, I am reminded of the quote from Ford Madox Ford that Billie Lee Brammer used to open his novel The Gay Place: “Is there then any terrestrial paradise where, amidst the whispering of the olive leaves, people can be with whom they like and have what they like and take their ease in shadows and coolness?” Substitute oaks and junipers for olive leaves, and this is an apt description of how I feel in my swing on Buttercup.
The swing was a gift from Pete and Jody Gent. They chose the location near an unexplored Indian mound that is alive with spirits, and they selected the view that is open to rich sunsets with hawks cruising in the clouds above the valley. It is a place to go when the world is too much with me. And to prompt my mind to give itself a rest, they carved into the back of the swing seat four words of consolation and reassurance.
The words are: “So far, so bueno.” Bud Shrake is a novelist and screenwriter who lives in Austin.
The Solace of Salt Water
You head there at the earliest hint of day in a shoal-draft boat, slicing cool salt air and steering at first by green and red blinks from the Intracoastal’s markers, and then, as night pales and you leave the big channel behind, by noting familiar gas wells and wrecks and pilings. When the water shallows you kill the motor and tilt it up, letting the boat drift quietly onto the flat. With luck there is not yet a breeze, and for an hour or two as the sun rises red through mists you will have a blessed calm that allows your fly rod to roll line out straight and true and makes visible on the flat’s smooth surface the swirls and wakes of creatures you hope are redfish, the game species most apt to forage in such thin water.
Sometimes that’s what they are, and if you do things right, you take one or two or more. But if, as often, you don’t, it matters little because of the place itself, the flat. Marsh-fringed, it is maybe a mile long and a few hundred yards across at its widest, mainly shallow and wadable though in spots deepish or mushy underfoot. It isn’t wilderness. West beyond a marsh and some spoil-bank islands ships and tugs growl along the Intracoastal, and in a big nearby bay shrimpers and workboats and sportfishing craft crisscross once another’s wakes. On a gulfward barrier island large houses stand beside dredged channels full of cabin cruisers and in summer distantly emit the sounds of music and children.
Yet these things serve merely to frame the flat, to emphasize what it is. Fishing is easier elsewhere, and people are seldom close by. Wading on firm sand or velvet turtle grass or crisp shells, stalking swirls, you watch your sliding feet and the things that scoot before them—crabs, small rays, tiny fish….Mullet leap. Birds big and little wheel crying above you or eye you from the marshes and sandbars, in autumn hundreds of them, of dozens on dozens of species. You fish along slowly, loving it, but loving the place even more. What the flat is, is peace. John Graves, a contributing editor for Texas Monthly, has written mainly about rural and natural concerns.
Tommy Lee Jones
It would have to be a tie between our ranch in San Saba County and my study in our house in San Antonio. The ranch is well into the San Saba Hills. There’s a lot of limestone rocks—more of them exposed in this century than should be because of overgrazing. Because of that we have a lot of nuisance brush, but there’s a lot of good rich grass too. We raise Brangus cattle—they’re good mothers, they hustle, and they’re disease-resistant. My favorite place on the ranch is near an old windmill where we’ve just built new work pens. The windmill is a Chicago Aermotor with bullet holes in the blades. It needs work right now, and my favorite parts of the ranch are always the ones that need the most attention.
My study in San Antonio is where my favorite books are. It has a vaulted ceiling, painted burgundy, and its walls are made of limestone blocks. I do a lot of work in this study. Movie scripts, plays, and current fiction come and go across an old wooden table while the shelves hold biographies of actors and directors and a good selection of works on the history, theory, and practice of theatre, motion pictures, and television. There’s a complete set of Shakespeare, the Rowse edition, that Joe Papp gave me, and an old set of the Harvard Classics. Then there’s an odd old set of Victor Hugo and strangely enough a complete set of the Encyclopedia Britannica from 1911. Look up any little country, and they describe it by telling how to invade it.
I’ve got a lot of veterinary books, books by Dobie, and books on birds. In this room I also have my grandfather’s shotgun, a bronze of a javelina hiding behind some prickly pear, and an oil painting of a crane in flight.
I like my work, and I suppose this is where I do the major part of it. My study is where I live the life of the mind. It’s where my imagination is most engaged, is at its freest, and where it does the most good. It’s the happiest place in Texas for me. Actor Tommy Lee Jones was most recently seen in Lonesome Dove. His latest film, The Package, will be released this summer.
