Part two of the story behind the story of my West Texas Music drive for the June issue of Texas Monthly magazine
Woody Guthrie, America’s greatest folksinger may have come from Okemah, Oklahoma, but he came of age in Pampa. Here’s what I found, starting with the Woody in Pampa website :
THE WOODY GUTHRIE FOLK MUSIC CENTER is the old Hall Drug Store on Pampa’s red brick old main street, where Woody worked from 1930-1935 and learned to play guitar, combined with the barber shop next door. Woody’s father ran a “cot house” across the street for oil field workers who flooded the town in the early 30s, which may or may not have included a bordello in the back.
The folk center is the vision of local historian and author Thelma Bray, whose two biographies of Guthrie are on sale at the center; the second, revised edition was published after Pete Seeger consulted Bray.
While the center is packed with photographs, newspaper articles, and copies of letters Woody and others wrote (did you know his song “Up from Boston” is the Boston Red Sox theme?), the center’s greatest artifact is “the building itself,” says Mike Sinks, one of the center’s supporters, who showed me around. “It’s where Woody Guthrie learned to play music.”
He also formed his first ensemble, the Corn Cob Trio, in 1934.
Sinks tells good stories about Woody, how he was known around town for spending so much time in the library reading books, and how his political leanings still divide the town – an attempt to name a street after him failed in the mid 90s when a Pampa official protested that Guthrie was a “communist” and naming a street after him would give the town a bad reputation. [Pampa officials today could do worse than talk to their peers in Okemah and find out what they’re missing.
Taking cues from Woody, live music is the main feature of the center: acoustic jams on the first Friday night of every month, electric jams on the third Friday, and informal pickings any old time.
The tracks where Guthrie first started hopping freights to California are a block north.
320 South Cuyler, www.woodyguthriepampatx.com The office is open 1-4 Fridays, but if you’d like to look around the folk center any other time, call or email Mike Sinks (806-664-0824; firstname.lastname@example.org), or one of the other center board members found on the website and open the building for you and show you around. Donations appreciated.
Arlo Guthrie played Pampa on behalf of the folk music center back in March, a few weeks after Jimmy LaFave stopped in coming back from a Colorado gig, which was front page news in Pampa.
Woody Guthrie’s 100th birthday will be celebrated at the center on July 25 and nationally on July 14, his actual birthdate.
All pickers are welcome, in the spirit of Woody.
THIS LAND IS YOUR LAND MUSIC NOTE FENCE in East Coronado Park on the south side of the AmericInn motel, 1101 North Hobart, (US 70 North), was created by welder Rusty Neef. Pampa city fathers balked at naming a street after Guthrie in 1995. “They didn’t want to name a street after a communist,” Mike Sink said. Nothing was said of Guthrie’s three tours of duty for the US military.
For general Pampa information go here cityofpampa.org
Good listening: The Saturday morning Western Swing and Other Things radio show hosted by Dodge City, KS Marshal Allen Bailey and his sidekick Cowgirl Jane, heard on High Plains Radio public radio affiliates throughout the Texas Panhandle, Oklahoma, and Kansas every Saturday
The first stop of my West Texas Music drive, as seen in the June issue of Texas Monthly magazine (texasmonthly.com) was Turkey, Texas, home of the King of Western Swing, Bob Wills
Here’s the lowdown on all things Wills in Turkey:
Last April was the 41st year of Bob Wills Day, which draws some folks more than two weeks before the actual event for jam sessions. The Hotel Turkey is reserved exclusively for Texas Playboys on that weekend, according to Lorene Setliff who was manning the counter in the museum on my visit. “They come from everywhere. This morning we had people from Canada and from Delaware. They just want to enjoy the music and see how Bob lived.”
Jim Rob Wills lived poor on the 600 acre cotton farm north of town between the Big Red and Little Red rivers. He lived rich once he made it in music. He honed his people skills cutting hair and chatting up customers at Hamm’s Barber Shop.
Among the artifacts are Ann Richards’ letter recognized the Bob Wills postage stamp, a sheet of Bob Wills Texas lottery tickets, a copy of Dwight Adair’s “Faded Love: The Life and Times of Bob Wills, photos of Bob at home in Abilene in 1957 with his kids and at Wills Point in Sacramento, California where he spent the late 1940s, a fiddle that belonged to Bob’s father, and a shaving brush and scissors from Ham’s Barger Shop where Jim Rob honed his people skills, and a framed Playboy Flour sack from Red Star Milling in Wichita, Kansas.
An enlarged photo of the Texas Playboys standing at attention in front of their bus, with Bob astride a horse on one side, takes up an entire wall. Koozies, notepads, ball caps, bumper stickers, CDs and books by Townsend, Rosetta Wills, and Al Stricklin, the Playboys’ longest-serving pianist, are among the gifts for sale.
602 Lyles, 806 423 1253, 806 423-1033. 8-noon, 1-5 pm weekdays only, or by special appointment. Donations accepted.
The Gem Theater hosts the First Saturday Jamboree on the first Saturday night of every month. 217 Main St., contact Marie Cruse of Turkey Heritage Foundation 806 423-1420.
The whole town comes alive for Bob Wills Day, the last Saturday in April
For more information: www.turkeytexas.net
National Public Radio correspondent John Burnett did a piece on Friday pondering What If Texas Seceded from the United States?
I was one of those playing along. Adelante Los Vaqueros!
Lone Star State Of Mind: Could Texas Go It Alone?
by John Burnett
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All Things Considered
[8 min 54 sec]
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Lone Star Nation: Today, the Texas capitol flies both the American and Texas flags, but after independence the Lone Star flag would fly on its own.
Steve Dunwell/Getty Images
Lone Star Nation: Today, the Texas capitol flies both the American and Texas flags, but after independence the Lone Star flag would fly on its own.
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March 30, 2012
It’s a popular idea in Texas that the Lone Star State — once an independent republic — could break away and go it alone. A few years ago, Texas Gov. Rick Perry hinted that if Washington didn’t stop meddling in his state, independence might be an option. In his brief run for the White House, he insisted that nearly anything the feds do, the states — and Texas in particular — could do better.
So we’re putting Perry’s suggestions to the test — NPR is liberating Texas. We asked scholars, business leaders, diplomats, journalists and regular folk to help us imagine an independent Texas based on current issues before the state. (Though, to be clear, no one quoted here actually favors secession.)
We begin our exercise in Austin, capital of the new Republic of Texas, where the Independence Day party raged until dawn to the music of Austin’s own Asleep at the Wheel. Lead singer Ray Benson announced to the crowd, “We have severed the ties with the United States of America. Texas is free!” and the masses roared in response.
The former state has reinvented itself as a sort of Lone Star Singapore, with low taxes, free trade and minimal regulation. It enters the community of nations as the world’s 15th-largest economy, with vast oil and gas reserves, busy international ports, an independent power grid and a laissez-faire attitude about making money.
Texas Is ‘Open For Business’
The Texas Association of Business advertises the new nation’s economic potential with a radio ad that declares, “Texas: Now it is a whole other country — and it’s open for business … C’mon over. Be part of our vibrant free-market nation.”
