Earthly and Mechanical Paraphernalia

“She glided away towards the lift, which seemed hardly needed, with its earthly and mechanical paraphernalia, to bear her up to the higher levels.”
Anthony Powell, A Dance to the Music of Time: 3rd Movement

Sculpture being installed at the Meadows Building, Dallas, Texas

Dallas is the worst city there is as far as preserving its history, art works, and interesting architecture (such as it is). There has been a struggle over the redevelopment of the uber-cool Meadows Building. They were going to raze a historic wing just to create room to run a driveway through.

There used to be a sculpture between the building and the Lover’s Lane DART station – Birth II by Arthur Williams.

Birth II, Arthur Williams, Dallas, Texas

 

All of a sudden, during the construction, it disappeared. I seem to be the only person interested in the sculpture – there is no record of where it went that I can find. I certainly hope they didn’t scrap it.

The other day, I rode my bike around the construction site as best as I could trying to see if they simply moved it somewhere obscure. I couldn’t find it – but they were putting in a new giant three part sculpture nearby.

It looked cool, but not anywhere as cool as the old Birth II.

Birth II, by Arthur Williams, Dallas, Texas

The Senility Of Obsolescence

“Why do things get weaker and worse? Why don’t they get better? Because we accept that they fall apart! But they don’t have to — they could last forever. Why do things get more expensive? Any fool can see that they should get cheaper as technology gets more efficient. It’s despair to accept the senility of obsolescence…”
Paul Theroux, The Mosquito Coast

Recycled Books, Denton, Texas

I remember having a friend that tried to convince me to buy a Betamax.

I miss walking through the aisles of video rental store. The first ever Blockbuster Video store opened near where I lived. I remember going there and listening to some guy in a suit lecturing to a bunch of other guys in suits about how this was going to be the future. He was right… and so very, very wrong.

Arapaho Then And Now

“The Greek word for “return” is nostos. Algos means “suffering.” So nostalgia is the suffering caused by an unappeased yearning to return.”

― Milan Kundera, Ignorance

Arapaho and US 75, 1958

I belong to a Facebook group on the history of the city I live in, Richardson, Texas. Today, the library posted this photo and another from a slightly different angle with a request that someone identify where it was taken. It was labeled, “Arapaho, 1958.” It didn’t take long for the readers to identify the exact location of the top of the US 75 overpass, facing east, along Arapaho road. Everyone was fairly sure that the highway was under construction at the time (probably using concrete from that batch plant), so somebody simply climbed up on the deserted, half-built bridge and took some shots that ended up in the library archive.

Out of curiosity, I went to Google Maps Streetview and captured a contemporary image of the same place.

Arapaho and US 75, now

It definitely the same place. In the original, you can see the railroad crossing in the distance – that is now the overhead DART commuter train line you see in the modern photo. The angle is different – the overhead Highway 75 is too busy to take photos from and all the Google Maps Streetview shows in the high concrete guardwall.

Things have certainly changed… in not all that much time, really. I was one year old in 1958.

What is interesting to me is not what has changed… but what is still the same. Of course, 75 and Arapaho has changed a lot – but that is because the city has grown to overtake that quiet little country corner. Dallas has grown at an incredible rate – faster than most cities – an the sprawl has vomited out across the cotton fields, especially to the north, for decades and decades now.

But, you see, the central part of the country, from Texas to North Dakota, flyover country, the part of the country I have lived in a lot – still looks largely like that first photography. A rough, rural intersection, a small concrete batch plant, tumbledown wooden shacks, a lonely armless and warningless railroad crossing, pickup trucks, sedans, a concrete truck leaving the batch plant, scraggly trees with a crude advertisement nailed to it struggling against the wind, summer heat, winter snows, lines of telephone poles marching regularly over the curve of the earth, fertile land flat as a pancake.

There are still millions of places like that all up and down the heartland. A lot have been gobbled up by the city… but there are plenty more out there.

They Ring And You Run

“So that’s the telephone? They ring, and you run.”
― Edgar Degas

Downtown Square, McKinney, Texas



Oblique Strategy:
Always first steps

I think of the technological advances during the time I have lived.