The Living Stone of the Capitol
A favorite place should be a renewable resource, like a trout stream or a family farm or ranch preserved across the generations. It should always be there, rewarding both the senses and the spirit, immutable.
For this reason my favorite place in Texas is the state capitol. While no structure built by man lasts forever—even Nature does not last forever—the Capitol seems likely to last as long as our present culture. Over the years we’re compelled to restore it, because it represents more than any other symbol the true spirit of our state.
The Capitol, like the capitol of ancient Rome, was and is more than a mere symbol or celebration of government; it was raised to the grandeur of a republic and the vision of its people. There is no greater reminder of Texan boldness (no, not even the Alamo!) than this mighty edifice in the center of the state. Our forefathers, still subject to Indian raiding in the west, still suffering from the ravages of civil war and occupation, poor in all but land and hope, planned what was said to be the seventh-largest structure in the world, defiantly taller than the national capitol, and set it down in a frontier town of 11,013 where it remains our most splendid architectural monument.
And it is not an erection of cold marble and granite dedicated to a dying memory; it is an artifact devised by the mind and hand of man that remains in constant use—a useful, used place that has spanned the generations gracefully, even awesomely, one we live with comfortably and proudly, just as the Texans who built it planned. T.R. Fehrenbach is the author of Lone Star: A History of Texas and the Texans and the chairman of the Texas Historical Council.
Hearth and Home
Winter, one of our cold nights. We turn off the lights, lay in a fire, and debate the music. In its early stages a fire is balky and unlovely, like a child in a pout. Sputtering, it stalls, as if doing us a favor by not dying. We turn the music up loud and, glasses in hand, settle in. From the hearth, more resistance. We poke, prod, and cajole, add a chunk of the dry oak we bought from the old man in the white truck on the side of the road, then a leaner one of greener mesquite ordered from the local young entrepreneur. Patient but determined, we are waiting for enough logs to burn through that some fall beneath the grate and make a solid red base on which the body of the fire can feed. Flame is our desire, all-out flame. Could be Randy Travis singing; might be Nina Simone, Jessye Norman, or the Gipsy Kings. So long as it’s loud. As the fire finally begins to thrive I awaken with it. Soon it is one, two o’clock, and I never want to sleep again. Outside the moon may be high. The dog may walk across the porch, scratch herself, leaving as clear and as black a shadow as if the beer clock on the porch wall said noon instead of the middle of the night. Now the fire is really hot. When I stoke it, my skin heats up fast.
Where is this place? Some living room somewhere. Does not have to be Texas. Could be anywhere.
Growing up, I did not learn about fires, did not understand the need for kindling or know the difference—in fire terms—between dry wood and green. I knew when the wind blew a fire spread, but not why. To his dying day my father wondered why we did not just whip down to Sac-N-Pac for a paper log. Why go to the trouble, he wanted to know. A fire’s a fire.
Could be anywhere but it is not. Seems to me a long way from where I started. Three o’clock now, I can feel the bass notes inside my earbones. Outside the road is so lit up with moonlight I could make it to the highway on my own, without a flashlight. Beverly Lowry lives outside San Marcos. Her latest novel is Breaking Gentle.
Ernetso J. Cortes, Jr.
The Doors of Perception
I have no trouble remembering my least favorite place while growing up in San Antonio: the Alamo. It was an oppressive reminder that Mexicanos—even though we were the majority—did not really belong. This fact came home to me when an elderly woman would frequently accost me on my way to the bus stop and remind me of what a wonderful neighborhood this was “before all you Mexicans moved in.” Fortunately, my mother taught my brother and me early on never to allow anyone to question our right to be where we were. What I did like about growing up was the public library. Transportation was cheap then, and the bus system went right by my house, so it was easy for my cousins and me to spend a weekend at the library and at the movies. One of the librarians, Ray Sanchez—who later married my cousin Yolanda—was my personal guide to the inner workings of the library system. He helped me bridge the gap between the juvenile books and the more sophisticated world of adult knowledge.
As we grew up, Ray helped my brother and my cousins get jobs at the different branch libraries and, I am embarrassed to say, helped me to check out more books for longer periods than was allowed. The library opened my eyes to the histories of different cultures, to the wanderings of Odysseus and Aeneas and the epic stories of Charlemagne and his twelve peers. Through the library I discovered Dr. Carlos E. Castañeda and his classic works on the mission era in Texas. There, I also learned of a different side to the Texas Revolution.