Driving around Texas, it’s not uncommon to spot bumper stickers that tout the idea of an independent Longhorn nation.
Enlarge John Burnett/NPR
Driving around Texas, it’s not uncommon to spot bumper stickers that tout the idea of an independent Longhorn nation.
“What we have been able to do since we threw off the yoke of the federal government is create a country that has the assets necessary to build an incredible empire,” says Bill Hammond, the association’s president.
Imagine airports without the Transportation Security Administration; gun sales without the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; land development without the Endangered Species Act; new congressional districts without the Voting Rights Act; and a new guest-worker program without Washington gridlock over immigration reform.
Indeed, new immigration laws sailed through the Texas Congress. Immigrant workers are now legally crossing the border to frame houses, mow lawns and clean hotel rooms.
“We now have a safe and secure guest-worker program that allows immigrants to come and go as the jobs ebb and flow, and fill the jobs that Texans are unwilling to do,” Hammond says.
The new normal is a leaner government that bears little resemblance to the full-service nation it left behind. The Tea Party faithful who embraced nationhood early on say it’s a lot better than being beholden to Chinese bankers.
“What is the Republic of Texas charged with actually doing? [It’s] charged with defense, charged with education, charged with a few things that you have to do, and the rest is wide open,” says Felicia Cravens, a high school drama teacher active in the Houston Tea Party movement. “Liberty may look like chaos, but to us it’s a lot of choices.”
Under statehood, the U.S. government contributed 60 percent of all Texas aid to the poor. In an independent republic, federal benefits like food stamps, free school lunches and unemployment compensation would disappear, according to two Dallas Tea Party leaders.
Liberty may look like chaos, but to us it’s a lot of choices.
– Felicia Cravens, Texas high school teacher
“The nation of Texas is a living experiment into what we call the empowerment society. It is no longer a caretaker society,” says Ken Emanuelson, founder of the Grassroots Texans Network.
Texas Tea Party member Katrina Pierson adds, “There’s a safety net that’s always been out there. We don’t have that anymore. You will be a productive member of society and our environment doesn’t allow for people to not be productive.”
Southern Methodist University political scientist Cal Jillson imagines that low-wage Texas would become a new magnet for assembly plants that might have considered setting up shop in Mexico or Malaysia.
“Since Texas has become independent, we are surprised — and some are pleased — to see that maquiladora [or foreign-owned] plants are springing up on the south side of the Red River and on the Sabine [River],” Jillson says. “The American South is complaining because some plants are moving to Texas.”
With independence, the epic battles between the state of Texas and the Environmental Protection Agency would finally be over. The state sued the EPA repeatedly for telling Texas how to run its refineries and coal-fired power plants. Business experts say the new republic would rely on voluntary pollution controls with minimal oversight — a boon to the industrial sector. But how would that go over with residents of refinery towns who have to breathe the air where they live?
“I am very, very skeptical that the nation of Texas will do a good job at protecting the health and safety of the people, because the EPA is no longer in the equation,” says Hilton Kelley, founder and director of the Community Empowerment and Development Association in Port Arthur. “It’s all about petroleum; it’s all about money.”
‘Peeling Back The Onion’ Of Texan Independence
As an independent country, Texas’s red granite capitol building would no longer fly the American flag, only the Lone Star. The new nationalism that breaks out inside the new government would soon be tempered by an independence hangover.
“Every day we’re peeling back the onion and finding another level of complexity that I don’t think anybody initially anticipated,” says Harvey Kronberg, longtime editor and publisher of the Texas political newsletter Quorum Report.
According to Kronberg, a modern sovereign nation requires more — not less — government than a state would. Consider all the new departments it would need to monitor things like foreign affairs, aviation and nuclear regulation. And then there are all the expenses Washington used to take care of — things like maintaining interstate highways, inspecting meat and checking passports.
“Reality is beginning to stagger the folks in the [capitol] building,” Kronberg says.
Public education is a good example. In 2011, the Texas state Legislature slashed billions of dollars from school systems at a time when Texas was already 43rd among the states in per pupil spending and dead last in the number of adults who completed high school.
Steve Murdock, the former Texas state demographer and current director of the Hobby Center for the Study of Texas, expects that things would not improve under the budget of a struggling infant nation.
“For Texas to be the competitive nation that we would all wish it would be, it has to make major improvements in education,” Murdock says, “because right now it’s falling short.”
Texas writer Joe Nick Patoski sits on a bench in downtown Austin, ruminating on the hassles of self-rule.
“You can’t get in the car and go to New Orleans [and] be there in six hours anymore,” he says. “Listen, have you been to the Louisiana checkpoint in Vinton? They’re extracting some kind of revenge, the way they treat us as Third World citizens.”
Patoski imagines losing a number of friends to the post-secession “Texodus,” when U.S. citizens fled Texas for the Upper 48 states. He says he’s rooting for the republic, but he’s anxious for its future.
Today, all that marks the state line between Texas and Louisiana are welcome signs. After independence, those signs would most likely be replaced with the customs and immigration checkpoints that come with any border crossings.
Enlarge Getty Images
Today, all that marks the state line between Texas and Louisiana are welcome signs. After independence, those signs would most likely be replaced with the customs and immigration checkpoints that come with any border crossings.
“I’m still proud to be a Texan,” he says, “but I wish they would’ve thought this through before they jumped and cut the cord.”
Step 1: Don’t Go To War With Oklahoma
During the state’s first run as a republic, from 1836 to 1845, Texas established diplomatic relations with England, France, the Netherlands and the United States. Today, the modern nation of Texas would find even more countries eager to build embassies in Austin, says Carne Ross of Independent Diplomat, a New York firm that advises fledgling nations.
“Because of Texas’ wealth — [it’s the] 15th-largest economy in the world — [foreign nations] do not want to have bad relations with Texas,” Ross says. “There are many countries, China for instance, that want to preserve their ability to access countries with major oil and gas reserves, so Texas fit into that.”
Unlike the first republic, a modern nation of Texas needs to have positions on things like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“But what was interesting was that Texas’ positions were often quite different from the remaining United States,” Ross says.
What would Texas’s foreign policy entail? Country singer and humorist Kinky Friedman imagines what he would do as the Texas secretary of foreign affairs.
“I think the first thing we would do is go to the Third World countries and teach the women how to grow big hair and give the men Rick Perry wigs,” he says. “I will keep us out of war with Oklahoma. And one of the first countries we’ll open free trade with is Cuba. We will be opening cigar stores all over Texas. We’re not supporting their economy; we’re burning their fields.”
From Texas To La Republica De Tejas
Texas might see itself as culturally akin to its former fatherland, but as time goes on, the nation’s destiny would be determined by its genetic ties to the south. If current demographic growth continues, Texas will become majority Hispanic within a generation. The prospect of Texas as the newest Latin American nation amuses Austin cultural marketing consultant Mando Rayo.