In college, I had to punch cards to produce input into a computer that took up an entire floor of the business school. I would hand my precious stack – chits of holed paper with one corner gone – through a window to some anointed guardian like it was the gate to the Emerald City. I would then stare at an empty vending machine for hours until my stack of printouts flopped down into a numbered wooden bin.

Almost a decade later I was writing database programs to run on a Radio Shack TRS-80. I would write the program on an 8 inch floppy disk, and the data for each site was on another 8 incher. I think each held 180 K bytes. We kept having problems with data until I discovered my assistant was holding the extra disks onto a copy board with magnets. Reports were slowly spit out on an incredibly loud daisy-wheel printer. Still, as crude as this all was it revolutionized the storage and retrieval of information that we had been doing by hand.

The IBM PC was another incredible advance. Of course, I remember when it was kept in a wire cage and you had to get a key from a manager to use it. They thought it was a waste of money – and couldn’t understand why it didn’t get more use. I finally convinced management to get it out of the locked cage and let anybody sit there and type. Soon, a mouse wandered over and the early versions of Windows came out. It was painfully slow – but I remember when I realized I could cut information from one program (a spreadsheet, say) and paste it into another (a word processor). I remember that moment still – it was like a whole new world opened up.

Another moment like that was the first time I saw a laser printer spit out a piece of 8.5 x 11. I think it was the silence that impressed me, even more than the quality of the work.

And on it goes – for most of my adult life, every year brought new wonders – having my own computer at home, laptops, video games, thumb drives, GPS. All amazing. It’s only recently, as the corporate behemoth ropes everything back in, gets its evil tendrils into and around every byte that I feel we have begun to fall backwards. Things are now getting harder and harder, less and less amazing.

When I talk to my kids about this, the quintessence of millennials, they agree without hesitation that it is the Smartphone that is the game changer. For me, it’s probably the internet… but for them it’s the little piece of glass in their hand – that goes everywhere, that does everything. They can’t imagine life without one.

Each little phone is, of course, many, many times more powerful that that immense leviathan that spread across that entire building when I was in school.

Tex-Mex Food – History and Ingredients

“your body is not a temple, it’s an amusement park. Enjoy the ride.”
― Anthony Bourdain, Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly

Tex-Mex – Two enchiladas, rice and black beans.

Oblique Strategy: Look closely at the most embarrassing details and amplify them

I don’t eat Tex-Mex food very often. I’ve lived in Texas so long I’m, well… kinda over it. The only time I eat Tex-Mex is when someone is in from out of town. My son is here for the Dallas Marathon this weekend and he wanted some – so we go.

Every neighborhood in Dallas has its own Tex-Mex spot (and its Pho place, and its Barbeque joint, and its greasy burger dive…) and in ours it’s Amigos. I don’t know if Tex-Mex can be called “comfort food” because you can be pretty uncomfortable if you eat too much of it.

One big knock on Tex-Mex is that it isn’t authentic Mexican food. Well, of course it isn’t. Have you ever even been to Mexico? It’s a big, diverse place – there’s no reason that food from the high Sonoran desert would even resemble the seafood from the Yucatan. Mexico’s culinary style and history is more like France’s – very complex and diverse.

Tex-Mex is a regional American cuisine… which happens to be inspired by some of the cooking that came across the Rio Grande.

You can tell you are eating Tex-Mex by the ingredients – stuff that isn’t (or wasn’t) very common in Mexico. These ingredients are: beef, yellow cheese (like cheddar), wheat flour, black beans, canned vegetables (especially tomatoes), and cumin.

Cumin – the main and essential ingredient in Chili Powder – is an interesting example. It’s not a traditional Mexican spice – it’s Indian. Canary Islanders were brought to San Antonio by the Spanish to try to expand the colonization of Texas. The Canary Islanders brought with them a Berber flavor signature — Moroccan food. There was a lot of cumin, garlic and chili, and those flavors, which are really dominant in chili con carne, became the flavor signature of Tex-Mex. It’s very different from Mexican food. Food Critic Diana Kennedy is prone to say that Tex-Mex includes way too much cumin. But if you compare it to Arab food, you suddenly understand where that flavor signature comes from.