I don’t go to the San Antonio library anymore. Ray died recently, and the original library is now a museum for the Hertzberg Circus Collection. Somehow the bigger downtown library does not have the charm or the attentiveness that it once had for me as a young man growing up. But I hope that there are people there who care as much about what libraries can mean to young people as Ray Sanchez did, and I hope that they can make it as attractive, warm, and charming as the library once was for me. Ernesto J. Cortes, Jr., is on the national staff of the Industrial Areas Foundation and is the director of Texas Interfaith.
Nature’s Lap Pool
I know why some folks run in small circles and swim laps in overgrown bathtubs—nobody wants to get old and tired. But I’d feel like Pavlov’s dog doing that. All of my life, laps have been punishment—the price I paid to get to the floor of the arena.
But when I saw Austin’s Barton Springs it was love at first stroke. There among the pecan trees, cypresses, cottonwoods, and rocks I found a delightful blend of the pastoral and the civilized. I found native Hill Country parkland sloping unevenly into one side of the water and, on the other side, a modest old bathhouse sitting on a terrace above a descending apron of lawn. Both sides of the pool have been unobtrusively bulkheaded with concrete, and there are steps leading down to the starting point, which is marked with a simple white line.
Beneath its mysterious dark-green surface, the pool offers clear views of all sorts of rock formations varying in depth from two to fourteen feet. I’ve seen fish of various sizes down there, and I am told that if you swim the pool often you will eventually meet up with a turtle. The water is cold, to be sure. But so is the Pacific Ocean. What I like best about Barton Springs is that it takes only four laps to make a mile and that it is virtually impossible to take the same route back and forth. There are no lines on the bottom, so you can’t go straight. Each long lap offers a slightly different scene.
Barton Springs is one helluva place to swim. It’s the Fenway Park of swimming. Larry Dierker played for the Houston Astros for thirteen years. He writes a weekly baseball column for the Houston Chronicle.
Lubbock: Seat of Rebellion
My favorite place in Texas is Lubbock, mostly because Lubbock, like Popeye the Sailor, is what it is. Lubbock’s a place that’ll keep you honest. It’s hard to be pretentious or affected if you’re from Lubbock. Damned hard.
One thing I like about Lubbock is that people there know what sin is. There’s more confusion on that issue than many people realize, with all this bushwa about being nonjudgmental. The advantage of being able to identify sin is that you can go out and do it, and enjoy it. Lubbock gives people a lot to rebel against: You don’t have to waste time trying to figure out what the rules are; you can go right ahead and break ’em and see what happens.
People are always asking how come Lubbock produces so many musicians and artists. ’Cause there’s dog-all else to do in the place. In Lubbock you got to make music, laugh, or go crazy. Lots of famous musicians are from Lubbock or have done time in Lubbock—Buddy Holly, Bob Wills, Waylon Jennings, Mac Davis, Joe Ely—but I like the ones who never made it. Robin Dorsey from Matador, for example, went to Tech and had a girlfriend named Patty from Muleshoe and wrote a song about her, “Her Teeth Was Stained, But Her Heart Was Pure.” Dorsey’s college buddies were responsible for what scholars believe is the only country and western song ever written with a correct use of the subjunctive in the title: “I Wish I Were in Dixie Tonight, But She’s Out of Town.”
Lubbock has a newspaper, the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal, that is without redeeming social value, which is good by me because I love to pick on bad newspapers. They call Lubbock “The Hub City of the Plains”—actually, only the chamber of commerce ever called it that—and as Jimmie Dale Gilmore once observed, “Plain is the opposite of fancy.” One of my most prized possessions is a packet of postcards entitled “Ten Scenic Views of Lubbock, Texas.” It naturally includes a view of the Cotton Club, which is closed now and never was much to look at, even if it was the finest honky-tonk in all of West Texas.
Also in the ten scenic views are Prairie Dog Town, a tornado, and a lot of flat land with a lot of sky over it. I like flat land. Land you can fall off the side of makes me nervous. In Lubbock the world is about 88.3 percent sky, which I believe is the correct proportion: It takes a while to get used to, but after you do, Lubbock feels like freedom and everywhere else feels like jail. Molly Ivins is a political columnist for the Dallas Times Herald.
