The wonderful Kathryn Milan sent me these photos of a couple of my books on display at the Austin Central Library. Thanks, Kathryn! And thanks Austin Central Library!
This is where I moved after Redneck Village—the Tivoli apartments just off Riverside. My roommate was the infamous/legendary TWS and we had many adventures. My bedroom was in the center unit shown, and my window was that double one not quite over the front door.
The photo below is more or less the view from my window—that large flat surface is the roof of a strip mall and was, in 1980, the roof of Mother Earth, after it relocated to East Riverside. In the winter and spring of 1980 “My Sharona” was a big hit and all the cover bands at ME played it—ALL the bands! Every evening when I was trying to study the opening quickly-tedious bomps of “My Sharona” would come thumping up across the street and through my window…
But—I loved Mother Earth. I’d go over for happy hour two or three times a week. It was cool and dark, and there were a bunch of middle-aged drunk regulars, and I enjoyed hearing their stories. Blind Bobby Doyle played piano on many nights—he was really good. Sometimes I’d stay on into the evening, sometimes I’d go home to do classwork, and on other nights I’d head on out to Antone’s or the Armadillo or wherever. Mother Earth was great.
And—there was another bar in the strip mall, TA Station, and a Conan’s Pizza, and a Safeway. Up the street was the Back Room and Paula’s Playpen. So there was plenty of food and beer and fun.
One night TWS and I were out and about, one our way to Spelman’s, and some cops pulled us over on West 6th, just past Lamar. TWS was driving. The cops made him walk the line, touch his nose, etc. The cops said that while TWS had obviously been drinking, he wasn’t drunk drunk. But he needed to go home—and so we drove back to our place, with the cops following. And then, of course, we walked across the street to Mother Earth. Austin!
There was some crime in our neighborhood, too. Someone (?) left the patio door open one night and we woke to find that TWS’s coin jar had been stolen, along with a few dollars I’d stupidly left sitting out. And then I got the battery stolen out of my pickup—not once but three fucking times, and the third time the thieves also cut the fucking battery cable, which was a pain to replace. And then someone(s) stole the license plates off my truck!
Oh—that window in the top photo. There was a kid named KH who used to come crash on our couch, and I got tired of him hanging around. One morning after Mother Earth closed he was out there knocking on the door—and so I urinated out the window on his head. Ha!
Also that window—one night in April or so I was studying and heard police sirens, and then saw flashing lights. I looked out my window. A car was pulled over right in front of my place. Behind the pulled-over car were two cop cars with three cops. As one cop approached the car, it tried to get away. Bang! Bang! BOOM! The cops opened fire on the car—two pistols and a shotgun. Whoa! Then the cops pulled the people out of the car and beat the shit out of them. I went outside to watch, along with most of my neighbors. The next day the Statesman said that there had been a stabbing at one of the bars way out on East Riverside, by Montopolis, and that the shot-up car matched the description of the car the fled the stabbing scene. (Though the car guys weren’t the stabbers, it turned out—they just had some weed in their car and were worried about getting busted).
East Riverside pros: easy access to beer and fast food, a window to pee out of.
East Riverside cons: crime, KH, police shooting people, “My Sharona.”
Verdict: my least favorite Austin residence.
This is where Redneck Village once stood—Redneck Village, I named it, a collection of a half-dozen or so single-wide trailers fanned out along a circular driveway, on McCall Lane just off 183 South.
I lived here 1978, 1979, just after I moved to Austin. It wasn’t much, but I didn’t want much at the time! I was interested in having adventures, and Redneck Village was an adventure. I kind of liked it.
Austin Speed-o-Rama was down the road, and I got to enjoy going to the stock car races on Friday evenings before heading downtown to do young people things.
Bergstrom Air force Base was just across the road and those RF-4Cs were noisy. Woke me up a lot of mornings. One time I called the base and told them to turn down the noise! But they didn’t….
The landlord’s daughter kept a pack of angry little black dogs that yap-yap-yapped night and day. They were part Yorkie, maybe, but they looked like atomic mutants, so I called then the Atomic Mutant Dogs.
