Saturday, June 25, 2011

Getting to Know the U.S., Part 2: Texas and Gulf Coast

On June 23rd, we were, unbelievably, still in Texas. Houston had so many surprising moments.

We spent the night at Super Happy Fun Land, where the artist ethos thrives and the conversations are encouragingly earnest. It’s a warehouse for huge paper mache Cabbage Patch kids, graffitti mushrooms, old car seats, and every surface is full of knick-knacks. I felt right at home. I dreamed I was back at Reed Reunions, playing a spin the bottle-type game with a roomful of hipster alumni. I stole away from them, found a boy I’d had a crush on at 20, and woke up just as we were falling into a sofa bed. I feel proud, inexplicably, of being able to fall that deeply asleep on a couch in the muggy southern heat with a train whistle blowing periodically too close.

I’d asked people about small museums and got directed to The Orange Show. (Me there, above!) We wound through an unplanned, unfussed Houston neighborhood and suddenly, the circus appeared! This is not a roadside attraction. This is quite far off the road. It’s an entire whirlygig showspace made for the love of oranges. Jeff McKissack built it in 1976-79 by hand, welding whimsical railings and laying many mosiac tiles into the floor and walls. He died before he could actually DO an Orange Show at the Orange Show, but the space is still there, and we climbed the tiny steps, sat in the fixed bicycle seats, and bought the last three postcards left in the empty gift shop. The two Houston artists I asked about the difference between Houston and Austin (who has the unofficial slogan “Keep Austin Weird”) scoffed at Austin’s self-congratulatory attitude and said “Houston is where the culture really is.” I think it may very well be true. There’s something a bit too clean, sanitized, cheerfully white about Austin. Houston has some bayou creeping in.

On our way out of town we stopped at the Rothko Chapel--a circular space with Rothko paintings on the inside that change subtely, slowly, in the natural light. The silence was perfectly strong, and perfectly broken by the occasional human shuffling, and my muscles loosened in the restorative cool.

Finally, LOUISIANA!!
We decided to get off the 10 and take the 90 through more of the bayou/swampland. We wound around, and eventually found Palmetto State Park. We made a friend. His name is Gunther, and yes, he’s an armadillo.

Pit stop in Morgan City, LA. We love the Waffle House. We stopped for eggs and stayed to talk with Crystal, Jagger, and Ifler--the Night Shift Heroes.  I was the first person Crystal had met who ordered tomatoes instead of hash browns or grits with the egg breakfast. This is how the conversation started, actually, with me admitting I was from Los Angeles, and asking Crystal what she thought of Morgan City. “It sucks,” she said. “I need to get out of here.” Crystal told us that she’d beaten an addiction to pills, that her son was about to graduate from high school, and that she made $3.00 an hour. The three of them clearly cared about each other, and this is one of the best parts of the night shift, for me, anyway--the unlikely bonds between people who wouldn’t otherwise have reason to know each other. They were so cheerful, but the truth of their stories were heartbreaking. Not enough money. Not enough opportunity. “There’s nothing in this town for the kids,” Crystal told us. They don’t have anywhere to go, or anything to do. Her son is beating the odds, and I felt her pride. She wants to go back to Houston. We talked about how hard it is to switch shifts once you have built up a group of regulars who like you. Pills are easier to get in Morgan City than meth, we were told. Surprised me. There are a lot of corrupt cops who are on pills, or stealing weed. Ifler had watched a cop pull into her next door neighbors’ place, get high, drink beer, and then get back in his patrol car and drive off. “That’s why I don’t call the cops,” she said. It’s one reason why I don’t either. Somehow, the whole time, we were laughing. Jagger pressed homefries into the grill, smiled and cracked jokes, and I miss them now, after knowing all three of them only for an hour.

And I write it down because they really are the heroes, who are pushing against the forces of corrupt cops, low pay, not enough opportunity, the grief of losing loved ones. I write about them in solidarity and in hope.

We spent the first really poorly planned night of our trip in Houma, LA. We stopped at Jimmy C’s, a bikini bar about 10 minutes from the highway, for a drink and some satisfaction of basic occupational curiosity on my part. What stood out: drinks just as expensive as Los Angeles? Surprised again. Also, the stage for the dancers was sunk in the middle of the bar, with the bartenders walking around it. This meant that the only way to get tips on the stage was to wad bills into tight balls and throw them. In my experience, this is a rude thing to do. At this bar, it was just how things worked. A shifting of stripper paradigms! One of the dancers offered to put us up for the night, so we hung around Houma until 2am, which involved yet another Waffle House and some cramped-up sleeping in the car. Then she bailed. We spent the night at the absolutely most depressing motel I’ve ever been in. I’m saving my details for a short story. But we took some awesome pictures in the morning.

When we stopped at a local diner for breakfast and had two miracles: the best beignets, ever, and a conversation with David: former alligator hunter. Anthony asked, “Are there a lot of alligators around here?” and everyone laughed. Yes, indeed. We learned that they have powerful jaws for snapping shut, but they don’t have a lot of power for opening. So if you land on them right, tie their mouths, tie their legs, and avoid getting chomped from the get-go, it’s a cinch.

We drove through New Orleans, listening to local radio blues and squealing at homes in the garden district. As we drove out of town and toward the coast, I tried to put my finger on the feeling I have in Louisiana. It's a melancholic kind of awe, a sense of the temporary, of beauty being tied so closely with death. The houses are up on concrete blocks because of flooding. The hurricanes are always possible. The insects are loud and the creeping vines don't care about humans, and there's a kind of gentlemanly savagery to it all--breaking open the crawfish and sucking on their heads. Give it to me, Biloxi. Give me that white sand and soft air, give me that purple light at sundown. I love the way people kept saying "Oh come on now!" when I told them where I was from.


  1. Are you coming through DC still? When?

  2. Yes! We've got Linz now and we'll be there Tuesday night! No cell service here in SC, So email/Facebook. Can we see you?

  3. So glad you're on 90! It was one of my favorite drives when traversing the U.S. I still remember the lush warmth (even in March/April) and the beautiful scenery. There's a richness to the light there that doesn't seem to exist in California. The light has more depth and substance.

  4. I want a magazine to pay for you two to do this full time for months, but one doesn't exist. I want this kind of reporting, from people who are looking for stories while making a story rather than The Story, knowing already what they want it to be. Maybe I just want this kind of fiction, which both is and isn't, which really happened and is being written at the same time. It suits you. It's beautiful and sad. It feels like getting under that skin.

  5. I swept my arm over the side of my body and forced sleep, dreaming of a jarheaded man with two of my bullets pinging off his collar bones, my friend getting stabbed by a sewing pin the size of my forearm, wet valarian root molding over my head, sage brush still burning after three days and I didn't even know, and I moaned. I grabbed my penis, my handle on the world, and spun in circles like a dog overcome by its dogness, sat bolt upright and sank down. There is something to do! But WHAT?

  6. I agree with max. And last night I dreamed that I/we were in a predicament with attacking alligators. I was very grateful to have had this information. It saved our lives.

  7. I agree with Ted, it's really endearing to be able to read about this and read as it's happening and continuing. I'm trying to visualize the people, the faces, what they're wearing, there little habits while they walk and talk. Your stories are really beautiful as well as sad. The heroes really are those fighting against all odds.

  8. Giving voices to people you meet on the way sprouts story branches and invade my brain like the New Orleans vines.
    I admire your sensitivity, the way you connect with strangers.