The Timeless Spell of Ferndale
Ferndale, an old East Texas fishing club established in 1909, is about two hours and forty years from Dallas. Four or five times a year we turn off Interstate 30 at Sulphur Springs and travel through time down Highway 11 through rolling dairy country punctuated by the small towns of Winnsboro, Newsome, and Leesburg. Holsteins, who probably don’t know that they’re voguish, pose with cattle egrets on lush green hillsides. Once, two Amish girls on sturdy, ancient bicycles, white caps and long skirts flapping in the breeze, passed us and waved. “Wait’ll you see it,” my son says to his two friends who have joined him for his sixteenth birthday celebration, “it’s like a big old plantation house.” The old two-story white frame structure with screened-in porches and jury-rigged additions is nothing of the sort, but as we turn at Shrum’s Grocery on the road leading into Ferndale, the sunlight dappling through dense shade from overhanging trees does make the approach seem a little enchanted.
I am not a fisherman, so the lure for me is not the elusive ten-pound bass in the lake. It’s the escape, the step back in time, and the apparent immutability. The unstated requirement for membership is that one shall have no desire to change anything. Replacing a rotting boathouse required years of heated negotiation. I am confident that the oat-bran muffins or croissants will never defile Ferndale’s breakfast offerings of hotcakes, grits, or biscuits and gravy. Deep East Texas meals of fried chicken, catfish, hushpuppies, green-tomato-and-onion relish, and blackberry cobbler are served family-style at long wooden tables. The kitchen staff will not count calories or discover cholesterol here until the last one of us who are homesick for this country fair is long gone.
Decorators have been kept at bay as well. Accommodations are Spartan—pine-paneled dormitorylike rooms, iron beds with plaid wool blankets, and communal bathrooms down the hall. “Keep voices low after 10 p.m.” reads the sign in the upstairs hall. The whole place smells of pine, probably Pine-Sol disinfectant, and my 1940’s Texas summers. I take a deep breath each time I go, and I am transported to Little River in Arkansas, a summer place visited so early in my childhood that it has no stories, just vague images of pine cabins and screened-in porches, bare feet, adult laughter, whiskey, cards, and, once, a king snake. I like to think that my sons will have stories to go with this smell. They will remember Camp County dogs named Barney, Daisy, and Jeff who retrieved or stole tennis balls, then retreated to the porches for long naps. They will remember O.P., the black man of indeterminable age who patiently baits hooks and untangles the fishing line of small children on the dock. Looking like a figure in a David Bates painting, O.P. never changes. Midwinter or in beastly August heat, he wears overalls, a heavy flannel shirt, and the same hat. The boys marvel that he chews Levi Garrett but never seems to spit. He’s a man of few words, so they listen up in the boat, trying in vain to keep pace with his instructions as they move across the lake. “Worm for this place,” he says in his low, raspy voice, and just as they thread the worm and cast, he shakes his head sadly and says, “Shallow water, need a top water.”
When we first joined this club several years ago, I thought it might be a nice place to write, and even now I always pack my small portable typewriter, paper, and several books I intend to read. But there are no desks at Ferndale, only rocking chairs, and the book that held my interest in Dallas can’t compete here with tiny hummingbirds hurling their iridescent bodies at feeders outside the dining room windows. At Ferndale I want to be a naturalist, not a writer. I read dog-eared books on wildflowers and birds and take walks on pine-needle-covered paths. I try to sketch wild blueberries with fuchsia stems and identify native pines, oaks, maples, dogwood, and gum. I step idly over a fallen limb in my path and shiver when it slithers off into the brush.
Occasionally someone at lunch will suggest that we should go into nearby Pittsburg to poke through antique shops or to some dress shop called the Cow House Palace. I decline. My afternoon is full. I’ve spotted someone’s sweet-smelling baby who needs rocking on the porch, and I need to watch for the woodpecker. Supper is at six-thirty. I’ll take my coffee outside. The frog chorus and the evening star show begin early. Prudence Mackintosh, a contributing editor of Texas Monthly, is the author of Thundering Sneakers and Retreads.
Many good things can be said for Texas cities, and I enjoy them on occasion, if the visits are not extended. But I always feel a sense of relief and renewal when I find myself on the road—any road—back into the vastness of the West Texas rangelands.
Fort Worth used to pride itself in a slogan, “Where the West Begins.” Actually, the west can begin almost anywhere on the sundown side of I-35, from Laredo to Gainesville, anywhere the cities leave off and cattle, horses, sheep, or goats take the place of street signs, subdivisions and “ranchettes.” For me, the threshold of God’s country is on Highway 1888, between Blanco and Fredericksburg. After skirting the Blanco River awhile, one climbs a succession of hills and finally tops out a few miles short of Luckenbach. There, when the sun is right, the oak-covered limestone hills are visible row upon row in the distance, each row a deeper blue than the one before it, stretching far westward out upon the Edwards Plateau.