The greatest epic Tex-Mex feast ever photographed. From the gatefold of the ZZ Top, Tres Hombres album
(click to enlarge)

ESSENTIAL TEX-MEX FOODS

NACHOS

Nachos might’ve been invented in Mexico by Ignacio “Nacho” Anaya, but it was only because a bunch of Texan ladies flocked to his restaurant after-hours and asked for a snack. The versions you see around the country today, frequently doused with molten, yellow cheese, are very American.

CHILI CON CARNE

Considered by many to be the quintessential Tex-Mex dish, this tomatoey stew of ground or cubed beef, beans (if you’re not a tried-and-true Texan), spices, chili peppers, and other accoutrements is very much a gringo invention, created by Texan settlers out of widely available ingredients. Actually, it’s based on Northern Native American recipes. Not Mexican.

FAJITAS

Derived from the Spanish word “faja” — meaning “strip” (which refers to the cut of beef they used) — fajitas are wholly a US creation (first mentioned in print in 1971) inspired and informed by the ingredients of Mexico, but not usually found in that country.

PRETTY MUCH ANY “MEXICAN” RESTAURANT FOOD IN AMERICA

Queso dip, chimichangas, the enchilada as we know it… you name it, it’s been Americanized. But that’s not to say that it isn’t still delicious.

THREE CITIES, THREE HISTORIES

When you look at the modern history of Tex-Mex, you get completely different stories from Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio. Each one, of course, claims to be the place where Tex-Mex was invented, perfected, and popularized. They are all three right, and all three wrong.

San Antonio is the closest city to the border and the area that contributed the “Mex” part of the cuisine. It also added the “Combination Plate” to the menu.
An Illustrated History of Tex-Mex

How chili queens from San Antonio and the rise of the combo plate shaped Mexican food’s evolution across the border.

The cuisine grew out of the Rio Grande Valley but came into its own in San Antonio. “In the 1870s, chili queens in San Antonio started becoming nationally and internationally famous. That’s when Tex-Mex started getting on the map of Americans in earnest. From then on, every decade has had a monument to Tex-Mex.”

Tracing the History of Tex-Mex

The growing fame of the chili queens helped San Antonio establish its enduring reputation as the capital of Tex-Mex cuisine.

Dallas seems to be the birthplace of the kings of Tex-Mex restaurant empires. Tex-Mex is primarily a restaurant cuisine, seldom made at home. Everyone in Dallas knows El Fenix, El Chico, and, more recently Mi Concina.

History of El Fenix

Miguel Martinez opened the first Mexican restaurant in Dallas, in 1918. When he opens “Martinez Café” (now El Fenix) he offers only Anglo-American dishes. He develops a new style integrating Mexican flare and offers these dishes to guests, asking for their feedback. Their input was instrumental in perfecting his culinary experimentation and Tex-Mex was born.

The Family Who Sold Tex-Mex to America

In 1928, Adelaida “Mama” Cuellar opened Cuellar’s Cafe in Kaufman. Four of her sons moved to Dallas in 1940 and opened the first El Chico. These two families laid the foundation for Dallas’ flavor profile.

The Elevation of Tex-Mex, Mico Rodriguez

Lard-laden combination plates changed forever once Mico Rodriguez and his partners opened the first Mi Cocina in the Preston Forest Shopping Center in 1991. Rodriguez refined the Tex-Mex experience by using quality ingredients such as expensive cheddar cheese and fresh jalapeños and cilantro.

Houston has an equal claim, including Ninfa’s and the development of the fajita.
The Houston Version of Things:
A six part series – a different history of Tex-Mex…

Pralines and Pushcarts
Combination Plates
Mama’s Got a Brand-new Bag
The Authenticity Myth
The French Connection
Brave Nuevo World

The Fence

One death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic.
—Joseph Stalin

Oblique Strategy: The most important thing is the thing most easily forgotten

I started my first “blog” (this was before anyone had thought of the name blog – we called them “online journals”) In 1996 or so. Mine was called “The Daily Epiphany.” As far as I can tell mine was the 13th online journal/blog on the internet. I wrote in it every day for more than ten years.

