Only a plane ride away
by Bryan Rindfuss
One day about five years ago, while walking along a familiar SoHo street, I got the call from my father. By the sound of his voice, I knew this was not the ordinary “just checkin’ on ya”-type call. With a cracking voice, he explained that a team of doctors had just removed an enormous, malignant tumor from my mother’s bladder. Fighting tears, he went on to tell me that this was the largest of its kind that any of the doctors had seen.
I sat on the stoop of a nearby gallery. Looking up at the buildings, I watched the last decade of my life flash before me. Although I never lived in SoHo, this particular intersection of Spring and Greene provided for some vivid recollections. 134 Spring Street is the address of my very first job in New York, working weekends at an upscale toy store owned by Meredith (wife of Tom) Brokaw. Selling toys at the Penny Whistle provided me with extra money for shopping and club-hopping while introducing me to an exciting new crowd that had nothing to do with the college I was attending 20 miles north of the city. Now, with tears in my eyes, I smiled, remembering a game of Pictionary played at the Brokaw’s Christmas party on Park Avenue (I successfully drew a tray of freshly baked brownies).
Not long after, I took an internship with photographer Mary Ellen Mark, whose studio was coincidentally right upstairs from the Penny Whistle. I scanned slides, filed prints, and on more than one occasion delivered contact sheets to Vogue. “Don’t come back until you have handed these directly to Anna Wintour,” Mary Ellen once growled at me. “No secretaries, no assistants — no excuses.” This memory also produced a smile, as I remembered how totally inappropriate my outfit (an ironic blend of vintage polyester and corduroy) was for the Condé Nast Building.
After I graduated from college, I took a job as a production assistant with Kevin Krier and Associates, a fashion PR firm, also located at 134 Spring Street. By then, I knew the mail carriers, the street vendors, and all the girls who worked at Olive’s, a trendy sandwich shop that delivered daily to the Penny Whistle, Mary Ellen’s studio, and Kevin’s office. The Korean grocer on the corner knew how I liked my coffee (light and sweet) and my bagel (toasted cinnamon raisin, swimming in butter).
After hanging up the phone, I knew what needed to happen, and it hurt. I was the obvious candidate to return home and play nurse.
Instead of carrying on with what now seemed like pointless errands, I ducked into Fanelli’s, one of SoHo’s oldest taverns. Over a beer, I pondered all the possible fates cancer offers. My mind spun thinking about my recent “wallet-friendly” move to a Brooklyn brownstone after five party-filled years in a 2,000 square-foot Chelsea loft. Suddenly, I felt like a selfish brat, which is one of the many sentiments that living in New York can casually erase.
That same week, I put my cat-child, Chili-Dog, in his carrier, and hopped a plane back to Texas. My main focus was to become my mom’s chemotherapy buddy.
The whole chemo chapter turned out to be a surprisingly special experience. Secrets were shared, and for the first time in my life I was able to provide support to someone who rarely asked for help. Everything about our relationship went to the next level. Most visits (until the Benadryl kicked in), we would work the New York Times crossword puzzle. At first, this drove me absolutely mad, since all I ever did was write in the answers as she dictated. Eventually, I cracked the logic code and was able to fill in the pop-culture-related gaps that had eluded my mother in the past. She was thrilled when I started enjoying the ritual.
By the time my mom’s bladder needed to be removed, I felt like I was living at Methodist Hospital. I busied myself arranging flowers (they never stopped arriving), fielding phone calls, reading get-well cards, and trying to convince my version of Wonder Woman to eat and exercise as much as possible. On a good night, I would smuggle a bottle of wine into her room and watch DVDs on a blowup mattress until we fell asleep. On one such night, I awoke to a large nurse squawking, “Sir, do you ever intend on having children?” Without even looking up, I muttered, “Hell, no.” While this produced some exhausted laughter, I was still sent out to the hall so that some kind of impromptu x-ray could be performed in the middle of the night.
I would be lying if I said I didn’t self-destruct a little during this time in my life, but when I self-medicate, I do it in style. Mere blocks from the house I grew up in, I found peace in a place called Soluna. If I was there, it meant my Dad was home from work or one of my mom’s angelic girlfriends had stopped by to relieve me of duty. Hanging out there saved my sanity in a number of ways. The combination of pain-numbing frozen margaritas, Etta James on the stereo, and an eclectic mix of top-quality people hooked me instantly. These people didn’t know anything about the pain my family was going through, and I wasn’t even close to being able to talk about it. This strange little enclave of drunken sophistication gave me faith that there were actually “normal” people in Texas. I started calling the place my “office.”
By the time I realized that toxic levels of pain killers, radiation, and chemotherapy had destroyed my mother and her will to live, I felt like I was living on a desolate, alien planet, wallowing in a hopeless cocoon of tequila and tears. By 2006, it was all over. By being so deeply involved with my mom’s battle with cancer, I did a fair amount of grieving in advance, but I continued to beat myself up for at least a solid year. Life was cruel and unfair, God didn’t care, and no one could tell me any differently. I visited New York, but was in such a deadened emotional state that being there felt like a waste of money. It quickly became clear that being close to my father was intrinsic to the grieving process.
Slowly, in 2007, things started to pick up career-wise. Although I never stopped shooting for magazines, I suddenly had a lot going on — photo assignments in Dallas, Austin, Mexico City, and a show of more than 300 photographs at Blue Star. It occurred to me more than once that this streak of luck might be some sort of cosmic gesture of thanks from my mother. She also seemed to be sending me curious, serendipitous messages of hope hidden in the New York Times crossword puzzle.