“Texas becomes La Republica de Tejas,” Rayo says. “The panhandle city of Amarillo becomes Amarillo, and our national pride, the Dallas Vaqueros, win the Super Bowl.”
But would the U.S. let Texas go or would there be a constitutional standoff and opposition from the remaining united states? University of Texas, Austin, presidential scholar H.W. Brands doesn’t anticipate a painful separation.
“The Texans were all set for a fight,” he says. “I don’t know, maybe they were a little bit surprised — maybe they were miffed — that much of the rest of the country said, ‘Well we’ve had enough of the Texans, let ’em go. We’ll be better off without ’em.’ ”
The premise of an independent Texas isn’t actually all that popular in the Lone Star State. Last year, Public Policy Polling asked Texans if they favored secession, and fewer than 1 in 5 were for it. As for the 18 percent that said yes — they can just consider our simulation food for thought.
Richard Dobson is a Texas singer-songwriter from Tyler and former roughneck who gamboled around Galveston and Houston, then Austin and Nashville, before spending the past 13 years living in Switzerland and playing all over Europe. That’s the shorthand. The long version is this fine piece of contemporary literature, Pleasures of the High Rhine – A Texas Singer in Exile.
I’ve known Richard since the 1970s when he was hanging around Austin and sometimes touring as part of Townes Van Zandt’s band, as told in his previous book Gulf Coast Boys, and have stayed in touch over the years by reading his eloquent observations in his occasional Don Ricardo’s Life and Times newsletter.
He’s enjoyed nominal success, his songs having been covered by Guy Clark, Nanci Griffith, Kelly Willis, Carlene Carter and Dave Edmunds, and the Carter Family, among others. As solid as his tunes are, it’s Dobson’s literary writing that grabs me.
Pleasures of the High Rhine was written at a critical time in Dobson’s life: his friends Townes and the writer Roxy Gordon have died fairly young, leaving him to contemplate their lives and demise. A red-haired Swiss woman has left her family and joined him in Galveston for a year before returning to Switzerland as a couple. A new millennium has begun.
Pleasures of the High Rhine covers songwriting, collaborating, performing and recording with a German band led by Thomm Jutz (now a Nashville cat), the strangeness of playing venues that ostensibly showcase American country music, and observations thereof, a critical skill for any songwriter.
But it’s also about living as an expatriate in a foreign country, redefining what home is, learning to speak German, being welcomed into a new family, living on the Swiss-German border, food, drink, his relationship with Edith, trips back to Houston and Nashville, gardening (including growing his own marijuana in a society that doesn’t much care one way or another) aging, and, water.
The latter is where Dobson really sings. He opens with a passage about fishing in the Gulf off of Galveston, down to describing the second and third sandbars offshore and the joys of “green water” fishing in the fall when the Gulf clarifies briefly into Caribbean-like beauty. Finding beauty in its harsh roughness, he writes the Texas Gulf like no one I’ve read before.
He soon finds himself on the Rhine River and delves into it with similar zeal and a newfound curiosity.
His pursuit of a fishing license – no easy thing in Switzerland, requiring an extensive 140 question test in Deutsch – a steep learning curve how to fish the Rhein, especially for elusive trout, and his summer swims in the river lead to deep history of the river and its inhabitants, including not so pleasant events such as Kristalnacht when synagogues were burned and Jews persecuted, and the historic fouling and restoration of the waterway.
He gets it.
Contemporary global events such as the election of George W. Bush and 9-11 are seen from a distance that lends perspective, written by a kindred spirit.
The finest singer-songwriters possess the gift where their words often transcend the music. In Pleasures of the High Rhine, Richard Dobson’s words simply sing.
Tomorrow is World Snake Day, meaning a large number of vehicles will be veering off of southbound Interstate 35 at Exit 182, between New Braunfels and San Antonio, to pay their respects at the Snake Farm.
Before there was Sea World or Six Flags Fiesta Texas, there was the Snake Farm. Since 1967, when the main highway out front was still Route 81, parents of a certain age have viewed the Snake Farm as the only truly irresistible roadside attraction on the iconic car trip to the Alamo. Inner Space Cavern, Aquarena Springs (which featured Ralph the Swimming Pig), Wonder World Cave and the Natural Bridge Caverns could all be ignored. But if there was a herp freak in the back seat, you had no choice but to pull over at the Snake Farm.
Those carloads add up — and it’s not just families. Even after four-plus decades, the Snake Farm manages to attract 400,000 visitors of all ages annually. At $9.95 per person ($6.95 for children 2 to 12), it’s a tidy little business.
In the late 1970s, the iconic New York punk rockers The Ramones stumbled upon the Snake Farm while on tour between Austin and San Antonio. The band subsequently began to wear Snake Farm T-shirts as part of their stage and offstage personae. Snake Farm shirts, replicas of those worn by the late Dee Dee Ramone, have been available online for $49.95.
Five years ago, Ray Wylie Hubbard (the singer-songwriter who performs on the other side of New Braunfels tonight at Gruene Hall) paid homage with “Snake Farm,” a song about a guy in love with a stripper who works the counter at, yes, the Snake Farm. The engaging sing-along refrain: “Snake Farm, sure sounds nasty. Snake Farm, pretty much is. Ewwwwwww.”
A persistent legend among many young Texas males is that if you asked for change for a 20 at the Snake Farm, your double sawbuck would be kept and you’d be directed to one of the trailers out back, where a lady of the night would be waiting, in the tradition of the Chicken Ranch in La Grange.
The reality is snakes, and lots of ’em. More than 200 species are on display inside a no-frills cinder-block building. Stickers on some vivariums identify the Snake Farm’s Top 10 Most Venomous Snakes. The No. 9 King Cobra and No. 2 Black Mamba appear far more threatening than No. 1, the Inland Taipan, a small, rust-colored snake.
In addition to snakes, there’s a petting zoo, outdoor cages with lemurs, hyenas, parrots, monkeys, kinkajous and peacocks, and a pond filled with crocodiles and alligators. This explains the official name, Animal World and Snake Farm, even though the souvenirs all say Snake Farm Exotic Animal Park.
For the past eight years, the staff, led by Jarrod Forthman, the director of outreach, has overseen daily animal encounters at noon and 3 p.m., offering lizard talks and bringing out a huge python for photo ops. The big ’un is the Sunday 3 p.m. Croc Feed, in which the resident family of crocodilians have their once-a-week meal of raw chicken parts.
Mr. Forthman, 30, describes the weekly feeding as the most dangerous show in the country. “I have some job security, if you know what I mean,” he said with a sly grin. Mr. Forthman added that the farm was not regulated like most zoos. “So we’re able to do things normal zoos cannot,” he said. “You can get up close and personal.”
You can also get bitten. Mr. Forthman, who has been featured on the Discovery Channel’s “Dirty Jobs,” has 100 stitches in his right hand from one croc bite and is missing half a thumb from another.
With the recent purchase of 45 acres behind the present three-acre footprint, Mr. Forthman envisions more snakes, more animals and a drive-through safari. But it’s the old-fashioned cheesy aura and staff members’ willingness to risk digits and limbs in the name of putting on a good show that will keep drawing the crowds.