Tonight I was looking through my files, doing some organizing, and found an entry I had typed while driving back to Dallas from my uncle’s funeral in Kansas. It was almost exactly 20 years ago- November 30, 1997 – four years before 9/11, when our reaction to such things changed, when it became commonplace.

The entry was called “The Fence.” I printed it out and entered it into a writing contest once- It won a prize – ten dollars cash, sealed in a little envelope.

A cold, leaden day. That midwestern wet cold, a little above freezing; with wind that cuts. The sky had no blue, no indication of where the sun actually was. Only ripples, waves of lighter and darker gray.

Interstate 35, between Wichita and Dallas is mostly a straight shot. There is only one jump to the left, and a step to the right, in Oklahoma City. You have to get on I40 going west for an instant and then exit to the left, picking up southward again. Sixteen years ago, when I first moved from Hutchinson to Texas, this little jog shook me up. I hadn’t really been driving very long and had no experience with big city expressway killer traffic. The thought of quickly merging across three busy lanes to an exit filled me with dread and stress.

I was such a geek.

Now, of course, after all these years bumping and grinding through Dallas highways and byways this is second nature. I can merge and exit without a thought. Confidence, aggression, and peripheral vision.

But this time I didn’t exit. I wanted to take a break from the drive, go see something; so I continued West on I40, right into the heart of downtown Oklahoma City.

It’s not much different than downtown Wichita, or Tulsa, or any of the middle-big midwestern cities. A new baseball stadium is going up, new glass office buildings, some older brick hotels. It was Sunday, there was almost no traffic. As a matter of fact, there was some sort of BMX racing going on at the Convention Center. I saw more kids on bikes, jumping curbs, hot-dogging up and down stairs, than cars on the streets.

I didn’t know exactly how to get there, only that I was going between fourth and fifth streets, but it didn’t take long to find my way. I parked next to an older, large dark tan brick building. A typical neo-something older public place. It wasn’t until I got out onto the sidewalk I noticed that the glass had been broken out in all its windows. I knew it had been blown out.

I really didn’t know what to expect; didn’t even know why I had driven there. It has been over two years and I wasn’t even sure what had been done to the site recently. I only wanted to stop and rest for a minute, visit a piece of history, maybe try and fix the actual place that it happened in my mind.

The Murrah building itself is, of course, long gone. The planned memorial hasn’t been started yet. All that’s left is a rectangular grassy field, the lawn was yellow for the winter, that smooth professionally planted turf, put in to cover things up. To the south are some concrete remains of the foundation and parking garage. The entire city block is encircled with a high chain link fence.

And it was that fence that really packed the emotional wallop. You can watch the news stories, read the survivor’s accounts, but it doesn’t seem possible. That something so horrible could occur, not by accident, but on purpose, in the forgotten center of the country, is beyond belief. But walk up to that fence, and it’s all too real.

The worst is the toys. Hundreds of toys stuck into or tied to the bare wire. Teddy bears, stuffed animals, balls, birthday presents for children that will never grow up. A baby’s pacifier.

“Look, Mom! another Beanie Baby!” exclaimed a small girl, poking at a little toy dog on the fence with delight, too young to understand.

Other things too. Poems, letters, pictures, most laminated in plastic. One unprotected sign had run in the rain. The only legible part was the word “crying” in big, thick, colored letters. It too was fading, running, dripping down the ragged poster board. Someone had made little red felt Christmas stockings, each one with a jolly cloth Santa face. I didn’t count them, but I’m sure there were 168.

Many people seemed to go there without plans and put up what they had on hand. There were a lot of keychains. Hundreds of little crosses made of sticks.

There were quite a few people, but thankfully nobody selling anything. Many were obviously tourists, some taking pictures. Many appeared to be locals, though; alone, slowly, solemnly working their way around the fence, reading the notes, looking at the wreaths and the pictures. I wondered how many of these people had lost husbands, wives, children, friends in the blast; how many had actually been there , wondering why it hadn’t taken them; how often they went down there on cold, windy winter days to walk that stretch of chainlink.

The day was dark, but I was glad that I was wearing my sunglasses, I didn’t really want to show my eyes.