I’ve always been extremely close with my family, and their love and support is something that most of my friends growing up were jealous of. In 2004, before my mother ever became sick, I had a regular gig working for the teen version of Elle Magazine. Michelle, the photo editor, asked me to recommend someone in Texas for a documentary project called “the Class of 2008,” which would entail monthly photographic updates about a charismatic (but troubled) high-school student named Shunetra. Instead of rattling off names of people who would be perfect for the job, I blurted out, “I’ll do it.” When Michelle said she thought the job was “beneath me,” I told her I didn’t care.
This conversation was a big turning point for me because it made me realize just how much I missed being in Texas. I worked with Shunetra until the magazine folded in 2006, flying back and forth, often lingering here so long that my New York apartment felt like an expensive storage unit. Often, when I returned to New York, I got an awful, sinking feeling as soon as I got into a cab headed for home (especially when Bedford-Stuyvesant became “home”).
Don’t get me wrong — I desperately miss New York. But what I’ve come to realize during the last 10 or so visits, is that what I miss is New York in the ’90s. If you walk down my old block of West 28th Street (between 6th and 7th Avenues), instead of happening upon a charming, intimate neighborhood catering to the flower trade, you’ll find a generic, infuriatingly whitebread, corporate nightmare. Ugly, impersonal high-rises and chain restaurants have erased huge chunks of the city’s bohemian vibe. Suddenly, Brooklyn looks, feels, and acts more like the unpredictable, gritty, multicultural place people associate with Manhattan.
And then there’s another little word that comes to mind when I weigh the consequences and sacrifices of living in New York: Jaded. Almost as soon as I landed on planet Manhattan, I was collecting amazing friends and unbelievable stories. I was taken under the wing of fashion designer Stephen Sprouse (the late creative genius responsible for Day-Glo clothing and graffiti-printed Louis Vuitton bags), was employed for more than a year by photographer Richard Avedon (being in the same London museum with Lady Di and Salmon Rushdie somehow felt normal), worked for J.F.K. Jr.’s George magazine (building custom props and going on scavenger hunts for almost anything imaginable. And, yes, he was that beautiful, and that approachable), interspersed with random gigs as a wardrobe stylist (I still can’t decide which is more fabulous: helping Milla Jovovich in and out of 14 over-the-top outfits, or placing a meticulously folded towel under Linda Evangelista’s derriere to protect her assets from the wet curb she wanted to sit on).
Things change. I left a huge piece of my heart in that big, bad apple, but recapturing that glorious bite that got me addicted in the first place is increasingly difficult. Not to say that amazing things aren’t still happening in New York, but free-flowing fun and creative freedom are definitely on the endangered-species list. Having seen the city transform more than once, I have to say it’s not in its most flattering light at the moment. The climate feels heavy and dire, and Manhattan suddenly looks overly serious and buttoned-up. In a nutshell, I spent almost half my life under the spell of what is commonly referred to as the center of the universe — I learned, I loved, I lost, and at least for now — I’m back.
Bryan Rindfuss is the listings editor and photographer for the San Antonio Current.
Live Here, live now
by David Shelton
It all began with a phone call from my close friend, Franco Mondini-Ruiz. I was living in Manhattan, and Franco had recently returned to San Antonio from New York after an artist’s residency at the American Academy in Rome. He always had hilarious stories to share, but this call was different: “You have to move to San Antonio. There is so much happening, and you will love it.”
My reply was swift and crisp: “No!”
While I had been considering a change, and wanted to open my own business after so many years working in large companies, returning to Texas was not on my hit list.
Franco suggested a visit, to which I agreed. I was apprehensive, but also excited. Outside of a few brief family visits it had been well over 10 years since I had been in San Antonio. A couple of months later I arrived at SAT and took in the distinctive odor of the old terminal — an odd combination of humidity and tacos. At least I think that’s what it is. Once outside, the outrageous July heat immediately rattled my memory further. As a diversion from the temperature, I focused on how nice the palm trees outside the airport looked.
On that trip, I stayed at Franco’s artful, eccentric, and lush house/studio on the West Side. It had recently been featured in New York Times Magazine and looked even more amazing than in the photos. I knew he had made everything perfect for my visit. He took me to a staggering number of art events and parties, and introduced me to so many people that I was numb. Everyone was incredibly friendly, interesting, and smart, but what really astounded me was the amount of extraordinary talent in the city. I returned to New York relieved, intrigued, and with an ever-so-slightly opened mind.
For the next year, I kept up with things that were happening in San Antonio. It all seemed fresh and different, and I figured it was the only large city in the country that was not, in my mind, already “done.” While a great deal had changed, I began to realize how much was left to do and the associated level of opportunity. I had long wanted to open an art gallery, and San Antonio seemed like a great place to do so. New York did not.
My next visit was during Fiesta, and my intention was to see and do more, as well as look at potential neighborhoods. I stayed in Alamo Heights with a childhood friend who was doing residential real estate. This time I was taken to many parties, the Texas Cavaliers parade viewed from Club Giraud, some great restaurants, and again met more friendly, interesting, and smart people. It was a distinctly different and tantalizing view of the city.
Since the decision had been made to move to San Antonio — I think originally by Franco — I began working on selling my apartment in New York and conceiving what would later become the plan for a gallery in San Antonio. During a subsequent reconnaissance visit, I quite literally stumbled onto a nice old house that had just come onto the market in King William, which is where I was hoping to live. My place in New York was going to close in a matter of weeks. Fortunately, part of the “slower” pace in San Antonio included a much quicker closing on real estate.