“I get no greater thrill than having to handle some of the deadliest snakes,” Mr. Forthman said. “Call me crazy, but I’m doing what I love.”
Joe Nick Patoski is a regular contributor to these pages.
The band I managed back in the 1980s, Stiff Records artists Joe “King” Carrasco and the Crowns (Joe King, Kris Cummings, Brad Kizer, Miguel Navarro) have reformed 30 years after the fact for a Texas Tourette.
Dates are Friday, June 17 @ the Continental Club Houston
Saturday, June 18 @ the Back Porch, Port Aransas
Friday, June 24 @ Poor David’s, Dallas
Saturday, June 25 @ Antone’s, Austin
Sunday, June 26 @ Sam’s Burger Joint, San Antonio.
Here’s the story:
In the late summer 1979, Joe “King” Carrasco formed a stripped-down four-piece combo to replace his Chicano big band, El Molino. Dubbed the Crowns, organist/accordionist Kris Cummings, bassist Brad Kizer, and drummer Miguel Navarro backed up Carrasco at Raul’s, the famed punk club, and the Hole-in-the-Wall, and other University of Texas-area venues in Austin, quickly gaining a following around their revved-up Tex-Mex brand of punk rock, harkening back to the classic Vox and Farfisa organ-driven sound first popularized by the 1960s Texas bands Sir Douglas Quintet (“She’s About A Mover”), Sam The Sham and The Pharoahs (“Wooly Bully”), and ? And the Mysterians (“96 Tears”).
In November 1979, Joe “King” Carrasco & the Crowns made their first trip to New York City where Joe “King” almost gave the Lone Star Café’s owner, Mort Cooperman, a heart attack when he jumped off the club’s balcony onto the stage. The band was such a sensation, they were invited to play the storied Mudd Club downtown, and returned to Austin with critical praise from New York’s music press including Lester Bangs and John Rockwell of the New York TImes.
Armed with a 45 rpm single “Party Weekend” b/w “Houston El Mover” that was financed by ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons, the band returned to New York in the spring of 1980 to record a demo album for Warner Brothers Records, which was eventually released on ROIR records as “Tales From the Crypt,” and platy two weeks worth of dates at CBGB’s, Hurrah, TR3, which would lead to more bookings at the Danceteria, the Peppermint Lounge, and the Bottom Line, as well as appearances in Washington, DC, Boston, Toronto, Providence, and other cities in the northeast.
By the end of the summer, Joe “King” Carrasco & the Crowns signed a recording contract with Stiff Records in England and embarked on the Son of Stiff Tour with Tenpole Tudor, Dirty Looks, the Equators, and Any Trouble, an extended three-month tour of the United Kingdom, Europe, and the northeastern United States, promoting their debut album and the single “Buena,” a Top Ten hit in France and Sweden that charted in the Top 40 on the BBC.
While overseas, the band filmed a video of “Buena” in London, and taped television appearances in Spain, France, and on Musicladen in Germany, which was broadcast across the Continent.
In January, 1981, the band issued their first US album on the Hannibal label for music empresario Joe Boyd and appeared on the television series “Saturday Night Live” and was a featured act on a new cable television channel called MTV. Later that year, JKC and the Crowns made their West Coast debut at the Whiskey-A-Go-Go behind their Hannibal EP “Party Safari” and played a date in the basement of Hollywood’s Cathay de Grande where they shared the bill with Top Jimmy & The Rhythm Pigs and Los Lobos, making their West LA debut.
Joe “King” Carrasco & The Crowns played a critical role in exporting the Austin sound and Texas music around the world, while establishing the band as one of the most popular music-makers in the Lone Star state in clubs, at Spring Break in South Padre Island, and in arenas and outdoor venues such as Red Rocks, the Frank Erwin Center, the Summit, the Ritz, and Southpark Meadows where they shared the bill with the Talking Heads, the Police, REMm UB 40, the English Beat, the Go-Gos, George Thorogood, and Culture Club.
Thirty years later, the band that exported Tex-Mex Rock-Roll around the globe has reunited for a limited number of Texas dates, demonstrating to fans that what they had heard all those years ago was no mirage: Joe “King” Carrasco & the Crowns rock like no one else before or since.
BIG BEND NATIONAL PARK SEEKS PUBLIC COMMENT ON PROPOSAL TO CONSTRUCT VISITOR CONTACT STATION,
ESTABLISH PORT OF ENTRY AT BOQUILLAS CROSSING
The National Park Service (NPS) proposes to construct a visitor contact station in Big Bend National Park near the Rio Grande and across from Boquillas, Mexico. The facility would provide visitors with information and would house the equipment necessary to permit the area to function as a Class B port of entry between the U.S. and Mexico. The public, organizations, and other agencies are invited to review and comment upon an Environmental Assessment (EA) describing and analyzing the proposal.
The purpose of re-establishing the Rio Grande crossing near Boquillas and constructing a visitor contact station is to provide visitor information and to support safe and secure international crossings of the Rio Grande. This new contact station and re-established border crossing are intended to facilitate opportunities for visitors, scientists and researchers, and park and protected area managers to enter Mexico, as well as permit residents on the Mexican side of the border to enter the United States to purchase goods and services and to visit friends and family living in nearby West Texas towns. Construction of the visitor contact station is proposed to begin in July 2011. The port of entry opening is proposed for April 2012.
This Environmental Assessment (EA) evaluates two alternatives and the potential environmental impacts of each: 1) Alternative A, the No Action Alternative; 2) Alternative B, Construction and Operation of a Visitor Contact Station. Alternative A describes the current condition of the project area and the environmental impacts that may occur if there were no changes in the way the park currently manages the area. Alternative B describes construction and operation of a new visitor contact station and establishment of a Class B (remote, automated) port of entry. Alternative B is the preferred alternative.
The EA has been prepared in accordance with the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA), the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) regulations (40 CFR 1500 et seq), and NPS Director’s Order 12: Conservation Planning, Environmental Impact Analysis, and Decision-making (DO-12).
The 30-day review and comment period starts May 4, and continues through June 2, 2011. To see the Environmental Assessment, visit the National Park Service Planning, Environment and Public Comment (PEPC) website at: http://parkplanning.nps.gov/bibe during the comment period. Written comments may be submitted on the PEPC website or may be sent to: Superintendent, Attention Boquillas Contact Station, P.O. Box 129, Big Bend National Park, Texas, 79834.
Before including your address, phone number, e-mail address, or other personal identifying information in your comment, you should be aware that your entire comment – including your personal identifying information – may be made public at any time. While you can ask us in your comment to withhold your personal identifying information from public review, we cannot guarantee that we will be able to do so.
Headed for the beach this summer? Escape the crowds at these five out-of-the-way places where the coast is always clear.