The landlord himself was an old drunk redneck with what appeared to be a serious case of psoriasis. He once asked me how old I thought he was. Like, he looked freaking 90! He looked like he was dead! I said, “Oh, fifty-five or so.” He laughed and laughed—said he was 57.
If you go straight through those trees in the photo—straight into the past, as well—you could see the screen for the Rebel Drive-In, the famous porno outdoor theater. I couldn’t see the screen myself—there was a trailer in the way—but if I went outside and walked around the other trailer, I could see giant phalli marching across the horizon. The landlord’s grandson, Little Kevin, was in middle school, and he set up folding chairs on the roof of one of the trailers and charged his classmates to climb up there and watch porn through binoculars….
The AC didn’t work very well and it was hot and those jets were noisy and the landlord thought I was a radical troublemaker and the Atomic Mutant Dogs were yapping nonstop and those kids on the roof were creepy and when I moved out I didn’t get my damage deposit back and it’s all gone now!
When people talk about the lost bars of Austin, the places that usually come up are Liberty Lunch and the Armadillo World Headquarters, and both those places are full in my memory of fine interesting people and stories. But there are other interesting lost places, too—does anyone remember the Alamo Lounge? The Malamute Lounge? Paula’s Playpen? TA Station?
Does anyone remember the sleazy rumdum bars on the 200 block of Congress?
Oh, the sleazy rumdum bars! They would open at 7am, which was perfect for a young ne’er-do-well heading home after a long night of misadventure. They were unheated in the winter and barely air-conditioned in the summer. They were full of story-telling people down on their luck with no place else to drink.
A few things that happened there:
As always, I relate these stories for your edification, not your emulation….
(Photo from the Austin History Center).
I am very sorry to hear of the death this week of Austin newspaper columnist John Kelso. As his former colleague Michael Corcoran said, “He loved his job and so he was better at it than he had to be.”
Kelso was the model for the character Wes Leonard in my story “Bad Guts” and my novel That Demon Life. When he interviewed me for the column below, he said that he approved. He even said That Demon Life was funny--as nice a thing as has ever been said.
Writer's Book Came Together Between Cab Fares
By John Kelso
Sunday, November 15, 2009
Lowell Mick White may be the only author to ever write a 182-page novel while driving a cab.
OK, so he wasn't really driving the cab around Austin while he was writing "That Demon Life", a book full of colorful, sketchy and disreputable characters you probably wouldn't want running your Brownie scout meeting. While writing, he was parked between fares.
"I sat there with my clipboard and a cheap notebook I got at H-E-B, and I'd write," said White, who, from 1998 to 2002, spent time driving around Austin in a Yellow Cab putting his book together. "I'd find a place to park and I'd write 'til I got a call and I'd pick a passenger up. Yeah, I did it old-school with a pen."
Macs are for sissies.
This guy is no slouch with the words. He was the recipient of a Dobie Paisano Fellowship, which includes a six-month residency at J. Frank Dobie's former Hill Country Ranch and a payment of $1,200 to write out in the country.
But most of the book was composed in the cab, on Austin streets. White says you can tell from looking at the structure of the book when the passengers climbed in.
"You might have noticed those little short subchapters. That's where I got passengers in the cabs."
This is one of those deals where life imitates art, or steam imitates steam.
"They sat naked on the mussed bed eating greasy chicken and drinking warm beer, and Richard felt like nothing in his life — nothing, nothing, nothing, ever — tasted better," it says on page 35. "He was just so damn happy."
Then, in real cab life, White remembers the time the drunken wealthy attorney got in the back of his cab and did a strip tease as he was giving her a ride home. He didn't say if he had tinted windows.
"Her friends didn't want her to drive and they put her in the cab, and I was taking her home and she was taking her clothes off," White recalled. "And when I got her home she didn't have her (house) keys, so I was taking her back to the party. I had no place else to take her. But her daughter showed up" and let her in the house.
It's not easy writing a book in a cab. Your cab is your office. White recalls the four slobs who got in the cab and messed everything up.