Almost two and a half years later, I have learned many things. For example, it is big news when a “tornado” blows off a portion of the orange-and-white roof on a Whataburger. There is “nowhere to park downtown” only if you are unwilling to pay for parking. There can never be too many parties. A surprising number of people believe that “drill here, drill now, pay less” is a reasonable solution. Flying where you actually want to go takes forever (although the airport is a breeze to get through). You should always offer guests Lone Star beer, even if you would never drink it yourself. If you are going to bike anywhere, be prepared to dodge cars and trucks whose cell phone-dependent drivers believe only they paid for the streets. And finally, breakfast can, and usually does, include tacos.
I also have gotten to know and become friends with an incredible number of kind, interesting, and smart people from here, as well as many other places. King William is a perfect neighborhood in which I have always felt welcomed. You can actually make a positive difference in the community, and the level of diversity is greater than I ever would have imagined. I recently opened a gallery that includes many of the extraordinarily talented artists I have met, yet there are so many more. The food is far better than when I was a kid. And Franco was right: I do love San Antonio.
Someone recently asked if I missed New York. My answer was swift and crisp: “No, I really don’t.”
David Shelton’s eponymous Stone Oak gallery can be found online at davidsheltongallery.com.
For love and mission
by Patty Ortiz
Originally from San Antonio, I have decided to come back after many years in Denver, Colorado. I returned because I wanted to eat barbacoa tacos again. I wanted to feel that heavy wave of humid heat that hits you in the face every time you walk outdoors. I wanted to walk around Woodlawn Lake with my dad. I wanted to drive my 91-year-old aunt to the store. I wanted to cook enchiladas with my mom. I wanted to see my dad complete his 1,000th Sudoku puzzle. And then, of course, there are the infamous puffy tacos and gulf shrimp that are easily attained at a moment’s notice. The visual textures and cultural clues throughout the city constantly remind me that I am not Anywhere, USA, I am in San Antonio. I am home.
The art in San Antonio runs deep. Art is a part of life here. It’s in the water. On the West Side, everyone is an artist, knows an artist, or has an artist in the family. The mix of culture, art, and Southwestern ease seems to make one’s artistic practice more flexible and expansive. Artists must be connected to their local neighborhood as well as the broader world, and modern conveniences like affordable travel and the internet make living in San Antonio a feasible and a creative choice. The weather and my parents were strong reasons for my return, but first and foremost I came back to work for the finest organization in San Antonio, an organization that is rooted in its cultural past and built on the ideas of change and movement. The Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center is the longest-running multicultural arts center in the country. It was created to celebrate the creativity of the Chicano/a people and preserve this unique perspective. It is filled with opportunity, and just as I feel the city is embarking on a new journey forward, the Guadalupe will be offering new programs that open its doors to local artists and multidisciplinary mixes that juxtapose art with diverse topics such as politics and science.
I was hired to ignite new energy and invigorate this community-rooted arts center. I don’t have to be a saint to do that. I just have to work hard and stay focused on the mission of the organization. Just like art, the Guadalupe will reflect back what is happening in our community. You will hear the “San Antonio” voice, its vision and its sound flowing from our programs and facilities. And, because San Antonio is a global city, the Guadalupe will include national and global touches, too. Just like art, the Center will stir debate and criticism. But, having been artistically trained and with several organizational transformations under my belt, I know controversy and margaritas are best taken with a grain of salt. Artists learn from day one not to be afraid of quandary. We learn how to turn the page upside down, look at it from different perspectives, or try a different brush. We are experts at thinking outside the box, asking critical questions and dreaming. I am lucky to be given this opportunity — to have my barbacoa and eat it, too — to be given the opportunity to build on an organization that is already filled with the hard cultural work of many. I am thankful to be back home.
The art in San Antonio runs deep. Art is a part of life here. It’s in the water. On the West Side, everyone is an artist, knows an artist, or has an artist in the family. The mix of culture, art, and Southwestern ease seems to make one’s artistic practice more flexible and expansive. Artists must be connected to their local neighborhood as well as the broader world, and modern conveniences like affordable travel and the internet make living in San Antonio a feasible and a creative choice.
The weather and my parents were strong reasons for my return, but first and foremost I came back to work for the finest organization in San Antonio, an organization that is rooted in its cultural past and built on the ideas of change and movement. The Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center is the longest-running multicultural arts center in the country. It was created to celebrate the creativity of the Chicano/a people and preserve this unique perspective. It is filled with opportunity, and just as I feel the city is embarking on a new journey forward, the Guadalupe will be offering new programs that open its doors to local artists and multidisciplinary mixes that juxtapose art with diverse topics such as politics and science.
I was hired to ignite new energy and invigorate this community-rooted arts center. I don’t have to be a saint to do that. I just have to work hard and stay focused on the mission of the organization. Just like art, the Guadalupe will reflect back what is happening in our community. You will hear the “San Antonio” voice, its vision and its sound flowing from our programs and facilities. And, because San Antonio is a global city, the Guadalupe will include national and global touches, too. Just like art, the Center will stir debate and criticism. But, having been artistically trained and with several organizational transformations under my belt, I know controversy and margaritas are best taken with a grain of salt. Artists learn from day one not to be afraid of quandary. We learn how to turn the page upside down, look at it from different perspectives, or try a different brush. We are experts at thinking outside the box, asking critical questions and dreaming.
I am lucky to be given this opportunity — to have my barbacoa and eat it, too — to be given the opportunity to build on an organization that is already filled with the hard cultural work of many. I am thankful to be back home.
Patty Ortiz is the executive director of the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center. Before returning to San Antonio earlier this year, she worked for three decades in Denver, most recently as the director of the Museo de las Américas.