The long, languid coastline of Texas takes its own sweet time seducing the senses. The Texas coast is the simple essence of the seashore experience: sun, sand, surf, breezes, dunes, wetlands, waterfowl, and vast, tranquil bays, along with its most compelling assets, the thin, elegant islands and peninsulas that barricade the Texas mainland from a stormy sea.
Finding that wild coast can be done with just a little bit of effort. You can discover hidden places as remote as far West Texas, but tempered by the constant calming roar of the surf rolling over sandbars in harmony with the squawks of shorebirds, unspoiled by the buzz of Jet Skis and the beat of boom boxes. You don’t have to be an athlete or an outdoorsman to get the most out of the adventure. These five easy places–the marshes of Sea Rim State Park, the bird sanctuaries of High Island, Matagorda Island State Park and Wildlife Area, lower Padre Island National Seashore, and Boca Chica beach–are there for anyone who wants to indulge the primal urge to be at land’s end, where the wilderness overwhelms the civilized and the coast is always clear.
As Wild as Big Bend SEA RIM STATE PARK
The Scoop: Sea Rim
Getting there. From Houston, take 1-10 east to Winnie, then Texas Highway 73 east to Port Arthur. Follow the signs to Sabine Pass and Texas Highway 87. From Galveston take the Bolivar ferry to Highway 87, turn left at High Island on Texas Highway 124 to Winnie, and follow directions above. The distance to Sea Rim on both routes is around one hundred miles. Park info: Entry fee $2 per person for everyone 13 and older. No beach lifeguard. Amenities The park headquarters (409-971-2559) has rest rooms, showers, and picnic tables; ice and bug spray for sale; and beach chairs and umbrellas for rent, as well as a small interpretive display. Camping: Twenty spaces are available for RVs in a paved campground east of the headquarters, with electricity, running water, and a dump station, $10 per night, ten tent sites are located in an adjacent area with running water, grills, picnic tables, and a rinse shower, $7. Weekend reservations should be made at least three weeks in advance. Primitive camping is available on four raised wooden platforms in the marsh, accessible only by boat, with attached privy, $5 per night. Beach camping is allowed. Activities, Airboat tours: $13.50 adults, $8.50 for children ages 6 to 11. Canoe rentals: $15 full day, $10 half day. Side trip: Sabine Pass Battleground State Historical Park. The strategic importance of the pass, now surrounded by oil platforms and heavy industries, is underscored by the presence of concrete bunkers built during World War Il. The Civil War battle is reenacted every September.
“People who’ve lived around here for years and see it for the first time, they can’t believe it exists,” said Danny Magouirk, looking out over the tall grasses that rise out of the wetlands all the way to the horizon. “You can look for miles and miles and see nothing but marsh. No power lines, no poles, totally natural. It’s as wild as Big Bend.”
Magouirk is the superintendent of Sea Rim State Park, which begins ten miles after the Texas coast emerges from the Louisiana muck at Sabine Pass. The park has five miles of beachfront, but the area of greatest interest is the wide swath of wetlands that incorporates two wildlife refuges, totaling almost 75,000 acres. Magouirk was about to fire up the automobile engine that powers his airboat to take me on a ride through the marsh unit of the park. I put on the earmuffs he’d given me, and we sped into the rich wetlands, winding along watery alleys through the cordgrass. The passages were so tight I felt as if I were in a tunnel. Occasionally the grasses would part and we would find ourselves crossing wide-open flats, placid lakes, or small ponds, and then we would plunge into the dense vegetation again. Less than a minute after departing the Myers Point dock one mile east of the park headquarters, we were being shadowed by an indigo bunting, an iridescent neotropical bird on its way north for the summer. Our boat flushed herons, egrets, and ducks out of the grasses, sent fish jumping, and forced alligators, sunk deep in the mud, to scurry for safety. It occurred to me that Sea Rim is an aquatic version of a drive-through wildlife park.
This is one of the least-trafficked parts of the coastline, due in no small part to the impassable condition of Texas Highway 87, the storm-battered road that once hugged the beach from Sabine pass to the Port Bolivar ferry landing on Galveston Bay. The highway was closed in 1989 when hurricanes Chantal and Jerry washed out the roadway. From a few miles east of High Island to a few miles west of Sea Rim, the road no longer exists in many places. Even four-wheel drive won’t help. Nature has reasserted its claim to the land, which is once again beach, low dunes, and tideland.
The beach at Sea Rim is practically an afterthought. Its hard-packed sand, made bronze by silt from the Mississippi River, slopes gradually into tepid water. The minimal wave action discourages surfing but is close to ideal for casting for redfish, speckled trout, flounder, and sand sharks and for launching sailboards, sailboats, and catamarans. The beach draws a more sedate crowd than the rowdy bunch that frequents the county’s McFaddin Beach, about two miles to the west.
At Sea Rim, the other side of the dunes is where the action is. If a boat trip into the marsh sounds too adventurous, take a stroll along the three-quarter-mile Gambusia Trail, an elevated boardwalk that begins just east of the visitors center. Who needs a zoo amid ducks splashing, birds perching, and alligators marinating themselves, all within an arm’s reach, seemingly oblivious to human presence? They were so close that I had to remind myself of the sign that addressed my erroneous impression: “This park is not a zoo. The animals here are wild.”
For The Birds HIGH ISLAND
The Scoop: High Island
Getting there: From Houston, take 1-10 east to Winnie, then turn right on Texas Highway 124; it’s 18 miles to High Island. From Galveston, take the Bolivar ferry to Texas Highway 187, then continue 28 miles to High Island. Activities: Birdwatching. There are two primary in-town sanctuaries, including Smith Oaks, around one hundred acres next to Birder’s Haven (admission $5 a day or $20 a year). Other popular spots are the Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge and the Bolivar Flats Shorebird Sanctuary, near the Bolivar ferry landing, each less than half an hour away. Side trips: George E. Kahla’s Fresh Junk (pronounced KAYluh), on the west side of Highway 124 in High Island. This is my choice for the most imaginative Junk shop on the Texas coast. The free ferry from Bolivar to Galveston provides a twenty-minute ride across Galveston Bay to Galveston.
Everywhere you look in the little Birder’s Haven shop tucked away on Winnie Street in High Island, you see birds: T-shirts on the wall with warblers and buntings silk-screened on the front, bird maps, bird books about the upper Texas Coast, cassettes of bird calls, bird videos, bird gimme caps, “I Brake for Birds” bumper stickers, and all sorts of avian accessories, from jewelry to binocular straps.
High Island is for the birds. The small town of fewer than five hundred residents, named for an unusual coastal hill (which turned out to be an oil-rich salt dome), has become one of the great birdwatching centers of North America. This is largely because of its strategic place in the annual trans-Gulf migration of birds moving north in the spring. When a cold front blows in from the north, birds fall out of the sky into trees. In 1991 Jon and Glendaweena Llast, two avid birdwatchers from Dallas, opened a one-stop bed-and-breakfast, birders’ shop, and gateway to Smith Oaks, a sanctuary owned by the Houston Audubon Society. Although Jon and Glendaweena are both dead now, owner Kenneth Ferguson operates the store and Birder’s Haven B&B in the house across the courtyard. Testifying to High Island’s world renown was a group from Thunder Bay, Ontario, who occupied the sitting area underneath the spreading shade of thirty-foot oaks, cottonwoods, and fig trees. Feeders hung from the branches, which seemed to be a Grand Central Station of the avian world. Gurgling fountains served as birdbaths. “Last year we went to Arizona and wound up here,” one woman told me. “This year we’d planned a trip to Florida, but here we are.”
