Texas: Auto-retrato in rear-view mirrors, Auto-da-fe in Houston

Karges self-portrait 2014

Karges self-portrait 2014

Houston has always pretty much encapsulated for me everything that’s wrong with America, sprawls and malls and oversized redneck balls, up yours and in yo’ face, politeness and good manners preventing me from using the four-letter words that most easily come to mind. And southern Texas is basically an hijo de puta in general, somehow defining the term, iridescent oil slicks in shallow tide pools, earthly vents flaring gas, cops looking for someone to do and beastly bovines baring ass.

It all started in Schulenberg for me, back in 1977, halfway between San Antonio and Houston, somewhere on the outskirts of the outback and nowhere near the infield of her in-skirts, home plate looming large like a bulls-eye home run, where I’d prefer to be, in her arms if not her legs, lapping at liquids and overlapping symbols, mixing metaphors and martinis, gasping for air if not grasping at truths, preferably screaming for more, and not bloody murder…

Eternal Flame: Texas Oil Fields

Eternal Flame: Texas Oil Fields

But no one is there to help me when the nice policeman drops me off on the edge of town, down on my luck and down to my last buck, with instructions to think hard and pray even harder, gotta’ have a ton of faith when the only ride I got hitch-hiking in the last six hours was a ride in a police car after handing over $21 of my last $24 for unspecified crimes and misdemeanors; oh, right! I was littering, I remember now, as if it were yesterday…

I got dropped there on the exit ramp and waited for hours, back in the days when backpacks were rucksacks and backpackers wore them religiously, with sometimes even a tent and sleeping bag attached for good measure, and budget accommodations, but it’s hard to walk around when you walk into town, even harder to pick up the Coke can once you stand up and gear up after sitting down and taking a look around and checking out the bus schedule to see how far $24 will take you…

But I walked away rather than gear down just to bend down to pick up that now-empty cursed can of formerly fizzy liquids, now rendered inert inside me and seeking a path to the sea at the closest sign of a little boys’ room. WHEE-OO!! The sirens sound out on cue and I’m apprehended like the common litterer that I really am, and hauled before the local JP and ordered to pay a $21 fine and lectured on the dangers of Mexico to boot, nothing about the dangers of America or the abuses of Arizona or the crimes of Paris, Texas, due to hit the big screen in only a few years’ time…

Downtown Houston

Downtown Houston

But at least I had three dollars left and was by then on the other side of town, with things looking up, and no margin for error, only five hundred miles to home and enough money for a loaf of bread and a jar of peanut butter, so I should be good, and I was, made it back with pennies to spare and a pair of clean underwear, older but wiser, emboldened and unrepentant…

Well I’m nothing if not one to press my luck, so I came back the next year 1978 crossing the border at Matamoros and Brownsville instead of Laredo, that’ll show ’em, with the big idea to take then-newbie Southwest Airlines’ cheapie flight from Harlingen to Houston, for exactly that same $24 that was so hard to part with the year before; only one problem: what to do when I got there, airports not exactly configured for hitch-hiking, still I persevered walking around cloverleafs and loop-the-loops, somehow emerging from it all and pointing in the right direction: Mississippi or bust! Got a ride from there to my driveway, all in one piece, and ready to…

Die. Ready to die. Coming down with hepatitis and ready to die. Musta’ been the icy waters down in Tampico, the kind you drink, not swim in, and all too often made with non-sanitary ice and whatever fruit happens to be in season, hard to resist when the temps are climbing high, and it’s a long bus ride to the border. It was nasty, seeing yellow crapping chalky and pissing Pepsi, but somehow I survived, supposedly inoculated for life…

Houston on the horizon

Houston on the horizon

Fast forward to 1989 and I’m boarding the plane for Panama from Houston. There’s a table set up on the jet ramp, and manned by Customs officers, but I’ve never seen such, and pay it no mind. They call me over, time for inspection—okay, whatever. I’ve got nothing to hide. They give my baggage the once-over, then go for my wallet, counting my money and going for broke. The limit’s $10K to declare, which I know well, $9129 in pocket and ready to do my biz in crafts down south. That should be the end of it, but it’s not.

“I want to know what that bulge in your pants is,” he says, and no, I don’t make this sh*t up.

So off we go, down the ramp, and into the cockpit, no pun intended, where I proceed to pull down my pants to satisfy the man’s interests, no comment, without getting his hands dirty, should last him the rest of the day and most of the night, if I figure rightly, calculating the algebra of desire against the urge to merge, and the demands for privacy when plumbing one’s privies; it ain’t pretty, but it gets the job done…

Now here I am in 2014, older but no wiser, wending my way through oil fields and suburbs, on my pilgrimage through the modern-day monster, Houston, also older no wiser, thinly veiled behind fly-overs and underpasses, the Houston tollway, Crockett tollway, LBJ tollway, Rayburn tollway, Ann Richards tollway, George W. Bush tollway, George H.W. Bush tollway, Jeb Bush tollway; you get the idea: eight lanes in each direction and nobody’s going anywhere, EZ pass required but no guarantees, mix-master freeways, concrete-and-steel fruit loops, the epitaph already writ large, just like the Romans: ‘they made good roads’.

Texas Quilt Museum

Texas Quilt Museum

Welcome to Houston. ‘Nigger, don’t let the sun set on you here, and that goes for you, too, long-haired white boy.’ No sir, I won’t; you can bet on that, connect straight to Austin, via La Grange, small town America with no apologies repentances or refunds, ZZ Top and the circus big top, peaches and cream and everything in between, all in prelude to Austin, Emerald City, an island of civility in an ocean of oil-field rednecks, university and all, country swing and that wild silly thing they sing; almost feels like home. I’m good.

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