Friday, March 2, 2012

Greetings from Bucking Horse Palace!

I surely have said this before and I certainly will say it again. When I first moved to Texas, the jingoism I encountered was puzzling at best, annoying at worst. Here was a place so fond of itself you could find pasta and ice cube trays shaped like the state. It didn't take too long before I started to catch on, though, and within a year or so I, too, had the pride, best demonstrated by my bumper sticker (purchased on a visit to the Alamo if I recall) that proclaimed: I Wasn't Born in Texas, But I Got Here As Fast As I Could.

I know, I know-- there were and are still aspects that leave plenty to be desired. The politics, for one. And though I was fortunate to move here during the reign of Ann Richards, that turned out to be a fluke. Bush and now Perry-- ugh. The schools need a lot of work. And global warming is making the winters damn lovely but the summers absolutely terrifying. Still, I'll take Texas any day over past states of residence-- Jersey, Florida Missouri.

And while I need no excuses to play tourist in the place I've called home for over twenty years now-- witness my weekly forays out into our city and beyond (I love you Hill Country, I love you West Texas!)-- I get especially excited when visitors appear and, with their presence, a handy excuse to go balls to the wall and exhibit the sort of enthusiasm that would make a Duck Tours guide seem apathetic by comparison.

So I was absolutely thrilled when my friend Razi, whom I first met in 2008 when he came to visit our mutual friend, Garreth, returned in February for a two week stay. Raz hails from London, and is Pakistani by descent. He is brilliant and funny and terribly handsome. I call him the Pakistani Elvis. Raz is always up for a good time, 100% on board for whatever adventure presents itself. Thus I found myself on a staycation to rival more than a few of my out of state (and out of country) trips of yore.

Herewith, a few bits of photo-evidence to the time we shared. Up at the top, witness Raz and me at the Ginger Man. Though it's been years since I gave up my boozehound ways, Raz has the legendary hollow leg possessed by most Englishmen. Visiting bars with him was a wonderful chance to cut myself some slack. No, no, I didn't start drinking again. But in all my years of sobriety, I had developed-- thanks to my black and white thinking-- this attitude that I had wasted so many years in bars, that all that drinking was nothing but bad, bad, bad! Now, hanging out in the womby wonderfulness of pubs, I realized why, beyond the groggy escapism of an alcohol saturated brain, I so loved throwing back pints. There is something so welcoming and comforting about a dark, smoky room. (I know, I know, you can't smoke in bars anymore, but just being in a bar I can remember the haze, which I liked, and which I contributed to.)

That first night, after the Ginger Man, we headed over to La Zona Rosa, to catch the Polyphonic Spree. Pictured above is Tim DeLaughter, who fronts the band. I first saw PS back in 2001, during SXSW when they played around four shows. I was so instantly smitten, I got their manager's card, called him up during the festival, and invited the entire band (then about 26 members strong) over for brunch. They accepted, descending on my little Hyde Park bungalow en masse, skating the half-pipe out back, slurping down coffee, and hanging out on the porch. Thus began my friendship with the band, and Henry and I followed them for years, catching all their Austin shows, and wandering up to Dallas/Ft. Worth when that didn't prove enough. I love Tim and all the joy he has brought to the world. After the magnificent LZ show, we hung out backstage with him and caught up, reminiscing about the time Henry played on stage with the band, and that very first encounter, when Tim about busted his ass skateboarding in the yard.

For our second adventure, the day after the Spree show, Raz agreeably joined me for my annual trek to Dallas to participate in the Highland Park High School Literary Fest. At this point, Raz and I were still on fairly good behavior, both of us in the midst of restriction heavy diets-- him doing some Atkins-y thing and me participating in a cleanse sponsored by East Side Yoga. Mostly that meant no carbs for either of us. So when we stopped at the Czech Stop in West Comma Texas, we could only smell the kolaches.

Raz stops and smells the kolaches.

Upon arrival in Dallas, we checked into a boutique Hilton, a really lovely hotel that I get to stay in every year. Super fluffy beds, abundant pillows, and a massive flat screen TV which-- it turned out-- Raz would need kept on to aid his sleeping. This leads me to a point about hanging out with Raz that I found fascinating, one that led to much good discussion about relationships. See, if Warren tried to leave the TV on, or if he took his time with the GPS the way Raz did, I know I would've snapped at him. I'm not proud of this, but I can't deny it. Why is it that behavior we lovingly tolerate in our friends is absolutely verboten when practiced by our partners? Raz, whose degree in physics from Oxford may or may not have contributed to his ability to boil it down, says this mostly comes down to simple scorekeeping. We track our partners' behavior far more closely than our friends. I might add that the friends we see only once every three or four years get even more leeway. Or, to boil it down further, allow me to trot out the old but true cliche: Familiarity really can breed contempt. With that confession, I apologize to Warren, but also want to note that being with Raz heightened my awareness of my own sometimes bitchy behavior with my man, and thus helped me to temper it. (It's true-- Warren and I are extra sweet to each other when Raz is around. Thank you, Raz!)