Leaving The World Behind MATAGORDA ISLAND STATE PARK AND WILDLIFE MANAGEMENT AREA
The Scoop: Matagorda
Getting there: The Texas Parks and Wildlife ferry departs from Port 0’Conner. From the south, take Texas Highway 35 to Green Lake, then torn right onto Texas Highway 85 to Seadrift and continue to Port O’Connor. From the north or west, pick up Highway 185 in Victoria and proceed as before. Port 0’Conner is approximately 50 miles from Victoria. Park info: For ferry service information call 361-983-221 5. Camping: Two campgrounds-Army Hole near the beat dock and the Beach Campground two miles away. The latter has two covered picnic tables. Fees: None. Reservations: Not needed. Fires: Permitted only in designated fire rings or in the tidal zone of the beach where there is no vegetation. Activities: Hiking, biking, fishing, and birdwatching are the main activities here. The visitors center display includes three aquarium tanks with silversides, hermit crabs, sand minnows, and Atlantic drills, and a collection of flotsam and jetsam that washed onto the beach, including driftwood from Braze and a whale vertebra the size of a truck tire. Side trip: The ruins of Indianola–one of Texas major nineteenth-century ports, wiped out by two hurricanes. From Seadrift, go north on Texas Highway 238 toward Port Lavaca, then east on Texas Highway 316 to Indianola.
The mainland gradually disappeared in the humid haze as the ferry headed south on the eleven-mile trip across Espiritu Santo Bay toward Matagorda Island. First the 110-foot cast-iron lighthouse came into view, then several outbuildings on the bay side of the island near the ferry landing, remnants of an abandoned Air Force base. After a trip of almost an hour, we arrived at the 38-mile-long barrier island, which was inaccessible except by private boat until ferry service began in 1995. Today Matagorda remains as close to a wilderness as you can get on the Texas coast–a 58,000-acre park and preserve that is off-limits to private motor vehicles. Only bicycles and park vehicles (including two open-bed shuttle trucks and an old school bus that carry visitors around the island) are allowed on the roads left behind by the Air Force.
“People call this place pristine,” Runny Gallagher, a former park superintendent, told me during a tour of the park, which is surrounded by a much larger national wildlife refuge. “This is nowhere close to pristine. Cattle ranching went on here for more than one hundred and fifty years, and the Air Force tried to bomb it back into the ocean.”
Gallagher suddenly stopped the truck. “Horny toad!” he shouted. It was a sight I hadn’t seen since I was a boy. I picked it up, and a childhood memory told me to turn it over on its back and tickle its belly. Sure enough, its eyes closed. A few hundred yards up the road we stopped at an elevated observation platform that provided a view of a marsh, where red-winged blackbirds chittered and chattered and a couple of black-headed coots loitered in the tall grass. An eastern meadowlark and two cedar waxwings glided by, and a whistling tree duck emerged from the water. For such an isolated spot, Matagorda has a rich history. La Salle, Cabeza de Vaca, and Jean Lafitte all passed this way. The antebellum lighthouse, now shuttered and lightless but majestic nonetheless, was originally located two and a half miles northeast of its present site, then moved in 1878. It marks the entrance to Matagorda Bay at Cavallo Pass.
Gallagher zipped past the old airbase runway, where the cracks between the slabs of concrete were filling in with native grasses, Mexican hat in bloom, and prickly pear. The runway has become a nesting area for the endangered least tern, just as the poles that once carried electricity to the island have been claimed by great blue herons. Mother Nature is slowly taking back the island. We got out of the truck again at the beach, which was wide and white. Gallagher examined a dug-up area around ghost crab holes, which he blamed on feral hogs. “They root the devil out of everything,” he snarled. The hogs are the scourge of the island, an invader whose presence threatens the balance of a fragile ecosystem that shelters 325 species of birds, 20 of them protected or endangered species, including whooping cranes and peregrine falcons, and a herd of around nine hundred white-tailed deer. More bird species have been recorded here than anywhere in Texas.
Currents bring the trash here–most of it dumped from ships and offshore platforms–and little can be done about it. The twice-a-year cleanups organized by the General Land Office keep the situation somewhat under control. “We don’t rake the beach or clean it,” Gallagher said. “Leaving it alone protects the salt cap on the sand, prevents wind erosion, and lets the beach grow.” But he still tries to do his part. “You know about the message in the bottle?” he asked me. “When I find one of them, I write a letter hack to say, "You’re polluting my beach.”
The Longest Drive PADRE ISLAND NATIONAL SEASHORE
The Scoop: Padre Island National Seashore
Getting there: Padre Island National Seashore is 30 miles from downtown Corpus Christi via Texas Highway 358 and Park Road 22 and 36 miles from Port Aransas via Texas Highway 361 to the park road. Park info: A seven-day pass is $10 per auto or $5 per individual hiker or bicyclist. Seniors may obtain a lifetime pass for $10. Disabled visitors are admitted free. Camping: Malaquite Beach has 50 sites for tent and RV camping, first come, first served. Primitive camping is permitted on the beach and at two locations on the Laguna Madre: Bird Island Basin, just east of the entrance gate, and Yarborough Pass, at milepost 15. Most campers are limited to 14 consecutive days, but at Malaquite campgrounds, campers can stay 30 days. Activities: Malaquite Beach is Texas’ best. Umbrellas and Boogie Boards are for rent. The Grasslands Nature Trail is a three-quarter-mile self-guided walk through dunes and grasses. The trailhead is just south of the entrance gate to the park. Bird Island Basin is a popular site for windsurfing. Launch fee: $5. No rentals. The visitors center has exhibits on the geology, wildlife, and history of Padre Island.
The road from Corpus Christi to Padre Island National Seashore foretold what lay ahead: First the convenience stores disappeared from the roadside landscape, followed by subdivisions, motels, shell shops, and condos, leaving only telephone poles to mar the view. Then even the poles and the shoulders of the pavement vanished, leaving only a narrow ribbon of asphalt to split the dunes and tidal flats on the longest barrier island in the world. And we hadn’t even gotten to the park visitors center yet. It was the perfect introduction to driving to the Mansfield Cut, a 120-mile round-trip on the longest undeveloped stretch of coastline in the United States.
I had rented a Jeep Cherokee, summoned my buddy Red, and risen with the sun. The chalkboard at the entry gate to the park warned that beach driving conditions were poor. But the other statistics that are important to the down-island traveler–wind, weather, water temperature, beach debris, and presence of jellyfish–were agreeable for a full days adventure. A mile after the visitors center, the pavement veered straight toward the beach. By a few minutes after eight we were rolling along the firm sand. Perhaps fifty vans and pickups were parked along the first five miles, most of them rigged for overnight camping. The next milepost warned that motor traffic for the next 55 miles was restricted to vehicles with four-wheel drive. Another sign raised the speed limit from 15 miles per hour to 25.