Perhaps the most special ground for me, because it is my own home country, are the mesquite ranges from San Angelo west, merging with the creosote flats as one approaches the Pecos River, and beyond the Pecos the grandeur of the Davis Mountains and the Guadalupes rising from a desert floor. In the place where I spent my boyhood, I still enjoy the glistening sandhills, rippling with summer heat waves, from Crane and Odessa westward toward Monahans or northward toward Andrews.
Big and empty you might call this thinly settled country. You might even feel it has more history than future, its rural outlook no longer relevant to a state whose population is mostly urban. But it is there, and it is huge. It is home to sturdy holdouts of an independent-minded ranching and farming and oil-patch heritage—my people—who have met the challenge of a stern land and endured for generations. Elmer Kelton, a novelist who lives in San Angelo, is associate editor of Livestock Weekly.
John T. Biggers
The Beauty of Elemental Forms
The Rothko Chapel in Houston is made of warm earthenware brick. The brick seems antique, almost ancient, and the chapel itself is a very simple structure. Inside it is cool and quiet and somewhat dark. Arranged in a square in the middle of the room are monolithic benches with no backs—plain, substantial structures that look almost like carved logs. The floor has the color and texture of a natural clay floor in an earthen house. There are no decorative aspects anywhere. At first the building looks like a perfect square, but you slowly realize it is an octagon, with a floating octagonal ceiling that always reminds me of a cloud formation. And here are Rothko’s paintings. At first impression they seem black, but after a while you notice there are reddish and bluish tones in them as well. Like everything else in the chapel, they possess the beauty of elemental forms. They help create a soothing unity. I love the Rothko Chapel because every time I go there—leaving behind the chaos and confusion of the city—I feel isolated and relieved. I feel that I can think with my own mind. John T. Biggers is a Houston artist. “Internal Orders,” a show of his work, will open next year at the Nave Museum in Victoria.
Alone With History
Shortly after dawn. A heavy mist. Flatlands sweetened by the silvery veins of river and creek. Air pungent with scents of early spring—the wry woody tang of reviving mesquite, the waft from meadow wildflowers, the muskiness of damp earth. Birds ready for the day calling in the groves. Against the paling nacreous sky, a cardinal making a scarlet streak on the peripheral vision.
Turning with the road I take my first view of the Mission San José y San Miguel de Aguayo on the outskirts of San Antonio on 29 March 1949.
I am in the midst of several years of travel, pursuing information, impressions, conclusions that would feed into a book I would write: Great River: The Rio Grande in North American History. As the cultural history of the river reaches far from its banks, the inland Franciscan foundations of eighteenth-century Texas are a part of my study; and I have come here to see the temples of San Antonio—San Antonio de Valero (called the Alamo), San Juan Capistrano, San Francisco de la Espalda, La Concepción, and San José, that one which I now pause before in this spring morning.
The mist is a curtain over the scene. I need a second look to see the outlines of the mission.
Is that a tower—is that a dome? These seem to waver with the slowly shifting densities of the laden air. As I strain my vision to see, I think of the veiling mist as an instrument of history. It sets the mission and its whole meaning dimly back two centuries; and I seem to be looking at it through spent time. This March morning of 1949 slowly dissolves as the mist is beginning to dissolve, and as I follow my memory of what I know about the Franciscan enterprise of 1720 founded by Fray Antonio Margil de Jesús and Captain Juan Valdéz, the shadowy outline of the mission comes clear and I see then the lasting fabric of their belief and labor.
Rising above the grove of ancient mesquite trees showing the first yellow-green leafage of spring, the tower and dome and stout walls of San José are statements of purpose, skill, and grace: devout defense in wilderness, fine craft in building with gray stone, beauty of design. As the light of memory and morning continue to grow together, I am moved by the style of the four-sided tower, with its high, narrow apertures, its decorated cornices, its pyramidal roof. The effect is both light and massive. From the rear of the church rises the dome over a drum with large rectangular windows. Like the tower, it is surmounted by a cross. The dome is a perfect hemisphere. So just are the proportions of these dominating features that the great walls, coming to sight through the green haze of mesquite, seem to share in the lightness of the high profile.