Hot weather, boredom
by Alex Haber
I used to go to bed every night looking out at the World Trade Center. I would lie there watching the lights go on and off, in blocks of a few floors at a time, as housekeeping would move through the building. I had been living in the city five years when the terror came. I lived in the West Village, where I could smell the burning remains: computers, asbestos, and bodies. For weeks the fires burned in that hole. I began to wear a sleep mask at night (to not see what was no longer there). There was no escaping the smell.
I worked on the 36th floor of Worldwide Plaza. The elevators were an express system, in which chunks of floors get bypassed. Floors 1-35 displayed “XX” on the floor indicator. We all had heard stories about people stuck in elevator cars in World Trade, trying to scrape through the walls on floors not meant to be accessed with Swiss army knifes. I would wonder if today was my turn to try that. I lived in terror for another two years.
Then my father mentioned that my grandparents’ former home in San Antonio was going to be on the market. Before my grandfather died and my grandmother sold the house and moved to a nursing home, I spent a lot of time in that house. I guess I needed to feel safe.
A month later, I owned a house in San Antonio. I told my boss I was leaving the city in a few months. He said Texas would be horrible. Hot weather, slow people, boredom. I responded that was all I wanted. He felt pity for me, and I came home.
I came home on the Amtrak. Three days after the porter loaded my bags and boxes at Penn Station, I pulled into Sunset Station around midnight on September 11, 2003. Adjustment back was difficult. I had left a lover, a career, and the city. Soon thereafter, I was in a Handy Andy checkout line, with a single item in my hand. The checkout person and the customer ahead of me were very chatty, making pleasantries. I was slowly exploding inside. Seriously, was all this chitchat necessary among strangers? After an eternity, the checkout lady began the same banter with me. I ignored her from behind my sunglasses. When I got to the car (how novel, a car that was neither black, nor of the subway variety), I had to sit there and decide to fish or cut bait.
I’ve been fishing for six years now. I’ve grown a little more chatty. I certainly drink more. I got a black car (just more comforting). For a few years I would go back to visit boarding-school friends who still lived in the city. We had known each other since adolescence, went off to different colleges, and came to live together in the city for what was a number of fantastic years. Then, I just could not go back anymore. I hated to leave home, to go to that now foreign place. Slowly, everyone else moved away, too. Some have visited San Antonio. Mostly we just meet up in Miami nowadays. Or Indiana. Or North Carolina. Mostly slow, humid places. Places that are our homes.
Alex Haber is an information-technology specialist and former blogger who lives on San Antonio’s East Side.
The Zen of San Antonio living
by Mark Jones
“I hear the train a comin’; it’s rollin’ ’round the bend, And I ain’t seen the sunshine since I don’t know when. I’m stuck in Folsom Prison and time keeps draggin’ on. But that train keeps a-rollin’ on down to San Antone.”
— Johnny Cash, “Folsom Prison Blues”
When I left LA I decided to take the train to San Antonio. Why? I’m not sure, but it seemed like a classy way to leave town. My filmmaking career had petered out — or was it that it never started? — although, for the record, I did play a female burn victim on ER, and I did work for a business called the Inflatable Crowd Company, expertly placing inflatable dummies in the backgrounds of movies. I did help edit a movie starring Meat Loaf 1; and I think I was mistaken for Moby by Japanese tourists a few times. Shockingly, that wasn’t enough to sustain my interest, much less earn a living.
So there I am, rolling through West Texas, looking out onto the wonderful nothingness, catching a glimpse of that random art installation of a Prada shoe store, asking myself why there are so many remote-control drones hovering above the desert. A Johnny Cash movie was playing in the background, and I heard the line about a train rolling on down to San Antone2. I thought, hey, this is a good sign! Compared to prison, San Antonio sounds pretty good.
I’m not sure why anyone moves to San Antonio by choice. I mean, I understand third-degree burn victims coming here for treatment, or Iowa tourists passing through because Mexico gives them the “willies,” but actually putting down roots? I imagine moving here probably has something to do with failing wherever you were before and wanting to start over. And, well, the rent is pretty cheap.
Was it really that much different back in the 1830s? I’m not sure if those Tennessee mountain men expected to stay in town for that long. They tried to fight their way out of downtown (who knows, maybe move to Austin), but it didn’t quite work out like they planned. And since we’re on that subject, what could be a bigger failure than the Alamo? I mean, the Alamo is kind of what we’re known for. Failure and San Antonio are fairly intertwined is my point; it’s part of the fabric of life here. Initially, realizing this is sort of frightening, but eventually one has to make peace with it (otherwise you move to Austin). In the end, it becomes an unspoken pride3.
After the first few months of celebrating the lack of gridlock traffic, I needed something else to get excited about. And for newcomers (even newly returned natives), San Antonio can be an isolating experience. For a place that feels like a small town, there sure is a lot of sprawl. (And in some parts of the far North Side I wonder if gridlock traffic is mistaken for sophistication.) In those first few months I kept hearing of this magical place called “the real San Antonio,” where everyone knows one another. Really? I got the sense most people don’t even know their own neighbors. But I hung in there.
A great thing about returning to San Antonio is that you can basically reinvent yourself and no one cares enough to call you out on it. I decided to start a bike ride called the Downtown Highlife Bicycle Club4 and try to meet people that way. In my mind it would be a way to flush out this supposed “real San Antonio.” Three people showed up for the first ride: a goodnatured but bitter journalist who couldn’t wait to leave town, a professional historical reenactor who played Davy Crockett (or his mute sidekick), and a hermit who liked to garden and forget to take his insulin medication. Let the party begin!