I drove on, and stopped for lunch at a Wendy’s south of town. I don’t eat fast food hamburgers any more, but I remembered being there seven years earlier with Candy and Nicholas, when he was an infant. I remember holding him, spooning a little Frosty into his mouth.

I sat at a table typing on the laptop for a bit. A crowd of kids, a ball team or bible class, boiled around me. They all had little plastic toys from their Happy Meals or whatever. They were all laughing, showing each other what they had, seeing who had the coolest toy. They were loud and a bit wild, bumping into me as I typed, but for some reason, I didn’t mind.

Let’s Talk of Graves, of Worms, and Epitaphs

“Let’s talk of graves, of worms, and epitaphs;
Make dust our paper and with rainy eyes
Write sorrow on the bosom of the earth,
Let’s choose executors and talk of wills”
― William Shakespeare, Richard II

We lost about half the ride at Lee Harvey's - but here's the rest at the Santa Fe Trestle Trail. (click for a larger, better version on Flickr)

We lost about half the ride at Lee Harvey’s – but here’s the rest at the Santa Fe Trestle Trail.
(click for a larger, better version on Flickr)

A week ago I went along on an organized bike ride that, in the spirit of upcoming Halloween, explored three of Dallas’ historical cemeteries. I left the house and rode to the DART station, taking the train downtown. This was the last week of the giant State Fair of Texas and the trains were packed with last-minute fairgoers, but I made it without any problem. I rode from the West End Station down to the Continental Bridge Park and met up with about twenty folks there.

We rode down into the Trinity River Bottoms and followed the new paved bike trail and some gravel roads to the Santa Fe Trestle Trail. Then we headed up Corinth and into South Dallas. Working our way through the neighborhoods we arrived at our first stop, Oakland Cemetery.

This was a very peaceful and interesting place. It’s one of the oldest cemeteries in the city and is full of locally famous folks – the names on the tombstones are reflected in many familiar street names. One feature is that when they constructed the cemetery they left the native trees – making it one of the few first-growth forest spots in the city. There are a number of unique sub-species of trees found only there.

We rode around without stopping – I plan on going back soon for some photography there.

Leaving Oakland Cemetery we went a few blocks up a side street and stopped at an ordinary small rental property. It was the house where Ray Charles lived for a few years in the 1950s – while he was making some of his most famous music. I had no idea there was any connection between Ray Charles and the city of Dallas – the house is not marked or preserved in any way. The local blues scene was influential on his musical growth and style at the time. He was traveling a lot – but became a regular performer at local clubs like Woodman Hall and the Arandas Club.

Ray Charles' rental home. Dallas, Texas

Ray Charles’ rental home.
Dallas, Texas

We rode back on side streets into The Cedars where we stopped for lunch and a beer at Lee Harvey’s – which appeared as we turned the corner like an oasis in the desert.

The day was getting long and I thought about heading home, but I was convinced to ride back across the river to another historical cemetery, Oak Cliff Cemetery. It was another interesting and beautiful spot – but the sun was starting to set so we headed off to our last destination, Western Heights Cemetery.

I was getting tired and started to fall behind the main group. A strong cyclist stayed back with me and we became separated from everybody else. It was dark when we made it to Western Heights. We waited for a bit – but the others never made it.

Historical Marker at Western Heights Cemetery Dallas, Texas

Historical Marker at Western Heights Cemetery
Dallas, Texas

The most famous person buried in Western Heights is Clyde Barrow. A few years back I visited Bonnie Parker’s grave, north of Love Field. Her family insisted on her being buried far away from her infamous partner – there has been some interest in having them moved together over the years, but nothing has come of it.

Bonnie Parker's Gravesite

Bonnie Parker’s Gravesite

We clambered over the fence to take a look at the grave of Clyde and his brother Buck.

Grave of Clyde Barrow and his brother, Buck.

Grave of Clyde Barrow and his brother, Buck.

It was getting late and I was a long way from home, so I took off, riding back to the Trinity River, over the Continental Bridge and catching a train at the American Airlines Center back to Richardson. We had ridden a little over thirty miles, which is a long way in the city, especially for me. There is nothing better than a fun and exhausting day.