"I worried a lot of the time that I might lose whatever notebook I was working in, or that it might get damaged," wrote White, who is working on his Ph.D. in English at Texas A&M. "I remember once on Fourth Street some older drunk guys got into my cab, four of them, three in back, one in front, and the guy who sat up front plopped his fat middle-aged butt down on my notebook before I could move it. I totally lost my temper — started cursing, yelling, kicked them all out before I even started the meter."
It's a fun book. There's a little round judge named Cantu, who has the hots for a chick named Giselle, who has a gigantic bird tattoo on her back. There's Paige, who will nail every male that breathes. There's a defense attorney named Linda, who hates her job and thinks all the criminals should be lined up and shot.
White appreciates his characters and loves Linda. He says at a book signing recently when a reader came down on Linda, it made him kind of mad.
"This guy said, 'I didn't like Linda very well; she's not a very moral character.' I said, 'I lived with Linda in the cab for years, she's a very moral character. I like her.' "
Hey, at least she didn't throw up in the back seat of his cab, like some of his real customers.
I can't find a link to the column on the American-Statesman website. The story "Bad Guts" is included in Long Time Ago Good. And of course you need to read That Demon Life.
Below is a photo I took of the grave of J. J. “Jake” Pickle (1913-2005), who from 1963-1995 represented Texas’s 10th Congressional District—back when that was Austin’s district, before solidly liberal Austin was gerrymandered into five different conservative districts. Pickle was a fraternity brother of John Connally at the University of Texas, and it was Connally who got him a job working in Lyndon Johnson’s congressional office. In the 50s he was a partner in Johnson’s radio station.
During my Austin cab driving days, I had Pickle as a passenger.
It was in 1998, I think. I picked him up at a condo in Tarrytown. He was standing at the rounded tip of a cul-de-sac, and I swung the cab around so that the rear passenger door would be right in front of him. But he lurched backwards, almost fell down. When he got in the car he said, “You frightened me—I thought you were going to run me down!”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “Where do we go?”
“I need to go to Governor Shivers’s house,” Pickle said.
Uh, what? It sounded like the poor little old man actually wanted to go visit Shivers, who had been governor back in the 50s and died in the 80s. But then I realized—oh, the Shivers Mansion. The University of Texas owned it and used it for meetings and receptions and whatever. So, okay.
It wasn’t very far away. I got there without difficulty. The fare was $4.75.
Pickle handed me a five dollar bill.
“Now,” Pickle said. “I want you to keep a little something of that for yourself!”
And I did.
A very little something.
Pickle is buried in the Texas State Cemetery in Austin. (And, no—I don’t understand the watermelon).
Good gosh. It's September and school is back and I get to work with a bunch of new students, (mostly) all optimistic and cheerful and energetic. So. What better way to combat their youthful optimism than to get all gloomy about the end of the world?
Here is a nice section from That Demon Life. End of the world and grackles, too. Enjoy!
The great-tailed grackle had adapted very well to city life and was the most common bird in the city, able to live on bugs or garbage or almost anything. They were large birds with black, iridescent feathers and bright evil yellow eyes, and the males were larger than the females and carried an impressive fan-shaped tail: they fought for the best position in the highest branches of trees or the loftiest arch of a streetlight and they posed there, bills pointed toward the sky, gasping and croaking and hissing, shitting on anything that happened to be beneath them. Quincy Whittaker thought that was just like—life.
Quincy’s cab was parked outside the office shack of a big towing company on the south side. The cab’s meter was up to $64 25 now, and still running, clicking up another quarter every forty seconds or so. He could see the crazy woman through the shack’s window, waving her arms and jabbering about something. Behind the shack was a fence enclosing a vast field of cars and trucks, mostly dead and partially disassembled, rotting under the hard harsh sun. In front of the shack, by a ditch, stood a giant lone sycamore, filled with grackles. Quincy was parked in the tree’s shade, enduring a steady rain of grackle shit—just like life.
This is how it will all end, he thought, the World will come to a damn end while I sit in a car getting shit on. This is how it is.