But after a while things started to click and the closet door to Narnia opened up, or something like that. And eventually I began to understand the other San Antonio. Through some Horatio Alger “pluck and luck” I was able to successfully reinvent myself. How else to explain a filmmaker becoming a food critic at the Current, a bicycle-community organizer, and now a Physician Assistant student at the UT Health Science Center? Hey, I like this town!
If I hadn’t failed elsewhere, I’m not sure any of this could have ever happened. San Antonio is still a big city, a small city, a lonely city, but through it all a pulse still beats5 . Once you let go of all expectations, the city opens up. But it isn’t all rainbows and unicorns. You have to make things work here. A Buddhist friend once compared meditation to continually chopping at a tree until there is nothing left. For some all that remains is nothingness. For others, it’s complete bliss. I don’t think there’s an easy way to describe San Antonio, but that comes pretty close.
Former Current Listings Editor Mark Jones writes the Travels With Frenchie food column, which appears in the Current the last issue of each month.
1 No, he’s actually still alive.
2 Evidently, Cash was once stationed in San Antonio and met his first wife at a local roller rink.
3 Or a T-shirt slogan.
4 Downtown because we meet at the Alamo. Highlife in unlikely appreciation for the happy, chaotic Highlife music of Ghana.
5 Cue Huey Lewis and the News.
by William Jack Sibley
There’s an insidious difference between “coming home” and “going home.” The first implies an intentional action, the second — not so much. “Going home” to me has the unfortunate connotation that perhaps you might have shot your wad and now comes the “fiddler-paying” interval.
I’ve been coming and going, to and from, San Antonio and South Texas for so long it feels almost seasonal: “If it’s November I must be at an airport somewhere!” That eternal tug/pull of a Texas upbringing was the basis for my 2001 novel, Any Kind of Luck, which dealt with a male couple returning from Manhattan to face mom, God, and fire ants deep inside the Bible Belt. (Definitely not for the skittish.) As the season of anxiety fast approaches, the question for many of us endures — home: Where is it, exactly? That place where mom opens the can of Ocean Spray once a year? Where dad parks his keister to watch the Cowboys all afternoon? What percentage of people over the age of 30 ever return to the actual place they grew up in, anyway? With divorced parents, competing in-laws, overextended families, truculent children, feuding/disinterested/boorish and/or misanthropic friends and relatives all queuing up for our attention — is it any wonder that three weeks in a bomb shelter begins sounding reasonable about now?
The Portuguese have a highly expressive word with no English equivalent — saudade, “a vague and constant desire for something that does not and probably cannot exist ... a turning toward the past or toward the future.” It’s a fierce nostalgia for what never was and a persistent longing for what cannot be. Put that sweet little nothing in your pumpkin pie next time you’re parked next to an obnoxious relative at another seasonal vexation. We kill more, drink more, and perish more during the holidays than any other time of the year. We’re all craving some imaginary amalgamation of Norman Rockwell, the Lennon Sisters, and a dash of Rev. Schuller’s Crystal Cathedral “Hollywood Spirituality” to balm our seasonal frazzled nerves. What many of us end up with for holiday camaraderie is the bastard child of Jackson Pollock and Sid Vicious.
My childhood Thanksgivings were always spent at my grandfather’s ranch between Freer and George West. Come daybreak, a hundred or more kinfolk on Granddad’s side would begin showing up for cowboy coffee and a good warming in front of the hand-dug, 12-foot-long mesquite-burning barbecue pit. Huge, thick steaks from a butchered steer were laid end to end in proud testament to our mighty Texas heritage — beef! My grandmother made barrels of pinto beans and barbecue sauce; kinfolk brought potato salad, ambrosia, and pie — et voila! Thanksgiving.
I never quite grasped the whole turkey thing until I was much older. A dry, white sliver of BIRD versus a whole COW? Not where my boots come from. I have first, second, and third cousins all over the country that I remain in contact with because of those early Texas-sized reunions. How my grandparents pulled off such massive gatherings so effortlessly and willingly remains a mystery. Today, with everyone’s scheduling priorities/dietary restrictions/religious beliefs/political persuasions/medical requirements/addiction boundaries, etc., etc., just the notion of inviting two people over for crackers and beer is daunting.
In between long intervals spent in New York, Los Angeles, and Santa Fe, every one of my Texas homecomings was filled with equal parts glee and trepidation. Glee in anticipation of another trip to Mi Tierra for nachos, bliss in relishing the narcotizing quiet of long, winter afternoons out at the ranch, and gratitude for the consoling politeness of ordinary Texans in general (“Yes sir. Thank yew. How ya’ll doin’ this morning?” Unguent for bruised Manhattan ears).
And then the dread part. Interminable family dinners that ramble on between cursory platitudes, simmering umbrage, and extended plate-staring. The realization that all your old friends aren’t really that interested in hearing about how fantastic your new life “out there” is. (Basically, their life has gone on just fine without you.) And the horror that the city you thought would never change (for better or worse) is now barely recognizable in places. (No Earl Abel’s on Broadway? No Esquire Bar? No Tienda Guadalupe? No Kelly/Lackland base even? TOLL ROADS for San Antonio? ¡Madre de Dios!) It’s sobering when you realize you’ve become the “old fart against change” you once so earnestly detested. (Note to self: Listen to Disney’s “Circle of Life” again.)
Coming home, going home, leaving home, staying home … dynamiting home — whatever permutation of “home” you’re doing this year, the only surefire way I know to make sense of any of it (and the guaranteed way to make yourself feel better about the whole meshugana) is to think of somebody else but you. Do the nice thing, go the extra mile, be spontaneous (boring people need joy, too!), be generous, be thoughtful, be kinder, keep your sense of humor primed, and lastly, don’t forget that grateful part. (Note to reader: Santa’s got a bead on your bum till December 25.)