It is too early for tourists. I am alone with history. I am free to people the vision with the friars, the soldiers, the Indians who live there; and I make notes of their uses of life as I walk about the mission and its outlying buildings. A total life of two centuries past is visible. There is worship under the dome; labor in the fields and irrigation system; harvest in the great barrel-vaulted granary; workshops and sleeping cells; and a perimeter for defense against Indian marauders who would take by force what other Indians abide by under a firm Spanish peace.
At the west entrance from whose south side the tower rises, I rejoice in the exuberant ornament of the facade. A great lofty Moorish doorway supports a grand entablature in the churrigueresque style. It unites the heritage of Arabic Spain with memory of the Mexican pre-Catholic decoration of Aztec temples and palaces; and it projects long corridors of thought and feeling about the transit of human ways across worlds and times.
The light is growing. Soon the modern world will begin to awaken and arrive. I work faster at my notes. From a vantage ground among the mesquite groves I make a watercolor drawing of the wiry black trees with their young greenery, and the dome and tower growing out of and above them.
Now I am back in the morning of 29 March 1949; and I take with me my possession of this Texas place. It will remain intact for me into the moment of this writing forty years later. Novelist and historian Paul Horgan is professor emeritus at Wesleyan University.
William Broyles, Jr.
The Submerged Neighborhood
Burnet Drive in Baytown doesn’t really end; past the last houses it just disappears into the bay. I’ve been going to the end of Burnet for almost forty years, since when the street was paved with oyster shells; the crunching of the shells beneath my bicycle wheels as I made the rounds of my paper route is the sound of my childhood.
When I was a teenager the end of Burnet was the favorite parking spot. From our ’56 Bel Airs and ’57 Fairlanes we could see the lights of the refineries reflected on the dark waters of the bay: the pipes, the tanks, the huge catalytic cracking units all glowing with light, strange shapes unlike anything else, a fantasy world at our feet. Flames roared from flares amid the lights, as if the earth itself was belching fire.
Occasionally a ship would pass, bound from the port of Houston to some distant place we had only read about: the Strait of Malacca, the Gulf of Sidra, Singapore, Penang, Rotterdam. The ships were in motion, free, but we were rooted to this piece of earth lapped by the waves, on a spot where land and water meet, a no-man’s-land dotted by tires and garbage and filled with the smells of paper mills, refineries, and dead fish. Just across the estuary was a subdivision called Brownwood, the home to girls I dated and many of my friends. Since I was a boy, the pumping of water and oil from the earth to support industries along the Ship Channel has caused the land to subside almost ten feet. Nearly all of Brownwood is now beneath the surface of the bay.
I look out from the end of Burnet today and there are many more lights of refineries, and they are just as beautiful. The San Jacinto Monument still stands sentinel over the battlefield, the ships still pass in the night, bound for places that are now familiar. But the scenes of my childhood, the homes and the very land itself, are gone beneath the waves, a civilization as vanished as the Toltecs. William Broyles, Jr., the founding editor of Texas Monthly, is a co-creator of China Beach.
The Left Bank of Texas
My favorite place in Texas is a restaurant that closed almost ten years ago. It was known as the Nighthawk on the Drag. The Drag, of course, spiritually speaking, isn’t doing too well either. But in the early sixties, when I was a student at the University of Texas in Austin, the Nighthawk, along with the Pancake House and the old Plantation restaurant, was where people went to stay up all night, drink coffee, and solve the problems of the world. Sort of the left bank of Texas.
It was a different world then. People didn’t rent movies. Women knew their place. Homosexuals still hid in the closet. A scruffy guy named Bob Dylan had just put out his first album. Soon the SDS would be holding raucous meetings at the Y. Revolution was on the way. Coffee was a dime. All right, it was twenty cents.
It was an age of innocence. Barton Springs ran pure as it had since the beginning of time. Though Elvis was no longer driving a truck and Fidel was no longer playing baseball, Charles Whitman and Lee Harvey Oswald had not yet dreamed of ascending great heights and rearranging the local or national landscape. In a quiet booth beside a window looking out on the Drag and the world, I first contemplated joining the Peace Corps.
I think it must’ve been sometime later while I was riding Greyhounds and driving pickup trucks across America trying to find myself that the Nighthawk on the Drag disappeared. Just flew away in the night.
Today it’s gone, the Drag’s been sterilized of hippies, radicals, and riffraff, and the campus hums along like a happy Volkswagen factory. There will always be Young Republicans in this world, but the phantom clientele of the Nighthawk may be an endangered species.
And there was a waitress there I remember… Kinky Friedman is a singer, songwriter, and novelist. His third mystery, Frequent Flier, will be published in August.