For months Quincy had been anticipating the end of the world. There was a psychic who came on the radio late at night when Quincy was sitting alone in his dark, quiet cab, and every night the psychic seemed a little more worked up about the end times. He had a vision of a fungus that was going to kill all the planet’s plant life, leaving no food for humans or domestic animals—no food at all. There was going to be an explosion of x-rays from the sun that would fry whatever side of the Earth was facing the sun at the time. The U.S. economy would collapse because of a mystery illness that would leave millions of people too ill to go to work. The dark star would swing in through the solar system, Nibiru or Marduk or whatever it was called—Planet X!—setting off a vast cataclysm of floods, winds, earthquakes, volcanoes—the end of the world, the end of the world, at last, and it was all tied in, somehow, to the Third Secret of Fatima, which was somehow connected to the Book of Revelations. Quincy was back on familiar ground, there, in Revelations. It was his favorite book of the Bible. He loved the part where the angels floated around streaming tears, crying “Woe! Woe! Woe, to all the inhabiters of Earth!” Sitting in the dark Quincy fondly imagined the skeletons of trees left leafless by the fungus, with great clouds of dirt and dust—no longer held fast by grass—blowing through the air, settling in dunes among the cars abandoned along the highways, Escalades, Navigators, Range Rovers, great huge SUVs like dead dinosaurs, bleached bones of the drivers behind the wheels, corpses cluttering the streets, food for the grackles. Then Marduk would loom on the horizon and there’d be an earthquake or two, a typhoon, a tidal wave, and the Earth would be washed clean. Woe to all mankind! Woe, you motherfuckers! Woe! Day and night, driving his battered cab through the streets of the city, Quincy pondered the end of the world—there were signs everywhere, he could see it coming, looking off at the expressways and strip malls teeming with rude goddamn rich people, thoughtless bastards worried more about their taxes than their souls, preening, cocky, ignorant of their fate, shitting on everyone below them—just like the damn grackles. Just like life. The end of the world! Quincy wanted it to happen. He couldn’t wait.
Linda came out of the shack. “This is the wrong place,” she said. “They don’t have my truck.”
“I was lookin’ at those cars,” Quincy said. “Those trucks over there.” He pointed with his chin across the fence at the endless field of broken down dead vehicles.
“Those were all peoples’ lives, once. You know what I’m saying? People were proud to have those cars then, new cars, drive ‘em all day, happy. Now they all a bunch of junk—worthless, nothing, dead. That’s how we’re all going to end up, you know?”
“Yeah?” Linda asked.
Quincy nodded. “Soon, too.”
Linda looked out the window. She’d barely noticed the piles of dead cars, but now that Quincy pointed them out—hard afternoon sun glaring off the broken glass and twisted metal of the vehicles as they slowly returned to their base elements—they were, really, terribly oppressive. Junk. Lost dreams. Lost youth. Death. Linda flopped back in the seat, suddenly depressed.
“Good Lord,” she said. “Take me someplace to get a drink.”
View from the venue: Sunset over Austin
It’s been a week now since Alamo Bay Writers’ Workshop, and I’m going to brag: it was a total total smashing success!
The participants were skilled, learned, funny, articulate, cool, and possessed of touching poems and stories. Fellow instructors Diane Wilson, Larry Heinemann, and Lee Grue were terrific. Pam Booton's organizing skills were/are incredible. The venue was fantastic.
Everything was great. And next year will be even better.
Alamo Bay is two weeks away right now and you all need to go to the website and register.
Alamo Bay Writers’ Workshop: http://www.alamobaywritersworkshop.com/
It’s going to be really good—Environmental Activist Diane Wilson will be teaching a creative nonfiction session, National Book Award-winning novelist Larry Heinemann will lead a fiction session, NEA Fellow Lee Grue will teach poetry, and I’ll lead a fiction session. We’ll be in Austin, Texas July 19-21. Register--
Today I have been watching the people next door. It’s a long holiday weekend—and the neighbors are having fun! They were out on their boat all day, then came back and changed clothes and went out to dinner.
I’m an academic and a writer. Summer is a work time for me—I am revising one book and beginning two (!) others. I made corrections on the proof of Professed and I'm thinking of ways to promote it. Plus thinking about the classes I’ll teach in the fall at PSU—plus thinking about the session I’ll lead at ABWW.
But…all that’s fun, too. That's what summer is for.