William Jack Sibley’s column “The Great Eccentrics of San Antonio” appears in the Current the second Wednesday of every month.
Canto Y Grito a San Antonio
by Gregg Barrios
“Deep within my heart lies a melody, a song of old San Antone.”
Upon my return to Texas in 2000, one of the first cultural events I attended was an evening of poetry to honor the winners of the Premio Poesía Tejana Awards. I had gone to celebrate my friend and poet Frances Marie Treviño. At the podium, she announced that her poem “Gregorio” was dedicated to me.
“Texas calls/ you home/ to cactus and/ a gulf coast/ this mesh of landscape/ of hill, canyon/ and desert is yours/ this vast/ stretch/ of humid crimson/ sky/ gently lovingly/ calling/ you/ home”.
It was the best welcome home I ever had. I stood and yelled a grito from the Jorge Negrete movies I’d watch as a niño sitting on my tia’s knee at the Alameda on Houston Street. That evening certainly augured well that coming home this time would be a new beginning.
There had been earlier homecomings.
When I returned after serving in the military as a medic during the Vietnam era, there was no welcome wagon — no flags waving, no trumpets blaring in this bastion of military installations.
I shed no tears. Instead I used my GI benefits to study at UT-Austin. I joined the student movement, joined the veterans against the war, wrote for the underground press, started a film club, and embraced a bohemian-hippie lifestyle. I earned my degree and left the comfort zone of Austin. Like many others, I was seeking that inner voice, that discovery of self.
I moved to Crystal City and into the nascent Mexican-American civil-rights movement. I had a front-row seat as a participant in what became el movimiento Chicano. Cristal had been home to writer Tomás Rivera (And the Earth Did Not Swallow Him) and to several migrant musicians, including Question Mark and the Mysterians (“96 Tears”). In Cristal, I received the belated homecoming that had been denied upon my return from military service. I became an educator, a journalist, and a budding playwright. Me sentia en casa. I fit in. But when the moment came to move on, I did. Armed with new confidence and resolve, I heeded Horace Greeley’s (and later The Village People and The Pet Shop Boys) clarion call to “Go West!”
Twenty years later I would leave a successful life in Los Angeles and return to Texas.
Why? How could I not?
I was hecho en Tejas — conceived in San Antonio but born in nearby Victoria. Yet the lure and longing for this pueblo was in my blood; it is my herencia.
When I was a child, San Anto was a city of enchantment. My father, a traveling photographer as a teenager, had come to Texas from Mexico in the late 1920s. He began a new life here as a professional photographer and started his own studio on El Paso Street on the West Side.
Earlier, San Antonio had welcomed the exiled Flores Magón brothers, anarchists whose local newspaper advocated revolution in Mexico. Another exile, Francisco Madero, later President of Mexico, wrote his Plan of San Luis Potosí here then started the Mexican Revolution.
This city is where my history, my raíces melded into the magic word: Tejano!
Its wonders began at Playland Park, my Coney Island. Later, my mother introduced me to Joske’s — my Macy’s — with aisles and aisles of toys, books, pastries, and music. The Aztec and Alameda theaters, dream palaces to this star-struck vato, inspired and provided a vision of a world outside the confines of the Alamo City. And with the advent of HemisFair, the city and my generation grew to the possibilities of a limitless future, of a new frontier.
“Trouble, oh we got trouble, right here in River City!” — The Music Man
And, yes, I mean our River City. Some things never change, but don’t you accept that.
The abysmal numbers of dropouts in our city schools; the treatment of homeless, transient, and newly arrived immigrants; the harassment and marginalization of the GLBT community; the lack of health and sex education to stop AIDS and other ills; the disparity in social and city services to the West Side and East Side — all these continue to prevent our growth as a generous and caring community, as a first-class city model for the 21st century.
Great art deserves a great city. Yet artists are still not seen as invaluable to our cultural lifeblood. Arts education is almost nonexistent in our public schools. Our largest university, UTSA, doesn’t have a theater department. Non-profits often fail to fund individual artists who work outside the mainstream.
“You just can’t live in Texas if you don’t have a lot of soul.” — Doug Sahm, aka Doug Saldaña.
This year I was honored to accept a job teaching creative writing to incarcerated at-risk youth in Bexar County. I have never seen such enthusiasm, the way this diverse group desires to express their unique voices in a creative, nonviolent manner. This month, these teenagers invited me to celebrate Thanksgiving behind the walls. They wanted to show their appreciation. I accepted with great humility.
I had come full circle. My homecoming was complete and my residency in this city permanent.
Award-winning playwright and poet Gregg Barrios is the former books editor of the San Antonio Express-News and a frequent Current contributor.
A Pigly Wiggly Tanas-Gee-Vee
by Mario Bosquez
It was a turkey by way of a pig by way of a bounced check.
Thanksgiving, 1970s San Antonio, Texas:
Arriving at our FHA 235 house on the South Side of San Antonio a few days before Thanksgiving, I was greeted by my mother.
“Call Piggly Wiggly. They want to talk to you.”
She held open the screen door, giving me a knowing look as I entered. This was a meaning I knew all too well — I had bounced another check.
We were between typewriter pawnings, so that was not an option. Certain semesters at Trinity University were punctuated by the necessity of writing and typing my term papers as quickly as possible. Then, after the papers were turned in, so was the typewriter ... to the local pawn shop for the much-needed $25, spent at the Piggly Wiggly for the groceries demanded by a family of eight. A mistimed $25 check apparently had arrived at the bank and put the account in the red, activating another of my much-too-frequent summonses from the Piggly Wiggly.