Around twenty miles into the four-wheel-drive zone, we passed what would be the last of the vehicles parked on the beach. We were alone except for the occasional all-terrain vehicle driven by a ranger or a volunteer looking out for the endangered Kemp’s ridley turtles, whose nesting season had just begun.
Driving anywhere on this beach required nimble steering, quick reflexes, and constant vigilance–exactly what makes it one of the great driving experiences in Texas.
The Tip of Texas BOCA CHICA
The Scoop: Boca Chica
Getting there: Boca Chica beach is 22, miles east of Brownsville on Texas Highway 4. Park info: No entry fee. No lifeguard. No showers, no phone, no rest rooms or privies. No staying behind the beach. Activities: The beach is one of the best in the state, as nice as South Padre except for more trash. Side trip: Boca Chica is a side trip.
Easter weekend at South Padre: No Vacancy signs, long lines in the restaurants and stores, long lines on he road, the beach packed with people. Easter weekend on Boca Chica, a peninsula just across Brazos Santiago Pass from the towers of South Padre: around 75 cars cruising up and down the beach, with perhaps 10 more vehicles clustered at the mouth of the Rio Grande.
Boca Chica is a narrow finger of land between the Rio Grande and South Bay, the bottom of the Laguna Madre. When it reaches the sea, the peninsula makes a sharp left turn to form an eight-mile-long beach. Behind it is a harsh landscape that, compared with the marshes of Sea Rim, is almost a desert–a yucca-spiked prairie studded with tall grasses, mangrove, mesquite, and big thickets of prickly pear. The drive out is a boulevard of broken dreams: a roadside marker commemorating the last battle of the Civil War, a scattering of homes in a ailed subdivision (Kopernik Shores, marketed to Polish immigrants from Chicago), the crumbling gates of mother development that never got under way, and the most recent failure, Playa Del Rio, envisioned as a mega-resort of hotels and golf courses when it was announced in 1986. Now the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service owns most of Boca Chica, as part of the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge.
In contrast to South Padre, the beach at Boca Chica is practically untamed. There are no shelters, no services, nothing but beach and sea and a few cars. I took my two sons there on a day trip from South Padre. It’s only a few hundred yards as the crow flies, but to get there you have to drive eighteen miles hack to Brownsville, then toward Boca Chica on a shoulderless road. We turned right at the beach and followed it three miles to an impassable point where a lighthouse was positioned across an inlet. The lighthouse marked Playa Bagdad, the beach of Matamoros. The small inlet was the once-mighty Rio Grande, now less than 75 yards wide, a gentle stream running clear and cool enough to attract swimmers from both sides. The Spanish name Boca Chica was perfect; it means “little mouth.”
We found a spot at least a quarter of a mile from the nearest car. The beach was almost a hundred yards wide and bordered by a continuous row of dunes. The older boy went straight in with a Boogie Board in hand, while the younger boy squawked and hollered with pure joy, splashing around in the surf. I showed him how to body surf, diving with a breaking wave, arms extended forward, legs kicking. He picked it up right away.
For me, the respite from the crowds offered a chance to reconnect. I watched the younger one’s fascination with a dead man-of-war that had washed up on the beach and observed the older one studying the waves intently, waiting for just the rights sets and perhaps the perfect swell in the hope of making the most of what it is, at best, a three-second thrill. After drying off, I wandered back into the dunes, hoping to scale one of the hills that looked taller and sturdier than those on South Padre. I was immediately besieged by a swarm of hungry deerflies, an experience that gave me a better understanding of the Karankawas, the fierce coastal tribe that smeared stinky alligator grease and dirt on their bodies to cultivate a foul and offensive body odor. Now I knew why.
Meanwhile, the older boy had retreated to the water’s edge. “He’s not a kid anymore,” I thought to myself, as he busied himself in the sand, constructing a moat for a handful of tiny coquinas he’d dug out of the mud–only to have an errant wave sneak up and wash the whole thing away. I recognized his cry of disappointment as a mock one. He knew as well as I did that the ocean always takes back what it has given. At the beach you’re never too old to play in the sand.
Union Station and other transportation hubs in the nation’s capital reflect heightened precautions for passengers.
Two Towns Still Terrific
San Antonio Express-News BY JOE NICK PATOSKI July 28, 2002
A family’s summer trip to Washington and New York finds unexpected enrichment in the poignant aftermath of 9-11.
Common sense inspired our family’s summer vacation plan to go to New York and Washington, D.C. We’d thought about Europe, but our 12-year-old had never been to the nation’s capital and the 16-year-old was contemplating New York University. Four Rapid Rewards freebies on Southwest sealed the deal. We’d be doing our patriotic duty spending our money where it’s needed most, I’d joked, but 9-11 really wasn’t a motive. Or so I thought.
Since security has tightened around all airports, we arrived at San Antonio International a full two hours before departure on a Sunday morning. With long check in lines at curbside and the ticket counter and a thorough security check, we made it to the gate with fewer than 30 minutes to spare. We drove to D.C. in our rental car from Baltimore-Washington, got lost, and entered the district through Alexandria, navigating to our West End hotel, the Park Hyatt.
We walked back into Georgetown, then strolled toward the White House. Barricades a block away and a significant police presence were the first signs of stepped-up vigilance. Still, we were able to walk to the gate separating the White House from Lafayette Park. Along with us were a handful of tourists from Sweden and Japan, and we visited briefly with an anti-nuclear protestor who’d been at this very spot along with his partner for 30 years.
We woke up the next morning to a Code Red Day with which Tom Ridge had nothing to do. It was a bad-air day, so bad that schools in Virginia cancelled classes, but still nice enough to allow us to walk four blocks to the Metro, where I finally felt like a tourist. I thought I understood the directions to buying tickets from an automatic machine and using them in the turnstile, but a man in uniform materialized to show me what I’d done wrong.
Jane Wooldrigde/Miami Herald
The boys picked up on it quick enough to get us on the right train to the Smithsonian. The Air & Space Museum was as great as I remembered it, once we cleared the security check of personal items at the entrance. The free admission made me proud to be an American, though I quickly learned how expensive “free” can be after the family watched a 20-minute show on the universe in the planetarium ($7 each) and the boys rode in a flight simulator ($12 each).
Kris snuck out to the Corcoran Art Museum, where we caught up to eat lunch. Then we all detoured to the Smithsonian’s “castle” head quarters, drawn by the ground-floor photo exhibit on the World Trade Center disaster, which kept us riveted.