Another perk that comes with being a guest speaker in Dallas is that I get to have dinner at the home (okay, mansion) of my friend Barbara. Barbara, as you can see from the above photo, is a collector. I adore her blue plate special wall.

She also has the best bathroom fixtures I've ever seen. I love these in and of themselves. I also love them because they remind me of a funny Henry story. The very first time I ever went to Barbara's, Hen-- around ten years old at the time-- was with me. When we pulled up to her house, which takes up nearly an entire block, his eyes got huge. "This is her house?!" he asked. "I'm checking out the bathroom first!" Such great instincts for one so young. He wasn't disappointed and, after his initial inspection, insisted that I take the tour. That pewter turtle you see? It is the faucet. Below, check out the little bird handles.

Yet another perk of the festival is that I get to hang out with some great writers. In years past I've dined with Michael Chabon, Billy Collins, Russell Banks, Kaye Gibbons, Tobias Wolff and others whose names escape me at the moment. Above -- Naomi Shihab Nye. She is a poet and short story writer who lives in San Antonio. Her keynote reading was magnificent.

Raz shows off the bathroom.

After my duties in Dallas were completed, I asked Raz if there was anything he'd like to do up in that part of the state. He'd slept in at the hotel, had a nice room service omelet, then hopped a cab to head over to Dealey Plaza to search for bullet holes and fashion new conspiracy theories. Then he wandered into a Mexican place to toss back a few midday margaritas, and that is where I found him. The place smelled like a backed up toilet, which he assured me was a scent that only recently surfaced. Regardless, I got both of us out of there and he suggested he would like to head over to Fort Worth, to the planetarium. In the parking lot, we spotted this license plate.

Once inside the museum, we noted with sadness that it was 4:40, that the museum was closing in 20 minutes, and that the last Black Holes presentation had already begun. The young man at the counter told us that there was no late seating and, worse, that even if we wanted to dash around and look at the exhibits, we'd have to pay full price. I made my sad face and started in on how Raz had come all the way from London and so on and so forth. He looked at us and said there was one place in the museum we could look at for free, and this just happened to be the exhibit in the hallway leading to the planetarium.

Well, once we got there, Raz got to lurk beneath an astronaut. Better still, there was a small, bright-eyed man wearing a vest that suggested he worked at the museum. He asked if we were there to catch the 5 pm laser show and I said, "No, we really hoped to see the Black Holes exhibit, and too bad we missed it by a few minutes, because Raz has come all the way from London, and he did his dissertation on black holes and..." As my voice trailed off, the little man asked if we had tickets. "Sadly, no," I said. And then the magic happened. "Come with me," he said. "No one's going to lose any grocery money over this." And with that, he led us into the in-progress show.

Those are dead animals inside the museum.

Planetarium Man's kindness toward us wasn't the only royal treatment. Back out in the parking lot we noted that we were just across from an live animal expo center which, I told Raz, is also known as Bucking Horse Palace. (Raz, spotting a big sign on the wall that said SWINE, suggested it might also be the American version of Bucking Ham Palace.)

Much as I love Raz and playing host, once I delivered him back to Austin, I decided to head alone to Galveston to work on my book. Pictured above are Bubbles and Rebound in my writer's garret in Galveston, the sanctuary my friends down there keep waiting for me. I love Galveston for its history and for the quiet it offers me. But the quiet didn't last long. Raz and Garreth and Warren, who'd been waffling about driving to New Orleans for Mardi Gras, decided to save many hours of drive time and do Fat Tuesday in Galveston instead. And so they followed me down, arriving the next day. At first I tried to avoid them-- no offense, guys, but I'm here to write. The temptation proved too strong though.

The Three Musketeers first tracked me down at Gaido's, where I was supping with my Galveston hosts, Jay and Paula, and giving up on the cleanse I was by now tired of enduring. Enough with the health food. I want mac and cheese! And so mac and cheese I had, along with seafood (despite my ongoing attempts to quit seafood). With this chink in my armor of resolve, and with the arrival of the boys, and with Mardi Gras (and its attendant Go Wild overtone), all resolve was lost. Both Raz and I had quit smoking since we'd first met in 2008 and bonded over our propensity for chain smoking. Now, the gloves were off, we rang each other's Pavlovian bells, and packs of fags materialized. Oh well.