Instead of calling the store, I decided to show up in person before they posted the offending check on the Board of Losers. With dollars, fives, and assorted loose change in hand I made a slow, cautious approach to the Piggly Wiggly office. The manager asked my name, checked a list, then picked up the telephone and whispered something sinister-sounding.
Acrid thoughts left a vapor trail in my mind ... a call to the police, the FBI, my school?
Then, the unthinkable happened: A Piggly Wiggly employee pulled out a Polaroid camera and aimed it at me; practicing, I assumed, the mug shot she was about to snap.
There goes my scholarship, I thought, as another employee shoved me against the wall and deposited something cold, bulky, and heavy in my hands.
I looked down and stared at the plastic-encased carcass of a 12-pound turkey. I had apparently won the weekly Piggly Wiggly Thanksgiving Turkey Contest. I didn’t even remember registering.
Only then did I look up and see the banner announcing the contest. They were lucky one of my relatives didn’t spell out the name of the holiday on the sign, since it would have clearly read, “Happy Tanas-Gee-Vee.”
Gaining control of my senses and getting a glimpse of the many turkeys my future career would offer, I instinctively raised my arm, suspending my prize in mid-air: Captain Ahab with the Great White Guajolote. The Sun King, Louis XIV, displaying his kill after a successful stag hunt at Versailles.
Definitely not a bouncer of checks.
My former tormentor was now a sweet princess pinning my Polaroid onto the community bulletin board, a beacon of hope for the bounced checks that, with jolly mint-green paper and festive red ink reading “Insufficient Funds,” border my victorious pose.
This beat all Tanas-Gee-Vees so far; much better than the year we had turkey AND ham. More victorious than the holiday we had turkey, ham, AND tamales.
Better still than the Tanas-Gee-Vee when my cousin displayed the ultimate in manners after, having had her fill of turkey, stuffing, and all the sides, promptly threw it up into her hands right at the table and then just as promptly swallowed it all back down. I am certain Emily Post would have approved.
That Polaroid is stored somewhere in my Akashic records or in some parallel universe where always and forever I hold my Piggly Wiggly Tanas-Gee-Vee turkey high in the air and issue a challenge to the winds: “Just try throwing up on this one, Margarita.” (Name changed to protect the guilty.)
Mario Bósquez, host of Living Today on Martha Stewart Radio, is a playwright, the author of The Chalupa Rules, and a contributor to the San Antonio Current.
You can't get there from here
by Sarah Fisch
I spent a big chunk of my childhood scheming to get the hell out of Texas, a desire I associate with my early aspiration to be a writer. When I was about 4, I could read pretty well, but the mechanics of writing letters on paper was still maddeningly arduous. One night, I noted a name on the cover of the storybook my Dad was reading to me.
“Who’s that?” I asked.
“She wrote this book,” he said.
Holy shit, I thought. That lady had to write down every last damn word in here. The notion filled me with dread; writing was the hardest thing I’d ever heard of. But for some perverse reason, I also thought that’s what I was going to do.
I soon gathered from TV and Cricket magazine that writers mostly lived in New York. Also, early childhood fave shows Sesame Street, Taxi, and the movie Arthur were all set there, so it seemed the thing to do. Besides, I didn’t know any writers in San Antonio (I was to meet Naomi Shihab Nye in adolescence, but by then I’d made up my mind to evacuate).
It took a while to get there. First, I flunked out of the Plan II honors program at UT, then dropped out altogether, necessitating my first, very pissed-off return to my poor, foresworn hometown. But in that eccentric way San Antonio has (literally eccentric, connoting “outside the circle” — in this case outside big-city influence or cultural radar), the city began to work its magic way on me: In the absence of things to do, you make stuff up. Through my UT-era friend Anjali Gupta I got mixed up with an art collective on the corner of South Flores and Cevallos in an old grocery storefront called the Wong Spot. It was artist Robert Tatum’s brainchild, and it also involved others who were, or were becoming, San Antonio art-world forces: Painter James Cobb, sculptor George Schroeder, Anjali, who has gone on to edit the invaluable Artlies magazine, and Sid St. Onge, now frontman of the band Fear Snakeface.
Sid and I hosted a weekly open mic where he sang hs original songs and I performed stories and poetry. We attracted and semi-policed a weird crowd of Goth teens, cowboy poets, would-be rappers, crazy people, and Hank Feldstein, our favorite retired physics professor turned poet. Seventy-something Hank was kindly, tiny, originally from Boston, had a fascination with Africa, where he’d traveled many times, and spoke with a slight (and very endearing) speech impediment. Sid and I still occasionally intone, “Woll on, wheels of Afwica!” in Hank’s honor. He also performed an erotic love poem, one line of which was “Let me touch your butt!” Beto Gonzales recorded Hank performing this; I hope the recording still exists somewhere.
Wong’s was right down the street from the crazy, magnificent Botanica Infinito, where I met Franco Mondini-Ruiz, who taught me a lot about contemporary art and parties. Upstairs from him was Chuck Ramirez’s apartment, where I learned a lot about contemporary art and parties. During the day, I worked at Bookstop, the bookstore chain that had been taken over by Barnes & Noble. I loved the bookstore, but hated the corporation that ran it, and even made an ill-advised attempt to unionize the place. It didn’t work, but my online log of my activism did get the attention of Michael Moore, who called me up at my parents’ house and told me (I’m paraphrasing): Nice try, kid, but they’re going to fire your ass. So I quit, and went to work for Jefferson Erck, managing his video post-production office. Anjali got me that job; she worked as a film and video editor there, collaborating with a whole series of Artpace artists-in-residence on their videos. Anjali and I were young college-dropout freaks who actually got to hang out with cutting-edge artists from all around the world, and got paid to do it. We had no idea how lucky we were, or what kind of real-world training we were doing for our actual future jobs writing about art.