By the museum’s 5:30 closing time, we were exhausted. Thankfully, the kids mastered the Metro ticket system well enough to get us to the hotel without assistance. The local and national TV news was buzzing with stories about Jose Padilla, the accused “dirty bomber,” along with graphic explanations of how many people would have been killed on the Washington Mall if a dirty bomb had exploded there. Evidently, a mock drill had been conducted several days before, so we were treated to video portrayals of bloody victims crawling around the same grassy lawn we’d just walked across. We shrugged.
We found our way to Adams Morgan, a loose, hip, multicultural neighborhood, unlike the government part of the district where we were staying, and ate Ethiopian, something hard to find in South Texas, enjoying the rich curried stews and the communal style of eating, but not the spongy bread that’s used like a spoon, in the tradition of tortillas or tostadas.
New York, still familiar
The five hour drive to the Big Apple the next day pretty much boiled down to paying tolls every 10 or 15 miles and stopping twice at rest areas on the New Jersey turnpike, the cleanest restrooms I’ve seen on a major highway in the country. One even had a Dickey’s Barbecue franchise from Dallas, though not many customers.
Finally, we spotted the New York skyline through the haze. All eyes focused on the south end of Manhattan Island, where the twin towers of the World Trade Center used to be. Not seeing them was like a missing tooth, or an amputated limb, but the skyline was still plenty stunning.
We descended into the Holland Tunnel to get to Manhattan. Despite the hundreds of other vehicles doing the same, my wife and I later admitted to one another we couldn’t help thinking of terrorists during the five-minute drive underneath the Hudson River. I felt a sense of relief leaving the tunnel, no matter how congested the Lower Manhattan rush hour traffic we drove into.
IF YOU GO
Getting there: Southwest has one daily nonstop to Baltimore-Washington International Airport, about an hour drive from D.C., with shuttles and metro connections. We booked a Nissan Altima through Hotwire.com for a week at BWI for $270, including tax and additional driver fee.
Lodging: We booked a room for four at the Park Hyatt, 24th and M Street N.W., (202) 789-1234, through Expedia.com at a $149-plus tax rate. However, our room only had one bed. ‘Happens all the time with Expedia,’ the concierge explained. ‘You should always reconfirm with the hotel when booking online.’ The hotel graciously upgraded us to a junior suite, which runs $175 a night.
Dining: Meskerem Ethiopian Restaurant 2434 18th St. N.W. (202) 462-4100. A communal meal for four, with drinks, was $60.
In New York: TKTS has half-price tickets to Broadway shows on sale at Duffy Square, the island at 47th Street between Broadway and Seventh Avenue. The booth is open from 3 to 8 p.m. for evening performances, and 9 am. to 2 p.m. for Wednesday and Saturday matinees and from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sundays. Cash and traveler’s checks only.
John’s Original Brick Oven Pizza, 278 Bleeker St., between 6th and 7th, (212) 243-1680 Pies about $11 plus $2 for each topping. Cash only.
Wo Hop, 17 Mott St., (212) 267-2536, 24 hours, entrees $5-10. Excellent hot and sour soup.
It’s the same New York, I learned over the next four days, reconnecting with some of Kris’ and my old haunts. But it’s a new New York, too. I’d already seen the effects of Mayor Giuliani’s clean-up campaign over the past 10 years, but this time people really were nicer, happy to give directions to lost, clueless, out-of-towners, and more than once, after hearing me speak, asking where I was from.
The kids loved Times Square, especially the new Toys R Us at 44th and Broadway – the biggest toy store in the world, effectively haven stolen the thunder from the storied FAO Schwartz.
While hanging out at Virgin Records Superstore, right across from where MTV stages “TRL,” the 16-year-old noticed someone giving away tickets, and we managed to hustle seats for my wife and him, passing Jake off for 18, the minimum age to be in the audience. Since I’d already been before, I hung out with Andy
We saw “The Graduate” on Broadway, taking advantage of the TKTS half-price booth in the middle of Times Square, and witnessed the Upright Citizens Brigade comedy in a small venue in Chelsea. We spotted the Naked Cowboy, a local character in a cowboy hat, white underwear, boots, and guitar, entertaining tourists in the middle of traffic in the heart of Broadway. I contemplated taking advantage of the street hustler holding a sign that advertised, “Pick up lines, $1,’ and the kids bought bootleg Oakley sunglasses from an African man clutching a black trash bag on Fifth Avenue, right in front of Tiffany’s jewelers, two for $15.
We ate the best 75-cent hot dogs in the world at Gray’s Papaya on Broadway, “Nobody, but nobody serves a better frankfurter” and scarfed some mighty fine thin-crust pizza at John’s on Bleeker Street in Greenwich Village. We had very inexpensive, very authentic Chinese at the Wo Hop in Chinatown, and not so inexpensive Italian at Due Amici in Little Italy the night after mobster John Gotti died. My friend Joe Angio, editor of Time Out New York, a weekly guide to the city, later advised Little Italy is really just one big restaurant serving the same red sauce and pasta and that you have to go elsewhere for the good Italian.
We shopped at Canal Jeans, where I bought a Billie Holiday T-shirt for $2.50, heard and saw some wild stuff at the Museum of Broadcasting, and at the boys’ request, went to the world’s largest Pokeman store near Rockefeller Center. We went back to Times Square just to bask in all the lights.
At Andy’s suggestion, we went to the World Trade Center site, a quick subway ride downtown. We had to ask where to get off: at Chambers, on the E or the 1 or 2 train, or City Hall, on the N or R trains, since the World Trade Center stops listed on subway map no longer exists.
Sad feelings, good things
People directed us to the overlook at Broadway and Liberty Street. The site had officially been cleaned up 10 days earlier, but the crowds hadn’t stopped. We walked up the catwalk, adjacent to an 18th-century church cemetery. The ramp’s plywood walls were decorated with memorial posters, tributes, and messages from all over the world. From the overlook, 20 feet above the street, we viewed a vast, empty swath, with only a scattering of heavy equipment and workers milling about to interrupt the flat, abstract landscape.
No one said much. Kris and Andy took pictures. Mostly, we just looked. The same sad feeling that haunted me at Dealey Plaza in Dallas, the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, and the Day’s Inn in Corpus Christi came over me again: something very bad happened here, something fueled by hate.
We walked along the southern perimeter of the site to the World Financial Center, just west of the WTC. Around back, where the plaza faced the Hudson River, Ellis Island, and the Statue of Liberty beyond, the composer Randy Newman was playing for free, just him and his piano. He was singing about his birthplace New Orleans and riding the train across Texas, reprising his song from the film, “Toy Story,” but making no note whatsoever about the place where he was playing. It was a good thing. It meant life goes on, even at ground zero.
A writer friend who lives in Tribeca, less than a mile from the twin towers, allowed how the absence of the Twin Towers has brought the ornate Woolworth Tower, once the tallest building in the world, back into prominence, as well as other architecturally significant buildings that were dwarfed when the World Trade Center went up in the ’70s.
I saw what he meant on our last day, when we hopped the Staten Island Ferry, the best free ride in the Big Apple, past Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty. On the way back from Staten, a crowd gathered at the front of the ferry to look at the skyline, many of them taking photographs, including a family of four from South Texas.