Raz in the lobby of Gaido's.
Our host, Cap'n Jay, and the Mardi Gras Trio.

The guys were staying at a hotel sans mini bar. This necessitated a trip to Walmart for booze. At Walmart, they met a guy named Leon who, it happens, is the proprietor of Leon's BBQ. They promised to visit him. And so, on Mardi Gras proper, with me as designated driver, and despite the fact I do not eat meat, we wound up at Leon's place.

This is what it looks like when your breakfast of champions includes Walmart booze.

I started out my lunch at Leon's with cake for an appetizer. Why the hell not-- if you're going to abandon a cleanse, might as well go all the way, right?

Garreth demonstrates the usefulness of this modern piece of restaurant equipment

Leon, bless his heart, has a note on the menu that says if you don't see it, ask for it and he'll make it. I explained I was dying for a grilled cheese sandwich. My wish was his command. Voila-- Leon's Grilled Fromage, the perfect Mardi Gras meal.

After all that meat and cheese, we needed something healthy to counterbalance things. And so we wandered across the parking lot, past the big Bail Bonds billboard, and into the conveniently located Shipley's Donuts. Because when you're visiting America, it's very important to eat like an American.

When In Rome-- I joined in the fun and ate this donut. 

The boys begged off post meat and donuts to go take a nap, so I dumped them at the hotel and caught up with my hosts. By this point, any hope of a quiet night of writing was shot. So I went along to a Mardi Gras parade party, hosted by some friends with a balcony overlooking the parade route. I hadn't been to a Mardi Gras parade since my days in Tampa at Gasparilla, back in the mid-eighties. I became re-indoctrinated very quickly, and wound up with more beads than anyone. This being a family-friendly Mardi Gras, I was able to acquire the beads without showing my tits, which was a win-win for all involved.

By the time we reunited, the parade was over but the party was just starting. On we went to partake in karaoke night at Lafit's a down and dirty gay bar a few blocks from the seawall. Warren was instantly groped upon walking in the door. Later, I was picked up on the dance floor, invited to grind with a friendly guy who got all excited by the blaring wonderfulness of Baby Got Back.

Back in Austin, with Raz's stateside days sadly dwindling, we resumed our more low-key pub crawling. Raz attended a reading I hosted for my students one night, and then we wandered down to the Hole in the Wall, a must experience for all Austin visitors.

Then, it was off to find more donuts. This time, we went to Mrs. Johnson's on Airport Blvd. I told Raz he should use the picture below for an online dating profile. Very dignified, no? As for me, I wish I was being hyperbolic when I said it, but I swear when I bit into my chocolate iced, cream-filled donut, I had an experience that was a cross between Jerusalem Syndrome and something you might find described in Cosmo magazine. Fuck I love donuts.

And then, entirely too soon, Razi's final night in Austin arrived. Did he want to go to the Salt Lick? No. Chez Nous? Au contraire. Trailer food? Naw. Instead, he issued a proclamation saying we would join forces at one of those massive Chinese Buffet joints. I used to frequent these when Henry was a growing lad and he could pile it on without breaking the bank. I put the Chinese Buffet days behind me long ago, though, so this revisitation was a rude reminder of just how crappily I used to eat on a regular basis. (I say this as if trips to two different donut places in one week were not a reminder of same.)

You can get all kinds of Jello at the Chinese Buffet. Very traditional Asian food, you know?

And then, to wash down all that goodness, just one more stop at one more pub, this time Buddy's Place on Burnet. I'd never even heard of Buddy's before but it is unforgettable, with the flag on the ceiling of the back room that's a mashup of a confederate flag and a Lone Star flag, a creepily realistic redneck mannequin at one of the tables, and clientele that most certainly does not put on airs.

And with the evening's conclusion came our sad farewells as Garreth and MJ and Raz posed in front of the portrait of me on the wall of Buddy's. Raz, please come back soon. Just give me a little time to quit smoking and donuts first. 


Garreth said...

I won't hear about word said about the Fujiyan Grand Imperial Royal Palace - it is amazing value, and affords a great selection of gluten at rock bottom prices.

Razi said...

This must be what its like to have your own personal biographer to remember stuff for you. Thank you so much! It all comes trickling back to me now..

And the Chinese buffet did include a Mongolian Grille as well... I will not stand to see Foojiyang disparaged.