Then, to my amazement, New York threw me a rope. My friend Michelle Garcia got a job in Manhattan, and offered me a free place to stay in Brooklyn for the summer. I was 20-something and totally oblivious, and boarded a plane with a suitcase and $500 in traveler’s checks. As soon as I got to her sublet apartment in Brooklyn Heights, Michelle took me by the hand and led me down to the promenade near the Brooklyn Bridge, where I gazed across the East River at the overwhelming, terrifying splendor of Manhattan. I felt a rush of lust I’ve seldom felt for any human.
I lived in New York for eight years, and, naturally, a lot of shit happened to me. Everything you’ve heard about New York is true, all the wonder and brutality of it (New Yorkers aren’t nearly as rude as some would have you think, though; they’re FUCKIN’ BUSY). I was there for the unbelievable events of 9/11 and their gut-wrenching aftermath, during which my brother Alex called me with an exit strategy: I was to take a bus from the Port Authority to Indianapolis, Indiana, where he’d be waiting for me with his pickup truck (Indianapolis being the midpoint between NYC and San Anto. I didn’t go, but it was reassuring to know there was a plan.) I lost several crappy jobs. I got robbed. I wrote and wrote and wrote. I started doing standup on the alternative comedy scene on the Lower East Side, and got really good at it, except monetarily. I got published in McSweeney’s and wrote a bunch of kids’ books, including the joke-book tie-in for Shrek 2 and several Clifford The Big Red Dog: Puppy Days titles. I earned a BA and a 4.0 GPA from the New School., and wrote book reviews. I lived in Wiliamsburg, Brooklyn, and witnessed the apex of its dizzying hipster gentrification and saw a lot of art. I dated some weird people, and lived with other people who dated even weirder people. I made several excellent close friends I still remain in close touch with.
But this isn’t an essay about New York.
The whole time I was there, I was missing stuff in San Antonio, too. My sister got married and had two babies, with whom I tried to cram as much auntie-hood as possible in my twice-a-year visits and through emailed photos. I missed the last months of my beloved grandfather’s life. I missed eight Fiestas and three Spurs championships. I tried to blow it off, but whenever a norteño band played on the subway, I’d fight back tears. If I’d hear a snippet of intelligible Mexican Spanish (Caribeño Spanish forever remaining Greek to me), I’d surreptitiously follow the speaker down the street. When New Yorkers made gibes about Texas, its backwardness and Bush-league parochial fascism and assumed levels of subliterate stupidity, I’d respond more than a little defensively that I know a SHITLOAD of SMART-ASS people BACK HOME so CHINGATE, you misbegotten Knicks fans. But I played the stage Texan, too, talked about San Antonio onstage. Audiences never failed to respond to it. Friends never stopped grinning whenever I said “y’all.”
I’ve given up trying to guess what-all’s gonna happen to me, based on what’s happened to my ass thus far. Here are some bare facts: I graduated, my landlord Lenny sold my Wiliamsburg apartment building, and the subsequent German minimalist painter I lived with (and who once trapped a live ’possum in his studio, but that’s another story) got evicted for taking in tenants, and so I came home to San Antonio in ’08 to figure out what the hell next. I figured I’d recuperate, then maybe go to grad school. A transcript discrepancy resulted in my not going to grad school right away, and meanwhile I’d started freelancing for the Current. The economy collapsed. I got offered a full-time job, a miracle for any journalist in this, ye age of massive layoffs. I snatched that shit up, believe it.
So much of success or failure in life has nothing to do with your merits and everything to do with timing. I took my current Current job just in time to witness the Museum Reach River Walk extension, the continuing contemporary-art explosion aided by institutions and galleries like Artpace and Blue Star, Unit B, and Fl!ight, events like CAM and Luminaria and the Dignowity Hill Pushcart Derby, and the ironic upswing of San Antonio’s fortunes in comparison with the dismal economies virtually anywhere else. I’ve gotten to talk to some truly remarkable artists about their work, from Richie Budd to Kristy Perez to Gary Sweeney. I’ve interviewed sex workers, Sandra Cisneros, and a lady who runs an illegal beauty parlor out of her front sala; reviewed local theater productions and Michael Jackson’s last movie. I work with incredibly talented and intelligent colleagues, from whom I learn continually. And I get to indulge my voracious curiosity and then report on the weird and fascinating shit I find, over and over and over. I’ve learned to count on the intelligence of my readers and enjoy the lunacy of many of my anonymous online commenters.
Last winter, my brother Alex had his first baby. Rather than waiting months to see the kid, I first clapped eyes on him 10 minutes after he was born, and I learned that joy can feel as breathless and heavy as grief.
San Antonio is a troubling, exuberant, soulful place, where there’s a lot more going on than when I was 20, but where the spirit of making shit up is still alive. We’re still outside the circle of what America thinks it is; we only make national news when we flood or dry up, when the Spurs take a title, or somebody kills somebody else in a particularly awful way. But in terms of creative problem-solving, valuing the arts, and respecting community and diversity, we’re at the very forefront of everything that the rest of the nation will (hopefully) catch onto. San Antonio’s an important place. I’m deeply honored to write about it.
Sarah Fisch is a staff writer at the San Antonio Current.